Locating the Formula for Great Prestige TV

By  · Published on September 25th, 2013

Here’s one of my pet peeves: critics describing the setting of a TV show or film as a “character,” the way Manhattan was routinely called a “fifth character” in Sex and the City. Describing a location as a “character” is supposed to be a compliment – it means the writers, set designers, and directors have done their job of building a convincing world – but to me it usually just sounds like a disparagement of TV shows and films that don’t bother to feature a unique background.

The current “golden age of television,” which dawned after a conspicuous New Yorkification and Californization of the TV landscape in the 1990s, has largely taken place outside of the five boroughs and the Golden State. The Sopranos, the herald of the prestige cable drama era, took place in northern New Jersey – geographically close but culturally far from the big city. Breaking Bad has achieved brilliant cinematography in New Mexico, while The Wire and Friday Night Lights accomplished in-depth explorations of why Baltimore and the fictional town of Dillon, Texas, are the way they are. Justified gets great mileage out of its unique and detailed portrayal of Harlan County. All the above shows were filmed on location – enriching TV as a visual medium.

Even Mad Men, The Shield, and Sex and the City, which do take place in America’s two cultural capitals, have grander ambitions regarding their settings. The action in those shows takes place mostly in relatively small neighborhoods of their respective cities. Thus, Don Draper’s Manhattan isn’t Jerry Seinfeld’s. Vic Mackey’s LA isn’t even in the same universe as Beverly Hills, 90210.

It appears, then, that the formula for cable prestige dramas is as follows: antihero protagonist + scramble for resources in a crumbling society + unique American setting.

The formula is, of course, no safeguard against failure: AMC’s Low Winter Sun, for example, features a main character who’s a homicidal cop, a serious problem amidst city-wide ruin, and a heckuva symbolic setting in urban Detroit – yet still flounders. But the continued popularity of that formula for prestige has resulted in a proliferation of great dramas that take world-building to great dimensions usually not seen outside of futuristic science fiction. Taken in aggregate, cable prestige dramas make for a compelling and diverse map to America’s various (violent) subcultures.

Arguably the best example of such consummate world-building is FX’s B-plus murder-mystery drama The Bridge, which has just been renewed for a second season. The show stars Diane Kruger and Demián Bichir as a Texan and Mexican cop, respectively, who become partners to solve a series of murders by the border. In the pilot, they’re brought together by a body found on the bridge between El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, two cities just a couple of miles apart but vastly different in culture, economics, and crime. When the body is (rather hokily) discovered to be the top half of a white American woman and the bottom half of a brown Mexican woman, the show makes its setting clear. The characters don’t live and work in those cities, but the passage and contrasts between them.

Thus, Bichir’s character, like several others, resides in Ciudad Juarez while spending his daylight hours working or studying in the United States. Many of the show’s characters are bilingual, while entire scenes take place in Spanish (with English subtitles). In The Bridge, the setting also fuels the crime – the serial-killing “Beast” is partly motivated by the political and social injustices of the border – and legal complications between the two countries thwart the investigation.

The Bridge thus provides a welcome glimpse into the lives of thousands that’s rarely shown on TV or discussed by the larger media. It’s also perhaps the first TV show that illustrates just how much skillful world-building can make up for a prestige cable drama’s faults, such as a steady center (Kruger’s character, who suffers from Asperger’s, is a tad too much of a troubled genius) or a suspiciously omnipresent villain.

In the interests of not being a hypocrite, I still refuse to call the Mexican-American border a “character” in The Bridge. Rather, the show should be commended for its unique contribution to the “golden age of television”: expanding our notions of what a detailed, lived-in setting alone can do in bringing a TV show to life.

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