I said I'd rank The Shield in my top five, and upon thinking that over I wondered where exactly I'd put it and what shows might keep it company. Hence this blog entry. Maybe you'll agree with my picks, and maybe you'll think I'm completely missing the boat. Well, my opinions are merely that: opinions. I'm simply listing the TV dramas that have resonated the strongest with me over the years.
5: Twin Peaks (1990-1991)
Likely the most controversial of my picks. Let's get the negatives out of the way first. Yes, sometimes the show was quirky just for the sake of being quirky. Yes, the episodes David Lynch directed tended to be far better than the ones he didn't. Yes, once they ran through the "Who Killed Laura Palmer?" arc, they pretty much ran out of steam. (Josie's soul is in a doorknob? Really?)
That said, Twin Peaks is the first show I remember having to see week after week. Surreal programming, it resembled nothing else on TV. You couldn't predict where it was going. It had the feel of an extremely watchable nightmare. 1990 saw practically everyone I knew throwing Peaks-watching parties, trotting out the coffee and donuts.
What really drew me in: the way that first episode sensitized violence. Growing up in the '80s can desensitize you. The casual killings in, say, a Schwarzenegger action flick don't mean very much, and I'm sure I saw hundreds (thousands?) of these "empty murders" en route to adulthood. But the murder that sets Twin Peaks in motion isn't meaningless--with poignance, the first hour takes the time to show what's left in the wake: the effect the sudden, violent loss of a human being has on the community that knew her and cared about her.
4: The Sopranos (1999-)
The least controversial of my picks, unless you feel it should be higher up the list. Which you well might. It's undoubtedly a great show, worthy of its many accolades. And yet, it took me a very long time to warm up to it. I remember grimacing through the first few episodes--it struck me as such a ripoff of every mob movie, especially Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas. Friends warned me I was writing it off too quickly, so I gave it another shot. By the second season, I'd come around.
Antiheroes really don't get much better than Tony Soprano. Psychological complexity intrigues, as does a propensity for violence. Combine the two and I'm halfway to getting hooked. Add the tremendous talent the cast and crew bring, and the show hits my top 5.
So far, I'm enjoying this final season. The general consensus among fans is that the past three episodes are good, but not worth waiting two years for. I can understand that sentiment, but the storylines seem to be gathering steam, and I expect the show to finish strong.
3: The Prisoner (1967-1968)
Years before its time, and yet very much a product of its time, The Prisoner is an anarchic and fascinating jewel of a show. It's also the show that inspired me to write. I'm surprised that more people aren't familiar with this cult hit, but then I'd never heard of it before renting the first episode from my local video store back in the eighties. (Today, it seems more people have seen the parody episode The Simpsons did than the actual series itself.) Had I not discovered The Prisoner, my professional life might have taken an entirely different course.
If you've seen it, I imagine you know why it's on my list. If you haven't, I'll synopsize. A man resigns his job, gets kidnapped, and finds himself in a dystopic seaside village where everyone has a number instead of a name. His mysterious captors want the answer to one question: Why did he resign? Each episode pits the prisoner against his jailors in a battle of wills; he tries to escape, and they try to crack his will. On its surface, it's wildly entertaining--great performances, clever plotting, razor sharp dialogue--and the deeper you look the more you find. At its heart, The Prisoner is a darkly provocative (some might say subversive) critique of our all-too-Orwellian society. The show may be nearly forty years old, but the points it makes are just as relevant today.
2: The Shield (2002-)
What The Sopranos did for mobsters, The Shield does for corrupt cops. Shawn Ryan has created a fearless show, visceral, uncompromising and brilliant. Unlike most antihero fiction where the main characters are on the wrong side of the law, here the antiheroes also happen to be the law. But are they the lesser of two evils?
In the past two years, the producers have added big names to the ensemble cast--Glenn Close in 2005 and Forest Whitaker in 2006--but great as they are, this show packed incredible power before they ever joined. Most of the dramas on my list feature ensemble casts, but The Shield is the most "balanced" in that each of the 10+ stars get major story arcs and a chance to move the audience. Part of the success is due to Scott Brazil and other directors who focus on performance. Too often in television, directors are nothing more than "traffic cops" making sure that everything happens on time, but not pushing to do anything beyond the ordinary. That's not the case here.
Because it airs on a lesser-known network, FX, The Shield has often been touted as "the best show you're not watching," though I imagine last year's publicity blitz might have remedied this somewhat. Each episode starts with a recap, but you're best off watching it from the beginning. Spike TV is running Season 1 right now; alternatively, you can rent the first four seasons from NetFlix or your local video store. From writing to acting to directing, all across the board, I don't see anything on the air right now that's better than The Shield.
1: Cracker (1993-1996)
First off, do not confuse this amazing U.K. show with the ill-fated U.S. show of the same name. This is the original Cracker, starring Robbie Coltrane. If you only know Coltrane as Hagrid from the Harry Potter films, you really haven't seen what the man can do. This is the role that won him three BAFTA awards--1994, 1995 & 1996--for best actor in a TV series. He plays Eddie "Fitz" Fitzgerald, expert in criminal behavior. Fitz cracks cases, punctures alibis and catches criminals--a well-honed, natural talent, which almost makes up for his vast assortment of character flaws.
Many shows are centered around detectives profiling violent criminals, getting into the mind of serial killers, rapists, etc. Cracker is the show those shows aspire to be. The cast deserves massive credit, but it's the storytelling that's off the scale. Jimmy McGovern is an incredible talent, something of a magician as far as I'm concerned.
If I factored episode quantity into my rankings, Cracker would slip--after all, McGovern only put out a few hours each season. (Some would call it a miniseries instead of a series, but that's splitting hairs.) This lack of quantity aside, it's my number one TV drama. If you haven't seen it, you can rent or buy the episodes, even here in the U.S. Each one is self-contained--more so than the previous shows on my list--but as the character relationships evolve from episode to episode, you're once again better off starting at the beginning, "The Mad Woman in the Attic." In my opinion, it's not quite as extraordinary as the episodes that follow it, but it's the best point of entry.
Honorable Mention: The Twilight Zone
It shouldn't surprise anyone that I'm a big fan of the Zone. What a groundbreaking series it was, and what a showcase for SF talents of the time. Rod Serling trailblazed the way for quality SF television, and every non-reality-based drama owes him a debt of thanks.
Since childhood, I've been curious about Serling--he was a fellow upstate New Yorker, his hometown of Binghamton just 50 miles from Ithaca. His production company was Cayuga Productions; I attended Cayuga Heights Elementary. My dad knew him, but I don't know if they were tight. In any event, he's someone I would have enjoyed meeting.
As a show, The Twilight Zone was uneven, but the best episodes are absolute delights. Thought-provoking, the way good SF should be. I had a very hard time choosing between Twin Peaks and The Twilight Zone for the fifth slot. Ultimately, I went with Twin Peaks because I tend to prefer shows with story arcs that evolve over a series of episodes to shows where one episode has little or no effect on the next.
Analysis of the Top 5
- No show from the 1970s or 1980s made my top list.
- Two shows are from the U.K.
- Three of the five shows are centered around antiheroes.
- Only two shows qualify as science fiction, but four qualify as crime drama.
- Four of the five shows sport large "ensemble" casts.
I'm not sure what these stats prove, but there you go.
The rankings are somewhat arbitrary in that any one of these top 5 could move up or down a slot or two and I'd still be happy. Of course, there are other TV dramas I've enjoyed (Buffy, Hill Street Blues, Law & Order, Star Trek, Star Trek: TNG, Oz and Wonderfalls to name a few) that I couldn't quite fit into the top 5. Maybe I'll expand to a top 10 somewhere down the road.
Anyway, that's my list. I'd be curious to hear yours. What am I missing? Lost? The X-Files? CSI? Deadwood? Six Feet Under? I've yet to see the new Battlestar Galactica, but many have recommended it to me--I'll have to make time to catch the first season on DVD.