Tuesday, August 5, 2014

From a Writer's Perspective...Top 5 TV Dramas, EVER.

Once in a while, I've been to a book signing at a location that has videos, music, and games in addition to books, and I've been treated to the response of "I don't read" from a few patrons when I ask if they like crime fiction.

"I don't read."


What's even more surprising is when you hear a writer say, "I don't have time to read. I'm too busy writing." To me, that's like a professional athlete saying, "I don't have time to practice. I'm too busy playing games." Reading is like push ups for the writer brain. Reading exposes you to what works and what doesn't in other people's work.

"Reading" isn't exclusive to books, though. You can get some reading in by watching a good movie or TV show. Or any movie or TV show, if you're paying attention to negative examples. Good writing for the screen may differ slightly from writing for the page, but not as much as people might think. Sure, some of the techniques are different for sharing information with the viewer/reader, but much of the time, a segment of good writing on screen has an on page equivalent. And certainly, as a writer, you can learn a lot from it.

So, as I 've continued on my writer's journey, I pay attention to writing in every medium. And I thought I'd salute the five best TV dramas I've come across. These are the ones that I've enjoyed on two levels -- as a viewer, and as a writer.

Here we go:


A couple of dramas that I'm still in the process of watching, so I won't pass final judgment yet, other than to say they've been well worth watching so far...

Mad Men.
I'm not exactly sure why I'm drawn to the show (good writing aside), and for the sake of perspective, neither is my wife.

But we are drawn to it, maybe for a few different reasons, such as the exploration of how different (and how not different) that era of our history was from today. Or for the mystery of Don Draper's background (or that of many of the characters!). Or because of how virtually every character has moments when you want to cheer for them but then human failing comes along and changes that desire.

Either way, we're currently in Season 3 and will see it through. Will it make Honorable Mention status or break the top 5? Guess we'll see.

Parenthood. Probably the most formulaic, mainstream entry of all the shows I talk about here, this family drama hits all the right buttons. Sure it's a little bit on the TV-esque side of things, but the actors are comfortable in the skin of their characters and while the writing is sometimes cliche or even maudlin, the set up is done well enough that the sappy sentiment is not only forgivable, but flat out...okay.

I don't know about you, but I think most of us wish we had a family like the Braverman clan, despite all of the trials and tribulations they endure. Maybe because of those trials and tribulations, because most of them are problems that we might face in our own lives, and triumphs we can imagine having. This show can be funny, heart-warming, and heart-breaking, all in the space of one episode.

Entering what is probably its final season, it is my hope that the writers finish strong. The actors deserve it, and so do the characters.

Now, on to the...

Honorable Mentions:

The Shield. Daring and dark, this series plunges you into the concept of doing wrong for noble purposes, and how quickly that can devolve into just doing wrong. With starkly drawn characters and a willingness to explore dark story lines, this series was one I burned through on DVD at the speed of light. One of the better series finales, as well.

Police corruption gets some sexy press in this country but the reality of my experience was that the only real corruption is incompetence and laziness...and while I saw evidence of it, the majority of the men and women I worked with over twenty years were dedicated, talented, and hard-working. But the frustrations of that career are very real, and I think the reason so many cops like this program is that we can sympathize with the feelings that drive the wrong actions of the characters on the show, even if we can't condone the actions themselves.

And despite all of the glorifying of the kind of renegade tactics employed by Vic and his strike team, the final season plays out in a way that is more morally satisfying than not -- a repudiation of the corruption of the noble cause. In other words, the ends do not justify the means...

Top moments?
  • In the opening episode, when Vic shoots a fellow team member while at a crime scene, thus signaling that this was not your father's police drama.
  • "I'm a different kind of cop."
  • The final scene, in which Vic is alone at the ICE office. Sure, he beat prison (and at what a cost!) but he's lost everything and is consigned to the closest thing to hell on earth for him -- a desk full of paperwork.

Battlestar Galactica. I was pretty young when the first incarnation of this came along and unaware of how cheesy it really was. Still, it was a favorite of mine, and when the reboot came along, I decided to give it a try. What I discovered was an incredibly deep world full of very real characters who were struggling with universal issues. Sometimes it was about a relationship (and really, aren't those stakes the highest ones we tend to deal with?), sometimes it was much larger in scope, such as, oh, I don't know...the continued existence of humanity! Concepts such as honor, forgiveness, loyalty, and sacrifice were on display in every episode, and usually it was a high stakes situation in play.

The show had no cardboard characters, either. Strong dialogue and realistically drawn characters kept the big story lines grounded and more realistic. The heroes on this show had flaws, the villains some virtue, and everyone seemed like a real person. You might like them, love them, or hate them, but you believed them.

Top moments?
  • The re-imagined Kara "Starbuck" Thrace punches out her superior officer during a poker game...yeah, this isn't going to be a re-hash of the 1970s show!
  • Scenes of personal sacrifice too numerous to list here
  • Every dogfight in space -- they spared no expense on special effects
  • The moments that President Roslin spends struggling with the human costs of the decisions she must make, and how she sometimes takes the hard road...because it is right. Some good leadership lessons there.

24. Not much to say here, except that if you want to see a show that does a great job of maintaining and building tension over an entire season, this is it. Sure, there are plot contrivances along the way -- not saying it's perfect -- but the way the tension gets ratcheted up from episode to episode is stellar, and the writers' use of raising the stakes both on a global and personal scale is superb. A little more "fluffy" on character and dialogue (and plot, I suppose) than the other entries on this list, 24 is the strange cousin with quirks that don't overshadow his qualities...and whom you still love.

Top moments?
  • Jack Bauer and his daughter holding a dying Teri Bauer at the end of Season 1. Heartbreaking.
  • Pretty much any scene with President Palmer...
  • Jack asking Chloe to open a socket...
  • Jack's streamlined interrogation tactics.

Top 5 TV Dramas...EVER.

5. Breaking Bad.
Okay, so this one may be benefiting from the law of recency, but it squeaks past the honorable mentions to take the #5 spot. In some ways, it is similar to The Shield, in that the premise involves someone doing something the law labels as "wrong" but doing it for what many might say is a good or right reason. Mr. While is only trying to pay for his cancer treatment and provide for his family, right? Watching the transformation he makes from a timid high school chemistry teacher to the cold, calculating, and brutal Heisenberg is one of the most startling and complete character shifts you'll see...ever. It's also done with such great writing that it is entirely believable.

My sympathies were with Walt for a long while, but at some point, I started to hate him. I watched because I hoped he would fail and get his just desserts. The writers of Breaking Bad succeeded in turning their protagonist into the villain by the end of the series, and the sidekick (Jesse Pinkman) into the hero...or at least the one I found myself feeling the most sympathetic toward.

Maybe as time passes, this one will slip out of the top 5 for me, but it is hard to imagine that happening.

Top moments?
  • Walter White telling Skyler that he is not in danger, he is the danger.
  • The moment White decides to let Jesse's girlfriend die.
  • "Bitch!"
  • Walter finally admitting to Skyler that he did it all for himself, because he liked it, not for his family, as he professed ad nauseum.
  • The joy on Jesse's face in the finale when he seems to have broken free of the life he led throughout the five years of the show.

4. NYPD Blue.
In a way, it was the groundbreaking show that made most of the rest on this list possible. Pushing the envelope with profanity and sex on network TV got this show noticed initially, but it was the characters and the writing (and the actors' abilities to bring both to life) that kept it on the air so long.

Originally a vehicle for David Caruso, and focusing on his character, John Kelly, the core of the series eventually belonged to Dennis Franz's Andy Sipowicz. Flawed in ways you don't often see in characters with starring roles on network TV, Sipowicz had soul. Sure, he was overweight, irascible, an alcoholic who was sometimes violent and always sarcastic...but I came to love him pretty early in the series. And when Caruso left and Jimmy Smits came in to play Bobby Simone as a leading man, Sipowicz remained. Same when the tantalizing character of Danny Sorenson took Simone's place, and right on down the line.

Yes, there were some character arcs that were a little disastrous. Rick Schroder's Sorenson was a compelling mess. To a lesser extent, so was Kim Delaney's Diane Russell. And don't get me started on Detective Lesniak's arc...but even with these warts, this show excelled. And when you look back at it in its entirety, there is a very clear arc, and even though no one seemed to know it at first, that arc was always Andy Sipowicz. Flawed, making mistakes, but finding love, and finding redemption...and living on.

Top moments?
  • John Kelly using classic Reid Interview techniques to get a rapist to confess, on video no less.
  • Bobby Simone responding to a guy wanting his badge number by slamming it onto his forehead and letting him know he could get it by looking in the mirror later.
  • Danny Sorenson and those paper clips
  • Andy breaking down when his oldest son, who followed him onto the job, is killed. This is especially heart-wrending because they spent a long time being estranged but were re-connecting and young Sipowicz was learning the job from his pop.
  • "Yeah, huh?"
  • Andy and the phone book...'nuff said.

3. The Sopranos.
This is a no-brainer, and I know I'm not breaking any new ground here, but how do you not include this show on a list like this?

Tony Soprano is at once a hero and an anti-hero. As the series waxes and wanes, you find yourself rooting for him and despising him at the same time. He's criminal, a man who kills people or orders it done, yet somehow we find ways to identify with him. His mother issues, his family problems, his work trials and tribulations....these are things that we all have, or something similar.

I think there's a suppressed rule-breaker in most of us, and maybe that's why we like to live vicariously through a character like Tony. And the fact that he is seriously flawed and yet has some admirable traits as well makes it even easier to sympathize with him. And just when you're getting comfortable with that, the writers throw something at you that rocks your socks. Something so despicable that we see him in real terms again, as a thug and self-centered, whiny creep. And yet, they bring him back from that brink again and again to bask in our sympathy again. That's tough writing. That's good writing.

It doesn't hurt that the actors really lived and breathed the characters, or that the supporting characters are all written so well. If you were at a point in which you couldn't sympathize with Tony, there was usually another character that you could sympathize with long enough to get you by until Tony was back in your good graces.

If I watch this series again (been through it three times now, so I'm not sure if I will or not), it will be with an added sense of bittersweet, given the untimely death of James Gandolfini. He thoroughly inhabited this role.

And I can't complete any discussion on this show without a nod toward the courageous, perfect series finale. Yes, that includes the final moments. Especially the final moments.

Top moments?
  • Tony being so jealous of his sister's seeming happiness and inner peace that he picks at her until she explodes (not that Janice probably didn't deserve it), then leaves, walking away satisfied.
  • "Psychiatry and cunnilingus brought us to this point."
  • The murder of Pussy. And Adriana.
  • The frequent outbursts of "Whoa!" when someone said something out of line.
  • Tony:  "You're late." Christopher: "Sorry, the highway was jammed with broken heroes on a last-chance power drive."

2. Game of Thrones.
If there was ever an argument for a federal law requiring all season series to be at least thirteen episodes, Game of Thrones would surely be trotted out as Exhibit A.

One of the things George R. R. Martin, the author of the books this show is based upon, does so well is present the viewpoint of the various characters in a way that shows their point of view as being valid and perhaps even noble. As a result, you can see both sides of a conflict and both sides of a character. While the Starks are undeniably cast as the heroes early on, this image is tarnished as the series wears on and everyone is brought down to earth, sullied by the vagaries of real life.

We're not quite there yet in the series but after four seasons, we've seen drama at its best, surprises (for those who haven't read the books) galore, and again, well-written characters portrayed in stellar fashion by the actors.

While I don't know if I'll ever find Cersei Lannister sympathetic, I find her brother Jaime drifting that way...hard to believe, given his actions in Season 1.

That ambiguity of character, and the ability to give us a balanced picture in the midst of it, is the genius of this series. Yes, some villains are simply villains. But even the little shit Joffrey, who I don't think anyone wasted a moment's sympathy upon, is such a great villain because he's a real character. We can believe him, and that makes him more terrifying.

The political maneuvering that takes place on this show is all based upon human motivations and tendencies, and the writers seem to have a firm grasp of both. Game of Thrones may take place in Westeros but it is a fair commentary on "Theresteros" (read: The Rest of Us).

And any show in which every episode seems to end thirty seconds after it starts has to be well written, no? Waiting for Sunday evening to come around for the past four years has been a big deal around my house. How about yours?

Top moments?
  • The first time you see one of the The Others.
  • Jamie Lannister pushing Bran out the window.
  • Ned losing his head. If you hadn't read the books, this one had to be one of the most surprising moments in television history.
  • Cersei to Littlefinger: "Power is power."
  • Varys to Tyrion: "Power resides where men believe it does."
  • Any number of Tyrion's quips -- choose your favorite. Mine is when Cersei tells him he's not half as clever as he thinks he is. "Still makes me more clever than you," he tells her.
  • The Red Wedding
  • The Purple Wedding
  • Ah, hell...pretty much every scene in every episode.

1. The Wire.
Hands down winner. Yes, it is violent. Yes, it has significant profanity, including the frequent use of the 'n' word and 'f' bombs galore. And yes, there is some graphic sexuality, because HBO.

And it is the best television drama...ever.


Because it is damn near perfect.

The plotting in terms of each episode, the season-long arcs, and the series itself, is just stellar.

The characters are believable, lovable, hate-able, and completely real. They have all the flaws of you and I, including selfish, short-sighted viewpoints that usually bring about tragedy. But they also have all of the nobility that you and I would like to think we have (and maybe we do) -- loyalty, courage, humanity, and higher purpose.

The dialogue is unsurpassed, both in terms of the writing and the incredible delivery by the actors, all of whom are so perfectly cast. They say that dialogue should sound like real people talking but without the meandering or the fillers, and that's what you get on The Wire. I don't know how accurately it portrays the speech patterns of the real Baltimore, but it creates a very believable dialect of a fictional one, complete with jargon, colloquialisms, slang and unique inflection.

The story of this series ranges from cops to gangs, from politics to drug dealing, from the bowels of the police department to the street to the docks to the halls of power in city and state government. All the while, it is telling the story of all of us. How we strive. How we sometimes fail. How we see casualties along the way. How we live on.

Maybe this series was perfect because it ended after five seasons. It not only never jumped the shark, it never even approached the ocean. Perhaps there's another storytelling lesson there -- that each story has its own natural length, and we as writers should listen to that piece as well.

Top moments?
  • The fate of Dookie shown in the ending montage of the final episode.
  • Bunk. Just Bunk.
  • McNulty and Bunk investigating a crime scene and communicating a dozen different thoughts using just one word...which, of course, was an 'f' bomb.
  • All the interrogation tactics the detectives used, including hooking up criminals to the "lie detector" that doubled as a copy machine.
  • Jimmy McNulty's funeral
  • Omar being such a bad-ass, and then we find out he's gay. Brave stereotype busting by the writers there. Same with Kima, though less daring.
  • Speaking of Omar, him calling out the lawyer in court as being the same as him. "I got the shotgun. You got the briefcase. It's all in the game though, right?"
  • Yeah, much like Game of Thrones, pretty much every episode had several top moments.
  • And last but not least, the series-ending montage, which is by far the best ending to any series, ever...tragic, heartwarming, and real life, all at the same time.
So there you go. From a writer's perspective, as I take this journey of mine and pay attention to the art around me...these are the top 5 TV dramas of all time, as I see it. Feel free to agree...or disagree in the comments section.


Cyndi Pauwels said...

It's hard for me to comment on most of your selections since (wait for it...) I don't watch much television. ;-)

But I must disagree on at least one point: NYPD Blue didn't start it all; Hill Street Blues did!

Maybe I'm showing my age...

Kevin Doyle said...

Yes, I myself was wondering about the absence of Hill Street from this list. Even without them both being from the same producer/creator, N.Y.P.D would not have come about if not for Hill Street blazing the trail first. Although, much as I loved Hill Street in my youth, I remember being profoundly disappointed years later when I discovered Ed McBain's 87th Precinct books and came to realize that Hill Street had not been as original as I first believed.