I don’t know why I just ran across this a week or two ago. The piece ran in the NYT back in January. But for some reason I saw a Tweet about the list just days after the end of “Game of Thrones.” And to me, that made now a better time for pondering such a list than several months ago. Since everyone speaks of GoT as such a landmark and all…
Anyway, the headline was “The 20 Best TV Dramas Since ‘The Sopranos’.” It represents the consensus of three TV writers. (Consensus. I like that about it. That’s how we made decisions on the editorial board. Not enough decisions are made that way. It’s a great process.)
It’s a pretty good list. Of course, it contains a number of shows I’ve never seen, so I can’t judge whether they deserve to be on the list: “The Shield,” “Battlestar Galactica,” “Veronica Mars,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Friday Night Lights,” “Adventure Time,” “Enlightened”… hang on…. I just realized that I’ve never seen well over half the list.
That’s all right. Some of us are not paid to watch TV and write about it. Some of us are just people living our lives in a certain time and place and looking around us and occasionally trying to make some sense out of the tiny slices of existence we have time to experience.
Anyway, I have a snobbish disdain for Top Twenty lists. They lack discipline. They are promiscuous and indiscriminate. I continue to believe that Nick Hornby’s Top Five system represents perfection. You have to work at it. You have to choose. You have to be ruthless, and let the also-rans fall by the wayside, gnashing their teeth. You have to have standards, and stick with them.
On a couple of points, I’m right there with the NYT writers. On others, I have to wonder where they’ve been, or at least what they’re thinking. Anyway, here’s my list:
- “The West Wing” — No surprise there, right? It topped the NYT list, too. And in describing why, Margaret Lyons admits that yeah, it’s a fantasy, “a fantasy about caring… because you’re my guys, and I’m yours, and there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you.” Or as Leo said, long as I got a job, you got a job. It’s about much more than that — the people care not only about each other, but about Things That Matter — but that’s an important part of it. When I went to work for the campaign, I told James I wanted to be a part of something again with a bunch of people who cared about things. Like on “The West Wing.” Go ahead and mock me. I was perfectly serious, and I’m glad I got that chance. Not everyone does.
- “Band of Brothers” — This didn’t fit into the parameters of the NYT list, because they defined a series as something meant to go more than one season. But before I saw “The West Wing,” this was unquestionably the best thing I’d ever seen on television. I knew it would be that back before it existed, when I was toying with the idea of writing a letter to Spielberg and Hanks to suggest it (but I didn’t have to; I guess after they connected with Steven Ambrose it was just that obvious). And of course, aside from being wonderfully acted and directed and crafted, it was a story that mattered.
- “The Sopranos” — This is a guilty pleasure, probably the ultimate example of that phenomenon in the annals of TV. It represents sort of the opposite of the first two, which are about good and decent and admirable people who care about the right things and are willing to work and sacrifice for them. The Sopranos is more typical of the serious Golden Age dramas, in that it lacks a moral center or characters to admire or regard as heroes. But it was supremely engaging, and again we’re talking craftsmanship. I have debates with my wife about this, which she always wins. She asks why time should be spent on stories and characters completely lacking in redeeming qualities, and I reply that it’s so well done! Which is a vapid answer, I know, but I’m a sucker for things that are done well…
- “The Wire” — Best thing about the NYT feature is that the bit about The Wire is in the words of actor Michael K. Williams. You know: “Omar coming!” This series had a lot of contemptible characters in it, too, but you cared about so many of them, from soulful snitch Bubbles to the infuriatingly self-destructive McNulty to the Greek-tragedy labor leader Frank Sobotka. This was a work of fiction with hugely ambitious journalistic aspirations: This season is about drugs in the projects; this one is about the dead-end life on the docks; this one is about Baltimore public schools; this one is about city politics; this one is about the newspaper. And it really worked.
- “Breaking Bad” — This was the hardest to watch, but I had to keep watching. It gave me something of a complex. I’d watch it at night after my wife had gone to bed — again, not her thing and I love her for that — and after another hour of Walter White’s traumatic slide into evil, I’d slip into the dark bedroom feeling guilty, as though I were the one building a drug empire and lying to my family about it. I think I half expected my wife to wake up and say, “Why do you have two cell phones?” or “Who’s Jesse Pinkman?” That’s how deeply the show implicated me in Walter’s evil madness. Which was not fun, and probably the main reason I haven’t rewatched the whole thing since it ended. I mean, I “lived through it” once, and that was enough…
So that’s it. Two that are about honor and courage and decency, two that are sordid as all get-out, and one — “The Wire” — that hovers between the two, although leaning toward the sordid.
The NYT writers allowed themselves a “Toughest Omissions” list, so I will, too:
- “Firefly” — Was it a drama? Was it comedy? Was it fantasy? I don’t know, but it was awesome, and I can’t believe those gorram network people cancelled it before the first season was even over. The only funny, heartwarming, witty, inventive show about space cowboys in the history of the medium. But even if there were a hundred such, this would have been the best one.
- “The Walking Dead” — I was determined I was never going to watch this, but one of my kids talked me into trying it and I was hooked. For awhile. I finally got to the point that it was no longer watchable for me. That happened in that hopeless episode in which Rick and the rest were captured by the Saviors, at the end of the sixth season. I don’t know what happened after that.
- “Barry” — I’m just trying to be topical, since this is newer than anything else on the list. As long as I still had HBO NOW for watching “Game of Thrones” (which you’ll notice does not make my list), I went ahead and finished the second season of this show about a hit man who wants to be an actor. I may sign back up when the third season comes out. This is worth watching for NoHo Hank if for nothing else. There’s also Stephen Root. And Bill Hader’s always great.