Rob Patterson

Gold Nuggets in Wasteland

In the future -- that is, if we have one -- this will be seen as the golden age of television. Okay, laugh if you must… get it out of your system.

That's not to say that everything on television today is golden by any means. The medium largely remains Newton Minow's "vast wasteland," even more than he imagined given the plethora of cable offerings and all the banal, inane and downright silly stuff one can come across as you surf the channels.

But the junk just ups the proverbial contrast on the TV set when one comes across the gems. I'd even turned off my cable service in the mid 1990s after too much time with the remote in hand going click, yawn, click, ugh, click, ick, click, yawn, click, yech … Then along came The Sopranos and after getting hooked by the first season on tape from a friend I had to hook the cable back up and get the series as soon as each episode played.

And yes, I am sad to see my favorite crime family go, but loved the series ending. I don't buy the theory that it leaves the story open for a movie, though. I think it leaves it open for a return on TV after James Gandolfini enjoys a well-deserved break from Tony and an opportunity to establish his dramatic bone fides beyond that compelling character.

Besides, HBO -- the vanguard of the new quality, reality and surreality on today's TV -- has much more to offer and in store. I've been of the school that The Sopranos is the best television series ever but not unaware that The Wire has earned that same praise from fellow aesthetes.

I finally started watching the most recent season on HBO On Demand and was immediately hooked, and then retroactively caught up on the past seasons. And now I can't wait for the new season, its date yet to be announced, but soon please. Meanwhile, HBO's Big Love has finally caught fire in its second season with its tale of a polygamous Mormon-style suburban family caught between modern life and the bizarre cult community from which patriarch Bill Henrickson and second wife Nicki came.

And then, just another series it had its final episode, I got hooked yet again by a show -- The Gilmore Girls. As part of some PR writing I was doing, I spoke with a Gilmore Girls producer who then sent me the show's first season on DVD.

I call it "a chick flick that guys can dig." The story of an independent single mother and her very worldly and wise teenage daughter, it's a beautifully balanced combination of comedy, drama and romance. The characters are delightfully sketched, and the writing is superb -- peppered with smart pop cultural as well as historical and intellectual references, clever quips and sharp ripostes.

What does all the above have to do with progressive politics? What makes the best of today's TV so golden is that the concepts color outside of the standard social lines that characterized TV's first golden age of the late 1950s through mid 1960s.

The Sopranos raised moral ambiguity to high art and underscored how seeming normality and truly disturbing violence and evil intermingle in the fabric of everyday life. The Wire portrays American urban life with chilling reality and unsentimental empathy, spotlighting the tragedy of poverty, the utter failure of "the war on drugs," the humanity as well as the cynicism behind the blue curtain of police work, and the disturbing vagaries of modern municipal politics.

Big Love celebrates true family values through the prism of an unconventional and in fact illegal family unit. And similarly, The Gilmore Girls shows that an unmarried single mother who got pregnant at 16 can become über-Mom while contrasting the eccentric characters of a small Connecticut town with the stuffy upper middle class milieu that its heroine, Lorelei Gilmore -- my current role model for the woman of my dreams -- escaped from.

After watching the first season set I got, I was off to the video store -- yeah, DVDs are the medium today, but "DVD store" just doesn't have the right ring -- to indulge my new addiction into the next seasons. My only frustration is that the final season won't likely yet be available on DVD by the time I am ready to watch it.

And the accessibility options I mention here -- "on demand" channels, DVDs and even some shows available online -- contribute as well to this being TV's golden age. We live in a world where the family no longer gathers around the set for Father Knows Best, and technology helps us busy modern folks still follow those series that grab our attention.

All of these shows display cinematic techniques and dramatic and acting qualities. Yet television also offers, within the ongoing serial format, opportunities for subtle yet profound character development that the 90 minutes to two hours of the average film simply cannot match.

The best of today's television doesn't show a Norman Rockwellian ideal of American life as the TV of my youth did. Instead, it shows us how we actually live and how real families operate, survive and even thrive. The Sopranos ended on what looked like a picture perfect family moment … but with ominous undertones, and no clear-cut resolution. True life has come to TV, and as I've said before, so-called reality TV is nothing of the sort. But some of the series created there days are -- even when they sometimes get downright bizarre -- are as real as it gets.

Yep, the boob tube had grown a brain and developed a heart in such series as those mentioned here that reflects the true polis of America and the genuine politics of modern life. Turn on, tune in, and be more than entertained.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email

From The Progressive Populist, August 1, 2007

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