Saturday, November 14

The Actual Best TV Dramas of the 00's

One of my favorite winter traditions, as a baseball fan, is the annual offseason argument over the Hall of Fame voting. Now that the decade is coming to to an end, The Onion AV Club has rolled out its own sort of Televisual Hall of Fame: its list of The Best TV Series of the '00s.

Unfortunately, their list is painfully gay—and not in the good way. They include some stupid shows, leave off some great ones, and skew the order of the ones we agree upon. Worst of all, they throw comedy and drama into one big stew, which is dumber than a Blue Collar Comedy tour. Here, then is a corrected version of...

The Best TV Drama Series of the '00s

  1. The West Wing - The Aaron Sorkin seasons 1-4 were the Michael Jordan (pre-first-retirement) of television. Nothing before or since has approached it. Post-Sorkin West Wing was like Jordan with the Wizards: above average, with flashes of greatness, but it's best not to remember them that way.
  2. Firefly - One of the recurring Hall of Fame debates is over the relative weight given to Career vs Peak value in assessing a player's overall merits. With only 14 episodes, Firefly is the Sandy Koufax of this list, the pinnacle of Peak achievement. Firefly's ass-candle burned out quickly, but it also burned so very, very brightly. Almost every single episode is amazing.
  3. The Shield - I watch TV primarily to be entertained, and while I appreciate the gritty verisimilitude and other artistic merits of a show like The Wire, The Shield is the cop drama that will always kick its ass in the playground of my fond memories. Vic Mackie is the greatest antihero in television history, and everything about his epic journey was thoroughly Shakespearean.
  4. Deadwood - Speaking of Shakespearean, David Milch's poetically profane dialogue may be our closest modern analogue. Happily, that artsy-fartsy wordcraft was layered on top of a fascinating backdrop and compelling cast of drunken cocksuckers.
  5. Lost - I still don't know what the fuck is going on, but every week I'm always eager as hell to learn what happens next.
  6. Rome - I think my favorite moment in TV history was when Vorenus jumped into the gladiator arena to rescue Pullo. "THIIIRRRTEEEEN!!!" I actually leapt up off the couch and gave a fist pump.
  7. The Sopranos - I'm rating it this high largely on the strength of its first two seasons, which I thought were nearly flawless, before it meandered unevenly to its finish.
  8. Mad Men - May drop a slot or four if Don Draper ends up having a Teachable Moment instead of remaining a cold-hearted bastard to the end.
  9. Friday Night Lights - Probably #2 on this list (behind The West Wing) for total number of moments where "the room just got awful dusty."
  10. Breaking Bad - Ranking it this high after only two seasons might be premature, but they've been an amazing two seasons.
  11. The Wire - By far my favorite part: The Rise and Fall of Stringer Bell. Didn't feel quite as compelling after he was gone.
  12. Burn Notice - Goofily badass, densely plotted, and irreverently fun, like a faster-paced Magnum PI (in Miami instead of Hawaii, and the 00's instead of the 80's).
  13. Buffy / Angel - These two Whedon shows were sometimes drenched in a little too much estrogen, especially Buffy, but the dialogue and stories were always clever—and boy howdy were the chicks hot as shit. Both shows could be dark as hell, too, with incredibly memorable villains.
  14. Sons of Anarchy - As with Breaking Bad, I might be getting a little bit ahead of myself by rating it this high before the second season is even over. Still, the second season has been pretty breathtaking...
  15. House - Epitomizing the "Career" style HoF achievement, House is the Eddie Murray of the list: while never the best, it has remained consistently excellent over an impressively long period of time. I can only think of one really outstanding individual episode -- the "Three Stories" ep in which we learn why House is injured -- but I look forward to the show every single week, and it rarely fails to entertain me.
  16. Dexter - A serial killer as a sympathetic protagonist. Good times.
  17. Skins - So the AV Club hipsters want to be snooty and include a highly regarded BBC series? Well TWO CAN PLAY THAT GAME. (I really do love this show, especially the heartbreaking first season - sorry, "series.")
  18. Six Feet Under - Fantastic show but wildly uneven, with a huge drop-off in quality after the second season. But the final episode might be the greatest finale in TV history.
  19. Life - Didn't last long, but it was fun while it lasted.
  20. Battlestar Galactica - I liked it, mostly, but one tremendously irritating problem dropped it way down on this list: from the very beginning, the intro to every single show promised us that "they have a plan." It soon became abundantly clear that neither the Cylons nor their team of writers did, in fact, have anything resembling a plan. I felt like the show's directionless narrative bumbling ruined huge parts of the series. Also, the ending was a special brand of megatarded; a wildly implausible, scientifically illiterate steaming turd.
  21. Rescue Me - The last few seasons have been lazy and self-indulgent to the point where I'm finding it hard to remember its better days, but it did have them. Fresh and fun in its first few seasons.
  22. 24 - While it's recently become totally unwatchable, the first several seasons were various degrees of amazing.

I watched both Veronica Mars and Big Love, which are on the AV Club list, and I admit that I enjoyed them at times. But they don't make my All-Time list because I have testicles.

Did I miss anything?

UPDATE: Yes, I did! Added Rome, Life, Rescue Me, and 24, made some minor edits.

10 comments [add yours!]:

Ezra said...

The Wire at no. 11? Are you on smack? SHEEEET! Given your proclivity for politics, I guess I understand West Wing at no. 1, but The Wire was much more compelling than Firefly, Rome, and FNL (although the women weren't as hot).

I liked Dead Like Me, probably somewhere around 15.

And what about Sports Night? It had 13 episodes in 2000, so it qualifies, no?

spanky said...

I think The Wire is a great show but also tremendously overrated—and I've watched it through twice. I can completely understand how tastes may differ and why someone could enjoy it more than Rome or FNL, or not share my throbbing boner for The West Wing, but you lost me with Firefly. That was just some amazingly written TV! Funny, poignant, and gorgeous, full of amazingly realized characters and a fully textured world. Why do you hate science fiction, sir.

spanky said...

Shit, it might be time to watch Firefly again.

All the shows on the list are traditional hour-long dramas, which Sports Night wasn't. Great show, though.

spanky said...

PS - Inasmuch as I used specific criteria for rating television dramas, "Did Ezra go to grad school in and around the setting of this series and thus probably get an extra kick out of it?" was not one of them. YMMV.

Ezra said...

The Koufax analogy with respect to Firefly is quite appropriate. Verily, each episode was thoroughly enjoyable, finding the right balance between drama and action with enough levity to make the hour seem like much less. But is AWESOME for 1 season better than Great for many? I'm not so sure.

Plus, River was hot/naked enough.

Paul said...

I don't get the fascination with Firefly. It's really kind of a silly, formulaic show, like the A-team was. They're a group of outlaw mercenaries who pull a heist/scheme every episode, but in the end their own moral conscience foils the scheme somehow. It's not really serialized. Each show wraps neatly onto itself and doesn't hook you into the next. How is this even in the same category as the new breed of gritty shows like The Wire, Rome, Deadwood, BSG, Band of Brothers, Lost... While most series are injecting more realism into the story, Firefly seems to go in the opposite direction or at least stuck in the formula of TV in the 80s and 90s.

@spanky, there is barely any science fiction in Firefly to hate. Whedon could have easily done away with the spaceship and just made this a Western and the story wouldn't have skipped a beat. Science Fiction is suppose to inspire intellectual thought; this show fails at that.

spanky said...

@Paul - I originally thought a good friend of mine with your name wrote your comment. He's my best friend and I value his opinion greatly, so I wrote an epic-length reply. It seems that, in fact, we don't know each other... so thanks for the visit, and the comment. My response you/your doppelganger follows. Please don't expect me to reply at such length in the future. :)

spanky said...

Before any rational discussion about this can begin, I think we first need to clear out this minefield of normative judgements:

Serialized > Episodic? Maybe you prefer serials, and I agree that there are many reasons that serialized shows tend to be more enjoyable. It's not a valid qualitative assertion, though. I'd imagine you enjoyed The X-Files a lot more than you would, say, The United States of Tara. It does not necessarily follow that a larger canvas will produce a better work than a smaller one.

Gritty > Not Gritty? Maybe you personally prefer grit in all cases, but again, it's not a valid qualitative assertion. The West Wing was a lot shinier and less gritty than pretty much everything.

And the idea that "science fiction is supposed to inspire intellectual thought" is just... silly. That's certainly one of the strengths of the genre, yes, and a lot of the great science fiction does that. To say that it is the purpose of the genre, and then grade a piece of art by that purpose, well, no, that obviously won't work. How much intellectual thought does Star Wars inspire, beyond the age of 10? Stories are stories and characters are characters; genre is largely just setting (and more importantly, a classification system for the retail shelves).

So with that throat clearing aside, I suspect what we're teasing out is a difference in preferences. You clearly prefer gritty serials, among other qualities. I like serials, too -- witness the list -- but my favorite story qualities are character, emotion, and ideals. And strong dialogue that comes from those ingredients.

I can see a strong case that Firefly is only incidentally SF, although there'd be the slight problem of the River subplot that forms the backbone of the show. But I don't really care. The dialogue is better than anything anyone has ever written who is not named Sorkin, and it resonates especially well because the characters are incredibly well drawn. That the stories are iconic -- here's a heist, here's a search-and-rescue, here's a defend-the-base -- doesn't really strike me as much of a criticism. Depending upon your favored literary reference, there are only 7 (or 9, or 12, or 49, etc.) basic story flavors anyway.

So there it is in all its fruity glory: character, emotion, ideals. I enjoy above all else the stories that make my soul sing. In that regard, The West Wing and Firefly remain the gold standard.

Paul said...

My original comment about Firefly was kinda harsh. I've since watched the movie....The movie finally got around to addressing some things that I thought were lacking in the series.....a good backdrop for the story, for one. (It never struck me that they came from a crowded Earth to this solar system). I think I get a sense of the potential this series had if it had continued. Also, I have to give props to Whedon for the good dialogue, and for providing many laugh-out-loud moments for me.

spanky, your comment about Star Wars makes me realize... that's why I didn't really like those movies...except for the first 2 (mainly because of the novelty for it all). Good sci fi should not just be emotional and adventurous; it should also appeal to the intellect at least a little bit. A movie like Bladerunner did this beautifully, I thought.

Ezra said...

Umm, yeah, Paul. I'm going to have to disagree with you here. With respect to Serenity and Blade Runner.

With respect to Firefly, it's not so much a disagreement as a different way of seeing things. I don't think it's number 2 drama of the aughts, it was pretty fuckin' good. I tore through the DVDs like a Japanese man through a 6 year old's panties. The dialog was great, the characters were phenomenal, and the stories were always engaging. It was against this backdrop that I watched Serenity and I was nothing but let down. The characters changed just enough to be annoying (i.e. Mal was a complete dick, rather than a cowboy with a conscience). And the plot was not that interesting (full disclosure, I found the whole River subplot the least interesting). Doesn't take away from the quality of Firefly, but, man! was I underwhelmed by the movie.

Blade Runner, on the other hand. Where do I begin? I watched it once in high school and was bored by it. I heard great things about it (not least from spanky) and gave it another go. I was bored again. Fast forward to grad school (over a decade later) when I picked up Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Awesome. Loved it. I decided to give Blade Runner another shot. Again, I was let down. Thoroughly, thoroughly bored.

You can't accuse me of not trying to like this movie. I've given it every opportunity to impress me like it's impressed so many others. Instead, it gets lumped in with The Death of Ivan Ilych as story that is universally appreciated, yet panned by Ezra. [shrug]

Que the righteous indignation and questions about my intelligence/sexuality