Consistently lauded as one of the greatest series of all time, Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad had what is arguably the single strongest final season of any show from this most recent “golden age” of television. Often misunderstood as a wish-fulfillment exercise in immoral criminal fantasy, Breaking Bad is among the most seriously moral works of art in the American tradition—a claim never staked more clearly than in its final sixteen episodes, which will be the sole focus of this second course on the series.
In its unsparing look at Walter White’s tragic fall, the show blends the genre conventions of the gangster film, the western, and the family drama (with some healthy doses of brilliant, macabre comedy). In documenting the seductions, rationalizations, and perverse charisma of evil, Breaking Bad is a uniquely American drama that nonetheless would have been appreciated by tragedians of the past. Indeed, the series retains its potent “chemistry” with viewers in part because it synthesizes elements of Greek tragedy, Shakespeare, Arthur Miller, Scarface, and The Godfather, among so many other influences. In this course, we will explore the conclusion of a series that uniquely fuses classical sensibilities with a richly contemporary take on how we live today, and engage in a detailed analysis of “Ozymandias,” the antepenultimate episode of the series, which many critics have hailed as the finest single hour of dramatic television in the medium’s history.
“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.
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.
"I can't spend the rest of my life coming into this stinking apartment every ten minutes to pore over the excruciating minutiae, of . . . Every. Single. Daily. Event." —Elaine Benes (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), “The Bizarro Jerry” (Episode 8.3)
As co-creator of Seinfeld, Larry David consistently honored his now infamous “no hugging, no learning” mantra in steering the writers’ room and in responding to network notes on what remains television's most influential, if not greatest, sitcom of all time. “Sitcom” seems almost too quaint a word for a show whose slow-rolling irony and Pavlovian wordplay managed to torch most every trope of the format imaginable at the time of the show’s premiere in 1989—many of which are still used by lesser sitcoms to this day.
Yet for all of Seinfeld’s willingness to embrace the absurdity of the “excruciating minutiae” of mundane experience, the show was never the cliché by which it is now best known. The image of Seinfeld as the primordial “show about nothing” was playfully courted by the series itself when its fourth season initiated a year-long story arc about Jerry Seinfeld and George Costanza’s efforts to produce their own comedy pilot—much as their real-life counterparts Seinfeld and David had done in bringing this most unlikely series to air in the first place. This sitcom-within-a-sitcom masterstroke of meta-narrative aside, Seinfeld was never quite “about nothing,” but rather about the sheer existential enormity of all the little nothings of our day-to-day struggle to control our environments—in every arena from romantic relationships to family, the workplace, and the social minefield that is life in the postmodern city.
In his powerful 1903 essay, “The Metropolis and Mental Life,” sociologist Georg Simmel argued that “the deepest problems of modern life flow from the attempt of the individual to maintain the independence and individuality of his existence against the sovereign powers of society.” For Simmel, this unsentimental truth suggested yet another; namely, “that every event, however restricted to this superficial level it may appear, comes immediately into contact with the depths of the soul, and that the most banal externalities are . . . bound up with the final decisions concerning the meaning and the style of life.” Simmel's insight encapsulates perfectly the divine madness of any truly great Seinfeld episode—holding a mirror to a universe where the superficial and the banal collide with multiple, intertwining plot threads so intricately crafted as to be the television comedy equivalent of a Rube Goldberg machine. Be prepared to laugh and think in equal measure as we explore some of the show's signal achievements and its enduring power to shape American culture.
When audiences learned that Vince Gilligan had greenlit a prequel to Breaking Bad focusing on the rise of “criminal attorney” Saul Goodman (portrayed by comedian Bob Odenkirk), many expected Better Call Saul would be lighter, sillier fare. They may have forgotten just how darkly funny the first show had been, even amid its modern take on Greek tragedy. They also underestimated the gifts of Odenkirk the dramatic actor.
Viewers soon discovered that the new series was just as ambitious as its predecessor. Like Breaking Bad, it was a tale of character transformation, tracing the descent of decent-hearted attorney Jimmy McGill into the predatory and corrupt Saul Goodman. Michael McKean plays Jimmy’s brother and bitter rival, whose credentials and community standing put his sibling to shame as an eternal pretender. In time, their dynamic develops as much poignance as that of the brothers in On the Waterfront, a clear touchstone in a TV series in love with its myriad cinematic roots.
It is in fact the love of cinema as both art and trickery that informs Jimmy’s increasingly shady dealings; in the end, Saul Goodman begins to emerge from Jimmy as the masterful orchestrator and choreographer of scams—what Martin Scorsese has called the “director as illusionist.” Our course will tackle Better Call Saul as what many deem a true companion piece to the original, and to some, a superior achievement.
Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men (2007-2015) was one of the pioneering series of television’s current golden age, praised for the complexity of its characters, its stunning production design, and its nuanced take on the milestones of the 1960s. This class will explore Mad Men’s nostalgia for a bygone era, while also examining its more critical perspective on the relationship between the past and the present, considering the real events, trends, and attitudes interwoven through the show’s narratives.
With Mad Men’s specific depiction of gender in mid-century America as our main focus, we will discuss the series and its characters in relation to such contexts as suburbanization, the sexual revolution, and second-wave feminism, and in terms of their ongoing relevance for women today. Of particular interest will be the complexities of the program’s female characters, the nature of the male characters’ sexism, and the Madison Avenue ad campaigns that relentlessly objectified women. The course will end by refracting these gender issues through the lens of race, juxtaposing the program's unusual racialization of Jewish women with its more common erasure of African-American women from history, and assessing just how well Mad Men’s depiction of the past represents concerns of the present.
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.
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.