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Thursday Thirteen: Top 13 TV Series Ever

October 11th, 2007 (01:23 pm)

current mood: cheerful
current music: Fleetwood Mac

Top 13 Best TV Series of All Time
Television has a bad image. But television is only a box. Much of its content is mediocre, but there are some excellent programs on TV too, if we can find them among all those low-brow sitcoms and catty reality shows. Below are some of the best ones I've found over the years.

Is this list arbitrary? Of course it is. There are a half-dozen others I would have liked to include, but I had to keep it to thirteen, so something had to go. Some I eliminated by setting rules for myself (Sesame Street doesn't count because it's not a weekly nighttime series) others I lumped together (see #7) and others I judged too new to have proven themselves. I decided not to include non-fiction shows like Novathough maybe I'll do a documentary version of this list sometime for a future Thursday Thirteen. Other programs (Law & Order, West Wing, Sex and the City) I just hacked off the list because I had to hack something to keep the number down. There are also some shows you might expect to see that I just don't like (Seinfeld, Friends). If that upsets you, you can sound off in the comments section. Or get your own blog to push your own favorites. This time, it's my choice.

1. I'll Fly Away. I'm starting with a sleeper. It lasted only 2 seasons in the early '90s, and it never racked up the ratings, but this thoughtful, realistic show about ordinary people coping with extraordinary times (the Civil Rights movement in a small Southern town) tackled issues of race, infidelity, parenthood, and the potential of people to change and grow. Sam Waterston and Regina Taylor led a uniformly excellent cast. Kudos to PBS for picking it up after its cancellation, just to make a 2-hour special that wrapped up the storylines, but it really wasn't enough.

2. The X-Files. It was paranoid. It was far-fetched. Dialogue ranged from brilliantly written to laughably bad (usually when creator Chris Carter wrote it himself). And Carter never met a plot revelation he didn't totally negate a season later. But for imagination, intelligent characters, and eerie fun, nothing beats The X-Files. I speak only of the seasons when David Duchovny's Fox Mulder was the focus. After that, the show became a ghost of its former glory.

3. Lou GrantI haven't seen this show in 20 years. I worry that if I did see it again, I'd wonder why in the world I liked it so much as a teenager. My hunch is that this could be a show that wouldn't age well. But since I have no evidence to the contrary, it still remains in my memory as one of the defining TV series of my high school life, when I still thought I might major in journalism. Great characters, great drama, and I think I had a crush on Joe Rossi.

4. Battlestar Galactica (new, not the cheesy 1970s version). This one is probably a bit new to be on this list at all, but you know,it's just such frackin' good drama! Edward James Olmos, Mary McDonnell, Katee Sackhoff.... Amazing in every way. Rent the DVDs.

5. I Love Lucy. Remember Lucy and Ethel frantically grabbing chocolates off a conveyor belt? Lucy stomping grapes? Vitameatavegamin? Nobody does comedy like Lucy.

6. Hill Street Blues. Like many Bochco shows, it continued past its prime, with plots and characters spinning into outrageousness. But before it jumped the shark, Hill Street Blues was a gem. Smart, funny, heartbreaking, and gritty, it redefined the American cop show. Suddenly, the police were people, too, with their own lives and their own angst. And personalities. Who woulda thunk it?

7. Star Trek: various series. A lot of fans will disagree, but I am expressly stating that the original series did NOT make my list. I know it was groundbreaking, and occasionally very well-written. But the acting sucked, and the special-effects were so obviously low-budget.... Anyway, I much prefer the next three ST series. Next Generation (despite the similarly cheesy special effects of its early episodes) marked a brilliant new beginning for the "Star Trek" franchise, especially in the choice of Patrick Stewart to play intellectural, classy Captain Picard. Deep Space 9 was slow at first to gain my loyalty, but eventually it proved itself to be the most daring and experimental "Star Trek," with long, intelligent story arcs that forced viewers to pay attention -- as well as several funny, innovative episodes that stood alone. It's also the first "Star Trek" in which the female characters are treated as equals, despite claims of equality in classic Trek and TNG. For some reason, the show improved a lot when the great Avery Brooks shaved his head. Go figure.... Then there is Voyager. It's the most underrated of all the "Star Trek" series, but I've been watching it again recently, and it holds up surprisingly well. Voyager deserves a lot more praise than it received when it was airing. Again, it's smart and thought-provoking, but also exciting and action-filled. And it's about time we had a woman captain. Kate Mulgrew and Robert Beltran were terrific in it. But don't get me started on Enterprise, which was a total disappointment. The "Star Trek" people shoulda stopped after Voyager.

8. M*A*S*H. You'll notice I haven't listed a lot of comedies. That's because I'm usually underwhelmed by what passes for comedy on American television, though a few good comedies didn't make my final cut mostly for space considerations. I like smart TV, and most TV comedies are not. M*A*S*H was an exception -- except for the final few seasons, wich were below-par, so understand that I'm talking here about M*A*S*H before Radar left, which for me is when the series lost its magic. Before that point, M*A*S*H was one of the few TV series with characters who are so well written and distinct that you could look at a script with the character names blacked out and still know which character was supposed to speak each line. I sometimes use it in writing workshops to illustrate a point about making each character sound individual. The wordplay, especially in Hawkeye's monologues, is brilliant. Personally, I prefer the B.J. years to the Trapper years, but most of the cast changes were handled well.

9. Firefly. Another sleeper. This was an awesome science fiction series created by the awesome Joss Whedon (see Buffy, below), which died a premature death after being butchered by the network. I remember watching the first episode when it aired: amazing special effects, interesting and unusual characters, intelligent dialogue, and an intriguing blend of outer space and the Wild West. But none of that made up for my total bewilderment. The story made no sense! I didn't know who these people were, what they were doing, and why. Later I learned that the network, in its infinite idiocy, decided that the original first script, which explained all the background, would just not do, because it didn't start with lots of explosions. So a more explosion-filled episode was run first, rendering the story indecipherable. If you never saw the series, or if you gave up as I did, please watch it on DVD in the order in which it was intended. It deserves an audience!

10. Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Another Joss Whedon creation, Buffy is simply one of the best shows that has ever appeared on television, by any criterion. If you've never seen it, you're rolling your eyes right now. Everyone who's never seen it rolls their eyes. It was dark and brooding and hysterically funny and incredibly poignant. It had some of the best-written dialogue heard on television, ever. The musical episode was inspired, but many of the others are just as good. Go watch some before you criticize it, please.

11. Homicide: Life on the Street. An smart, well-written, beautifully acted cop show that hardly ever showed a gunfight or a car chase, this one was stunning in the way it depicted what real detective work is like. And it's set in Baltimore, a real city that just doesn't show up in a lot of episodic TV. And Tim Bayliss was cute.

12. The Sopranos. I still haven't seen the final season. But I've loved everything I have seen of this violent, realistic, graphic, groundbreaking show about a mafia boss who wants to be Don Corleone but usually feels more like Homer Simpson. Some Italian-American organizations tell me I'm supposed to be outraged and offended by the depiction of my people as criminals, but I've never seen Italian-Americans portrayed so realistically! No, I don't mean my relatives like to chop their enemies into little pieces and deposit them in Hefty bags. But all those old guys who hung out on the street corners and in the pizza shops of my grandparents' Italian town in northeastern Pennsylvania are exactly like the ones who hung out at Satriale's pork store with Tony Soprano. They dress like 'em, they talk like 'em, and they have so many of the same attitudes. Watching this show is like a visit to Old Forge, PA.

13. Stargate SG-1. I miss it, though it did lose a lot when Richard Dean Anderson left. It's not going to be on the critics' lists of important television shows of all times. It didn't shake the TV-viewing world in the way that, say, The Sopranos or Hill Street Blues did. On the other hand, Stargate SG-1 was the longest-running science fiction TV series of all time, and for good reason. A small team of intrepid explorers travels the galaxy by way of a ring-shaped "stargate," part of a network of gates on planets throughout the universe. I liked best the episodes that focused on Egyptian mythology or on the team's interactions with different, extraterrestrial cultures. It was nice to see a science fiction show where the intellectuals got to explore too (and kick evil alien butt, when necessary) instead of staying home and analyzing stuff. Archeologist Daniel Jackson was my favorite character, and the show suffered during the season that his portrayer, Michael Shanks, was gone. But that season also brought us some wonderful episodes that showcased other characters, especially the one written by actor Christopher Judge that involved his character, T'ealc, hallucinating an alternative life in which he and other team members are firefighters. Thought-provoking in a way that TV usually isn't.

So, what television programs are out there now with the potential to make a future list of this type? I love Ugly Betty. It's funny, sweet, and unabashedly over-the-top. My jury's out on Eureka; I'm still not feeling invested in the characters, though that opening credits sequence is priceless! Lost had an intriguing, mind-bending first season that hooked me in completely, but is in decline since then; I'm waiting to see where it goes from here. Of the newest shows, the excellent and imaginative Pushing Daisies is the only one that's a standout in my mind, but I'm not sure if the premise is big enough to sustain a whole series. I guess only time will tell.

Let's be careful out there.....



Posted by: http://www.technorati.com/people/technorati/wakelarunen (ext_66339)
Posted at: October 12th, 2007 02:25 am (UTC)
Great Thursday 13

This was definitely a great list. There are many that I have to agree with. And as a Star Trek fan, you will not hear me complaining about TOS being excluded. Heck, I cheered when Kirk died in the movies. I just never got into that one.

I only got to see half the episode of Pushing Daisies since I was working late.

Another good show is NCIS.

Posted by: ((Anonymous))
Posted at: October 13th, 2007 07:00 am (UTC)
Your TT

I agree about MASH, Hill Street Blues, Lou Grant. But the only Star Trek I liked was the real one (Kirk, Spock, Scotty etc).



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