Thursday, January 7, 2010

Everybody's a Critic, Part I: Favorite TV Shows of the Decade

It’s been quite a while since I’ve updated this blog, but I resolve to post more often in 2010. So, since everyone else I know is posting best-of the year and/or decade lists, what better way to start off the new year than with one of my own.

Proving that everybody’s a critic, here is one TV flack’s list of favorite television shows of 2000–2009. (Note: I admit to not having watched Battlestar Galactica, which I hope to remedy via Netflix some day, so it will not appear on this list.)

10C. Extras: Ricky Gervais and Steven Merchant’s brilliant satire of the television business lasted a mere two short seasons, but what a glorious two seasons they were. The series finale, a movie-length episode in which Gervais’s Andy Millman – by now a successful television actor who has compromised his integrity for fame and fortune – appears on a celebrity edition of Big Brother is an absolute classic, and a stinging indictment of the wasteland that current popular culture has become.

10B. The Big Bang Theory: Sure, it’s only in its third season (and I’ll take the knock for studio bias), but I think this is much funnier than the uneven 30 Rock and The Office, with Jim Parsons’ work here every bit the equal of Alec Baldwin’s while eclipsing Steve Carell.

10A. Lost: Ambitious network TV at its finest. At a certain point, I gave up trying to figure out the overarching mythology and just watched the show like you would watch the Law & Order or CSI series, or any other non-serialized show, by just sitting back and enjoying the ride of that particular hour. Some characters can be annoying, and the producers’ seeming insistence on simply adding more mystery can be a bit tough to deal with when we just want answers!, but I cannot wait for the final season upcoming.

9. Freaks and Geeks: Two-thirds of its 18 episodes aired in 2000, so I deem this eligible. What a perfect gem of a show. Judd Apatow and company were years ahead of their time.

8. Brotherhood: Showtime’s criminally underrated drama about a Rhode Island state assemblyman, his family and his mobbed-up brother lasted only three seasons, but it combined some of the best elements of The Sopranos with the political elements of The Wire and provided a weekly showcase for powerhouse performances by Australian Jason Clarke and Englishman Jason Isaacs as two Irish brothers in Providence.

7. Sons of Anarchy: Another relative youngster, with just two seasons under its belt, this action-drama about an outlaw motorcycle club became can’t-miss TV in its just-concluded second year on the air. Ron Perlman and Katey Sagal turn in career-defining work on a weekly basis as the patriarch and matriarch of the SAMCRO club; Maggie Siff (Mad Men) is brilliant as a conflicted doctor; and Charlie Hunnam (of Judd Apatow’s brilliant but canceled Undeclared and the UK version of Queer as Folk), as the headstrong heir-apparent has firmly established himself as one of the best actors working on TV today.

6. The West Wing: Aaron Sorkin and his collaborators proved that TV could not only entertain but could also inspire and enlighten … and, in fact, should do those things. Sure, it may have played as a bit of liberal fantasy and the idealism was unabashed, but so was the drama.

5. Mad Men: One of the great things about film, TV, music, books and all forms of art is that they take you places you might never have been. Watching this singular drama is like opening up a time capsule from the 1960s, but the show’s style is only exceeded by its substance, a finely crafted piece of entertainment, family and workplace drama, social commentary and more, with an iconic performance for the ages by Jon Hamm as ad man Don Draper.

4. The Sopranos: After Homicide: Life on the Street, it looked like drama might be dead. But no! David Chase and his writers gave James Gandolfini, Edie Falco and the rest the tremendous cast the opportunity of their lifetimes, and the assembled company of artists delivered one of the most influential programs in the history of the medium. Marred by some inconsistency in the middle seasons, the show still stands tall in the pantheon of dramatic television, the signature series by which all future entrants in the genre are judged.

3. The Shield: Not many people could reliably say that when they heard that Michael Chiklis (then late of Daddio and previously The Commish) would be starring as the head of an elite L.A.P.D. strike team in a new drama on a then-middling cable network, that the program would eventually turn television upside down, winning the first-ever acting Emmy for a basic cable show and redefining the cop genre for the decade. But it all happened.

2. Deadwood: Ian McShane turned Sunday nights into his own personal master class in acting for three sublime seasons, inhabiting the character of Al Swearengen in a way unrivaled by anyone on TV not named James Gandolfini or Andre Braugher. The fact that he never won an Emmy® for this peerless work – or the absurdity that he was only nominated once! – constitutes a crime against creativity. And any show that has the good grace to end its run with Bruce Springsteen's O Mary, Don't You Weep playing over the closing credits is OK by me.

1. The Wire: I’m not sure I’ll be able to articulate anything here that hasn’t already been said by hundreds of professional television writers and critics far more eloquent than I, but allow me to assure you that they all speak the truth. For five seasons, this show chronicled the decline of an American industrial city, as seen through the prism of the impact the war on drugs, the diminution of the value of work, political dysfunction, the failed school system and an indifferent media had on the denizens of Baltimore, Maryland. This claim may strike some as outlandish, but I think the five chapters of this cinematic story represent the most accomplished scripted achievement in the history of American television. Season four, which addressed the role public schools play in the life of a community and focused on the disparate lives of four young boys, simply represents the best thing I’ve ever seen, epic in scope, heartbreaking in the telling, and unforgettable. I cannot wait to see Treme, the upcoming new HBO series from The Wire creator David Simon and company.