At the age of 8 I was given a box set of the Narnia Chronicles by CS Lewis and my addiction to the box set was born. Back then, before the advent of the PC, and global entertainment networks, books were aspirationally priced and to have seven in a set was a serious treat. The orgy of reading pleasure it promised, devouring a follow up title immediately on digesting its predecessor, was coveted and rare. I remember trying to employ restraint, leaving a day between each adventure in order to digest the last and clear my mind for the next chapter in Lucy, Edward, Peter and Susan’s battle against the ultimate evil in this children’s opus. The variety, quality and quantity of dramatic storytelling available to us represented an unimaginable Utopia In 1970’s Ireland where my childhood played out. There are those who mourn page-turning, being usurped by screen viewing in the intervening decades, but while the delivery systems for stories have certainly been upgraded, the attributes remain the same. Compelling narratives worthy of the finest novelists, along with captivating, original characters and finely honed writing are now to be found in drama series being made for the small screen as well as our great novels.
For story lovers like myself, the box set bonanza that’s swept into our lives is a blessing. Ever since Jack Bauer burst into my life in the high octane thriller series 24 I’ve been an addict. As the quality of mainstream programming has diminished, minority interest channels have sprung up, prepared to take greater risks with their curated menu. The stampede by mature, intelligent, underserved audiences to more inspiring fare, delivered season by season to be watched at will, whether in transit on PC’s or on increasingly advanced home screens, seems ever on the increase. Whether it’s the Shakespearean villain fashioned by Kevin Spacey in the contemporary court of Capitol Hill in House of Cards, or the machinations of modern working womanhood confronted by Julianne Margolis in the The Good Wife, the exploration of unreliable narrators and mental instability in Homeland or the hard-edged, cool-headed women of Scandinavian Noir from Sarah Lund to Saga Noren, respectively in The Killing and The Bridge, today’s episodic dramas would have left Dickens himself salivating for more.
My second Box Set encounter, the action thriller 24, is a good example. For the minority of the uninitiated out there, the series is named after the 24 hour time period and 24 hours of drama each season involves. Kiefer Sutherland stars as the indefatigable, maverick agent Jack Bauer an operative for Homeland Security, a top secret US anti terrorist agency. With it’s ticking clocks and plot twists, high body count and escalating stakes it ran on pure adrenalin. Initial interest escalated into a viewing orgy that left my husband and I with black ringed eye sockets, barely able to grunt at each other over breakfast and piles of chores left abandoned for weeks on end. Driven to survey the carnage created by our addiction we concluded that we needed some viewing rules. Only two episodes a night, never start one after 11pm and definitely no sneaky advance viewing when either party was absent. We stuck to those tenets as we journeyed with Jack Bauer through five, edge of seat series featuring this diminutive and hitherto declining Hollywood actor, catapulted back onto a global stage in his efforts to save the world in the course of a day from imminent annillation in an increasingly implausible series of plotlines. The most recent series, with it’s Bond homage title, 24-Live Another Day is due this autumn with London replacing Los Angeles as the epicenter of a global security meltdown and I can barely sleep in anticipation.
It’s not simply our easy access to these conveniently packaged programmes, on download, on demand, on Amazon and on friends shelves that make them so compelling, but the quality of what’s delivered. Great directors are elbowing each other out of the way in the rush to deliver a series. Martin Scorsese has clearly been seduced with Boardwalk Empire and the recent Vinyl to his credit, Stephen Spielberg and more recently our own Stephen Daldry have also jumped on the box set bandwagon. And then there’s the long line of amazing actors, like Sutherland, who’d been abandoned by Hollywood in the relentless pursuit of the next new star but have found gainful and lucrative employment on the small screen. From the aforementioned Kiefer to Julianne Margulies, Hugh Laurie to Laura Linney, Helen Mirren to Timothy Hutton, Tim Roth, Clare Danes and even Liev Shreiber ; so many great talents given prematurely appointed sell by dates who have been busy proving that they have plenty more to offer. From these new talent pools, fresh supernovas have also been born, like iconic Asperger’s sufferer and international object of desire Saga Noren (played by award winning Swedish actress Sofia Helin) from Danish/Swedish co-production The Bridge.
With increasing numbers of us hitting parenthood or an age when the lure of the bright lights of the big city dim in favour of the flicker of the small screen the ubiquity of the Box Set is no mystery. Seriously good drama is bringing in disillusioned audiences tired of being patronized by unadventurous viewing diets. The most inspiring thing about this box set decade is the cultural shift it’s provoked in parts for mature women. Imagine a Hollywood movie featuring an actress over fifty playing a successful lawyer and political wife working in a hot shot Manhattan legal firm? Meet Julianna Margulies in the hit series The Good Wife. Or iconic detectives like Nordic sweater favouring Sarah Lund and scruffy, make up eschewing, Asperger’s suffering, Saga whose leather pants and trench coat started a style craze that fashion magazines have raced to catch up with. Viewers much vaunted reticence about sub-titles seems to have been entirely overruled by their passion for the monochrome skies and even darker stories brought to life in these uncompromising crime series. I’d love to have been a fly on the way when either of those series were pitched, though in fairness to my Scandinavian cousins their female heroines are generally far closer to the real women I meet than the over coiffured, scrawny, cosmetically enhanced diva’s deemed telegenic in less emancipated nations.
The age of the Box Set is upon us and with all those uninterrupted hours of immersive entertainment, cliffhanging storylines, fascinating characters, quality writing and female heroines to empathise with rather than launch hairstyles, I know how I’ll be whiling away the long dark nights of winter!