Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Pulp Fiction, or: A Closer Look at Best Writing for a Drama Series

*With the Emmys coming up on August 25th, The Entertainment Junkie will be providing content related to major nominees, culminating in not one, but two top-ten lists. Welcome to Emmy Week.*

What makes a prestige television drama, well, prestigious? The answer, quite simply, is that there's any number of things that it could be. While there's a fairly basic idea of what makes an "Oscar movie" (important issue + melodramatic relationship + acclaimed crew + historical setting), there isn't really a set format for what makes a television drama a source of prestige throughout Emmy history. If you wanted to develop a formula for the past, say, 15 years though, it would probably look something like this:

Male antihero + dark thematic material + violence + cable network = acclaim 

This isn't necessarily foolproof: The West Wing took home four consecutive Best Drama Series Emmys while being an ultimately-optimistic series about American politics, while Mad Men wasn't a particularly violent show and also won four consecutive Emmys in the same category.

But take a look at what networks have developed over the years, and you'll see one thing is true: many shows, whether they actually win Emmys or not, conflate "prestige" with bad men and bloody violence. Without a doubt, Tony Soprano has cast a long shadow over the television landscape, with many imitators looking to recapture his magic with varying degrees of success.

This year, five episodes from four different shows were nominated for Best Writing in a Drama Series, and all of those shows to some extent follow the formula previously laid out. What makes these shows fascinating, though, is that all of them have premises that seem lifted from trashy paperback novels and cultishly-beloved B-movies.

More after the jump.

Let's break it down one show at a time. The shows' nominated episodes are included in the parentheses.

- Breaking Bad ("Ozymandias," written by Moira Walley-Beckett, and "Felina," written by Vince Gilligan).

This one practically speaks for itself: "science teacher turns to meth cooking to fund treatments for his terminal cancer." It's easy to imagine Roger Corman kicking himself for not thinking that one up himself. Of course, Breaking Bad would only use this premise as a launching point for its bigger ambitions, setting the series up as an action-based morality play between good and evil, with our ostensible "hero," Walter White, actually being the embodiment of evil. Yet in the series' best episodes, there was always the driving force of action, with some ludicrous ideas being thrown in ("yeah, magnets!"). Part of what made Breaking Bad so successful is that it never abandoned its pulpy thriller roots, and both nominated episodes - "Felina," the series finale, especially - balanced the show's moral elements with invigorating action. It never failed to leave you looking for another fix.

- House of Cards ("Chapter 14," written by Beau Willimon)

Don't let the show's Shakespearean-tragedy structure and themes of power fool you: House of Cards feels like it could have sprung from a tawdry political novel, or a quickly-made knockoff of The Manchurian Candidate. As Kevin Spacey's Frank Underwood rises from senator from South Carolina to Secretary of State, then to Vice-President, then to, by the end of season two, President of the United States of America, there's never any doubt that this show is a gussied-up conspiracy thriller, only one where the bad guy is winning. Willimon seems to realize this, too, as the characters speak to each other in heightened, wordy dialogue that often feels like the Bard by-way-of John Carpenter. This is especially true for Underwood's fourth-wall-breaking asides, delivered in his Foghorn Leghorn accent. This isn't meant to be a knock on the show; it's immensely entertaining, especially when binge-watched. But like Breaking Bad, House of Cards plays up the pulp.

- Game of Thrones ("The Children," written by D.B. Weiss and David Benioff)

To include Game of Thrones in this circle is kind of a cheat, since it's based on author George R.R. Martin's saga A Song of Ice and Fire, itself no stranger to pulpiness (and mammoth lengths). But it's interesting to consider how fantasy television - long considered too campy for Emmy approval, longer banished to the hinterlands of the television landscape - has now become acceptable of the label "prestige drama," at least where Game of Thrones is concerned (every season so far has been nominated for a Best Drama Series Emmy, and it could win this year). With its high-gloss production values and talented cast, the show does transcend many of the issues that plagued fantasy television in the past. But there's still a hint of midnight-screening glee to show, particularly in how frequently and graphically it dispatches many of its characters. For example, this season alone featured characters dying via poison, being pushed out of a sky window, having a sword shoved into their throat, and having their head squeezed until it exploded. That's definitely a violent exuberance it inherited from the B-grade action films of the 1980s.

- True Detective ("The Secret Fate of All Life," written by Nic Pizzolatto)

In interviews surrounding what exactly True Detective was going for, Pizzolatto frequently mentioned a love of crime stories and "weird fiction," the latter being made obvious in his textual references to Robert W. Chambers' "The King in Yellow." And make no mistake, True Detective borrows heavily from this branch of literature, which is a turn-of-the-20th-century genre that blends the horrific, the mythic, and the scientific. The season finale, "Form and Void," particularly seems to bear the influence of H.P. Lovecraft, but it's not just the weird that made the show so interesting. "The Secret Fate of All Life" is a perfect example of this, as the show blends the metaphysical with dimestore-detective-story narrative, culminating in Rust Cohle's (Matthew McConaughey) now-infamous "time is a flat circle" speech. At its core, True Detective felt like it was adapted straight from a John Grisham ripoff. But the show took that premise and adapted it into something special - at least for one season.

This list doesn't fully encompass all of the pulp-masquarading-as-prestige dramas out there, but it is interesting that these four shows make up the entirety of the Drama Writing category this year. The message seems to be clear: keep the stodginess, bring the crazy.


Shane Slater said...

Nice rundown. What's your personal pick of this group?

Jason H. said...

I'm torn between "Ozymandias" and "The Secret Fate of All Life." I'd probably give it to the former, just for being such a stellar episode of television in general.

What about you?

Shane Slater said...

I'd give it to Ozymandias as well. I think it's an all-time great episode.