Cable and PBS: They make TV worth watching

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Then along came “Deadwood,” on HBO, and as author Sepinwall writes, you get the best example of what happens when you take a great writing talent (David Milch) and remove all his filters. A western unlike any other, Deadwood features epic profanity, world-class acting and the search for a moral code in a town without laws.

And if “Deadwood” isn’t for everyone, then the finest series ever written for HBO, “The Wire,” surely is for a select few. Sepinwall says that many friends say to him, “I’m ready to watch ‘The Wire’ now” — and the show has been off the air for years.

Difficult to “get,” sometimes challenging to follow, the show went from just a great crime story to “a work of enduring literature,” Sepinwall writes. “It isn’t a show about cops and drug dealers but a much broader look at the death of an American city.” Amen to that. I’m now watching “The Wire” for the second time, all five seasons. Don’t be thinking you can watch “The Wire” and text at the same time. It’s hard enough to watch and breathe at the same time.

TV is on my mind because I’ve been teaching a course on television and the emergence of the golden age (cable). You need to be old enough to remember dramas like “The United States Steel Hour” to fully appreciate the resurgence of quality that cable represents.

After years of wandering in the wasteland, we have “In Treatment” and Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert and “The Girls” and “Veep” and “Newsroom” and “Oz” and “Boardwalk Empire and “Six Feet Under. ” The writing on cable is edgy and sometimes offensive and not always good, but it’s fresh and risky rather than predictable, and sometimes it is great.

I didn’t fully appreciate the richness of some of this work until I began talking about it with my class. Back to the groundbreaking Sopranos: The men in the series are lowlifes, but they don’t pretend to be anything else. The women bake the cookies and rock the babies, all the while denying that their comfortable life is subsidized with blood money.

Tony’s mother is a passive-aggressive Lady Macbeth who conspired against her own son. We learn that she never loved Tony, and that may account for his sociopathology. But what accounts for hers? When does anyone take responsibility for his or her own behavior? Can anyone ever change?
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