Prestige Television: The New Class

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With Mad Men wrapping up, in an extremely satisfying manner, last week, it leaves Game of Thrones as the last standing member of a certain group of television shows, that also included Breaking Bad, that were considered the pinnacle of what TV could be.  I know we all here at Everything Action would put Justified in that class as well, but with that also ending this year, there’s a power vacuum in the prestige TV space but there’s a number of shows that are on the cusp or should already be in that league.

The one comes to mind first and foremost is FX’s The Americans.  It shares a number of similarities to Mad Men including an incredible attention to detail for their respective time periods and a main character (or characters in The Americans with Phillip and Elizabeth Jensen) who harbor a secret that eats away at them on the inside but has to be forced down in order for them to function in the outside world.  For Phillip and Elizabeth, it’s even higher stakes than Don Draper, because if their secret is found out, they could be tried and executed for being Soviet spies.  The acting on The Americans is the equal of any show you want to put it against, with Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys able to deliver a range of emotions with just a single look but they also have to constantly switch their personalities to achieve their various espionage goals.  The show is also wonderfully gray as, in any other show or movie, Phillip and Elizabeth would be the villains but you truly care about what happens to them even as they work to overthrow America.

Another show that already has a leg up in entering that elite prestige group is AMC’s Better Call Saul, the prequel to alumnist Breaking Bad.  Just as visually rich and brilliantly written as it’s predecessor, Saul also benefits from being a little lighter in tone, as we’re following huckster lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) (who we learn started out by his real name, Jimmy McGill) but there’s still plenty of drama, especially a gut wrenching revelation about why Jimmy never had a shot at becoming a partner at his brother Chuck’s law firm, even after he fought and scraped his way through online law school.  Better Call Saul also lets us reunite with one of the best and most bad ass characters on TV, Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), whose backstory is fleshed out alongside Saul’s.  Banks is incredible in everything he’s in but he really gets to the chance to dig into Mike in Better Call Saul, with one episode devoted exclusively to telling the story of how Mike ended up in New Mexico.

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There’s two shows that I think a lot of critics and viewers would say are already in that elite group, which are FX’s Fargo and HBO’s True Detective, but I think we have to see what their second seasons bring, as both shows are taking the sort of “anthology” route and featuring all new characters and stories.  It’s tough act to follow for both shows as True Detective featured Matthew McConaughey at his absolute best in the singular Rust Cohle and the ensemble of Fargo were across the board great, with Billy Bob Thorton just slightly edging out everyone else.  Fargo’s success is even more impressive because it had to live up to the expectations of the classic Coen Brothers movie but the show easily matched the darkly comic quirk of the movie while upping the unexpected, brutal violence.  If they can both nail their upcoming seasons as hard as the first seasons did, then there will be no doubt that both of them belong in that top tier.  Both Fargo and True Detective’s first seasons were so good, that there is just as much potential for these upcoming seasons to be slight disappointing but from what we’ve seen of True Detective Season 2 and heard about Fargo Season 2, I really doubt they are going to be anything but phenomenal.

The last show, to me, that belongs in that prestige pantheon is NBC’s Hannibal.  Just visually alone, Hannibal is the best looking show on television. The various crime scenes are all shot in a way that makes them both beautiful and horrific at the same time and there’s always striking imagery as we enter the mind of protagonist Will Graham (Hugh Dancy).  There’s no logical reason that Hannibal turned out as incredible as it has, it came onto NBC when they were basically creatively bankrupt and in a ratings nosedive and the last time anyone had seen Hannibal, it was in the god awful Hannibal Rises.  Through a combination of the aforementioned visuals, absurd violence for a network show and incredible acting from Dancy and Mads Mikkelsen, Hannibal puts almost every other crime show on TV to shame.  There’s a tension that’s created through the score and the knowledge we have about Hannibal that the other characters don’t know that is unlike anything else on TV, along with the visuals, it’s like a nightmare that you don’t want to wake up from because it’s so fascinating even though it’s also horrific.

There’s a few other shows with potential, like Cinemax’s The Knick and Showtime’s Penny Dreadful but I think those five I listed, along with Game of Thrones, are the pinnacle of what dramatic television can do right now.  Do you agree or disagree and are there any other shows you feel deserve to be mentioned in that top tier?  Let us know on Facebook and Twitter

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