Sunday, January 31, 2010
More than any other medium, the 2000s belong to television. This isn't a sudden occurrence, having built to an increasing amount of artfully great television for decades, from The Twilight Zone to The State, I Love Lucy to The Larry Sanders Show, but many of history's greatest television series debuted in the past ten years. The 25 best anon.
Before we delve into the list proper, know that ranking is arbitrary and the list is more a general reflection of increasing greatness. And while any list I write is a reflection of me more than the work, just so you know, this is not a list of my favorite shows of the 2000s but of (what I think are) the 25 best shows on television. There's necessarily a degree of subjectivity, but the goal was detached criticism, at least in the ranking.
My Top 25 Best Television Series of the 2000s:
25. Planet Earth (2006), BBC
Groundbreaking, and it never lets you forget it, Planet Earth is frustrating for all the ways it conforms to traditional nature docs (on top of the self-satisfied tone), but this in no way detracts from the breathtaking wonders of its many successes. Eleven hours of marvels turn us all into children gawking at just how fascinating we've forgotten this planet is.
24. Angels in America (2003), HBO
A carnival of '80s fears told by a towering ensemble, Angels in America is as overreaching and unwieldy as it is extravagant and ambitious. But the cumulative effect is powerful, achieved through provocative writing and fantasy elements. Regardless of whatever holes exist in its arguments, Angels in America is a timely, necessary miniseries dramatically concerned with modern America.
23. How I Met Your Mother (2005-), CBS
The great success of How I Met Your Mother is its narrative creativity, constantly jumping ahead and back, digressing into hypothetical situations or misrepresented memories, and planting the seeds for elaborate callbacks like the slap bet. Anchored by a solid cast and a serious look at starting lives in the 2000s, How I Met Your Mother is a great traditional sitcom for the Internet age.
22. Friday Night Lights (2006-), NBC
Steinbeck turned television, Friday Night Lights is the decade's most moving evocation of community, with a rustic, ritual-driven world gradually expanding over four seasons (so far), lived by the underwritten, naturalistic performances of an evolving, expansive ensemble. Football is almost beside the point; Friday Night Lights is about all the joys and struggles of life lived together, and the series adamantly declares that hope, optimism, and hard work can surmount any obstacle.
21. The Shield (2002-8), FX
Spanning roughly the "War on Terror," or the hot period therein, The Shield is a fervent attack on sacrificing liberty for security through our charismatic antihero Vic Mackey. Brilliantly incorporating a pulp format, the series barely escapes one cliffhanger just to find its way to another, and each season feels like the inevitable next link in the chain of events. There were a couple of narrative missteps, but by the end it was so incomprehensible you stopped caring about the pulpy plot to focus on the characters, and the series finale is one of the all-time greats.
20. The Office (US) (2004-), NBC
The Office (US) isn't consistent (as it's usually called) so much as the decline has been negligible episode to episode thanks to a fair amount of hilarity. But six years in, it's clear that the series has lost its perspective, losing its focus as a beautiful portrait of loneliness and ennui ameliorated, barely, by the little things. Still, nothing erases its remarkable string of brilliance in the early seasons and sporadically beyond.
19. Spaced, Season 2 (2001), Channel 4
Spaced is an inspired, nerdy take on the notion of modern family influenced by animation, comic books, science-fiction and any number of contemporary fanboy loves. Season 1 aired in 1999, but Season 2 was just as good, delivering a finale that satisfied while leaving us way too soon.
18. Breaking Bad (2007-), AMC
Despite its solid introduction, Breaking Bad entered the big leagues in Season 2, becoming a gritty, gripping crime pulp as Bryan Cranston's unassailable Walter White racks up quite a rap sheet. What elevates this plotty pulp though, aside from the increasingly solid ensemble (from supporting actors Aaron Paul and Anna Gunn to guest stars John de Lancie, Krysten Ritter, and Bob Odenkirk), is its thematic depth, unflinchingly exploring mortality and the gap between crime and sin. Featuring gorgeous New Mexico cinematography and a wealth of narrative risks (including flashforward snippets, an extended Spanish music video/time jump, and several impossible cliffhangers), Breaking Bad is already one of the decade's best dramas.
17. Veronica Mars (2004-7), UPN/The CW
What began as a witty, captivating take on high school noir, with an out-of-nowhere tour de force by Kristen Bell, became in Season 2 even more complex and ambitious, expanding the fish bowl world of Neptune, CA and its corrupt wealth into a crime hub for multiple gangs, a rising center of commerce, and a burgeoning cauldron of ignored teenage sociopaths. Season 3 was made possible thanks to a compromise--namely, less serialization--and naturally hangs together worse than the others but nonetheless featured its fair share of witty repartee, harrowing suspense, clever solutions, and, at the end of the day, a cynical, hazy gray.
16. The Office (UK) (2001-3), BBC2
The American version's moodier, edgier, grimmer older brother, The Office (UK) is one of the most influential comedies of the decade, skyrocketing the television careers of Ricky Gervais and the mockumentary format. Gervais is a powerful, oblivious force as David Brent, the obnoxious dullard you can't help but feel sorry for despite his mean streak because he's just so pathetically humiliating. Meanwhile, Martin Freeman, Mackenzie Crook, and Lucy Davis match his credibility in their subplots, especially as Freeman steals the final episode from Gervais with his fourth wall-breaking confession. It's a naturalist masterpiece, a downer about the modern grind leavened by bursts of absurdity and a happy ending.
15. Sons & Daughters (2006), ABC
Largely improvised family sitcom Sons & Daughters premiered in the wake of the ignominious cancellation of Arrested Development, so many of its most likely fans were ardently otherwise dedicated. It's a shame, because its ratings brought this eleven-episode series (and ABC's best comedy of the decade) to a swift end, and thanks to its liberal use of music, Sons & Daughters has yet to see a DVD release. Led by Fred Goss, the hysterical ensemble is impressive right down to the children, and while it's daunting at first to connect all the names and relationships with the faces, Sons & Daughters is so warm and relatable, they grow on you almost immediately. Beyond the staggeringly credible, consistently funny improvisation, the series is notable for its pathos, mining everyday tragedies and touching moments from an extended family and their friends thrown into a crucible each week.
14. The Sopranos, Seasons 2-6 (2000-7), HBO
Suffocatingly cynical, The Sopranos isn't just about the mob or family. It's a demonstration of the ways we lie to ourselves, compartmentalizing our work from our lives, using counsel as narcissistic reinforcement, and solving our problems with cosmetic change rather than substantive course correction. "Other than running a mob, I'm a good person, right?" Nothing less than a challenge to modern life, The Sopranos is a complex, ambitious, and colossally influential drama featuring some of the decade's finest performance, writing, direction, music, and imagery. The later seasons became looser and more expansive while simultaneously digesting the threat of terrorism, silently noting the irony that the business of the mob is awfully similar. Too experimental to be note-perfect and too relentlessly miserable to be addicting, The Sopranos is nonetheless one of the decade's most significant cultural works.
13. The Comeback (2005), HBO
Awkward comedy standout The Comeback is not only a superb character study of Valerie Cherish, a fading sitcom star desperate to regain her glory, but an indictment of reality television, which has glutted America with access to Hollywood celebrity and turned self-abasement into a sport. Trapped in a relentless humiliation porn, Lisa Kudrow gives a tour de force performance as a relatable woman whose only vice is fame, but her indignities are made worse by the fact that she’s not some socially inept buffoon like David Brent. Cherish’s new sitcom also sells out its creative process for popularity, but the series is full of people willing to sacrifice their bodies, morals, and dignity for a tiny shot at fame.
12. Deadwood (2004-6), HBO
A western about the sociopolitical underpinnings of America, Deadwood is a humanistic heir to Altman. Not only does it star Keith Carradine as Wild Bill Hickock, but it has time to spend with each character in its sprawling cast, and most of all, Deadwood is a paean to life and all its quirks and breaks, hardships and triumphs. The most significant divergence from Altman lies in David Milch's writing: both auteurs enjoy following even the seemingly minor characters, but where Altman revels in the improvisatory and sudden surprises, Milch crafts carefully detailed, linguistically playful, and individually distinct dialogue for his characters. The cast breathe life into Milch's words, one of the decade's finest ensembles, led by the volcanic Ian McShane, and at its best, Deadwood achieves a grandeur only possible through the seamless operations of all its moving players.
11. Freaks and Geeks, 13 episodes (2000), NBC
A funny, moving work about the adolescent quest for identity, Freaks and Geeks aired all but its first five episodes at the beginning of the decade, setting the standard for the coming onslaught of hourlong comedy-dramas. None, finally, surpassed it, with its gradually developing ensemble and rewarding character groupings, like Nick and Millie singing together or Bill and Cindy studying after school. 1980 time capsule elements abound, but it's the warmth of the relationships that keeps us coming back, especially those involving the den parents of Mr. and Mrs. Weir, never ones to turn away a child in need.
10. Stella (2005), Comedy Central
Stella is an absurdist masterpiece. One of my favorite jokes occurs in the pilot, during the Stella trio's period of homelessness (in the middle of their day of extreme economic tumult), when David Wain points to something, and they all rush over to see whatever it is, and it turns out he was pointing to a flyer around the corner that he couldn't have physically seen from where he was. Absurdism can be tricky, but, perhaps thanks to its brief airtime, Stella never runs out of creative energy, keeping its jokes and concepts fast and fresh for each of its ten episodes. Because so much is packed into each story (in addition to the rapid compression/expansion of time and the fast-talking pace), the ten episodes cover a lot, but it's not nearly enough for one of the most underappreciated comedies of the decade.
9. Firefly (2002), FOX
Firefly is a space western, but that barely covers it. The series is practically unclassifiable, blending action (and its tropes), comedy, drama, romance, sci-fi, war, western, and a number of subgenres with stylistic elements from Civil War literature as well as cyberpunk, spy flicks, and more. Further, it features Joss Whedon's diverse worldview, commenting on politics, ethics, religion, philosophy, art, science, and more. But at its heart, Firefly is about freedom, culminating in the idea that absolute freedom is impossible; the system, be it the long arm of the law or the grand scheme of the universe, accounts for even the harmless smugglers of Serenity. What matters, then, is finding meaning in your life, from embracing family to upholding principles.
8. Generation Kill (2008), HBO
Generation Kill is a verite drama, except in the sense that there's very little drama, about a band of macho brothers with refined reconnaissance expertise misused by the deciders as blunt instruments of combat. In short, it's a sophisticated, detailed expose of a poorly planned occupation and one of the decade's most significant engagements. Exceptionally funny, surprisingly warm, and relaxed with respect to narrative momentum, Generation Kill is not only the decade's best miniseries but the standout tribute to the real-life men coming of age in a war zone.
7. Battlestar Galactica (2003-9), Sci Fi
The show of the decade, in several respects, Ronald D. Moore's Battlestar Galactica is the quintessential series of the "War on Terror." Yes there were perennial science-fiction concerns about what it means to be human and how society will respond to technological progress, but Battlestar Galactica made its name not on cylons and FTL drives but on an unflinching look at religion and politics, a fearless approach to beloved characters perpetrating torture, genocide, and assassination, an opening and closing that frames the series as a look at how religion operates in our lives. I'm a broken record at this point, but the New Caprica occupation is the series' finest sequence, and more importantly, one of the most riveting, angry, thoughtful, and iconoclastic story arcs from any series this decade.
6. 30 Rock (2006-), NBC
Perhaps the most philosophically cohesive long-running comedy of the decade, one that often holds together better as a fluid whole rather than a sequence of episodes, 30 Rock is the decade's breakout work of postmodernism; it's a wonder it ever got as many viewers or critical plaudits as it did, being a challenging, farcical, absurdist, and often obscure comedy of inundation. By that I'm referring to its Family Guy, anarchic animation style of throwing as many jokes at us as possible, a perfect marriage to its variety show technique of bringing in a new guest star each week. Then there's the sparing use of sentiment, turning those rare uses into powerhouse moments, such as the end of "Cooter," where Jack listens to Liz's voice-mail messages about the state of her pregnancy. But the postmodernism is the series' hallmark, practically dependent on a real-life knowledge of the performers--Alec Baldwin's flaming liberalism, Tina Fey's writing/performing career arc, Tracy Morgan's BAC ankle monitor--and a near-constant meta narrative invoking smash cuts, plot twists, montages, catchphrases, fourth-wall addresses, time-jumps, NBC's latest headlines, act breaks, and any number of television tropes. Season 4 seems to have galvanized the meta, opening, as it did, with Jack addressing the camera saying, "Welcome to Season Four" and closing the premiere with an introduction to The Jay Leno Show, surely alienating plenty of former fans. 30 Rock nevertheless remains a reliable satire machine and a sweet, uproarious stream of comedy.
5. Mad Men (2007-), AMC
The decade's essential exploration of the American dream, Mad Men is much more than The Sopranos' heir. With a solid ensemble and restrained writing, Mad Men is as much about what goes unsaid as its remarkable observational dialogue or moments of spoken insight. It lives in the moments between the words its characters use to market themselves, when Betty alone contemplates her kitchen or Peggy endures an abrupt Don or Joan's pride refuses to let her fight for a career she loves, and you'll notice the examples that spring to mind invariably come from the series' breakout females. Above all, Mad Men takes American hallmarks like Gatsby reinvention and the untarnished virtue of the greatest generation American soldier and the Norman Rockwell vision of a perfect home and exposes the fraud underneath in a timely, and timeless, encapsulation of a nation struggling every day to live up to its slogans.
4. The Thick of It (2005-), BBC4/BBC2
The opening scene of The Thick of It sees venomous communications director Malcolm Tucker seduce an unwitting cabinet secretary into relief before canning him under press pressure. The press pressure is implied to have come from the party, but they can't admit that, so Tucker tells the minister he's resigning for personal reasons, but the party line is that he was going to be fired anyway, not because of the press, but because of his "deeply held fucking personal issues, whatever they were." It's brilliantly directed, with verite shaky cam taking time to zoom and hold on Tucker as he narrows for the death blow. Suddenly a white flash on black screen--The Thick of It--barely allowing enough time to comprehend the circularity of the preceding tragedy. In fourteen episodes, two hourlong specials and one fifteen-minute minisode, The Thick of It has become the decade's foremost government satire, a series that adeptly navigates the inane, irresponsible bureaucratic nonsense that keeps people in power and sees others fired, and one that viciously trashes the idea of service, arguing that political leaders have no incentive or even latitude to use their power for anything but desperately clinging to their jobs. It's a rapidfire witstorm that leaves us in hysterics but mines potent tragedy in almost every episode--witness Chris Langham's Secretary Abbot ruminating over his impending firing thanks to an unrented flat that by the twisted logic of the press compromises his position on homelessness in Episode 3. Above all, The Thick of It is a welcome but never pedantic indictment of the state of western democratic leadership in a time of dangerous irresponsibility.
3. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart & The Colbert Report (2000-, 2005-), Comedy Central
In a television and, indeed, cultural landscape that can only be described as hyper-meta, it's no wonder the most incisive sociopolitical, cultural, and media commentary comes from a journalism show that claims it's not, implicitly demanding an answer to the question, "What is contemporary journalism?" Okay, so Stewart and Colbert aren't in the scoop biz, and they don't report the news so much as the coverage, but make no mistake: The Daily Show and The Colbert Report featured the decade's most sophisticated broadcast journalism. This is news in the age of the Internet, with hypocrisy confirmed via video just a Youtube click away and textured, multimedia satire commenting on the news, the commentary, television entertainment, and itself all at the same time. Stephen Colbert's Colbert is perhaps the decade's iconic fictional character (challengers?), and at his best, he can outpace even The Daily Show thanks to his faux-embrace of cable news tropes and unwavering yet spry idiocy. But Stewart's show has been the decade's mainstay, with an affable, self-deprecating host welcoming anyone into his den for a truly no-spin debate, from oft-returning guest John McCain (who later spawned a Daily Show segment charting his evolution from principled bipartisan conservative to neocon poster boy, all with clips from The Daily Show) to professional torture equivocator and amateur scum demon John Yoo. The shows are not perfect, but with a couple thousand episodes between the two of them in ten years, their batting average is off the charts, probably the most reliable hour of television this decade.
2. The Wire (2002-8), HBO
I don't have the space here to adequately describe The Wire, but suffice it to say it breaks a city's institutions down by season, exploring the street drug trade, the stevedores union on the docks, city politics at City Hall, the school system, and the local press. The Wire is everything to the city, disappointed and optimistic, ode and elegy, experimental and classical. And what you've heard is true: The Wire is difficult to follow at first, it's challenging in its dilemmas and solutions, and it demands commitment. Its defining characteristic, though, is its humanism. This is a series that argues persuasively over five seasons through naturalistic dialogue spoken by the decade's most expansive and powerful ensemble that homeless drug users are valuable human beings, criminals in the drug trade are given few alternatives and have their own principles, cops are not superheroes, and politicians are godly only in their inexhaustible ability to bend to the temptations of power. We're all people, The Wire says, and we're all playing our parts. All the pieces matter.
1. Arrested Development (2003-6), FOX
Here's what I find most fascinating about the best work of fiction to come out of the 2000s: it's centrally a satire of the Bush dynasty--though it begins as a more even-handed attack on Enron-style corporate shelter with as much vitriol aimed at its self-involved and inactive liberals as its ignorant and reactionary conservatives--but it's obsessed--more than any series I've ever seen or heard about--with incest. Is it that incest is inherently funny (consensual incest, that is) and kind of an unexplored taboo and therefore creative goldmine? Or is the show's incest fixation, with its figurehead will-they-or-won't-they couple of cousins George-Michael and Maeby, a representation of the twisted, isolated nature of of our political leaders and/or the upper class during the Bush era? As with every other element of political satire, Mitchell Hurwitz and company even put a warm smile on family love, getting the audience to champion a romance between the cousins, laugh at the too-close relationship between Lucille and mama's boy Buster, chuckle at the overly touchy/kissy family reunions, and regularly enjoy one-off jokes like Michael being shown a copy of sister Lindsay's Charlie Browns (or is that Peppermint Pattys?). Fearlessly inventive, condensing an entire episode into a "previously on" segment, editing in cutaways whenever the moment strikes, and reveling in comedy from sharp satire to slapstick, cheeky wordplay to dorky puns, sarcasm to slip-ups, and packing as much into an episode as possible, Arrested Development is the most rewarding series of the 2000s.
Questions, challenges, comments? What do you consider the best series of the decade?