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 ranked in descending order.
1. Stranger Things. 2 seasons (so far). 2016-2017. When I watch Stranger Things I relive the best parts of the ’80s and am reminded how lucky I was to grow up in a time when kids were independent and didn’t have to suffer helicopter-parents. The series portrays an era of reckless freedom that’s hard to find in today’s childhood. Like Mike, Lucas, and Dustin, I went out with my friends and explored the world — in the woods or by the pond or across the sand dunes — and connected with my parents at dinner time. It’s an homage to other things too, like old-school Dungeons & Dragons before the game became lame and commercialized. The kids are fantastic and their acting skills amazing, which is critical to the show’s success. The series was rejected my many network executives because the idea of kids as lead actors in an adult series was too daunting. As for which season is better, it’s a tough call, but for me season 2 tips the scales. I ranked the episodes here and here.
2. Breaking Bad. 5 seasons. 2008-2013. Stranger Things may be my personal favorite, but objectively I would call Breaking Bad the best show of all time. It starts strong and gets stronger, never flagging on its promises, and I dare say if the show writers had gone to ten seasons they probably could have kept the momentum going. They settle for nothing less than excellence. Breaking Bad is the revenge tragedy of a school teacher 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 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 — people have learned to respect him or else — and the journey to that point is a brilliant character evolution. The suspense levels are insane; even the worst episode is superior, though I did rank the best.
3. Hannibal. 3 seasons. 2013-2015. I consider Hannibal the poster child of TV’s golden age; the aesthetic is that 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 that Silence of the Lambs has been way superseded, something I thought impossible. 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 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. Here’s how all the episodes rank. There were supposed to be six seasons altogether, and it’s outrageous that 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.
4. Game of Thrones. 8 seasons. 2011-2018. With only one season left, George Martin has become increasingly irrelevant to his own creation. Basically we’ve been getting the sixth and seventh books before they are published. And like the books, the series has been a game-changer in fantasy, with wild plotting, understated magic, graphic sex, constant backbiting, and heroes who die unfairly in every other episode. The focus is on court intrigue and politics, and no one takes the supernatural threat broiling up north seriously until too late. If I had to summarize Game of Thrones in a sentence, I’d say it’s about power and political ambitions, and what it takes to make people see beyond their local and petty interests if they can. See how the episodes rank.
5. Twin Peaks. 3 seasons. 1990-1991; 2017. The first season is classic, the second also very good though it lost its bearings a bit in the second half, and for my money the third is the best of all though it has certainly divided viewers. If you’re expecting more in the style of the early seasons, you will be disappointed. But if like me you think the prequel-film Fire Walk With Me is a masterpiece, chances are you’ll love season three and all of its weird and hideously disturbing elements. These are some of the most mesmerizing hours of television I’ve ever taken in, a rare treat to lovers of dream-logic, painful no doubt to those who crave plain meanings. In the end, Cooper is able to use the knowledge he’s acquired from years in limbo to jump back in time and prevent Laura Palmer from being killed, and how this “resolves” is quintessential Lynch to be chewed over for many moons.
6. Doctor Who. 36 seasons (so far). 1963-1989; 2005-2017. Doctor Who has been an essential part of my life since age 8, when I was initiated into the golden age of the Hinchcliffe era. The four seasons spanning 1975-1978 (the early Tom Baker years) were the absolute best of Doctor Who and still are. They were a violent and gruesome horror-fest (that sometimes called forth protests in the U.K.), and I couldn’t believe I was watching stuff this intense on TV. Hinchcliffe’s Doctor Who was basically adult horror for kids. I’m a fan of the new series too, but with reservations, since the highs are high and the lows really low. Classic Who had its lows too, but at least it was always its own thing. The reboot 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.
7. The Man in the High Castle. 3 seasons (so far). 2015-2018. In this reinvention of America defeated in World War II, the Germans rule the eastern United States, the Japanese the West Coast, with the Rockies serving as a kind of no-man’s land for those of impure genes. The show pulls off the impossible feat of making Hitler the guy you actually root for against his upstarts who think he’s gone soft. John Smith is the oddly likable Nazi, ruthless in his career but a caring father and husband. Nazi America is portrayed 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. The final scene in the first season which sees him waking up to something unexpected is one of the greatest epiphanies I’ve seen in a film or TV series. The second season is really good too, though it lost some of its edge in the second half with the departure of the show’s creator Frank Spotnitz.
8. 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 brilliant and takes the show to a new level. Some were disappointed with season three, but not me. The glacial-paced storytelling was used very effectively to give space in examining the evil inside of Paul.
9. All in the Family. 9 seasons. 1971-1979. There’s no way a sitcom like this could be made today, unless someone like Quentin Tarantino took charge. People were so offended by the second season DVD release (in 2003) that Sony almost cancelled the project. Thankfully censorship didn’t prevail. All in the Family reveled in the taboos of the 70s, many of which are still relevant today, and it accomplished this through an outrageous redneck. Archie Bunker pontificated from his chair against “spades” and “hebes” and “spics” and “dagos” and “fags” — and of course women. He demeaned his wife and yelled constantly at his liberal son-in-law, and was basically the first TV-show lead character who was both hated and loved. Some say today’s golden age of TV was planted by Twin Peaks; others go back further and say Miami Vice. But you can sort of make a case for this show on grounds of its bigoted anti-hero. By bringing hard-core prejudices out into the open, Norman Lear succeeded a great deal in changing American attitudes. That’s the power of artistic satire, and what today’s regressive leftists need to learn.
10. Regenesis. 4 seasons. 2004-2008. Forget Orphan Black. This is the Canadian science fiction show that makes cloning and governmental conspiracies believable. Few Americans have heard of these Toronto-based scientists who work against bio-terrorism and disease, and it’s almost impossible to come by on DVD. 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).