The 25 Best Television Shows of the Decade – Part 4
October 30, 2009
A message board I frequent is running a poll on the top 25 television shows of the decade. There were threads for nominations (which I missed), and the votes had to be chosen from the resulting list of a couple of hundred programmes. The qualifying rules meant that any show had to air episodes in this decade, but could started in the fall ’99 season. If shows started before then, only the seasons aired from fall ’99 onwards were to be considered. This is Part 4, which features numbers 5-1. Part 1 can be found here. Part 2 can be found here. Part 3 can be found here.
5. Adam Curtis Documentaries – The Century of the Self, The Power of Nightmares, and The Trap.
The nominations from which this list has been pulled from regarded each of these three documentary series as individual options, but for me it seems any pick of one over the other would be an arbitrary choice at best. I submitted The Power of Nightmares, as I think that would most likely garner points from other voters, it was the first of his that I saw, and in some ways it is the most concise and structured of the three. In the end, however, these three series are all made in the same indelible Adam Curtis manner, and they all cover the same basic themes: the ways in which government/companies/powers subtly and not so subtly manipulate the masses for a variety of gains but inevitably end in the erosion of freedom.
Not to say each programme is just a retread of the others, some overlaps aside (when the neo-cons turn up in The Trap, it was reminiscent of the Daleks floating out of the void ship during the Cyberman invasion). The Century of Self tracks the use of Freud, started by his nephew, in advertising and how the practice developed and turned on itself to create the consumerist culture of the present. The Power of Nightmares presents the oddly similar development of Islamic fundamentalism and the neo-conservative movement and their use of similar tactics to gain and retain power. The Trap shows influence on the paranoia of the Cold War and the subsequent creation of Game Theory by noted schizophrenic John Nash, and how free market theorists and politicians have used to create a narrow idea of freedom that has resulted in increased inequalities in both the U.S. and the U.K. In each case, Curtis casts a wide net on sources and evidence to develop a very convincing narrative for his arguments. Make no mistake, these are his arguments, and although they are credibly supported by events, facts, and even interviews with some of the larger figures in certain areas, he makes no bones about the subjective prism within which they’re presented. What differentiates his work from the plethora of other political documentaries made this decade (and there have been a lot of those) is not only the sweeping nature of the subjects and their influence, but the form with which they are presented.
Curtis might be the best visual collage artist working today. His series are mostly composed of footage he’s pulled from the extensive BBC archives, as well as contemporary films and TV shows that are carefully selected to make a point, whether it’s a scene from The Thief of Baghdad used to wittily represent American fears of a Middle-Eastern menace or the explicitly stated influence of shows like Gunsmoke and Perry Mason on neo-conservative ideology. The images he pulls illustrate his points brilliantly, but they also build an aesthetic atmosphere that, along with his canny use of Another Green World-era Eno and Yo La Tengo amongst others, suggests the kind of paranoia the subjects sought to sow in the people as well as the implicit paranoia of the documentary itself. He also uses stock footage of adverts and programmes from the 1950’s and 60’s to great effect, playing on their coded implication of simplicity and moral idealism and, to some extent, gullibility, whilst also subverting them with music, narration, and interviews. If form is content, then these are some of the most richly argued documentaries produced in the last ten years.
Recent times, borne out of the controversial and divisive politics of the day, have seen a resurgence in the popularity of non-fiction programming, both theatrically and on television. While the biggest of those amounts to Al Gore and a power point presentation and Michael Moore’s mostly-right-but-still-annoying-as-hell agitprop, these three series push the form in an exciting visual and thoughtful direction. Curtis is deadly serious about his worries about the state of the world today, but he doesn’t rely on solemn sentimentality to get his point across. You can’t help but think that, at the end of the day, he finds the humor in the irony of his subjects. Flawed beliefs, stubborn faith, and good intentions are a dangerous mix, but you can’t look at how wrong it all turned out without a wry smile. The Power of Nightmares was screened at film festivals in the US, and despite critical plaudits and a healthy armful of awards, every television station in the country refused to air it, with even HBO deciding the subject matter was too sensitive and controversial to broadcast. Oh, the irony indeed.
4. Mad Men
The early-to-mid 00’s saw what must be a Golden Age in television drama. There was a depth and quality to scripted programming that had never really been seen before on such a large scale. I’m not sure exactly why it happened. Did the rise of reality television spurn the screenwriters to up their game? Was there some sudden trust in viewer intelligence that allowed for the deeper, more complex narratives? Was it all down to the surprise success of The Sopranos, leading every network to scramble for some hard-hitting, edgy show to ride the zeitgeist? Perhaps it was all of these, or maybe none. Either way, the latter part of the decade has seen a drop in quality as everybody tried their luck and flamed out, or didn’t produce the quality they might have hoped for. The American Movie Classics basic cable channel, which was once a repository for commercial-free, genuinely classic Hollywood cinema, had long brought in the ad-men and the popular fare of the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s to boost itself, so you couldn’t be faulted for initially blowing off its first foray into original programming. A show about hard drinking, smoking ad men set in the 60’s just reeked of nostalgia badness, possibly a pastiche of the screwball or the melodrama, maybe a poorly executed wander into noir territory. Much to my surprise, it didn’t fall into any of those traps, and what’s produced is the best show on television at the moment.
Not that this was entirely evident from the first episode. It looked great, of course, and I’m still shocked at what they pull off in that department with such a miniscule budget. It had the hard drinking, chain smoking, dashing men in their suits and the pretty secretaries, and many (too many, really) jokes that winked to the audience about the time period (Ha! The misogyny! Ha! They don’t know smoking is bad for them! Etc…). They also had what seemed to be stock characters. Don was the lead, cool and handsome, and he pulls off a sales pitch in the nick of time with his incredible creative ability. Pete was a wormy young accounts man who was selfish and reprehensible. The curvaceous Joan filled the role of the bitchy office bombshell. There was Sal, whose obvious homosexuality was played for a joke in what veers too close the limp-wristed cliché, and then there were the bumbling creative men, who existed as nervous comic relief. What become apparent a few episodes in, however, is that these aren’t just ciphers for period stereotypes or stock television supporting players. Virtually every character introduced in the first episode is fleshed out in an intelligent manner over the course of the series. Sal’s homosexuality becomes a heartbreaking identity issue, Pete is a bastard but he’s got family issues as well as being a sad remnant of an old elite, and Joan finds herself trapped as the queen of a very limited realm. Then there’s Don, whose issues are too numerous to even begin to parse here.
The creator and show runner, Matthew Weiner, had worked previously as a writer under David Chase on The Sopranos, and the influence of that experience is evident in the character development, style, and structure of Mad Men. The pace is relatively slow, and the ‘big events’ are few and far between. There’s an austere stillness to the framing and the camerawork, with push-ins and skewed angles used for very specific purposes. It’s a world of unspoken subtlety, where a glance or a phrasing says more about what’s going on than the literal interpretation of the words being spoken. Beyond just the deftness in portraying excellent characters and their stories, the show achieves something larger than that. There are themes running through the series, as well as individual episodes (many are structure around a specific one, i.e. “Maidenform”), that deal with the seismic shifts in culture and politics (both national and individual) in a personal manner not often seen in modern takes on the decade. It’s a show about people looking out from a small perspective, and the change percolates slowly rather than exploding in sudden bursts. The ad agency Sterling Cooper is a microcosm of an America struggling to (re)define itself, especially in the current season which contrasts it with the Old World, empire mentality of the British.
Identity is at the heart of the show, and is fittingly best exemplified by the three leads of Don, Peggy, and Betty. Peggy is not only struggling to assert herself as a woman in a man’s world, she also grapples with her femininity as a conservative in the world of changing morals. Betty’s self-realization finds her increasingly dissatisfied with the life of a suburban housewife, and finds her ingrained views on family challenged. Then there’s Don, the living example of the overused but no less relevant “no second acts in American lives” Fitzgerald maxim. America’s firmly held belief that you can be anything or anyone you want to be is embodied by Don’s climb up the ladder from impoverished whore-child Dick Whitman to creative genius Draper, and yet he’s forever haunted by his past, finding it something impossible to leave fully behind no matter how much he wants to. He’s achieved the American Dream of money, the wife, the kids, the house, et al, but is still unsatisfied. He’s desperate to cling on to this self-made life while simultaneously struggles to resist the urge to leave it all behind and walk away. It’s easy to be taken in by the nice dresses, the immaculate suits, the fine foods, the stiff drinks and the loving drag of the cigarette, but stick with it and it’s a lot more complicated than that.
3. Arrested Development
What you might notice a lot of the shows on this list have in common is the intensely serialized nature of the narratives and character arcs. It’s something I think has been done better in the past decade in the U.S. than it had been in previous times, whether it be story-intense (The Sopranos, Mad Men) or on a smaller scale, still allowing for an episodic nature (much more common in previous days, true, but done with more care than previously). I remember reading something about Buffy in which the writer claimed that the key to the show was that it had a memory. There were larger arcs every season but the week-to-week was dominated by episodic encounters with a monster or a problem, but there were nuggets of information packed away in every episode that would come back later, and even a joke that was repeated throughout the entire series. With dramas it is more obviously prevalent, but the sitcom is another story. Even the name ‘sitcom’ suggests an ever-present state, a ‘situation’ and the comedy that flows forth from it, a concept that is most easily satisfied by pressing the reset button at the end of every episode. There were narrative threads for sure (Ross/Rachel, Niles/Daphne), but rarely were the gags dependent on previous viewership. Then comes Arrested Development.
Seemingly coming from nowhere (I shamefully ignored the first season until a friend foisted a copy of the DVD into my uninterested hands), Arrested Development assembled and, more importantly, utilized one of the best ensemble casts in comedy. The straight man surrounded by insanity has rarely been done this well. Beyond the plaudits already foisted upon the stellar cast, what really sets the show apart is the number and complexity of the gags. With its one-liners, visual and verbal puns, broad slapstick, meta-references, and healthy dose of pop culture parody, it casts its net wide and it’s a minor miracle how well it pulls almost every one of them off, often at the same time. This is not to say it requires a deep knowledge of any particular area, including the show itself, to find it funny, but there’s so much going on in every episode that its much more rewarding to really pay attention (just take the entire Bob Loblaw character as an example). AD also manages the Herculean feat of rivaling Seinfeld when it comes to bringing disparate narrative threads together. An FBI sting operation, George Michael’s birthday, visiting Japanese investors, a train set, a model home, an aspiring acting career, and a failed George Sr. escape attempt all come together in one of the funniest moments of television I’ve ever seen.
The qualities of the show were noticed by the critics and the Emmys, but unfortunately not by audiences. The ratings were never terribly good start with, and the downside of having such a continuity-dependent show is that picking up new fans is a difficult task. Couple that Fox’s notorious mistreatment of the misunderstood and the show was axed after three progressively shorter seasons. It was devastating at the time, especially considering the depth and brilliance that the writers managed to churn out week after week with no signs of letting up, but today we have what feels like a complete work anyway.
2. The Wire
What else is there to say about The Wire that hasn’t been said already? I suppose it’s still undervalued in the US, but in the past three years the UK has taken it to its bosom with an almost suffocating clench. Everyone who watches it seems to be converted by the end of the first season, but we’ve now hit the backlash stage where people just want everyone to SHUT UP ABOUT THE WIRE. I can sympathize, if only because I was a Wire bore for several years. At the end of the day, however, it’s a show that truly deserves its rabid fanbase, and then some.
What started as a cops v inner city drug dealers battle quickly became an epic polemic against the injustices of modern day, free market America. The Wire’s five seasons were each based around a central theme, them being institutions, the death of work, reform, education, and the media. The show established a nightmare Baltimore that was so realistic that it’s no wonder a good deal of the storylines and dialogue were taken from real life. It’s the show only a journalist and an ex-cop/ex-teacher who saw this world day to day could make. That journalistic zeal to represent the truth gave the series an air of authenticity that makes its damning political statements all the more affecting. Alone, that would make an interesting and, some might say ‘important’, show, but what really elevates it to great television, nay, art, is the incredible writing, direction, production, and acting. By taking more than just a nugget of truth and setting it down with love, wit, and all the other elements that makes fiction great, David Simon and Ed Burns have created something entertaining, engaging, and thought-provoking.
The first season establishes the rotting corpse of modern American government (but NOT, it should be said, in a libertarian fashion) as the institutions are infested with the maggots of politics in the world of the free market. Progress in the war on crime must be quantified to show viable improvements to voters, and the resultant ineffective policing leads to dying youths and crumbling communities. For all the sketchy dealings and murderous impulses, there’s the pall of a system that has let everyone down hanging over them, and it becomes increasingly difficult to paint characters as good and evil. As the series moves forward it sprawls, introducing us to the politics of the city, which leads to the collapse of the educational system, and all of which ends (perhaps not as successfully) with the failing local media. Even if the final season comes close to overreaching the show’s grasp (I’m still convinced it was merely a pacing problem with the shorter season, but I digress), it’s a hugely impressive achievement to expand the scope so much and yet retain such a focused, humanist drama.
And the ‘humanist’ element is probably the most important for the show. Simon has discussed his desire to leave behind the Shakespearean behind and make a Greek Tragedy. Instead of the foibles of the characters causing their own doom, it was up to the gods to arbitrarily decide everyone’s fate. The central anger of the show is caused by the hopelessness of the situation for all concerned. Good police work is not rewarded, but rather it banishes you to the worst posts on the force. Reforming your gang into a viable business is nigh impossible because of the culture of the street. Children are let down because the schools need results and the people are let down because the media wants sensation. The second season is often touted as the least of all of them by fans, mostly because it shifts the story away from the streets to dock workers, but in it lay the seeds of the terrifying economic truth that has now been realized in the US in that it is essentially the story of workers struggling to make their way in a country that doesn’t make anything anymore. The poor and the working classes have been left behind by a society that loathes them, and it’s an uncomfortable truth that American television’s obsession with glossy, aspirational programming tends to ignore. The Wire is that rare television series that is not only relevant, it is genuinely important.
The story of the origins of Deadwood has been repeated many times, but it’s worth the repetition here because I think it plays a crucial role in understanding the series. Creator David Milch went to HBO to pitch a show based in Rome, beginning with Paul’s epileptic fit on the road to Damascus but mostly centering around two soldiers in the time of Nero. Their concerns would intersect with the rise of the Christian Church and the creation of the cross as a holy symbol. Told that the network already had a show about Rome in development, he augmented the idea to take place in the frontier camp of Deadwood in the 1870’s. The particulars would basically all be changed, but the basic premise would remain: the development of a community because of a symbol, and a symbol that would work to release the energies of the human spirit at that. That symbol would be gold, something with no real intrinsic value but the lie agreed upon (a favourite phrase of Milch’s) is that it is worth a great deal, and around it humans will organize. Like the cross and Christianity two millennia ago, money and prosperity has motivated humanity, and more specifically, America, to develop and grow into what it is today.
Such lofty concerns aren’t evident upon first watch, but what is there is astounding all on its own. As the series begins, we think we’re being thrust into the standard Western good versus evil conflict in the guise of Seth Bullock and Al Swearengen. As it moves forward, we realize Al’s nefarious purposes are always in line with that of the community, and the real trouble is forever coming from outside the camp, from people who have no investment in Deadwood and thus do not realize how the needs of the individual can coalesce so well with those of the whole. Even beyond that, the basic narrative is a thrilling watch, filled as it is with political power plays, frontier justice, romance, and loss. The characters are three-dimensional, always evolving, and beautifully played by an extraordinary cast living the character actor’s dream. On top of all of that, you have that dialogue, which is so beautiful and coarse and wonderful you want to live in it. Consisting of the eloquence of Victorian writing and harsh (but hugely inventive) profanity, the dialogue stretches out and falls back in on itself, making the complex simple and the simple complex. It’s also devastatingly funny.
The character development is honest and natural, but done in the most interesting ways. Milch has an extraordinary understanding of the power and truth of storytelling, and he applies it beautifully through a series of blow jobs that are repeated each season. Each year, Al gets fellated while giving a monologue about his youth and his experience with his mother and at an orphanage, and each year the story shifts to reflect his state of mind and how it has been influenced by the events and troubles that surround him. Elsewhere you have Seth Bullock, ostensibly the hero of the piece, and who is revealed to harbor a crippling violent streak to rival that of Al’s, but in a completely different manner. The opposites are the same, and through such understandings a collection of people with vastly differing moral codes and views can come together and work towards the greater good.
I had a whole outline of things to go through with regards to Deadwood, but honestly it would take a whole essay on its own to properly convey how good the show really is. It’s complicated, deep, and affecting. It has a view on people, America, and the human race as a whole. And it’s damn entertaining television.