Television Drama and the Sublime (6 moments that demonstrate how TV can be as good as or better than the movies)

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Recently I dove into watching The Walking Dead after having been unnecessarily stubborn about doing so.  I watched the pilot of this ambitious AMC television drama when it first aired.  I was impressed with the production value and the acting overall and looked forward to the story unfolding.  For whatever reason I didn’t keep up after season 1 and while I was removed this show became a ratings giant for AMC.  The buzz surrounding each episode and season became a serious pop culture phenomenon, almost annoyingly so.  My feed was always blowin’ up with Walking Dead stuff.  I had stepped in on a few episode over season 2 and 3 and things seemed somewhat slow to me.  I invented silly reasons not to take the time with it.  In the back of my mind I knew I wasn’t giving it a fair shake.  But I had this troubling suspicion that the show wasn’t going to be as good as the hype.  Yet, I could not make this assertion without really sitting down and giving WD the proper attention.  I wanted to be informed in my criticism and so I am now 4 episodes into the 3rd season and can fully admit that the show is top notch in the drama department and, for the most part, the characters are worth investing in.

There was a moment in season 2 that powerfully reminded me how television has in the last 10-15 years been able to achieve what was once only possible through the cinematic experience.  Production value plays a huge factor in that; the more believable things are in look and feel the more we are experiencing the emotional ambiance that is desired rather than being removed by what feels cheap or just not quite real.  High definition and seeing television drama in the widescreen format to me was the main turning point.  Also, as television gradually improved better writers, actors, and overall talent were being drawn to the “small screen” medium.  The season 2 moment I spoke of on The Walking Dead is when Shane pries open the barn full of walkers and lets them spill out; forcing the small community of survivors to face a stark reality of life in the zombie apocalypse that they had been unwilling to fully do up til’ that point.  As a viewer, in that moment, I experienced something that can only be provided by the elongated storytelling process of television drama.  Through that concentrated intensity, you feel the emotional impact of what was built over two seasons and you feel it for almost every single character in a different way.

I could speak to the finer plot details, however, this moment highlights more broadly a viewing experience that I have started calling “sublime”.  A particular definition describes it as such: Of high spiritual, moral, or intellectual worth.  Moments like this still exist in film, but the emotional investment that television requires has created something very unique to the format.  I’ve decided, with that in mind, to present a list of 6 moments from television dramas in the last decade or so that highlight distinctly this kind of epic and heightened artistry.  If you haven’t seen one of the shows feel free to skip the example or read if you think you’ll never watch the show.  I will attempt to detail them in such a way that doesn’t completely give away any big plot spoilers.  These are in no particular order and there could very well be TV moments I have forgotten or never seen that equally qualify as “sublime”.  Also, some of these shows may have flamed out in tremendous fashion, this is not a list of greatest shows just times where I believe sublimity (word of the day) was achieved.

1.Dexter Season 5 Episode 1: “My Bad”  Warning, Dexter clip not for the feint of heart

I can hear some people saying “dude this should totally be a trinity killer moment” and essentially it is.  For those who will understand what goes down in this scene, it follows the season 4 finale that we weren’t sure we would ever recover from.  I was SUPER skeptical that the writers could figure out a way to have the death of you know who not completely derail the show.  The move was incredibly bold and it could be argued that it did, in fact, derail the show but it took a season for that derailment to become gut punchingly apparent.  Season 5 was still pretty damn good and in episode 1 we see Dexter, still to this point being masterfully played by Michael C Hall, finally absorb the reality of what has occurred.  He got his kill from Season 4, but not without a devastating cost.  This is where we the viewers finally clue into the reality that it’s not okay to root for this “serial killer with a code” anymore and it never really was.  His drive to not only kill but explore the nature of his “dark passenger” was always completely selfish, we just hadn’t seen it impact anything drastically enough for us to say “no bueno”.  The bathroom scene is all of Season 4 coming down to bare on Dexter, and the only way he knows how to cope is to kill.  This, for me, might be the ultimate demonstration of why Michael C Hall garnered endless praise for his depiction of this complicated and dark character.  It wasn’t easy to watch, but it was, in terms of art, sublime.

2.  Lost Season 1 Episode 4 “Walkabout”

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The first few episodes of Lost were riveting but perplexing.  Not perplexing in a bad way, but as the viewer you are wondering what the hell you are actually watching.  What does this show want to be?  I remember I didn’t touch this show for awhile and saw my parents watching some season 2 episodes and my mom described to me nonsense about a hatch, these numbers they had to punch in for some reason but didn’t know why, polar bears mozying around, the list goes on.  Prior to that I had been away for 14 months and hadn’t kept up on any television shows.  Lost for me was one of the first times I saw how effecting and epic TV shows were starting to become.  While the mysteries of Lost ended up being its eventual undoing, the first 2 seasons let the weirdness simmer in our minds while causing us to fall in love with the characters.  The moment that this show smacked me upside the head with a big dose of “awwww I get it now, but not really, but still I think I’m starting to get it” was the 4th episode “Walkabout”.  Up to that point John Locke, the most intriguing character by far that totally fizzled out most disappointingly in Season 5ish 6ish, hardly had any dialogue when then the famous flashbacks gave us a focus on his past life.  We discover in a jaw dropping reveal that John was paralyzed prior to the island and he now has his ability to walk back.  The emotional weight I felt with that revelation is the kind of stuff that makes you watch a show despite it slowly declining into metaphysical pseudo spiritual wannabe sci-fi stupidity.  If writers can achieve just that kind of sublime once, you can keep your hooks in people for, hmmm, 6 seasons maybe.  And they sure did.

3. Game of Thrones Season 3 Episode 5 “Kissed By Fire”

It’s truly difficult to choose one moment from Game of Thrones to represent the sublime experience, but I’ve chosen a less obvious one.  Honorable mentions to the beheading at the Sept of Baelor, Littlefingers “Chaos is a Ladder” speech, and, well of course, the Red Wedding.  The scene I chose that’s in the video above is probably one of the more impressive feats I’ve read in fiction that has with equal impressiveness been translated to screen on HBO’s GOT.  This is Jaime Lannister detailing to Brienne of Tarth what happened that led to him being titled as “the Kingslayer”.  We always liked Jaime for being an awesomely foul mouthed, unapologetic, snarky jerk wad but George RR, and the writers of GOT the tv show turn the tables on us and have us starting to sympathize with an incestuous, spoiled, unashamed killer.  Why?  How?  The viewer begins to understand the emotional scars that he has buried deep down from his years being known as the man who would betray his oath and kill a king.  “By what right does the wolf judge the lion?”  The show, and book, build up medieval and fantasy tropes only to tear them down or show how gray things actually are, taking a fantastical setting and presenting it as a metaphor for reality.  Was Ned really noble or just a fool?  Has Jaime played the villain for years simply because people wouldn’t believe anything else of him?  Who’s good, who’s evil?  Go watch Star Wars if you want that kind of parable.  That’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how GOT will turn genre cliche’s and moral tales completely upside down.

4.  Mad Men Season 6 Episode 13 “In Care of”

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I probably chose this moment from Mad Men because it gave us a little sprinkling of hope for Don Draper in the sea of despair that this show usually is.  I don’t feel all that great when I watch Mad Men.  I ask myself often why I enjoy watching such miserable people.  Enjoy would be the wrong word in describing what it’s like to sit through episode after episode of people in the midst of having an existential crisis.  Everything is so well done though.  The sets, the acting, the subtlety and the slow boil.  But, I won’t lie, there often feels like little payoff for the pain.  This hasn’t been a very happy tale.  The ‘Hershey Pitch’ however, was awesome.  The beauty of this scene comes in seeing the contrast between full of shit Don and honest Don.  And in reality, the honest heartbreaking story he describes of growing up in a whorehouse is actually the better pitch.  But you can’t talk about whorehouses in your advertisement, can you?  This moment really captures the dissonance that the advertising world of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (or whatever it’s named now) deals with.  Everyone sits there feeling uncomfortable for having heard the truth, it really is a powerful sell for a Hershey bar, but you can’t sell them that way right?  The greatness of it is Don finally not giving a crap whether that’s the best way to sell the candy bar, it’s that he bared his soul and was completely authentic.  This was the slight glimmer of possible redemption for Don Draper that was getting farther and farther away as this show progressed.  This was a moment the viewers deserved and earned.

5.  Battlestar Galactica Season 3 Episode 20 “Crossroads (Part 2)

The more I reminisce on the 4 season run of Battlestar Galactica the more I begin to think “this show shouldn’t have been this good, this show in a lot of ways was a crap storm of too many ideas”.  It’s very comparable to Lost in that way.  But it’s mysteries were accompanied by truly powerful character moments from beginning to end.  The season 3 finale if I were to hear the many details of it without any context would seem rather silly.  The writers had to explain why only 7 Cylon models had been seen for the first 3 seasons of the show when we knew there was supposed to be 12.  I felt this was rather clumsily handled and became obvious as a big reveal plot point to string us along.  Somehow they made this work rather well.  But there it is, we have: mysterious tune that turns out to be “All Along the Watchtower” that switches on the awareness of the final Cylon models, they are characters we know and love, a main character comes back from the dead, and a fairly ho hum verdict being passed on Gaius Baltar that was rather weak courtroom drama in retrospect.  What was building to be a let down of a finale ended up being actually pretty freaking awesome.  Bear McCreary created a ballsy remake of the Jimi Hendrix classic song and somehow the writers made that a compelling, even if silly, part of what led to the series finale.  Honorable Mention to James Callis who played Gaius Baltar who’s sublime acting led to one of the most intriguing characters in TV drama history.  Above is the Bear McCreary version of “All Along the Watchtower”.

6.   Breaking Bad Season 3 Episode 10 “Fly”

How could this list not have a Breaking Bad moment?  Truth be told, Breaking Bad from start to finish is sublimity personified.  Those who haven’t seen the show are probably sick of this gushing, and I don’t like to gush, but there is just no avoiding it here.  I have trouble really saying any other show I’ve ever watched meets this level of consistency.  The Wire is very respectable but for me never achieves the same poetry in motion that Breaking Bad feels like almost all the time.  And I will have to admit my ignorance when it comes to the holy grail that is The Sopranos.  So, I openly admit there may be shows on par, I just haven’t witnessed them for myself just yet.  The scene I pasted above is one among hundreds that could demonstrate the near dramatic perfection that was presented in BB.  The dialogue exchanged between Jesse and Walt in “Fly” takes place in a fairly low drama scenario but encapsulates the chemistry that Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul created with these most unique of characters.  The episode starts out light enough and showcases some of the wit and humor that stuck out amidst the darker decay we witnessed throughout the shows 5 seasons.  Here the writers step back, having written a simple bottle episode premise, and simply let the actors act, and its hard to believe these people don’t actually occupy reality.

And these are just 6 moments, many more exist that show how television drama has truly reached the artistic sublime.  Some only have glimpses of this quality, others are able to demonstrate it on a more consistent basis.  I was inspired to discuss a few instances here as a tribute to how television drama has become one of if not the most impressive storytelling forms.

Mood while writing-  Intense

Others shows considered for the list- Sons of Anarchy, The Wire, Firefly, Justified, Six Feet Under amongst many others

Currently Reading- ‘Notes From the Underground’ by Fyodor Dosoevsky and ‘The Mote In God’s Eye’ by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle

Movie to see- Gravity (preferably IMAX 3D)

Recently heard super solid albums- ‘Psychic’ by Darkside and ‘A Color Map of the Sun’ by Pretty Lights

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