It's Not TV. It's HBO.

Sometimes, certain things that have nothing to do with musical theatre teach me wonderful new lessons about storytelling in general, but also by extension, about musical theatre. I think we too often forget how much the various storytelling forms have in common. The Top Two among those certain things would be the PBS docu-series, The Power of Myth with Joseph Campbell (now on Netflix and Amazon Prime); and also Burno Bettelheim's brilliant book The Uses of Enchantment. Those two things are my holy scripture.

I recently stumbled upon three more short TV docu-series about writing and storytelling that blew my mind and may well blow yours.

Ridley Scott's Prophets of Science Fiction, each episode dedicated to one of the great science fiction writers -- Mary Shelley, HG Wells, Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick, Jules Verne, Heinlein, Asimov, and George Lucas. It's on Amazon Prime, but you can also watch it online for free here.

James Cameron's The Story of Science Fiction, each episode exploring one sub-genre of sci-fi, including -- aliens, space, monsters, dark futures, intelligent machines, and time travel. Cmaeron talks with Ridley Scott, Stephen Spielberg, George Lucas, Guillermo del Toro, Christopher Nolan, Keir Dullea, Max Brooks, John Lithgow, Keanu Reeves, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Paul Verhoeven, DC Fontana, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, and others. It's on Amazon Prime, but not for free; but you can watch it free on the AMC website.

Eli Roth's History of Horror, each episode looking at one kind of horror movie -- zombies, slashers, demons, vampires, ghosts, etc. Roth (director of Hostel, Saw, etc.) talks with Rob Zombie, Stephen King, Quentin Tarantino, Jamie Lee Curtis, Linda Blair, John Landis, Jack Black, and others. You can watch it free on the AMC website, or you can watch it on Amazon Prime, if you subscribe to the add-on channel Shudder.

But more than anything else, the work that has had the greatest impact on me (aside from the great musicals) is a group of cable dramas. They have virtually nothing to do with each other.. but there are two parallels among them. First, they all debuted on HBO, the channel that invented genuinely fearless television drama. Second, as someone (I forget who) pointed out, network TV shows find the extraordinary in the ordinary (like an alien living with a family in the suburbs, or preternaturally clever kids in an otherwise "normal" household); but HBO dramas explore the ordinary in the extraordinary (like the home life of a mob boss, a workplace drama set in a maximum security prison, and a troubled young man finding himself in a mystical traveling carnival).

If you are (or would like to be) a director, an actor, or a writer, I seriously urge you to explore these shows. As far as I'm concerned, they are all masterpieces of television drama, and they taught me thousands of lessons about character development, story structure, backstory, motivation, focus, suspense, ambiguity, subtext, and maybe most interesting, the relationship between an episode arc, a season arc, and a series arc. Here they are:
Oz
The Sopranos
Carnivale
Deadwood
The Wire

I might be persuaded to add Showtime's brilliant Dexter, and for those even more narratively adventurous, David Lynch's Twin Peaks.

OZ -- I remember the first time I saw an episode of Oz, it felt almost exactly like the first time I watched Fellini's 8 1/2, like all of a sudden the old rules just didn't apply anymore, like suddenly anything was possible in this art form. Television can be this? The show's creator Tom Fontana had created a whole new universe of possibilities for dialogue, plot, camera work, acting style, the Fourth Wall, sex, violence, raw emotion, the use of music, I could go on for hours. It's not an easy show to watch, but it's so powerfully engaging. I've watched the entire six-season series six times. I shit you not.


THE SOPRANOS -- I came into this series the first time, sometime in the third season, but as I've done with Oz, I've now watched all six seasons of The Sopranos six times. I recently started a seventh trip, and I'm still finding things I hadn't noticed before. It's really that rich. What I love most about it is that the vast majority of what's important is in the subtext. It's a really complicated, intricate tapestry of characters, motivations, and storylines. It's like a network TV workplace drama mashed up with Scorsese films. In the very first episode of the series, creator David Chase tells us exactly what the series is about and how it will end. And if you're wondering, I thought the controversial final moments of the series were utterly perfect, the only legit way to finish it.


CARNIVALE -- Likewise,  in the very first episode of this series, creator Daniel Knauf tells us exactly what the series is about and how it will end. Of course you don't recognize that he's done that until you finish watching the last episode of the series. It's like he's a master magician, always misdirecting us, but also subtly feeding us everything we need to keep moving forward in the story. This is such an amazing series, but if you watch it, you have to allow yourself to go for the ride without having to understand everything that happens. It's just that kind of story, a horror-mystery-drama. Eventually everything will make sense. Once you get to the end of the second season (it got cancelled after that), literally everything that came before will make sense. It's incredibly satisfying in that way, and a master class in how to engage and hold an audience.


DEADWOOD -- Like the others, the writing, acting, directing, design, etc. are all simply extraordinary, so far above the quality of even the better network television shows. But this brutal, brilliant series created by David Milch has two really special elements. First, a lot of the narrative comes from real world events and real people, from diaries, news items, etc. It's an incredibly fun history lesson. But also, the writing is a kind of Wild West Shakespeare, an incredibly complex and dense language that's both poetically elevated and also profoundly vulgar and obscene. Milch explains that the only way he could make a modern audience feel the danger and lawlessness of this time and place, something so foreign to us now, was to make the language itself shocking and "lawless." It's another genuine masterpiece of television, and I guarantee that college students will study this dialogue for years to come.


THE WIRE -- Like the others, every element of this show is simply perfect. But unlike the others, this feels like documentary, and unlike the others, its large narrative arc over the whole series is not entirely linear. It really feels like you're in the room with these deeply flawed cops trying to fight the War on Drugs. And the longer you watch it, the less clear it becomes who are the Good Guys and who are the Bad Guys. It's raw, brutal, episodic drama. And it's brilliant.


Now ask me why HBO has turned out so many masterpieces. Total freedom. There are essentially no rules. Who's attracted to that environment? The most fearless and adventurous artists, who usually also turn out to be the best. And sure, more than twenty years after this new Golden Age of Television started, HBO is no longer the only place to go for great television drama. But without HBO, and in particular, Oz and The Sopranos, we probably wouldn't be in a new Golden Age.

I have often thought about the fact that the new Golden Age of Television started right around the same time as our new Golden Age of American Musical Theatre started, in the mid-1990s. I've always meant to find out if other art forms launched new Golden Ages in that same period, but I haven't yet... Was it coincidence or was there something in the air as the century came to a close...?

When I was in high school and college, I devoured every book I could find about the musical theatre, I read scripts and listened to cast albums -- literally hundreds of cast albums -- and played through piano scores. I was a hungry, hungry fanboy. As one particularly potent illustration, I arrived at college Freshman year, owning 100 cast albums, and I graduated owning 500. I shit you not.

And then I came back to St. Louis after college, and soon after started New Line Theatre. And at some point, I found I had read all the books about musical theatre, so I turned to books about non-musical theatre and about storytelling -- and they taught me so much that's relevant to my work with musicals. I also learned that the best work in any storytelling form can be a master class for me, and I figured that out just in time for Oz to debut on HBO and change the face of television.

A cool side note about Oz -- they shot it in New York, so it's full of musical theatre actors, including BD Wong, Rita Moreno, Ben Vereen, Patti LuPone, Betty Buckley, Joel Grey, JK Simmons, et al.

Any actor, director, or writer will learn so much from these shows. Give them a chance. But don't expect them to be easy to watch...

Long Live the Musical! And HBO!
Scott

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