Grown Up Television

25 07 2016

I finally got a chance to watch a couple of TV series that looked promising: HBO’s Vinyl and Show Time’s Billions. Both present an interesting contrast in the continued evolution of “grown up television”, television shows that aren’t really meant for a general audience. I enjoyed both, but noticed some differences that may make one a classic and one a bit of one-hit wonder.

TV For Adults

For decades, television programs meant for prime time had to conform to a strict set of rules. They governed the language that was used, what appeared on the set and how stories were told. Shows broke those rules over time. The separate beds for Laura and Rob Petrie eventually became the more common double/queen/king bed found in actual master bedrooms. Bathrooms gained toilets (and at the Bunker residence, the actual sound of a toilet flush). Kirk and Uhuru got it on, albeit only kissing, and at someone else’s command.

But much of what appeared (and continues to appear) on prime time network television is, to some degree, sanitized. There’s a reason: a significant number of children watch during these timeslots, and not all situations are appropriate for them. Even movies were, for a time, governed by a strict Production Code, but that was loosened over time. By the 1970’s, if you wanted “grown up” stories, you went to the movies. TV was for light entertainment, at least most of the time.

That started to change in the past couple of decades. While shows have come and gone, possibly the most influential show that got “grown up” TV rolling was The Sopranos. Produced by HBO, it wasn’t bound by the rules and norms for prime-time TV (mainly because it is a cable channel, not a broadcast channel). As a result, we are in what could be viewed as a Golden Age of mature television. Sure, sometimes the sex and violence can be gratuitous, but we have been treated to deeper and more meaningful stories, with visuals and dialog that suit the situations. It isn’t watered down or sanitized.

Period Pieces

While some shows, such as The Sopranos or Curb Your Enthusiasm have a contemporary setting, several have been set in a historical period. Boardwalk Empire is set during the first years of Prohibition; Mad Men starts at the end of 1959, and wraps up in the early 1970’s. Vinyl is set during the early-to-mid 1970’s.

For these period pieces, the results can be remarkable albeit unsettling. So far, most have done their homework and put in serious research for each episode. Rather than being “today in old clothes”, they try to stay true to their period as much as they can. Of course, it means that something set in the advertising industry in the early 1960’s will see offices dominated by white men. That was the reality. The show isn’t about showcasing diversity, it’s about presenting a frank image of the way it was, without the gloss and sugarcoating we tend to put on nostalgia.

The big networks tried to get on the “period piece” action, but for the most part, failed miserably. Pan Am only lasted a single, truncated season. The Playboy Club didn’t last beyond 3 episodes. The problem for both was that they were contrived situations, and because of limitations on what they could show and say, meant they had to present a sanitized and “clean” version of things. What the networks didn’t seem to get was that people were watching shows like Mad Men because of the stories and situations, not because of “the 60’s”. On Mad Men, the time period is a fundamental part of the fabric of the story. For Pan Am and The Playboy Club, the time period is a thin veneer.

New Players

HBO dominated the grown-up television phenomenon. They were soon joined by AMC (with Mad Men). Showcase decided to get in on the game, and their most recent effort, Billions, has been adequate although not brilliant. When compared to Vinyl, HBO’s most recent new series, they present a something of a contrast.

Vinyl is a dark and gritty tale about a fictional recording label set in the mid-1970’s. It is after the “glory days” of rock and roll of the 1960’s, and the next big trend will be dance music, aka disco. Billions is a contemporary drama that pits a United States Attorney against a wealthy hedge fund founder. Both are set in “interesting times”, and one features stories and concepts that we see in the news today. The other depicts both the good and bad of the music business from a significant period in its history.

Where the Showtime series stumbles is that it appears to be trying too hard to be “gritty and realistic”. Mad Men, The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire and now Vinyl all feature anti-heros, and very few true “good guys”. Everyone is flawed, and even corrupt, in some way. Sometimes we want the protagonist to get away with it. Sometimes we want to see them caught. And sometimes we get both of those feelings in a single episode.

Billions, however, seems too much of a shallow copy of everything we’ve seen before. “Oh, there’s the Don Draper elements”. “Look, there’s the Nucky Thompson bits”. The flaws and corruption are, in some ways, verging on cartoonish. Don’t get me wrong, Billions still features an interesting story and top-notch performances. The technical elements of the show, such as the legal issues and how Wall Street works, are pretty much bang-on. But it doesn’t have the seem depth and feel that HBO and AMC have infused in their shows.

Vinyl, on the other hand, is both dark and light. It features “cameos” by past performers (with actors who bear a striking resemblance to their real-life counterparts), and some interesting use of music and imagery. It also shows the dark side of the music business: drug use, the manipulation of artists and their work, and the involvement of organized crime. The main protagonist, Richie Finestra, is a tragic figure, and while he has some elements in common with past protagonists, he has his own unique problems and demons. You usually want to root for him, but aren’t surprised when he falls off the ledge.

Both Worth Watching, But…

Both Vinyl and Billions are worth watching. Both are entertaining and engaging. For Billions, though, I’ll give it another season and see where it goes. If it continues as more of a soap opera and less of a morality tale, 2 seasons may be enough (and if it devolves into a cartoonish legal procedural, 2 will definitely be it).

I’m less concerned about Vinyl, because knowing something about the history of music, I can see challenges for the major story arc (what acts to look for, what’s coming next) and I’ve found the characters to be deeper and more engaging. Now, it may too go off the rails. That’s a risk for any show. But given HBO’s quality of work so far, I’m not as concerned as I am with Billions.

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