Friday, September 25, 2009

Best of the 2000s: TV Dramas (5-1)

The conclusion of the list that has captivated America.

5. Lost (2004-present): Has any show in the history of humanity engendered so much talk, so many theories, so many websites, so main brain-hurting treatises?

The story seemed so simple at first. A plane crashes on a deserted Pacific island, leaving the survivors to fend for themselves in an unknown land. Like Gilligan's Island right? Not at all.

Where to begin? The Others. John Locke's miracle recovery. The Jack-Kate-Sawyer triangle. Flashbacks. Flashforwards. Jacob. The Swan. The Dharma Initiative. Constants. Time travel. It's impossible to sum up this show for a non-believer. Sometimes watching it feels like homework. You have to remember a tiny detail from Season 1 for something in Season 5 to make sense.

Nonetheless, it's fascinating, expertly crafted and thought provoking. John Locke and Ben Linus are two of the best characters of the decade. And don't forget, this is a show - at its core - that is about the redemption of troubled people getting a new start on a mysterious island.

It will come to and end next year in what is sure to be one of the most hyped series finales we've ever seen. The pressure on the writers will be enormous because we've been along for the ride for many years and there are many, many questions yet to be answered. I'm confident Lost will deliver. They've done it so far.

Best episode: Season 3 "Through the Looking Glass" This episode blew me away. I was literally on the edge of my bed by with my jaw hitting the floor by the time Jack was screaming to Kate at the end, "We have to go back!"

4. The West Wing (1999-2006): While George Bush did ... what George Bush did, we had a parallel president on NBC in the Bill Clinton model who was intellectual and surrounded by selfless public servants. A fairy tale? Not exactly. Just a brilliant and sometimes awe-inspiring show that made politics exciting and noble in age when it was anything but.

Martin Sheen completely dominates as President Jed Bartlett, a very moral, intellectual, moderate Democrat with his senior staff, led by Leo McGarry. Famous for its rhythmic, rapid-fire dialogue, the West Wing felt like something that was above normal network TV. It was art at it's best. In one of my favorite all-time scenes, Bartlett is in the National Cathedral after burying a lifelong friend during a political crisis that threatens his administration. After the church is cleared, he stares up at the stained glass window (the eye of God) and angrily rants in Latin. There were no subtitles. This show respected the audience. It knew that you didn't need to understand what he said. It was a man speaking to God and we shouldn't hear it. We just knew he felt betrayed. It's a brilliant, brilliant Hall of Fame scene. I command you to take three minutes and watch it if you've never seen it. Even out of context it should still impress.

It's unfair that Aaron Sorkin wrote many of these episodes by himself. How does one guy have so much talent? The first four seasons were as good as it gets. Seasons 5 and 6 suffered after Sorkin left the show, but Season 7 rebounded nicely. When I watch the news, I think there's no way I'd ever want to work in politics. When I watch the West Wing, I dream about it a little bit. In the end, it always came down to the writing and acting. A perfect mix for a show I refused to watch when it was actually on TV because I didn't get it. How foolish I was. Thank goodness for DVDs and Netflix.

Best episode: Season 2 "Two Cathedrals"
3. The Sopranos (1999-2007): Many consider this the top show of the decade. Perfectly reasonable. This show made HBO and brought the mob mystique down a level.

You must know about the show by now. It's about a New Jersey crime family led by Tony Sopranos. Tony is going through a mid-life crisis and needs to see a therapist. For the duration of the series, these sessions laid the foundation for a massively complex and fascinating psychological examination of a guilty, conflicted sociopath. The Sopranos depicted the mob as just another facet of a deteriorating work force, like auto manufactures. Except these guys are violent psychos feeling the heat from all directions.

James Gandolfini's performance will be remembered years from now. He probed every square inch of that character. He could be ferocious, cavalier, frantic and charming in just one episode. He deserves every plaudit he's received. He wasn't alone as great actor, though. The Sopranos was gifted with tremendous talent in that area. They make the episodes entirely re-watchable. Since every major character on that show -every single one - was a pretty despicable human being, it's a miracle the show was so popular. It's a testament to the actors and the writing.

The one strike against this show is obvious. The series finale was a disappointment. Knowingly artsy, it played around with the audience. The final cut to black was just not befitting a show of that caliber. It deserved a better send off, but still does not detract from this great all-time series

Best episode: Season 3 "Employee of the Month"

2. The Wire (2002-2008): The great American novel of our time.

It's Charles Dickens for 21st century America, chronicling the lowest of the low on the gang-infested streets of west Baltimore to the levers of power in city hall and the police department. The Wire was a searing portrait of a crumbling American infrastructure. It had no famous actors. It was one of the only shows on TV to have a majority black cast. It was shot in Baltimore and it unfolded with the pace and detail of an epic novel, not a TV show. So you understand why it's not as well known. A pity, because it was greatness. Pure greatness.

Unflinchingly realistic, The Wire was always a tragedy of an America who's prime had long passed. This show's main character, Jimmy McNulty, did not show up in Season 4. What other show could pull that off? They did because the character was the decaying city. Not to say that Omar and Bunk and Stringer Bell (the best villain of the decade) were forgettable. They were anything but that.

I give a lot of credit to this show. What other entity really cared to follow inner-city schools? The death of working-class jobs? The true tragedy of drugs on African-American communities? The fall of the newspaper? All these vital sociopolitical developments usually reserved for shows on PBS no one watches came to light on a fictional HBO program. It truly performed a public service while giving us one of the best American series of all-time.

Best episode: Season 3 "Middle Ground"

1. 24 (2001-present): Are you surprised? I doubt it.

This isn't the best acted or best written show in history or even the decade. So how can I rank it No. 1? Because TV is supposed to entertain and no show has been as entertaining as 24. The hardest thing to do is comedy. The second hardest thing to do is a good thriller. It's tough to keep today's audience in suspense, but 24 still does, eight years after its debut.

24 came along at an opportune time. We just got hit with 9/11 and terrorism suddenly became the foremost issue in the country. Along came a show on Fox that dealt with just that topic. As we tried to hunt down real terrorists, we had Jack Bauer kicking ass. Even as a liberal, there's a part of me that hopes we have a guy like him on our side. He acted out our revenge fantasies as we never really got it in real life for 9/11.

Kiefer Sutherland carries this show. It would be just average without him. When it careens into the ridiculous as it often does, he always grounds it right back. Other characters helped, too. Tony Almeida, George Mason, Michelle Dessler, Charles Logan and Chloe O'Brian to name a few. They keep the suspense at almost unhealthy levels, with a great assist from the show's famous calling card - it's real time element. It provides a constant feel of doom just around the corner. That's what a ticking clock always does.

I'll never forget watching the first season as a freshman in college. I had never seen a show like it. Real time. Complicated plot pieced together episode by episode. And a main character who takes the good parts of James Bond and makes him more interesting. The season finale shocked me like nothing I saw before or have seen since. It was a kick to the stomach when Jack found his pregnant wife dead just before the episode faded to black. At that time, what other show would do that? Kill off a main character so brutally? They all do it now, but not back then. They took a gigantic risk and it paid off. It meant that anytime a character was in trouble, he or she could actually die. Hence the suspense.

24 is not as good as it used to be, like any show that goes on into its sixth or seven season. That said, no show is as fun to watch. None. And isn't that the point?

Best episode: Season 1 "11 p.m.-12 a.m." The greatest hour of scripted television I've ever seen.

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