“D*mn, it feels good to be a gangsta.” - Geto Boys
Well, maybe not. At least based on what happens to gangsters in these series, which are some of the finest television shows ever made.
The gangster, which is a form of anti-hero, is a well-established figure in storytelling for many centuries. I mean, what was Christopher Marlowe’s 17th century play Tamburlaine the Great other than a gangster’s tale? Network television has produced its fair share of shows about bad guys over the years, but those were all from the good guys’ perspective. Because of language and content restrictions on broadcast television, there never was a really good show about organized crime from the perspective of the participants.
Then along came The Sopranos. Originally slated to air on Fox, that network passed on it when it was clear that the series would be endless censorship problems and wasn’t really the kind of programming a broadcast network could ever air.
Enter HBO. As a pay cable service, the language and content rules that broadcast network television labors under did not apply. It was a match made in television heaven.
As envisioned by creator David Chase, Tony Soprano, the head of a mafia “family” that controlled northern New Jersey, is a mediocre, volatile man with an angry, resentful wife, two surly kids who regularly mock him, and a crew of marginally competent mafiosi. And a mother. What a mother. As played by Nancy Marchand, she is your classic negative and disapproving (and ultimately evil) parent who relentlessly harasses Tony for not being good enough. The whole relationship is so maddening it drives Tony Soprano to see a psychiatrist, played by Lorraine Bracco. The first two seasons of this series really are the best. Marchand died and it knocked the series off-balance after that in ways from which it never quite recovered.
James Gandolfini is magnificent in the lead role, portraying Tony as troubled, violent, occasionally tender, sporadically loyal, but in the end, not a nice person at all. The longer the series went on, the less I liked Tony Soprano, but I kept watching because the stories and Gandolfini’s performances were so compelling. Check out Episode 11 from Season 3: “Pine Barrens.” It’s one of the best hours ever produced on any show.
The Wire (2002-2008)
This series is, in my opinion, the greatest television series ever made. Created by David Simon, a former crime reporter for the Baltimore Sun, the series is an immense and complicated story of the city of Baltimore and the struggling denizens of its grittier neighborhoods. The Wire delves into the work and lives of an astonishing range of characters—drug dealers, crime bosses, cops, dock workers, educators, politicians, the courts, and journalists. This is Dickensian stuff here. If you’ve never seen this show, do yourself a gigantic favor and rent one season. And then another and another.
Prison Break (2005-2009)
Here’s something you’ll never hear anyone say: “Hey, kids, put down your homework! It’s time to watch Prison Break!” While it aired on broadcast television (Fox), it’s also one of the most violent shows ever made. The premise is that Lincoln Burrows (Dominic Purcell) is wrongly convicted of a murder and his brother on the outside (played by the dreamy male model Wentworth Miller) concocts a scheme to break him out of prison so he can work to prove his innocence. Obviously, showing a legal appeals process wouldn’t make gripping television, so the escape. As everyone who has ever watched a single episode of Law & Order knows, flight by a suspect is considered a strong indication of guilt. Well, let’s not worry about that. This gritty and gripping five-season drama is a thrill ride and lots of fun to watch.
Back in 1997, HBO was known as a place to watch relatively recent releases of movies without getting gum stuck to your shoe in a movie theater. And then came Oz. This prison series was the first one-hour drama from HBO, and its success paved the way for a lot of their ensuing innovative programming that changed television. Set in the fictional Oswald State Correctional Facility, the prison is known as “Oz.” The title also ironically quotes the line from The Wizard of Oz: “There’s no place like home.” Set in an experimental wing of the prison that focuses on rehabilitation rather than punishment, the series is a painfully honest portrayal of the horrors, loneliness, danger, and despair of prison life. It’s an enormous cast and plenty of story lines to follow. So dig in!
While the premise may sound somewhat familiar to Breaking Bad—a respectable middle class person gets involved in the drug trade after a health disaster—this series, created by Jenji Kohan, is a lot more fun and not as disturbing as Breaking Bad. Mary Louise Parker is Nancy Botwin, a suburban mom living a quiet life outside Los Angeles when her husband suddenly dies of a heart attack. In order to maintain their quiet and settled middle class life in the suburbs, Nancy starts selling marijuana. Hijinks ensue. This is a very amusing and very dark comedy, and an excellent palate cleanser after watching the series I mentioned above.
Arrested Development (2003-2006, 2013--present)
The Bluths are, without question, the most incompetent crime family ever conceived. One of the best comedies of the decade, Mitch Hurwitz’s tremendously amusing tale of an Orange County family brought low by the father’s corruption and misdeeds. An incredible cast that includes Jason Bateman, Portia de Rossi, Will Arnett, Michael Cera, David Cross, and Jeffrey Tambor. Incredibly witty—in fact, frequently laugh-out-loud funny—the original show was cancelled by Fox, but then picked up several years later by Netflix. I prefer the original episodes, but all of them are wonderful. And remember: “There’s always money in the Banana Stand.”
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and the BBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times, is awaiting publication.