Sunday, January 03, 2010

The Top Television Programs of the Decade

I've written in this blog before about the golden age of television and as the decade comes to a close, it's become more than apparent that television has surpassed film in terms of cultural relevance. The tv shows you're watching (or what you're catching up on) has become more of a conversation starter than what films you've seen. It's not that movies don't matter anymore, but it's hard to deny their cultural prestige has declined. With the increased freedom given to creators in television, there's simply far more that can be done with the 10-14 hours a television show may have for a single season than with the 2 to 3 hours you get in a film.

For the record, my top two films of the last two years are Pixar "kids" movies, Wall-E and Up, both of which were far more imaginative and compelling than virtually anything else I've seen in the later half of this decade. But I'll have no top ten film list for the simple reason that I haven't seen enough movies. Part of my problem is that the great films never seem as great as they're supposed to be, but that's a story for another time. For now, here is my top ten list of the television shows of the decade. Now, for television connoisseurs, you'll notice some big names are missing, most notably the Sopranos. It's simply because I haven't sat down and watched the entire series yet and what I haven't watched isn't on the list. That being said, I've seen a fair share of the Sopranos and I'd have trouble believing it's a better show than the Wire or Mad Men, no matter what other critics might say.

So without further ado, here is my top ten list, with some of the tough cuts listed below.

1. The Wire: The Wire isn't just the best show of the decade, it's the best television show ever and a work of fiction that is already a modern American classic. With a vast cast of characters, the Wire was a five year critique of the drug war, but more than that, it was a long form tragedy about the failure of institutions at all levels and the tragic impact of those failures on individuals. Far too many "dark" television programs make the mistake of equating bad behavior with tragedy, but for Wire creator David Simon, the tragedy starts with society. Individuals make plenty of bad choices along the way, but the creative setup leaves the audience's sympathies with the characters, with the drug dealers, the cops, and everyone in between.

2. Mad Men: Perhaps even better then the Wire in terms of pure construction, Mad Men is number two solely because it lacks the sheer scope of our number one. Mad Men is the story of Don Draper, creative director for New York based ad agency Sterling Cooper, but from the start it's been so much more. Don's entire life, from his marriage, to his persona, to his name, was as intricately constructed as any advertisement and for three years, Mad Men has given us the parallel stories of the disintegration of the life Don had created for himself and the disintegration of the 50's era cultural consensus. The tumult of the 60's was supposed to be as inevitable as Don's personal crises. Oh, and ... Mad Men manages to be an incredible tv show without guns, murder, violence, and fist fights.

3. Arrested Development: Arrested completes the "holy trinity" of the television shows of the last decade that were near perfect. The storyline of Arrested's three seasons would be compelling without the humor and other than the early years of the Simpsons, I don't think there's ever been a show quite as layered where joke after joke after joke is revealed through future viewings. As opposed to program's like Family Guy or other sitcoms where many of the jokes are simply throwaway lines, Arrested never wasted a bit of dialogue, always building on either plot or character. Plenty of shows have done selfish, but Arrested took it to a new level: 90% of the conversations between characters were not really conversations but the characters talking past each other, stuck in their own little worlds. This helped maintain the characters likability because when they did connect with one another, it actually seemed real. And maybe most importantly, Arrested gave us chicken dances, Gob's Final Countdown magic performances, the airport staircar, and the most timely treatment of the war in Iraq.

4. Lost: Let me just clarify something. Lost is my favorite show of the decade, perhaps my favorite show of all time, but unlike the top three, it is not flawless. There are some moments where the dialogue leans toward cliche and places (like parts of season 3 and 5) where the storyline is just plain clunky. But taken as a whole, Lost is a tremendous achievement, replete with compelling characters and more imagination than perhaps any other major series on network television. What other show could leave it's fans so in the dark about the direction of the show's final season, yet remain a popular phenomenon? In fact, Lost has managed to do something no other series has ever done: Creatively redefine itself while incorporating new characters at the start of each no season, building upon the characters and plot threads of previous seasons.

5. South Park: I wasn't going to rank South Park this high, if even at all, but then I watched ManBearPig the other night, the 2006 episode which skewered Al Gore and his global warming obsession, and I was reminded of the show's brilliance and timeliness. ManBearPig was first shown in spring of '06, right when an Inconvenient Truth first came out, but before it became a real buzzworthy topic. ManBearPig is symbolic of South Park's timeliness and cleverness, and how sometimes the show was so timely and so clever that it took a few years for the rest of us to catch on. And while South Park has had it's share of misses over the course of the decade, perhaps that's a testament to more of a credit to Trey Parker and Matt Stone than we realize. They don't do safe and they don't do easy and the television landscape is all the better for it.

6. Big Love: I've enjoyed Big Love for three years, since my wife and I first watched it during it's first season when we had a free HBO trial, but prior to last year, I probably wouldn't have placed it in the top ten. Last year however, the numerous plot threads of the first few years collided in a veritable dramatic perfect storm, making me comfortable placing the polygamist drama in the top ten. Like Mad Men, Big Love is just so different from everything else on the air- no cops, no lawyers, no doctors, and unique for HBO, no swearing. Despite the connotations of polygamy, Big Love also boasts the strongest cast of female characters on tv, providing support for the axiom that behind every great man, there's one or maybe several great women.

7. It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia: I've heard Sunny described as Seinfeld for the next generation and that description, while apt, may not really do the show justice. While the Seinfeld characters were notoriously selfish and self-interested, the Sunny cast took these qualities to a new level. But more importantly, each member of the Sunny cast showcased an unprecedented complete lack of self awareness. But as opposed to a show like Curb, where the conflict often seems forced, Sunny stories always tend to evolve organically. The season three episode, "Sweet Dee is Dating a Retarded Person," remains the funniest half hour of the decade.

8. Freaks & Geeks: Technically, half of the show's brief run was in the fall of 1999, but if we're talking about cultural significance, Freaks and Geeks was a fortuitous program, ushering in a new style of humor and storytelling and launching the careers of Judd Apatow and his young stars. So yes, it was a trailblazer, but no, that's not the reason why it's in the top ten. The run was brief, but the show was awesome, perhaps the best depiction of adolescence we've seen on the small screen. It was funny and relatable, with the 1980 setting serving to preserve the show's shelf life rather than date it.

9. Battlestar Galactica: Perhaps no science fiction show has ever been so polarizing, as there are those who loved Battlestar from start to finish and those whose criticisms grew as the show's run continued. But as to why Battlestar belongs in this top ten I have only this to say: For all the haters out there, Battlestar was compelling television, compelling enough that the haters (which included me at times) stuck with it to the end, just to see what was going to happen next.

10. Red Eye with Greg Gutfeld: I know everyone will disagree with this pick, but it's my list and I've decided this number ten spot should go to something different. I've seen several other "best of" lists that feature the Daily Show or the Colbert Report, but Red Eye took that blurry distinction between news and entertainment to a new level. Not only is it on Fox News, but it has all the trappings of the typical news and opinion type programs: The host has a monologue, there's a roundtable discussion, and they actually cover real news events. But unlike the scripted news shows on Comedy Central, Red Eye is mostly off the cuff and it's left to the audience to determine what comments are serious and what comments are jokes. There's justnot another show on tv that can claim to have really given a voice to musicians, comedians, authors, and politicians and can claim to be home to regular appearances to both sitting Congressmen and fully costumed member of the sci-fi metal band Gwar, Oderus Urungus.

The Tough Cuts:

Carnivale: Simply put, the mystical depression-era HBO series was brought to an end before it's time. The set up the first season was compelling, but the ending was rushed, leaving far too many questions unanswered.

Six Feet Under: It'd be difficult to say that HBO's second big hit (after the Sopranos) wasn't well done, but for however well done it was, it was, at times, equally as difficult to watch. Six Feet was ultimately darker than Battlestar Galactica in terms of the self-destructive nature of it's characters and the plotting tended to reflect the characters bad decisions. It was worth watching, but I'm not sure I'd want to do it again.

Pushing Daisies: It only lasted 22 episodes, but it was worthy of consideration. So unique, so charming, so clever, but the first season was shortened by the writers strike and the show never got a real shake.

Malcolm In the Middle: The most underrated show of the decade, perhaps the most underrated comedy ever. If you appreciate comedy without a laugh track, you owe Malcolm a debt of gratitude.

Dexter: I love it, but Dexter has it's flaws. The writers are very manipulative with some of the thematic elements (such as this season when baby Harrison's cries or silence would signify Dexter's alternating frustration or harmony with his new family. And while some of the minor characters (like Deb) are stellar, others remain underdeveloped.

24: If this was a list of the most influential shows of the decade, 24 would make the list, but other than the first season, I'd have trouble calling any other season great. Seasons two and three were pretty good, but from season four on, the plotting has been utterly unbelievable. Sure, the first few seasons had their rough patches (Terri's amnesia season one, everything with Kim season two), but none of the last four seasons has even managed to tell a cohesive story.

Firefly: I'd love to include the cult favorite, but Firefly didn't last long enough to reach it's full potential. Even including the episodes on the DVD set which never actually aired, the characters never had the opportunity to be fully fleshed out.

Curb Your Enthusiasm: There are plenty of critics to whom Curb would be a no-brainer top ten pick, the logical follow-up to the previous decade that had been dominated by all things Seinfeld. But while I've always enjoyed Curb and the episodes tend to be well constructed, but what is this world where everyone else is as much as an argumentative ass as Larry David?

The Office: My wife made quite a case for the Office, based on the high quality of it's first few seasons and it's trailblazing presence in the comedy field. But the decline over the past few seasons has been too noticeable and the characters have seemingly suffered "Simpsons syndrome" in their inability to evolve.

30 Rock: Oh so close, but this past season has begun to make me think that the show still doesn't quite have a handle on it's brilliance. It can be laugh out loud funny, but I fear that it sometimes sacrifices plots and character for jokes.


Blogger lonely libertarian said...

I'll defend those top 4 if need be, but the rest are interchangeable and don't bother trying to pick a new number 10. What I'd love to hear is the arguments for the show's that didn't make the top ten or the show's I didn't even consider.

11:37 PM  
Blogger McMc said...

Freaks and Geeks doesn't belong on the list. If you're going to judge every single aspect of a TV show then how do you not factor in that Freaks and Geeks never even had a chance to have ups and downs? It's easy for a show to be great when they have a short life. If 24 ended after season 3, you'd feel a lot differently about that, wouldn't you?

2:39 AM  
Blogger JurisLaris said...

1) Mad Men does have a murder in it. ;o)

2) Big Love does have cops, lawyers, and doctors in it. lol But, I know what you mean.

3) I agree that 24 is not necessarily a top 10, because it's mostly built on cheap plot devices and characters are not as well developed as some of the other shows on LL's list and I'm not sure its influence has been long-lasting or meaningful, nor that it has really changed television or progressed it forward in any way. Sure it spawned a few brief parodies, but that's not necessarily a mark of quality, and instead may merely be recognition of popular phenomenon. I also think that a lot of the show's tricks (adding and subtracting family members of Jack and Pres. Palmer) were extremely weak and for me, spoiled the show's integrity. However, I did enjoy the show during the first few seasons. It was great until I started to see what other quality programs were going on out there.

4) I understand what "McMc" is saying about Freaks and Geeks not really having a chance to fail, but I do think that it was influential in two ways: 1) It was a one-hour television show which allowed character development to be the focus, and 2) It did further the careers of some of the most influential comedians of the decade - and perhaps a comedic style. Also, I look at the Freaks & Geeks group to be sort of the classic comedy group of the decade (Judd Apatow, Seth Rogan, Jason Seigel, and even James Franco).

5) Also, I think Law & Order SVU could be acknowledged here. Now, I agree that it is not on a phenomenal show by any means, though it is on my weekly must-watch list. (Though it is a show that gets recorded and watched a later date in my house, not something we have to watch as soon as it airs). Anyway, considering it is spin-off and could be very simply formulaic, I think they do a great job trying to keep it fresh and they have stocked the cast with a lot of loveable characters. For example, there is an episode that aired about two seasons ago, give or take, where it was following their traditional and predictable plot line with a twist, until all of the sudden, Stabler's wife gets in a car accident, and the show's entire focus goes right to the accident and we watch a rescue in what feels like real time. So, although the show does generally follow a "ripped from the headlines" formula, and often contains poor constructed and incorrect laws and legal practices, I give the show credit for trying to change it up and keep its fans on their toes every once in a while.

6) Also, LL left off House. House has managed to stay on the air for a few years now. Not sure it's a top ten, because it is extremely formulaic, and in fact, they often mention the same diseases when they're guessing what the patient of the week has every episode, but this season's premiere was amazingly well done, and could almost stand alone as its own movie or piece of artistic work. It was impressive to say the least, but it does seem like the show's energy went into that premiere, and they have since resumed with the same formula and set of problems.

7) I think Carnivale could have been a strong contender for top ten over Red Eye - it was an amazing show and of great quality. I wish it had been allowed to continue on because as LL said, there are a still a lot of unanswered questions. But I think in some ways, it did pave the way for fantasy tv (like Lost) to return/break into mainstream programming.

8) You didn't even talk about Californication either! I'm not sure what the significance of that show is, but it's damn fine programming!

11:23 AM  
Blogger lonely libertarian said...

I've been meaning to add some comments for a week now, so here goes:

1) Freaks and Geeks is certainly arguable and that's a very good point that the short shelf life of the show works to it's benefit. But if I was trying to be fair and judge the short run of Freaks and Geeks with the "good seasons" of other shows that may have outlived their brilliance, I'd still rank Freaks and Geeks pretty highly. I loved the first season of 24, but I'd still probably take Freaks and Geeks over it.

2. Law and Order SVU is entertaining, one of the better crime procedurals, and at times, even better than a show like House. But it's brilliance is never quite up to par with that of other great shows and far too much of what we see on screen fits very nicely into our preconceptions.

3. In a related comment, I think that the ability to defy our preconceptions is one of the markers of excellent television. The Wire did that by changing our understanding of the players in a cop drama. Lost does it by consistently upping the ante and changing the nature and scope of the show. And all the good comedies do it by taking the easy and cliched jokes and flipping them. Case-in-point, the third season episode of 30 Rock where Liz goes back to her home town for her high school reunion. Liz remembers being this picked on, friendless nerd, but as it turns out, she was the nasty one in high school- the "cool kids" tried to be nice to her and she'd only respond with snide, nasty remarks. Liz's version of the past was formed by tv and movies, so the reality was quite a shock and quite funny.

Similarly, another show that just missed the list, Malcolm in the Middle, had a very similar episode I caught on reruns the other night. Reese was in trouble with a teacher who threatened to fail him and Reese's complaints at the beginning of the episode that the teacher was out to get him went unheard. Reese himself didn't really believe it. That the teacher really was out to get Reese, to get back at all the bullies from his own childhood, was another humorous flipping of expectations.

10:54 AM  
Blogger alica said...

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6:26 AM  
Anonymous Deft said...

Carnivale rocked. I completely overlooked it and then my roomate had it on and I was hooked.

12:30 AM  

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