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The Fourth Wall

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Discussion: The Best TV of the Last Fifteen Years


May 4th, 2010 at 11:48 am

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TV: Is it making us dumber, and how is it changing? (Aside from the fact that the one pictured is totally obsolete.)

Confession: I don’t enjoy American sitcoms. I hate the laugh tracks, the halogen lighting, the goofy scene changes, and the heartwarming music that always plays when Betty learns an IMPORTANT LIFE LESSON. I do not like “Friends,” “Everybody Loves Raymond,” “Seinfeld,” or “Frasier.” The hilarious hijinx and capers characters get up to just aren’t my thing, and the family-oriented format of most TV doesn’t allow writers to tackle subject matter that’s interesting to me. It took until college to realize I hate the series format, in which one episode doesn’t lead to the next. I prefer the serial format wherein you can’t miss an episode without completely losing track of the show’s trajectory. Luckily TV has changed drastically in the last few years, seemingly to fit people like me!

There are exceptions to the sitcom rule, of course. I don’t mind watching “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” and if “Scrubs” is on I won’t change the channel. “Roseanne” is one of the best written sitcoms out there, and I’ll fight you on it. Despite Roseanne Barr’s obnoxiously nasal voice, those were reasonable characters who lived a middle-class life and responded to situations the way, you know, real people would (I also related to Darlene the same way I related to MTV’s Daria). “Community” is hilarious (also, notably doesn’t feature a laugh track). Good writing + Danny Pudi + Joel McHale = a winner.

McHale and Pudi in “Community.”

Popular opinion would have it that watching TV makes you dumber, but researchers posit that modern television is actually made with smarts in mind. Stephen Johnson notes that the success of “Alias,” “24,” “The West Wing,” “The Sopranos,” “Lost,” and other shows with large casts and intricate storylines show that “the culture is getting more cognitively demanding, not less.”

“Lost” is probably actually making viewers smarter.

The addition of series on the pay cable (movie) channels, HBO and Showtime in particular, seems to have altered television completely. When HBO put “Sex and the City,” “The Wire,” “The Sopranos,” “Queer as Folk,” “Six Feet Under,” and now “True Blood” and “Treme,” on their roster, TV started to change. Showtime followed suit with “The L Word,” “Dexter,” “Weeds,” “Hung,” “The Tudors,” and “United States of Tara.” Other channels like Fox, FX, and AMC have followed suit with darker, bloodier, sexier shows…and it’s been amazing. As culture continues to shift, my tastes will surely change and grow. So far though, these are some of the best shows to air on television in the last fifteen years (maybe ever):

“The Wire” is the best show on TV.

“The Wire” (HBO, 2002-2008, created by David Simon)

David Simon’s incredible series tracks the drug trade through all its hitches, glitches, and inner workings in Baltimore. Some seasons are better than others, but the format shows a new and different aspect of the city each season—one follows the kids working the corners, another tracks the newspapermen pursuing the big headlines, another charts the course of political overlords. All seasons focus on a fantastic core cast that includes Dominic West, Wendell Pierce and Clarke Peters (both of whom are appearing in Simon’s new HBO show “Treme”), Idris Elba, and Michael K. Williams as Omar Little, one of television’s most marvelously complex antiheroes. To be honest, this show made me burst into tears like a little girl at multiple points, and none were expected. It is brilliant.

Try it, it’s worth it: “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”

“Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (Fox, 1997-2003, created by Joss Whedon)

Some people don’t “get” “Buffy,” and I understand that. To get into the show, you have to start at the beginning and follow it all the way through seven seasons. Each season has an arc wherein the Scoobys—Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar), Willow (Alyson Hannigan), Xander (Nicholas Brendan), and Giles (Anthony Stewart Head) along with a rotation of others—go up against a Big Bad. But more importantly, Joss Whedon’s characters learn and grow from episode to episode and season to season. Buffy is an annoying, self-righteous character whose motivations rarely make sense, but the secondary cast and characters make the show worth it. Try to get past the cheesy effects and makeup, because after awhile you won’t notice it anymore. Pay attention to the writing, story arcs, and occasionally great acting. It’ll be worth it.

“Six Feet Under” is a dark, strange, hilarious foray into the business of dying.

“Six Feet Under” (HBO, 2001-2005, created by Alan Ball)

“Six Feet Under” is probably my favorite series of all time. The myriad ways in which people deal with death is a pervasive, dark, severely strange topic. Shows like “Dead Like Me” and “Pushing Daisies” went with a funnier, more sarcastic tone than “Six Feet Under,” which focuses on the Fisher family—mother Ruth (Frances Conroy), sons Nate (Peter Krause) and David (Michael C. Hall pre-“Dexter”), and daughter Claire (Lauren Ambrose)—that owns an undertaking business in L.A. Each and every funeral, every encounter with someone who’s recently lost a loved one, teaches the Fishers a little more about their own lives. Again, some seasons are better than others (Season 1 is probably the best), but the show as a whole, and especially the series finale, is TV at its best. Between tragedies and hilarity, you come to love even the least lovable among them, and to look at death in a whole new way.

“My So-Called Life” treats its teenage protagonists with respect.

“My So-Called Life” (ABC, 1994-1995, created by Winnie Holzman)

“My So-Called Life” follows Angela Chase (Claire Danes) as she struggles with the stuff we all did in high school–relationships, drinking, drugs, parents, sex. Somehow or other, the show manages to speak directly to teenagers, but watching it again as an adult, the relationships between the adults are nearly as complex and wonderfully rendered as those of Angela, Jordan Catalano (Jared Leto), Rayanne (A.J. Langer), and Brian Krakow (Devon Gummersall). Why it was canceled after one season, I have no idea, but again, I’ll stand behind the quality of the writing and its ability to portray teenagers with respect.

Dexter Morgan is one of TV’s best antiheroes.

“Dexter” (Showtime, 2006-present, based on books by Jeff Lindsay)

“Dexter” started out slow, but went on to build yet another of TV’s most bizarre and brilliant antiheroes. Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) is a good man with a family he loves and a job at which he excels. He’s also a serial killer, but the show posits that, well, if you only kill terrible people, maybe that’s not so bad after all. It plays with moral ambiguity in smart, fun, and incredibly dark ways. John Lithgow as last season’s villain Arthur Mitchell brought out the straight-up fangirl in me, and I’m waiting anxiously and eagerly for next season to see what happens as Dexter continues to lose control.

Matthew Weiner’s “Mad Men” is an addictive, beautifully rendered, cinematic period piece.

“Mad Men” (AMC, 2007-present, created by Matthew Weiner)

“Mad Men” is one of the most stylish, smart, and artfully made shows ever to air on television. It’s the story of ad execs on Madison Avenue in the 1960s, and its brilliant costuming and art decoration are spot-on. The characters’ motivations, sexism, racism, and general depravity make it hard to truly like them, but you have to remember over and over again that this was a different time. What makes the show truly mind-blowing is the ways things haven’t changed in forty years. Some people have trouble keeping up with “Mad Men” because it moves slowly and there’s less dialogue than most television airing currently. In that way, the show’s truly cinematic in nature. Each episode is another chapter of a long movie, and no matter how much you hate the characters, you learn to care for them, too.

Honorable mention: “Freaks & Geeks” is incredible, “Firefly” is a fantastic space western that was unduly canceled. “Lost”, which I need to catch up on. I’m also addictively attached to “True Blood,” “Breaking Bad,” “Supernatural,” and “Friday Night Lights.”

Add your favorites to the comments! Feel free to argue with me about series vs. serial format!

(All photos copyright their original owners.)

  • Paul Comstock

    Let’s see … my top-five for the last 15 years would be 1. Mad Men, 2. Seinfeld, 3. The Office (British version), 4. Arrested Development and 5. The Wire and The Sopranos (tie).

  • William Bibbiani

    Six Feet Under rapidly grew tiresome for me, but seriously Julia, this list needs Paranoia Agent, Avatar: The Last Airbender and Cowboy Bebop on it. SERIOUSLY.

    I’m also a little disappointed not to see Veronica Mars, Battlestar Galactica, Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, Spaced, South Park and Dr. Who on here.

    And it’s an entirely different kind of series, but what, no love for The Daily Show? Or The Colbert Report?

    Young lady, you just opened up a can of worms.

  • Matthew Smith

    DEADWOOD is a better show than all of those you posted IMO. it’s such a bummer that david milch got completely screwed out of being able to wrap that up in a completely satisfying way (rather than the semi-wrapped-up ending of season 3), but that HBO continues to make money hand over fist on that show’s dvd sales. and on rome. and carnivale.

    i will say, though, that THE WIRE is something i like almost as much as DEADWOOD, but not quite, b/c there’s not much ian mcshane in it…

  • Elijah Sterling

    Good post, except for the egregious comment: “Buffy is an annoying, self-righteous character whose motivations rarely make sense.”

    I’ve never found the character of Buffy annoying. I’ve been in the company of various and sundry fans and critics of the Buffy show, and this is the first time I’ve heard that complaint. Is it a common one, and I’ve been just somehow out of the loop?

    As for self-righteousness, I don’t recall much of that either. Maybe a little here and there, and a bit more in the last couple of seasons; however, but if you take the premise at face value, try having the fate of the world on your shoulders and being the only one who can save it and sometimes the only one who acknowledges or seems to understand that, and then try not being a little self-righteous about it from time to time.

    With hardly more than a moment’s notice, I can find doctors and lawyers and politicians right here in my own community who are a lot more self-righteous, and with a lot less at stake.

    So I guess I kinda think any minor self-righteousness was perfect for Buffy’s character given the premise of the show.

    Of course for those who don’t buy the premise… then sure, she’s just an actress in some silly show, how dare her be so self-righteous!

    As for motivations, I can agree that her motivations might not have made complete sense sometimes, but that’s certainly no more true for Buffy than for many of the other characters on Buffy — and many other TV shows, and huge numbers of movies, books, plays and short stories for that matter… IMHO.

    The show and character of Buffy being such touchstones in terms of various cultural biases, as well as personal beliefs and attitudes, I suppose I could go on and try to psychoanalyze you as to why you feel this way about the Buffy character. It might prove interesting and lead to all sorts of insights. Or not. In any case, I’ll spare you that and just leave it at “I strongly disagree.”

    As for the other shows you’ve listed (and have failed to list), as William Bibbiani indicated, oh what a tangled can of worms we open when at first we… (okay, help me here… what rhymes with open and still makes some kind of sense?)

  • Julia Rhodes

    Elijah, I’ve definitely heard others mention that Buffy’s holier-than-thou and quite self-righteous, but I’m basing that on my own opinions about the character. In one episode she encounters a girl whose boyfriend is beating her, and rather than treat the situation with any sensitivity at all, she just shrugs it off and attributes it to weakness, then the boyfriend kills the girl and it’s like, “oh well.” On another site, someone said, “Well, yes, but that’s Buffy for you.” And in the seventh season, the Potentials and Scoobys get annoyed enough with her to kick her out of the house (though she is eventually vindicated). Then there’s Anya, who nconstantly calls Buffy out on her personality flaws (there are many).

    So in short, yes, Buffy has the weight of the world on her shoulders, but as proven in the final episode, she doesn’t NEED to shoulder than burden alone. Because she was chosen and bequeathed special slayer powers, she takes on a definite I’m-better-than-you attitude, and Whedon touches on this in the seventh season, wrapping it all up nicely.

    Whedon’s main characters (with the exception of Mal in Firefly) are not what draws me to his shows; the secondary characters and group dynamics are most interesting.

  • Julia Rhodes

    Matt – I need to watch “Deadwood” ASAP. I just started on “Angel” because I’ve never seen it before, and I’m going to watch “Spaced” too. Also keeping up with “Treme,” “Breaking Bad,” “Supernatural,” and “Gossip Girl,” and “True Blood” is coming back soon. MY LIFE IS BUSY WITH TELEVISION AND OTHER THINGS.

  • Matt

    :) Treme is sooo good.

  • NK

    While everyone’s obviously entitled to their opinion, and the show was indeed blessed with a great ensemble, Buffy herself was always the main reason I watched the show – I’d suggest your dislike of her tells us more about you than her. Good call for including the show at all though – it definitely deserves to be in such esteemed company.

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