Monday, September 26, 2011

Best of the best

Since I just witnessed an all-time great episode of television last night, and I know the world desperately needs this, I will rank the ten best shows currently on air. They don't have to be currently in-season, but they must be still in production. So no Friday Night Lights or 24.

Another rule: All shows ranked below are scripted, fictional series, comedy or drama. So no Daily Show, Colbert Report, Jersey Shore.

Let's get on with it already.

10. Sons of Anarchy: While uneven, the boys of SAMCRO eek onto this list by sheer entertainment value. This show is never boring. And the acting, especially from Katey Segal, is top notch. SOA also gets points for having Maggie Siff on my screen. Much appreciated.

9. Curb Your Enthusiasm: After eight seasons of Larry David haggling over inane social customs with ignorant, oblivious, spoiled Hollywood bourgeois, Curb often feels rote. Larry fights a hostess of a fancy restaurant and then needs this hostess for a big favor at some future point in the show, only to be rejected. Cue the theme music. However, every other episode or so - counting "Palestinian Chicken" - scores a knockout and invigorates the series. If Curb were a baseball player at this point, it would bat around .270 but hit 25-30 homeruns.

8. Boardwalk Empire: Beautifully rendered, well acted ... this is a professional show in every regard. And the topic - the rise of the gangster lifestyle in the 1920s - is ripe for great storytelling. Yet the shows often leaves me feeling cold. I watch the characters. I am entertained by them. I do not feel for them. It makes this list because it's well done, but Boardwalk has yet to reach its full potential. Tony Soprano brought a real intensity to The Sopranos that is lacking with Nucky Thompson.

7. Louie: I've been reading plenty of proclamations along these lines: Louie is the best show on TV. I won't go that far. Some episodes fall flat, like the time Louie and his girls visit the racist aunt. What makes Louis ONE of the best shows is its ability to make me laugh one episode and feel enormous catharsis the next. This is not strictly a comedy despite the presence of the No. 1 comedian in the world. The episode with his suicidal friend was better than what most dramas can offer.

P.S. And the segment where Louie was on TV defending masturbation has to be one of the funniest of the year.

6. 30 Rock: A year ago this would be much higher, but the show lost just a smidgen off its fastball. That does little to detract from the funniest set of characters to come down the pike in a long time. Even if an episode here or there fails to live up to the show's standards, the combo of Jack Donaghy/Liz Lemon/Tracy Jordan will never fail to get me through 22 minutes. A show that is a pure joy to watch.

5. Justified: This FX offering flies under the radar a bit. Timothy Olyphant was born for the role of Raylan Givens, the laconic, prone-to-violence federal marshal Raylan Givens. Walton Goggins shines as his smooth antagonist Boyd Crowder. Never before has backwoods Kentucky been this intriguing.

4. Parks and Recreation: Just beats out 30 Rock as the best comedy on the air. Season 3 was damn close to perfect. Andy Dwyer is a riot. April Ludgate is sarcastic apathy at its finest. But this show is awesome for one reason: Ron Swanson. The gruff, libertarian, "man's man" boss of the Parks and Recreation department in Pawnee, Indiana is comedy gold. I put him up there with Donaghy, Costanza, even Homer (Simspon, not the guy who wrote "The Odyssey") I could watch a show with just him complaining about his job. If you can't or don't want to watch this show, at least YouTube the character.

3. Mad Men: My main problem with Mad Men in seasons 1 and 2 was that many episodes did not move the plot along one inch. The show fell in love with its characters and setting and forgot about the "stuff actually happening" part. While still awesome television, I would not say it's No. 1 for that reason. But they have rectified that issue the past two seasons. This is the most dissected and talked about show among the TV snobs in America (and I include myself in that group). Many would say it's by far the best show going - it's won four straight Emmy's for best drama. I disagree, but that doesn't mean I dislike it. This show is gold and the biggest mistake HBO has made in years was passing on this sure-fire critical hit.

2. Game of Thrones: Speaking of HBO, this is the best series the channel has produced since the final episode of The Wire. Tremendous acting. Awe-inspiring to look at in HD. What really sets this show apart is plot. They burn through it like Sherman to the Atlantic. Every episode ends in a great plot twist, including the biggest twist of the year in the next to last episode. And if you feel there's a dearth of great female characters on TV, watch this show. Arya Stark. Cersei Lannister. Katelyn Stark. Daenerys Targaryen. You might have no idea who these people are. You should. But ... the best part of this show is BY FAR the performance of Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister, aka "The Imp." He's one of those ambivalent characters who you're not sure is good or bad but you're sure is damn interesting. Simply, he's phenomenal. As is this show.

1. Breaking Bad: I must thank Jeff Schaible for turning me on to this show. I saw the commercials for the first season and assumed it would be one of those trippy stoner shows, like a televised version of Trainspotting. I was not interested. Then I started watching, and it's clear that while Mad Men wins all the Emmy's, it is not the best show on its own network. Bryan Cranston so dominates the role of Walter White it frustrates me when he's not on the screen. No show does suspense like Breaking Bad. It's the Cohen Brothers on AMC - the desolate settings, the pathos of sudden violence and black comedy. And it just gets better and better. The most recent episode - Crawl Space - had my heart pounding. I haven't been able to stop thinking about it. There's no question in my mind this is the Tom Brady (not yesterday's version) of television shows, and I say this aware that I haven't watched all of them. I just know.


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