The emergence of box-sets has been revolutionary in how we watch television. No longer do people schedule a time to watch their favourite show in accordance with the TV guide, and then wait another week to dwell on what will happen next. Instead, people are watching seasons – old and new – in excess of 3 episodes at a time, often finishing a season in well under a week.
What’s more, box-sets are tailor-made for the modern lifestyle; with a film feeling like too much of a commitment when you get in at half 9, or with your open-in-new-tab attention span barely concentrating on a book beyond 3 sentences at a time. Box-sets, on the other hand, give you that option of popping on a 40 minute episode of high-quality drama, comfortably supplying your evening’s entertainment in the time you have.
So what are the best box-sets and, in my opinion, the most essential to own in anyone’s collection? Here’s my take, in this order:
1. The Sopranos
Partially based on a real crime family in the 90s, The Sopranos attempts to portray the world of organised crime amid providing the most enthralling TV possible. But no one expected it to go above and beyond this requirement and mesmerise viewers whilst setting the landmark for all TV dramas. The sheer concept is entertaining in itself: Tony Soprano is a loveable mob boss – loveable for reasons unknown, given his murder and adultery rate – in therapy because the task of running a crime business whilst being a husband and father to his two kids is taking its toll on him in the form of panic attacks. What unfolds from seasons 1-6 is so mind bogglingly surreal without being over-the-top. The acting is sublime, with a strong nod to James Gandolfini who plays Tony Soprano and Michael Imperioli who plays the hot-headed Christopher. It will leave your jaw on the floor, it will turn the voice inside your head Italian-American, it will occupy your mind between episodes and it will change your perception of what you thought TV drama was capable of.
2. The Wire
On paper The Wire actually does little to entice. For a start, its idea is nothing particularly original, with cops trying to catch the bad guys. It’s also about drugs and gangsters, which has been used beyond exhaustion in both film and television. Then there are the characters and setting; no-one is particularly good-looking or worthy of sex-icon status and romance is sparse. It’s also set in the ghetto streets of Baltimore, which is as pretty to look at as your reflection on the morning after a bender. The good thing: none of this matters. Its pace is slow and gracious, requiring a lot of concentration, but when you do concentrate, you begin to feel immersed in an extremism of real-life emotion. The gangsters selling drugs are not glamorized, but instead portrayed with brutal honesty; the police promote intrigue in the way that decisions are as complex as they are in real life and – along with the politicians – often blur the lines between good and bad, right and wrong and most emphatically why they fight crime in the first place. In fact, it’s the only show I’ve ever watched in which I well and truly forgot the characters were actors, such is its realism. The Wire is like awarding the Miss World beauty pageant to a woman who doesn’t wear make-up and wears only jogging bottoms and loose clothes. She ignores all the rules of attractiveness, but captivates unexplainably more than anyone else has done before. Find that weird? Watch The Wire, you’ll know what I mean.
3. Breaking Bad
No show before Breaking Bad, not even The Sopranos, has intertwined the two opposite worlds of day-to-day modern life with the extremism of crime and violence whilst maintaining an aura of believability. Initially given 1 year to live from lung cancer, deemed a failure by himself and short of money, Walter White (played by Malcolm in the Middles Dad, Bryan Cranston) uses his knowledge as a chemistry teacher to team up with former student and addict Jesse Pinkman as they embark on a journey to sell crystal meth. This journey spans 5 seasons(with only the first 4 available on DVD), and provides the most insane will-they-won’t-they plot that a viewer can handle before flirting with a cardiac arrest. It’s like a pantomime, but instead of being a bit of fun ‘he’s behind you’, Breaking Bad is instead a dark, often sobering account of one mans Shakespearean quest for more. What’s more, there is never one moment in which you feel its two main characters – Pinkman and White – actually get used to what they’re doing, instead using luck whilst maintaining an aura of confusion as to why they opened the door to the most dangerous business in the world in the first place. It really is magnificent.
4. Mad Men
Before watching Mad Men, you need to take into account something that may confuse you at first: very little, if anything at all, actually happens. In fact describing the events of a single episode would take a high degree of concentration. Then after the first few episodes – maybe even the first season depending on your patience – you soon begin to understand why this show has been hailed as a modern masterpiece. It’s an entirely different viewing experience, with intrigue stemming from the great aura of mystery that comes from characterisation. There’s the shows leading character, Don Draper, who manages to undo a lifetime of “Don’t smoke” ads with a single puff; so effortlessly stylish and subtle that he managed to bring 50s haircuts back in to fashion. The rest of the cast – most notably Pete Campbell, Peggy Olsen, Roger Sterling and Betty Draper – make you feel privileged to live in the 21st century, with the sexism, homophobia, racism and casual alcoholism the norm. But what makes this show so brilliant is the way in which you ponder the thinking of every character within the show. Why on earth did he do that? How could she think of saying that? What possessed him to treat that person like that? These are just a few of the questions that circulate the mind after watching Mad Men.
So there we have it. What do you think? What would you add to this list?