Thursday, February 14, 2013

My Top 11 TV Shows of All Time (1-5)

Editor's Note: This is Andy Tisdel, proprietor of Tisdel's Tirades, talking. This post probably has nothing to do with FEMA Corps, and does not reflect the opinions of a majority of FEMA Corps Team Summit 5; it is nothing more or less than an ordinary blog post. It's also been sitting around on my computer for several months, and it's far past time to release it into the wild.

5. No show has inspired me to write quite as much as Doctor Who, whether in analysis, praise or condemnation. Doctor Who flips a giant middle finger to the idea of easy categorization; it is by turns uproarious fun and heart-melting sadness, splendid drama and utter  camp, carefully plotted storytelling and oh-well-what-the-hell freewheeling zaniness. No show on this list is as bad as Who at its worst, and almost none of them can touch it on its best days.

Part of this schizophrenia is due to Who’s jerky, unpredictable behavior offscreen. Despite having two or three lead actors (the Doctor and his Companions), the show has had three Doctors and seven Companions (counting Mickey and River) in seven years. It’s also had two main showrunners and underwent a drastic remake of the production staff, and consequently the overall look of the show, between seasons 4 and 5. Things have settled down considerably under Steven Moffat, but viewers of the early seasons will have many changes to digest. However, it’s such a fantastic show—the dialogue is always strong, and while the stories may strain belief, the actors are almost always on point—that I’m more than willing to overlook its flaws.

4. I have no idea what it’s like to work inside a real police station, but thanks to The Wire, it feels like I do. Never has there been such a detailed take on the difficulties, dangers and bureaucratic infighting inherent in police work, and never has there been such a comprehensive portrait of a city’s criminal underworld. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear it isn’t populated by actors playing parts, but by honest-to-God people doing what they do. They’re that good.

Now, The Wire is a harsh mistress. There’s little explanation in the premiere for the confusing sub-dialects spoken by both police and criminals; you have to figure out things like “product”, “narc” and “Crown Vic” on your own. And the majority of Season 1 is basically setting the stage for seasons to come. But it builds and builds on itself like no other television program. Later seasons are so much richer for having taken the time to develop characters and relationships and history. The show is no longer a collection of performances, but a living entity unto itself. If you’re willing to put in the time and effort required—this is not a show for passive viewing—it’s incredibly rewarding. 

3. The only anime on this list, Ghost in the Shell is a touching, sometimes despairing, always postmodern view of the human condition. It has special relevance to me because everyone in the show is a cyborg, essentially, but there’s plenty here for anyone. The animation is beautiful, the plots are labyrinthine and exquisite, and the blend of action, philosophy and whimsy—especially in the case of the Tachikomas—is tough to beat. The far-future, post-WWIII-yet-still-getting-by world, reminiscent of Akira in style if not content, is also a huge plus.

I seem to be listing greatness first and flaws second in this format, and Ghost in the Shell does have the latter. There were times when I felt like the show’s plotting or premises were resting on Japanese cultural assumptions that I didn’t share and consequently struggled to understand. The plots can be too hard to follow at times (rare is the time when I complain of that) and there’s not as much development of minor characters as you might see elsewhere. But for pure visuals, story, style and philosophy, Ghost in the Shell is tough to beat. It’s bursting with ideas, even if it can’t always express them clearly, and I do love that. 

2. Before this current season is over, Breaking Bad may very well claw its way into the top spot on this list. Never in television has there ever been such a dominant, compelling performance from a lead actor as Bryan Cranston’s Walter White—and it’s lasted four and a half seasons with no signs of slowing down! Never has there been such a transformation of one character over the run of a show! Although they’re often overshadowed by Cranston’s greatness, there is scarcely a weak link on the show’s amazingly solid recurring cast. Almost nobody feels like an afterthought. The directing, settings and set design are consistently tremendous as well, including showrunner Vince Gilligan’s signature “point-of-view-from-someplace-weird” shots. Notable examples have included the back of a microwave, inside an air vent, underneath a floor covered in blood and staring up from the bottom of a toilet.

This show has everything—great characters, innovative directing, a distinctive visual look, incredible character development over time, incredible continuity and realism, the ability to just capture the viewer and draw them into the story. From the very start to the present day, it’s been fantastic television. My only regret is that the story will eventually end. 

1. BSG, as it’s affectionately known, is the best science-fiction drama I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen most of the great ones). I fell in love after the first episode, the exhausting “33”, and never looked back. BSG has a distinctive atmosphere, which pervades the show like none other. Doubt. Fear.  Terror that fades to a dull gray core of resignation. Hope. Inspiration. Love. The challenges of living on the same tin can of a ship with the same people for God knows how long. BSG is able to sustain its incredible atmosphere through great sets and good-looking CGI, through innovative directing that gives every place its own distinctive look and heightens every emotional moment, of which there are so many.

The last, as it has been so often, is the characters. Like Breaking Bad and The Wire, you’d swear that the actors and actresses were just being filmed going about their lives. And what a group of people! The depth of this cast is rivaled only by The Wire, but the variety of people within it tops even Lost. Lee. Commander Adama. The incomparable Starbuck. Felix Gaeta, Dee, all of the Cylon cast and Gaius frakking Baltar are just tremendous. This show won out over Breaking Bad because like Doctor Who, it makes the viewer think. The uncertainties, the relationships between characters and what they might become, the fabulous grandeur of the plot and its slow expansion over four seasons… these inspire endless speculation and conjecture and controversy. Yes, there are some plot twists that made me throw verbal brickbats at the screen; yes, it can be frustrating and it doesn’t explain things and on and on. But that gets my brain working like nothing else, going why the hell did they do that? You can’t borrow, buy or steal a feeling like that. That’s why BSG heads my list.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

OK, "Little House on the Prairie" is NOT actually on any top list of mine, though I did enjoy it. And maybe you have some separate list where this would fit more snugly. But, I have to say, under (what would you call it?) "Favorite TV storylines", I nominate Percy's taming of Nellie! A romance to kvell over! (and, of course, the fact that Michael Landon was making a sub rose salute to his own heritage made it all the sweeter. Jews who tamed the Wild West, yahoo!)

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