[Blogged by Jeremy Grayson]
[The Mind-Vaporizingly Awesome Shows]
All right, chicks and chaps, we’ve come to the home stretch. My Top Five picks for the Best Shows of the Lustrum await you. Those of you just joining us can read the Introduction to the list, and check out Part One and Part Two. The rest of you can stop biting your nails and continue reading below…
Bryan Fuller may well be the most mysterious man currently in show biz. His shows are unusual, often disturbing, and – if the fan theories are to be believed – they all occupy the same universe, one parallel to our own, in which something always feels askew – to the point that if you watch long enough, you begin to wonder if his world (or “the Fullerverse”) isn’t in fact the real thing, and our world isn’t the quirky alternate reality.
For those unfamiliar, Bryan Fuller is the creator of Dead Like Me, Wonderfalls, and Pushing Daisies, three 21st-century shows that received tall acclaim and short life-spans. My own feelings toward these three shows cover all the bases – I haven’t seen the first, really liked the second, and didn’t care much for the third – which means I was slightly on edge upon hearing that Fuller would be returning to TV with two new projects, neither of which seemed to bode much in the way of originality – a modernized version of The Munsters and a weekly version of the “Red Dragon” series by Thomas Harris (which had already spawned numerous films, including the Oscar-winning Silence of the Lambs). It’s a bad sign when a television producer reaches deep into the old well for new ideas, and I braced myself for the worst.
Well, I was half-right. Mockingbird Lane, the updated Munsters retelling, never made it past the pilot stage, proving that some horses are better left dead. But Hannibal, on the other hand… oh, boy.
I’ve heard people describe Hannibal as “quirky”, and I think that may well be the most misattributed label for any recent television series. Hannibal certainly doesn’t feel like you’re ordinary show, but it’s also not the kind of show in which a girl can carry on conversations with a defective wax lion or one’s doom can be sealed by a space station’s falling toilet seat. Hannibal is a show that reaches so far into the world of weird and unsettling that the needle spins all the way around the meter and ends up right back in the “reality” position. The result is a world as believably tangible as our own… yet very decidedly not.
Hannibal more or less follows the story set by Harris’ novels and the subsequent films, but it’s clear that Fuller and his team are interested in telling something different. This is evidenced by the two lead characters and the actors portraying them. In Detective Will Graham, Hugh Dancy finds a subtle, almost playful vibe as a man who may very well be just as insane as the serial killers he tracks down. As Hannibal Lecter himself, Mads Mikkelsen reaches for the opposite end of the spectrum as was established by Anthony Hopkins, rarely letting any overt facial expression crack the mask he wears every hour of ever day. Surrounding them is a small but enticing mixture of well-established character actors and relative unknowns who form the various dimensions the series occupies. Not one actor steps out of line. Not one feels obtrusively out of place.
The entire series is wrapped in some of the most glorious cinematography ever to grace a television program, network or otherwise. Fuller has always had an eye for visual flair, with his earlier shows often sating us with eye-popping setpieces and camera shots. Here, he transcends his earlier works, offering up a sumptuous feast of visual proportions. Hannibal‘s color palette ranges from aching brights to disturbingly comforting darks. The scene-by-scene pacing is daringly slow, giving us ample time to become absorbed into each meticulously rendered scene, all the while wondering what unforeseeable horror lurks within the next camera shot.
And boy, does Hannibal know horror. It would be wrong to say that the show indulges in gore and blood-spatters, since most of what we see features less in the way of excessively violent scenarios and more in the way of holy-frak-how-can-the-network-possibly-let-them-show-that scenarios. This show is horrific to watch in the best possible way, as emotionally riveting and exhausting as any other series this lustrum. (Despite its relative lack of actual blood gushers, this show is definitely not for the squeamish. Proceed with caution.)
With all the talk about visuals and atmosphere, you might think that Hannibal is lacking in the way of story. That would be a grave mistake. Hannibal offers up some of the most richly textured and satisfying serialized storytelling as this lustrum can offer, with one shocking twist following another, and with momentum that builds slowly but never lets up. It’s been six months since the show’s second season drew to a close, and the finale is still fixated in my mind as one of the most pulse-poundingly incredible hours of television I’ve seen in a long while.
Hannibal is a relatively new series as far as the shows on this list go, yet it’s also one of the most breathtaking. And it looks like it will continue to shock and haunt me into next lustrum, because, for the first time in Bryan Fuller’s career, one of his shows has been granted a third season. I’m not sure how long Hannibal can hold its own, as its already-low viewership numbers have continued to dwindle since its premiere. But as long as it stays on the air, I’ll be satisfied that the television gods still have good… taste.
(Sorry. Couldn’t resist.)
Permit me to bend one of my earlier rules, without actually breaking it. I’m referring to the one about judging shows based on their offerings in the current lustrum.
See, Friday Night Lights was never a ratings monster at any point during its run. No matter how many times fans responded to the hesitant and uninitiated with “It’s not about football”, the show always sat firmly on the cancellation bubble. The fact that it eked out five seasons is a wonder.
Part of the reason for the show’s unexpected longevity can be attributed to a deal struck between NBC (the parent network) and DirecTV (a separate provider) in 2008 – as a way of sharing the costs and thus softening the blow of low Nielsens, DirecTV would air each of the show’s last three seasons first, over the course of the fall and spring, and NBC would rerun them the following summer.
Now, if you want to get technical, you can tell me that the fourth season of Friday Night Lights (the divisive season for consideration of this list) actually premiered in October 2009, and aired its first seven episodes that fall. In that case, everything up till “In the Bag” should be disqualified for consideration from this list. But then again, Season Four had its network premiere in May 2010, and it was over the course of the succeeding summer that most of its fans were able to watch it.
The practical side of me wanted to simply go with the original DirecTV dates. But then my mind changed when I remembered “The Son”.
“The Son” is one of those divisive seven episodes from the first half of Season Four. It premiered in December 2009, less than a month before this lustrum got underway. It is, quite simply, a forty-three minute masterpiece, featuring some of the richest, most heartfelt emotional material that Friday Night Lights ever gave us. It received a well-deserved Emmy nomination and completely wiped away any animosity I may have had toward the show for all its missteps back in Season Two.
“The Son” is but one reason as to why I regard the fourth season of Friday Night Lights to be the show’s best. It faces stiff competition from Season One in this regard, but I feel that Season Four slightly edges it out. The first season of Friday Night Lights may have established it as a remarkably well-drawn and highly addictive drama, but the fourth season brought the series into even greater territory.
Coupling the excellent fourth season with the almost-as-excellent fifth season, and you’ve got what I like to call “FNL: The Next Generation“. The last two seasons feature several casting changes from the first three. Gone are Lyla, Tyra, Jason, and Smash. Matt, Tim, and Landry are on their way out. In their place are a whole new set of characters who are just as compelling as the old ones – proving that not only could Friday Night Lights craft a winning formula – it could recraft it.
The show’s naturally moving time-frame allows us to experience this small Dillon, Texas community as though its citizens were as real as our own friends and neighbors. Vince Howard, Luke Cafferty, Jess Merriweather… new faces all, yet their youthful impressionability makes them instantly irresistible. Becky Sproles was introduced as a minor player, but she grows into her own, as richly-drawn as any of the show’s earlier female leads. (Less fortunate is Hastings Ruckle, who is introduced as a regular in Season Five and barely gets enough screentime to qualify for genuine development.)
And lest we forget the show’s founding family… these last two seasons show the Taylor clan just as brilliantly as ever, with increasingly mounting stresses between the Power Couple of Eric and Tami, and a more mature yet still emotionally fragile Julie. These three pioneer the series to its fantastic final episode, “Always”, which will have your eyes welling up like Niagara.
Friday Night Lights is one of the greatest dramas of the 21st century, and these last two seasons were a perfect goodnight kiss. As a capper to the series, they work marvelously, congratulating us for falling in love with these characters and their city back in Season One. And even taken on their own merits, they’re two incredibly good seasons of television.
Remember that time you first heard someone praising a series called Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Remember how weird it was to think that a show centering about a teenage girl who kills the undead could be any good? And remember how dumbfounded you were to discover otherwise? Yeah, me too. There’s more merit to the “Judging a book by its cover” adage than we may have thought.
When The Good Wife premiered in the fall of 2009, the critical consensus boiled down to “a well-made, competent legal series with a touch of family drama, all wrapped up in a slightly on-the-nose title”. And that was a fair assessment. Based on the first few episodes of The Good Wife, most critics would not think it was a show worthy of competing with many of the cable powerhouses which dominated their polls.
A little over five years later, the only thing about The Good Wife that has remained exactly the same is its title. The show itself has undergone a slow, careful, yet masterful transformation, becoming one of the most richly layered and engrossing dramas as television has ever laid claim to. Over the course of more than a hundred episodes, it has shown remarkable skill at juggling a diversely interesting main cast, dozens of supporting characters, and a great many long- and short-term storylines.
The key to the show’s success lies in its widespread accessibility. Do you want a fascinating look into the morals of the legal system and how its practitioners work with (or around) it? The Good Wife has you covered. Are you in the mood for an emotionally rich family drama centering on the best female protagonist of the lustrum? That’s here, too. Care to watch several well-told, serialized stories interweave themselves across multiple seasons and build to logical and satisfying conclusions? Want a subtle commentary on the political climate and changing attitudes of Americans over the course of the Obama administration? Or are you just in the mood to watch a single, standalone legal case progress from start to finish? The Good Wife checks all these boxes and more.
As I mentioned during my commentary on Enlightened, we’re living in an age of antiheroes, with Walter White, Don Draper, Dexter Morgan, and others of their morally ambiguous ilk lending cable its patented edge. On the other hand, network TV has stayed relatively safe – sure, it’ll sometimes give its heroes a dark side (say, Will Graham or Oliver Queen) but it will rarely have them cross the line into truly immoral territory.
Straddling that line is Alicia Florrick, a woman who neither falls into the category of “hero” or “antihero”. At the start of the series, she is an underdog, the kind of character you root for simply because you want her to succeed. And succeed she does. But as Alicia grows as a character, and as a person, we often wonder if she’s the sort of protagonist we should be rooting for.
The idea of making a law firm into a questionable base of operations is not a new one, but it’s never been given quite as scrutinizing a treatment as it is here. The Good Wife makes sure to fully humanize not only Alicia herself, but her corporate bosses as well, which means we’re never quite sure if we’re watching a well-intentioned law firm in the same gallant vein as the Bartlet administration, or the next Wolfram & Hart. Hats off to Robert and Michelle King for creating such a fully-dimensional, completely engrossing workplace, and hats off to the cast for playing things to the hilt.
And ah, yes, that cast. Juliana Margulies is no stranger to great television, having first gained fame in the Nineties as Carol Hathaway on ER. But with Alicia Florrick, she gives one of the best performances displayed by any TV actress in recent memory, making her endearing, empathetic, and endlessly complex. Josh Charles (in his first television starring role since Sports Night) and Christine Baranski do very well as her bosses, and Matt Czuchry (formerly the detestable Logan Huntzberger on Gilmore Girls) is perfect here as a rival of Alicia’s who eventually develops far more than you’d initially anticipate. The two standout stars, though, are Archie Panjabi (who plays Kalinda with an air of mystery and a never-dying spark of fun) and Alan Cumming (whose Eli Gold may be the most humorously tragic figure on any currently-airing series).
With its extremely large supporting cast, it would be fruitless to try and praise each actor individually, but a good deal of gratitude must go out to Chris Noth, Mary Beth Peil, Zach Grenier, Marie Elise Goldsberry, Michael J. Fox, Gary Cole, Mamie Gummer, Carrie Preston, Mike Colter, Dylan Baker, Martha Plimpton, Titus Welliver, Jerry Adler, Anika Noni Rose, Stockard Channing, Nathan Lane, and so, so many more.
The Good Wife is now in its sixth season (seven are planned in all) and it shows no signs of slowing – in fact, it’s actually gotten better than ever in these last couple of years. Season Five represents a high water mark for the lustrum, with the absolutely brilliant “Hitting the Fan” and the seemingly never-ending string of unpredictable events which followed. Season Two was also remarkable, featuring several seemingly unrelated serialized threads that all came together masterfully in time for the show’s second-greatest episode “In Sickness” (for which Margulies won the first of two well-deserved Emmys). Seasons One starts slowly (but then, I’m not counting its 2009 episodes) and Season Four begins with a lousy Kalinda-based story arc which rivals Friday Night Lights‘ “Killer Landry” arc in measures of lameness, but both feature terrific second halves.
Season Three is the one season that takes the most heat from the fans. While I agree with several of the complaints (relative lack of a major story arc, disappointing follow-through with regards to Season Two), I will say that the third season has given me an appreciation for how well The Good Wife is able to tell a single-episode, standalone story.
The Good Wife remains one of television’s finest dramas, by turns hearfelt, hilarious, and incredibly entertaining. And as it surges toward its end-date, I see no reason that it won’t stay that way even in the face of all its cable competition. Heck, the fact that it’s produced by CBS, the network that’s branded itself with the likes of acronym-based crime procedurals, is the surest proof that miracles ultimately can happen.
The job of a critic, so I’m told, is to voice his opinion in a clear, thoughtful, articulate manner, giving people something worthwhile to think about, and refining all thoughts so that not even the most cynical-minded of readers can accuse him of being incompetent. It also helps for said critic to be original in his thoughts, the better to appear fresher, and the better to not be accused of plagiarism and have his butt sued off.
When faced with the need to write about Breaking Bad, I have a problem. Here is a show that has been written about by so many different people and analyzed in so many different ways, that… I don’t think there’s a whole lot I have left to say about it.
I mean, you’ve all heard this show praised countless times, right? You’ve heard about how it’s incredibly well-written, with fantastic tension, naturally evolving characters, and whimsically memorable dialogue. You’ve heard about how it’s incredibly well-acted, with Bryan Cranston delivering one of the finest performances ever put to television, and his costars (Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn, Dean Norris, et al.) delivering nearly-as-brilliant work. You’ve heard about how it’s one of the greatest dramas ever put to television, and I can no more contest that point than I can contest the scorching temperature of the sun.
So I’m going to focus on the specifics. I’m going to focus on what made the last three seasons of Breaking Bad – the ones which aired during this lustrum – so worthy of all the praise it’s received.
When Breaking Bad premiered in 2008, it barely received any publicity outside of “The dad from Malcolm in the Middle is a meth cook!” And the show’s first season was a bit shaky, marred by the infamous Writer’s Strike and the difficulties Vince Gilligan and his writing team faced in balancing their dark story with a disarming sense of humor. The second season (which I’ve affectionately dubbed “the teddy bear season”) was a marked improvement, and even before it had ended, people were already speculating on whether it was one of the best shows of the 21st century. These people would soon speculate no longer.
Breaking Bad kicked off the 2010s with its third and best season. Now equipped with a winning serialized formula, Gilligan and Co. were more confidently able to shake things up and deliver some of the best episodes in the show’s history, through their skills in ever-mounting tension (“One Minute”), the skillful crafting of rich development in a bottle episode format (“Fly”), and the effortless tapping into the darkest, most unexpected corners of the series (“Half Measures”). The last of these is most memorable for the standout performance by Jonathan Banks, whose performance as Mike the Cleaner has earned him even more praise than his work decades ago on Wiseguy.
But even Banks is overshadowed by costar Giancarlo Esposito. As Gus Fring, Esposito created one of the most chilling villains ever put to television, and it’s his character that drives the most effective story points of the fourth season. Only marginally less riveting than the third, Season Four of Breaking Bad sustains terrific momentum over its 13 episodes, from the chilling “Box Cutter” to the riveting (and aptly titled) “Face Off”.
Season Five is a bit problematic, comparatively speaking, as the show’s popularity seemed to get the better of it. The decision to split the season into two halves remains controversial, though the ratings numbers it received were enough to convince AMC to pull the same stunt with the final season of Mad Men, and they show little signs of stopping. The first half of Season Five represents the show at its weakest since Season One, as the series pads out the first 8 of its final 16 episodes with some added subplots that feel a bit gratuitous, though they give us room to appreciate the talents of Laura Fraser and Jesse Plemmons. And to say that the second half of the season more than makes up for any of the first’s shortcomings, not only through the great finale but through the barnstormingly brilliant “Ozymandias”… well, that would just feel redundant.
Geez. This whole post feels redundant, doesn’t it? Everyone else has already said their piece about how Breaking Bad is the most entertaining, most engaging, most riveting drama since sliced ham, and I don’t feel like I’m adding anything new. Typing out that “Breaking Bad is one of the greatest dramas in the history of television” feels clichéd and rote, especially after reading “Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Bad” by K. Dale Koontz and Ensley F. Guffey, available wherever books are sold.
Argh! What’s wrong with me? I’m now starting to sound like a commercial, and not a terribly good one at that! This is hardly befitting of a writer with my incredible talents. Man, this whole “Best Shows of the Lustrum” thing sounded like a great idea three weeks ago, but now it’s devolved into “just another generic list”. So much for standing out. So much for…
This is the #2 spot on the list, right?
That means I didn’t put Breaking Bad at the top of the list like the rest of the Internet would. That means my list can stand out among the rest! This is fantastic. Now I can be remembered!
Fellows and females, my pick for the Number One Best Show of the Lustrum is…
A common writing style I like to employ is the circular narrative structure. This is when I start a review by discussing a certain aspect pertaining to the episode, and end the review by linking it back to the very same aspect. It’s straightforward, it’s cohesive, and it usually works like a charm.
If we expand the definition of “circular narrative structure”, you might come to think that I’m employing it with this list. I started it 14 shows ago with 30 Rock, a series centered on former SNL comedian Tina Fey. And I’m ending it now with Parks and Recreation, a series centered on former SNL comedian Amy Poehler, who happens to be close friends with Tina Fey.
Because I’ve been neglecting a lot of schoolwork in my quest to complete this list, I’m tempted to state that this “circular logic” is the only reason that Parks and Recreation is the #1 show on my list, and leave it at that. But I know you folks deserve better than that.
Parks and Recreation debuted in April 2009 with a truncated first season that was uneven, unsatisfying, and unfunny. Because that first season aired prior to this lustrum, I shall be ignoring it and will not mention it again. This post will focus on what Parks and Rec did exclusively in the last five years… and what it did during that time was a whole lot of good.
Parks and Rec is many things, each of which alone would be enough to warrant a high spot on this list – it’s a charmingly, often brilliantly funny comedy about small-town politics, an endearing satire about the prospects of community, an emotionally stimulating story about one of the most lovable casts of characters ever assembled for a television series, and a great deal of fun. Gather all these aspects together, and you’ve got a sure-fire winner.
Parks and Rec invokes many sitcoms of the classic, pre-cynical age. In Leslie Knope (Poehler) and Ann Perkins (Rashida Jones), we can find traces of Lucy Ricardo and Ethel Mertz. But the underlying DNA to Parks and Rec comes not from I Love Lucy, but from The Mary Tyler Moore Show. This was a series in which comedy did not primarily stem from ludicrous situations, but from the various characters and their interactions with one another. These characters were emotionally identifiable and insanely likable, which gave the jokes maximum punch. (I respect folks who say that All in the Family was the defining comedy of the Seventies, but my vote swings a bit differently.)
On Parks and Recreation, the humor all comes down to the characters, a point helped exponentially by the way they’re all so well-realized and lovable. Some borrow from Mary Tyler Moore‘s boisterous cast – Ron Swanson has a bit of Lou Grant in his veins, and Tom Haverford owes a good debt to Ted Baxter – but they all feel like fully-formed residents of the little town of Pawnee.
Where to start? How about Leslie? The protagonist of a series which often dabbles in political satire, Leslie could have easily been the butt of the show’s every skewering. But creators Greg Daniels and Mike Schur wisely make her hyper-idealized views and hopes into the show’s ultimate aspirations. Parks and Rec exaggerates the optimism that was prevalent a few years earlier on The West Wing, but not in the way of mocking it. Rather, it uses Leslie as an outlet to express that these ideas carry weight – and that we may have the means to support that weight.
Equally as great as Leslie – if not more so – is Ron Swanson. As written and played (by the endlessly wonderful Nick Offerman), Ron is the polar opposite of Leslie, with a view of government so cynical he makes Garry Trudeau look mild by comparison. Yet Ron’s views are never typified as “wrong” any more than Leslie’s are – and indeed, it’s easy to fall in love with the thickly-mustached stoic and everything he stands for, not least because his ultra-dry one-liners often sends me rolling on the floor with laughter.
I could probably devote a single paragraph to each of the show’s other main characters (well, except for the long-gone-and-forgotten Mark Brendanawicz). There’s Tom (Aziz Ansari), the self-professed ladies’ man; Ann, the supportive “straight man”; April (Aubrey Plaza), the unnervingly creepy secretary; Andy (Chris Pratt), the lovably dumb goof; Ben (Adam Scott), the nerdy love interest; Chris (Rob Lowe), the cheerfully disturbing hyper-optimist; Jerry (Jim O’Heir), the quintessential butt monkey; and Donna (Retta), the fun-loving superficialist. Some of those definitions may sound generic on paper, but Parks and Rec knows how to humanize every one of its characters, to beautiful effect.
These characters were already helping the show gain steam by the time this lustrum began, and the second half of Season Two heralded one of the new principals of comedy. Season Three is likely the show’s best season, featuring not only the screamingly funny “The Flu”, but the all-wonderful Li’l Sebastian as well. (For those yet unfamiliar with the finer points of the series, I won’t say very much, but Li’l Sebastian represents one of the finest examples of how adept Parks and Rec is at small-town political satire.) Season Four unbelievably sustained the momentum of the third, cementing the show in my mind as one of comedy’s all-time greatest.
There’s been talk about Seasons Five and Six (the show will end next year after the seventh), and about how they’re not quite up to par with what the show gave us earlier. I can’t deny that. But I’ll also strongly disagree with those who say that the show has done things “wrong” in those last two seasons. Parks and Rec is simply doing what it did before, only in a more conventional format. Which, honestly, is better than having the show attempt to continue trying to top itself and strapping water skis to Leslie’s feet and having her jump over a shark. The show has climbed to the top of the mountain – and thankfully, it hasn’t risked falling off.
In the six years since it debuted, Parks and Recreation has won a grand total of zero Emmy Awards. Amy Poehler received an acting nomination every year this lustrum, and she’s had as much success winning any of them as Steve Carell did for The Office, despite the way she keeps livening up each year’s ceremonies with improvised hilarity.
Still, awards are ultimately beside the point. Poehler, along with Schur and Daniels and everyone else involved in this series, have given us something charming and sweet and wonderful and hilarious. That something, in case you haven’t heard me the last dozen or so times, is Parks and Recreation.
And Parks and Recreation ruled the lustrum.
Tune in next week when I post absolutely nothing, because things are kind of busy. On the plus side, West Wing episode reviews will return in January. Till then.