With the possible exception of baseball playoffs, I’ve never spent an entire day watching television. But family emergencies caused me to lose a week’s viewing, the weather in Brooklyn was miserable, and I found myself in front of the set, desperately trying to catch up with two Sundays worth of drama.
And it was all extraordinary. Two episodes each of “Nurse Jackie,” “The Killing,” “Mad Men,” and “Game of Thrones”; not a dud in the bunch.
There’s no other dramatic form these days that is offering anything like this consistency. Certainly not the movies and just as certainly not the theatre, not right now. (Wonderful performances on Broadway these days: yes. Wonderful plays: not really.)
Prose is another matter. There’s nothing I’ve read in the past few weeks – Robert Caro’s “Passage of Power,” my pal Ron Rash’s “The Cove,” Lauren Groff’s “Arcadia,” stories by Roberto Bolaño and Jennifer Egan – that hasn’t thrilled, in the quality of the prose, the depth of character work, and the engagement of truly significant social issues.
But this is the point: what’s going on in good television right now is every bit as exciting in all those areas as what is happening in books. I can’t remember a time when that’s been so.
Cases in points (and spoilers ahead):
This entire season has taken the series up to a whole new level (and it was pretty good to begin with). For a while, it looked like the season was going to be about Jackie finally facing her addiction. But in the episode still showing until Sunday, two of Jackie’s closest colleagues get fired because of their involvement with her addiction while she continues in her job. The peripheral damage is devastating. Not only is this show breaking all stereotypes about drug use (African-American Gloria suffers because of white middle-class Jackie’s actions; addict Jackie is perfectly competent whether on or off drugs), but it’s forcing viewers to confront the question of just how victimless addiction might be.
Like just about anyone watching the show, I’m desperate to find out why that City Hall key card opened what appears to be Councilman Richmond’s room. Great end-of-season plotting. But for me, the truly killer scene was in the previous episode, when Sarah Linden gets what she wants (an exit from the psychiatric ward) at the expense of what she really needs (confronting her own past). This is real dramatic ambiguity – as an audience, we’re desperate for Linden to be back on the case; this makes us complicit in her personal tragedy. The conflict between our business and private lives could not be put in starker relief.
For years I’ve heard the rap against the show decrying its sexism. Of course, this is confusing the characters’ sexism with the show. Right on schedule (now that we’re in the sixties), episode 11 specifically deals with sexual roles – the request that Joan prostitute herself, the shift in Don’s marriage because of Megan’s desire for a career, and Peggy’s departure after realizing she’s hit a glass ceiling (without, of course, using that later-coined term).
The most interesting thing here is that Peggy’s departure plays like a season finale. A very gutsy move to do this with two episodes left.
And this week’s episode justifies the move – Don does precisely the moral thing in a very difficult situation and causes a friend’s suicide. Again, the conflict between business and personal is wrenching played.
“Game of Thrones”
Having read the second novel, I’m not surprised by the plot. But this is really a model of adaptation. The character work is even deeper in the series than it is in the books, the plot has been trimmed to its essentials, and ending the season with the supernatural creatures assault is more dramatically satisfying than the revelation of Bran’s (in the book less unambiguous) survival.
The series has been quite faithful to the novels so far; it will be interesting to see if they are as willing to sacrifice characters next season as George R.R. Martin has been.
“Game of Thrones” is every bit as much about the exercise of power as Caro’s monumental LBJ biography is. Not quite on that level, of course, but deeply considered and challenging.
An entire day in front of the tube, and I can’t imagine one better spent.