Course Catalog

Small Screen Studies

  • “From Mr. Chips to Scarface”: The Legacy of Breaking Bad

    Breaking Bad (2008-2013)

    Taught by Paul Wright, Ph.D., Department of English, Cabrini University

    “The chemistry must be respected.”
    —Walter White,
    Breaking Bad

    In the most recent “golden age” of television, Breaking Bad looms large for many reasons: its consistently inventive writing and ground-breaking cinematography; the rare coalescence of an ensemble cast, writing team, and director lineup that would be the envy of any production; and a dramatic lead performance for the ages by Bryan Cranston. And yet, the series is often misconstrued, even by some of its most ardent admirers, as a wish-fulfillment exercise in immoral criminal fantasy. To the contrary, Breaking Bad is among the most seriously moral works of art in the American tradition. In its unsparing look at Walter White’s tragic fall—an arc famously described by creator Vince Gilligan as the protagonist’s transformation from “Mr. Chips to Scarface”—Breaking Bad is about the nature and consequences of choices that we all face every single day.

    Blending the genre conventions of the gangster film, the western, and the family drama (with some healthy doses of macabre comedy), Breaking Bad depicts the moral equivalent of the “butterfly effect” with a relentlessness of craft that would be appreciated by Sophocles or Shakespeare. In documenting the seductions, rationalizations, and perverse charisma of evil, Breaking Bad is a tragic drama that somehow fuses classical sensibilities and a richly contemporary take on how we live today. As our course assesses the many dimensions of the series, we will also tap into a range of cinematic, literary, and philosophical inspirations that play into the “chemical formula” of its unique achievement.

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  • “Made in America”: Rebranding Existentialism in The Sopranos

    The Sopranos (1999-2007)

    Taught by Paul Wright, Ph.D., Department of English, Cabrini University

    In this second course on The Sopranos, we consider the final three seasons of the series as a window into creator David Chase’s ultimate vision and approach to making cinematic art for the small screen. In exploring the last half of the absurdist tale of mob boss Tony Soprano and the various “families” competing for his attention, we will also be assessing the series as a whole, with special attention paid to its memorable and divisive finale. Self-consciously entitled “Made in America,” that final episode remains a willful confrontation with both hardcore fans and broader audiences who were often demanding a far more conventional gangster tale than they ultimately received.

    Throughout the series, Chase was striving to bring a European art house sensibility to American television—all in the service of a resolutely existentialist take on contemporary American values and experiences. The Sopranos has always been, at heart, about the ways we live—and sometimes wither—under the weight of American definitions of happiness and the expectations they invite. From this perspective, we will tackle the series as a decidedly cinematic enterprise that took television narrative in countless new directions that still shape the medium today, as well as a philosophical provocation whose power and urgency continue to resonate.

  • “What Happened to Gary Cooper?": Masculinity and Capitalism in The Sopranos

    The Sopranos (1999-2006)

    Taught by Paul Wright, Ph.D., Department of English, Cabrini University

    This course is the first in a series dedicated to David Chase's groundbreaking classic, The Sopranos (1999-2006), with each offering a different focus and approach to the show's achievements in characterization, writing, and visual style. In it, we will explore the program as a mirror held up to American masculinity in times of increasing uncertainty. As much as it is admired for its intricate plotting and depictions of mob figures, The Sopranos has always been, at heart, about the ways we live'and sometimes wither'under the weight of American definitions of happiness and the expectations they invite.

    Tony Soprano begins the series in cultural and self-recrimination by asking, 'What happened to Gary Cooper?' This nostalgic pining for a mythic, cinematic icon of masculinity encapsulates the series' preoccupations from the pilot episode to its finale. Tony and many other characters in the series (male and female) become touchstones for chronic anxieties about gender roles, consumer capitalism, and our overall capacity for joy in an era of moral and cultural dislocation.

    In each session, the class will view and discuss two important episodes from the series in conjunction with scholarly essays on both the show and related social issues. We will also trace how David Chase, as showrunner, advanced and complicated the program's handling of 'difficult men''Brett Martin's term for the defining paradigm of the most recent 'golden age' of television drama, of which The Sopranos is most certainly a canonical work.

  • Tracking The Wire

    The Wire (2002-8)

    Taught by Paul Wright, Ph.D., Department of English, Cabrini University

    David Simon and Ed Burns's medium-defining series, The Wire (2002-8), is acknowledged by many to be the finest work of dramatic television yet produced'and one of the best pieces of evidence in the case for great television's parity with great cinema. Yet for all its accolades, the show still reflects an urban America that most people do not wish to acknowledge, let alone address. In this tortured year of racial tension, violence, and questions about police power, The Wire is more timely than ever.
    In assessing the artistic vision of the show, we will examine select episodes that demonstrate a pseudo-documentary aesthetic that can be traced back to directors like Roberto Rossellini (Rome, Open City) and Gillo Pontecorvo (The Battle of Algiers). We will also explore other cultural influences that serve to remind us that the show is a conscious inheritor of two important literary traditions: social realism (e.g., Upton Sinclair's The Jungle) and classical Greek tragedy (e.g., Aeschylus and Sophocles). By doing so, we will endeavor to see why The Wire arguably remains television's most completely realized vision of political art.

    Please note: class screenings will take place in the theater whenever possible.