Archive for December, 2011

19
Dec
11

The Best Television of the 2000’s

I wrote a blog earlier this year about how television has reclaimed masculinity, and I don’t think it is a stretch to say that over the last decade t.v. has surpassed film in both storytelling and quality. Better acting, better writing, better drama. I watch a lot of t.v., and yet I don’t watch much of it live. Because I work odd hours and odd jobs I don’t usually have the time to sit down and adhere to a t.v. schedule, but with Hulu, Youtube, and other internet sights as well as DVD rentals and purchases you can now watch almost anything anytime, anywhere. Over the last decade television has been unusually great with a quality reserved typically for only the best of films. So with that in mind I have compiled this list of my personal favorite t.v. shows of the past decade. So there is no misunderstanding there are a few things to keep in mind. Number one: I have not watched every t.v. show in the past decade. This should go without saying, but I point it out because there may be shows worthy of consideration that I just haven’t seen. I have never watched Sons of Anarchy, The Sopranos, or House, even though I have heard all are good. So if your show didn’t make the list it may just be that I haven’t seen it or have seen very little of it. Number two: I have tried very hard not to include sitcoms on this list. There are only one or two shows that made the list that could be considered sitcoms but even they are unusual. Sitcoms are not conventional drama, meaning the story lines change from week to week so it is very difficult to rate them among other t.v. dramas. If I included sitcoms I am sure Two and a Half Men, Modern Family, and Desperate Housewives would get some consideration but I am not and they don’t. Same is true for Soap Operas and Reality T.V./Variety T.V. Once again those shows are too hard to rate critically because each episode is unique. I have also tried to avoid miniseries because they are more like long films than t.v. although there is one exception to that on this list. Number three: There are no shows on the list in their first or second seasons. For this reason you won’t find Boardwalk Empire, Hell on Wheels, The Walking Dead, or American Horror Story even though all are excellent. So with that in mind. Here it is: My top ten for the 2000’s.

#10. Band of Brothers/The Pacific

I said there would be no miniseries on the list with one exception, and this is the exception. Spanning two seasons and roughly 22 episodes Band of Brothers/The Pacific act like a very good t.v. show and/or a terrific documentary. Band of Brothers debuted in 2001 and chronicled the exploits of Easy Company through the European invasion of WW2. The Pacific debuted in 2010 and chronicled the Pacific theater of WW2. Both were produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks and both debuted on HBO. Band of Brothers was the more successful of the two series and starred Scott Grimes, Damian Lewis and Ron Livingston. The miniseries won a Golden Globe and over 22 emmy’s. The Pacific starred James Badge Dale and Joseph Mazzello and was nominated for the Golden Globe but didn’t win. Both series were epic in their portrayal of the horrors of war while telling the personal stories of real soldiers who are interviewed for the show. Each set is available now on DVD and Blu-Ray.

#9. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia

I suppose you could say “It’s Always Sunny” is a sitcom and in an unconventional way it is, but the show which follows “the gang” of Frank, Dee, Dennis, Charlie and Mac is really more of an odd blend of sketch comedy and absurdism masquerading as a sitcom. Like Seinfeld “It’s Always Sunny” showcases a group of terrible human beings and the odd jams they get themselves into on a weekly basis, but where as Seinfeld was always confined by t.v. standards and practices and the rigidity of the sitcom format, Sunny is allowed to branch out in crude and unexpected ways. The “gang” which owns Paddy’s Pub in Philadelphia might be content to sell liquor to minors or trick a catholic priest into denouncing his faith, but then again Dennis and Mac might visit an abortion rally to determine which side has the hotter chicks, the gang might “dance their asses off” in order to save the bar, or maybe Charlie will just get himself a new “rat-stick” so he can kill them more humanely. It’s Always Sunny is not afraid to take on sacred cows, but it is always done in a delightfully absurdist way, and the intent is always humor. The show has no agenda and will go in any direction which is why it is so damn funny. My personal favorites include “The Night Man Cometh,” “The Gang Get’s Invincible” and “Dennis Reynolds: An Erotic Life.”

#8. Dexter

Dexter is a show about a serial killer. More importantly it is about a serial killer who kills other killers. Based on the book series by Jeff Lindsay Dexter tells the story of a young kid Dexter Morgan (played brilliantly by Michael C. Hall of Six Feet Under fame) who witness his mothers violent death as an infant. The police officer on the case knows that the kid will be permanently psychologically damaged by this and realizing he might become a killer himself one day trains the boy how to kill and who to kill. As long as Dexter is killing bad guys his sick impulses can serve a greater good. For a show with such dark subject matter, (subject matter so dark only Showtime agreed to air it) Dexter is surprisingly light-hearted and humorous. Set in Miami Dexter plays a forensic analyst who specializes in blood-spatter analyses. His sister is a detective for Miami Metro Homicide and most of the people Dexter works with like him and respect him. His job allows him to kill efficiently without much suspicion and when someone does get too close Dexter usually has the upper hand. The show which has just entered its sixth season and may be done soon deals with issues of morality, justice, loyalty and betrayal, and yet it is a joy to watch. You will need a strong stomach to sit through much of this show as it is ridiculously violent but if you can the acting and writing is worth it. Personally Season’s 2 and 4 are the best.

#7.  Six Feet Under

Six Feet Under could be described as the show that got me into television. Much like the way Grand Theft Auto expanded my mind to what a game could be, Six Feet Under made me think about what a t.v. show could be. Nestled between HBO’s formative years in television when they did The Soprano’s, OZ, and Sex and the City, and their current dominant years with True Blood and Boardwalk Empire, Six Feet Under was the first major attempt to do  an adult drama that played like a movie or perhaps even a theatrical tragedy. When the show was on I compared it to a Greek Tragedy because Six Feet Under dealt with death but also human frailty. The characters of Nate, David, Ruth, and Claire Fisher represent a conventional family that has fallen apart when their patriarch dies in season one. As the owners of a funeral parlor the family is used to death in clinical terms but they have a hard time coming to grip with life, and especially their own mortality. Unfortunately Six Feet Under took some bad turns in Season’s 3 and 4 with bizarre deaths, stupid politicization, and the ongoing melodrama of Nate’s love life which almost sunk the show, but Under always had another trick up its sleave and was always beautiful to watch. Personal favorite episode is in Season 4 when David picks up a hitchhiker and gets terrorized during a wild night. The finale in season 5 is astonishing.

#6. True Blood

I debated which of Alan Ball’s manic creations should be ahead of the other, and ultimately decided on True Blood because, well, its just so damn entertaining. True Blood is a show about vampires that live in the small town of Bon Temps (pronounced Bonn Tomp) in Louisiana, but for those turned off by vampires don’t worry. There’s also fairies, shapeshifters, werewolves, even a Maenad (don’t know what that last one is? You’ll find out in season 2). But mostly True Blood is about sex, and damn if there isn’t a lot of it? Bram Stokers original Dracula has long been considered a metaphor for rape and the loss of sexual innocence, but in True Blood sex is the reason for most of the main characters problems. Sookie Stackhouse (played perfectly, if a bit too cutesy, by Anna Paquin) is a waitress at Merlotte’s who falls in love with a vampire named Bill Compton in the first season. But Sookie, like most of the main characters, is a lot more than meets the eye, and has special abilities all on her own. True Blood does occasionally get deep and deals with issues of persecution, love, and death, but it mostly tries to be funny, sexy, and violent, almost in a cartoonish fashion. People don’t have to take this show too seriously. It plays like an X-rated soap opera, which is really why it is so entertaining. Some of the plot points in the last two seasons are ridiculous, and the character of Tara is downright annoying, but overall, True Blood may be the most entertaining show on television.

#5. Smallville

Smallville is the only show on here that can be found on basic television and it is also the only one that is wrapped up (the last season aired earlier this year). But it is a testament to the show’s creators (Miles Millar, Alfred Gough) that the show lasted so long and was ultimately so successful. For those that don’t know Smallville follows a young Clark Kent from the time he started High School up until the day he actually becomes Superman. The creators make a concerted effort not to simply do a Superman storyline (although many characters and incidents from the comics pop up) but to actually show the difficulty of being born with extraordinary powers and what drives a young Clark Kent to want to help people. The show’s first seven seasons take place almost exclusively in the Kansas town of Smallville. Season’s 8 through 10 take place in Metropolis and the show shifts to a more adult drama. But really it is the early seasons of the show that are the best and give the show its heart. Tom Welling, a former underwear model, does a surprisingly ingratiating turn as a young Clark Kent, and this is the first time since the early moments of Richard Donner’s Superman that we feel any emotion for this monolithic character. The cast also has a terrific Michael Rosenbaum as Lex Luthor, Kristen Kreuk as Lana Lang, and Erica Durance as Lois Lane. Seasons 1 through 5 are magical as we see the evolution of this character. Seasons 6 and 7 are poor, season 8 is outstanding with the addition of Doomsday played by Sam Witner, and Seasons 9 and 10 are not very good, although they do have their moments. Ultimately Smallville got worse as it went along, a sad fact of most television shows but it is still one of the most unique, moralistic, and entertaining shows ever put on t.v.

#4 South Park

This is the only animated show on the list but it is deserving of such a lofty place. South Park, like It’s Always Sunny, is not afraid to go off in absurd, even warped directions to find its humor (such was the case with last years three part Imaginationland special) but more often than not South Park is rich social and political satire and it takes dead aim at topics few shows are willing to touch.  South Park was willing to air an image of the prophet Muhammed a few years back before Comedy Central felt public pressure to censure the episode. South Park aired the edited version and used it as a way to attack extremism and censorship. South Park pokes fun of celebrities (Paris Hilton, Mel Gibson, and George Clooney seem to be favorite targets) but mostly it attacks stupidity or extremism where it is found in American Culture. Through the eyes of four young boys (Kenny, Kyle, Stan, and Cartman) and using crude animation the show can get away with blasting almost anything and deal with graphic depictions of sex and violence that normal shows could never touch. What sets South Park apart is that since it first aired in 1997 it has evolved and become more outrageous while maintaining a sort of crude oath to keep a check on people and beliefs that seem out of whack in America. Whether attacking Mormonism, Islam, or even Christianity South Park isn’t afraid to take on religion. Whether attacking politicians on the left or on the right, the show isn’t afraid to attack politics. Mostly, this show isn’t afraid. Crude and offensive yes, but afraid… Never.

# 3. The Wire

I had the unique privilege to watch The Wire unedited, commercial free, and in consecutive order over the course of about two weeks. What I did was proceed to rent the whole show on DVD, three or four episodes at a time, until I watched it all. An absurd waste of time? Maybe, but for entertainment value it was well worth it, and by watching it this way I can tell you that The Wire plays more like a long novel, or perhaps a sixty part miniseries, than a conventional t.v. show. The Wire is not simply episodic. Its story of drug use and the cops that fight it in Baltimore is a long, interconnected tale that takes the viewer on an emotional journey like few shows ever had. Season 1 begins when a young cop named McNulty (played perfectly by British actor Dominic West) visits a courtroom and watches Avon Barksdale get off on a potential murder after manipulating a jury. McNulty tells the judge hearing the case that the man who went free is one of the biggest drug lords in Baltimore and that him and his partner Stringer Bell run things. The judge decides he wants to help McNulty out and authorizes a small team of cops to monitor a wire in the hopes of catching the two drug lords. Most of seasons 1 through 3 deal with the troubles and eventual success in bringing down Barksdale and Stringer Bell. Seasons 4 and 5  are about a new target named Marlo but much of the cast remains the same. But what really sets The Wire apart from more conventional police dramas is that each show is really about social systems that fail us, and how we all pay for the failures of people who are supposed to protect us. Season 1 deals with an inefficient police department, season 2 deals with a corrupt union working on the docks, season 3 deals with a heated battle for mayor of Baltimore, season 4 deals with bad schools, and season 5 deals with a lazy and incompetent media. The Wire makes the case that those most capable of dealing with the drug problem in America are actually largely responsible for it, and like South Park, The Wire isn’t afraid to take aim at specific targets. The show plays out like a grand tragedy where the best people only succeed in small measures and the worst people go unpunished. The Wire is one of the truly great shows in t.v. history. Many favorite moments on this show, but perhaps one of the best is in season 2 when Bunk and McNulty solve a crime scene using only the word “fuck.” Omar’s “death” is also enjoyable.

#2. Mad Men

Unfortunately the show that many consider to be the best on television has taken a year long hiatus after Matthew Weiner and AMC couldn’t agree on the right amount of money for the upcoming season. Season 5 should air this summer (Please!). But looking back on the last four seasons this show has been an unprecedented success and I think it has helped pave the way for new television shows. There’s no question The Playboy Club and PanAm wouldn’t have been made before Mad Men (maybe that’s not a good thing). But what makes Mad Men unique is not that it takes place in the sixties or that it’s about advertising, no, it is the shows impeccable writing and perfectly depicted characters that make it so unique. You could say that Mad Men is about the decline in American values or that it is a period piece wrapped up like a soap opera, but I look at it much like a modern day Gone With the Wind. Mad Men is about an era of greatness in America that had to fail, and the show chronicles that failure not through historical anecdotes (although there are many poignant moments like The Kennedy Assassination, or the death of Marilyn Monroe) but through people’s life choices.

Don Draper, the enigmatic hero of the show, is a perpetual womanizer and boozer, but like most great men, you are drawn to his talent, not his flaws. Joan and Peggy do a great job defining the struggles of women at that time, and the duality of wanting success in love, and in a career. Mostly the show is about people who are flawed, but who don’t apologize for it, who in fact focus on their success, not their failures. It reminds us of a time when America was great, even while we cringe at the abhorrent racism and sexism that so permeated the era. We love these people not because of their flaws but in spite of them, much like we love America. Mad Men is one of the most unique and best written shows to ever come along and I think it will go down with shows like The Honeymooners, I Love Lucy, Mash, and Seinfeld as among the best of all time.

#1. Breaking Bad

Breaking Bad doesn’t have the poignancy of Mad Men, it probably won’t be remembered as fondly. If most shows seek to penetrate the viewer emotionally, and their tool of writing works like a scalpel, Breaking Bad is more of a shotgun blast to the face! Breaking Bad is ostensibly about a chemistry teacher who turns to making and selling Crystal Meth in order to pay his bills when he develops cancer. But really Breaking Bad is about evil, more importantly it is about how we become evil. I have said this before in a previous blog so forgive me if you have read it, but the great moralist Theodore Dalrymple defined evil perfectly in an essay called “The Frivolity of Evil.” In the essay he stated that man doesn’t choose evil, he chooses expedience or the path of least resistance, and it is through small acts of meanness or manipulation that we build the foundations of evil.

In Breaking Bad Walter White starts off as a good man who makes a bad choice when he gets cancer. His choice to sell drugs is bad, but he is not a bad man. However, over time, in order to make his lifestyle functional, he has to do more bad things. He must lie to his family, break the law, manipulate his partner Jesse, and yes, even kill people. Over time Walter White becomes an evil man, and the show is really about how all of us must own up to our decisions in order to determine what we want to be. The last season which just ended a few months ago has brought Walter White full circle into becoming the number one drug kingpin of the southwest. The show will wrap up next season, and ultimately we will see if Walter and Jesse have a soul left to save, and if anything can stop the evil they have unleashed.

Breaking Bad isn’t the coolest show on t.v. or the most highly thought of. But it is more powerful than anything ever put on television, and so far I think it is far and away the best.

Thanks for listening, and feel free to post any comments or add shows of your own to the list.

Sincerely,

Jack B.