An offer you can’t refuse

Michael Armstrong on the rise of the DVD box-set

Some critics say the great films of our time, even the great novels, aren’t found in the multiplexes or on the best-seller lists, but in the nooks under the TV, on special offer in HMV or up for rental in Xtra-vision. The explosion of the DVD market at the beginning of the decade for the first time made TV box-sets not just the holy grail of geekdom, but an attractive proposition for all consumers. I have friends who would save their 24 DVDs from a burning building, while for six successive years it just wasn’t Christmas if my sister didn’t have a new Sex and the City series to drive us all from the living room until at least New Year’s Day. 

The thriving rental market, both online and in stores, also gives scope for new discoveries that can be easily indulged on a student budget. I recently investigated a series I’d heard nothing but praise for, The Sopranos, and, despite my love for other HBO hits such as Six Feet Under and Band of Brothers, I have to admit it is by far the best TV show I’ve ever seen. Forget the mafia setting, the boss-visits-shrink set-up and any other preconceptions you might have, over the course of its six seasons, The Sopranos dealt with any and every aspect of modern life; depression, anxiety, love, loss, ambition, disaffection, hypocrisy, sex, drugs, violence, dementia, parenthood, marriage, identity, death… all with a subtlety, wit and craft rarely seen in cinema, let alone on our TV screens.  

And that’s just the writing. Don’t even get me started on the performances. James Gandolfini deserved every award going for his portrayal of Tony Soprano, but he was supported by an incredibly talented ensemble cast who provided a level of realism and depth that will be hard, if not impossible, to top. The comparisons to a great novel are wholly accurate as, like any great novel, the show got better as it went along, peeling layer after layer off the characters and in doing so, making the viewer ask questions of their own motives, their own path through life.  

The very fact that shows like this are the exception, not the norm, in our TV schedules reflects just how willing we are to settle for something banal, with easy answers at the end of every episode, just in time for a bittersweet indie pop song to play us out. I’m looking at you, Grey’s Anatomy. We expect much less from the small screen, but why? It takes up more of our time to watch a series than a film, so isn’t it fair to ask that this investment pay off with more insight and depth than a trip to the cinema? Perhaps new online content gives us true choice in what exactly we want to watch, though I fear that through the quick-clip culture of Youtube more will be lost than gained. The success stories of true quality television are still through word-of-mouth, best demonstrated by the latest show to be praised through the grapevine, The Wire. This acclaimed series follows the actions of the police and various crime gangs in Baltimore. Sounds pretty standard, I know. But then, I was wrong once before.