Alan: It’s the Citizen Kane of TV drama.
Matt: It probably is, and not just in the sense of being influential. There was not a single thing about Citizen Kane that had not been done somewhere else before, but the genius lay in the fact that it had never before been done all in one film, guided by one sensibility.
Alan: What [executive producers] Steven Bochco and Michael Kozoll were doing on Hill Street was lifting things from soap operas and putting them in the context of a police drama.
Matt: The open-ended, ongoing stories, the ensemble nature of it, the way the community itself was the focus.
Matt: It’s also interesting that so many of the so-called “quality dramas,” the dramas that are descended from Hill Street and that critics think of as recappable, are extremely male in their focus. They may or may not have strong female characters built in as well, but often they’re male-focused. And more often than not they’re built around crime or violence.
Matt: Is there a bias within television towards male-centered stories with crime and violence?
Alan: There very clearly is. When Carolyn Strauss told me that HBO’s decision of what to do as their first show after Oz came down to The Sopranos or something by Winnie Holzman, the creator of My So-Called Life, about a female business executive at a toy company, I immediately stopped paying attention to the interview for a good five minutes, because all I was thinking about was an alternate timeline where this Winnie Holzman show was the next big HBO show. I was asking myself, would the other show have spawned imitators? Or would it not have, because “Female business executive at a toy company” is not as inherently cool as “New Jersey wiseguy in therapy”?
Matt: Maybe not as “cool,” but potentially as interesting.
Alan: Oh, I think it could have been great. But commercially—and in terms of the interests of network executives, most of whom are men—the crime shows, the antihero shows, tend to be more appealing in the abstract.
Matt: And also, let’s be honest here, there is this thing known as “escapism.” Escapism doesn’t just mean you tune in each week and get to ride the unicorn to Magicland and kill the dragon. It means you get to experience situations and emotions that maybe could happen, but that you the viewer probably could not experience in daily life. In that programming scenario that you recount, one of those proposed HBO shows clearly is more escapist than the other.
I remember reading an interview with the filmmaker Paul Schrader from about 1982. He said, and I’m paraphrasing, “To make an impact internationally, your film has to be seen by millions of people, and with some exceptions, the only kinds of films that have a chance of reaching an audience of that size are ones that have sex, violence, or both.” And that’s why so many of Schrader’s films had sex, violence, or both. It wasn’t only because those were the kinds of stories Schrader liked to tell. There were commercial considerations, too. He wanted his films to be seen and discussed. He needed eyeballs.
Alan: That totally makes sense.
I remember when you and I split the Sopranos beat at the Star-Ledger—the kinds of letters we used to get. Certainly there were people who watched the show for its Fellini-esque aspects and the other odd things Chase was doing, but there were a lot more people who were tuning in to see somebody get whacked.
Matt: And they were upset when an episode didn’t give them that.
Alan: Exactly. “What the fuck are these dreams, man? Why are we seeing Tony’s dreams?”
Alan: Yes. There are viewers who go, “Heisenberg is badass.” That’s the level at which they watch.
Matt: The negative reaction to Skyler—
Alan: Yeah, I know!
Matt: I don’t have any patience for people who insist that Skyler is a bad, boring, or unpleasant character. What she’s doing is throwing cold water on the macho fantasies of people who dig Heisenberg. Even now that she’s morally compromised, she’s still the conscience of that show, more so than any other major character.
Alan: She has unfortunately become an emblem of the misogynistic backlash that some of these shows get.