Emmys 2016 – Drama round-up
Emmys 2016 – Drama round-up
Emmy’s aren’t like Oscars. Your show can come back every year and try to win again. So here they are, some previous winners, some previous losers, who are back for another shot at the Emmy for Best Drama.
Words: Niall Murphy
Better Call Saul
Vince Gilligan knows how to do family drama. Breaking Bad is about a man who will go to extreme lengths to do right by his family, and with Better Call Saul he literally doubles down on this theme with two stories: Jimmy/Saul doing right by his awful brother and Mike the Cleaner doing right by his granddaughter.
The inversion is that Breaking Bad is about a normal man, who lived a decent life, who has had enough, while Better Call Saul is about men with murky pasts. Guys who made mistakes, who are trying to go more on the straight and narrow, but are confounded by the crappy modern world on the one hand, and by their pasts and past habits on the other.
Because these guys are trying to break good rather than bad, it doesn’t have the same ‘Will he get caught?’ tension of the original show. Instead, it’s a more skin crawling, ‘Is he gonna make it or is life gonna shit all over him again?’ tension. So it’s much more downbeat as a consequence.
Still, it’s not that far behind where Breaking Bad was at this point. It’s running out of time to reach the same level, and difficult to see where it could go to get there. But hey, not being as superb as the original isn’t much of a criticism.
Described as the best-kept secret on television, let us let you in on another secret: This spy drama isn’t a spy drama at all. It’s just a story about a stressful marriage.
Looking at Soviet spies living in Washington in the 80, the Americans harks back to a simpler time. Back when America’s enemies were all from the one country, which they weren’t usually allowed leave, so there was no Soviet refugee crisis. And what enemies there were ‘living amongst us’ were white, perhaps only identified from other white Americans by the European beach crime of wearing skimpy speedo.
With its rolled up sleeves and big hair the 80s are certainly the least sexy of all the decades. But espionage is the most sexy of all the stories, so this should be a winner. But as we just revealed, and as proudly proclaimed by the show’s creator it’s actually a family drama.
This is a very common and dastardly American trick, which pretends to co-opt what’s good about cinema (spies, and gadgets and world wars), but actually just repackages what’s always been bad about television (soap operas and family feuds). Sopranos got away with it, and this probably will too. But if you’re watching any family drama not by Vince Gilligan you’re really just watching Neighbours with notions.
There is space for Homeland. In between the disappointingly pedestrian 80s spies of The Americans and the futuristic, anarchist, hacker terrorists of Mr. Robot, there’s space for a show about now. A modern espionage show, dealing with the hacking going on right now, in the world we live, dealing with the politics of now, and the terrorist threats we face right now.
After the farce of the first two seasons, Homeland could be that show. Many people have given up and won’t forgive it for its beginnings, which were acclaimed at the time, but were too overwrought in retrospect: an Islamic terrorist stood for Vice President. You read that right. The 2011s were less politically correct times.
There are problems with it still. It’s clunky. You get the feeling writers’ meetings have a white board that just says ‘Hacker thing-Middle East terror thing-Some CIA thing-a bomb?-Make it work’. But there’s a lot of potential, and after the disaster of the latest Bourne movie, there’s an espionage vacuum to be filled by this type of show.
Initially it could have been construed as sexist that the female star succumbs to mental problems when the pressure is on. But as we’ll see, we have now somehow managed to inject mental illness into, almost equate it with, our new world of information technology.
William Gibson, the cyberpunk writer, is often credited with coming up with the idea of the internet. But his ‘what happens next’ stories are why he’s famous. One such idea is that information technology will lead to neural overload. That out brains will get so overwhelmed they’ll shut down. Now, perhaps he gives the human race too much credit. Perhaps we’re more interested in cats taking free kicks or what Ronaldo is wearing than he predicted. But there’s resonance, there’s no question that the information revolution is changing our behavior.
And it’s this mental health aspect you’ll need to be fascinated by to enjoy Mr. Robot. That’s what you’ll need to cling on to get you through. Fight Club without the fighting, the show follows hackers who want to bring down corporate America by deleting all records of debt. Which is what Edward Norton is talking about at the end the of that movie.
But though Norton’s mental illness is an almost unnecessary, too clever, ending to the film (taken from the book, where it’s more important as a narration technique), this show is almost entirely about the mental illness. This can lead to bad: in season one an entire episode is just an incoherent delusion. And less regularly can also lead to good: in season two there’s a fever induced cameo by Alf, the actual furry Alien Life Form from your childhood.
The problem when you try to film crazy is you risk driving your audience crazy in doing it. An overload of such seeming incoherence runs the risk of bringing on that very neurological shock Gibson was talking about. And you leave an audience cheated, with a sense that you made your job incredibly easy, by just throwing random images around.
House of Cards
Much like Veep the writers wrote themselves into a corner with this show. A story about a man who double –crosses and kills his way to the Presidency is a story worth telling. A story about a man who is now President has nowhere else to go. Yes, it’s based on the British books/show, but the wiser course would have been to digress from the material and postpone the inevitable.
However, the quality of writing is generally poor anyway. Most scenes are conducted in silence or with minimal dialogue. The writers hope they will therefore get credit for being so plainly different to the wordy West Wing. But in fact it’s a typical Netflix ruse, they just can’t think of anything for the characters to say. Next time you watch it count the seconds without dialogue in a scene. The show is just empty air.
It’s easy to be hard on this series, but it has shown the resilience of any British soap opera. It’s important to make that comparison, because there’s an assumption that it’s a stuffy show, with people staring out windows at the rain, contemplating chances not taken, with slow piano music in the background. But it’s not EM Forster for the screen, it’s soap opera for snobs.
It had its genesis nearly a hundred years ago in a massive West End production of a Noel Coward play called Cavalcade, which was a huge show stopper production, and has been downsizing itself ever since. First as a movie which won the best picture Oscar, then as the series Upstairs, Downstairs and now as sedate Downton Abbey.
But as classy as it wants to be, it can’t outrun its old time, showbiz roots. It is possibly the most predictable show on TV. Affairs and falling in love and even murder are as well sign posted as the London streets of EastEnders.
To its credit it survives because the writers are good at what they do, very good. But not good enough to hide the fact that this comedy of manners thrives on its setting. It seems happy with the master/servant world in which it’s set. It seems content with the snobbery. Plenty of stories from the period weren’t as cosy and conformist, but they chose to tell this one instead. Which is a shame.
Probably the Best: Game of Thrones.
Well, too much has been written about this show, to say anymore. In particular, too much has been written by us already. We had a big to do about it a couple of weeks ago here.
The 21st question to add to our list is does it deserve to win again. The answer is probably yes, even if only to put pressure on Vince Gilligan to really pull it out of the bag next year.
For more Game of Thrones, see this article, or click the menu on the right-hand side.