This is what should be on a TV Studies degree curriculum

A swift jog through past the TV shows that laid the bedrock for the programmes we're enjoying today.

I am the beneficiary of a good university education. I studied journalism – a long ago time when we believed we could save print media. Now, we know we’re doomed but the skills and knowledge I picked up in those three years – shorthand, media law, how government and politics work, radio and TV editing – have held me in good stead in this brave new world.

So let’s turn that logic to a possible TV studies degree. What television shows of the past 10-15 years would we include in the curriculum? What would we consider utterly indispensable to understanding modern telly? What laid the foundations for the telly landscape of today? What is worth studying for clues on how to do it, or how not to?

The list below is entirely subjective and not at all exhaustive, and crucially, the shows listed are not flawless: they all have issues around racism and representation, and the treatment of women. But they also planted the seeds of whatever TV goodness we are reaping today. Are you sitting comfortably? Then we’ll begin.

Deadwood. On first look, this HBO series starring Timothy Olyphant and Ian “Lovejoy” McShane looked like worthy American drama: real “how the west was won” stuff. But then it slowly becomes something altogether more complex, with two amazing men at its centre: one an opportunist in the best (and worst) way; the other a principled, rigid man who falls and cannot forgive himself. Alongside their stories are smaller, less showy ones, urgently told, with a cast and direction that is basically flawless. Without Deadwood, there would be no Game of Thrones and no Justified, and how much poorer would we be for that?

Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy is television and television is Buffy. It’s that simple. Every show that came after had a little Buffy Summers sprinkled on it. Iconic episodes such as “Hush”(where there are only 17 minutes of dialogue in a 44-minute show), and the gut-wrenching “The Body” (where Buffy discovers her mother, dead from a brain aneurysm, on the sofa) are as good as any television show has a right to be. It had season-long storytelling arcs, complex heroes to root for, villains to despise but understand, tricky pairings and truly high stakes (the end of the world, several times). Ten years after it ended, it’s still influencing telly. Every zippy pop-culture reference in Happy Endingshas some DNA from Buffy; and Teen Wolf, Fringe, The Vampire Diaries and so many more series owe it a huge debt.

State of Play. The TV version, not the Russell Crowe film. It’s hard to believe it’s been ten years since this was on. A Paul Abbott script and acting masterclasses from James McAvoy, John Simm, Kelly Macdonald and David Morrissey created a memorable BBC drama. Its impact can be seen in everything from The Shadow Line to Spooks (after series one) to the recently reimagined House of Cards, Hunted, and Scandal.

The Office. Whatever he has become in the years since his defining sitcom, Ricky Gervais invented one of the great television characters in David Brent.

This was human telly, cruel and funny and tender, with no laugh track to guide you. A properly influential programme, as evidenced by its many, disparate offspring: Parks and Recreation, Party Down, Armando Iannucci’s Veep, and its own US version, starring Steve Carell.

Sex and the City. It has become fashionable to call SATC vapid, dated and just plain silly. This is largely, I think, down to the two movies it spawned, although I will loudly and passionately defend the first of them with my dying breath.

But it bears repeating that the TV series succeeded in every way that it set out to do: it was a damn fine comedy, bold and often unflinching, unafraid of criticism, and crucially, it captured the zeitgeist. Girls is what it is because of SATC, as is Entourage, and any number of recent comedies.

The Wire. You knew this was coming? If you still haven’t watched it – why? Every small-screen, long-form narrative show of the past decade is a descendant of this, from Mad Men to Breaking Bad to Homeland to The Killing. To say The Wire is great is only a cliché because it’s true.

Every show that came after had a little Buffy Summers sprinkled on it.

Bim Adewunmi writes about race, feminism and popular culture. Her blog is  yorubagirldancing.com and you can find her on Twitter as @bimadew.

This article first appeared in the 15 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Machiavelli

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Women don’t make concept albums: how BBC Four’s When Pop Went Epic erases popular music’s diverse history

Why are the only albums blessed with the grandiose description of “conceptual” the ones made by white men?

Tonight, BBC Four airs a documentary exploring the history of the concept album called When Pop Went Epic: The Crazy World of the Concept Album. Presented by prog rock veteran Rick Wakeman, the programme set out to “examine the roots of the concept album in its various forms”, as well as cycling through the greatest examples of the musical phenomenon.

“Tracing the story of the concept album is like going through a maze,” says dear old Rick incredulously, while ambling round a literal maze on screen, just so we fully get the symbolism. But if the history of concept albums is a labyrinth, Wakeman has chosen a gymnastic route through it, one filled with diversions and shortcuts that studiously avoid the diversity of the format’s history. He imagines the concept album to begin with Woody Guthrie’s 1940s record about poverty and class struggle in America, Dust Bowl Ballads, following on with Frank Sinatra’s Only the Lonely (1958) and The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966), before moving on to big hitters like Sgt Pepper and Tommy. It quickly seems apparent that the first albums blessed with the grandiose description “conceptual” are the ones made by white men, and Wakeman’s history credits them with inventing the form.

What about Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige (1943-58), a history of American blackness? Miles Davis’s Milestones, a 1958 LP-length experiment with modal harmonies? Sun Ra’s particular blend of science fiction and Egyptian mythology on albums like The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra (1961)? When Wakeman reaches what he considers to be the first from a black artist, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On , he notes that it “comes from a musical culture where the concept album was quite alien”.

Certainly, Motown was a towering monument to the power of the single, not the album, but we know that one of Gaye’s greatest inflences was Nat King Cole: why not mention his 1960 concept album, centring  on a protagonist’s varied attempts to find The One, Wild Is Love? Wakeman does recognise the importance of black concept albums, from Parliament’s Mothership Connection to Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, but his history suggest black concept albums begin with Gaye, who is building on the work of his white predecessors.

It takes rather longer for Wakeman to pay his respects to any conceptual woman. 53 minutes into this 59 minute documentary, we discover our first concept album by a woman: Lady Gaga’s The Fame. The only other female artist discussed is Laura Marling, who, perhaps not coincidentally, is also a talking head on the documentary. That’s two albums by women out of the 25 discussed, given cursory attention in the last five minutes of the programme. It feels like a brief footnote in the epic history of conceptual albums.

Jean Shepherd’s Songs of a Love Affair is perhaps the earliest example of a female-led concept album that springs to my mind. A chronological narrative work exploring the breakdown of a marriage following an affair, it was released in 1956: Shepherd has a whole two years on Sinatra. Perhaps this is a little obscure, but far more mainstream and influential works are equally passed over: from themed covers albums like Mavis Staples’ duet record Boy Meets Girl to more conventionally conceptual works.

The Seventies was a decade that did not solely belong to pasty men rambling about fantasy worlds. Female-fronted concept albums flourished, from Manhole by Grace Slick, conceived as a soundtrack to a non-existent movie of the same name (1974) and Joni Mitchell’s mediations on travel in Hejira (1976), to Bjork’s debut, an Icelandic covers album (1977), and Heart’s Dog & Butterfly (1978).

The Eighties were no different, featuring gems like Grace Jones’ Slave to the Rhythm (1985), which pulled a single track into a wild variety of different songs; the Japanese distorted vocal experiment Fushigi by Akina Nakamori (1986), and Kate Bush’s playful faithfulness to A and B sides of a record, producing “The Ninth Wave” as a kind of mini concept album on Hounds of Love (1985).

Wakeman skips over the Nineties in his programme, arguing that conceptual works felt hackneyed and uncool at this time; but the decade is peppered with women making thematically unified works from Madonna’s Erotica (1992) to Hole’s mediations on physical beauty and trauma, Live Through This (1994) and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998).

Since then, women arguably led the field of conceptual albums, whether through the creation of alter egos in works like Marina and the Diamonds’ Electra Heart, Beyoncé’s I Am… Sasha Fierce or through focusing on a very specific theme, like Kate Bush’s 50 Words for Snow or in their storytelling, like Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown and Aimee Mann’s The Forgotten Arm. Wakeman includes no black women artists in his programme, but today, black women are making the most experimental and influential conceptual records in modern pop, from Janelle Monáe and Kelis to Erykah Badu, and, of course, Beyoncé. It’s no coincidence that Lemonade, which would have been considered an abstract conceptual album from a male artist, was immediately regarded as a confessional piece by most tabloids. This issue extends far beyond one documentary, embedded in the fabric of music writing even today.

Of course, concept album is a slippery term that is largely subjective and impossible to strictly define: many will not agree that all my examples count as truly conceptual. But in his programme, Wakeman laments that the phrase should be so narrowly defined, saddened that “the dreaded words ‘the concept album’ probably conjure up visions of straggly-haired rockers jabbering on about unicorns, goblins and the end of the world”. Unfortunately, he only confirms this narrative with a self-serving programme that celebrates his musical peers and friends, and ignores the pioneers who would bring variety and colour to his limited classification. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.