We’re apparently living in a golden age of TV where the characters, themes and plots on shows are more complex and morally ambiguous than movies, where anti-heroes reign supreme.
And this all started with The Sopranos.
At least, that’s what we’re told.
True Detective just finished its second season and I cannot think of any show that was so exemplifies how so much of so called prestige TV is obsessed with its concept (everything is about the plot and it’s incredibly dense and convoluted), it’s feature film production values (everything from the action sequences, to cinematography, to the variety of locations), and the use of Hollywood stars (such as using David Morse in a bit part just because).
While much current and recent prestige TV certainly deserves high marks for its mise en scène and general ambition, shows ultimately fall flat on substance: Boardwalk Empire, Marco Polo, House of Cards (Season 3), Homeland (Season 2 and 3), and True Blood.
I don’t see how we have The Sopranos to thank for these shows — it bares little resemblance to most of what’s followed it.
At its core The Sopranos was a show about the underbelly of the middle-class American experience: aging parents, friends dying, children not meeting your expectations, marriages going sour, etc. Simply put, it was about all of the ugly crap you have to deal with in life. This was a show that dug deep into assisted living and elderly care throughout its entire run!
And this is what made The Sopranos so great.
It confronted issues we have to deal with in a thoughtful way that did not insult the audience — albeit through the lens of people who live by a slightly different set or rules. It was a show that dared to explore the fact some parents are so bad that they don’t love their kids.
The mob storyline was always secondary and really just a gimmick to give Tony the ability to always act on his id without any restrain. There were no big mysteries about who was out to get Tony, nobody was ever plotting twenty steps ahead, episodes were not devoted entirely to exposition to set the stage for future events.
One of the few shows on TV that successfully replicates this is The Americans. The show is about two undercover KGB agents living in the United States during the 80s who are so deep undercover that their kids don’t even know their real identities.
If The Americans was made by just about anyone else, such as the teams behind True Detective or House of Cards, it would be all about espionage and political intrigue. Season arcs would by built around stealing secret plans and uncovering unseen enemies. But The Americans spends its time focusing on the relationship between the parents and their children.
The most interesting aspect of this situation is not people doing spy things, but that the parents despise American values but have to raise their kids to embrace them. They have children who reject their beliefs and it’s their fault. I’m not a parent, but I imagine this among any parents’ greatest fear.
To me, this is what was so revolutionary about The Sopranos and what prestige TV should be about: exploring uncomfortable issues in life that have usually been too dark and depressing for a medium that’s primarily concerned with entertainment in the most literal sense.
It’s TV that has you thinking more about yourself than the plot.