Instructional Media Center

IMC Feature • The New Golden Age of Television


Back in the early 80s, the advent of cable tv gave us a lot of channels but not a lot of good programming (although MTV did play music videos). As the creative class slowly filled the void, production costs plummeted with the development of inexpensive digital workstations and cameras. The resulting synchronicity of creativity and processing power produced an explosion of content that moved the concept of television broadcasting into the realm of video narrowcasting. Although the content has been spread over many delivery vehicles, the library chooses to focus on the high-definition, full-fidelity and fully-legal medium of DVD.  Below are some of our favorites - in no particular order.

Six Feet Under - PN1992.77.S59 S59 2006 DVD
The Fishers may be in the funeral business but that doesn't make them any more prepared for a death in their own family. Protagonist, antagonist and emotional pugilist, Nate Fisher, returns home to LA for Christmas on the day his father dies in a car accident.  Reluctantly immersed into the life he willfully abandoned, Nate begins to navigate his dysfunctional family’s minefield of emotional neglect.  Co-piloted by familial apparitions, creative exterminations, and a good dose of mental instability, the characters confront their personal demons while reinventing family ties. 

The Sopranos -  PN1992.8.M325 .S672 2001 DVD
A New Jersey mobster of Italian descent seeks professional help for his mother issues and a growing anxiety disorder.  Aided by partners in crime Paulie Walnuts, Big Pussy, and the guitar player from the E. Street Band, Tony Soprano rules as mobster provocateur - part psychopath, part family man.  While the series was initially criticized for its stereotypical, trashy portrayal of the Garden State, Jersey Shore has since shown that it was in fact a rather favorable depiction. HBO set a new standard for television with The Sopranos, moving mainstream water-cooler tv talk from broadcast network to premium cable.

Big Love - PN1992.77.B54 B54 2006 DVD
HBO serves up another version of the average American family with a twist.  This time it’s polygamy.  Ambitious home improvement store magnate, Bill Henrickson, juggles a multi-faceted career, three families, a troubled past, political aspirations, and a compromised vision of social acceptance.  Whether massaging his malleable religious beliefs to conform with his business/personal prospects or ignoring the obvious destructive manifestations of those beliefs, Bill proves unshakable in his "principle" Mormon faith.

Boardwalk Empire – PN1992.77 .B631 2012 DVD
Post-Sopranos, HBO caught lightning in a bottle again in the epic-drama-gangster genre with their hit Boardwalk Empire. Spurred by prohibition, America’s cities become a battleground for high stakes bootlegging.  Boardwalk Empire follows the life and times of Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, treasurer of Atlantic City.  As politics and prohibition converge, Nucky transforms from small-time corrupt city official, into a major player in the east coast crime syndicate.  Steve Buscemi adroitly embodies the role of Thompson, while a perfect cast of characters fills out the familiar historical icons.

Atlanta - PN1992.77 .A853 2018 DVD
Cousins Earn and Alfred navigate the Atlanta rap scene as manager and performer.  As Earn tries to figure out the blurred lines between best intentions and best practices, Alfred struggles with the unwanted attentions of fame, as up-and-coming rapper Paper Boi.  The series deviates from a consistent narrative to deliver episodic adventures of different themes.  It also bounces from comedy to drama to straight-up horror.  Critically acclaimed, the show has been nominated for 77 awards in just two seasons.

The Handmaid's Tale - PN1992.77 H25 2018 DVD
Hulu's first big hit in the battle of television streaming supremacy is an adpation of the 1985 Margaret Atwood novel.  Set in a dystopian future (now more like the present) fertility rates plummet due to disease and environmental pollution.  In an effort to save the human race, religious zealots reconstruct American society to a strict heirarchy with ultra-conservative values.  "Handmaids" serve as child bearers for families of power in a totalitarian society that subjugates women.  The sociopolitical outcomes are made all the more visceral by the current state of discord in American society.  Margaret Atwood's response in that regard - "You don't write these things hoping they become more relevant".  If you're looking for some fluff tv binging, you might want to steer clear of this one.

Game of Thrones - PN1992.77.G36 2012 DVD
The much anticipated adaptation of George R.R. Martin's fantasy series A Song of Fire and Ice, Game of Thrones burst onto the television scene in 2011 with a rabid following that continues to grow.  Long story short... when the Hand of the King is murdered, His Majesty solicits his Brother in Arms, Lord Ned Stark, to bring honor to the honorably compromised King's Landing. Although creators amped up the gratuitous sex and violence to new levels for a tv show, it's the astute adaptation, passionate acting, and magical set design, that make this show a critically acclaimed masterpiece.  And if medieval fantasy isn't your thing, you might want to give it a chance anyway.  It's that good.

Mad Men - PN1992.77 .M34 2008 DVD 
Set in the 1960’s, AMC’s Mad Men explores society on the brink of change. A wealth of new ideas and innovations facilitates suburban nirvana.  At the forefront of this material bounty is the advertising industry, spinning illusions of necessity and dreams of a better life.  At the forefront of the advertising industry is Don Draper, the mercurial Creative Director of Sterling-Cooper, one of New York’s finest ad agencies.  The series collected every significant broadcast award imaginable but it’s most effective in its cultural portrayal of the 1960s. The spot-on suits, dresses, accessory vices, and the notion of a unified national identity provoke nostalgia for an America most have never known.  As the series progresses, flawed nostalgia gives way to cultural reform.

Black Mirror - PN1992.77.B57246 2012 DVD
Inspired by The Twilight Zone, Black Mirror was produced by Channel 4 in the UK in 2011 but gained a considerable following when it was picked up by Netflix in 2015.  The episodes are an anthology rather than a series, focusing largely on the harmful projections and moral ramifications of technology.  Throw in a dose of British humor and you've got one dark and twisted tv series.  The DVDs were only released in the UK, so you'll need a computer with the VLC app to play the discs (the IMC laptops and lab computers have the requisite hardware/software).

Carnivale - PN1992.77.C37 2004 DVD
HBO's impossibly detailed recreation of a Dust Bowl era traveling carnival was one of the most ambitious creative ventures in recent television history.  The dense plot follows troubled healer Ben Hawkins, who crosses paths with a traveling carnival after the death of his mother.  On a collision path of destiny is Brother Justin Crowe, fiery minister whose own foray into mystical powers lead to the foreshadowing of an epic battle between good and evil.  Unfortunately, the ultimate conclusion never transpires due to the show's cancellation after only two seasons.  Despite a loyal following, decent ratings, and 15 Emmy nominations, HBO could not maintain the relatively high production costs in recreating the vast Depression era set design.

Rome – PN1992.77 .R664 2006 DVD
The lavish HBO/BBC production of ancient Rome, circa Caesar, combines familiar historical framework with fictional vignettes spanning the sociopolitical spectrum.  Much of the story is viewed through the lens of common soldiers, Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo, who experience the transformation of Rome from republic to empire both on the battlefield and in the city.  While critical acclaim and strong ratings should have propelled the series all the way to Constantinople, unprecedented production costs rendered the show economically unfeasible after only two seasons, which seems to be HBO's gauge for profitability.

The Tudors – PN1992.77 .T83 DVD
Showtime took their own stab at the epic historical drama with a look at the life and times of Henry VIII. Despite the writers exercising far more liberties with the characters and timelines to form a more efficient and compelling series, the major events are faithfully represented.  For those unfamiliar - His Majesty had marriage issues in order of - divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived - both enabled and later disabled from Papal dispensation.  

Downton Abbey – PN1992.77 D69 2010 DVD
If a show about the travails of a post-Edwardian aristocratic family and their servants sounds about as exciting as watching paint dry, you haven’t seen Downton Abbey.  The BBC’s captivating production follows the lives of the Crawley clan and their eponymous manor, as they confront a changing world, all too eager to shed the shackles of traditional English sociopolitical hierarchies.  If that still sounds boring, then watch it solely for Maggie Smith’s masterful portrayal of the impeccably refined Dowager Countess of Grantham, who delivers the show’s choicest lines.

Key & Peele - PN1992.77.K488 K4 2016 DVD
The comedian/writer/actor/director super-duo of Michael Keegan-Key and Jordan Peele teamed up to launch this sketch comedy show in 2012.  The format generally follows their introduction of a situation followed by a pre-recorded skit.  Topics were wide-ranging, mostly tending towards race and pop-culture issues, with the occasional asburdism that made it a big hit with the 420 crowd.  The series spanned five seasons, gathering several nominations and awards along the way.  You can check out the DVDs but most of the clips can be found online - Key & Peele youtube channel

Chappelle's Show - PN1992.77 C53 2012 DVD
In 2003 comedian Dave Chappelle took the cable world by storm with his self-titled sketch comedy show.  The format included pre-recorded sketches which Chappelle would introduce, as part of a running monologue.  The show also featured musical guests, generally hip-hop, along with a hilarious cast of recurring characters.  The series quickly became a cultural phenomenon but eventually led to Chappelle abandoning the show at it's peak, due to internal conflicts about his over-extended career trajectory - balancing a career as one of the top comedians on the planet with the rigors of television series production.  Chappelle maintained a low profile for the next several years but has  re-emerged with a new show on Netflix.

Battlestar Galactica - PN1992.8.S35 B387 2009 DVD
The Cylons were created by Man
They rebelled
They evolved
There are many copies
And they have a plan
A re-imagined version of the campy 70s series follows a group of human refugees fleeing Cylon annihilation.  What begins as a clear-cut battle line, eventually melts into endless shades of moral ambiguity.  Ratings and DVD sales suggest that appeal for this series went far beyond the usual sci-fi set. 

Star Trek, Original Series - PN1992.8 .S73 S72 2004 DVD
Space...the Final Frontier.
These are the voyages of the starship, Enterprise.
Its five-year mission: to explore strange, new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.
Apparently there has been much debate among Trekkies as to which was the better series - Original vs. Next Gen.  Now that Next Gen is 20+ years old, it looks equally dated, so stick with the original space gangsters.  And follow Mr. Sulu (George Takei) on facebook.  He's hilarious.

The X-Files - PN1992.77 .X41 2008 DVD
FBI agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) investigate supernatural cases as believer and skeptic.  What started as a cult-classic, grew into a pop-culture phenomenon, as the show moved from a monster-of-the-week formula to a longer arching storyline about government conspiracies involving extra-terrestrials.  The relationship between Mulder and Scully drive the heart of the show, as they morph from idealistic opposites into devoted partners.  If sci-fi television isn’t your thing, give it a try.  You’ll want to believe.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer – PN1992.8.H65 B84 2005 DVD
Prototypical California teen Buffy Summers is chosen as The Slayer, eradicator of all things evil with a penchant for vampire elimination.  To move things forward at a good clip, the metaphor for high-school-as-hell is taken rather literally as Buffy’s alma mater is perched atop a “hellmouth”.  Aided by an aspiring witch, an infatigable admirer, and a librarian, Buffy vanquishes her formidable foes for seven seasons of must-see-tv.  

Angel – PN1992.8.V35 A654 2007 DVD
For fans of Buffy (and probably few others) Angel proved to be an enticing spin-off, carrying many of the subplots and characters to a new location.  Angel is a vampire cursed with a soul, penance for his years of ruthless rampage.  As an unlikely champion against his unholy brethren, he faces the same challenges of the dead with the added elements of human emotion.   The subverted naivety of the Buffy construct is replaced with a more chauvinistic, action driven plot - a bit more complex with longer arching storylines.

Firefly – PN1992.77 .F574 2003 DVD
To round out the Joss Whedon trifecta (which includes the former and the latter) try the short-lived Firefly.  Set 500 years in the future, a band of nine misfits form an unlikely group of space cowboys operating on the outer fringes of The Federal Alliance.  The series had a dedicated fan base but was ultimately cancelled after 14 episodes.  Continued interest spawned a feature film Serenity, as well as a comic book and role-playing game.

Friday Night Lights – PN1992.77 .F751 2007 DVD  
What began as a rather stale tv adaptation about high school football in Texas, slowly evolved into one of television’s most honest portrayals of contemporary American culture.  Whether you are football fan or foe, jock/cheerleader or nerd/rebel, chances are you’ve played a part in the social phenomenon – or at least watched from the sidelines.  Still not sold?  Try this persuasion

Treme - PN1992.77 .T7457 2011 DVD
Residents of New Orleans 7th ward, devastated by Hurricane Katrina, would rather die than leave. Co-creators David Simon (the Wire) and Eric Overmyer (the Reed College graduate) weave a complex web of emotional/relational hardships as the characters try to rebuild their lives.

Glee - PN1992.77 .G54 2009 DVD
A high flying Phoenix risen from the ashes of the television musical dark ages known as the 90s (see Cop Rock and Xena Warrior Princess episode "Lyre, Lyre, Heart's on Fire"). Sure you've got a bunch of people in their 20s and 30s playing high school kids but have you ever been to a real high school musical?

Ugly Betty - PN1992.77 .U459 2007 DVD
The young, optimistic, stylistically challenged Betty is a fish out of water at the high fashion magazine Mode, where she works. Based on Fernando Gaitán's Colombian telenovela soap opera Yo soy Betty - la fea, the series went on to international acclaim.  Really.

The Simpsons - PN1992.8.A59 S558 2012 DVD
Who would have ever guessed that a crude skit from the Tracy Ullman show would turn into TV’s longest running animated series.  Created by Portland native Matt Groening.  In case you didn’t know, several of the characters are named after Portland streetsDespite it's long run and loyal fan base, the show has recently undergone criticism for it's continued negative stereotype of Apu, an Indian immigrant and owner of Springfield's Kwik E Mart, as chronicled in the documentary "The Problem with Apu".

30 Rock - PN1992.77 .T451 2007 DVD
When Tina Fey left the launchpad of Saturday Night Live in 2006, she took along one of its best cast members in Tracy Morgan and the show's most popular guest host Alec Baldwin.  Her reinvention into sitcom was not so different - starring as Liz Lemon, producer/cat wrangler for the talent and managerial staff of a Variety show.  If you want endless effortless comedy, this is your series.

Arrested Development - PN1992.77 A771 2004 DVD
The catalog description pretty much sums up this criminally underrated and short-lived show.
"The eccentric Bluth clan lives a life of excess, funded by the family credit card and paid for by patriarch, George, whose fortune came from the tract home development business. Oldest son George, nicknamed Gob, is an "illusionist" of minor importance who has anger management issues. Youngest son, Buster, wastes his days taking obscure graduate school courses. Daughter Lindsay is a vain socialite. The only sane one is Lindsay's twin brother Michael, a widower, who has decided to wash his hands of the family. But when his father is jailed and the family's assets are frozen, Michael is forced to step up and aid his family in adjusting to new lives."

Hill Street Blues - PN1992.77 .H55 2014 DVD
Hill Street Blues set the standard for realistic crime drama – moving the concept of tv production out of the studio and onto the streets.  In addition to featuring 1980s NYC as the show’s backdrop, creator Steven Bocho developed concurrent plotlines across a large cast of characters, spanning several episodes.  Want to know more?  NPR recently ran a terrific feature celebrating the newly released box set.  Equally terrific – the show’s melancholy theme song.

All in the Family - PN1992.77 A451 2009 DVD
Arguably America's most influential series (based on the BBC show 'Til Death Do Us Part) the Norman Lear produced All in the Family challenged the expectations of prime-time American television, moving the concept of sit-com entertainment squarely into the sociopolitical arena.  Carrol O'Connor plays the inimitable blue-collar bigot and partiot Archie Bunker, a man at odds with the changing world around him.  Jean Stapleton plays his loyal and loving wife Edith and subtly steals the show with her oblivious charm.  Rob Reiner provides much of the comedic relief in his role as the liberal son in law.  The show held the number one spot in the Nielsen ratings from 1971 to 1976 garnering every major award along the way.

Soap - PN1992.77 .S637 2008 DVD
A parody of traditional soap operas tending towards the ridiculous and bizarre.  The show featured a content warning at the beginning, a first for network tv.  It also featured Billy Crystal as the first openly gay character in American televsion series.  When it premiered in 1977, there were several protests over what was deemed sexually explicit content. However, by today's standards the show has lost most of its shock value and plays as nostalgic comedy.

Portlandia - PN1992.77 P67 2011 DVD
SNL's Fred Armisen and musical icon Carrie Brownstein merge their considerable talents to forge a comedy that is only a slight exagerration of our quirky, progressive, mini-metropolis. The show basically revolves around the notion that Portlanders refuse grow up and out of the 90s. Ratings are actually quite low for the show in the metro area because most Portlanders don't have cable or a sense of humor about themselves - which would make a great Portlandia skit.

Twin Peaks – PN1992.77 .T856 2007 DVD
David Lynch made a TV series.  In the words of Homer Simpson, “Brilliant!  I have absolutely no idea what’s going on.”
Many of the outdoor and exterior scenes were filmed in Snoqualmie and North Bend, WA.

House - PN1992.77 .H681 2007 DVD
According to IMDB - "An antisocial maverick doctor who specializes in diagnostic medicine does whatever it takes to solve puzzling cases that come his way using his crack team of doctors and his wits."  The doctor's name is House, which recently led to a discussion in the IMC about the custom of doctors making house calls - unfathomable to this group of students. Unforutunately the only video proof I had to offer was The Brady Bunch "measles" episode.

Empire - PN1992.77. E47 2015 DVD
From the catalog - "After music mogul Lucious Lyon is diagnosed with a potentially fatal disease, he must choose which of his three sons will succeed him at the legendary Empire entertainment company. The game changes when ex-wife Cookie returns from prison. This groundbreaking series features a pulsating soundtrack from legendary music hit maker Timbaland."

Orange is the New Black - PN1992.77 .O731 2014 DVD
From the catalog - "Follows Brooklynite Piper Chapman, whose wild past comes back to haunt her and results in her arrest and detention in a federal penitentiary. To pay her debt to society, Piper trades her comfortable New York life for an orange prison jumpsuit and finds unexpected conflict and camaraderie amidst an eccentric group of inmates. Based on the memoir Orange is the new black : my year in a woman's prison / Piper Kerman."

The Americans - PN1992.77 .A46 2014 DVD
From the catalog - "Secrets can be deadly in this suspenseful thriller about undercover Russian spies in 1980s Washington D.C. Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings seem to be a typical suburban couple, but they're actually lethal KGB agents plotting to bring down America. As the Cold War escalates, Philip and Elizabeth must take extreme measures to continue their mission to keep their true identities hidden. But when an FBI agent movies in across the street, they become ensnared in a pulse-pounding game of cat and mouse."

Penny Dreadful - PN1992.77 .P46 2014 DVD
From the catalog - "An erotically charged, profoundly unsettling new saga that completely reinvents literature's most iconic and terrifying characters. Dorian Gray, Victor Frankenstein, and timeless figures from Dracula join a core of original characters in a dark and brutal quest to save a soul, even as they grapple with their own monstrous temptations."

Monty Python’s Flying Circus – PN1995.9.C65 M65 1999 DVD
The cult of Monty Python began with television sketch comedy - 45 episodes on the BBC (1969-1974).  Firmly rooted in surrealist, absurdist, “Pythonesque” humor, the comedy group went on to achieve super-star status spawning tours, albums, and iconic films.  American born Terry Gilliam connects sketches with his unique style of cut-out animation giving the group many of its iconic symbols.

The Golden Age of Television – PN1992.77 .G653 2009 DVD
You can’t have a new golden age without the original.  From the catalog – “The hugely popular live American television plays of the 1950s have become the stuff of legend. Combining elements of theater, radio, and filmmaking, they were produced at a moment when TV technology was growing more mobile and art was being made accessible to a newly suburban postwar demographic. These astonishingly choreographed, brilliantly acted, and socially progressive "teleplays" constituted an artistic high for the medium, bringing Broadway-quality drama to all of America.”