[Blogged by Jeremy Grayson]
[The Pretty Awesome Shows]
Hello again, guys and gals. We’re back with another exciting installment of the Best Shows of the Lustrum. Once again, here’s the Introduction to the list, and here’s <a href="http://www.criticallytouched.com/blog/the_best_shows_of_the_lustrum_%28part_1%29_bl1036.php”>Part One, featuring my choices for Numbers 15 through 11. We continue the list with the back half of my Top Ten, starting… now.
Full disclosure here: When I first dreamed up the idea for this list, I conceived it as a Top 20. The reason, as you may imagine, is that 20 is a nice round number, one that gives the list a greater air of professionalism than, say, a Top 37½. Unfortunately, as I assembled the shows together, I realized that I couldn’t come up with twenty shows this lustrum that I genuinely liked. (Curse this cynical mindset.) So I trimmed it to a less-professional-but-still-only-mildly-awkward Top 15, and assumed my problem solved. However, I then realized that there were only 14 shows remaining on the list, and I couldn’t think of a 15th show that could justifiably fit the bill.
I needed to watch another series, and, given that I was pressed for time, it would have to be a short one. So I jumped onto Amazon Prime and, over the course of a few days, watched the whole 18-episode run of Enlightened.
Created by Mike White (a former Freaks and Geeks writer) and Laura Dern (who, along with White, stars in the series), Enlightened makes for a brief but highly interesting viewing experience. The show follows Amy Jellicoe (Dern), a woman who suffers a nervous breakdown one day, spends a few months at an sanity restoration clinic, and comes back home with a mission to change the world for the better. Does that premise sound the least bit odd? It did to me. But as I pushed forward with the show, I found the strangeness of the setup to be its key selling point. Enlightened is not your usual series, but it knows how to be unusual in all the right ways.
For starters, Enlightened radiates positivity. In the current age of antiheroes, it’s rare to see a show centering on a protagonist with a positive outlook. Enlightened succeeds not only through this deviation, but by avoiding the extra-feel-good trap. There’s something subtly disconcerting about watching Amy as she sets about her quest in writing wrongs both personal and worldly, yet her uniquely optimistic persona in a sea of herd mentality gives her adventures a fascinating edge.
Enlightened takes an unexpected yet retrospectively inevitable twist at the end of its first season, setting up an even better second. Many critics hailed the series as the “Best Show of 2013”, and while I wouldn’t go quite that far, Season Two does a remarkable job of pushing its characters into new and exciting places without feeling cheap or manipulative. That any series can plumb moral ambiguity from such a seemingly innocuous premise makes Enlightened one of the most instantly memorable shows of recent years.
Much credit goes to Dern and White, whose onscreen chemistry gives the show an extra jolt of watchability. Though only two seasons long, Enlightened covers a lot of character-building ground (though some of the supporting players are developed in abrupt fits and jolts, throwing off the series’ pacing). By the time it was over, I was sad to see the show gone… but glad to at last have an occupant for this list’s remaining spot.
Enlightened, as I’ve said, is a highly unusual show, and it may take some time to warm to its borderline-quirky vibes. But once you get comfortably immersed in its universe, it’s an immensely enjoyable series which one of the more intriguing protagonists of recent memory. All in all, it remains my favorite HBO series of the lustrum.
(And yes, I know it’s the only HBO series of the lustrum that I’ve seen. Must you people always be so technical?)
In recent years, many television critics and connoisseurs have taken to dubbing the current crop of high-quality programs on the air as portents to a “New Golden Age” of TV. How you respond to this classification will naturally depend on how previous eras of television reflect on you, and just how you judge the pretensions that many cable shows of the lustrum cast upon themselves. (How I respond to this classification, on the other hand, is best left to a future and likely controversial Blog post. Mwahaha.)
Depending on whether or not you agree with the “Golden” assessment, television has certainly changed in recent times. And while many of the shows which initiated this change have been off the air for some time, Mad Men – a series which, perhaps more than any other series outside of The Shield, smoothed the transition of quality television from the monopolizing premium cable to the more user-accessible basic – is still running, with plans to wrap up its seven-season run next spring.
It would perhaps be a bridge too far to say that Mad Men was one of the prime initiators of the new television age – it premiered in 2007, some time after HBO powerhouses The Sopranos and Deadwood went off the air, and when The Wire was wrapping things up. Nevertheless, without Mad Men, AMC would never gain the critical recognition and respect it needed to produce Breaking Bad or The Walking Dead, two shows with much more of a visible influence on current TV.
Were I making a list of the best shows of the previous lustrum, Mad Men would likely be in contention for the #1 spot. Over its first three seasons, the show crafted a fascinating character study filtered through a world of the past unlike any that had been created before. It offered a new perspective on how to look at the world – was the past as glamorized as we often make it out to be? Or maybe, by showing us a more unseemly form of 1960s Americana, was the series offering a fractured perspective of the past, to reflect the more cynical views of 21st-century viewers?
As you already know, I didn’t make a “Best Shows of the Lustrum” list five years ago. (Though in my defense, neither did anyone else.) And now that I have the opportunity, I could easily just drop Mad Men somewhere in the Top Five, write a few paragraphs about human psychology, historical reflection, and Joan Holloway’s wardrobe, and be content that I’ve both justified my opinion and stimulated your interest.
Unfortunately, my opinion of the last three-and-a-half seasons of Mad Men – the portion in consideration for this list – is not quite Top Five-worthy material. Oh, it’s still a remarkable show, and often leaves me with more to chew on than even a couple of the shows I did place in the Top Five. But several aspects about the later seasons have been less impacting than those of the earlier ones. The lack of freshness in regards to the show’s unique perspective is, I suppose, inevitable (though tossing familiar faces like Linda Cardellini, Alexis Bledel, and Harry Hamlin into the mix kind of yanks us out of the immersive world that Matthew Weiner and Co. have attempted to craft). More problematic is the pacing. Now, Mad Men has never been the fastest-paced show on television – heck, it often makes The Sopranos look like The O.C. But the lengthening of the show’s prospective airtime from five to seven seasons has given the later seasons an air of fatigue, with stories that often tend to wander around in circles and side characters who tend not to develop so much as serve as placeholders to the period.
Still, when Mad Men is good, it’s still very, very good. The first year of the lustrum gave us “The Suitcase”, which is up there with “Nixon vs. Kennedy” and “Shut the Door. Have a Seat” as one of the show’s finest offerings. We’ve also got “Commissions and Fees”, “The Strategy”, and the underrated “The Crash”, which prove that even in its relatively old age, Mad Men can still knock things out of the park when it needs to. And the cast is still game, with Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss still delivering standout performances. (Not that the Emmys have ever truly noticed, for some inexplicable reason.)
So above all, I have no fears about ranking Mad Men as #9 of the best shows of the lustrum. In fact, I have more fears regarding the fact that I just compared The Sopranos to The O.C.
Times change with the decades. (For those wondering, a “decade” is a period of time equivalent to two lustrums. You all know what a lustrum is, right?) In the Seventies, the banner of American family values was flagshipped by All in the Family. In the Eighties, the frontrunner was Family Ties. And the Nineties upped the cynicism with perhaps the most hard-edged family-based sitcom, Roseanne. With that last series, the idea of a cynical, realistically-based family took on more acidic, almost cartoonish proportions.
So it was around that time that cynical family sitcoms began transitioning themselves to cartoons. The same decade that gave us the Conner family also delivered the peak years of The Simpsons, a show that featured a decent level of heart but a whole lot of edge. The Aughts brought us Family Guy, a show which bordered on and often crossed the line into crassness, touting family values with about as much heartfelt sincerity as Seinfeld touted daily life. (Amusingly, the Aughts also gave us Malcolm in the Middle, perhaps the most cartoony live-action sitcom of all, and proof that family-based comedies will likely never be taken completely seriously again.)
Both The Simpsons and Family Guy lasted for the duration of this most recent lustrum, and while the former was surprisingly good, and the latter unsurprisingly not, neither show sticks out – in either the “animated series” or the “family sitcom” category – as much as relative newcomer Bob’s Burgers.
Since making its debut in January 2011, Bob’s Burgers has become one of the lustrum’s most surprising critical and commercial hits. I say “surprising”, because at first glance, it appears to be another one of FOX’s Animation Domination time-fillers. (Think along the lines of the mercifully cancelled Allen Gregory or Sit Down, Shut Up. Then try to forget those shows ever existed.) And yet no other sitcom on the air – animated or otherwise – has crafted a family-based environment quite like this show has.
It would be false to state that Bob’s Burgers is centered on the most realistic family on television, but it’s fair game to say that it may feature one of the most relatable. The show’s creative staff, headed by Loren Bouchard (who also gave us Cartoon Network’s Home Movies), have taken a traditional working-class middle-American family, and turn all the familiar tropes associated with the subject on its head. The result is an often strange, typically bizarre, and all-out-hilarious series with some of the most memorable characters on recent television.
And it’s the characters who ultimately sell the show. They’re quirky, to be sure, but they’re believably quirky, and if you buy into the show’s madcap style, you’ll see that at their respective cores, they’re all quite human. Take Tina, for instance. A teenage girl with an uncharacteristically deep, monotone voice (provided by Dan Mintz), Tina has an undying love for unicorns, zombies, and boy’s butts. There’s something off-putting – and more than a little disturbing – about her at first, but at her core, she’s no different from the average teenage girl. Sure, her interests may be different – and more graphic – than we’re used to seeing in girls on many primetime dramas, but that only makes her stand out more, and makes her inspired characterization more apparent.
Each member of the Belcher family fills a certain position, but never fully buys into the clichés associated with them. Bob and Linda make for an interesting role reversal (unlike most sitcom parents, he’s the sensible one, and she’s the wild card). Gene’s constant non-sequiter lines may not seem to serve much purpose outside of the expected comedy, but they are in fact the show’s most effective device for lampshading its own self-styled craziness. And Louise… ahhhh, Louise. She’s perhaps the most unusual character on the series, with a sweet, innocent, bunny-ears look that masks an endlessly scheming mind. Now, other sitcoms have done the “devil child” trope before, but never have any felt quite so humanized as Louise Belcher – thanks to the show’s never-ending penchant for subversively bizarre stories.
And what of those stories. Over the last four years, Bob’s Burgers has featured a burger-based video game, a run-amok mechanical shark, the Mad Pooper, a turkey in a toilet, an evil candy-cane-shaped truck, a whole episode devoted to ambergris, and a British talking toilet voiced by Jon Hamm. They’ve even one-upped The Simpsons, which gave us an unbelievably weird, fabricated episode about Thomas Edison called “The Wizard of Evergreen Terrace”, by airing “Topsy”, an unbelievably weird Thomas Edison story based on true events. It would all be too much to handle if everything about the series wasn’t so committed to the weirdness. As it stands, Bob’s Burgers is one of the funniest shows currently on television.
And with luck, it will stay that way. There’s no way of telling how long the series will stay on the air, but with The Simpsons now in its 26th season, it’s a safe bet that FOX is comfortable enough with its animated shows to give them long, healthy lives. And we’re all the better for it.
Rat’s all, folks!
You can blame it on an urge to be different. You can blame it on the fanboy’s blood running through my veins, or even on the love of expertly-crafted action scenes. You can offer many reasons for why Arrow is higher than Mad Men on my list, and to that effect, you can debate it.
But I feel strongly about my position of Arrow, a show I initially avoided because of my disinterest in the character’s comic book escapades (he was always among my least favorite DC superheroes) and only caught up on after hearing the various accolades. A wise choice – Arrow lives up to its hype and then some, bestowing new life to the superhero television genre, which had been none-too-charmingly driven into the ground by Smallville.
Arrow follows Oliver Queen, wealthy young industrialist and billionaire, as he adopts the hero mantle (first referred to as “The Hood” and later “The Arrow”) to defend the civilians of Starling City, while keeping things stable in his secret-identity life as well. Throw in some sidekicks and a love interest or two, and you’ve got a show that’s catnip to The CW, who here prove they can make a great show even without screwing up. (…Did that come out right?)
Taking several storytelling cues from Buffy and Angel, Arrow features a consistently small but well-developed cast of likable characters, strong overarching storylines, and a dark, absorbing tone. These elements mesh together excellently, giving the show an ingratiating feel that only deepens as the episodes go on. Arrow is not the best show on television right now, but for my money, it’s the most entertaining.
Much of this entertainment value can be attributed to the clear link of communication between the writers and the viewers. The former group understands exactly what “type” the latter is – intelligent, slightly geeky, and highly demanding – and tailors the series to fit the requirements. This is evidenced by the show’s penchant for long-term continuity – some of the best I’ve seen this lustrum – as events of episodes and seasons past are referenced with natural ease. Arrow transports the world of its comic book source material into three dimensions, in all senses of the term.
And what of that source material? The minds behind Arrow have never met a comic book reference they didn’t like, whether it’s through their use of characters (from major-league sluggers like Roy Harper to forgotten players like Felicity Smoak) or little asides (such as in “The Promise”, when Thea Queen refers to a painting on the wall as “an original Curtis Swan”). Such in-jokes add an extra layer of fun to the series, particularly if you’re as geeky as I am. (And let’s face it – if you’re reading this article, you probably are.)
It would be reaching to say that Arrow excels in all areas, but even its shortcomings are less glaring than those found in other shows of its ilk. Case in point: the casting. The CW tends to favor looks over talent, and this series is no exception. Stephen Amell takes more than a little time to get comfortable under the hood, and Katie Cassidy often feels like a flyweight (though as of Season Three, it looks as though she’s finally beginning to embrace her role). The supporting cast has many established character actors, notably John Barrowman, Susanna Thompson, and Paul Blackthorne. But the Breakout Star Award goes to Emily Bett Rickards, whose Felicity provides a brilliant spark of humor to the show’s often-grim proceedings.
Gathering all its parts together, Arrow‘s assets more than make up for its flaws. And already it seems to be showing its influence – The Flash, a spinoff series centered on the Scarlet Speedster, has just hit the airwaves, and if it proves just as successful with time, I see no reason why DC Comics can’t broaden its horizons and make a home for themselves on network TV.
(Hey… Marvel’s already dominating the movies. And not everyone can make millions from a giant tree-creature and a talking raccoon.)
Around the dawn of the new century – let’s not kid ourselves about specifics; around the time Firefly was cancelled – the Internet community developed a theory: great shows don’t last. The general public (meaning the guy who sits next to you on the bus with the beer-stained undershirt and the bad haircut) just aren’t willing to commit themselves to shows that encourage extensive thought and meticulous storytelling, which means that the Freaks and Geekses and Arrested Developments of the world can only pray like crazy that they’ll survive the schedule shifts and executive meddling so common to shows of their ilk. Popular shows, meanwhile, are looked upon with disdain, being products of a ratings-hungry network and eating up the viewership numbers which should logically go to more little-known cult series. It’s gotten to the point that many among the cult-show-loving populace are hasty to equate “popular” with “bad”. (I put it to you that this is why Seinfeld is not as fondly remembered as it rightfully should be.)
For all the sadness we’ve endured in losing the likes of My So-Called Life and Wonderfalls, I believe an optimistic light can be found at the end of this depressingly dark tunnel. There is one television series that has actually capitalized on its unpopularity, and used every opportunity to expunge it for rib-tickling laughs. That show is called Community, and its penchant for recognizing its own commercial shortcomings is but one reason that it lands such a high spot on my list.
When it first premiered in the fall of 2009, Community gave the appearance of simply being a slightly quirky college-set comedy, mixing elements from Undeclared and 30 Rock in its portrayal of a community college, featuring characters who committed to the expected tropes while tweaking them just enough so that the audience could recognize it was all part of some larger gag. We had Jeff, the cranky but intelligent de facto leader; Britta, the pretty but accident-prone (Britta-prone?) love interest; Troy, the off-the-wall former jock; Annie, the brainy yet brain-scattered scholar; Shirley, the soft-spoken working mother who mocked the “sassy black woman” cliché for all it was worth; Pierce, the rude, unsympathetic old fogey; and Abed, one of the greatest characters in recent television, whose hilarious meta-references often threatened to break not only the fourth wall, but the fifth and sixth as well. Rounding out the initial cast were a pair of faculty members – the flamboyantly loopy Dean Pelton and the sometimes-funny-sometimes-achingly-annoying Senor Chang.
As this lustrum got underway, Community began to show more telling signs of exactly what that gag really was. By the end of its first season, it had shown that it was willing to delve into true subversiveness, giving us a paintball-themed episode which spoofed every major action movie from Die Hard to Rambo. From there, the show springboarded itself into one of the most versatile and creative comedies in recent memory.
Season Two of Community is one of the comedic highlights of the lustrum, as the show opts for an “anything goes” structure that more often than not produces wonders: A tightly written bottle episode, a Claymation-produced Christmas story, a mockumentary, a zombie-based Halloween episode, a Pulp Fiction parody which morphs into something wildly different, and the best Dungeons & Dragons-themed episode of television outside of Freaks and Geeks. Season Three tilts even more heavily towards the zaniness factor, with a parallel-reality episode, a horror anthology, another mockumentary, a video-game-styled episode, spoofs of Glee, Law & Order, and Ken Burns’ Civil War, a fake clip show, and so much more.
(Then there was this hollow, awkward, Dan Harmon-less thing called Season Four, and we shall avert our eyes.)
As of late – specifically, around the airing of the fifth season – fans have begun to question if the show’s humor is as fresh as it once was. The truth: it isn’t. But Community has settled into a good “comfort zone” in which it’s able to mix its off-the-wall parodies with some refreshing character-centric humor (not unlike recent seasons of The Simpsons). And I for one am quite happy that we’ll be getting a sixth season, even if it will be premiering online, instead of NBC, whose cancellation of the show, while not a surprise, threatened to grind the show’s unfailing “Six seasons and a movie” mantra to an uncomfortable halt. (Side note: As many fans know, the show’s famous “survival” slogan originated in a Season Two episode where Abed is shown hoping for “six seasons and a movie” for The Cape. This expression is thus likely the one good thing to come out of The Cape.)
Community has been frustratingly ignored by the Emmys for the duration of its run, picking up only one award (for the animation in “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas”) and a couple of other nominations. Meanwhile, Modern Family has won every Outstanding Comedy Emmy this lustrum. There’s no justice.
Oh, well. Community may not gain much media recognition, but as I said, that’s part of the key to its success. The show has found a niche all to its own, and has filled every corner. Whatever Community will do next, it’s a guarantee that its small but fiercely devoted fanbase will follow it along.
Tune in next week when I reveal my picks for the Top Five shows of the lustrum. Can you guess what all of them are in their exact order? If so, you are likely one of the telepathic demons from “Earshot” and will be dealt with accordingly.