Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Ten Television Dramas from the Last Decade

At some point during the years 2000-2010, some critics decided that we were living through a "Golden Age" of American Television Drama. And you know what? I think they were right. American TV has produced some amazing shows over the last ten years, driven mainly by the success of HBO's original programming, which seemed to stimulate the American Networks and the other subscription channels to raise their game while producing their own programming. This means that while there is still a lot of crap on TV, the general standard has risen steadily. And the cream of the crop is visual storytelling as good as any produced in cinema or tv over the last half-century.
A Top Ten:

1. The Wire (2002 - 2008)
Obviously. But then some - many? - prefer The Sopranos. The Wire was better for longer, more consistent, more human and interested, more moving and funnier than any other television show I've ever seen. The first three Seasons long arc of a narrative is worth all those comparisons to Dickens and Zola and even Shakespeare. Richness of character, fantastic writing and acting, a defined, distinctive visual identity, and a sickening, riveting relevance to the way we live now were just some of the reasons. Season 4 was a beautiful reinvention and if Season 5 was a slight slip in quality - which it most certainly was - then it was still better than 99.9% of everything else on TV. Books have been written about this show, and will continue to be written. I've said it here before, but The Wire is the greatest work of fiction of the last decade in any medium, for my money. And thats worth saying again.

2. Mad Men (2007 - )
Every episode dense with thematic and narrative detail, each performance an exquisitely precise marvel of emotional repression (and sometimes, release), the period styling so lovely it can be almost a distraction, the storytelling confident and sensitive, subtle and thrilling: this show addresses the making of our world, masculinity, the battle of the sexes, the culture wars, and much else besides. It is also as gripping a soap opera as has been produced over the last few years, and its cast and writing are superb.

3. Deadwood (2004 - 2006)
Shakespearian richness of character and dialogue, ultraviolence, whores, whisky, shootouts in the main street, Indian warriors, lovely photography, character actors in every corner of each frame, plague, grizzled old prospectors, satanic millionaires, Swearengen, chinatown, poker, boot hill, a russian telegram operator, opium, the best and most brutal fight scene I've ever seen on television, Wyatt Earp, Gustavo Santoalalla's "Iguazu" put to devastating use, plot twists always founded firmly in character, a creepy, hilarious Hotel owner, Wild Bill Hickock. Great show.

4. The Sopranos (1999 - 2007)
It would be higher, if only it hadn't coasted for three Seasons between Seasons 3 and 6. It was still brilliant, of course. But the standard it had set in those first two seasons was so incredibly high that it was impossible to maintain, bar for one episode or so a Season. Too much great material has already been written about this immense Series for me to add anything. If you haven't see it, what are you waiting for?

5. Band of Brothers (2001)
Epic and unashamedly sentimental in parts, this series truly sends the audience on a journey with its characters. A horrific, traumatic, oddly beautiful journey from Normandy to the Wolf's Nest, that is. Stuffed with great performances from a rising cast and centred on a handful of extraordinary episodes, Band of Brothers is pitiless in its portrayal of the horrors of War, and yet it is no less intent on portraying the bonds and camaraderie of its protagonists who grow and develop as people as the War progresses. Brilliantly shot and written, it knocks the likes of Saving Private Ryan into a cocked hat. Yes, its a hagiography, but its never sentimental about its characters, and the appearances of interview clips with the real life men - now elderly veterans - grounds it and provides a resonance much fiction reaches desperately for but never grasps.

6. Friday Night Lights (2006 - )
A portrait of a Texan town where High School football is the unifying factor, allowing the narrative to follow a diverse and fascinating cast of characters, including students, coaches, parents and friends. This device also allows the show to address some big topics - religion, the Economy, politics, Class. But it does this subtly, lightly, never tubthumping or axe-grinding. It just observes and reports. The cast is fabulous, the setting beautifully evoked, and when all else fails, the football stories propel the narrative onwards, treating territory which usually demands cliche sensitively. The cliches are still there - those cliches are founded in real sport, after all, with characteristic situations like victory from the jaws of defeat and plenty of inspirational speeches - but they are so well executed, written and performed with such conviction and emotional intensity, that they transcend the genre. More importantly, they always serve a purpose in terms of character or theme. We learn about these people in these games, we watch them grow and fail. This means that this show has characters I care about more than almost any other, which makes it - a slight wobble in the Second Season aside - compulsive viewing.

7. Generation Kill (2008)
Theres something perfect about Generation Kill. Brilliantly made and acted, it provides a faultlessly immersive experience of combat at the dawn of the second Gulf War. It follows a Recon Platoon as they drive in Humvees into enemy territory ahead of the main invading force in the early weeks of the War. Its a portrait of the daily existence of the Marines as they deal with Iraqi civilians, enemy combatants, the world back home, and their own command structure. It is a brilliant, hilarious workplace comedy, where the employees struggle constantly with idiotic orders and incompetent superiors. A fine evocation of camaraderie and brotherhood and the tensions accompanying such under intolerable pressure. A thrilling story of men in war. The cast - mainly unknowns - are extraordinary, to the extent that seeing any of them in any other show or film is a jolting experience, because they are Marines in Iraq to me. Its directed with style and muscle, and is a better treatment of Iraq than just about any film on the subject, except perhaps for The Hurt Locker. I wish there were more than one Season.

8. Lost (2004-2010)
As the big Network escapist shows go, Lost is as classy as it gets. I understand people losing patience with its interminable hinting and loose ends, but its premise is arresting enough, its storytelling assured and stylish enough, its production glossy and beautiful enough to make up for that. Its a cliche, but every episode of Lost feels like a big blockbuster movie; you can see the money onscreen. Partly thats the location work, partly the strong cast, and partly the impressive spectacle - this show always features big action scenes and foregrounded special effects. But the narrative is compelling, the disaster movie tropes (a disparate cast of characters, each with his or her own problem, secret or dilemma, which affects the group dynamic and situation) working brilliantly over the duration of a long-running series, where characters can be thoroughly explored and interrogated.
Yes, its frequently ridiculous, but like much great sci-fi, it uses its more fantastic elements to explore some weighty themes, even if it does tend to skate the surface rather than plumb the depths. And as a genre show, it is commendably straightfaced and fullblooded, dealing with this material - monsters, time travel, miracles etc - without irony or intentional camp. The difficulty inherent in such an enterprise is obvious in the failure of its many imitators - Heroes and FlashForward being the most high-profile - to approach Lost's quality or success.

9. Six Feet Under (2001-2005)
Its obviously difficult for any show to maintain its quality over a run of more than two or three Seasons. New characters and storylines have to be integrated without altering the chemistry which gave the show its initial success. Six Feet Under suffered more than most from this problem, losing its way horrendously in its third and fourth Seasons, when its melodramatic elements overwhelmed the storylines and the characters. It recovered well for its final Season, but it would be a lot higher up this list if it had been as good as its first two Seasons for its entire lifespan. Those first Seasons were incredible - a soap opera with a streak of profundity running through it, dealing with the way people handle mortality and the deaths of loved ones week in and week out while juggling a fine cast playing damaged, realistic, truthful people struggling through small, flawed little lives of disappointment and fleeting happiness. If that sounds bleak, it often was. But it was also funny, often in a surreal way, effortlessly moving, and as intelligent and thoughtfully crafted as anything HBO has ever done.

10. Occupation (2009)
In 1999 the BBC broadcast Peter Kosminsky and Leigh Jackson's remarkable Warriors, a drama following a peacekeeping Unit of the British army during the War in the former Yugoslavia. Aside from uncovering a couple of stars - Matthew MacFadden, Damien Lewis and Ioan Gruffyd all had major parts - it was a sensitive, thought-provoking and immensely moving piece of work, and probably the best treatment of that conflict in art from outside Yugoslavia. In 2009, the BBC seemed almost to bookend a decade with the broadcast of Occupation, Nick Murphy and Peter Bowker's drama following three British Soldiers through the Iraq War and occupation, and detailing their experiences in the aftermath. Unblinking, and as such, more than a little depressing, the series reflected the War from various different angles, showing us the experiences of soldiers, mercenaries, medics and civilians in both Iraq and teh Uk, but it always shows Basra as a theatre for brutality and suffering. The cast, relatively starry for British tv, is superb, Murphy's direction atmospheric and displaying a lovely eye, and Bowker's script marks him out as perhaps the finest writer in British television today, capable of writing such a political drama but also capable of making it gripping, sporadically funny and utterly emotionally effecting.

Close but no Cigar: Rome, Sons of Anarchy, The Unit, Red Riding, The Devils Whore, Spiral, Party Animals, The West Wing, John from Cincinnati, From the Earth to the Moon, True Blood, Bodies, Britz, To The Ends of the Earth.

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Blogger daveysomethingfunny said...

I know it didn't make the list but was an also ran - 'The Devil's Whore'. It's one of those I spot in the shop and look at simply from the cast (Fassbender, West, Riseborough) and wonder if it's worth a go.

I might give it a go.

Season 4 was where I lost interest in the Sopranos and never really went back to it.

No 'Oz'?

Because it started in the 90's or just don't rate it?

1:17 am  
Blogger David N said...

"The Devils Whore" was very narrowly edged out at number 10 by "Occupation". It's superb - like "La Reine Margot" in England. Really violent and pulpy but beautiful, cinematic and almost Shakespearean, too. Great cast - John Simm is maybe a bit miscast, but he just about pulls it off. Fassbender is awesome, as usual.

I ilke "Oz" a lot, but it's a bit of a one trick pony compared to most of these shows, and I see it mostly as a 90s Series. Second or third tier HBO, for me. One I forgot that should be an also-ran: "Breaking Bad".

2:40 am  
Blogger Will Shyne said...

Your take on Six Feet Under is interesting.
Most I speak to (and I loved it) felt the the 2nd season dipped and then picked back up.
I felt overall the thing was satisfying.
Loving Madmen and will check out Generation Kill. God bless DVD box sets (filling the void that terrible Spanish TV creates).

11:43 am  
Blogger jamesinseoul said...

I'm saw you mention here, but I thought Breaking Bad was superb. Definitely top 10.

5:37 am  
Blogger David N said...

I completely forgot "Breaking Bad", which is terrible, because its great. It wouldn't make the Top 10, though. Close but no cigar, I'm afraid.

11:31 pm  
Blogger Beezer B said...

I've never even heard of Friday Night Lights. Would I like it?

I've never liked the Sopranos and I'll never like band of Brothers. I bailed on Six Feet Under because I was so offended by the end of series one. The greatest example of why a TV series isn't often the best way to tell a story.

I'd have OZ there but most of its best bits are 90s. I need to see Devil's Whore because Our Friends in the North is my best TV of the 90s.

Lost was fun but I couldn't give enough of a shit and Mad Men is beyond vacuous. I'll leave it for others.

The rest are THE BEST. Woooo.

12:48 am  
Blogger David N said...

"Mad Men is beyond vacuous"? What? I don't even know what that means.

"Friday Night Lights" is fantastic but I don't know if you would like it. I wrote a full blog about it ages ago which might help:

So basically you like David Simon stuff and "Deadwood", right?

For all that I have issues with "the Sopranos", I don't understand how anybody can dislike it. Its just too good to dislike. Or even "not like", which is obviously different and milder than dislike.

11:52 pm  

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