Once upon a time, a fundamental aspect of compelling narrative was the presence of, at least, one likable character. In recent years, however, a character who is kind, decent, gentle and joyful has become a pariah on American television. Good people are routinely eliminated to create space for boring anti-heroes who are sold as fascinating because, despite being violent, vicious, racist, or sexist, they occasionally show a slight hint of humanity.
The cynicism and nihilism that now passes for artistic television is particularly interesting and troubling, because everyone from the brilliant film critic Roger Ebert to the excellent novelist Richard Russo, have praised the current period of American TV as a golden age.
How to Make It in America: The Complete First Season
(HBO; US DVD: 27 Sep 2011)
It began with The Sopranos. The tale of Tony’s two families revolutionized television, and stands out as a stunning achievement, not only within its format, but of American art. The writing may be the sharpest in the history of the genre. The directing was always surprising and superb, and the ensemble cast, led by James Gandolifini and Edie Falco, was one of the best ever assembled. Superlatives fly effortlessly off the tongue when discussing the groundbreaking HBO drama.
It’s true that almost none of the characters withstand even the most casual moral scrutiny, and that with each season, all of them, most especially Tony, became less and less redeemable. That, however, was the whole point. The Sopranos, for all of its artistic edge, was literarily traditional. It was an allegory – a cautionary tale about the homicidal and suicidal consequences of conducting life as a reckless, heartless, and endless pursuit of profit, power, and pleasure.
The greatness of The Sopranos was also the greatness of David Foster Wallace’s monstrous novel, Infinite Jest. David Chase, the creator of The Sopranos, like Wallace, used innovative technique and daring tactics to tell traditional stories. Since the program’s controversial series finalé that ended with what Michael Imperioli, an actor on the show and on again, off again writer and director, interpreted as an off camera killing of Tony, a brood of mutated spawns have crawled onto the pixilated landscape. They are dark, moody, and hateful, but they escape consequences, offer cynicism as the only acceptable reading of reality, and put a sign over the opening credits of their digital homes, “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.”
The delinquent and dysfunctional spawn of The Sopranos includes Boardwalk Empire, Dexter, Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy, Boss, and the most overrated drama on television, Mad Men. Judging from the pilot alone, it also looks as if the seemingly promising new HBO Drama, Luck, will also follow the format for making characters universally detestable.
Vince Gilligan, the creator of Breaking Bad, summarizes not only his series, but the entire formula when he describes protagonist Bryan Cranston, “You’re going to see that underlying humanity, even when he’s making the most devious, terrible decisions, and you need someone who has that humanity – deep down, bedrock humanity – so you say, watching this show, ‘All right, I’ll go for this ride. I don’t like what he’s doing, but I understand, and I’ll go with it for as far as it goes’.”
Without David Chase’s philosophical depth or the sociopolitical outrage of David Simon, the brilliant creator of The Wire and Treme, watching people lie, kill, and exploit and expand the misery of those around them simply becomes an exercise in vicarious cruelty. The formula that Gilligan describes, which I will label the “Hitler Had a Dog Device”, creates television that does nothing but feed America’s bottomless appetite for death and destruction.
In real life, the meth dealers, biker gangs, corrupt politicians, and other characters that populate the amoral worlds of Breaking Bad, Boss, Sons of Anarchy and other Hitler Had a Dog programs, pile up a body count that devastates the lives of innocent people. On television, they murder people who are better and more interesting, but do not have sufficient caché to survive a culture of cynicism.
If one takes a tour of the televisual morgue, one will find the crafty, charming, and compassionate private detective Mma Ramotswe, played by Jill Scott on HBO’s The No. 1 Ladies’s Detective Agency. Another amateur investigator fills the slot next to her, Bored to Death’s Jonathan Ames played by Jason Schwartzman. David Milch, the creator of Luck, may have learned to adapt to the Hitler Had a Dog model, because his bizarre, but fascinating and uplifting drama, John From Cincinnati, was cancelled after a single season.
The most hopeful, affecting, and emotional dramatic series of the last 15 years, Friday Night Lights, miraculously lived on life support for its five year run. NBC had to work out a cost sharing deal with Direct TV to justify airing the program that, despite receiving rave reviews and a Peabody award, never scored high ratings and was consistently outshined at the Emmys and Golden Globes by Mad Men.