Breaking New Ground in Television – by Charlotte Canelli

Read the published version of Library Director Charlotte Canelli’s column in the October 11, 2013 edition of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin.

Last week the Albuquerque Journal published the obituary of Walter White who died “after a long battle with cancer.” And, of course, “a gunshot wound.”

Many of us knew Walter White quite well. In fact, over 10.3 million people knew Walter White so well that they began mourning him months ago, knowing for certain that the AMC television show (Breaking Bad) that made him a household name would not end well. At least not for Walter.

Serious television viewers began following Breaking Bad at the moment that it premiered in January 2008. Typically, I was late to the party. Audience members like me, the latecomers, doubled the viewing figures for Breaking Bad in 2012. Maybe it was because stars Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul persisted in winning Emmy’s for best actor and best supporting actor. Or perhaps it was the incredible hype on the Internet. Or … it was just a compellingly good show. At the recent September 22, 2013 Primetime Emmy Awards, Breaking Bad won as 2013 best television drama just one week before the last episode aired to those above-mentioned 10.3 million viewers on September 29th.

More than a few residents of Fairfield, Connecticut freaked out mid-August this past summer when a cablevision glitch blacked out the town’s television reception. “A flurry” of frantic calls hit the emergency 911 center just when Breaking Bad was scheduled to air. The police were not amused.

Breaking Bad’s fascinating themes of the desert badlands of New Mexico, the good teacher- husband-father gone wrong, and the drug world of methamphetamine were several of the addicting elements of the series. Mr. White’s sidekick, Jesse Pinkman brought out the enabling parent or friend in all of us as we hoped and prayed that Jesse would grow up and stop with the foul language and poor life choices.

Of course, over 13.5 million viewers watched the end of ABC’s hit drama Lost in 2010. And nearly 12 million watchers viewed the finale of The Sopranos in 2007. Along with Breaking Bad, these two shows ended in their sixth season. While it might not prove that six is a magic number, what it does prove is that series television has captivated many of us.

Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black hit the series scene this past summer, and all the episodes were available instantly on July 11, 2013. OITNB (as it is abbreviated) is based upon the 2010 memoir “Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison” written by Piper Kerman.

The true story is that Smith College alumnae Piper Kerman was sentenced to fifteen months in Danbury, Connecticut’s federal women’s prison for a crime (transporting drug money) she committed many years before. Leaving her boyfriend, family and respectable life behind, Piper was forced to make amends and endure her prison sentence.

The Netflix original television series took quite a few liberties with Kerman’s story. The actual book seems to some extent tame compared to the television drama. In the Netflix series, Piper Kerman becomes Piper Chapman and her relationship with the woman who was responsible for Piper’s conviction is embellished. Fellow inmates, prison counselors, wardens and guards make for a colorful cast of characters that might make up any woman’s nightmare.

The astonishing thing about Orange is the New Black isn’t just its instant popularity. In the first of the twelve episodes, many of us got hooked. The themes of class division, female friendships, and women of color from various backgrounds produce compelling television. Netflix renewed OITNB for a second season but addicted viewers have to wait for a 2014 season to air.

The Dexter series is similarly based on books available in the library. Jeff Lindsay wrote the first novel (Darkly Dreaming Dexter, 2004), and it was quickly picked up for the Showtime television series that premiered in 2006. While the series followed the premise of the first book – a sociopathic Dexter Morgan ridding the world of ‘bad guys’ – the rest of the series of novels do not follow the television story lines. (Lindsay has written six more mystery novels, ending with Dexter’s Final Cut recently published last month, September 2013).

The final episode of Dexter, in its eighth season, aired a week before Breaking Bad’s finale. Dexter never saw the audience numbers that other shows captured. Whether it was the quirkiness of the storyline, the gruesome plotlines, the less-than-magical number of seasons, or the fact that it aired on a premium channel, the Dexter finale was watched by less than 3 million viewers on Showtime. Dexter, however, became a household name in its own right.
(For serious Dexter fans, philosophers Richard Greene, George Reisch and Rachel Robison-Greene dissect the character of Dexter Morgan and Harry’s Code in Dexter and Philosophy: Mind Over Spatter, 2011).

While the good news is that libraries across the state have all of the first five seasons of Breaking Bad in their lending collections, the sixth season is currently only available in an all-episode collector’s version. The release of the first season of Orange Is the New Black on DVD is pending. In the meantime, the hardback and paperback versions of the book are in high demand in the library. The last season of Dexter will be released on DVD in November and library viewers will be able to catch up with the series then.

I realize that I’ve left out dozen of television series that have others of you hooked. Our librarians with other favorites – Downton Abbey, Homeland, Mad Men, Game of Thrones – will hopefully write about them in future columns.

In the meantime, I’m hooked on the newest political drama series on HBO, The Newsroom. It premiered in June 2012, and Jeff Daniels, as news anchor Will McAvoy, won the best actor in a drama Primetime Emmy award last month. The Newsroom is written by West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin, and the amazing pace of its dialog has many of us watching episodes a second time to catch every subtle nuance. The drama features the events from behind the scenes of the fictional ACN network –or Atlantis Cable News. It includes complicated personal stories and the struggle for honesty and authentic news. The complete first season of The Newsroom is available in libraries; the final episode of season two aired on September 3 and it should be available on DVD before The Newsroom continues with season 3 in 2014.

If you need help requesting these DVDs or finding them in Minuteman libraries, please call the Morrill Memorial Library.

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