Sunday, May 6, 2007

TV Year in Review :: Serialized Dramas

As the current television regular season hits the home stretch it’s good to reflect on what’s happened. This past year in television was a good one. We have definitely entered the golden age of the serialized drama. Shows like 24, Battlestar Galactica, and The Sopranos dominate the airwaves, the satellites and the broadband. However, these shows seem to be showing subtle signs of exhaustion. Certain conceits can only be taken so far before they begin to buckle under their own weight. While 24 and Battlestar Galactica remain strong, they did not remain the most compelling shows on television. Instead, this years television greatness comes from the rookies.

Perhaps the most glamorous of the new shows, Heroes capitalizes on the recent super-hero trend to great effect. Best described as a more mature take on The X-Men, Heroes follows a diverse group of next-generation human beings, all of whom posses amazing abilities. As a super-hero origin story, Heroes is basically a morality tale that explores the implications and responsibilities of power and the ways different individuals use it. Some, such as the shows primary villain, Sylar, simply want to use their power to gain more power, no matter the cost. Others, such as the good-hearted Hiro Nakamura, want only to be heroes and to help other. Heroes is normally stellar but it sometimes descends to the absurd, which is perhaps inevitable when the super-hero genre is given the high-brow treatment. Heroes’ only real problem, though, is its teasing nature. The show routinely sets up what promises to be an amazing sequence of violent release and pure action only to cut away from it or deflate rapidly. Perhaps this is due to a low budget or perhaps it is a stylistic choice. Either way, Heroes remains one of the more compelling new dramas of the year. With the finale only a few weeks away, here’s hoping that they go all out and give us some truly great super-hero battles.

Jericho, for me at least, was the surprise hit of the year. The show is a new take on the post-apocalypse genre. The sleepy mid-western town of Jericho must rally to survive and protect each other after a series of nuclear bombs devastate the United States. Focused less on action and violence (though both are usually quite present) and more of the social and communal effects of isolation and political independence, Jericho is Lord of the Flies on a larger scale and the central question is always how to remain civilized human beings when laws and consequences are no longer externally enforced. Films such as The Road Warrior or Water World have conditioned audiences to expect certain things from the post-apocalypse genre; Jericho reinvents the genre by focusing on the slow-burn effects of isolation - this is a world slowing falling apart as witnessed by the interpersonal and political dynamics of the survivors. Jericho is consistently compelling; even its low budget and sparing use of special-effects add to the muted tension and menacing normality of the situation. Like Heroes, Jericho hints at a lot without actually showing much of anything. In Jericho, though, this works better and actually complements one of the shows conceits, which is that the town of Jericho is trying desperately to preserve what it was in the face of tremendous and disastrous change. Outside the town, which is rarely depicted, all manner of evils and lawlessness can be found; inside the town, though, there is hope in the communal experience and in shared goals.

The season’s absolute high-point, though, was Dexter. Pitch-black humour, incredibly unnerving violence and even a healthy dose of romance are at the heart of this serialized crime drama. Dexter Morgan is a forensic investigator specializing in blood-spatter patterns. He is very good at what he does. He should be… after all, he himself is a serial killer fascinated with human blood. Relax, though, in his own way Dexter is a good guy and he only releases his dark predilections upon those deserving of them. Dexter is a wildly ironic series. Even though it focuses on a sociopath who is unable to feel human emotion, the series is really about becoming human. Like all television characters who are unable to be human (such as Star Trek: TNG’s Data) or even desire to not be human (such as Battlestar Galactica’s Gaius Baltar), Dexter is a metaphor for humanity itself. Faced with solving the case of an even more vicious serial killer who, like an anti-Dexter, is somehow able to remove all the blood from his victims, Dexter slowly learns the importance of love and family. Dexter is most definitely not for the faint of heart. Some of its sequences are truly horrific. However, in the midst of other shows which routinely play it safe and fail to deliver meaningful stories or characters (or which, even though they create horrific events, dumb down their depictions or emotional responses to them like the many iterations of CSI), Dexter is, to use a horribly clichéd metaphor, a breath of fresh air. That the show has been renewed for a second season proves that someone out there in Televisionland is finally awake to artistic importance.

It's not clear how much longer the serialized drama can last. The quick cancellation this year of such shows as Smith, The Nine, and Drive - and the even more bewildering decision to reformat Veronica Mars to exclude long mystery story-arcs - may be evidence that the studios prefer short-term rewards instead of long-term payouts. Unless you're 24, which packs enough action into one hour to satisfy any Bruckheimer/Bay fan, the serialized drama requires patience and daring, which are things that most television studio executives do not have. The serialized drama remains my personal favourite style of television, though, and if Heroes, Jericho, and Dexter can continue to deliver quality television in their second seasons, than I will be very pleased indeed.

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