Thursday, January 14, 2010

The best television series of the aughts

The end of the decade kind of surprised me—in the sudden welter of top ten lists for movies and music and what have you, I suddenly realized that ten years had elapsed since we celebrated the end of the millennium. And in spite of my love of lists, I find myself ill-equipped to compose many of the usual suspects: I have seen not nearly enough film in the last ten years to do a best films list; I suppose I could do a best fiction list, but it would be woefully incomplete, absent the dozens of novels that were published that I did not read (ironically, because I was reading too much); and my musical tastes sort of calcified in the mid-late 90s.

On the other hand, I do watch a lot of teevee, and have in the last two years made it something of an academic sidebar. The other day my television guru friend Jen apologized on her blog for not yet having gotten to her own best of the decade, and I thought, “AHA! A list I can do!” This is indeed something I have been thinking a lot about, though not in these exact terms. So here follows my top ten list for the decade for which we have yet to devise a handy moniker (I’m holding out for the “aughts,” if for no other reason than one day being an old-timer who can reminisce about the “back in aught-seven, when I was working in the salt mines ...”).

Of course, the question of what makes a television series “good” is a vexed one at best. I have little doubt my list will furrow a lot of foreheads, so here are my criteria: I am concerned in this particular list with television that broke the mould, that challenged viewers and resisted the typical formulaic pitfalls of an episodic structure, and above all else was intelligent. More importantly, unapologetically intelligent: series that did not feel compelled to explicate their more complex elements or confuse knowledge with subtlety (such as Chris Carter was so often guilty of on The X-Files).

In this respect, the aughts offered an embarrassment of riches: we saw in the past decade the rise and indeed renaissance of exceptionally well-written, well-acted, and well-produced television. HBO was the epicentre of this phenomenon, but not its exclusive purveyor: other specialty cable networks like AMC, Showtime and FX followed the Home Box Office’s lead, as did a few adventurous network forays. Further, I think critics will see the aughts as a time when serious actors decamped from Hollywood films and took on roles they could sink their teeth into over several seasons of well-written scripts: actors like Ian McShane, Glenn Close, Edward James Olmos, Mary-Louise Parker, Martin Sheen, Steve Buscemi all appeared in deeply nuanced and complex roles; we saw late-career renaissances in Ted Danson, Alec Baldwin and Henry Winkler, and breakout performances from the likes of Jon Hamm.

So, without further ado ...

10. 30 Rock

I think I can safely say there has never been a television show more certain make me laugh hysterically and often. Tina Fey shows us she’s got way more game than a bit player on SNL and Sarah Palin impersonator: each episode is unpredictable, madcap, and usually absurd, while nevertheless making us care pretty deeply about the characters involved. What I think I love most about Tina Fey is that she is smart enough to subordinate her own ego to the show: Liz Lemon is the geeky and pathetic calm at the center of the absurdist storm, and Fey is happy to let every scene her alter ego is in get stolen by each and every one of the crazy characters she has created. Each episode is a gem, but I think my favourite was the Amadeus parody that came at the end of season 2, in which Tracy Jordan plays the pornographer Mozart to Frank Rossitano’s Salieri. Also, no comment about 30 Rock would be complete without a shout out to the comic brilliance that is Alec Baldwin as Jack Donaghy.

9. The West Wing

As much as I love this show, I was hesitant about including it, as it has—on reflection—more of a 90s feel to me, and the balance of its seasons that appeared in the aughts, from 2003-2006 were the post-Aaron Sorkin version of the show. Starting season five, The West Wing lost something crucial with Sorkin’s departure. It maintained the high seriousness, the machine-gun dialogue, the unapologetically wonkish preoccupation with the inner workings of the executive branch ... but it lost the energy of Sorkin’s brand of dialogue, and with that, the humour that animated so much of the first four seasons. However much the series depicted the life-and-death drama that happens on a daily basis in the White House, it always did so with extraordinary humour, so that Charlie could give Mrs. Landingham a hard time over her new car or CJ could get emotionally attached to a turkey, even as the President deals with the drama of a besieged embassy. And that is why it makes the list, the final three seasons notwithstanding.

8. The Sopranos

Oz was the first dramatic series that defined the new approach HBO was taking; The Sopranos demonstrated that it had legs. The series was unapologetic in its profanity, its violence, its corrupt and unlikable characters, and above all, the inescapable parallels between the mafia hierarchy and “legitimate” capitalism. None of this was new, of course—mob films had been doing it since Public Enemy. What was different was that this was television—and the finite story arc of the gangster’s meteoric rise and inevitable fall that defined the genre was thrown out the window as the Soprano clan struggled with the ups and downs of affluent suburban family life over seven seasons. The bizarre series finale that pissed so many people off I thought was genius; the sudden cut to black with no resolution whatsoever was the last nail the series drove into the mob genre’s coffin, suggesting that there was no tidy and poetic resolution—no Tony Montana gunned down, no Henry Hill relegated to symbolic death in suburban wasteland, no Michael Corleone dying pathetic and alone. Nope. Tony and his family muddle along, and there is no poetic justice for anyone.

7. Lost

Few shows divide opinion like Lost: those who love it, love it with the white-hot intensity of a thousand suns (and may well issue a fatwa on me for relegating it to number seven), or hate it with equal intensity.

My own sense of the series is that J.J. Abrams &co. totally did not expect it to make it past season one, even if it got that far. They offered this amazing and bizarre setup, and then were taken a bit aback when it became a hit (or at least, this is how I imagine it happened), and then suddenly had to devise storylines that, every episode, raised more questions and offered no answers. This, predictably, became a little lame by season three, and this is when I lost interest. On the urging of certain Losties however, I started tuning in again for season four, and am now irrevocably snared in the narrative web again. The writers have found their stride and totally upped the ante for the series. Whatever its inconsistencies at times, the show is always very, very smart, well written, well-acted, and always willing to throw curveballs at the audience (which is synonymous, on the Fox Network, with cancellation -- a lesson I wish Joss Whedon would learn).

6. Arrested Development

This, of course, is the show that launched Michael Cera’s career, but I am willing to overlook that offense because of just how good it was (Arrested Development, I mean, not Michael Cera's career). I am still amazed that Arrested Development survived as long as it did on network television, given its quirkiness, weird characters, quasi-absurdist humour and palimpsest of in-jokes that required multiple viewings to catch them all. What’s more, the series effectively picked up the challenge thrown down when Seinfeld ended, namely, where does the sitcom as a genre go from here? Seinfeld epitomized the irony and disaffection of much of the 90s by pointing to the inescapable fact that sitcoms, structurally, are necessarily about nothing. Arrested Development picked up this thread and carried on with comically one-dimensional characters all caught up in their own narcissistic dramas. The Bluth clan broke the mould: all sitcoms are about family in one capacity or another, and the underlying unity that informs that are what make them endearing. Arrested Development had the audacity to depict the most merrily—and obliviously—dysfunctional family ever.

5. Battlestar Galactica

If someone had told me five years ago that they were going to (a) remake Battlestar Galactica and (b) that it would be one of the best television shows ever made, I’d have responded, respectively, “Good luck with that” and “Uh ... sure.” But not only did they update the 1970s kitsch-fest that was the original series with kick-ass production values and visuals—which would have been cool enough in and of itself—they also turned it into one of the most complex, nuanced sagas of loss and redemption this side of East of Eden. Unapologetically smart, beautifully written, and indeed daring in the Big Questions it poses (without offering trite or moralistic answers, ever), it raised the bar not just for SF television but for television generally.

4. Deadwood

What The Sopranos did for the mob genre and BSG did for space opera, Deadwood does for the western. The series is really about the brutal and violent origins of democracy: we follow the lawless mining camp of Deadwood as it slowly moves toward civic and municipal identity and ultimate annexation to the U.S.A., and watch the body count rise en route. Beautiful in its dirt and grit, the language of the show raises profanity to a Shakespearean level. The final season was a bit of a disappointment because it was rushed to a close—finished at three seasons rather than four because of budgetary reasons—but even at its worst moments, it was superior to pretty much everything else on the tube.

3. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart / The Colbert Report

If the aughts were the Bush/Cheney decade, we can be relieved that it was also the decade of Stewart/Colbert. It is a sad statement that the most incisive speakers of truth to power were a couple of clowns on Comedy Central, but that statement in and of itself does nothing to detract from the keen intelligence and often brutal satire of a pair of shows that thrived in a decade when satire and irony were otherwise defanged by a mendacious administration and inept media. Stewart and Colbert gave us a breath of intelligence and hope, and threw in juvenile dick jokes as well, just to remind us that they’re both really goofs at heart.

2. Mad Men

At once the antidote to simplistic nostalgia about the 50s and 60s and a suave and stylish fetishization of period, Mad Men critiques Madison Avenue culture by seducing us with the very kind of polished surfaces Sterling & Cooper strive to market. “What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons,” says Don Draper dismissively, even as he realizes that his mistress and her young lover are, in fact, in love. Such is the subtlety of Jon Hamm’s acting that in that instant, in the brief tightness in his voice, we see his own futile desire for something he can’t comprehend. What do you get when a superlative salesman invents himself based on what he tells America it wants? You get Don Draper—possibly the single greatest character to appear on a television screen in this or any decade.

1. The Wire

More than any other television series ever, The Wire found itself compared in style and structure to the novel. “Dickensian” was the word often used, though to my mind this is entirely a misnomer based in the show’s depiction of urban decay and poverty; where Dickens took his readers by the hand and essentially explained everything as it unfolded, the web of individual stories making up The Wire unfolded with little or no attempt at explanation. It takes until about the third or fourth episode to have a handle on things, and at that point there’s no looking back. David Simon’s saga of the fallen city Baltimore and its struggles with drugs, violence, poverty and de facto racial segregation is not so much an allegory of America as a microcosm. Each season focused on a specific part of the city: season one was the police force versus the drug dealers; season two, union politics and the fall of the American working class; three, city hall; four, the school system; and finally in season five, the media in the form of a dying newspaper. The structures of power in “legitimate” Baltimore parallel and intersect the drug world’s hierarchies, and the money cleaves them all together like an insidious glue.

Honourable Mentions: Rome, Damages, Dexter, Weeds, Angel, Oz, The Tudors, Firefly, Gilmore Girls, Six Feet Under, True Blood, Veronica Mars, Friday Night Lights, Pushing Daisies

Top Ten Characters (and the actors who portray them), in no particular order:

Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall), Dexter
Lester Freamon (Clarke Peters), The Wire
Patty Hewes (Glenn Close), Damages
Benjamin Linus (Michael Emerson), Lost
Don Draper (Jon Hamm), Mad Men
Omar Little (Michael K. Willams), The Wire
Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), Deadwood
Spike (James Marsters), Angel and Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin), 30 Rock
Anne Boleyn (Natalie Dormer), The Tudors

Top ten bad guys (or are they?):
Stringer Bell (Idris Elba), The Wire
the lawyers of Wolfram & Hart, Angel
Benjamin Linus (Michael Emerson), Lost
Number Six (Tricia Helfer), Battlestar Galactica
George Hearst (Gerald McRaney), Deadwood
Arthur Frobisher (Ted Danson), Damages
Vern Schillinger (J.K. Simmons), Oz
Devon Banks (Will Arnett), 30 Rock
Felicia “Snoop” Pearson (Felicia Pearson), The Wire
Dr. Horrible (Neil Patrick Harris), Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog

Best potty-mouths:
Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), Deadwood
Debra Morgan (Jennifer Carpenter), Dexter
Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), The Sopranos
Silvio Dante (Steve van Zandt), The Sopranos
Felicia “Snoop” Pearson (Felicia Pearson), The Wire

Too quirky (or weird) for words:
Kenneth the NBC Page (Jack McBrayer), 30 Rock
Kirk Gleason (Sean Gunn), Gilmore Girls
Dwight Schrute (Rainn Wilson), The Office
Winifred "Fred" Burkle (Amy Acker), Angel
The Doctor (Christopher Eccleston), Doctor Who
River Tam (Summer Glau), Firefly
Olive Snook (Kristin Chenoweth), Pushing Daisies

Shows that were probably in the running, but I have never watched: Breaking Bad, In Treatment, Big Love, Flight of the Conchords, Curb Your Enthusiasm

Those amazing Brits: The Office, Extras, Dead Set (best zombie TV series ever), Torchwood: Children of Earth, Doctor Who

The Auteurs: Joss Whedon (Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, Dollhouse), J.J. Abrams (Felicity, Alias, Lost, Fringe), David Simon (The Wire, The Corner, Generation Kill, Treme), Alan Ball (Six Feet Under, True Blood), David Milch (Deadwood), David Chase (The Sopranos), Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip), Amy Palladino (Gilmore Girls), Matthew Weiner (The Sopranos, Mad Men)

So ... what’s on everyone else’s list?


andrew.dewaard said...

it's always sunny in philadelphia.

rivals 30 rock in gut busting laughs per episode. takes seinfeld's narcissism and moral indifference to a whole other level.

(that level at one point involves a dumpster baby)

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Where is HOUSE and HUGH LAURIE??
Your list is not complete with their mention.
I DO however, agree with your pick of GERALD MCRANEY for DEADWOOD.

Matt said...

E. B. has to be in there somewhere (weird? potty-mouth?).

viagra online said...

Dr HOUSE es la mejor serie por lo menos de los ultimos cinco años creo que todo el elenco y la produccion forman un equipo unico

Anonymous said...

very nice blog!

Extended Warranties said...

These are wonderful shows!