Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Top 50 TV Shows Pt. 2: The Big Ten...or Twelve

So why couldn't it be the top ten?  While 13-50 all bounce around within that range, these twelve shows have always stayed toward the top of the list; the most recent addition being The Leftovers. These shows changed me on a molecular level.

12. The Leftovers (2014- 2017)

Created by: Tom Perotta and Damon Lindelof
Favorite characters: Nora Durst, Matt Jamison
Favorite episodes: The Book of Nora, No Room At the Inn, Certified, International Assassin, The Prodigal Son Returns, A Most Powerful Adversary, Guest, I Live Here Now

After Lost, Lindelof and Cuse earned their status as heroes in my mind. Though each would go onto their respective paths afterward. Cuse on one hand would go onto create the lackluster Bates Motel, whereas Lindelof would help pen the script to Prometheus and in 2014- with the help of a great writer in Tom Perrotta- co- create a show that filled the void that was left in the wake of Lost. It brought many of the themes I loved from that show; spirituality vs. pragmatism being a big one.

There's a stream of redemptive light that runs concurrently with this dark energy that inhabits these characters. We watch them stumble along and scrape the surface of what it means to be painfully human. Few works of art have achieved an ability to have me step back and look at the big picture of life. This is one of them.

11. Twin Peaks (1990- 1991; 2017)

"I have no idea where this will lead us, but I have a definite feeling it will be a place both wonderful and strange."
-Agent Dale Cooper

Created by: Mark Frost and David Lynch

There will be a piece on this little show soon enough. For now, I can say that the new series brought Lynch's experimentation even further and acted as a logical jumping point from Inland Empire.

10. The Wonder Years (1988- 1993)

Created by: Neal Marlens and Carol Black

If there was ever a show I connected more with and saw parts of myself in, it was The Wonder Years. Right down to the family: the caring mother, the father who has both feet firmly entrenched in traditional values, the brother who can be annoying and wears his heart on his sleeve. I never had a Winnie Cooper, so I fell in love with Danica McKellar. The only show that competes with it in terms of episodes just destroying me emotionally is Lost. Just thinking about some of the moments bring me to the edge of tears.

There's a palpable sense of fading memory. Where the line between your memories and Kevin's memories is smashed. You feel like you lived this time with these characters. You want to know what happened to that girl with pigtails Kevin was forced to go square dancing with because you knew a girl just like her in school.

And then you realize that these people are mere fragments in a piece of a larger puzzle. A large part of this is because the writing is so simple and precise. If you're looking for a letter grade on this one, you don't have to worry. It's an A.

9. The X-Files (1993- 2002)

Created by: Chris Carter

UFOs, conspiracy theories, unexplained phenomena. All of these subjects are fascinating in and of themselves. Add to this the kind of paranoia and government cover ups usually reserved for films like All the President's Men, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and JFK.

IT's a show that pivots from sci-fi to horror to drama to suspense effortlessly. All the while carrying increasingly sexual tension between Mulder and Scully. The monster of the week episodes are endlessly fascinating in and of themselves. Yet when a mythology episode comes up, watching the play between diplomats, shadowy forces, and our favorite pair of agents is sublimely enthralling. The X-Files was the show that, maybe even more so than The Simpsons and Peaks, defines the 90's for me. Cigarette Smoking Man might just be my favorite villain on television.

8. Seinfeld (1989- 1998)

Created by: Larry David

Master of my domain. Master of the house. A house in the Hamptons? A festivus for the rest of us. We don't know how long this will last. They are a very festive people. That's the true spirit of Christmas; people being helped by people other than me. She's one of those low-talkers. You know what they say "You don't sell the steak, you sell the sizzle." You can't eat this soup standing up. Your knees buckle. Maybe the dingo ate your baby. My life is the complete opposite of everything I want it to be. Can't stand ya. You very bad man, Jerry. It's a Junior Mint. You ever dream in 3D? It's like the Boogeyman is coming right at you. A marine biologist? I was in the pool! I'm out.

7. The Sopranos (1999- 2007)

Created by: David Chase
Favorite episodes: Long Term Parking, Join the Club, Pine Barrens, Whitecaps, College, Funhouse, Knights In White Satin Armor, Isabella, Irregular Around the Margins, The Blue Comet, The Second Coming

It's been a decade since everyone thought their power went out. 18 years since the debut of a show that would "changed the face of television" forever. The history of television could be cleaved in two: Before The Sopranos and After The Sopranos.

There's a chilling air of fatalism throughout the whole show. The Sopranos uses this sense of inevitability- of fate- as well as, or even better than just about any other series. These characters see the signposts on the highway and can choose to get off any time they want. What makes it so compelling is their refusal to do so. Tony is a walking harbinger of doom and he spreads his sickness to anyone he comes into contact with. He'll comfort you with sweet lies but in the end, it becomes too late to realize just how trapped you are. Yes, he admits the desire to be a good man. The tragedy of it is that he doesn't possess the capacity to. Watching the series is to watch people slowly circle a drain.

Some of the better edited tributes I've seen on youtube.

6. Mystery Science Theater 3000 (1988- 1999; 2017)

Created by: Joel Hodgson

We've got movie signs!! Before Sci-fi became Syfy, they beamed this show into a living room where a kid would get lost in a not so distant future down in Deep 13. I can't pinpoint the first episode I saw. All I knew is that it brought an idea I wasn't aware of up until that point: bad films can be entertaining. I wouldn't be aware of Manos: The Hands of Fate or Soultaker or Touch of Satan were it not for this show. For that I'm grateful.

The riffers themselves (Joel Hodgson, Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett) became my respective George Carlin, Lenny Bruce Richard Pryor and Louis CK. Comedic geniuses in my eyes and still are to this day. Hell, the majority of the pop culture-laden, sarcastic quips I make to people have the DNA of this show imprinted on it. With a staff of writers and performers to back them up in the likes of Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff and Mary Jo Pehl and factoring in the 'Love theme' to the credits, you end up getting a veritable buffet of comedy. A B movie, with priceless commentary and skits in between.

The new season finds the shackles that once restrained the show on MST3K- only being able to pool from a library of films that are generally sci-fi- to be gone. NetFlix seems like the perfect home for the crew of the Satellite of Love.

Trivia: For all you Elton John fans out there, the liner notes for I've Seen That Movie Too on the vinyl of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road has a silhouette of theater seats and a couple watching an image. The inspiration for Joel Hodgson on the approach of the show.

Extra (personal) Trivia: It is also the show that, once upon a time, formed a bond between me and a girl I am now proud to call my girlfriend.

5. The Twilight Zone (1959- 1964)

Created by: Rod Serling

You get a wide range of genres here: sci-fi, horror, fantasy, comedy, western and drama. Yet, the genius of Rod Serling was his ability to navigate those genres and use them more than just a narrative device. There is contemplative commentary that is valuable today just as much as it was back in the 60's. From social climbing, to racism, bigotry and xenophobia. The special effects don't try to overcompensate for content, which is something today's films and television shows still have not learned. If they only had seen the signpost up ahead.

4. Breaking Bad (2008- 2013)

Created by: Vince Gilligan

Only a handful of the shows listed in this top 50 took the smart route: their writers didn't start a story unless they ultimately knew where it was going or they knew when to cap off the series so it wouldn't lose its muster. Breaking Bad only had five seasons and each one works off the back off the next. The timeline of the series is relatively small in scope. Yet it feels intimately epic. This is what makes the final eight episodes all the more apocalyptic.

Pants are flying in the air and before you know it, you are trailing behind you a cavalcade of ghosts. As good a rise and fall arc that's been written.

3. The Simpsons (1989- )

Created by: Matt Groening

Some shows have been with you so long, it's hard to remember a time not being around in a world before their conception, or in this case, a pre-Simpsons world. Though for three years, I very much was. The first memory of watching an episode was "Whacking Day" in 1993.

As with most a fan, I have a subjective take on when the show hits its stride: fully coming into its own with Season 3 and continuing on through Season 10, losing some consistency for the next 2 seasons and just losing me altogether after that.

What keeps me coming back to the show is, or at least was in its first 10 or so seasons, the ability to resist cynicism. Episodes like Lisa's First Word and The Way We Was are some of the most charming, poignant episodes of television.

2. Lost (2004- 2010)

Created by: JJ Abrams, Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof
Favorite characters: John Locke, Benjamin Linus, Sawyer, Jin Kwon, Sun Kwon

Science vs. faith. Fate vs. Destiny. Good Vs. Evil. The hatch. The smoke monster. The speculation that bled into social media that proved a tv show lived well beyond the credits rolling. Every Wednesday night when Lost was on, there was this boundless enthusiasm matched with intrigue as to what the show will reveal next. Yet what made the show stand above everything else, was Lindelof and Cuse's insistence on putting characters first and concept second. This is what the imitators often fail to do.

Every one of these characters served some sort of purpose. The action emerged from that particular character. The flashbacks only filled out their stories further. Finally, the behavior of that character shows us who they are. While this seems like common sense, it's worth repeating.

Many shows that hover toward the top of this list show humanity at its worst. This show encompassed an emotional spectrum. If I were to show someone what the vibe of the show was at its best it would be the scene with Hurley jump starting the van in Season 3 while Shambala starts playing. The exuberant smiles on Ford and Jin. Charlie hugging Hurley. His decision to stay back and just think to himself in the van. That is a moment where this show was untouchable. While The Leftovers was a much darker Lindelof creation, there still hasn't quite been another show like Lost. I doubt there ever will be. It only ends once. Everything before that...is progress.

1. The Wire (2002- 2008)

Created by: David Simon and Ed Burns
Favorite characters: Omar Little, Reginald 'Bubbles' Cousins, Stringer Bell, Lester Freamon, Preston 'Bodie' Broadus, Frank Sobotka, Sgt. Bunny Colvin, Chris Partlow, Dennis 'Cutty' Wise, Augustus Haynes

The first post on this blog was a retrospective on this very show. The whole conception around this blog was kickstarted because of a need to spread the word of The Wire far and wide to anyone who will listen. This hasn't changed. Anytime I'm prompted to name my favorite show, this is the first name that comes up.

The Wire begins on a blood stained street of Baltimore. But then it shifts after the first season. Only two shows have had the bravery to throw everything we knew into question in the mission to serve the greater whole. Lost during it's Season Three finale and The Wire as early as its Season Two pilot.

It's a massive novel in the form of a television show. This is mainly because the writers are actual novelists as opposed to people pulled from strictly Hollywood backgrounds. Richard Price, Dennis Lehane and George Pelacanos all . At the head of the pack is journalist turned series creator David Simon who brings a startling verisimilitude to it.

By the time you get to Season Four you realize just how big of a tapestry Simon and Ed Burns have created. From the streets to the docks to City Hall to the halls of a Baltimore school. Through this tapestry, you get to see a policeman make a decision that ultimately makes a decision that has grave consequences for a kid he's never even met. Or a politician upset a cop he's never talked to before. You feel like this entire city has been opened up. The Wire is a 60 hour peek into the dark side of the American experiment. The America consisting of the lower class, working class, hustlers, renegades, criminal masterminds, beat cops, hungry reporters, dock workers, teachers, lawyers, detectives, the children in a bustling school hallway to the men who line the corridors of power with promises as fresh as the suit their tailor gave them in the morning.
All the pieces matter as Lester would say.

But what do I know. I'm just another blogger. Here's a man who knows what he's talking about. Listen to him:

1 comment:

  1. True stuff. And yet another list that makes the bold promise of The Wire as king. Clearly we need to see it...