Truly, I’m petrified. I’m longer on flames to snatch the opening of a Bollywood film. Multiplexes are losing their allure, they’re no longer the watering hole to head to on a Friday morning. Who cares about a Shaandaar or a Pyaar Ka Punchnama 2, and truth be told, even the more proficient of the ilk? Life savingly, there’s another fix — aka alternative — in the drawing room itself. No hefty ticket tab, no car parking snafus, no oversalted popcorn tubs, no infants in arms wailing like fire alarms, no nothing.
It’s Home Shanti Home now, connecting with recognisable stories, and with people whose highs and lows demand identification. And damn, when the searing seasons wind up, it’s akin to losing a surrogate family. Don’t do this to me guys, I moaned, when the endearing series, West Wing, ended. Don’t leave me bereft on my sofa, our relationship should be till tedium do us part.
Steadily the emotional quotient of the American TV series has intensified to such a degree that they command a universal appeal. Critical of the behind-the-scenes machinations of the White House, creating a milieu in which women wear the pants at work and at home, and where African and Asian immigrants have assimilated into the mainstream, a majority of the TV shows sparkle with dramatic intensity, plausibility and a post-modernistic narrative style. The camerawork is barely obtrusive.
This at a juncture when such niceties have gone missing from the everyday Hollywood movies. Hardware, alas, has replaced heart. Come to think of it the rapidly-rising popularity of America’s TV series would suggest a relentless cultural imperialism. Gratifyingly, though, the tele-smorgasbord is largely non-partisan — even vitriolically critical — of the body politic. Take the Macbethian House of Cards or the upright Madam Secretary seeking international peace, never mind the warmongers of Washington DC. Or Veep revolving around a well-intentioned but flakey vice-president a la Sarah Palin.
Firmer spines have been constructed for women characters like The Good Wife, who acquires autonomous authority despite the chauvinistic odds. New Age entertainment is particularly sharp in condemning homophobia. Evidence: the at-ease-with-her-bisexuality Archie Panjabi in the aforecited show or the smart-as-a-whip gay law student of How to Get Away with Murder. Creative teams scripting the ceaseless episodes appear to be aware that instead of underscoring the politically correct points, they must weave them into the dramaturgy seamlessly.
Kids of troubled marriages are observed with psychological acuity, notably the physically-challenged son of Breaking Bad. And those with a seventh sense use their evolved skills to detect elusive criminals, be it in The Mentalist, The Wire, Criminal Minds or Lie to Me. Period extravaganzas revolving around kings and knaves have acquired a new definition with the intricately plotted Game of Thrones and Spartacus: War of the Damned. Back to the here and now, media corporate stratagems versus truth-telling are exposed in Newsroom, which is all-too-applicable-to-the-state of journalism in India today. And ad honchos, who thrive in a deceptive zone, have been reflected in Mad Men, a martini-sloshed account of advertising ploys in yesteryear’s Madison Avenue.
Whichever the genre, the production design, the costumes and the morality or the lack of it, are dot-on. Incidentally, Britain’s Downton Abbey, Mr Selfridge and Sherlock have been equally mounted to the barest authentic detail. Indeed, a veritable laundry list of series entice binge-watching, sustained by content remarkable for knife-sharp editing, screenplay-dialogue writing, polished visuals and professional performances by a cast of some widely known, but largely little-known ensemble of actors.
Needless to assert, the superior technical as well as writing quality of American TV series isn’t an entirely new phenomenon. Shows from the earlier millennium dating back to the late 1950s to the ’90s have registered cult followings. Prime examples: Dr Kildare (a precursor of Grey’s Anatomy), The Fugitive (adapted into a Harrison Ford feature film), 77 Sunset Strip (prototypical of police investigators of crime thrillers), Miami Vice (also upgraded into a film), Twin Peaks (the learning slate for the surrealist films of David Lynch) and above all, The Sopranos whose godpapa essayed by the late James Gandolfini, recalled the heavyweights created by Francis Ford Coppola and Brian De Palma.
Understanding the home entertainment’s potential, quite a few A-list filmmakers have made their presence felt on the tele-screen: Martin Scorsese piloted the Boardwalk Empire. Ridley Scott has produced a clutch of series including The Company, Coma, The Good Wife and The Man in the High Castle. Steven Soderbergh has bloodied his hands with the surgery opus The Knick. Clearly, TV shows are no longer country cousins of cinema.
The initial impact of international TV series was palpable in India, courtesy Friends, which inspired the early films of Aditya Chopra and Karan Johar. Sex and the City in tandem with Gossip Girl set off fashion styles and bitchy argot among high-society wannabes. The Big Bang Theory is still hot with the segment of gizmo-savvy geeks. And Anil Kapoor’s second season of the Indian version of 24 is about to commence, while the Federal Bureau of Investigation actioner Quantico has added considerably to the market equity of Priyanka Chopra.
At various phases, the flavours of the season have encompassed a broad spectrum of genres ranging from Dexter, Breaking Bad (a template for good guys-turning-bad out of dire need), Lost and Fargo to Prison Break, Entourage, Suits, and Hannibal. According to Mumbai’s DVD rental library, Casablanca, the demand for American series is topped by 24 and Homeland.
In fact, Season 4 of Homeland which is airing on a satellite channel weekly, has toted an overwhelming fan base, never mind the objections that it has distorted conditions in the Arab world and Pakistan. Its solid narrative and a consistently bravura performance by Claire Danes have assured that it’s unmissable, especially if you have stayed with the series from the early seasons, which were far more expert and gripping.
Satellite channels have been airing TV series sporadically since a decade, but it’s only this year that a dedicated channel, Colors Infinity, was initiated with a publicity blitzkrieg. How the channel’s faring can’t be guesstimated at this stage. So let’s just say it’s a welcome move, offering a change from the Indian soaps and reality extravaganzas, which I wish could be deleted from the face of the earth.
The writer is a journalist, film critic and film director