Thursday, December 24, 2009

Best of the Decade: TV

Here’s the ten best TV shows of the decade. This was by far the best decade for TV in the medium’s history, and this list is pretty close to my best series all time list. There's a lot of great shows that didn't make it, these are the elite.

10. Angel
Best Season: Five
Best Episode: ‘A Hole in the World’

The most uneven show on the list, Angel veered from the boring standalones of season one and the endless, at times nonsensical season four arc to the morally ambiguous challenging heights of the Darla arc in season two, Wesley’s arc in season three and in particular the entire final season were fantastic enough for it to merit a spot on the list. What makes the show shine above its inconsistencies were the fantastic character development work done on Angel, Cordelia and Wesley. All three of those characters were fantastic, and anchored the show in a very real way. It’s a shame the show was cancelled at the height of its powers, but at least we got one of the all time best series finales.

9. Freaks and Geeks
Best Season: One
Best Episode: ‘Discos and Dragons’

Like its ‘cancelled too soon’ brethren Arrested Development and Firefly, Freaks and Geeks has become a legend of TV, and the massive success of virtually all its actors and creative team only enhanced the legend. But, despite the team’s massive success, nobody involved has topped their work here. The performances were fantastic, and the show did a great job of world building as it went on, and letting you watch the people grow and change in subtle ways. It’s the best depiction of high school life ever captured on film, and, as with Angel, even though it was cancelled too soon, it went out on a fantastic high note.

8. Doctor Who
Best Season: Four
Best Episode: ‘Parting of the Ways’

Far from the most consistent show, Who had probably more weak episodes than any other show on the list, but at its best, it hit me emotionally like nothing else out there. The thing I love so much about Who is the core of optimism about humanity’s potential and our place in the world. The Doctor sees excitement and joy everywhere he goes, and even when the show got dark, as it often did to great effect, it’s about him struggling to make things better and having to deal with the fact that he can’t. I particularly like the show’s reinterpretation of the hero’s journey, as we see that just being chosen and taken to a world of adventure doesn’t make all your problems go away. The show is spectacle on a scale never before attempted on TV, and when it succeeds, it blows your mind and breaks your heart at the same time. I’m excited to see the story resolve itself in the two part finale over the course of the next week.

7. Mad Men
Best Season: Two
Best Episode: ‘The Jet Set’

Mad Men is probably the best example of the new kind of shows that became possible thanks to shifts in the perception and consumption of the TV medium. The Sopranos pushed the boundaries of art in TV, but even as it plunged into subjective artiness and de-dramatized character stories in its later years, it still was based around action stories and had violence as the dramatic hook for viewers. Mad Men has no violence or action, but it’s still riveting in its precise exploration of a set of characters trying to survive or thrive in the 1960s. Visually, the show is unparalleled in its gorgeous production design and costuming, capturing all the glamour and narrative ambiguity of 60s European art cinema. It’s great to watch something on TV that feels like Fellini or Bergman, that uses our familiarity with the characters to explore complex issues and new storytelling methods. I’d be shocked if this show isn’t here when I do the best of the decade list ten years from now.

6. The Office (UK)
Best Season: Two
Best Episode: Season 2, Episode 6

The Office is the only comedy on the list, largely because it’s so much more than just funny, it’s got a core of sadness that is shockingly overturned by the show’s joyous Christmas finale. It’s also the most influential comedy on the list, pioneering the comedy of awkwardness that was widely adopted later in the decade, and influencing the documentary aesthetic of shows like Arrested Development, as well as obvious descendents like the American Office and Parks and Recreation. But, thanks to its short running time, the series makes no compromises, and is true to its characters and world. Thanks to the overall sense of hopelessness, the final scene between Tim and Dawn is one of the most romantic and beautiful in all of film. And, on top of all that, it’s the funniest show of all time.

5. John From Cincinnati
Best Season: One
Best Episode: ‘His Visit, Day Five’

I’ve seen John mentioned in a lot of decade writeups, usually in the context of the erroneous idea that Milch allowed Deadwood to be cancelled in favor of doing this show. One, that’s not at all true. Two, JFC was in many ways the continuation of Deadwood that they wanted, but for me, it refined all the things that worked about Deadwood and brought the dormant themes to the fore for a fascinating exploration of the way that communities form and what spirituality and the extraordinary mean in a contemporary context. The series blend of mysticism and verite was hard for people to take, but I loved it, few series had the religious awe this one carried, and moments like John’s sermon in the parking lot or the descent from the clouds that opened the final episode are among the most profound ever captured on film. I don’t consider this a qualified success, it’s outright one of the best series of all time.

4. The Wire
Best Season: Three
Best Episode: ‘Final Grades’

One of the most important and ambitious series of all time, The Wire has been praised extensively, and virtually no compliment about the series is hyperbole. It really is as good as people claim, both in terms of social relevance and in simple story construction. The show built an elaborate world and by the end of the series had nearly 50 regular characters floating through at any given time. And, it’s the characters who linger for me, particularly moments like the apocalyptic fourth season finale, or the operatic Avon and Stringer stuff at the end of season three. People will watch and analyze this series for years to come, it’s one of the most important documents of the aspects of our society that no one else is talking about. You need look no further than the fact that Crash won a best picture Oscar the same year as The Wire aired on TV to see where the real cultural dialogue was taking place this decade.

3. Six Feet Under
Best Season: Five
Best Episode: ‘I’m Sorry, I’m Lost’

Six Feet Under is a show that on the surface lacks the ambition of something like The Sopranos or The Wire, but it’s so brilliant in its character work, and its exploration of the search for meaning in everyday middle class life in the 2000s. All the characters were looking for definition, for a way to give their lives purpose and to find love and fulfillment in a world that often makes it hard to believe in anything. In a decade of irony and distance, this show forced its characters to confront their true selves, and the performances and writing crafted some of the most well rounded characters in literary history, Nate and Brenda in particular. By the end of the series, the accumulated experiences of all the characters led to a devastating series of events, and ultimately transcendence in the final montage that took us outside time to show that everything ends, but we all have to live first.

2. Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Best Season: Six
Best Episode: ‘Restless’

The 00s featured the series’ best episodes, the two season arc that spanned seasons five and six, as well as my personal favorite season of any show all time, season six. But, it also featured some shakier stuff in season four and season seven. Still, take everything I said about Six Feet Under above and add it an epic hero’s journey and you’ve got what makes Buffy so special. The character work was phenomenal, and I’ve never been as completely addicted to a series as I was watching the later seasons of the show. New characters like Tara and Anya, as well as Spike’s rise to prominence kept the series fresh, and Whedon’s auteurial experiments pushed the show to new heights of visual greatness, particularly in ‘Restless’ and the dazzling ‘Once More With Feeling,’ which managed to simultaneously be a great original musical, and forward the overall season plot. I still love the show so much.

1. The Sopranos
Best Season: Five
Best Episode: ‘Long Term Parking’

The show that redefined what a TV series can be, The Sopranos is the greatest sustained examination of a single character in cinema history, and is also a fascinating look at the priorities and concerns of everyday people in a post WWII, post 9/11 world. While the show drew attention for its mob storylines, what jumped out to me was how much the characters’ world reminded me of my life, and how the relatability of what was happening. It was an intellectually riveting series, full of internal patterns and long reaching character arcs and symbol tracks, but it was also intensely addictive. Watching the last couple of seasons, I was desperate to see the next episodes, and upon rewatch, the series reveals more and more layers. If The Wire functions as a portrait of the poor and downtrodden in society, The Sopranos explores the troubles of people struggling to maintain their hold on the middle class, to continue living their lives in a world where the country slips into financial ruin and loses its status in the world. Tony Soprano is America, and his dream is ours. The instantly iconic finale only adds to the series status as fascinating, endlessly debatable entertainment.


malpractice said...

this list was a bit easier to make for me

The Wire
Mad Men
The Sopranos
Veronica Mars
Arrested Development
The Office
Battlestar Galactica
Doctor Who

also while i love the show, is it really fair to include freaks and geeks on a best of the 2000's list. didn't most of the show air in 1999 ?

i thought about including Buffy too but i feel most of it's better days had been behind it by that point. although season 5 is my second favorite season.

still need to watch six feet under as well.

Patrick said...

Freaks and Geeks aired about 6 episodes in 1999, and the rest aired in 2000. It's not too many episodes, but more time in hours than The Office.

And, your list is great too. I've seen and really enjoyed all those shows, AD and BSG would have been 11 and 12 on my list.

I.V.P. said...

All great shows here. A little surprised that The West Wing didn't make it. You're not a fan?

Patrick said...

I do like The West Wing, and watched all of the Sorkin episodes as they aired, but it didn't connect with me in the way that these shows did. I will say that if I did a separate episodes list, "Two Cathedrals" would probably have been on it.

Jeff said...

I'm glad to see someone share my sentiment that the underrated season 5 of the Sopranos was the best from top to bottom (although Pine Barrens is still my favorite episode, just for the entertainment value.) I'd probably place The Wire at the top of the list (and it would be atop an all-time tv series list, if I ever made one). I'm watching the complete series again, and the level of plotting and characterization is so intricate and rewarding to the attentive viewer that it dwarfs anything else ever aired on television. Plus the characters reach a Tarantino-level of operatic-ness by the end.

Patrick said...

Season five of The Sopranos is the most successful for me because of its essentially standalone episode structure, where each episode follows a couple of characters and puts them through a huge amount of development. It's a good choice for shows in their later days, where the casts can become so sprawling that stories just drag. It's a style that's been adopted to some extent by Mad Men, which will have characters disappear for a couple of weeks then thoroughly dominate an episode.

As for The Wire vs. The Sopranos, it's tough to asses, both are great shows, all the ones on here are, but I'd give The Sopranos the slight edge because personally I'm more interested in the broken down psyche than the broken down city, and the psychological and surreal components of The Sopranos really put it over for me. The Wire's realism precludes getting that kind of access to the characters. They're still incredibly well developed and real, but I love being able to see inside someone's head, and that's what The Sopranos did so well.

John G. Potter said...

Great list. I found the blog by way of Googling "2001: A Space Odyssey interpretation," and found yours spot on.

Since then, I've poked around your archives, and there's great stuff here! Keep it up.