I just spend a half-an-hour writing up some of my favorite TV shows on the forums at Quartertothree.com, Tom Chick's excellent online community of highly literate videogamers. Since this blog has been gathering cobwebs lately, I decided I'd cannibalize from myself and reproduce my comments over here. To those of you who haven't watched any or some of the shows recommended herein, I can confidently state there's more than camp value to be extracted from even the older, "cheesier" selections. To those of you who feel "genre" shows and science-fiction and cartoons are overrepresented... I plead guilty. If you feel like pointing and screaming "NEEEEERD," go for it; the charge will be uncontested. To those of you who feel there are too many old shows on this list, I'd say get off my lawn, if I had a lawn, which I don't. Happy memorial day!
- The Simpsons: Even if you only count the first 8 seasons or so, it's one of the definitive pop-culture texts and American self-portraits of the past century. When the show is in its stride, the jokes come so fast that you don't have time to laugh at the next one because you're still laughing at the previous one. But there's also a very conservative center to the show (aesthetically, not politically), which is that we perceive Bart, Lisa, Marge, and Homer as distinct personalities, we feel they are trying to do the right thing within their myriad limitations, and we like them. The portrait of Springfield, with its dozens of perfectly-etched supporting players, is a descendant of American communities as imagined by Thornton Wilder or Frank Capra. A hundred years from now, many of its in-jokes will be as impenetrable to contemporary viewers as those in Shakespeare or Dante are to us today, but I think it will still retain its basic appeal.
- Fawlty Towers: Meticulously constructed farce centered on John Cleese's performance as Basil Fawlty, an odious, venal, miserable man ever-so-slightly redeemed by the saving grace of a razor wit.
- Yes, Minister: Until "In The Loop" (and, I presume, "The Thick of It"), I hadn't seen anything to compare to Yes, Minister's grasp of the inner workings of political bureaucracy. The show is sharply written, bottomlessly cynical, and features a star-making turn by Nigel Hawthorne as the magnificently reptilian apparatchik who represents either timeless institutional wisdom or do-nothing obstructionism (or both?) depending on your point of view.
- Space Ghost Coast to Coast: Deeply influential, I think, in its redigestion and refraction of existing pop-culture flotsam; in its deliberately incoherent, off-putting editing rhythm; and in its willy-nilly mashup of fictional and nonfictional elements.
- I, Claudius: The best TV miniseries I've ever seen. A salacious chronicle of Rome's corridors of power in the dawning of the Empire, full of sparkling dialogue and memorable dramatic tete-a-tetes. Sian Phillips's Livia is the greatest villain (male or female) I've encountered in television, a ruthless spider whose scheming stretches over decades and impacts the lives of millions, yet whose motivation contains its own logic. John Hurt steals the show as Caligula, chomping every piece of scenery in sight with wonderful relish. Derek Jacobi in the title role plays the ultimate survivor, the man who makes it through the charnel-house of Roman imperial politics because nobody ever takes him seriously.
(Note: I go into this series in more detail here.)
- Star Trek (original series): A lot of it is now apparently only digestible as camp to many viewers, but a visionary core remains. The finest episodes (Mirror Mirror, Doomsday Machine, Amok Time) exemplify the tautly-constructed, idea-based writing of the best sci-fi short story writers from the Golden Age and shortly afterward. If Shatner's Kirk is somewhat dated as a 60's man-of-action archetype, he still oozes charisma, and his performance is a master-class in how to approach genre material (however seemingly ridiculous) with absolute conviction. Nimoy's Spock is an immortal, timeless performance: the perpetual outsider, the social misfit, the wandering intellect, the embodiment of that elusive paradox, the super-cool nerd. The score is propulsive, motivic and unforgettable; the production design was epochal in the history of sci-fi television and movies; the vision of the future, equal parts humanism and imperialism, still echoes in our current extrapolations of coming centuries; the sound design is so iconic that a lot of folks pulled off the street could recognize the sound of a transporter or a phaser if it were played back for them.
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Uneven, but noteworthy to me mostly for its willingness to play out character changes over long, multi-season arcs, and for the self-deconstructing wit of some of its sharpest episodes ("The Zeppo," is one of the smartest teleplays I've ever seen, a fascinating case of a "B Plot" devouring an "A Plot" as the episode moves forward). Also noteworthy for the sheer operatic power of some of its season climaxes, most especially "Becoming Part II."
- Elizabeth R: The kind of smart historical drama the BBC does so well, depending more on good writing and Shakespeare-trained actors than on elaborate production values. The Tudors is entertaining as far as it goes, but Elizabeth R is the real deal, with Glenda Jackson absolutely convincing as England's embattled monarch (more so than Cate Blanchett would be in the same role twenty years later on the big screen).
- The Twilight Zone: A weird TV mashup of Dickens, Borges, and Playhouse 90, the show's quality varies episode-to-episode but it's always glued together by the indelible presence of Rod Serling as the narrator. The best episodes -- besides being gorgeously photographed in brooding black-and-white and featuring a cavalcade of midcentury talent from Robert Redford to Jack Klugman to Donald Pleasance to Burgess Meredith -- constitute wry 20-minute morality tales, buttoned together with a brain-buzz magical-realist twist. The theme song, of course, is also a marvel. Only the music from "Jaws" surpasses it for sheer compactness.
(Note: some more Twilight Zone discussion here.)
- Cosmos: A deeply moving portrait of the quest for knowledge as it has expressed itself in 2500 years of scientific inquiry. Carl Sagan is the perfect guide through this material: witty, wise, possessed of an inspiring capacity for wonder and awe, yet determined to avoid pseudoscience or lazy thinking. The opening scene, in which he stands on a shore and lets a dandelion fly off into the wind while the soothing harmonies of Vangelis underscore the moment, always chokes me up.