I’m not sure if anyone else has noticed, but the best television – temporary theater and serials – has taken place in the last ten years. That’s not to say the previous decades haven’t been solid. I’ll quickly tip my hat to M*A*S*H or Star Trek and feel strongly that any discussion of television that doesn’t spend time reflecting on the contributions of WGBH-Boston and PBS to show the potential for the medium would be incomplete. Imports like Fawlty Towers simply must be discussed, as must the progressive vision of MTV during the eighties and nineties. These networks and their shows are individually as well as collectively fascinating and I could talk for ages about them. But the last decade? A different matter entirely. Is there any doubt we are watching the Bronze Age of television right now? Given the ways that “city life” can be frenetic and exhausting, it is a welcome reprieve to be entertained well.
Years ago, I imagined myself to be a television writer. There are many stops along the road and, for me, I moved away from this desire (as with every good story, it involved a girl, but that’s a story for another time) but the enjoyment found in really good writing has remained consistent.
Here’s some of the best shows you may not be watching:
Breaking Bad – I relate to main character Walter White’s assessment of life. Walter tried living life by the book – tried to do the “right” thing, be a good man, not to create problems for anyone or speak up, and generally do what was expected of him only to find that reality played by a different set of rules entirely. Walter began to do “bad” things to survive (murder, create a meth lab, etc) and a captive audience lived out their frustrations and disappointments through him. Indeed, this show depicts a reality we know all too well and wish we could rage against with him.
Downton Abbey – Is there any doubt that PBS has come back into primetime with a vengeance? Between the modern Sherlock and blowing the dust off of Masterpiece Theater, Downton Abbey showcases the petty infighting as well as the aspirations for wealth and achievement, personal rights and elusive love we experience every day. While not particularly original (Upstairs, Downstairs; Howard’s End; Larkrise to Candleford to name a few), this show clearly continues to speak to our desire for a simpler time when, perhaps, we could feel more liberated.
Game of Thrones – Based on George Martin’s fantasy series, the earthiness here is juxtaposed wonderfully with the mythic. Thankfully, the fantastic is underplayed (dragons, seasons which change in years not months, the frosty-dead blue-eyes? c’mon now…) in a world of Rowling and Tolkien replicas screaming for Blu-ray glory. Championing loyalty and friendship, we must never forget: A Lannister always pays his debts.
Gilmore Girls – With witty, fast-paced dialogue (borrowing heavily from Aaron Sorkin) that is culturally relevant, sarcastic yet optimistic at the same time, Gilmore Girls proved to be a guilty pleasure for numerous women – and as just as many men. Arguably past their prime by season six, the show remained faithful and funny to the very end with Rory taking her first steps towards the realized dream.
Girls – HBO has revived their female audience share with a revamped but toned down version of hit Sex and the City. In Lena Dunham’s Girls the plight of broke twenty-somethings in New York is shockingly accurate. From the fights that take place over haircuts to the shocking realization that your ex is – and always was – gay, this show is blazingly funny.
Homeland – Claire Danes stars as counterintelligence agent with a secret that proves her undoing in pursuit of a turned soldier. Spoilers are abundant, so instead I will say this show works best when it grounds itself. Time and again, threats are made but instead of watching how those threats get played out, we see terrorists calling “the good guys” bluff. The shock always comes when you see how unshocked world players really are. Government cover up? Sure. Leak the story to The Washington Post. I’ll be hired on as a contractor by the end of the day. What’s that? You’ll strip me of diplomatic immunity? Okay, great. That’ll free me up to play golf with the Shah of Iran. Incredibly addictive by the simplicity and reality, this show (almost) blew me away.
In Treatment – Basically a therapy session… without washed-up rockstars. Incredibly intelligent for HBO to take a big gamble like this, but very sad to see it cancelled. As with real sessions… we weren’t able to get to the real issues.
Lost – The best show. Of all time. That is my take on this six-season philosophical journey. I am uncharacteristically at a loss to explain what this show does for me, the way that I am instantly captured everytime I see reruns. Nothing comes close, and while I understand the frustration with the series finale (it wasn’t what I wanted either!), it cannot take away the deep and abiding questions each episode raises.
New Girl – For personal reasons, I wasn’t entirely sold on this show when it debuted (an ex-girlfriend was a big Deschanel fan) but quickly found the quirkiness and cynical humor convincing me this is one of the funniest shows on television right now (need proof? click here).
The Newsroom – Aaron Sorkin, hot off the heels of The Social Network, returns to telling behind-the-scenes stories of how news is made and delivered. With rapid dialogue, researched and informed scripts, and unparalleled casting, Aaron “Midas” Sorkin is firing once again turning everything he touches to entertainment gold. Jeff Daniels is at his peak, and Alison Pill is hands-down the breakout star of the show.
Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip – Aaron Sorkin makes the list more than once because of the sheer influence he has had on conditioning a generation towards hope. Studio 60, in characteristic fashion, is tremendous love letter to a “dead” industry. Further, his current HBO series, The Newsroom, seems a perfect hybrid of what Sports Night and Studio 60 were trying to get at – that smart people in small rooms will always be entertaining.
The Sopranos – One of the first anti-hero shows of the decade, each episode exaggerated our fears of mortality and what kind of legacy we would leave behind. One of the best unsung decisions in this series was the conclusion, which left us with the tension Tony had felt for years.
The Walking Dead – What happens when the world as you know it just… Stops? Instantly? You wake up and nothing, absolutely nothing, is as you left it. I’m convinced that this show isn’t really about zombies, but the ways that each of us make decisions every day to survive. Must we throw others into certain death just so we can live another day? When it comes to blows, would you be willing to kill a friend? No matter what we do, the stench of death is all around.
The West Wing – The final Sorkin entry. Earlier this year, Vanity Fair did a cover story (see link) on Sorkin’s ability to change politics of every color, persuasion and position to transcend the ideological and bring “sexy” back to the corridors of power. Most striking was the way that Sorkin wrote (the fictional) Pres. Barlett as a foil to (the real) Pres. Bush. Fluent in multiple languages, well-versed in literature, powerful and genuinely conflicted when he must make decisions on war, articulate and inspirational, this is the kind of leader each of us want.