Monday 22 January 2018

How TV recast the bad boys

Drama used to be simple – the good guys always won and the villains got their just desserts. A new book explains why that's all changed.

Breaking the mould: Bryan Cranston as Walter White
Breaking the mould: Bryan Cranston as Walter White

Frank Coughlan

There's a moment in Breaking Bad where Walt White finally completes his transformation from put-upon high school teacher into a man of whom the world should be very much afraid.

Fans of the cult television series will not have forgotten that scene in season four. It's when a shaven-headed Walt tells wife Skyler, terrified that her husband's enemies will come to their home and kill them: "I am the one who knocks."

It is at this point that it finally dawns on Skyler what Walt is and who he has become. And it is at that point too that dedicated viewers finally have to accept that this man they have been rooting for, through 30 or so episodes, is a mean mother. Walt is no longer the solution. He's definitely the problem.

But the viewer stays on his side. Willing him on. Walt's the man. And a man has to do what a man has to do. Television didn't used to be like this. It was passive and predictable. Good prevailed and evil got its comeuppance.

But it wasn't Breaking Bad, that caused the shift. Instead the revolution began in 1999.

Brett Martin is the author of a new book, Difficult Men, which plots the route of this cultural revolution. According to the GQ writer, it was when the lumbering and complex Tony Soprano entered our lives in 1999 that television changed forever.

While The Sopranos' success seems obvious now, it was the genius and courage of creator David Chase and the vision of HBO that made it possible. Chase could never have imagined when he pitched his idea what the impact would be.

It was fortunate too that, at the same time, cinema was going through a crisis of confidence that even still has Hollywood wed to big-buck franchises, witless romcoms and cringy gross-outs. It wasn't a medium for grown-ups any more.

HBO, then a niche pay-TV channel that didn't have to worry about advertisers' sensibilities, wanted to tap into a sophisticaed audience who'd choose to be challenged.

By 2001, Tony Soprano and his crew were racking up 10 million viewers per week – fantastic numbers for a major network, unheard of in cable.

Success breeds success, not to mention imitation. Among the series inspired by The Sopranos are The Wire (HBO), The Shield (FX), Deadwood (HBO), Mad Men (AMC) and Breaking Bad (AMC).

They are all very different, all are acquired tastes and they come to us from a range of networks. But they all have core principles in common.

None of them, for instance, shirks the darker truths of the human condition, and while you might invite these characters into your living room, you'll still lock the door firmly behind them when they leave.

The list isn't definitive either and now even the traditional networks have dipped their toes in these opaque waters. The BBC has taken viewers over to the dark side in recent times with critically acclaimed series such as Luther and Belfast-based The Fall.

Closer to home, who among us doesn't want Nidge to survive one more season in Love/Hate? While Tom Vaughan-Lawlor's ganglander might not have an interior life that's textured enough to rival those that have gone before, he's getting there.

But it's unlikely Love/Hate would have got beyond its first pitching with RTÉ if Tony Soprano and Walter White hadn't dead-eyed audiences with such menace years before.

We should be glad they did.

Difficult Men, Brett Martin, €13.55

Irish Independent

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