[Blogged by Jeremy Grayson]
[The Shows That Were Somewhat Awesome]
All right, ladies and gents, let’s kick things off. For those of you who’ve missed it, here’s the Introduction to this list, explaining the parameters, as well as what a “lustrum” is. If you’ve already read that, scroll down to see my picks for the fifteenth through eleventh best shows of the lustrum.
There’s an uncomfortable level of hyperbole in saying that a television show accomplished the impossible.
Not that I have anything against hyperbole, mind you. I’ve used it numerous times, both on this blog and in my reviews. I even sometimes use it in my real life, on the occasions that I have one. Nevertheless, there’s something decidedly un-elegant about saying that a series accomplished the impossible.
Let me paint a picture: 30 Rock, Tina Fey’s surreal sitcom about the backstage antics of an SNL-type comedy show, shakily debuted in the fall of 2006 and found its footing by the end of the calendar year, mixing charmingly goofy characters with light and amusing storylines. The infamous Writer’s Strike of ’07 did little to mar the second season, which proved even funnier than the first. In these first two seasons, 30 Rock was on the comedic ball.
Then things started sliding toward the negative. The third season was uneven, lacking the spark and dramatic/comedic mixture of the first two, and featuring that awful Night Court-based episode which suggested the series was getting a bit too clever for its own good. The fourth season kicked off even more poorly, driving the show into downright unfunniness. By the time 2009 came to an end, 30 Rock‘s glory days seemed a thing of the past.
But bear with. As 2010 dawned, 30 Rock slowly began to climb out of its self-dug hole. And it got better. And better. And by the time it ended its seven-season run in January 2013, I was mourning its loss more than I had celebrated its heyday years earlier.
In its last three seasons – and that final season especially – 30 Rock got its groove back. It remembered that the reason we’d fallen in love with its characters years earlier was due not to the fact that we cared about the characters’ dilemmas on a personal level, but on a purely comedic one. And even where the show had failed earlier, it rushed to patch up its holes.
Take the “Liz Lemon wants a baby” arc. This storyline at first threatened to tip the show over into soap opera territory (notably in Season Three’s “Goodbye, My Friend”), but the later seasons managed to both believably progress the story along while still keeping it engaging. Liz’s romance with Criss Chros (God, I love that name) may have felt sudden when Season Six brought it into the fold, but it served marvelously to give Liz’s romantic life a much-needed jolt of self-deprecating humor.
And that’s just the tip of 30 Rock‘s rejuvenated iceberg. The later seasons featured plenty of gems, including Alexis Goodlooking (“She’s good-looking, and good at looking for clues!”), Jack Donaghy’s relationship with Avery Jessup, Kristen Schaal’s performance as an apple-cheeked psychopath, Margaret Cho as Kim Jong-un, Matt Damon as Carol Burnett(!), Kermit the Frog speaking at Colleen’s funeral, and so many more… all leading up to the excellent finale, “Last Lunch”. Fans who followed the show from the beginning couldn’t ask for a better sendoff than the one they got, which gave closure to every major character, and featured enough humorous callbacks to earlier episodes and seasons to make even Arrested Development jealous.
Again, I’m trying to avoid uncomfortable hyperbole in praising the way this series found new life and love in its later seasons, so here goes: 30 Rock accomplished the near-impossible.
…Don’t have the same ring, do it?
Less is more. That’s an expression that can be understood in a few different ways. Figuratively, it could imply a similar line of thought as “brevity is wit” by stating that fewer words can have greater power. (I tend to fall back on this expression whenever I’m tired and want to justify not writing a 4,000-word review.) Literally, though, it could refer to a television show – in this case, Sherlock.
Sherlock offers me a privilege not granted by any of the other shows on this list. Whereas most of the Best Shows of the Lustrum have an episode count in the double – and possibly even the triple – digits, Sherlock has aired a sum total of nine episodes in the last five years. This fulfills the “less” of the above statement. The fact that each of these episodes is ninety minutes long supplies the “more”.
Since its premiere in 2010, Sherlock has proven to be one of the most popular BBC imports here in America. And why not? It has, for starters, two leads with electrifying chemistry – the dryly entertaining Benedict Cumberbatch as the titular detective, and the charmingly lovable Martin Freeman as Dr. John Watson. Together, they form the core of Sherlock. And built around them is a worldly air of mystery that modernizes the setting and storylines from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original tales while maintaining the sense of intelligence and fun which made those original stories so alluring.
The “less is more” stance of the show means an added bonus – I can talk about each episode individually, without the fear that I’ll be stuck typing all night. Series One of Sherlock sparked instantly with the energetic origin tale, “A Study in Pink”. Things cooled down a bit in the underwhelming “Blind Banker”, which served as little more than a transition between the pilot and “The Great Game”, an intriguingly tense finale that moved things in place for the marvelous Series Two. “A Scandal In Belgravia” remains my favorite episode, featuring not only one of Doyle’s most intriguing supporting characters, but also one of my favorite plot twists of the lustrum. (That being Irene’s encoded iPhone.) “The Hounds of Baskerville” is a freshly updated take on the classic tale, and “The Reichenbach Fall” gives us the Sherlock/Moriarty showdown of a fan’s dreams. Series Three gets some flak compared to the first two, but it’s not as bad as some proclaim, assuming you can get past the uncomfortably aimless “The Empty Hearse”. Then it’s a smooth joyride through “The Sign of Three” and an excellent finale in “His Last Vow”, which pits Holmes against another well-cast and formidable foe.
Whew. So I’ve just reviewed every single episode of Sherlock in a single paragraph. And yet some people still doubt it when I tell them I’m awesome.
Sherlock‘s seasonal structure is, in truth, its one major undoing. Since the seasons, episode-wise, are so short, the structure doesn’t have much room to maneuver. In the first two seasons, the premiere introduces a storyline, the second episode pads time while drawing said storyline out, and the finale brings things to a head. The formula works (and the third season deviates from it, though not with complete success), but it tends to make the show feel a bit restricted.
Still, arc limitations are a small price to pay for what Sherlock brings to the table. The show is fun and well-performed, a delight to Holmes fans both old and new. And with at least two more series and a Christmas special on the horizon, it looks like Sherlock could be vying for “Best Shows of the Next Lustrum”, too.
Ah, yes. You all know this one. I’ve written about this show. Mike’s written about this show. (Though not necessarily in that order.) Though it’s less than two years old, Orphan Black has developed a fanbase to be reckoned with.
Why, then, you may wonder – as well you should – does it rank so low on my list? After all, Orphan Black is a fast-paced, shockingly twisted, and wickedly entertaining series. Isn’t it?
Orphan Black is one of the newer shows on this list, having made its debut in April 2013. As I’ve already written a whole article on the first season, explaining just how it worked the wonders it did, and how it was one of the freshest and most exhilarating shows on television, I won’t delve much into the schematics of the series. But I will factor in one point regarding that article – I originally wrote around the time that Season Two premiered, under the blissful implication that the show’s second go-round would prove just as incredible as the first.
Well… much as I’d like to say otherwise, it didn’t. Whereas the first season featured great bounds in narrative momentum, the second season appeared stuck in a sort of stasis. Rather than moving forward, it seemed more content to widen the walls of the series, adding in several subplots about cloning projects and cultist sects that proved less enlightening than ineffectual. Also, it had Tony. Oy, Tony.
Now, Orphan Black is a young show. A third season is currently in production, and there’s a good possibility it will return the series to the heights of Season One. But as I stated in my Introduction to this list, recent shows are a tricky bag. The decision to leave off series that only had their premieres in 2014 was meant to imply in part that even a show that features a promising inaugural season can suffer an abrupt and unforeseen drop in quality in its later years.
Judging by its excellent first season and its significantly-less-excellent second, Orphan Black is currently hovering on the fence. If things pick up again in the third season, then the show will merit a higher spot on future lists. But at this time, I’m playing it safe and putting it near the bottom of the list, where I can call the sum total of its two seasons great… but not too great.
Though for what it’s worth, Tatiana Maslany still rules.
If television were a country, each of its networks would have its own function toward making it a civilization. CBS would be the leader that no one liked. NBC would be the gallant assistant who, for all his willingness, couldn’t help screwing up. FOX would be the loudmouthed general who would declare war at the drop of a hat. ABC would be the independent contractor who just does her job, avoiding any unnecessary interactions.
And The CW Network? They’d probably be along the lines of that cool young associate who does embarrassing things without ever fearing the consequences. And hey, they make mistakes, too. But you know what? Even their screw-ups are fun to watch.
Nikita, the most frustratingly overlooked series of the lustrum, succeeded in large part because of how often it was willing to screw things up. Loosely based on Luc Besson’s film of the same name (which spawned an American remake and a 1997-2001 USA Network series), it’s a classic example about how a show can be messy, surprising – and unexpectedly good.
Developed by Craig Silverstein (a former writer for The Inside, which is a fact I’m mentioning simply because Critically Touched is now hosting reviews of The Inside), Nikita can best be described as an extra-twisty spy/action show with a killer (in all senses) cast of characters. And those characters are crucial, for as much fun as it is to watch the show’s numerous gunfights, explosions, and gunfights-which-lead-to-explosions, it’s the interaction between and development of the leads – particularly Nikita herself, as well as Alex, Birkoff, Amanda, and the underrated Ryan – which makes the show so affecting, even in its weaker moments (*cough*SeasonThree*cough*).
Season One of Nikita is one of my personal favorite seasons of television this lustrum. It’s over-the-top, to be sure, but it’s an exhilarating ride from start to finish, piling one twist atop another, and maintaining suspense over its 22 episodes. Hats off here to Maggie Q, who makes Nikita out to be one of the most exciting-yet-still-human action heroines of recent memory.
The best quality of Nikita may, in fact, also be the worst. The show never sits still, constantly messing with the status quo, rarely avoiding consequences and not afraid to pull the trigger on several of its characters. The show’s fearlessness would exhaust things by the third season, which drifted about aimlessly in search of an intriguing plot, but the abridged fourth season allowed the show to go out in a creative final burst of energy.
Nikita may not be the most polished or refined show on my list, but it’s easily one of the most fun. If you’re in the mood for a series that’s intriguing, action-packed, and surprisingly intelligent, I recommend you track this series down and watch the heck out of it.
I’m one of those firmly-minded individuals who believe that Western animation peaked in the Nineties. Call it a childhood bias, but the sheer amount of four-color brilliance pioneered by the likes of Bruce Timm, Tom Ruegger, Greg Wiseman, Mark Evanier, Tad Stones, and Ben Edlund (to name some obvious choices) is a force to be reckoned with.
The Two-Thousands (Zeroes? Aughts? Whatever) were a slight step down, as producers returned to some of the merchandise-driven ‘toons that populated the Eighties. Still, there is animated greatness to be found during that decade – SpongeBob, Kim Possible… and Avatar: The Last Airbender.
That last one has achieved the most notoriety, for in the years following its conclusion, many fans of Avatar have put it in contention for one of the best shows of all time. (It would have certainly made my “Best Shows of the 2005-09 Lustrum” list.) It was the rare show that told a complete, unifying story, didn’t stretch things out or needlessly rush them, and featured about as satisfying a series finale as you could hope for.
Avatar ended its three-season run in 2008. After a few years’ break and a terrible M. Night Shyamalan film, Nickelodeon debuted The Legend of Korra, a sequel series that many have semi-affectionately dubbed “Avatar: The Next Generation”. Following a new avatar, this one slightly older and significantly more female than Aang, the show attempted to build off the universe set by its parent show while crafting itself around a whole new set of stories and characters.
And for the most part, it hass succeeded. The first season of Korra was unevenly paced, starting off too slowly and ending too abruptly, but it delivered some promising themes, and its sharp animation and score were a welcome step up from Avatar‘s. Season Three capitalized on the show’s potential, delivering as taut and riveting an arc as this lustrum has seen. And Season Four (which is still airing as of this writing, but which I have my full confidence in) has further humanized its characters, and its protagonist in particular, while leading the show to its conclusion.
You may have noticed that I neglected to speak about Season Two in the above paragraph. There is good reason for that – Season Two is bad. Like, really bad. It crams way too much story into its first two episodes, then spends the next 12 stumbling around in hopes of finding a justification for its existence. It features shallow villains, contrived plotting, and a whole lot of dullness – hardly becoming of a show from minds that once brought us “Sozin’s Comet”.
Were it not for that disastrous second season, I would have no qualms about placing Korra in the Top Ten. As it stands, though, it must settle for skirting the edge. But that’s not to knock the show’s quality a great deal. With its colorful characters and excellent visual flair, The Legend of Korra is proof that animation can still be awesome.
Tune in next week when I reveal my picks for the Best Shows, Numbers Ten through Six. Hey, that kind of rhymes. I’m a poet, and I didn’t even realize that fact.