Back after these messages

I am a subscriber to the public satellite broadcaster British Sky Broadcasting, formed by the merger of Sky Television and British Satellite Broadcasting in 1990, in which News Corporation has a 39.1% stake. News Corporation, whose chief executive officer is Rupert Murdoch, is the third largest media conglomerate in the world, after Disney and Time/Warner. I have been a subscriber since 2007 when I moved into a rented house that already had a dish erected on the roof. Before that, I was a subscriber to the cable service NTL, because I had an aesthetic aversion to satellite dishes, but the sheer convenience of the ready-erected dish on the roof of a house I didn’t own turned me. I have always found Sky’s service friendly and accessible, and have enjoyed both the minimum and near-maximum (minus sport) packages they offer. Indeed, I have added and subtracted packages all the way along, to suit my needs and financial situation. I am not here to sell you a Sky subscription, any more than I am trying to sell you a holiday cottage in Ireland when I refer to time I have spent there. I wish to review the newly-launched channel Sky Atlantic, and I do not wish to be accused, as I was on Twitter on Tuesday, of selling anything.

You don’t need Sky Atlantic, but since existing subscribers didn’t have to lift a finger to receive it, I have now got it, and I am happy about that, as I prefer US drama to UK drama, on the whole. It’s a great shame that the BBC couldn’t compete with Sky’s deep pockets when bidding for Mad Men, the second greatest current US drama on television, but the BBC can’t win: if it paid out a whopping sum it would be accused of commercial opportunism and wasting the licence-fee-payer’s money on profligate luxuries that very few people actually watch. (I think it got 500,000 viewers on BBC4 and that’s after media hype money could not buy.)

I remember, about ten years ago, then-boss Elisabeth Murdoch’s dream of turning Sky into a “British HBO”, showing quality drama both imported and homemade. It was around the time that she commissioned longer-than-average runs of new Brit sitcoms Baddiel’s Syndrome (13 episodes, compared to the standard six or eight for a new show) and Time Gentlemen, Please (two series of 22 and 14 episodes). It never happened. But now, with multiple Sky-branded channels in the portfolio, Sky Atlantic has been made possible. The deal it has struck with HBO means it sits on a vast back-catalogue of iconic shows past and present, ranging from The Sopranos to Entourage, plus assorted other big network names from the olden days like ER and Star Trek and 24. But there’s nothing to review there. Most of us who love the cream of long-form US drama have learned to wait for the DVD box set. It’s proven to be the most satisfying method of consuming them. I might not have fallen in love with Battlestar Galactica and The Wire if I hadn’t been able to gorge on them.

The jewel in the crown of Sky Atlantic’s launch has been Martin Scorsese’s Boardwalk Empire, a series that has been so comprehensively fanfared most of us feel like we’ve already seen it. They showed the pilot on launch night (uniquely directed – rather than just executive produced – by Scorsese), and Ep2 on the following night. Ep3 we have to wait until Saturday for. It is set in Atlantic City in the 20s, so it feels as if the whole show has been tailor made to show off a channel with Atlantic in the name. Either that or they named the channel after the show for maximum synchronicity. Either way, if it’s a channel-defining show, we’re in safe, if predictable hands. Created not by Scorsese but by Terence Winter, and with some episodes directed or co-written by Tim Van Patten, both alumni of The Sopranos (what a catalyst that show turned out to be), it takes place on the same famous boardwalk where Tony Soprano once trod, except 80 years before. It’s another gangster fable. If it feels derivative, and it does, it’s derivative of the best work of its own creators. Scorsese wrote these clichés. They’re his to feed off, and Winter’s and Van Patten’s to adapt, having paid explicit homage in The Sopranos to the great gangster movies of the past.

John Crace gave a mealy-mouthed assessment of the first episode in the Guardian. I fear he was reacting against the hype, which is understandable. Although many of his complaints have been erased by Ep2 – he felt character development was perfunctory and that the whole thing was a little flat – I personally really enjoyed it. And I speak as someone who thought Scorsese had gone well off the boil and actively disliked The Departed and Shutter Island. He managed to filter a bit of both into Boardwalk, but the material was so much stronger. Despite the period difference it felt more like Goodfellas. It goes without saying that Steve Buscemi carries off central protagonist Nucky Thompson with weaselly aplomb. He’s been a leading man for many of us for years, as we’ve watched him squished away in supporting roles. An inveterate scene-stealer (whose heart didn’t leap every time his private eye turned up on 30 Rock?), he’s no Soprano. Indeed, he was squished away in a supporting role in The Sopranos, but that was close to a one-man show, where all orbited Gandolfini, and here, so far, it’s much more multi-character.

There are a lot of actors called Michael to watch. I’m already fascinated by Michael Shannon as the gruff-voiced G-man; and associate/nemesis Rothstein, played by Michael Stuhlbarg; not to mention Michael Pitt as Leonardo Di Caprio, and briefly-glimpsed Michael Kenneth Williams (Omar!), of whom I am hoping to see more. The ladies don’t get much to do yet, beyond wiggle their bosoms and speak like Lina Lamont in Singin’ In The Rain, and Kelly McDonald – the statutory Brit! – has yet to dig in with her Irish accent, but there’s a long way to go yet. Those unwilling or unable to subscribe to Sky will be able to buy it in a box soon, no doubt.

Overshadowed in all the fuss about Boardwalk was another premiere on Tuesday night: Blue Bloods. A much less showy piece of work, it’s a much more standard, contemporary, shakycam police procedural, set in New York, and with the various narrative strands very clearly telegraphed in Ep1 by creators Robin Green and Mitchell Burgess (more Sopranos alumni!), but it’s up my alleyway, I’ll be honest. Tom Selleck is perfectly cast as the doughty patriarch of an Irish-American police dynasty, with his eldest Donnie Wahlberg (older brother of one of Boardwalk Empire‘s exec producers, Marky Mark) proving something of a handful in terms of playing by the rules. Bridget Moynihan is the daughter who just happens to be a DA, and Will Estes is the younger brother, a rookie cop. Don’t look like much here – another New York cop show?! – but we have everything. I’m in.

Commercial break over. Back to the action.

While we’re here, in the rough vicinity of imported US drama, may I make a plea about the show I consider to be the greatest currently on TV: Breaking Bad? The valiant FX are currently re-airing season one of this dazzlingly different saga about a chemistry teacher in Albuquerque with inoperable cancer who takes to cooking meth with an ex-student in order to provide for his family after his death. They don’t have season two; that belongs to Five, who showed it to little acclaim last year and thus haven’t bothered shelling out for season three. This show has won its star, Bryan Cranston, three successive Emmys. It’s a pretty big deal for a cable show in the US, where it draws audiences of up to two million to AMC, but here, it does fuck all. I have seasons one and two on box set. But right now, no UK broadcaster seems interested in buying season three. This is a crime. I know there are nefarious ways of accessing foreign telly, but I choose not to use these methods as I am a law-abiding citizen. The DVD is not listed yet on Amazon. What am I to do? Go and live in America? Is that what you want, UK broadcasters? Must I threaten to leave the country like the bankers always do? And then not see my threat through to fruition, like the bankers always don’t? SOMEBODY BUY THIS PROGRAMME PLEASE!

Am I wrong? Is Breaking Bad not the finest and most original non-sci-fi drama America has produced this century? I have seen season one three times and I’m still enjoying it again on FX. You can get FX without subscribing to Sky, by the way. But you need to subscribe to a provider. And FX is owned by Fox, which is also owned by Rupert Murdoch. That bastard.

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21 thoughts on “Back after these messages

  1. I am still to watch boardwalk but have sky ‘d that and blue bloods , looking forward to them both very much.

    Your assessment of breaking bad is spot on . It is nothing short of criminal that it hasn’t received any attention from the British public

  2. Coincidentally, a friend asked me last weekend if I watched Breaking Bad, saying that it seemed to be exactly the kind of show that I’d like. I’ve never seen it though. I guess, when it first started, the general premise just didn’t appeal to me. If it’s so good though, I really ought to catch up.

  3. Breaking Bad is indeed the greatest Drama US TV has to offer at the moment. It’s strange to me that UK broadcasters don’t really know what to do with it.

    There is, of course, a precedent with this though. Seinfeld, Larry Sanders, The Comeback and even, to an extent 30 Rock have all been handled badly in the UK. I know they are comedies but I’m not sure that makes a difference. What makes this stranger is that shows as terrible as The Event are given prime-time slots and an awful lot of of publicity. I wonder what would have happened with Breaking Bad if it had been given the same treatment as Boardwalk Empire?

  4. Breaking Bad IS the greatest show on Tv, there is no doubt. Watching Bryan Cranston now in the early episodes of Malcolm in the Middle has become a dizzying experience; I keep expecting the kids to uncover an air vent full of drug money.

  5. Completely in agreement re. Breaking Bad. Writing, performances and cinematography are all flawless. It’s hardly surprising s2 did so badly, given that 5USA scheduled it so idiotically. You can import season 3 on DVD or blue – if you have a multi region player – perfectly legally just by buying it from Amazon. However, this is every bit as good as The Wire and deserves the status of a proper cultural event.

  6. I spent the first 15 minutes of Boardwalk Empire imagining just how much money HBO spent on it. It’s a slightly slow burn, but well worth staying with throughout the season. Although essentially a straightforward, genre piece it’s well played by a great cast (once you get over Kelly MacDonald’s accent) suprisingly nasty, and eventually involving enough to warrant the thumbs up. Breaking Bad on the other hand is just electric. It shits on that Downton Abbey…

  7. Andrew – You are not wrong. I am a huge Breaking Bad fan, currently nearing the end of Season 2 and wanting to watch episode after episode of it every single night.

    It is drama at its very very best, humourous, intelligent, inspiring, educational and entertaining, I love it.

    Boardwalk Empire is also fantastic and gets better and better as the series goes on, especially towards the end.

    Sky Atlantic viewers should also look for Treme – my favourite show of last year.

  8. Ace! Another dvd boxset to add to my sofacinema list. I think it’s cheaper (and better value) for me to rely on you to tell me what US drama I’m missing out on by not having SKY and then I stack it up back to back. It was only because you banged on about The Wire so much that I persisted and watched the first episode three times (resorting eventually to subtitles until I got used to it) and now it’s my favourite TV programme ever. So, cheers!

  9. “The deal it has struck with HBO means it sits on a vast back-catalogue of iconic shows like The Sopranos and Mad Men”

    One small, pedantic point Andrew – Mad Men is not actually an HBO drama it’s on AMC.

    However, if Sky Atlantic are doing business with AMC on Mad Men, maybe there’s hope for Breaking Bad being picked up too…?

  10. Sorry, no matter how good these programmes are … I prefer wait for the DVD sets (as I did with The Wire) because I cannot bring myself to subscribe to anything which is provided by Murdoch.

    • Gill: do you also avoid watching films made by 20th Century Fox and books published by HarperCollins? I’m not being facetious – I admire anyone with principles and am fond of a corporate/ethical boycott myself – I’m just interested: do you?

      • Thanks for the response Andrew. You have given me something to think about!
        I undoubtedly have seen films by 20th Century Fox and equally undoubtedly will do so in the future. However, I can pretty confidently say that they will make up only a tiny fraction of the films I will see, not because I actively boycott them, but because I tend not to like the type of films they produce, preferring more art-house type of films (I am lucky enough to live close to a very good art-house cinema).
        As for Harper Collins, I must confess that I had no idea of Murdoch’s involvement, but now that you have enlightened me I will certainly check and question whether I really need to buy their books in future! However, as I work in a second-hand bookshop, most of my books are bought there and so would make nothing for Murdoch anyway!
        No, my main argument with him relates to his undue prominence on TV and the newspaper media and his unhealthy influence over politicians. I fear for the health of terrestrial tv and for the BBC in particular. So although I love good TV drama and think that some of the shows coming from American TV are brilliant, I just cannot countenance signing up with Sky in order to see them. In fact it amuses and amazes me that the same people who complain about having to pay the licence fee will happily part with huge amounts of money each month for Sky! Sorry if I sound “holier than thou” but it is something I feel strongly about and as an admirer of your work I found it rather distressing to read what sounded like a rather enthusiastic endorsement of Sky! (though of course I do realise that in fact you were lauding the individual shows rather than Sky ….)

  11. @Gill I had a mental image of Dylan Moran speaking your response. I had to giggle. Laughs? I get them wherever I can.

    ravo on your stance, I find it difficult to boycott because I can’t keep track of who owns what. Having less disposable income makes it easier to boycott everything though.

  12. RE getting hold of something that isn’t available in your region – you can always do what I, an American, do when a British show just is seemingly never going to appear in Region 1 DVD format (for example, anything made by Go Faster Stripe). I bought a region-free DVD player (I got mine through Amazon for about $30, I assume they’re similarly cheap over there), and if I want something and it’s clear it’s never going to be released here or it’s a lot cheaper in Britain (for some reason, British DVD releases get discounted once they’re a few years old much more often and more steeply than American releases), rather than resort to piracy I buy from Amazon.co.uk or from Gofasterstripe. The shipping isn’t all that pricey, and it’s worked so far.

  13. You can pre-order season 3 of Breaking Bad from Amazon US for $27.99. There’s no date for release yet but they tend not to advertise stuff more than a couple of months in advance.

    I was tempted to say that Boardwalk Empire is rubbish when it clearly isn’t but there’s just something very contrived and rather smug in the way it’s put together that makes me want to overstate what’s wrong with, rather than what’s good about it. And the sex and the swearing has a ‘look at us, just look at what we are doing’ quality about it. And I haven’t even got started on Kelly McDonald’s ridiculous diddly-dee accent yet.

    I have no reverence for Scorsese as he clearly lost the plot up his own backside many years ago. In some of the bigger set pieces it feels a bit like when French & Saunders sent up The House of Elliott. You can sense the director having just yelled action before they wheel in a tedious array of ‘authentic’ extras. I lasted two episodes and found myself willing it to end. So I gave up.

    However, as the last person in the UK to watch any of The Sopranos or Battlestar Galactica, Sky Atlantic is providing good value for money for me.

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