There seems to be an internet consensus – if the opinions of a few podcasts and that of Chuck Klosterman are to be taken to be post-modern canon that is – that the best shows in the new millennium on television are: The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad. Further, the mandarins of the web think that the dialogs on Mad Men are superior to the rest. Well, I beg to differ a bit on some details. The one that I definitely agree on is that Breaking Bad is pound-for-pound the most intense and most beautifully shot of all four. Let me take a little time here to expound on my impressions of these various shows. The shows are all “dramatic” and are all one-hour in format.
David Chase’s The Sopranos (1997-2005) was probably the first series to combine strong language, violence, and nudity on a prime-time TV show albeit on the exclusive HBO network (I say exclusive because a surprising number of people I know cannot afford neither HBO nor Showtime). HBO seemed to be fearless in bringing us the story of a loveable gangster, Tony Soprano in perhaps television’s first antagonist that was a protagonist. The show was outstanding in its choice of actors, spawning careers for Brea di Matteo for example and really made us want to like Tony despite himself. The violence was hard to watch sometime and the voyeuristic view into the Badda-Bing and Tony’s various bedrooms was always entertaining. The rhythm never really dropped and the ending was suitably (not to say disturbingly ambiguous). I loved Northern Exposure when I was a kid and we sometimes got a hint of the twisted humor of Mr Chase in the Sopranos as well. It will be hard to remove The Sopranos from a Top 5 list because of its novelty and the production quality. It was a truly great show.
For me the next great show was not The Wire (2002-2008) but rather Six Feet Under (2001-2005). Don’t get me wrong, I’ll recap The Wire in the next paragraph, but I think that Six Feet Under deserves mention as being perhaps the most original and improbable screenplay I have ever enjoyed on television. I mean, who would ever have thought of a entire show about a morgue where one of the characters was the father character that dies in the very first episode? The show is responsible for the rocket that is Michael C Hall (better known now for Dexter) and was amazing in so many ways. Quirky characters (I loved Federico) and an amazing format with each episode starting with a death and embalming, it never ceased to surprise and amaze. There was a dramatic lull in Seasons 3 and 4 where the themes were notably darker, but I still loved it and watched all the way through to the conclusion of Season 5 – a finale that few shows have ever come close to topping for originality and conclusively tying up of all loose ends in a reasonably believable manner. Since this show was on in the US and got little press here in France, I actually learned about it 2nd hand from an aunt in California and was quickly hooked. Every person here (at least 10) that I have introduced the show to, have become nearly obsessed with it as well. I think that it deserves to be in the Top 10 if not the Top 5. I have never watched a single episode of Alan Ball’s more recent series True Blood but then, as you may have noticed, I have a full plate where TV is concerned.
What I loved about The Wire was the exhaustive realism from David Simon. I watched a few episodes of The Shield (2002-2008) which I found interesting and which is often said to be a precursor to The Wire and from which many of the actors of The Wire cut their teeth, but Simon’s treatment of the Baltimore drug market from all different angles was ultimately far more interesting. Simon’s background and research yielded probably the most realistic account of criminality this side of the Sopranos but with ever-changing lenses on how we looked at it: the streets and the cops (S01), importing and the dockers (S02), city politics (S03), schools and natural selection (S04), and the press (S05) – almost every possible perspective was offered for our analysis. The fan base of The Wire tends to be almost fanatical and perhaps rightfully so because this show made absolutely no apologies. Rather than having a bad guy that was deep down a good guy like in The Sopranos, we had that here (Springer Bell in particular comes to mind) but our good guys were all pretty sleezy too even if they were good deep down (McNulty). There were no politically correct lines that were taboo here and no commonly-held truths that weren’t turned over to expose their underbellies. It was truly riveting television and in the Top 5, if not the Top 3 of all the shows I have ever known.
While I am on David Simon shows, I actually love Treme (2010-present) from David Simon and Eric Overmyer and featuring many of the actors from The Wire and some amazing cameos (Steve Earle in S01 and S02 was righteous). I think that people don’t like the pauses and the scenes where nothing seems to be happening. Since the show is basically a “slice of life” cutting across the lives of the 10-15 major characters in the show, I feel that the editing and even the silences contribute to the feeling of simultaneity and realism. I am not frightened or annoyed by long scenes and find the story of post-Katrina New Orleans to be poignant and damning for the previous administration. Perhaps the people that diss it are primarily Bush apologists. In any case, just the fact that there is about 15-20 minutes of New Orleans music in every single episode is enough to make this one in my personal Top 10 or perhaps Top 6.
If I were to take a single season of a show in terms of suspense, I’d have to go with Dexter (2006-2014) Season 4 (2009) starring John Lithgow as the Trinity killer. It was full of surprises and ultimately even Dex’s wife gets the serial killer treatment from his arch-enemy and that made it a spectacular season. I think that Seasons 2, 3, 5, and especially 6 were really sub-par, although the first episode of Season 7 was promising, but the quality is too uneven for this to get higher than a Top 10 or 15.
In terms of a single season in terms of dialog, I don’t think any show has ever blown we away as much as Deadwood (2004-2006). Al Swearengen has such a perfect name because there was not two or three minutes that went by without some creative way of adding the word “fuck” to a sentence. There were lines that were so incredibly classic (“Now THAT’S how you clean a fucking blood stain”) and it was hilarious at times. Confession: I never watched the 3rd season of the show, primarily because I knew there was no Season 4 and I was worried about being heart-broken and left hanging at the end. Timothy Oliphant was probably the big winner here because his latest show Justified is among the best shows that has come out in the last two or three years.
Mad Men (2007-present) brought AMC into the lime-light as the new bad boy television network in 2007. Everything about Mad Men is incredibly precise – it looks perfectly 1964 in every way: clothes, cars, music, attitudes…the premise of an advertising company is ingenious and the dialogs are great. Hamm’s Don Draper is a complex character full of depth. Creator Matthew Weiner had also contributed heavily to Seasons 5 and 6 of Sopranos but really came into his own with this show. Now, as for being the “best” of the lot, I think that there are moments when it becomes a little over-dramatic and almost tilts towards Desperate Housewives (particularly with the misadventures of the Betty character). You don’t have to agree with me, but I felt there were moments of weakness in Seasons 2 and 3. That being said, I love the relationship between Megan and Don and of course the rest of the cast is magic most of the time. I find this show to be highly entertaining and picture perfect, and in my Top 5 but perhaps not in my Top 3.
My favorite is, of course, Breaking Bad (2007-2013). I love this show for the transformation of Walt into Heisenberg, for the gorgeous camera work and scenery in Albequerque, Vince Gilligan’s writing, the nail-biting suspense in nearly every episode, and the almost-Sisyphusian way that things just snowball and come back again and snowball. I have watched every episode with relish and delight and terror as well and can’t wait for next year’s conclusion to the odyssey of W.W.
Others that have potential, but that I’ll talk about in detail another time: Boardwalk Empire (Steve Buscemi rules), Justified (Timothy Oliphant is Bullock reincarnate), Magic City (reliving my father’s childhood in Miami), Homeland (it has potential but will it have a long run?), Rescue Me (great but so depressing that I had to stop after Season 2), and Sons of Anarchy (what an alternative life for my cousins in Cali may have been like). Its format is too short to qualify for my hour-long criteria, but In Treatment still probably makes the list due to the raw volume of episodes (102 I believe in only 3 seasons). So, my Top 10?
6. Boardwalk Empire
5. The Sopranos
4. Mad Men
3. The Wire
2. Six Feet Under
1. Breaking Bad
How about you? Feel free to give us your list in the comments 🙂