Friday, January 08, 2010

Best television of the decade

Mr. Chair has argued that television has outpaced movies in overall quality during the last several years, and I'll agree, especially in terms of complexity, narrative arcs and the finely wound humor.

Audience involvement is at an entirely different level with beloved shows and television has a certain responsive capability that enriches the whole experience. Networks may pander as much as ever, and cut shows before giving them much of a chance, but cable has more than stepped up to fill the void. In many ways, the decade was a new Golden Age for television. The ambition behind the shows on this list is absolutely staggering.

1. Arrested Development

Practically everything is an inside joke, which ensures that repeat viewings will continue to yield more discoveries, more nuance and and more side-splitting rewards. No other comedy demands so much attention or gives so many thrills along the way. But "getting it" is just the beginning. From the characters' names to the myriad of signature quirks to the cycling of plot motifs, everything is in its right place. I've intentionally deprived myself of Arrested Development for the last few years, just so I can appreciate it all in one quick stretch again (probably soon), with as many of the surprises as possible seeming as genuine as they were the first time around. Favorite moments: The individualized chicken dances.

2. The Wire
The Wire is a feast, and so ambitious and expansive that it's more or less stopped even qualifying as television. The Wire is essentially its own new type of art, as much novel as it is show. I'd guess there are more than 200 characters you have to keep track of over the course of five seasons, and no matter how long they've been off screen, they're all likely to return - and you'd better remember who's who. It's also unflinching in both its display and critique of the crumbling American city, carefully showing again and again how degradation goes through its paces. I cruised through the last four seasons in less than three weeks, a bleary-eyed addict who had to have just one more episode every night. Along the way, I debated favorite characters in my mind, but at the end of it all, it's gotta be Omar.

3. The West Wing
This was my go-to show on DVD for most of the decade. Nearly every episode across the entire seven-year run is filled with inspiring and thought-provoking moments. The dialogue reins supreme. The sets shine with realism. Some plot lines verged on the outlandish, but they were always executed well. Despite a few late-season turnovers, the cast was uniformly excellent. My first exposure was the season two finale, and after hearing President Bartlett call God a "feckless thug," I was instantly a fan. And never underestimate how much good will and devotion the show earned by letting people dream of actual integrity in the White House during the Bush years.

4. The Shield
I've never seen a pilot lay claim to such high stakes as this show did. And the consequences that spilled from that first episode reverberated clear through to the series finale, which was a satisfying a conclusion on a number of levels. Gritty and filled with moral ambiguity, this show cast aside any notion of heroes and villains in the classic cop-show sense, opting to display its characters monsters of varying degrees. And whatever vices, faults or weaknesses they had were the very things that caused the most trouble. What's most amazing is how the various characters' - chiefly Detective Vic Mackey, though he's hardly the only one - internal and personal struggles somehow outweigh the demands of policing LA's most troubled neighborhoods.

5. It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia

Greedy, mindless narcissists have the most fun. The gang hasn't yet met a situation they couldn't hopelessly fail to capitalizing on, and though it's formulaic, watching these fools blunder time and time again is rich humor. The bizarrely close roommate relationship between Mac and Frank alone goes farther than most shows would dare. What's more, from what I've seen of this season, the show is still gaining steam. The characters are so barbaric and preposterously unlikable that I don't imagine It's Always Sunny will ever break through to anything resembling a general audience, but for those who like their comedy salty, jagged and full of peculiar injuries, it's a charming winner.

6. 30 Rock
Well, I clearly like my comedies to consist of ensemble casts, filled with strange characters, that draw most of their humor from endless quirks and intertwined plot threads. That's OK, because Tina Fey and Co. serve it up just right. As with Arrested Development, nearly every character plays everything completely straight, leaving the viewer to crack up at every mention of Dr. Spaceman (Spe-chem-in). If you need hand holding, click on over to Two & A Half Men. If you want your laughing mind blown week after week, it's 30 Rock that you need. And while the current season seems a little weak, just remember how high the bar is set with this one.

7. Weeds

I've definitely fallen for Mary Louise Parker. Weeds is a show that has been quick to evolve, quick to up the stakes and eager to give its secondary characters plenty of scenes. Nancy Botwin is the core, but she's definitely not the entire show. Andy, Doug and Celia are often more compelling, and often get the better lines and scenes. And while this last season didn't really do it for me, it was hardly a black mark on the entire series. The final moment made up for a lot and I'm honestly excited for the coming sixth season. It's tough to sum up a show still in progress, because as others on this list (The Shield, The West Wing) show, some of the greatest payoffs for many series can be a brilliant and satisfying ending.

8. The Sopranos
This may be a bit low, but I've only seen the first three seasons, and the first one was actually in 1999. But there's no denying the excellence of The Sopranos, and the breakthrough it meant for HBO. Since I was slow catching up, I've avoided nearly all of the references to the show on other best-of lists, or upon its conclusion. While I don't think it actually spoils much, somehow I still know of the Journey ending. Not much of a deterrence. I officially reserve the right to bump up The Sopranos upon viewing the series to completion.

9. The Office
Perhaps the greatest joy of watching The Office (greater even then Jim & Pam coming together) was seeing how it began to transcend its British forebearer. I doubt its creators ever intended for the American version to become such a fully realized entity in its own right. The plot lines, the jokes, the characters and the very heart of the show have come such a long way since the first season. I'm not disparaging the British version, because I truly like it, but the American Office is simply better. There's a simplicity running through the show that's refreshing, week after week.

10. The Daily Show / The Colbert Nation
Fake news overtook real news for actually providing real information in the past decade. And, really, what's better than a watchdog for the watchdogs? That's right, two watchdogs, both of which deliver on the promise of several laughs every night. Ultimately they share this honor because they're two sides of the same coin. And I'd hate to even imagine what depths the national broadcast and cable media would have fallen to if Stewart and Colbert hadn't been riding them. The shows represent as much of a shibboleth as I think exists today for the educated and frustrated folks who find outrage is a bit easier to swallow with some laughs.

Honorable mentions:
Freaks & Geeks
Chapelle's Show
Reno 911!
Veronica Mars
How I Met Your Mother

While television had an excellent decade, and the viewing experience was improved tremendously by DVDs and TiVo, it still has largely earned its boob tube name (and I'm not even talking about 'reality TV').

I shudder to think of how many hours I've spent with the (mostly) empty calories of the network dramas. At one point or another, and for varying durations and degrees of intensity, I've been hooked on a surprising percentage of the decade's crime procedurals: Law & Order, Law & Order Criminal Intent, Law & Order SVU, CSI Miami, CSI, Las Vegas, House, Numb3rs, Cold Case and my current addiction (three hours on TNT tonight!) Bones. I guess comfort TV will always have a place.


C. Samuel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
C. Samuel said...

I agree TV was awesome this decade, some thoughts: I think the sopranos was just amazing. Everything else is really pales in comparison to the scope of the narrative, and the quality of acting and writing. Except maybe for Mad Men which you didn't even mention! It's really great too. Deadwood was really good and Rome wasn't bad either. Two last thoughts. I don't think Daily Show whould be listed here, it's far too important to suggest that it is merely entertainment. Second, the British office was way better. They kept it to one season, a really good decision. And the love story was so sincere I seriously wept during the Christmas Party episode.

Catfish Vegas said...

I haven't watched Mad Men, Deadwood or Rome. And you're wrong about The Office. British great, American better.

C. Samuel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
C. Samuel said...

No, you're wrong.