Moral Responsibility in TV

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I wrote this essay as a core part of my Creative Writing Masters degree. It’s about the theme of moral responsibility in The Sopranos, The Wire and Breaking Bad, and the industry context that enabled these great shows to be made. (It contains spoilers for all three shows.) Rereading it, I’m interested in its sense that America was getting entangled in a moral crisis – this was written in early 2016, just before the rise of Trump. For less serious analysis, read my attempt to prove that these shows have a sinister vegan agenda.

Why is the issue of moral responsibility such a central theme in great twenty-first-century American television drama?

Wallace, D’Angelo and Bodie in The Wire. Read my analysis of Season One here


The debut of The Sopranos in January 1999 inaugurated a new “Golden Age” of television.[1] This flowering of critically-acclaimed shows has transformed the way that television is created, watched and perceived.[2] Within this revolution, it is striking that the theme of moral responsibility keeps recurring. Moral responsibility is taken to mean the consequences, generally negative, of the actions of a character or institution within a television drama, and their relationship with those consequences. If they try to deny moral responsibility for the negative outcomes around them which we, as the viewer, know they have caused – that is, if they claim that it is not their fault – a dramatic tension arises which can only be solved through further negative consequences, particularly for the soul of the character or institution in question.

The three shows that are most commonly cited as the greatest, or among the greatest, in television history – The Sopranos[3] (1999-2007), The Wire[4] (2002-2008), and Breaking Bad[5] (2008-2013) – all have, at their core, an obsession with this theme.[6] An investigation into why this is will not only reveal something fundamental about these shows and their cultural context, but also lay bare what it is about this theme that offers so much powerful storytelling potential.

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Artist in Residence

A month ago, I was drawing cartoons at the Hurlingham Club. Then, just as I finished this sketch, the lady lowered her newspaper and spotted me drawing her:

Maxine the Jesuit

She called me over, and I thought I was in trouble. Instead, she flipped through my sketchbook and made me a job offer. “I’m organising a charity fundraiser at the end of May,” she said. “Will you come and sketch the evening?” Continue reading →

May Bank Holiday

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For the bank holiday, Charlotte hosted a group of us in Exmoor. Everyone got very excited on the first night when we saw what can only be described as a space-train flying through the night sky above us. It sailed among the stars, glowing with a faint white light, and filling us with panic and alarm. Was it ghosts? Was it aliens? Was it a really weird meteor shower? (We found out two days later that it was Elon Musk.)

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Machiavelli and The Prince

Niccolò Machiavelli

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Machiavelli was a Florentine politician in an era of political instability throughout Italy. In 1512 he found himself on the losing side, and he was tortured and exiled from Florence. Disillusioned and cynical, Machiavelli thought that existing theories about the ethics of leadership were too idealistic: they did not match up to the cold reality of the struggle for power.

Machiavelli statue
A statue of Machiavelli in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence

His radical and controversial conclusions led him to write The Prince in 1513. In this treatise, he argued that a ruler can only be successful if they know how to consolidate power – and that sometimes, this will require deception and cruelty. Machiavelli’s endorsement of brutal methods to maintain power was shocking at the time and ever since, and The Prince has been controversial for five hundred years. But Machiavelli intended his work to be a force for good – giving pragmatic advice to princes so that they could defeat their enemies and benefit their subjects.

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