Much has been debated about today’s golden age of TV and its relation to cinema. In my view, cable television of the past decade (c. 2005+) has been the rough equivalent to cinema of the ’70s, where dark themes, risky plotting, and patient character development are usual fare. It’s no surprise that cable has been pulling more actors and directors away from their cinematic roots. TV is the new home for artistic freedom. Said the LA Times six years ago:
“Studios have cut back their number of upscale dramatic projects, while many cable networks have shown an increased appetite for darker material. Cable networks such as HBO function more like studios used to, where certain shows deliver a certain amount of profitability and then they can make choices that take risks. Even personalities who can still write their own tickets in the feature world — Winslet (Mildred Pierce) and Scorsese (Boardwalk Empire), for instance — have gravitated to cable’s freedom.”
Last year William Friedkin weighed in with the opinion that while “films used to be rooted in gravity, about real people doing real things”, that focus has been increasingly lost since the advent of the blockbuster (Star Wars, Jaws) in the late ’70s. “Many of the fine filmmakers of today are going to long-form TV,” he says. “It is the most welcoming place to work for a director today.” I think Friedkin is slightly overstating the case. Hollywood has certainly lost its artistic focus since the ’70s, but there are enough exceptions to justify its existence. Barely.
Here are my favorite TV shows of the 21st century, ranked in descending order. They’re personal favorites, though I think my selections characterize the golden age rather well. A more objective list would have to include other shows like The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, and The Walking Dead.
1. Breaking Bad. 5 seasons. 2008-2013. I’m confident in calling this the best TV show of all time, and it represents the peak of the golden age. It starts out strong and gets stronger, never flags on its promises, and interrogates human evil in remarkable ways. “Breaking bad” is the metaphor for Walt’s journey from hero to moral monster, and basically means “raising hell”. It’s a revenge tragedy for a man who feels that he’s been emasculated by the fate of cancer, on top of being screwed out of a business partnership that could have made him millions. He’s a chemistry genius but an under-achiever, and puts up with endless teasing by his family, especially his DEA brother-in-law. By season five he’s a killer and a drug-lord, and people have learned to respect him — or else. The suspense levels are insane. Even the worst episode is superior, though I did rank the best.
2. Hannibal. 3 seasons. 2013-2015. I consider Hannibal the poster child of TV’s golden age. The aesthetic is overwhelming. Think how David Lynch might reinvent Hannibal Lecter, and then throw in some of Cronenberg’s body horror and Argento’s insane imagery. The result is the impossible: Silence of the Lambs has been shown up, and Anthony Hopkins superseded by Mads Mikkelsen. Mutilations and gore are given transcendence. The first two seasons consist of original material taking place before the events of the novels. The third is really two mini-seasons, the first half covering Hannibal (reversing the chronology of the books with Lecter’s exile in Italy and Mason Verger conflict; these are set in the time of Will Graham instead of Clarice Starling), the second half Red Dragon. There were supposed to be six seasons altogether, and it’s criminal the show was cancelled. If you had told me back in ’91 that something of this astonishing scope and quality would ever make cable network, I wouldn’t have believed it.
3. Game of Thrones. 6 seasons (so far). 2011-2016. This has been a serious game-changer in the fantasy genre. There is unpredictable plotting, understated magic, and heroes indistinguishable from villains, all set in a world with history and geography as detailed as Middle-Earth. But this is a Middle-Earth with the seedy reality of sex, constant backbiting, and protagonists who die unfairly. It’s about court intrigue and politics, with a supernatural threat in the background that no one takes seriously. The story is essentially about power, and what happens when nobles pursue ruthless ambitions, and what it takes to make people see beyond their local interests if they can. The sixth season that finished last week was the best since the first. See how the episodes rank.
4. Stranger Things. 1 season. 2016. The overnight success that is called Stranger Things was surely scripted by an alternate version of myself from a parallel universe. It’s a perfect summation of my nerdy childhood and by far the best homage to 1st edition Dungeons & Dragons to be found in any film or TV series. Aside from perhaps The Americans, no show allows us to relive the early ‘80s with such ease and precision. It reminds me of how lucky I was to grow up in this era, when kids were more independent and didn’t have to suffer helicopter-parents hovering about, and there were no digital techno-gadgets which make today make it impossible to be alone. The kids in this story encounter a monster from a nasty alternate dimension. The monster abducts one of them, and the quest is to learn that he’s really not dead, where he’s imprisoned in the shadow realm, and how to get him back. These kids are simply fantastic, and their acting skills are amazing for their age.
5. The Fall. 3 seasons. 2013-2016. Don’t be put off by the controversy. In its unflinching look at violence against women, The Fall never glamorizes the the issue. I can see why some people think it does. As in Hannibal the aesthetic is intoxicating while the serial killer is less distant. Lecter sees his victims as mere pigs for food; Spector has grievances about justice. He’s protective of vulnerable people, especially children. He hates particular women, wants to “transform” them, and the intimate way he goes about his obscene killings makes us feel somehow complicit. Things get even creepier in season two when Spector bonds with a young teenager who craves sadomasochistic thrills. The performances from this girl are as brilliant as the lead actors. The atmosphere is brilliant too.
6. Doctor Who. 9 seasons (so far). 2005-2015. Let me make clear that I’m as much a fan of the reboot as I am of the classic years. But here’s what you should understand about the new series: the highs are high and the lows really low. Classic Who had its lemons, to be sure, but at least it was its own thing. The new series has been in thrall to Joss Whedon-style storytelling, which means that it plumbs kitchen-sink soap opera at its worst. At its best, it’s downright epic. It can be dark for a family show, and profoundly tragic. The latest incarnation of the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) is the darkest and best yet. After the season-seven disaster, I thought the series had finally run out of steam, but season eight was a raging comeback and the ninth, while somewhat lackluster, at least went out on a jaw-dropping double-bill.
7. The Man in the High Castle. 2 seasons (so far). 2015-2016. This is an incredibly bleak look at an alternate America that lost World War II. The Germans rule the eastern United States, the Japanese the West Coast, and the Rockies in-between serve as a kind of no-man’s land. The show has the balls to make Hitler the guy you root for against his upstarts who think he’s gone soft. John Smith is the oddly likable Nazi officer, ruthless in his career but a caring father and husband. The show’s genius is to portray Nazi America as a creepy “Leave it to Beaver” world where rock n roll was never born, girls don’t wear pants, and boys graduate straight from high school to the military. But my favorite character is on the Japan side: Tagomi the Trade Minister, and the final scene which sees him waking up to something unexpected is one of the greatest epiphanies I’ve seen in a TV series.
8. Regenesis. 4 seasons. 2004-2008. Forget Orphan Black. The next two are the gems of Canadian sci-fic. Few Americans have even heard of Regenesis, about a group of Toronto-based scientists who work against bio-terrorism, disease, and environmental dangers. Some of the threats are deliberate and man-made; others come from the cold chaos of Mother Nature. Unlike most sci-fic thrillers, Regenesis isn’t so much about saving the day as learning to live with irreversible damage, and there’s a high body count among the main cast. It’s probably the most realistic ever seen in the genre, thanks to the scientific advisor who insisted on it. The first season features Ellen Page who plays the daughter of the lead scientist, and her story-arc practically steals the show: she befriends a dying boy who thinks he’s a clone. I love her scenes with Peter Outerbridge. See, for example, her ice cream scene (they talk about ebola) and her grief scene (when Mick dies).
9. Dark Matter. 2 seasons (so far). 2015-2016. I liked the first season so much that I watched it again right away. I’ve never done that with any TV show except Stranger Things. There’s something uniquely compulsive about Dark Matter. Objectively it may not be the most outstanding show, but it works for me in all the right ways. Six people with no memory of who they are wake up on a starship. They travel to planets and space stations and get involved in nefarious plots, and slowly learn who they are (or were). As characters, they are simply terrific. Two is a matriarchal badass, with an incredible secret. One and Three distrust each other constantly, and their bickering sessions are hilarious. Four is the lone samurai. But the tender moments between Five and Six are my favorite – she the underage geek who wants to be part of the team, he the man who hates what he’s done. Here’s how the episodes rank. Season two is almost as good, and has some real fun with alternate versions of these characters in parallel universes.
10. Dexter. 8 seasons. 2006-2013. Dexter is somewhat like Doctor Who: the highs are really high and the lows abysmally low. Seasons two, four, and seven contain some of the best TV drama I’ve ever watched, and seasons one and five are really good too. But seasons three, six, and eight are bad — even atrocious at times. Another reason Dexter is at the bottom of my serial-killer trio (Lecter, Spector, Dexter, in that order) is because he’s too good to be true. This is a hero-vigilante who channels his urges against the worst scumbags so as to make us cheer. Once you accept the premise it works well, and the characters are compelling. Dexter’s inner voice has become legendary, our means of seeing the world through a disturbing perspective we wouldn’t get otherwise. Here’s how the seasons rank.