One of the joys of being home in Saskatchewan right now is that I get to spend time with my sister Terry and her husband Tim. Of all of our family we’ve probably seen the least of them since we moved out to Ontario a few years ago, and so it was great to spend some time catching up this past weekend. Last night was my mother’s retirement party, and while my parents and their friends were upstairs chatting away, Terry, Tim, and I were hanging out in the basement, and drinking very good wine. The topic of conversation? Television.
There are a lot of people in the world who are hard on TV, but I’m not one of them. I love television, and I tend to think that in the past 10 years or so the medium has been used to present art to rival feature length motion pictures. I also think that television is an excellent and intriguing barometer for a given culture. Plus it’s lots of fun :).
Anyways, all of this to say that we had a long conversation about great TV shows that culminated in our attempts to pick our All Time, Desert Island, Top Five Television Programs. Here’s my list, with justifications, and a few honorable mentions.
1. The Wire. This is the best television program ever made. It is powerful, demanding, perfectly executed, and totally engrossing. Each of its five seasons progresses like a well-crafted novel, with each episode serving as a chapter. There are no freebies for the viewer here. If you can’t follow, the producers aren’t going to help you keep up. The Wire also has some of the best characters I’ve ever seen on the small screen. McNulty, the darkly flawed homicide detective whom you love, but very often want to punch in the face. Bubbles, who’s story arc exemplifies redemption as it really is (in this world at least)…difficult, painful, incomplete, and heart-breakingly beautiful. Marlo, the coldest, cruelest, and perhaps the most starkly real of all The Wire’s cast. Finally, The Wire deals with many of the themes you find in other programs (drugs, crime, justice/injustice, politics, morality, race, etc), but the difference is, this is probably the only show where these themes are presented as systemic issues. Crime is related to poverty, which is related to politics, which is related to economics, which is related to race, which is related to justice, which is related to morality, which is related to…and so forth.
2. The West Wing. Before watching The Wire, The West Wing would have easily been #1. Now I see it as a kind of naive idealism to offset The Wire’s stark realism. The West Wing is about the world as it should be. It is hopeful, heartwarming, and very funny. Of course it is also, in a way, entirely false. Or perhaps “fabricated” is better. Nobody talks the way the WW characters talk…hell, nobody acts the way they act. But the world would probably be a better place if they did.
3. Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy is pure gold. It’s funny, action packed, cheesy, ridiculous, and (most importantly) entirely self-conscious. Usually “self-conscious” is something I’d say to disparage a film or TV show, as a way of suggesting that the writers and director were sitting in the room with you while you watched their show, constantly elbowing you in the ribs saying “get it? get it? wasn’t that great?” But that’s not how I feel when I watch Buffy. When I watch Buffy I feel like Joss Whedon (the creative mind behind the show) is sitting in the room with me, wearing an ironic smirk, and laughing at all the parts I laugh at. Buffy is also on the list because of the way that it combines unadulterated, b-level, vampire-camp with serious themes and great artistry. The following episodes are exemplars: Hush, The Body, Once More With Feeling. Also, it’s funny as hell.
4. Doctor Who. When I was a kid, round about eight years old, every Saturday night my dad and I would make popcorn with butter and salt, and then sit down and watch Doctor Who on the CBC. This was re-runs of the old series mind you. The doctor I knew best was the Fourth Doctor, played by Tom Baker, with his long scarf and love for jelly babies. But dad and I had this ritual for years, so I also knew the fifth and sixth Doctors, and we even got the occasional re-run from the time of the first and second Doctors, which were shot in B&W. I suppose that I could go on about how foundational Doctor Who is as both a British cultural icon and one of the great forerunners to modern science-fiction. I could say something about how the late, great Douglas Adams was a writer for the show for a little while. But I don’t really need to do I? I used to stay up late on Saturdays, and watch Doctor Who while eating popcorn with my dad out of our red Tupperware bowl. That’s why it’s on the list.
5. Modern Family. This was a tough spot, and several of the honorable mentions almost made the cut, but I decided in the end that Modern Family deserves a spot. Why? Because it’s funny. Actually it’s not just funny, it’s funnier. Think of something funny. Modern Family is funnier than that.
Honorable mentions: Lost, Rome, Arrested Development, Big Love, Battlestar Gallactica (the new series).