Nice places to visit: How some dramas remain compelling while falling short of greatness
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There are few shows I look forward to each week more than The Walking Dead. Don’t get me wrong. The Walking Dead has a lot of problems. Its characters are lackluster. Its plotting is haphazard. Its storytelling is often weak. Yet I find the world of the show so enthralling that I happily waste an hour every week watching people I don’t particularly care about do things I don’t find all that interesting. The Walking Dead has a feel unlike any other show on TV right now, a sort of grim despondency crossed with unfounded optimism. It really does feel like the end of the world has come and gone and left these people standing here. It’s created a world of its own, and that’s not something that can be said of much, much better shows.
In short, I enjoy disappearing into The Walking Dead week after week. The same can be said of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire—which had its second season finale this past Sunday—and Hell On Wheels, AMC’s freshman Western. It can even be said of ABC’s clumsy but endearing Once Upon A Time, where trying to figure out which fairy tale characters and tropes every single little thing within the show’s universe are supposed to be is half the fun. None of these shows are “great,” with only Boardwalk even coming close, but there’s something incredibly involving and addictive about them all the same.
These shows seem to inspire a lot of anger among their viewers all the same. Because so many of them have the rough trappings of quality dramas—Walking Dead and Hell On Wheels come from the network that brought you Mad Men and Breaking Bad, while Boardwalk Empire boasts a creator who worked on The Sopranos, and Once Upon A Time’s creators worked on Lost—it can be frustrating that they don’t attain the heights of those other, better shows. Why waste time on shows like these, particularly when all four air on Sundays, a night that still features such terrific, can’t-miss dramas as The Good Wife and Homeland? Why watch shows that seem content to be kind of dumb and masquerade as something profound while never taking the sorts of risks that might actually mark them as legitimately daring shows?
The answer lies in the world of the sitcom. For years now, I’ve been dividing sitcoms into shows that aim for greatness and try to push the boundaries of the form, and shows that just want to create a bunch of characters that are fun to hang out with. If Louie wants to change what television is capable of, something like Happy Endings just wants to let me hang out with my television friends on a weekly basis and laugh at the clever things they say. If you go back through television history, this divide has existed from the earliest days of the medium. I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners invented the sitcom form as we know it, but Leave It To Beaver created a warm, gentle space and a family anyone would want to be a part of. All In The Family offered an abrasive, inventive take on the American family, but Happy Days, particularly in its earlier, better seasons, presented a warm, friendly look at adolescence in the ’50s. Seinfeld changed the idea of what made for good sitcom fodder, but Friends took that basic structure and built a warm, loving show about hanging out with your best pals.
You might notice I’ve used the word “warm” in my description of every one of these “hang-out” shows. That’s because a hang-out show doesn’t work unless it creates a group of people the audience will legitimately want to spend time with. That means loading up on the cozy closeness and the loving friendships and downplaying the sharper edges and nastier elements. Nobody needed to see Jerry Seinfeld and George hug, but Friends only worked if you believed all six cast members might embrace at any given moment. In some ways, doing a good hang-out show is even harder than doing an ambitious and innovative program, because it’s so easy to overshoot the “warm” mark and make something that’s treacly, overly sentimental, and maudlin. (There are, of course, plenty of sitcoms that are both hang-out shows and legitimately ambitious television programs. Parks & Recreation may be trying new things within the sitcom form, but it’s also built a small town that would be a lot of fun to live in.)
Naturally, of course, The Walking Dead isn’t trying to create a place where people forgive each other’s small foibles and end each episode in a giant group hug. It’s trying to create a show where any given cast member (or guest star) might be devoured by flesh-eating zombies at any given minute. Neither Hell On Wheels nor Boardwalk Empire is particularly driven by warm-hearted impulses, either, and if Once Upon A Time’s small town in Maine is going to turn into Stars Hollow, Connecticut, from Gilmore Girls, it’s taking its sweet time in doing so.
But just as the hang-out sitcom emphasizes character dynamics and ensemble interplay, the two things most vital to a good sitcom, the hang-out drama emphasizes the setting (or “world”) and premise of the show, the two things most vital to a good drama. This is not to say that good dramas don’t have great characters or that good comedies don’t have great premises and settings. But just as a sitcom can coast on a lazy premise and non-existent setting if the characters are good, a drama can coast on one-dimensional characters if the premise is interesting enough.
And therein lies the appeal of the “hang-out drama”: These shows build worlds that are fun to get lost in, even if the people living in those worlds aren’t always compelling. They provide moods and scenarios that can’t be found on your average crime procedural or even on a more realistic quality drama like Breaking Bad. The sensation of watching The Walking Dead is that of letting yourself get lost inside of an unusual, haunted world for an hour every week. It’s a world that bears no relation to our own, and it’s a world where the usual moral dilemmas are heightened and highlighted by the utter lack of civilization surrounding them. In this regard, the show’s a good match for Hell On Wheels, which also takes place on the edge of civilization, in a world where people fill broad archetypes because that’s what’s required of them. It’s another show that invites the audience to luxuriate in a time and place that won’t be readily familiar to it. Once Upon A Time also derives most of its pleasure from transporting viewers to a place they probably wouldn’t get to visit normally—in this case a remote, beautiful small town in Maine, albeit one populated by fairy-tale characters.
It’s Boardwalk Empire that best exemplifies how a drama striving for the quality of the top-tier TV shows can fill in some of the gaps in its DNA with hang-out-show patches. Boardwalk is much better than the other three shows discussed above, but even in its much better second season, it was filled with moments that ultimately felt hollow, particularly considering its pedigree. It’s a good show that seems permanently poised on the edge of becoming a great show, a show that often seems to be the simulacrum of one of the best dramas of all time. It’s, in many ways, a Dickensian-village version of a great TV show, recapturing much of what makes so many other shows so terrific, but keeping audiences at such a remove that all we can do is look down amidst the many, many, many handsomely produced locations and imagine what it might be like to really get obsessed with them.
This is not to say Boardwalk doesn’t have its excellent qualities. The show has a handful of involving characters who’d be at home on any quality drama—half-faced assassin Richard Harrow, for one—and the plotting in its second season has gotten much better, with fewer scenes where the show’s themes are stated outright and better use of subtext. But it’s still a frustrating show in many ways, one that seems more interested in proving its own greatness than telling a propulsive story or inventing characters with new and intriguing motivations. Most of the main characters here seem like secondhand versions of better characters from other shows—Jimmy Darmody a classier Jesse Pinkman, Margaret Schroeder a slightly more conflicted Carmela Soprano, Nelson Van Alden a more religious renegade-cop type, of the sort that made The Shield so good.
Enter the show’s hang-out qualities, which save it time and again. Boardwalk has built such a huge, elaborate world that it’s all but impossible to not want to get lost in it. Bored with what’s happening in Nucky Thompson’s place? Well, then it’s time to dart off to Chicago or the White House or New York. One of the chief reasons Boardwalk has never been able to take the leap from very good to great is a lack of focus, an inability to really drill down and look at what matters. Paradoxically, that lack of focus is also what keeps the show involving through the long, dull stretches in the middle of any given episode. Where a show like Breaking Bad might cut to something happening across town, Boardwalk will cut to something happening halfway across the country. The scope both limits and enhances the show, making it enervating and vaguely addicting.
Ideally, of course, dramas will provide an interesting world and a fleet of great characters. Consume too many hang-out dramas—just like you might consume too many hang-out sitcoms—and it all starts to feel like empty calories. If the producers of Justified and Game Of Thrones are able to sustain rich, complicated worlds filled with vivid characters, then other shows should be able to, too. But at the same time, there’s nothing wrong with finding a place unlike any place on this earth and just wanting to hang out there for a little while, killing zombies or dallying with gangsters. Isn’t that one of the reasons we have fiction, after all?