For years, the novelist resisted the lure of TV. And then he watched all 86 episodes of The Sopranos, followed by Gomorrah and Mad Men. He salutes the most vital writers of our culture
If you really want to know about it, I will own up. I’ve barely left the house in the last 18 months because I’ve been watching what for me seems like a lot of TV, around five hours a night. And I can’t say that a moment of it – apart from, say, the second season of Mr Robot – feels like wasted time. There are scenes in Mad Men and Transparent that are as accomplished and lovely, as profound and truthful, as anything I’ve seen in the cinema. And the episode in Breaking Bad where the former chemistry teacher Walter White buries the money he has accumulated by selling crystal meth – transforming the spoils into waste or shit – is one of the most illuminating in all art.
Apart from the news, sport and documentaries about the Beatles, I hadn’t watched much television since the 1980s. Nor, as a young man, did I consider writing for TV. It was too compromised; and, with a few exceptions, the overall standard was low. As for the movies, many of the film directors wanted to be artists rather than storytellers, a vanity that ruined many directors and displaced writers. The screenwriter’s best hope was to resemble a back seat driver, yelling mostly unheard ideas from behind. It looked as if the truest test of the good dramatist was his or her ability to script plays.
Vince Gilligan struggled to get the show off the ground and sustain it – until Netflix stepped in. Now the streaming giant is on top, and Breaking Bad’s legacy is assured
Ten years ago, Breaking Bad made its TV debut. A comic drama starring the dad from Malcolm in the Middle, it answered the question middle-aged men had asked of themselves for generations: what would happen if I quit my boring job and became an outlaw? The answer, it appeared, involved drugs, mobile homes and being stranded in the desert in your pants.
First impressions of Vince Gilligan’s now seminal drama may have been misleading, however. By the end of the pilot episode the protagonist, Walter White, had murdered a man. His initial adventures may have had a slapstick air to them, but it soon became difficult to laugh.
Why is Mad Men’s second season the most important? How come Buffy’s fourth outing was its best? We asked our critics to define TV’s best seasons
- This article contains opinions some may find offensive … and spoilers for every show mentioned
Long before it became fashionable for a TV show to change setting and storyline between seasons, Richard Curtis and Ben Elton’s historical sitcom visited the 15th, 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Then, in the cunningly titled Blackadder Goes Forth, they settled in 1917 in the French trenches of the first world war. With Rowan Atkinson’s Captain Edmund Blackadder awaiting orders from Stephen Fry’s insane General Melchett to run towards German gunfire with Private Baldrick (Tony Robinson) and the stupidly patriotic Lieutenant George (Hugh Laurie), the series is the best of the Blackadder quartet. Its last episode is the single greatest achievement of TV Britcom. Watching the final 29 minutes again before writing this (probably the sixth time I’ve seen it) still delivered the astonishment of a half-hour comedy in which it is no plot-spoiler to say that every major character except one (Fry’s, secure in his chateau) is doomed to die horribly. ML