Prestige TV Tripulación

~ essaying on a trio of “prestige” TV shows I recently watched concurrently, at long last: The Sopranos (1999), Mad Men (2007), and Better Call Saul (2015). Each from a distinct passage within this era now understood as “The Golden Age of Television.”

We have just lived through a Golden Age of scripted television.

By that, I mean the influential quality of prestige {high budget + talent} dramas such as The Sopranos (1999–2007), Mad Men (2007–2015), and Better Call Saul (2015–2022), among others (The Wire. Breaking Bad. True Detective. Game of Thrones. Deadwood!). These giants launched the medium of TV into the 21st century with sharp writing, complex characters, and auteur-ish filmmaking styles. Widely popular and critically acclaimed, most agree in naming them as the greatest TV shows of all time. (TV: 1946-present)

Hence why these 2000s-2010s have been deemed The “New” Golden Age. With more recent series like Succession, Severance, House of the Dragon and more — you could make an argument we are still *in* such an age of excellence in TV creativity. Though here in 2022 we have to be past the peak, right? {It’s my personal belief that far too many TV shows are now being produced, chasing the dragon of subscription streaming profits, with many of them copies, clones, crap far too influenced by social media discourse and corpo algorithms…}

Perhaps this is why I am continuously drawn back into the past, toward older movies and TV shows. And not black-and-white old, sometimes it’s as recent as plucking gems from the 90s and 2000s. I long ago noticed there was a cadre of TV shows missing from my resume. The aforementioned trio — The Sopranos, Mad Men, Better Call Saul — can be seen as pillars for modern TV.

And I’d never watched them! Never had HBO and Mad Men aired while I was in high school, less than interested in episodic TV dramas. For Better Call Saul airing over the last few years, I just never got around to it + I somewhat questioned the existence of the show (Why did we need a Saul prequel? This notion was quickly shot down by many recommendations, and a viewing of episode 1: “Uno”).

Here in 2022, I’ve watched them all, concurrently, over the course of a few months. I did this so as to rectify my critical inadequacies regarding these artistic gems, and reflect on them. To challenge myself with direct comparisons {and rather psychopathically} I watched them episode by episode concurrently — The Sopranos episode 1, Mad Men e1, BCS e1, TS e2, MM e2, BCS e3, and so on. {Only 1–2 episodes ever in a single day for each, so as to absorb the stories completely. I am rather Anti-Binge.}

This writing gathers my reflections on my prestige TV tripulación, and the otherwise generalized themes of a Golden Age of TV.

Luciferian Characters

First and foremost, prestige TV is character-driven. I would argue ALL great storytelling is. You must connect with the characters, on an emotional level, in order for storytelling greatness to emerge.

The Sopranos has Tony Soprano {RIP James Gandolfini}, the charismatic ruffian, mob boss & patriarch of a nuclear family. Mad Men features Don Draper {Jon Hamm}, the dapper yet deceptive gentleman with the high-powered job and inner void, a past of running, and loosening presence as the head of another nuclear family. Better Call Saul gives us the origins of a character already well-known (and well-loved) to us — Jimmy McGill / “Saul Goodman” {Bob Odenkirk}, meth kingpin Walter White’s shifty lawyer from Breaking Bad. Jimmy… well, Jimmy is a lot of things.

So our tripulación is character-driven, carried (but not entirely) on the backs of these three leads. These shows are defined, and made great, primarily by these characters. And like all great literary characters of old (Hamlet, Frankenstein, Faust, Don Juan), they are rogues. Charismatic and devious, loving and killing alike are behaviors within a rogue’s repertoire. Tony, Don, Jimmy — dastardly, deceptive, dynamic. They break the law, and many hearts. They *change* and struggle over the course of each show’s arcs. Call them “gray,” Romantic. To varying degrees, you could say they start *good* and then fall.

Like all epic characters, they reflect the setting. And these sagas are quite interested in *America* as a concept; thus, the lead characters necessarily become American heroes. Jimmy and Tony each reside in the early 2000s urban sprawl, whereas Don’s prime lives in America’s Golden Era of the 1960s, and in the imperial jewel of New York City. Men of the community in one way or another: Tony bruises and drinks with the underground, Don touches the realms of finance, Hollywood, and many desperate housewives, Jimmy works as a public defender in criminal court by day and plots on the Albuquerque backstreets by night.

Charm and cruelty, sexiness and stupidity, rage and comedy, depression and mania — all on the menu here from these guys. Impassioned and clever, all three are survivors too. Abusive and abused, addicted and artful, they’ve lied and been lied to by those closest to them. Not good people, but not evil either. Reckless, certainly. With these types of character, there’s violence both physical and emotional upon enemies, and eventually friends too. They routinely commit acts of destruction — Tony as a mafioso bigot, Don as a maverick womanizer, and Jimmy as a half-calculating, half-careless con man.

Bottom line: Tony, Don, and Jimmy are fully realized three dimensional characters; you could argue this fact is tenet #1 in the qualification for “prestige.” And they get into trouble… all the time.

~ Complexity is an understatement for this trio of leads. Just look how many TV Tropes can be attributed to Tony Soprano, Don Draper, and Jimmy McGill.

But how entertaining is all of this debauchery!

Call them Luciferian. Or those that fall from heaven. Basically, they’re all fucked up. And we love it. We cannot look away.

Attention to Detail

With such prestige dramas as our triad here, there is a heightened level of filmmaking. A smooth word, like butter, it means you’ve got cinematographic masters at work shooting these TV shows.

Studious attention to detail arrives in how scenes are presented, and how conversations are framed or edited. You get glimpses of the environment, the public places and most sacred spaces of our characters, all of it spitting ambiguous meanings out for those searching. There are also consistent depictions of people and places with no long association with the plot itself. Glimpses of the deli line, the mundane processions of everyday office life, an inside look at photo darkrooms, moving crews, taco joints.

TV shot from all angles, like cinema and unlike earlier TV, grounds the plot into a world.

~ It’s all seed-planting, world-building.

The purpose of all this camera time sometimes spent on extraneous details is to build out this world. Other people live here too, our characters are just passengers we happen to be zoned in on. {Remember, writers, the great work of world-building is not just reserved for sci-fi and fantasy authors!}

This cinematic attention to detail is most evident in Better Call Saul, in my view, perhaps because of its creation at the end of this era, already having a spiritual predecessor with a defined sense of style in Breaking Bad. But Mad Men and The Sopranos both feature a film-like quality in the choice of how episodes are shot, from beginning to end. The sets, the locations, the wardrobes — all consummately professional. Sharp, authentic, and expressive work was being done across the board on these shows. And it shows!

To state the obvious: Prestige TV is no accident. It is being made by some very talented people, masters of their craft! Look upon thee works, yet mighty and rejoice!!

Some prestigious cinematography:

Realism x Complexity x Tragedy

“You’re born alone, and you die alone, and this world just drops a bunch of rules on you to make you forget those facts. But I never forget.”

~ Don Draper

Realism

Something that makes for great literature: Realism. Could these stories *really* be taking place in our world?

Do people talk like this? Would people behave this way? Does this plot make sense, are the character’s motives and reactions believable? Are these people real?

I think I am continuously fascinated by this aspect of storytelling, in part, because I feel I am so bad at formulating realism in my own fiction writing. I simply don’t write *believable* stories — and I am not sure I know how to (or would ever want to). My fiction is much closer to the extreme end of sci-fi and fantasy I feel, closer to manga or comic books than anything literary. The characters suffer as a result of this extremity.

Realism is certainly not my strong suit as a writer. But I can recognize it in film, in literature, and in TV. I admire writers that can pull it off. True-to-life realism provides “a sense of place.” More than believability, it is *immersion*; does this world feel like a place? Are we there alongside the characters? Beyond the dialogue and backgrounds — are the right sounds, culture, expressions, music, personas… ads, guns, urban sprawl all there too?

Building a believable world requires a comprehensive approach. So it should be considered quite the achievement that we have three realized worlds here. The Sopranos presents a 2000s New Jersey low life / Mad Men’s gifts us the 1960s NYC high life / Better Call Saul crafts out the 2000s Albuquerque mid-level crimescapes with care. The three series end up gracefully showcasing the special charms of their setting, over and over.

Complexity

Something *else* that makes for great literature: Complexity. We love a complex story, with twists and turns, betrayals, random acts of sudden violence, sex, blood, schemes, laughing, crying, etc. Even moreso, we love complex characters. Remember that prestige dramas have large ensemble casts, with dozens of recurring characters. While our trio of leads are the beating heart of the story, there are many god-tier co-stars & side characters in all three shows.

Carmela, Betty, Kim “goat” Wexler — all complex characters, with their own struggles (both related and unrelated to their man). Uncle Junior & Christopher in The Sopranos, two of the more nuanced character arcs, end up representing the preceding and future generation of mafioso relative to Tony’s era. Peggy, Pete, Joan, Roger, Ted, and more, there are complex arcs in store for these characters in Mad Men, touched but not overtly caused by Don’s overall journey as the lead.

And in Better Call Saul? Oh boy, don’t even get me started on the side characters in that show. Kim. Mike. Chuck. Nacho. Gus. Lalo. Hector. Howard. {The Kettleman’s!} All undefeated. Jimmy’s interplay with each of them differs considerably, but they’re all perfectly placed in the landscape of the narrative and even command their own episodes.

It’s a blessing on all three shows that while they have some of my favorite side characters ever — I still believe Tony, Don, and Jimmy to be the best character of each show, respectively. {They are just that good.}

Prestige TV is home to complex characters, vividly dynamic toons like those within the literary tomes of old.

Tragedy

OK, final time — to close the loop on this speaking in threes. Something **else** else that makes for great literature: Tragedy.

Is this all there is?

The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Better Call Saul each depict human tragedy. While their stories and characters differ considerably, they each deal with men on the edge of life. Murder, adultery, cleansing money from the long reach of the law, and more — notches in the belt of a dramatic trio of falls.

Tony’s suburban professional gangsterism crosses with family life, conscience, and sanity so much so that he starts to lose his grip on reality; however, Tony always doubles down, averts a recognition of the bloody life he’s led, accumulating more and more bodies until one final blink. Don has been on the run since the day he was born, life as an idea salesman thus comes easy to him; Don’s void is harbored by his impenetrability, a stark invulnerability, which ironically may also be a vital source of his power. Jimmy “Hustle” is just that, a working man that hustles, always learning and adapting, and scheming; Saul Goodman is born because, like an inventor, Jimmy eventually ran out of failures and birthed a true blue invention, successfully built out of everything that came before.

{For Jimmy, who knew all those years spent 1) learning the law and 2) how to get people to [temporarily] like you — were training him for becoming the prime fixer in the New Mexico criminal underground?}

Directly because of their own flaws, tragedy meets our heroes while on their journeys. Painstaking emotional growth competes against the toxic yet efficacious traits that got them into the mess in the first place. {Tony = aggression, Don = womanizing, Jimmy = scheming}

This tripulación of “Realism x Complexity x Tragedy” makes for another attribute of great prestige TV.

And to be perfectly clear: All three of these series ~ The Sopranos (1999), Mad Men (2007), and Better Call Saul (2015) ~ are 10 out of 10’s in my book. Classics. Must-watch. Some of the best character work in cinematic history.

The Sopranos is a black comedy full of unforgettable scenes and social commentaries; Mad Men is a slick character study, with much to say about the shifting dynamics of American society in the mid-20th golden age; Saul is a continuous adventure-comedy crime caper, depicting inventive dramas between rival brothers, warring drug kingpins, and even lovers. {I’d reckon BCS proves to be as much a love story as anything else by the end…}

If you asked me to pick my favorite among the trio: Better Call Saul. It’s close with Mad Men {The Sopranos made me laugh the most}. Honestly, I’m not someone that would even say BCS > Breaking Bad. But the prequel series was simply riveting from beginning to end, featured god-tier sub-plots and side characters, and the story altogether perfectly fleshed out Jimmy McGill, both as he was and will be.

I’ll be even more honest and say that I heavily relate to Jimmy much more so than Tony or Don.

The reason is perhaps obvious, but it’s this: I too love scheming! ~

The ending of The Sopranos is incredible. No spoilers!
🐐🐐🐐🐐🐐🐐