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. Most come from today’s golden age but there are a few from my coming of age years too. My blind spots include The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, and The Walking Dead, for which I still haven’t found time.
1. Breaking Bad. 5 seasons. 2008-2013. The best show of all time, period. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. Stranger Things. 2 seasons. 2016-2017. I can only assume this overnight success was scripted by an alternate version of myself from a parallel universe. It’s a perfect summation of my nerdy childhood and homage to old-school Dungeons & Dragons. When I watch it, I relive the best parts of the ’80s and am reminded how lucky I was to grow up in this time when kids were more independent and didn’t have to suffer helicopter-parents hovering over them every minute. These kids are up against a “demon” from an alternate dimension, which seems weirdly reminiscent of the Demogorgon of their D&D campaign. Just as it kills Will’s character in the game, it abducts Will in real life, and his friends must learn that he’s really not dead but imprisoned in a shadow realm, and try rescuing him. I was skeptical about a second season, but the reports are that it might actually be even better and become a more menacing horror series. (Here are the best scenes from season 1.) The kids are simply fantastic and their acting skills amazing for their age.
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 current third is promising to be the best of all though it has certainly divided viewers. If you’re expecting more in the style of the early seasons, you may 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. As I write this only four of eighteen episodes have been shown, but on the strength of those alone I award the #5 ranking. We’ll see if stays there at the end.
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 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.
8. The Man in the High Castle. 2 seasons (so far). 2015-2016. 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 where people of impure genes eke out a living as they foment rebellion. 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.
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. Thank the gods 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).
11. Damages. 5 seasons. 2007-2012. Glenn Close was born to play Patty Hewes: a high-stakes litigator who demeans her subordinates, fires people on a whim, disowns her son, and then tries having her own protégé killed. Each season escalates the bizarre relationship between Patty and Ellen, who respect without ever trusting each other. Some claim that Ellen’s willingness to have anything to do with Patty after the murder attempt undermines the show’s credibility, but the unlikely relationship is the point. When Ellen is able to transcend herself by forgiving Patty, it’s as much a self-serving forgiveness as a self-empowering one. She acquires power over Patty knowing her worst secret. The theme of forgiveness, and what it does to people in unforgivable cases, is precisely what makes Damages compelling. Without it, it would be a just another legal thriller.
12. Dexter. 8 seasons. 2006-2013. Here’s the thing about Dexter: the highs are 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.
13. Miami Vice. 5 seasons. 1984-1990. This program showed me the potentials of TV, and even film, more than anything else in my coming-of-age years. ’80s movies were embarrassingly bad, and what Miami Vice did on TV was often leagues ahead of the film industry. It brought a dark edge to the small screen, with music-driven sequences, amazing art direction, and police heroes who were deeply flawed. More often than not they failed to save the day, and this was unprecedented on TV. The show was predictable in that way only — its nihilism. You could count on things going to hell, and good people suffering terribly, and bad guys often winning. But inside that framework plots went anywhere. If the show hasn’t aged the best by golden age standards, it’s still very watchable.
14. Dark Matter. 3 seasons (so far). 2015-2017. I liked the first season so much that I watched it again right away, which is something I’ve never done with any TV show except Stranger Things. There’s something uniquely compulsive about Dark Matter, even if objectively it’s not the most outstanding series. It starts with six people waking up on a starship. They have no memory of who they are but soon learn they were (are) notorious criminals being hunted by the law. Their past secrets are gradually revealed as they travel to planets and space stations and get involved in nefarious plots, and as characters they are simply terrific. 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 first-season episodes rank. Season two had some fun with alternate versions of these characters in parallel universes, and season 3 upped the game considerably with the renegade Four.
15. Fargo. 3 seasons. 2014-2017. I wasn’t sure where to place Fargo. All three seasons are excellent and contain some of the best direction and production values you’ll find in any TV series. And I always look forward to the next episode. But when all is said and done, I tend to forget about Fargo. It doesn’t leave a lasting impression on me, and this is also the way I feel about the classic film. It seems wrong to call it overrated, and I suspect the problem is rather with me, that there’s something to this franchise that I just don’t fully “get”. It’s filled with allegories and digressions, but they seem (to me anyway) to mean less than they pretend. There’s a brooding theme about how random and cruel life can be, but it doesn’t strike me as especially profound. All I know is that I’m fully engaged by the series as I watch it, and less than detached when I reflect on it.
16. 13 Reasons Why. 1 season (so far). 2017. Yes, you’re really seeing this on my list. For all its wrong-headed messages about teen suicide, and overrating the power of kindness, it works despite its problems and sometimes even because of them. The glorified hyper-vindictive Hannah, while problematic in a real-world way, has the advantage of not letting us off the hook. We lose sympathy for this tragic heroine when her bullies emerge as fallible and in some cases likeable enough kids who make naturally stupid mistakes. That turns out to be very realistic. The polarizing aspect of the show started a much-needed conversation about high school bullying and teen suicide, and that’s a success in itself. It’s surprisingly well-acted for a teen drama and superbly directed. See my full review for an analysis of the show’s strengths and weaknesses.