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Does Series TV Have a 'Godfather' Problem?

Photo of Sam Adams By Sam Adams | Criticwire August 1, 2013 at 1:11PM

Violent storylines and classic style have helped TV win respect. But is that formula holding the medium back?
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Godfather

As last week's Criticwire Survey indicates, most film and TV critics play happily together, but the New Yorker's Richard Brody remains unconvinced that the current TV age is anything like a renaissance. He wraps up an essay called "The Negative Influence of Coppola's Godfather," whose particulars we'll circle back to in a minute, by citing Francis Ford Coppola's first two Godfather films as the preeminent influence on the post-Sopranos era of "serious" television.

The very mode of analysis invoked by a series -- in which the parsing of character and study of intention take precedence -- is the one for which The Godfather seems to have been created, and which, for that matter, those films may have created. Francis Ford Coppola should properly be considered the founder of modern television. 

Meanwhile, at Grantland, Andy Greenwald has his own issues with the state of television, specifically how many dramas are motivated by or based around violent and untimely death. Death has a place in drama (see also: Hamlet) but as shows that deal thoughtfully with the causes and consequences of violence collect critical plaudits, they're emulated by shows in which killing becomes rote, rivers of blood greasing the wheels of plot machinery. 

Building a show around a crime, rather than a criminal, appeals to a broader range of viewers and a more established sensibility.... When done right, a single case can last a season and then a series can more or less reboot itself, ditching any parts that aren't working and maintaining those that are. When done right, as it was with Twin Peaks and its artistic descendant, Top of the Lake, dropping a body into a story like a stone into a puddle can be fascinating. When done wrong, it becomes less about the ripples and more about the audience being clubbed over the head with the stone.

As Vulture's Margaret Lyons pointed out, murder has become the rule rather than the exception on serialized drama, partly because of the runaway success of procedural shows -- your CSIs, your NCISesses -- but because it's become a shortcut to signifying moral sophistication, like a freshman lit student salting his prose with profanities in order to prove he's deep. 

I agree, to an extent, with Brody's views on The Godfather, at least in so far as that I recognize their studied greatness while preferring the looser, more unsettling Coppola of The Conversation. And it's true that TV is crowded with murderous male antiheroes struggling to keep their animal instincts in check. (I don't, however, agree that cinephiles can be split into "those who see the first two Godfathers as the great movies of the time and those who consider [John] Cassavetes's films to be the era's supreme creations," not least because Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye knocks both into a cocked hat.) 

Lately, Greenwald writes, television "seems overly interested in its newfound ability to push the envelope, to splash around the shallow end of the big-boy pool. It remains far too invested in the notion that our existence can have meaning only when we're reminded how fragile it is, that a life is only valuable when it's threatened with an abrupt end." He points to the success of Orange Is the New Black as a hopeful sign, one that, to extend his argument, has implications far beyond violence of the lack thereof. Despite its prison setting, Orange isn't a violent show -- "This isn't Oz," a guard tells a new arrival, riffing on both Dorothy Gale's fantasy land and the relentlessly grim HBO series. (If you're going after shows using uniform grittiness as a signifier of artistic seriousness, Tom Fontana's oeuvre ought to be in the mix, especially since Homicide: Life on the Street predates The Sopranos by several years.) But it's also not a show built around a male antihero, or even much of a central character. Its relationships evolve, but it rarely uses suspense to push the story forward, unless you count the suspense of hearing a well-told story and wanting to see it continue. Earning serious critical respectability has been a long, hard battle, but it's been won, or at least enough progress has been made for shows to explore all the different things "serious" can mean.

This article is related to: From the Wire, The Godfather, Orange is the New Black


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