Television that I Love: A Valentine to Unpredictable Melodrama
A love that has caught me by surprise has had me thinking about the characteristics of television that I love. I don’t think I’m talking about either fanship or aesthetics here. I am, in my own mind at least, distinctly not a fan. I often feel like I have some sort of genetic aberration that prevents me from engaging in fanlike behavior toward television, sports teams, really anything; don’t get me wrong—I like, even love some things, but I’ve never been one to take it to the next level of fanship behaviors. I’m also aware that the television I most love is not necessarily at the top of the list I’d construct of “most excellent artistic achievement” in television. What follows is consequently decidedly not a case for what makes for the “best” television, but for the television I most want to watch.
Sometimes love surprises us; I never thought I’d love Sons of Anarchy; in fact, were I to have laid the odds, I’d have guessed there was a 1 in 10 chance I’d watch beyond the pilot. Now, I had to watch beyond the pilot because I was writing a book about masculinity in cable dramas, and this cable drama is more than a little relevant to contemporary constructions of masculinity. But I soon found Sons was the show with the shortest DVR life; as soon as it appeared, I’d devour it. I even came to know new episodes would be delivered on Tuesdays and found anticipation of a new episode seeping into my weekly routines. But why?
I love Sons because it surprises me. Indeed, I can often feel my blood pressure rising as I watch because there is no telling what can happen. Important characters die, typically without teasing or spoilers. Sons has somewhat ruined broadcast TV for me. I tried, really tried to watch The Blacklist this fall, but I struggled to really care about narrative stakes. Come now, it’s NBC, we all know there is no way the backpack full of explosives is going to go off while a child is wearing it. That could happen on Sons (though if you are reading Sutter, I’m not suggesting it should).
I also think a good bit of my love for the show comes from its intense emotional melodrama, which is set in the highly masculine space of the motorcycle club. While I find melodrama predictable and fraught with complicated gender politics when set among women, watching Jax try to negotiate the personal dynamics of the family that birthed him, the club, and the family he’s created is pure pleasure. The emotional stakes are always high and situations can be melodramatically absurd, but this show makes me feel in a way few others do. I have a running tally of television moments that have just destroyed me, they make my heart hurt when I think of them to this day: the last hours of Shane Vendrell’s life (The Shield), Opie’s death; the end of this last Sons season. I love television that makes me feel without making me feel manipulated into those feelings.
I love the way Sons leaves me pondering it after our weekly time together is over. Because anything can happen, it allows me time to play back the small moments for hints of what might be to come, which brings me to another thing I love. The show is densely plotted, but never violates its previous narrative. Admittedly, sometimes the “saves” that come near the end of each season strain credibility, but they are always plausible within the narrative universe. If there is one thing that disinvests me from a narrative fast, it is when a show contradicts its own story or the nature of the characters it has constructed; why should I pay attention to detail if the writers aren’t.
Parsing out what I love about Sons—unpredictability, intense character relations, narrative consistency—reveals characteristics of many of my favorite shows. Most other favorites succeed in the first and last characteristic (The Wire, Breaking Bad, House of Cards), but few develop characters in the way that make me—and perhaps others—feel profoundly, a fact that I suspect has prevented many television opinion leaders from considering Sons among those routinely trotted out as television’s best. But regardless of journalistic attention or Emmy adulations, Sons, as paradoxical as this seems, is my TV happy place.