The 25 Best Television Shows of the Decade – Part 3

October 20, 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 3, which features numbers 10-6.  Part 1 can be found here.   Part 2 can be found here.  Part 4 can be found here.

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10.  Battlestar Galactica

Anybody who was aware of the Sci-Fi Channel’s output from its inception until 2003 can’t be judged for dismissing Battlestar Galactica out of hand.  It was an appalling network by anyone’s standards, given to bad B-movie shlock and even worse original programming (Stargate SG-1, anyone?).  There’s something astonishing, then, that out of this minor-cable channel, we got possibly the best science fiction of the decade.  The genre is always at its best when it’s holding up a skewed but provocative mirror up to our own world, and there are few finer examples than this series.  I hasten to add that when I say ‘sci-fi’, I don’t mean the space opera romp of a Star Wars, though BSG is certainly using that as a jumping off point.  The mini-series was much more interesting than even I gave it credit for at the time, but there was nothing in it that indicated the intelligence and intensity of the first episode proper, “33”.  It was a loud proclamation of what the series would be about, and it wasn’t glitzy spaceship dogfights and constant battles with robots (though there were plenty of those to go around).  I hate to invoke 9/11, but it can’t be helped in this case:  there really wasn’t a better show to deal with the post-disaster climate quite like it.  There was a thin thread of unity based on a lie, a constant struggle between the needs of the military versus the good of the civilians, and the slow humanization of the enemy (it always eschewed simplistic Manichean representations of good and evil).  It presented the heroes as the occupied force, and the desperate and pointless rationale of turning them into suicide bombers.  And there was always religion.  Beyond the larger political themes, there were also the characters, who were oftentimes genre clichés elevated into something more complex.  Starbuck, the hotshot pilot with so-crazy-it-just-might-work stunts of derring-do, was psychologically broken and suicidal.  The straight-man Apollo was utterly lost at times when his adherence to a code was challenged by murky moral quandaries.  And there was Gaius Baltar, the conflicted, self-serving bastard who was never presented as a straight villain or a victim of circumstance.  There were some truly bad episodes (“Black Market” features a refreshingly honest commentary about how one could go so wrong), and large disappointments as the series reached its conclusion, but the great moments far outshine the poor.  It was exciting in its battles, intelligent in its politics, and bleak as hell in its drama.  It was about as good as serial sci-fi gets.

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9.  Friday Night Lights

NBC is at its lowest ebb.  Relegated to the ratings cellar for half a decade, the channel has struggled to compete with the reality shows and the procedurals offered up by CBS and FOX and the comedies and soapy dramas of ABC.  Despite producing some of the highest honoured and most critically acclaimed shows, it has had a hell of a time converting that into advertising bonanzas, which has led us to the sad venture that is The Jay Leno Show.  Despite that development, and what it portends for the future of scripted television, the problems of the company have led to some of the smartest and best shows on network television, including the rating-challenged Friday Night Lights.  A strong first season did not translate into viewers, and a strike-hampered second season didn’t help.  It is a small miracle, then, that the fourth season is due to begin in a matter of weeks, and a fifth has already been promised.  They are shortened to 13 episodes now, something that I see as a blessing, and they premiere on a satellite-only channel that is responsible for ponying up a healthy portion of its meager budget, but nonetheless, it marches on, and if the third season is anything to go by, it deserves as many episodes as it can get.  In some ways, the premise is a marketing no-brainer:  it’s a high school drama centered around America’s most popular sport with a young, attractive cast.  Then again, you watch one episode, and you realize the massive flaw in the execution:  the concept seems to dumb for the discerning viewer, and yet the show is possibly too smart to attract the young, middle America crowd.  There’s just no winning for Friday Night Lights.  Not so for the fictional town of Dillon, who begin the show as the best team in the state with the best quarterback in the country.  He’s quickly paralyzed from the neck down, and we’re already plunged into two storylines to invest in.  You’ve got the young second-string QB who is thrust into the spotlight with the weight of the entire town on his shoulders, and you’ve got the former high school hero, crippled and struggling with adjusting to his new life as an invalid.  This might be enough, but it’s no time before the agonies of the coach, the head cheerleader, the white trash girl, the geeky friend, etc… are all dealt with in their turn.  In Gossip Girl, when a girl is branded a slut by the gossips, she must formulate an elaborate revenge plot to get back to being the Queen Bee.  In FNL, she can do absolutely nothing but suck it up, because it’s different for girls.  That’s just one of the many, many ways in which this show revitalizes the creatively inert high school drama, but there’s even more to it than that.  The adults are just as interesting as the teens, as is their world of petty school board wrangling and small town politics.  It also gives us what is possibly the best married couple on television in the form of Coach Taylor and his wife Tami.  Utterly believable in their moments of affection as well as their quibbles, they form a backbone of mutual respect and differences that guide the show even when its other storylines are veering off into soap territory (season 2 has some real problems, it has to be said).  All that aside, the visual component works together with the everything else in a way you don’t often see in television.  The on-location shooting helps this a lot, but that along with the mostly handheld camera do far more than create an air of authenticity.  Peter Berg set the visual style in his film version, but it’s greatly expanded here, often owing more to Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven and the work of cinematographer Tim Orr.  The grainy stock is combined with a predilection for the wide, big sky background.  This is more than just an aesthetically pleasing choice in that it emphasizes the way the world is always threatening to swallow its characters, whether it be in the smallness of their lives in their rural town or the way the way that rural town puts an unhealthy amount of pressure on the young lives of the players and their coach.  In the end, the town of Dillon is the cohesive thread that runs through the series.  This is post-industrial America, and these people live in a world abandoned by an economy.  The shrewd product placement of the Applebees restaurant is apt, because this is the kind of place where that establishment is as it good as it gets for a night out.  These characters live in decrepit homes and grim public housing amongst deserted strip malls, sometimes envying the gaudy blandness of the developments inhabited by the upper-middle class.  Neither judging nor romanticizing this setting, the show depicts a side of America rarely seen on network television, and allows us to consider the implications of what it means.  There’s brilliant and honest drama here, and it earns every Camera Obscura-scored montage it gives us.

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8.  Freaks and Geeks

It’s the show that launched a thousand careers.  No matter what you think of the output of Apatow, Rogen, Feig, Cardinelli, Franco, Starr, Segal, et al since, there’s no denying these eighteen episodes their place in the pantheon of great entertainment.  Criminally ignored by the viewing public (me included), it has since gained a massive cult following, but I don’t want this show to be confused with a Firefly (itself very good, of course, but that rabid fanbase is looking for one thing, and this delivers another).  There’s genuine quality here, so it is not to be confused with a hokey nostalgia-fest like The Wonder Years.  But anyway, let’s tick off a few of the many great points about Freaks and Geeks, shall we?

1.) The Geeks:  Casting children on an American series must be one of the most difficult tasks in the industry.  Americans love to ham it up (there was, ironically, a Brady Bunch episode all about this), so finding John Francis Daley, Samm Levine, and Martin Starr was either the cleverest move or the luckiest break in the industry.  Each one could have fallen into the stereotypes, but the actors are strong enough to deal with the difficult arcs they’re given in the script.  Neal’s smart alec attitude is played out as a subconscious defense mechanism, Sam is genuinely confused by pretty much everything never in a cheap or unbelievable way, and for all of Bill’s extreme geekness, he seems weirdly comfortable in his acceptance of what he is.  When Bill gets to make out with Vicki in the closet, it’s both satisfying and earned.

2.) The Period:  I don’t mean this in the “this is how it was” way, because I don’t know how it was.  It certainly rings of truth in its lack of excess, but really what I mean is that it completely sidesteps the easy period gags.  Unlike something like, say, The Wedding Singer, the ‘humour’ of which derives mostly from ‘lol guys look at the 80s’ gags, Freaks just represents the time as a matter of fact.  There’s nothing particularly funny about it because these people are only aware of their own present.  Certain trends and clothing play a part, of course, but never as a mockery of the society as a whole.  When Nick embraces disco for a girl in the finale, it’s a drastic change in his character arc (both a mature departure from his loyalties to rock and a continuation of his lovesick neediness), and there’s subsequently an air of sadness when Ken is told the disco is shutting in a week.

3.) The Music:  Following on from that, the music selection is particularly good in that it never uses it as a dating method.  Rather, the songs are chosen for tone and meaning relevant to the scenes in which they’re used.

4.) The Parents:  Harold Weir is overprotective and, to the kids, something of a square, but he’s not two-dimensional.  Neil’s garage door revelation is absolutely heartbreaking, but nowhere near as shattering as his mother’s response to his confrontation.  Even Nick’s father is represented with care and understanding.

I could go on and on and on, but you get the picture.  If there’s a filmic corollary, I’d say it was the televisual version of Dazed and Confused; it’s genuine and loving and created by people who can remember fondly without editing out the horrors of adolescence.  If you need further proof of how good this show is, all you need to know is that it makes me want to listen to the Grateful Dead (not that I ever follow through.  It’s still only a TV show).

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7.  Lost

I’ve never understood the clout that comes with the J.J. Abrams name.  Two cultish but not terribly successful series under his belt and he gets to make the third Mission: Impossible movie, which itself isn’t much of a moneymaker.  He produced the minor hit Cloverfield, but that was after his name brought him the funds to make it.  All signs, then, point to Lost, and credit where credit is due, he co-developed the concept when the network wanted a drama to capitalize on the wild success of Survivor.  However, while I’m sure he checks in from time to time, there’s no doubt in my mind that this mind-bending, sci-fi/fantasy juggernaut is the baby of Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof, two of the most savvy showrunners out there.  Because we’ve lived with it for five years, and the ratings have dropped (though not precipitously as it is still one of the most popular shows around), the non-hardcore fans have written it off as a brief oddity that lost its way after a year.  The difficult of such a heavily serialized network drama to hold its audience is nothing new.  Twin Peaks was wildly popular for its brief first season, but people stopped caring during the hiatus and then we were given a swift resolution to the central mystery, an extended run of awful episodes, and then (only when it was cancelled), a balls-out ridiculous Lynch finale.  The success of Lost’s first season could have led to a similar outcome.  The problems of the second and third seasons were mostly due to the network demanding the original five-year-plan be stretched out to however long it was maintained its ratings bonanza.  Consequently we were met with episodes about Jack getting a tattoo, and the network saw reason and agreed to a limited number of remaining episodes and a definite end date.  Since that switch, the show has fired on all cylinders, and the cynics who thought they were just making it up as they went along are made to look like fools.  As intense and interesting as the first season was, it doesn’t even begin to compare with everything that’s happened since the final eight episodes of season three.  But outside of the insane goings-on that have dominated the show recently, we should recognize just how astonishing an achievement, in a narrative sense, the show really is.  A high concept fantasy doesn’t have much place in the procedural obsessed American audience, so the fact that Lost has managed to maintain an audience beyond a minor but rabid niche is truly impressive.  It asks a lot of the viewer, so much that even I forget important tid-bits that have popped up in the past and have to have them explained to me as they come up again.  An interesting (but eventually) tired flashback structure led to the mind-boggling flashfoward era that has recently given way to many of the major characters becoming unstuck in time.  The fact that all this ridiculousness works so damn well is a testament to the writers and their clarity of vision.  The show hasn’t offered up much of anything truly profound to say about the human condition or even its characters beyond some pretty decently drawn sketches, but even if the last finale and its possible turn to an epic of (literally) Biblical proportions doesn’t come through, I don’t mind.  There’s only one season of seventeen episodes left, and it might be a total and utter failure.  I personally can’t see how they can wrap everything up in a satisfying manner, but it’s been one hell of a ride so far.

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6.  The Sopranos

Along with Buffy, The Sopranos is probably the most influential show of the decade.  It’s a juggernaut, really, and it’s been discussed to death.  Still, it can’t be avoided, nor can its greatness be denied.  It set the template for smart, layered adult dramas, taking advantage of its place on a cable channel to go further than networks could ever dream, and it proved such a hit that every other channel dreamed of making a show this good.  The initial draw must have been the inherent sexiness of the mafia drama, a genre that has proved exceedingly popular since the days of James Cagney.  What was unexpected was how it used that trope to comment on the larger issue of modern day America, and how the Old World (in both the geographical and the temporal sense) deals with the changing times.  Tony Soprano is a complex character, tied to the notions of respect that governed his world in the old days and the consumerist present of the Self that was showing up in his underlings and his own family.  That word, “family”, is really at the heart of the show.  His mafia family was treated as such, but it so often came into conflict with the pragmatic necessities of any corporation.  His actual family was forever at loggerheads with the changing social mores, whether it was A.J. wearing make-up in his goth period or Meadow dating an African-American.  Early seasons treated these issues with a subtlety that allowed the more straight-forward narrative concerns to continue unabated, but what I find to be equally impressive was when the creator David Chase really let himself go as the series went on when it came to exploring the characters and their situations.  Episodes like “The Test Dream” have proven to be divisive amongst fans, but for me they’re audaciousness elevate the show to another level.  The oft-derided sixth season, when Tony is shot by his Uncle Junior (a betrayal of family loyalty while also deflating his rose-coloured view of the old guard), is actually a favourite of mine.  Several episodes are given to his coma dreams, and soon after he reassesses what’s important in life, vowing to do things differently, only to have his rebirth hammered down by both his families.  The willingness to tease us with redemption for the characters, then snatching it away, paints a pretty bleak picture of humanity.  Your average story has a character (or in this case, characters) have an epiphany that leads them to change their life for the better.  In The Sopranos, those life changes are short lived, because living itself is mundane and everyone is governed by their own personality, which in this world proves maddeningly difficult to escape.  Chase’s views on psychology, therapy, and people prove out to be pretty damn bleak, but we can’t fault his honesty.  There are a plethora of other things that make this show great, and entire books have been written to explore them, so if you so desire you can go read them or just watch it all (again) for yourself.  In any case, the show was a game-changer, and it deserves every accolade it receives.

-M

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2 Responses to “The 25 Best Television Shows of the Decade – Part 3”

  1. Mad_Man_Moon Says:

    I honestly don’t think it’s possible to comment upon the structure, overarching plot and episodic layout without referencing Alias … just putting that out there, too.

  2. Mad_Man_Moon Says:

    buh … for lost, obvs


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