Friday, February 12, 2010

10 Greatest Television Shows

I’m sure that everyone has noticed the descent in the quality of television (especially free-to-air) in the 21st Century, but amongst the utter crap that we are offered, there IS some television genius, however this is supplied mostly through HBO. Here is a countdown of the top 10 shows recent to our TV screens.

Honorable Mentions: The Office (British), Nip/Tuck, M*A*S*H, Dexter, Mad Men

10. Weeds (Showtime) 2005-Present How cool is the idea of a financially struggling single mother of two turning to dealing marijuana to the neighborhood potheads to make ends meet? Well this is the idea behind Weeds. When her business starts to boom, she invites her family and close friends and associates into her empire, and the fun really starts. Weeds is a very satirical look at the rich, snobby suburbs of California, and the idea that the housing, and their residents grow up to all be the same. But Nancy Botwin (played superbly by Mary Louise Parker) is certainly different. After the death of her husband, Nancy must take care of her two young boys, and compete in a competitive market with drug lords and gang leaders that don’t appreciate her attractive form of competition. The supporting characters (Nancy’s accountant Doug Wilson, and Nancy’s brother-in-law Andy) are utterly hilarious, and the film perfectly balances the comedy with many dramatic arcs that often dismantle their lives. I have so far only seen the first three seasons of this fantastic show, but I hope that it remains at a high quality.

9. Peep Show (Channel 4) 2003-Present
If you have not had a chance to watch this absolutely hilarious British comedy, you are missing out. This is one of the most pleasant surprises I have experienced with television. The show’s central characters are Mark (a socially awkward loan manager) and Jeremy (an unemployed, immature, musician wannabe), who share an apartment and we see a document of their bizarre daily lives. Of course there are work colleagues, close friends and love interests that join in the fun. The show mostly uses point-of-view shots of the characters when they are conversing, and utilises voice-over to divulge what the characters are ‘really’ thinking. It is a very interesting approach. Mark (David Mitchell) and Jez (Robert Webb) are a great comedy duo, with the best support given by Matt King as Super Hans (Jez’s band mate, and drug riddled friend, who often pops in to cause some trouble). The first four seasons see Mark question his sexuality after feeling a manly attraction toward his successful boss, and then agree to marry his long-time crush Sophie, which ends disastrously! Jez and Super Hans attempt to run a pub at one point, with gut aching results. The show is now a cult classic, and while the series are only 6 episodes each, not a moment is wasted. Every episode delivers! While beyond the 4th season is still a mystery to me, all indications are that it becomes even more out-of-control.

8. Arrested Development (Fox) 2003-2006
It was certainly sad to see this show end after just three seasons, but what a treat they were. Failing in the ratings, Arrested Development flew under the radar but received much critical acclaim and numerous awards. Most the cast are now embedded in the memories of popular culture, and appear in just about everything. I think that this will likely be the highlight of all their careers. The central character is Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman), who takes over as president of his father’s business, once he is jailed for shady dealing in the Middle East. His role is to keep the dysfunctional family together, while trying to keep the business afloat. The best support comes from, well everyone, but personally I love Michael Cera (as Michael’s son George Michael), Will Arnett (as his brother Gob), and David Cross (as Michael’s brother-in-law Tobias). The writing is tight and the hilarity is so subtle that jokes are often missed, until you catch them on repeat viewings. The pseudo-doco style with voice-over and flashback keeps the story interesting and the 22 minutes seem to fly by. Keep an eye out for a feature film release soon.

7. The Shield (FX Networks) 2002-2008
One of the most realistic police dramas on television, The Shield features an ensemble of characters that work with the LAPD in the Farmington district of Los Angeles. The central character, and leader of the Strike Team unit is Vic Mackey (Michael Chicklis), whose struggle to balance familial crisis and the covering up his teams’ illegal activity within the department, leads the drama. Chicklis is fantastic, as is his partner Shane Vendrell (Walton Goggins). There are many sequences of tension between the two during the series. Other memorable characters are Detective Dutch Wagenbach (Jay Karnes) and his partner Detective Claudette Wyms (C.C.H Pounder), who encounter a series of serial killers and often work with the Strike Team to find leads. The series also focuses on the uniformed police, painting an accurate portrait of the workings of the LAPD. The series reached a peak in Season 2 as the Strike Team rob an Armenian mob, and then launder the money to evade arrest. But subsequent seasons, and roles for Glenn Close and Forrest Whitaker, have revealed exciting new directions for the characters. One of the best shows ever to play on Ten.

6. OZ (HBO) 1997-2003
This giant of modern television is arguably the grittiest of HBO’s shows. This is a big call! We are thrust into the world of Oswald State Penitentiary following a new inmate, Tobias Beecher (Lee Tergesen, in one of the most daring performances on television), and revealed an experimental prison system known as Emerald City, run by Tim McManus. Emerald City allows the prisoners to mingle freely in a large living room type set-up, and allows the various gangs to plot attacks on their enemies in a power struggle within the prison. These gangs (The Arians, the Muslims, the Mafia, the Latinos and the African Americans) each have a domineering ruler, and peace is sought through McManus and the Warden, Leo Glynn. The first season is perhaps the best, with the last two episodes featuring a riot within the prison. These are perhaps the best two episodes in television history! But what make this show so impressive are the cameo appearances of established actors, who appear for one episode and are then killed off. No character is safe, and the creators hold nothing back. As the rivalries build, friendships develop and then are destroyed, and the staffs lose control of their authority, there is plenty of meat for violent entertainment. OZ delivers on all counts. In a near-perfect story arc that ties all loose ends, the six seasons of OZ should not be missed.

5. Entourage (HBO) 2004 - Present
The male Sex and The City has been quickly gathering momentum ever since the show hit the third season, and is now one of the most popular shows on television. Entourage tells the story of Vincent Chase (Adrian Grenier), a young, up-and-coming actor trying to find his place in the business. By his side are his manager Eric, his driver Turtle, his semi-famous actor brother Johnny and his bloodsucking agent Ari Gold (Jeremy Piven). We see the group battle production agencies to secure roles…and shop for Ferraris. It is great fun! The boys live the life any man would dream of, including VIP access to any club, unlimited golf membership, attending parties at the Playboy Mansion, and hanging out with celebrities. Almost all of the situations are memorable and the quotes repeatable. Johnny Drama’s reminiscing on his acting past is always a highlight, as are Ari’s crude rants to his assistant Lloyd, his colleagues, and his trophy wife. The best moments came during the series when Billy Walsh (an Independent, Sundance winning director) directs Vinny in the ‘worst’ film of the year, Medellin, which ultimately destroys Vinny’s career temporarily. Later seasons have seen Eric progress from being Vinny’s manager to running his own company, and sees Turtle become a music talent agent! Even Johnny sees a hiatus, when his show Five Towns brings success. Appropriately dramatic, but consistently funny, this glorified examination of the celebrity and the film business is addictive television, and one to enjoy with mates again and again.

4. Curb Your Enthusiasm (HBO) 2000 - Present
Through the antics he displays in his Seinfeld follow-up, Curb Your Enthusiasm, the quirky Larry David has become one of the most loved and hated performers on television. He is doing enough for Woody Allen to cast him in his most recent film, Whatever Works! The film thrives on confrontational comedy. Larry lives a pretty relaxed life. Living lavishly from his Seinfeld riches, he spends most of his time annoying his wife, and socialising with his friends! He has a set of social rules that he believes every normal person adheres too, and when they don’t, the awkward fun of this show really begins. It has been called a ‘hilarious tribute to horrible behaviour’ and each season has consistently kept it ahead of all other television comedy. Each season has a story arc that runs throughout, we see Larry attempt to pitch a show starry an ex-Seinfeld cast member, but through a series of incidents the show is banned from all networks, we see him invest with his friend Ted Danson in a restaurant, we see him star in Mel Brooks’ Broadway Musical, The Producers, with David Schwimmer, donate his Kidney to a suffering Richard Lewis, adopt a Hurricane-affected family and in the recent Season 7, write a Seinfeld reunion show. Larry’s ability to say what we all think, but dare not say, brings about some fantastic sequences. Some cameo appearances are instant classics, while Cheryl Hines (as his wife Cheryl David) and Jeff Garlin (as his obese manager Jeff Greene) are superb as Larry’s sanest advisers. The show works on improvisation, and only a simple base for the scene is developed prior to shooting. Larry’s quirks and society damning rants never get old, in fact, I bet after watching this you begin to question what goes on around you yourself.

3. Six Feet Under (HBO) 2001-2005
The wonderful Six Feet Under is the heartbreaking story of the Fisher and Sons Funeral Home. In the opening episode Nathaniel Fisher (played by Richard Jenkins) is killed in a car accident, and the family business is left in the hands of his two sons, Nate (Peter Krause), their semi-estranged son that had been living in Seattle for years, and David (Michael C.Hall), original partner of the business with his father. Nathaniel’s widow Ruth (Frances Conroy), and daughter Claire (Lauren Ambrose) also live at the Funeral Home. Each episode begins with the imaginative death of a person, which then becomes the focus of the business for that episode. Each family member is often moved or enlightened by the life lead by the deceased, and often affects how they live their own personal lives, which are often in turmoil. Six Feet Under is often darkly comic, but the dramatic tension can prove to be almost unbearable. While the experience is incredibly rewarding, it can leave you feeling miserable and depressed. Why watch it then? The ensemble cast is uniformly outstanding, the complex plotting of the relationships is perfect, and the every nuance of plot development is resolved at the conclusion of the 5th Season. The first two seasons are perhaps the best, which deal with Nate’s fatal brain disorder, but overall, with the exception of the next show on this list (but for a different reason), it is unquestionably the most moving drama in television history!

2. The Wire (HBO) 2002-2008
The focus of The Wire is the Baltimore Police Department trying to crack down on the increasing murder and drug trade rates in the city. We are immediately introduced to many characters that I’ll admit are hard to grasp or recognise for the first few episodes. But so much time is spent developing chemistry between the groups that by the fifth or sixth episode you feel like you have known them for life. The homicide and the narcotics unit are the two most central to the show, but in addition we also see the story from the other side of the law, in Season 1, a drug trade run through the projects, and in Season 2, a mob squad moving illegal goods through the Baltimore docks. Equal time is spent on both parties as they try and outsmart the other. A strike team is assembled featuring members of the different departments that work exclusively on the case in question, arranging surveillance stakeouts, and wiretaps on the suspects.
The show is incredibly realistic! Nothing can be run without the permission of the Majors and often the Court. Chain of command must be adhered to, and this often leads to frustrating moments as the team is let down by the decisions of their superiors. And while the tension is expertly built, the show has light moments of comedy too. All the characters are memorable, especially McNulty, Bunk, Freamon, Kima and Daniels from the detective squad, and Omar, who becomes a feared ruler of the Baltimore streets. In a world where the detective drama seems to rule the television screen, this is the BEST! No question. Words can’t describe how perfect this show is, just watch it and find out!

1. Seinfeld (NBC) 1989-98
The greatest show of all time is without a doubt Seinfeld. The show about nothing! Created by Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, it has became one of the most popular and beloved sitcoms in TV history, and re-runs are still abundant today, years after the completion of Season 9. With the exception of the rusty 1st Season, 2-9 have been equally exceptional, with the team rarely delivering a poor episode. The characters of Jerry, George, Kramer, Elaine and even Newman are now embedded in the conscience of popular culture. Tackling every eccentricity of life, the events and situations critiqued in Seinfeld are hilarious. Just about every nuance of life experience has been tackled in Seinfeld and you commonly find yourself saying, ’remember in Seinfeld when Kramer…’ Commonly we see a different story arc for each character that often reconvenes at the conclusion of the episode. Some are set all in the one location and shot in real-time, such as the S2 classic, The Chinese Restaurant, or The Dealership in Season 9. While many consist of heavily dialogued situations in Jerry’s apartment or the coffee shop, others are set in elaborate locations! Incredibly quotable, every episode is capable of being re-watched over and over again.

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