Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Review of the Decade: My Top Five Comedy/Drama TV Shows

I think the noughties will be fondly remembered "The Renaissance of Television" in much the same way as the seventies in film is referred to as "The Hollywood Renaissance" (or more commonly "The New Hollywood). This decade has redefined what a good TV series is about. The evidence for this is in many different forms:

In the 90s having a $10 million dollar pilot would have seemed ludicrous. Lost changed all that. As a result, we've come to expect movie-quality special effects, and haven't been disappointed. Even a show like Battlestar Galactica was able to impress viewers with its visuals, despite not being on a major network channel, or attracting a particularly high viewership.

It's not television, it's HBO
HBO has produced a great number of TV dramas this decade (Sopranos, The Wire, Six Feet Under, etc.) However, it's slogan kind of sums up the shift in attitude from viewers/critics towards television. Television is no longer about soap-standard storylines. Now we get the type of stories/drama one expects from medium like films and books. Aside from adaptations of classic books, viewers rarely got that quality of drama before the turn of the century.

The talent TV attracts (both on and behind the camera)
Arguably, the best writers are now in television. If movies are a director's medium, then television is most certainly a writer's. As such, oscar-winning writers like Diablo Cody (Juno) and Alan Ball (American Beauty) have chosen to do their own TV shows. TV affords writers both the freedom and volume of work movies never will. Also, shows like 24 and Damages allow writers to tell stories that would be impossible to tell in a movie.
In front of the camera, we're seeing more and more famous actors star in their on TV shows. Martin Sheen, most famously, but also Glenn Close, Hugh Jackman, Christian Slater, Tim Roth and Steve Carell.

The sales of boxsets
Networks are notoriously bad for publishing how much they make from boxsets. What we do know is that both Family Guy and Futurama were resurrected because of them. It's also likely high-budget Band of Brothers was given a spiritual sequel (The Pacific [2010]) because of them. Aside from extra revenue, boxsets have transformed the way viewers watch television series. Shows like The Wire are better experienced over a short period of time, since it allows viewers to get references to specific lines and events they would struggle to remember had they watched the show 2 weeks previous.

Top Fives
Now comes the tough bit: naming my top 5 TV shows in drama and comedy. This comes with a few disclaimers. Firstly, I haven't seen The Sopranos, Deadwood, or Six Feet Under. I also haven't seen enough of Curb Your Enthusiasm to judge it fairly.
Secondly, I'm leaving Buffy off the list since it started in 1997, and was half-way through its run at the turn of the century. Needless to say, if I had have included it, it would have been top.
Finally, I've left a myriad of shows off the drama list people who know me might expect to see. All I would say is that each show on the list offered me an emotion or experience no other show could. Appearance in the top five is purely subjective to me as a viewer, and doesn't mean I don't appreciate the overall quality of those shows that are missing.

5. Harry Hill's TV Burp
This show should never be as good/funny as it is. It's perfectly aware most of the comedy comes from clever editing and silly costumes yet I find the mix strangely appealing. Random without being 'wacky', and satirical without ever being mean. Harry Hill is a genius. Either that or high on every drug known to man.

4. Never Mind the Buzzcocks (Amstell years)
Buzzcocks was always known for taking the mick out of it's guests. However, Amstell managed to make that role his own. The way he managed to dismantle his celebrity guests was always worth viewing, whether they went along with it (Josh Grobin) or not (Preston). The show's lost a lot without him, here's hoping he changes his mind and comes back to where he belongs.

3. Arrested Development
More jokes per second than any other comedy series in history. Arrested Development had a style like no other show before or after. Impossible to sum-up why its unique or even funny without under-selling it. However, the scene when Tobias describes himself as the world's first analysist/therapist is probably the funniest/wittiest/silliest visual jokes I've ever seen.

2. The Office
The most influential comedy show of the decade by far. It created its own way of shooting comedy, with fewer laugh-out-loud moments, and more ways to make the audience feel uncomfortable. However, it also created characters more real and believable than most comedies have ever managed to do. People could see aspects of their old boss in Brent, or knew a co-worker like Gareth. For my money, the final scene between Tim and Dawn is one of the greats in television history. Much better than anything a show like Friends (or even Frasier) produced in its 10 year run.

1.The Daily Show
John Stewart presents this show about politics where guests are often academics with the most mind-numbing books known to man. Sounds like fun, huh? Thankfully his brand of wit, intelligence and one-liners make for an incredibly funny show that has also had a pretty big influence on young voters. (Apparently it's the main source of news for a fairly large percentage of 18-34 males). Given the soft nature of most American TV journalists, it's great they have someone willing to bring them to account. It probably tells you something about American culture that it takes a comedian on a cable channel to take on that role.

5. Lost
The show that more or less sums up big-budget network drama this decade. Brave and unique in its use of flashbacks and character-centric episodes. Also distinct in the way it managed to infuriate viewers (especially in seasons 1-3) with more mysteries that Agatha Christie's entire back catalogue. However, the reason I like it so much is that its had a vision from the start, and has stuck with it. Polar Bears, The Numbers, The Dharma Initiative, Oceanic Flight 815, and so on. Lost's influence on television will remain long after it has finished. Despite other shows having better characters and tighter plots, the one thing that makes Lost unique is that it's never predictable. And for any show to have that quality after five seasons, it must be doing something right.

4. Doctor Who
Trying to resurrect (or perhaps more accurately regenerate) Doctor Who was always considered a poison chalice this time ten years ago. The only people that wanted it were DW fanboys, who were notoriously difficult to please. In getting Russell T Davies to take on the series, the BBC took a huge risk. His most successful series was Queer as Folk, hardly Saturday-night family viewing. He then hired Billie Piper, best known for singing one of the most annoying songs of the 90s (and no I'm not referring to "Honey to the Bee", which let's be honest is a pop classic). The cards were stacked against him, and yet remarkably he came through.
There's a number of reasons it works: The Doctor is a true original character: the mix of brains, arrogance and eccentricity always make for compelling drama. And the companion acts as the voice of the viewer, questioning the seemingly all-knowing Doctor and making sure he maintains the humanity he's developed over the years. Finally it works because RTD understands that to make an episode compelling you don't ask 'what monster is most terrifying to the viewer' but rather 'what monster is most terrifying to The Doctor/Companion'? And trust the viewer to come along for the ride.

3. Band of Brothers
This show is unique in the sense it only lasted ten episodes, and yet I feel I know the characters just a well most series that last ten times that. BoB takes you on an adventure with one company in the 2nd World War from boot camp to VJ day. Based on real accounts, the drama allows you to feel and experience what it was like for these young men to fight for their country. What you come out of it with is an intense emotional connection to the men of the company: the pain of losing their best friend, the fear of battle, the elation of victory, and so on. A truly ground-breaking series. Can't wait for 'The Pacific' next year.

2. Friday Night Lights
Attachment to characters is something all TV producers hope to deliver but rarely achieve. Do we really care that much about the fate of Joey in Friends or Jack Bauer in 24? Or are they just tools to allow for a great one-liner or a compelling piece of action?
However, in FNL I really, actually care about the fate of its leads: I have cried watching this show more often than any other. The moments that bring tears feel real because as far as I'm concerned Matt Saracen and Coach Taylor are real people. Even though I know they're not.
The show's premise is that it's about an American High School Football Team. In reality, it's about Dillon, Texas and the characters that live in that place, and the way football allows their lives to interweave. It does for teen drama what 'The Wire' did for police procedurals (i.e. shows you how rubbish everything up to then has been in comparison).

1. The Wire
According to The Guardian there are two types of people: "Those who love The Wire and those who haven't seen it." Quite a claim, but then again this is quite a show. Unyielding in its vision, this is anti-CSI at its finest. A single episode has few resolutions, and few arcs. Instead, the creators describe each episode as a chapter of the book that is that season. This allows for an incredibly compelling and involving show. Where every little detail is picked up in a later episode, and we come more attached to every character for every extra scene we spend with them. Another show which will be looked back upon as a masterpiece of the medium. My hope is over the next ten years "The Wire" is the TV show writers look to as the gold-standard in serialised story-telling.

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