PORTLAND — For a medium that had for years been dismissed as a vast wasteland, transmitted on a device nicknamed “The Idiot Box,” and routinely described as artistically inferior to movies, television has come a long way. While there are still people who proudly boast about not watching TV, the facts speak for themselves: If you want to see risky storytelling, admire bold creative choices and experience work that gets people talking and impacts culture, television is where it’s happening.
At a time when production on so many series has stopped or been slowed by the coronavirus, there’s never been a better moment to look back at some of the shows that built the foundation for TV’s most recent Golden Age.
You can argue about that term, especially since TV’s original Golden Age dates back to the 1950s, when viewers could tune into live productions of such original dramas as “Twelve Angry Men,” along with a variety of highfalutin arts and culture programming.
And you can argue about the individual merits of these newfangled Golden Age shows. Some may look a bit dated now, especially in light of heightened awareness of racial discrimination and gender stereotypes. Several series inspired a tiresome trend of deeply flawed heroes who were supposed to be more fascinating than they actually were.
But at their best, shows like “The Sopranos” kicked off a new age of ambition, with creators taking chances and challenging expectations. Viewers obsessed over plot twists, argued about characters, and breathlessly speculated about what might happen next.
If you’ve been meaning to catch up on your new-style Golden Age TV homework, here are examples of series that made television exciting, and helped add the term “bingeworthy” to our national lexicon.
“Sex and the City” (HBO 1998-2004): When it premiered, “Sex and the City” was a bubbly trailblazer in its unblushing embrace of female sexuality, devotion to female friendship and drop-dead fashions. Starring Sarah Jessica Parker as Carrie Bradshaw, whose “I couldn’t help but wonder” sex columnist musings haven’t aged too well, the show nevertheless generated tons of talk about the four female lead characters, Carrie; Samantha Jones (Kim Cattrall); Miranda Hobbes (Cynthia Nixon); and Charlotte York (Kristin Davis). Fans couldn’t help but wonder who they were – a liberated Carrie? A sex-positive Samantha? A brainy Miranda? Or a romantic Charlotte?
Though the show became a pop culture staple, it has also drawn criticism for making the female characters’ relationships with men seem like the most important thing in their lives, for its portrayal of gay characters and, like “Friends” before it, offering a view of New York City that is overwhelmingly white.
But even amid complaints that it peddled an anti-feminist message, “Sex and the City” was so popular that it spawned two movie sequels, and reruns still air on the E! channel. (Stream on HBO Max)
“The Sopranos” (HBO 1999-2007): While a show about a mobbed-up New Jersey guy may have initially sounded like nothing the world needed, in short order, “The Sopranos” became the series everyone was talking about. James Gandolfini starred as Tony Soprano, who split his time between living a suburban existence with his wife and children and acting as the head of a crime family. As if that wasn’t enough to keep him occupied, Tony also saw a therapist to help him cope with his family issues (that mother!) and assorted personal crises.
What could have felt like warmed-over Martin Scorsese material came alive thanks to creator David Chase’s willingness to mix dark comedy, drama, violence and character development. It shouldn’t have worked, but it did, thanks in part also to a superb cast, led by Gandolfini, Edie Falco as Carmela Soprano, Lorraine Bracco as Dr. Melfi, Michael Imperioli as Christopher Moltisanti, and more.
Some seasons were stronger than others, and, again, the show has been criticized for its depiction of Italian Americans, female characters and violence. But “The Sopranos,” more than any other show, helped bring a TV series to the forefront of the national cultural conversation. There’s a reason the series’ famous ending sequence is still being discussed and debated. (Stream on HBO Max; on demand from HBO)
“Six Feet Under” (HBO 2001-2005): Alan Ball’s drama about a family operating a funeral home in Los Angeles went off the rails at times, but when it was good, it was very good. At its best, the show sensitively explored the alienation of its characters, notably members of the Fisher family, who are trying to find something approaching contentment even as they’re surrounded by the deceased.
The cast was up to the task, nailing the show’s tricky tone of sometimes absurdist humor and gentle melancholy. Peter Krause starred as Nate Fisher, who was as reluctant to work in the family funeral trade as his brother, David (Michael C. Hall) felt obliged to carry on the business. Frances Conroy played their mother, Ruth, and Lauren Ambrose played the youngest family member, Claire.
Even when the plot twists turned garish and characters’ self-destructive behavior strained credibility, “Six Feet Under” had its own oddball appeal, helped again by cast members including Rachel Griffiths as Nate’s sometime-girlfriend, Brenda; Matthew St. Patrick as Keith, David’s boyfriend; Freddy Rodriguez as the responsible mortician, Federico; and Jeremy Sisto as Billy, Brenda’s troubled, and troubling, brother. (Stream on HBO Max; on demand from HBO)
“The Wire” (HBO 2002-2008): A downbeat drama about Baltimore police who too often abuse their authority, Black people caught up in the drug trade and poverty, and the struggle to achieve racial equality may sound all too relevant right now. But even though its central character is a white cop (Dominic West as Jimmy McNulty), “The Wire” has a nuanced grasp of its characters’ humanity, while keeping its focus on the systems that have failed nearly all of them.
Created by David Simon, a former Baltimore Sun reporter who drew on his own experience for “The Wire” (as well as his earlier projects, “Homicide: Life on the Street” and “The Corner”), “The Wire” focuses on a sprawling group of characters. From police to politicians, the show exposes how corruption has seeped into institutions, with the result of splitting the community apart, instead of bringing it together.
The splendid ensemble includes Wendell Pierce as William “Bunk” Moreland; Clarke Peters as Lester Freamon; Michael K. Williams as Omar Little; Sonja Sohn as Kima Greggs; Lance Reddick as Cedric Daniels ; Andre Royo as Bubbles; and the mesmerizing Idris Elba as Stringer Bell. (Stream on HBO Max; on demand from HBO)
“Deadwood” (HBO 2004-2006): David Milch, whose prior credits included co-creating “NYPD Blue,” put his distinctive personal stamp on “Deadwood,” a Western renowned for its flamboyant, ostentatiously profane dialogue and cast of colorful characters, all striving to survive on the circa-1870s frontier.
It wasn’t easy, as any scenes involving the local pigs and the unlucky individuals who made up their evening meal, will attest. Though it ran for only three seasons, “Deadwood” remains a vivid accomplishment, thanks not only to the ornate writing, but fine work by another terrific ensemble of actors, who triumphed over flaws that will seem more noticeable now (the treatment of female characters and sex work, and a lack of interest in Native Americans, for example).
Ian McShane plays the larger-than-life, foul-mouthed Al Swearengen, town power player and owner of the Gem Saloon; Timothy Olyphant is Seth Bullock, the town sheriff, who’s torn between wanting to be faithful to his wife and his attraction to the widowed Alma Garrett, played by Molly Parker; Kim Dickens plays Joanie Stubbs, a no-nonsense brothel madam; Paula Malcomson is Trixie, a sex worker; and Dayton Callie is Charlie Utter, Bullock’s right-hand man. Once you’ve seen the series, treat yourself and watch “Deadwood: The Movie,” an affecting follow-up that aired in 2019, years after the original series was canceled, and after Milch was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. (Stream both series and movie on HBO Max; on demand from HBO)
“Mad Men” (AMC 2007-2015): When it premiered, the ’60s-set drama captured viewers’ attention with its retro glamour, and its cigarette-puffing, handsome leading character Don Draper (Jon Hamm), whose success in the glossy Madison Avenue advertising world hid secrets about his true background. The series was uncomfortably straightforward in depicting the outrageous sexism of the white men in power, though the show came under fire for its own lack of diversity.
Creator Matthew Weiner gave “Mad Men” moments of welcome humor, and the show’s best moments were truly memorable (as when Draper pitched a Kodak Carousel slide projector as a magical “time machine” in the Season 1 episode, “The Wheel”). It’s to the cast’s credit — Hamm, Elisabeth Moss, John Slattery, Christina Hendricks, Vincent Kartheiser and Jared Harris, to name a few — that they kept us watching, even when the characters behaved abominably, or when the writers made baffling storytelling decisions.
In an example of how news events can impact a show as time goes on, former “Mad Men” writer Kater Gordon in 2017 made allegations that Weiner had sexually harassed her at work. Weiner said he didn’t remember making offensive comments to Gordon. And when the series recently moved from Netflix to a new streaming home at Amazon Prime Video, it was announced that a Season 3 episode titled, “My Old Kentucky Home,” which includes blackface, will be prefaced with a notice stating that the episode “contains disturbing images related to race in America.” (Stream “Mad Men” on Amazon’s IMDb TV)
“Breaking Bad” (AMC 2008-2013): The series about a high school chemistry teacher who turns into a meth-making crime lord was famously described by creator Vince Gilligan as the story of how mild schoolteacher Mr. Chips becomes Scarface, the gangster.
The show itself had an amazing journey. It premiered to little notice, and many were confused by the casting of Bryan Cranston – best known as the comedy dad on “Malcolm in the Middle” – as Walter White, the teacher whose cancer diagnosis drives him to crime as a way to make money for his family. But the show gained traction as viewers caught up with the first couple seasons on Netflix, and by the time the series finale aired in 2013, it was a major event.
Like so many of the best TV dramas, “Breaking Bad” included dark moments of comedy in the mix, many of them initially provided by Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman, the onetime student of White’s who became his partner in meth-making. Gilligan and his team were smart enough to know that all members of the cast were adept at finding a balance between tragedy and, at moments, farce, and the show was the better for it.
Unlike so many of the best TV dramas, “Breaking Bad” was amazingly consistent. There were a few episodes that weren’t up to the show’s high standards, but overall, this is a series that still stands as one of TV’s greatest. Again, a gifted ensemble cast added to the richness of the tale, with Jonathan Banks, Anna Gunn, RJ Mitte, Dean Norris, Betsy Brandt, Giancarlo Esposito and Bob Odenkirk lending strong support. Odenkirk, Banks and Esposito, among other “Breaking Bad” veterans, have starred in another fine series, “Better Call Saul,” a spinoff prequel that explores how a lawyer named Jimmy McGill turned into the crook-friendly attorney, Saul Goodman. (Stream “Breaking Bad” on Netflix)
“Game of Thrones” (HBO 2011-2019): While movies have eagerly climbed aboard the fantasy bandwagon, it took this series inspired by novelist George R.R. Martin’s novels to bring cinematic-style scope and epic sweep to prestige TV. Early on, “Game of Thrones” had its strengths (Sean Bean as Ned Stark) and weaknesses (way too many scenes set in brothels, with naked women and sex scenes thrown in apparently to make customers pony up extra cash for HBO).
But as it went on, “Game of Thrones” showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss managed to build on what was excellent (Peter Dinklage’s Emmy-winning work as Tyrion Lannister), throw in awe-inspiring battle scenes and, thankfully, allow several of the female characters to develop.
True, Benioff and Weiss didn’t really stick the landing, as the final season brought one disappointing creative decision after another. But getting there was a thrilling ride, thanks to plot twists involving the struggles for power that played out between the Lannisters, the Starks, and Daenerys Targaryen.
Thanks to jaw-dropping set pieces (the Red Wedding!), impressive visual effects (the dragons!) and another ensemble cast packed with juicy characters and wonderful actors, including Lena Headey, Michelle Fairley, Richard Madden, Sophie Turner, Maisie Williams, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Aidan Gillen, Emilia Clarke and Kit Harington, “Game of Thrones” often soared above anything else on TV. (Stream on HBO Max; on demand from HBO)