US: 7 Apr 1991
Prime Suspect upended the notion of the quaint British mystery program. Helen Mirren’s Jane Tennison was no Miss Marple. She was a deeply flawed, highly intelligent, complex, strong woman solving gritty urban crimes, all the while commanding a police force of largely hostile and sexist men. A Granada/ITV production out of the UK that appeared on American PBS channels in the classic Mystery line-up with Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, Inspector Lynley and many more, Prime Suspect immediately stood out as something extraordinary.
An Oscar-winning actor on network TV is always a treat, but it was extra special here, where Mirren put on a virtual acting clinic in the seven episodes that spanned 16 years. Her character was tough and principled and faced enormous hurtles dealing with a very angry bunch of male co-workers who felt passed over as her career progressed and resented her success and authority. Tennison drank far too much, smoked even more, and slept with a fellow officer, on occasion. All this made her ever more real and heroic in the face of the ghastly crimes she had to solve.
Unlike earlier British mysteries that often featured “clean” crimes of poisoning or a simple shooting, things the audience rarely saw in much detail, Prime Suspect was intensely real and graphic with it’s fair share of grisly moments. Quite unlike recent American shows, such as CSI, Prime Suspect treated the depiction of violence and the images of gruesome death as rather matter-of-fact, never reveling in the sensationalism of gratuitous gore, but rather treating it as the day-to-day reality of dealing with crime and its agents in a massive modern-day metropolis like London.
The Kingdom (Riget)
Ernst-Hugo Järegård, Kirsten Rolffes, Holger Juul Hansen, Søren Pilmark, Ghita Nørby, Baard Owe, Birgitte Raaberg, Udo Kier
As a master and guiding force behind the noted Dogme ’95 filmmaking style (more or less a cinematic vow of chastity), it’s hard to fathom Lars Von Trier’s involvement in this amazing Danish TV series. And it’s a supernatural storyline at that. Prior to spearheading the controversial moviemaking agenda, the director was desperate for money to establish his production company. Turning to television, he devised a four part narrative revolving around a haunted hospital (Copenhagen’s Rigshospitalet), nicknamed “Riget”, or the kingdom/realm that leads to death. The plot revolves around Stig Helmer, a neurosurgeon recently arrived from Sweden. With a past to hide and new surrounding to acclimate to, his life is nothing but stress. In addition, a psychic patient named Sigrid Drusse hears the voice of a little girl crying in the building’s elevator shaft. She’s determined to find the root of this spiritual disturbance, while avoiding the various oddball happenings. With its reliance on surrealism and quirky characterization (as well as a Down’s Syndrome Greek chorus of dishwashers, many feel it is the international cousin of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. But there is more to Von Trier’s tale than abject weirdness.
When the initial installments left fans dissatisfied (very few issues were wrapped up in a conclusive manner) Von Trier developed a second set of four episodes. Even though a third series was considered, The Kingdom would end up as a series of eight enigmatic installments. For fans, finding the title on DVD proved to be a hit or miss proposition. With various releases from differing regions providing their own set of issues, the devoted hoped that Fox Lorber’s Region 1 version would finally produce a definite disc. Instead, the bizarre shooting style used by Von Trier (the movie was shot on 16mm, transferred to videotape, edited, returned to 19mm and then blown up to 35mm for release) was amplified by the subpar presentation. Still, all technical squabbles aside, this remains a stellar example of international entertainment, and a precursor to the complicated career this artist would eventually enjoy. Master of Horror Stephen King loved it so much, he adapted it for American audiences in 2004.
The West Wing
Alan Alda, Stockard Channing, Kristin Chenoweth, Dulé Hill, Allison Janney, Moira Kelly, Rob Lowe, Joshua Malina
US: 29 Sep 1999
Some shows titillate you. Some portray convoluted romantic liaisons. Still others take place in hospitals. And then there are the rare shows that have a potential affect upon the viewer. They aren’t inspirational in the sense that Touched by an Angel is inspirational, or even inspirational like ER is inspirational. They are inspirational because they make possibility manifest before the viewer. The West Wing is that kind of show. It takes a process that both alienates, and impacts, its participants -– politics. And it rips the gauze off the top, and lays it bare before the viewer. It’s enough to make one care about politics, an odd response in an age of apathy.
So despite the criticisms of The West Wing –- it’s too liberal, it’s not realistic, it’s written by Aaron Sorkin (I kid!) –- it had the potential to fundamentally alter the expectations of its viewers. It could make one start to read the Washington Post. Of course, it was also a show that debuted during the Clinton era (Martin Sheen’s character inspired many comparisons to Bill himself). As such, with a two-term Bush presidency and an Iraq war in between that very first episode and now, one might wonder if The West Wing has held up. The good news is that the optimism and hope at the root of the show has survived. The bad news is that the critique that The West Wing was never particularly realistic is all the more manifest now.
Rewatching the DVDs of the first four seasons, one is struck by how out of touch the show seems with the day-to-day events of the world. The 9/11 episode, which shows the characters debating terrorism and what to do about it –- seems impossibly decontextualized by the Iraq war. Sorkin couldn’t have known what was to come, but the show still suffers for it. Luckily, the stories are still at times hysterically funny and compelling. Sorkin’s characters still the most articulate ones on television. And listening to Sorkin’s commentary tracks (about one every five episodes) reminds you of why that is. It’s because of Sorkin himself, who talks like every one of the people he gave life to on The West Wing.
James Gandolfini, Lorraine Bracco, Edie Falco, Michael Imperioli, Dominic Chianese, Steven Van Zandt, Tony Sirico, Robert Iler
US: 10 Jan 1999
It’s hard to find anything new to say about The Sopranos. And I probably won’t. We can talk about the first season of Veronica Mars or Twin Peaks—and the truth is that they were both exceptional television, but the debut season of The Sopranos remains the crowning achievement of American television. I sometimes make the mistake of thinking that David Chase’s epic series has been over-rated, but then I watch it one more time, and I realize that I’m a jackass. An existential tale of families, duty, honour, violence, and death, this first season of The Sopranos was absolutely Shakespearean in scope, and no television should be without a copy.