Dear Willa, June, Mo:
I think an age of data quantification and point-based online reviews has led people to believe that the whole ranking business is more precise and empirical than it is, as if we’re standing around in lab coats and goggles, measuring the amount of radioactive qualitons emitted by The Americans with a Geiger counter. For me, year-end lists are both simpler and more complex. Simpler because, beyond the first few items, it’s a matter of what I ate today and what I could live with leaving off. And it’s also more complex because, to me anyway, a top 10 list serves a lot of purposes. Picking the 10 best shows is one. But it’s also about telling the story of what that medium was this year. Hence the fact that, to get at the rise of artisanal dramas like Sundance’s, I chose Rectify, not thinking of Mo’s delightful cheat of naming it, Top of the Lake, and The Returned as one “show.” (Though I would totally watch a series in which Elizabeth Moss tries to capture French zombie, serial killer Serge after he’s released from a 19-year stint for murder.)
Could Mad Men have been lower? Totally! There are a good 20 shows that might have occupied the bottom couple spots on my list, and Mad Men could have been one of the also-rans. In the end, there was just too much I valued about what Mad Men did—in particular, that driving-at-night-without-the-headlights-on feeling, where I begin any given episode with no real sense where it will end up. And honestly, I’m beginning to think I simply like different things in Mad Men than other people do. I was not as crazy about last year’s flashy, formally daring Season 5, which a lot of critics went gaga over; this season had a melancholy that reminded me of Season 3, which I also think was underloved.
And maybe there was also a bit of a statement in the choice, one Willa will appreciate: Mad Men—like Bunheads, Enlightened, Treme—is a show dedicated to the idea that there are compelling stakes besides slicing someone’s guts open. What offended me as much as any violence in The Following (which earned a spot on my worst of TV list for 2013) was the talking point—not just in its promotion but also in some of the journalism about it—that it was “cable-like.”
To me there’s no greater proof that a TV executive does not understand his or her own business than making the argument that extreme content is the difference between cable and broadcast. Sex and violence aren’t the difference; sophistication is the difference. Complexity is. There’s not much, content-wise, that would keep Mad Men from airing on a broadcast network. Except it never, ever, ever would. Too slow. Too talky. Too many references. Not enough action! Take every naked ass out of Game of Thrones and you still have a show that assumes far more attention than most broadcasters expect from us. (Also, we have some notes about the guy you killed off in the first season.)
Conversely, it’s an insult to broadcast TV to claim that it can’t be excellent and humane and nuanced. The Good Wife is, more than most cable shows; Friday Night Lights was. But networks are not rushing out to copy these series. The occasional Parenthood hangs on, but shows about adults living normal lives get treated like charity cases and, too often, dismissed as “soap operas,” the catch-all term for any show with a relationship-to-murder ratio greater than one. I noticed you used the term, Willa, for Nashville, a show that you like. Is soap opera one of those terms that one has dispensation to use only if it’s positively, like Obamacare?
Violence is personal, and I guess we each have our sensitive spot. Mine is children in peril. I won’t spoil it, but there’s an absolutely heart-wrenching instance of violence to a child in The Returned. I hated watching the scene—hated it, fingers over the eyes, la la la I can’t hear you—yet it was absolutely necessary to appreciating a show that I loved. What turns me off, what I can’t forgive, is using threats to kids as cheap Drama Helper to instantly invest an audience in a story. The Following had that, and more—that kind of dumb violence that assumes if you get an infinite number of monkeys to stab each other, eventually they’ll perform Hamlet.
Cable, of course, has plenty of its own showy, drippy, because-we-can violence: Walking Dead, The Vikings—I know you liked Banshee a lot more than I did, Mo, but I left town sometime around when a villain fed a severed finger to his dog. It’s empty-calorie violence, intended to evoke no emotion beyond, “Daaaaammmmmn!” (Honestly, I think Scandal is as bad about this as anyone; the show just happens to be about more than just that. And I like it better, so I give it more of a pass.) I can handle any violence, even violence I hate watching in the moment, if it leads somewhere, if it has ramifications. Violence should hurt.
Which finally brings me to: Are we really going to go this entire dialogue without arguing about the Breaking Bad finale? The entire run of Breaking Bad was an examination of the morality of violence, both within the story and in a meta way: The final run of episodes made us consider what we believe it means for a story about immorality to be told morally. Did Walter White need to be punished? If the finale does not punish him—and in what we have deemed the right way—is it endorsing him? Does our assessment of the ending depend on what we believe the show’s makers intended? Do we need to divine how much Vince Gilligan, Bryan Cranston, et al. “like” Walter? Does the ending need to place a period on the story, or pass a sentence?
I wrote about this before the final episodes started: In my mind, neither morality nor art required that Breaking Bad punish Walter White. We live in a world in which evil can go rewarded and yet must figure out how to be good anyway. I didn’t love the finale as much as the episodes that preceded it; it was a little mechanical, a little bit of a to-do list, a machine gun in the trunk spitting out bits of closure. But taken as a piece with the brutal characterization and stripping down of Walt that came before it, it was still remarkable and moving—even if Walt died ennobled in his own mind and in the minds of some of his fans. What made Breaking Bad so remarkable was that it gave us all the elements (one more bad chemistry reference!) for this argument. The morality, or immorality, is in what comes after you turn off the TV.