Film criticism has Jonathan Ross. Television criticism has Paul Ross. The historical relationship between the big and the small screen has no better metaphor than the brothers Ross. Television may share genetic material with its sibling, but it has always been the poor relation to its glamorous and successful brother, no matter the money spent on changing its image or its efforts at attention-grabbing.
Not that television lacks great art. Television’s capacity for greater flexibility and longer series permits longer arcs, deeper character development of a more complex cast, less exposition. This capacity for greater length appears to underlie patronising assessments of television’s (lack of) artistic merit, yet there needn’t be an inverse relationship between quantity and quality. Anything film can do, television tries to do better, and can do longer.
Television’s recent purple patch was emphasised by the string of excellent shows drawing to a close, a swift succession of ‘the King is dead, long live the King’ moments. It’s been 18 months since The Sopranos, proclaimed by several critics as ‘the greatest television series ever made,’ had its finale in the US. Ten months since The Wire, described in most quarters as ‘the greatest television series ever made,’ culminated. Only one month since The Shield, referred to in one Observer review as ‘the greatest television series ever made,’ came to an end. (Season 7 airs on Five from “early 2009.”)
What, then, does 2009 hold to replace the emptiness that accompanies the finales of such favourites? Let me take you on a far-from-comprehensive, highly subjective journey of this year’s offerings.
The longest-running shows returning in 2009, Heroes (BBC 2), 24 (Sky One) and Lost (Sky One), were pop-culture sensations in their first few years. 24 alone inspired hundreds of awful sketches, lampoons and observations: Jack Bauer’s incredibly strong bladder was the go-to pop culture reference of 2002. Early success has become both an asset and a burden for these shows. On one hand, creators and writers have struggled to live up to the high standards of well-crafted and novel early seasons, and have since lost their way trying to rediscover an old formula rather than take the show on to new levels. On the other, though, these shows owe their duration to the dedicated core of fans determined to stick with a series to the bitter end.
Elsewhere, 2009 promises some shows that require less of a commitment from fans (due to fewer and shorter seasons), and seem to have a firmer grip on consistency. Based on a series of books by American writer Jeff Lindsay, Dexter (FX) is a tightly plotted, sharp and darkly comic twist on the serial killer story. Its eponymous star is the anti-hero Dexter, a blood-spatter expert in the Miami Police Department who uses his position to scout and murder serial killers who slip through the system. Michael C. Hall’s killer (ahem) performance and dry, knowing narration maintains a playful tone as each season unfolds. Season 3 airs on FX in 2009, and Season 4 is already scheduled for autumn 2009 in the US.
AMC, a new big-hitter in fine US drama, is responsible for two of the most critically acclaimed new shows of recent years. While it is not yet clear whether Breaking Bad will make it on to screens in the UK, Mad Men has already been introduced to the British audience on BBC Four. Like Dexter, one character stands above a more-than-adequate ensemble cast. The marvellously narcissistic Don Draper is central to everything Mad Men is about. Stylistically rich and with a strong historical context, Mad Men has the potential to be a truly great show. However, while storylines seem to address the social currents of the time, such as a woman’s place at home and in the workplace, they frequently pull their punches, and what’s left can occasionally resemble a highly stylised soap opera. Season 2 begins on BBC Four early this year.
From January 25th, FX is showing Iraq War mini-series Generation Kill. From the creators of The Wire, it applies the same bleak notion of institutional failure that was used to explore Baltimore’s many problems to the invasion of Iraq. The characters, US Marines leading the invasion, are subtly and sympathetically drawn – efficient soldiers they may be, but they are quick-witted intelligent men, not heartless thugs. Condemnation is reserved for those higher up in the chain of command, who impose needless bureaucracy, and are on occasion downright incompetent. Like The Wire, Generation Kill takes no prisoners in its treatment of the viewer, with rapid-fire dialogue full of army abbreviations coming thick and fast from the first minute.
Finally, 2009 may well be the year of the television remake. Domestically, ITV1’s remake of The Prisoner, starring Ian McKellen and James Caviezel, has the potential to be great, a suitable tribute to the seminal original, or a disaster, confusing ‘contemporary remake’ with ‘story rewrite.’ Meanwhile, television shows State of Play, Arrested Development and The Thick of It all get the Hollywood treatment in 2009. If any of these films can transfer their essence and quality to the big screen, both Jonathan and Paul Ross will have something to look forward to.