Monday, August 06, 2007

My Favourite Shows

Here's another one from the files - a US magazines asked this blogger to contribute to a regular Top Ten feature and write about my ten favourite American TV shows. This was around late summer 2004 so, you may notice the spectacular absence of Lost (which began about a month later), Battlestar Galactica and Studio 60 - all of which would have walked into such a list if I were writing it today:

Buffy The Vampire Slayer:
The kind of television show that comes along maybe once or twice per generation. Something bold, ambitious and unique. Something that many viewers simply cannot understand the popularity of. It’s just kid’s stuff, isn't it? You want some reasons why Buffy was the best thing on telly for the seven years that it ran? Well, it had everything, didn't it? Characterisation; effortlessly clever and funny writing for a gifted batch of scriptwriters led by Joss Whedon; a superb ensemble cast; the looks; the concept; the willingness to take-the-piss out of everything, including - importantly - itself and the genre that it was a part of. If ever a series could be said to represent an entire way of thinking, it was Buffy, a series which both accurately reflected California in the late-nineties/early-naughties and yet also - and magnificently - satirised and parodied it to the point of subversion. It was a series which made people talk, received a fantastic press from those critics who actually got it and acquired its own intelligentsia audience who would tell anyone that would listen (and, many that wouldn't) 'Okay, on the surface it's a show about vampires and monsters but, actually, that's all metaphor. Really, it's so much deeper.' Which is true, of course, but it was also - let' us never forget - a show about vampires and monsters as well. For many people, that's all it was and they were more than happy with that scenario. It was a series that gave me more pleasure, made me laugh, made me cry and made me think than just about any TV show ever (with the possible exception of Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads?). I've written a bunch of reasonably successful books about the show but, even if Slayer had never got off the ground, I’d have still been proud to call myself a fan of Buffy.

The West Wing:
Once in a while a show comes along that is so of its moment that, looking at it from any other perspective will seem odd. The West Wing was America at the turn of the millennium. A confused country half-stuck in the values of ages long past and half-desperately trying to find a comfortable place for itself in a changing world. The West Wing – taking as its queue a liberal fantasy universe in which Watergate, Iran-Contra and the Gulf War never happened (or, if they did, they were gotten away with) strode into the morass of immediate pre- and post-9/11 and said - in it's best Fox Mulder/Daniel Jackson voice - 'Hey, let’s talk.' Conceptually inspirational, Aaron Sorkin's vision for the show was remarkably similar to Joss Whedon's for Buffy – an ensemble piece set in a stylised world with its own particular rules, and featuring an uncomfortable relationship with anything intruding from outside. That's why the real-world events of 9/11 so screwed up Sorkin's carefully laid plans for – at least the early part of – season three and left the show wobbling inelegantly for a few weeks whilst it tried to remember what it did that was so effective. Even without Sorkin, who left at the end of the show's fourth year, it’s still the most beautifully acted series on TV. This cast – Sheen, Whitford, Spencer, Janney, the brilliant Richard Schiff, the divine Janel Moloney, Stockard Channing – could stand there and read the telephone directory and it would be riveting telly. It's a drama that can still move me and inspire me when they do things inside Bartlet’s White House that are how it should be rather than how it really is. That's why we continue to watch it.

Straight outta left field and with a central concept that – though not wholly original – is still, for television at least, one of breathtaking audacity, 24 is a more violently angry little brother to The West Wing's pacifist liberal fantasy. 24 exists because the audience needs it to exist, as a quick and easy release value for a lot of dangerous and unhealthy emotions. 24, let's be really clear about this, whether by accident or design (and I really hope it's the former) is frequently borderline racist – despite a black President – krypto-fascist, sexist, isolationist, madly-cynical and, in its season-ending deus ex machina’s, occasionally crassly naïve. That's the negative side of the coin; the positive side includes danger, excitement, menace and tool-stiffening violence. It's also got Kiefer Sutherland's Jack Bauer, a one-man armour-plated killing-machine of quite extraordinary proportions. 'Jack Bauer is GOD' Jeremy Clarkson famously noted during season one and you can see where Jezza was coming from. The critique which I liked most about 24, though, and it's the one that to me sums up what the series really is trying to say was a review in, I think, the Independent which noted that the format – the twenty four hours of constantly pulsating, testosterone-pumping, groin-thrusting action is like a metaphor for the modern American experience: 'If you don't want to die, stay awake.' Just recently, I rewatched an episode at random from towards the end of the third season – you'd think, after nearly seventy two hours of death-defying thrills and spills, this series might be running out of things to say? No. Well, occasionally, yes which is why freshening up the cast for season four mightn't be such a bad idea. But, at its best, 24 remains, head-down and charge, a pumped-up series of aggressive intentions and manic ultraviolence – a big-boys-get-a-stiffy-and-let’s-have-a-FIGHT cry of defiant and heartfelt bewilderment from which the only real escape is to notch down the adrenaline count by getting rid of it. Next year, it'll be interesting to see where they go from here.

'There's no such thing as a genuinely great spin-off' conventional wisdom tells us. Bollocks! Mork & Mindy. Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads?. Star Trek: The Next Generation. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Angel (… just wipe any thoughts of Joanie Loves Chachi, K9 & Company or CSI: Miami from your mind and you’ll be all right.) Angel, we were promised back in 1999, was going to be 'the dark side of the Buffy experience.' Didn't quite work out that way – actually, it did eventually but it took them a while to get there. Along the way, it changed format – twice – discovered an audience that it didn’t expert it would get and found that, if you want to redo The Naked City with monsters and demons then you can, and Los Angeles is the only place to do it, frankly. But, also, that you've got to do it with wit, with flair, with soap-opera stylings and more than a little bit of demon karaoke. People will tell you that Ally McBeal was the best all-singing, all-dancing TV drama of the last decade. No it wasn’t, Angel was. Getcha, getcha yaya’s here… What Angel always had going for it, again apart from the obvious stuff that it shared in common with Buffy like a superb ensemble cast and brilliant writing, was a complete willingness to experiment with its basic twenty-words-or-less concept. 'Vampire with a soul seeks redemption in the suffocating anonymity of the Big City.' Okay, we get that. Now, throw in Cordelia and Wesley and a four-episode Pylean fairy tale and a mythical childbirth arc that, if were any more of a Christ-allegory would come with it's own rosary, and… All of a sudden, this wasn't just a show about a vampire with a soul any more, it was a show about people with souls and how, if you want redemption badly enough well, you can have it – but it might cost you your life. That's what Hero is about. That’s what Quickening is about. And Home and Not Fade Away. Which it won’t. We shall not forget this one in a hurry…

Now this is something of a surprise. On the face of it, CSI is nothing more than Quincy: The Next Generation. Its plots are frequently couched in melodramatic clichés and its dénouement more often than not veers perilously close to pat and obvious solution. But, CSI’s salvation comes from two sources – another example of a superb ensemble cast and - and this is where it and genre clichés it deals in diverge - the intelligence with which the series is pieces together. It’d be easy to start using a bunch of metaphors about jigsaw puzzles and crosswords at this point, but it’s a fact that much of CSI’s audience (it’s the highest-rated drama show currently on US TV) are probably the kind of people who would shit their pants and run a mile for ostensibly similar dramatic intelligence in a series like say The West Wing. So, why do they watch it? Because, like people who read Revolution In The Head, you feel like an intellectual whilst you’re involved in it. It's interesting that CSI’s British equivalent, Waking The Dead, has started to so pointedly become influenced by the forensics aspects of CSI’s success. But, I come back to the first point – it's so well played – just like Buffy and Angel and The West Wing, the characters are what is important. It’s really hard not to get caught up in the lives of Grissom and his happy gang of dysfunctional super-sleuths. Which is, of course, one of the reasons why the announcement - this very week - of the loss of George Eads and Jorja Fox for next season is, potentially, so dramatic. That’s the equivalent of, let’s say Buffy having lost Xander and Anya halfway through season five or something. Whether CSI survives, only time will tell but it’ll be interesting to watch them try. Oh, and hopefully they’ll let Greg have something to do this year.

I know, I know, it was frequently a soft-centred choccy when it could’ve been a hard-hearted toffee. For a lot of the last couple of years the series seemed to be running on the spot. Critically, it was never the darling that some of the others in this list was. All true. But, get this kids cos it’s important – the entire point of a sitcom is 'to make people laugh.' That’s the bottom line. If you make people laugh and think at the same time (like Steptoe & Son or The Likely Lads or Dad’s Army did) then fine, but that’s an optional extra. At the end of the day, any sitcom stands or falls by how many jokes per episode it can cram in. Friends, for the first six or seven years of its life, even in the worst of its episodes, could normally manage half-a-dozen 'laugh-out-loud' one-liners or set-pieces. Usually more. Even in its last couple of years when, you sensed, the hunger had gone a bit and it was all becoming a bit cosy and obvious, they could still pull out two or three per show. That’s more than some sitcoms can manage in an entire season. So, Friends was funny. It was likeable too – they actually created characters that had a bit of thought too them. It could do outrageous conceits like The One Where Everyone Knows which was a twenty-two minute one-joke episode that, by hook or by crook, conspired to make virtually everybody who watched it piss themselves with laughter as, basically, the same joke got told over and over again and it got funnier as it went along. Perry, La Blanc, Kudrow and (astonishingly, considering that most people thought she was the weak link when it started) Aniston were usually funny; Schwimmer and Cox often weren't but, occasionally, got given a good script. And, at the end of the day you’re left with over two hundred episodes and, I repeat, and average of six good jokes per episode. That's twelve hundred jokes. Enough to make Bob Monkhouse turn in his grave. If for no other reason than that, then I’ll cherish the best of Friends till I join him there…

Stargate SG-1:
Perhaps a surprise, this one but I feel obliged to include it if for no other reason than that it provided a classic example of that old truism, first looks can be deceiving. How many times have you watched one episode of show, though 'well that was a right load of old crap' and dismissed the show thereafter only to - about two years later - come back to it and think 'you know, this isn't, actually, as bad as I thought it was'? Yes, me too and never so humiliatingly stupidly as with SG-1. I watched the first season and, as everybody who's read Beyond The Gate knows, I dismissed it in one line. 'Banal military SF with no poetry and no soul – avoid it like the plague.' For some odd reason I continued watching and, in the middle of season two, suddenly found myself actually enjoying this show. How the hell did that happen? Well, firstly, it happened because Richard Dean Anderson got some control over the way in which the series was going to go and – by lethal injection – managed to introduce an element that seldom works in SF but, here did. Humour. Aided by the superb scripts of Robert Cooper - who realised that the best way to kill sacred cows was to fatten them up first - and another great ensemble cast (can I just place on record how much Amanda Tapping rocks at this point?) Stargate, hidden away on minority channels away from the insecurity and glare of the networks just got better and better and better until, by the middle of season four it was doing the kind of things, weekly, that Buffy was for about a fifth of the audience and tenth of the critical acclaim. It even survived the loss – for a year – of Michael Shanks though it must be said that show is much, much better with him than without him. Seven years on and with a spin-off just kicking-off, Stargate continues to be that most odd of TV beasts a quietly pacifist show about war. It’s also, if we’re taking these contradictions to their extreme, a series set in a macho world that is – via Carter, one of the most realistically emancipated women on television – subtly feminist and, via Anderson, piss-yer-pants funny. If you don’t like Stargate there’s something seriously wrong with either your personal politics or your funny-bone. Or, more likely, both.

The Shield:
Gritty realism isn’t something I normally enjoy. The Sopranos is a great series but there’s only so much ennui you can take before it becomes … well, I know I’ve used this word a few times but it is very applicable, obvious. I never really expected to like The Shield. Let’s be fair, it’s The Sweeney: LA Style is it? It’s Hill Street Blues with corruption. It’s Z Cars with guns. Right? Well… yeah, it is all of those things. It’s also utterly compelling. You watch one or two episodes of this thing and you, literally, can’t take your eyes off it. The flashy camerawork, the interlocking plotlines, the contrast in characters (if you doing an exercise in dichotomy, there are few better examples on TV than, for instance, Vic and Dutch… or Vic and Acevada for that matter). Here’s another great ensemble cast – do we detect a recurring theme here? The 'gritty realism' in the show actually, after a few episodes, becomes quite comic – and it’s not hard to see the potential for a lot of people watching this show for completely the wrong reason. It’s very funny which, in some ways, should be troubling for a once fluffy-liberal like me. Vic Mackey is, despite the shooting-a-colleague-in-the-face malarkey, actually quite a moral character. And that, in a world where morality is paper thin at the best of times – should be the most troubling thing of all. That Mackey can, despite everything, still be seen as a 'hero' (very much in inverted commas) in any context, should be the source of outrage in any decent mind. But he is – by a combination of stunning scripts, Michael Chiklis's outstanding, multi-layered central performances and, most surprisingly of all, a decision made quite early on to add a layer of dirt to even the cleanest of characters in the show. In a world in which everyone is flawed to a greater or lesser degree, then it’s far easy to accept bigger and badder flaws than might otherwise be forgiven. I’m sometime quite troubled by the fact that I love The Shield so much. Not guilty in the same way that I am about quite liking rot-yer-brain slush like some of the stuff I watch for pleasure, but disturbed that I can find something appealing in a series that is, conceptually, so devoid of hope. But then, I watch an episode and find myself chuckling at it like I do with Angel and getting all kinds of chimney-on like I do with 24. And somewhere between those two reactions is the reason why The Shield works. Anyway… it serves them right for being, you know, criminals.

… But not The Simpsons, Keith? Surprised, huh? Yeah, me too actually. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I LOVE The Simpsons to death, really I do. But… in terms of consistency, in terms of how clever the visual and conceptual jokes are, Matt Groening’s little baby brother show trumps the Big Yellow Monster every time. Futurama was always something of a curate's egg for viewers and, to be honest, on one level it really only works if you're an SF nerd like most of us - with its Star Trek jokes and pithy debunking of genre clichés. On another level, however, Futurama’s pungent social commentary and vicious caustic verbal and visual humour should be able to be enjoyed by anybody with an ounce of brains in their head. It was sharp and witty and the fact that the network broadcasting didn’t understand or like it (see, also, Firefly, Roswell, Angel, The Lone Gunmen et cetera.) just added to its charm. Getting the Futurama collection on DVD last Christmas was one of the great moments of my life (I know it’s sad you don’t have to taunt me).

The X-Files:
Wither Darin Morgan? Wither Vince Gilligan? Where have all the young men with an ability to trot out scripts that, verily, made yer toes sing gone? Time has dulled The X-Files’ flame, somewhat, and the dispiriting way the series went downhill faster than a fish in a microwave (if somebody was pushing it down a very steep hill) during seasons seven and (especially) eight lost the show a lot of the goodwill that it had spent six years carefully cultivating. But for those first six years, it was the cult show to follow, the name to drop a cool and fashionable Middle-Class parties full of cool and fashionable Middle-Class wankers. It was iconic and serious (a bit po-faced if we're going to be brutally honest about it), until it discovered humour circa season two and then it just rocked. The irony here, of course, was that to many of the people who first formed the show’s core-fandom, episodes like Morgan's stunning trio of season three masterpieces were abhorrent debasements of something they couldn't see the funny side of. I still remember a letter sent to the official X-Files mag from some spotty Matthew or Simon from Leicester (aged fifteen… probably) bemoaning Catatonia's 'Mulder and Scully' single with the comment that 'I take my X-Files very seriously.' Yes, spotty Matthew or Simon from Leicester, I thought, that’s probably the main reason why you can’t get a girlfriend. Anyway, give me Jose Chung's From Outer Space, or Bad Blood, or The Rain King over deadly dull Chris Carter-penned genre schlock like ... well, most of Chris Carter's episodes, basically. Without The X-Files' discovery that laughing at yourself can actually be healthy, it’s doubtful that Buffy would have found such an open-minded audience as it did. Which, of course, delivers us back to were we started.

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