Television. A fickle mistress. For every great series, there are a thousand in the way, just milling around, clogging up the airwaves, and making it hard to separate the wheat from the chaff. Sometimes we don’t need any help – it’s easy enough to block out the slew of Everybody Loves Raymond’s Two and a Half pricks lowest common denominator comedies, or the oh my god they subverted a stereotype to make a working class white family drama – but often, you just want to sit down and say damn it give me something that is well written, that stimulates rather than pacifies and makes it worth not going outside and interacting with the real world.
So I’ve been lucky enough to spot a few of such gems that people have passed on to me and I always think I should do the same and return the favour, so here are my big ten TV shows that I’ve seen in the past few years that if you missed, then you’re surely missing out.
Before we get into this list, I’m going to throw out some obvious ones that I think people might say ‘hey you left out..’ because I think I most folks will have heard of them and if they haven’t seen them, then they should know better! ok here goes – The Wire (http://amzn.to/sNmbTH), The Prisoner (1967) (http://amzn.to/tVx0sm), Oz (http://amzn.to/sjv90r), The Sopranos (http://amzn.to/w0MQU5), Firefly (http://amzn.to/v61Vuo), Quantum Leap (http://amzn.to/tz3Gol).. and okay so most of anything else I would mention here are in The Ten below so lets stop this list here.
The Honorable Mentions
Lets not get into this the whys and why nots but these didn’t make it into the rest of the list, but here’s some great filler..
- Justified – Kind of like a cartoon, friendly mix of Burn Notice and Deadwood with Olyphant oddly embodying a modern day Seth Bullock. (http://amzn.to/tbCgjx)
- Stargate Universe – think the Meat of BSG, Lost, Firely and several other shows turned into a slight less tasty but still fun pâté (http://amzn.to/t71wpd)
- 30 Rock – don’t get me wrong, this show IS hilarious, and well written but its not quite in the superawesome list – its just great. (http://amzn.to/tpmUTt)
- Eastbound & Down – this tale of a former baseball star with all the attitude of Ron Burgundy, down on his luck, is fantastic if you’re a fan of the crass side of things. And I am. (http://amzn.to/uaGWCX)
- Hung – Thomas ‘I just want my kids back’ Jane plays a school teacher who after splitting with his wife suffers a house fire that drains him of his cash, and has to turn to the world’s oldest profession, with hil-ar-ious consequences. (http://amzn.to/uD7PiZ)
- True Blood – Great first two seasons, third one sucks (see I did a vampire joke, don’t hold it against me) fourth one.. slightly better I guess?.. (http://amzn.to/thUBnW)
- Curb Your Enthusiasm – Larry David (Seinfeld co-creator/writer) stars as himself in this tour de force of cringeworthy comedy. You’ll love Larry but after 8 seasons of things going wrong for him, the format, although consistent is a little exhausting. That said, when he nails it, he nails it like no other writer. (http://amzn.to/sU4F0U)
- The Life and Times of Tim – a very ‘The Office’ inspired awkwardness based show, this cartoon from HBO has a similar formula of impending doom for its protagonist to Curb… but sadly for Tim, he never quiet comes up smelling of roses in the way Larry often does. Brilliant writing, timing and character voicing make this one a winner. (http://amzn.to/rHgGui)
- Dexter – A cool a quirky show, that continues to keep me guessing, but has never got ‘serious’ per se.. but still an awesome concept, premise: Forensics officer is secretly a serial killer who kills murderers before his team gets to them. (http://amzn.to/thJwX0)
- The Walking Dead – An adaption of Robert Kirkman’s fantastic awesome comic series, with the amazing Frank Darabont directing its first season, this is well worth checking – though I think for those who have read the comics its hard not to draw parallels and grumble about narrative changes (http://amzn.to/t73TC1)
1. Breaking Bad
Part of the AMC network you’ll likely have heard of via shows such as Mad Men, Breaking Bad is easily one of the most original shows I have ever seen. The main point here is that the idea for the show is original – it isn’t a ‘cop show’ or a ‘hospital drama’ or a ‘gangster show’ – its something unique and like a great novel has evolved beautifully and insightfully thus far over 3 seasons.
Breaking Bad centers around Walter White – a gifted scientist turned high school teacher, who upon discovering he has cancer turns to cooking meth in order to make money to secretly pay his medical bills. Portrayed by Bryan Cranston, who you’ll recognise.. well nearly.. as Malcolm in the Middle’s dad, the other main protagonist is Jesse, a high school drop out who acts as catalyst for White’s meth cooking.
The show develops like so many fail to, at a pace that leaves you wanting just enough to keep coming back, and not so much that every episode must be action packed, or an intense cliffhanger. This should be more difficult for a non-episodic show but Breaking Bad delights with a unique world in small town america, larger-than-life but not cartoon characters and is generally awesome from top to bottom. It mixes comedy, drama and action all in an original way, and I can’t wait for it to return for it’s fourth season. If you’re new to the show, check out this teaser or take my word for it and go grab the DVDs here –
From David Simon, creator of timeless classic The Wire and the criminally overlooked Generation Kill comes Treme, a fantastic character driven show centered around New Orleans Post-Katrina.
With a fantastic cast including a star turn by John Goodman and uplifting performances by Steve Zahn (yes, really) and Wendell Pierce (who you’ll maybe know as Bunk from The Wire), the show represents a gamut of realistic emotion not seen in most screen drama. The sense of community, loss and rebirth here is inspiring, and naturally, being centered around New Orleans it features some fantastic music both performed and incidental throughout.
Take time to get to know these characters, and have your spirits lifted and heart broken by the twists and turns as the characters’ paths cross. Another fine example of David Simon’s ability to capture the real world without making you feel it is refracted by the lens and screen at all.
Take a look at the trailer below or for pity’s sake just go get the boxed set. Then get up to date with season 2, started recently on HBO.
A now long-running stalwart of the ShowTime network, the longevity of Weeds is thanks in part to a number of factors. This is a show that began as a simple sitcom about a single mother (father deceased) – Nancy, played by Mary Louise Parker – of two boys selling weed to make extra cash and support her family. This soon expanded as her ambitions grew and consequences spiralled out of her control. So back to those factors, as I pretentiously put it – so first off, its hilarious – and no its not one of those ‘oh drug jokes are hilarious, high times things – the drug element her is more of a catalyst for certain events, and is never the cause of the family’s woes.
That’s what makes it unique – Nancy, her sons Silas and Shane and the surrounding cast of supporting characters all gel together as a result of her actions – actions that are completely irresponsible and irredeemable, yet still, you still want her to succeed and want the family to forgive her and carry on.
In the course of the six seasons thus far, the family have been through a lot, burnt down a town and moved all over America, its one of those comedies that is hard to describe – brilliantly written, purile and vulgar all at the same time. This is not something you’d want to sit and watch with the grandparents. Take a look at the trailer below and decide for yourself, but for me this one is a keeper.. so why not get the first couple of seasons?
4. Boardwalk Empire
If ever there was an all-star series that lived up to being far more than the sum of its part, truly Boardwalk Empire is it. Ostensibly for fans of gangster period dramas upon watching you’ll soon realise there is much more to this show than that.
The brainchild of Terence Winter of The Sopranos fame, Boardwalk Empire pulls in such Hollywood talent into this HBO production as Steve Buscemi as lead player Enoch ‘Nucky’ Thompson the eponymous empire maker, Michael Pitt in a star turn as Jimmy Darmody – a WWII vet finding a new home in the emergent gangster scene, along with the likes of Al Capone. The show is also exec produced by Scorcese who directed the opening episode, which maintains the authentic feel of his recent success with Shutter Island.
Wire fans (“Omar come!”) will also delight in the criminally underused Michael K. Williams as Chalky White, and fans of Kelly MacDonald should applaud her balance of feisty and downplayed feminist fervor as Margaret Schroder, the show’s Peggy Olsen for sure.
I’ve tried to introduce this show to as many friends as possible and noticed many have dismissed it as a gangster drama, its really very little to do with that, downplaying the context of prohibition era America to focus on larger than life but truer than true characters with all the silverscreen quality and empathy of Shawshank era Darabont.
Surely by now you’ve heard enough? Get your brain around the trailer below or grab the box set here, go on, you’ll thank me!
5. The Shield
Long since finished, somewhat overlooked at the time – and often beaten in TV folk lore by The Wire and NYPD Blue as a Cop Show classic – The Shield stands alone as an epic drama with more wit, grit, shock and hard-nosed tension than the average viewer can handle.
Shawn Ryan’s 7 season long epic tells the tale of Detective Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) and his Strike team, busting drug gangs, making their own rules and generally being rather bad-ass. Now this synopsis and indeed the opening episode may seem to be somewhat overacted, cliche and perhaps even haphazard in its conception. But by the end of the opening episode – without spoiling why – you will be hooked.
The show focuses on almost documentary style shooting, often with an incidental camera tracking in a first person style. But this is no Dog the Bounty Hunter – the writing and immense depth of the 4 main characters and their grapple with the spiralling consequences of Mackey’s decisions and the clashes with authority make the show totally unmissable. Special mention must go to CCH Pounder as Claudette Wyms, a perpetual thorn in Mackey’s side, Beniton Martinez as David Aceveda – the boss that must deal with the Strike team and Forrest Whitaker as Jon Kavanaugh – the agent that threatens to unravel all of Mackey’s best laid plans.
An ultimate anti-hero, Vic Mackey is surrounded by his team who truly espouse every angle of his conscience and really bring what would otherwise be a cliched thug to life. Give this show a chance and you’ll see why it is so highly acclaimed by the criminally small number of people who have seen it from start to finish.
Here is a trailer for the first series, and as ever – a single click away from buying an awesome tv show.
Another one of those shows you’ve either heard of and loved, or know nothing about. David Duchovny IS Hank Moody, and when I say that I mean its one of those career defining roles that will make you think ‘Hey its Hank! rather than, hey its that Mulder guy…’. Two parts The Fonz, to two parts Hunter S. Thompson and just one part Cliff Huxtable, Henry ‘Hank’ Moody is a troubled author of a cult book that became a bad romcom, Hank is a hopeless romantic and womaniser fighting with his Mr Hyde side, a devoted father and pining would-be husband to the stunning Natasha McElhone, Hank’s long suffering on-off muse.
Throw into the mix two of the best support characters ever – Charlie and Marcy, and a host of stand-in love interests and diversions that drive each season and you’ve got one of the funniest, best written crude comedies ever created. If you love the romanticised idea of a rock and roll lifestyle but know the far more powerful force of family values, this show will ring very true to you, I absolutely implore to you watch this show.
Take a look at the trailer below, and then take time out to get the first season box set here, you won’t regret it.
7. Battlestar Galactica
Where to start with Battlestar? Put simply its a fantastic character-driven drama, set in the context of a space conflict between humanity, and an alien / cyborg species called the Cylons. Forget the original 70s tv show this is based upon – though the premise of this series is devised as being a follow on from a previous conflict with that species. This unfolds beautifully in the pilot episode but to cut an epic and beautifully paced story short – humanity is effectively on the run in the huge ‘battlestar’ class ship, having escaped a ravaged home planet akin to earth. In their way of finding a new home planet is the constant threat of attack from the Cylons, and diminishing resources.
Add into the mix of this themes of deceit, betrayal, remarkable revelations, and characters so well thought out its hard to believe they’re in a sci fi context – not that I am dissing science fiction, but often the backdrop gets more development time in the hope of making it ‘believable’ than the characters do. This really is a show that must be seen to be believed and is easily the best space-based sci fi I’ve ever seen – forget Star Trek, Farscape, DS9, this is the real deal – and somehow manages to be gritty and stylish whilst effectively reimagining a world only previously represented in the somewhat hammy 70s incarnation. If you like sci-fi and you haven’t seen this, you are in for such a treat, get the full box set and get it oooonnn!
Here is an introductory trailer to give you a flavour of things..
8. Generation Kill
Another congratulatory rant about the brilliance of David Simon and his team would be redundant, but suffice to say that the second major outing of the ‘The Wire’ team resulted in some of the most realistic feeling and sincere portrayal of modern warfare – very much taking the lead from Brian De Palma’s excellent Redacted.
Adapting the excellent war diary of embedded journalist Evan Wright (a fascinating read, recommended too!), the TV series follows 1st Recon Battalion Marines as they enter Iraq for the first time in 2003 (you know.. except for the other Iraq war we’re also not meant to remember, I digress) and whilst it features the character of Evan Wright, the focus really leans towards the soldiers themselves, showing them to be a close knit and often very vulnerable group of young men trying to survive. Don’t for one minute think that this means that Generation Kill is a sympathetic piece towards the US involvement in Iraq, it manages to remain largely neutral, only criticising – as the book does – the organisation of the army’s upper echelons of power for organisational failures.
With seminal performances from all involved, special note goes to Alexander Skarsgard (who you’ll likely remember as Eric Northman in True Blood, easily the only interesting thing about its third season) as the very balanced commander, and Lee Tergesen (who you should know from his amazing work in Oz) as Wright himself.
Only a mini-series, but with hour long episodes, its a long war, and a real chunk of quality drama to get your teeth into for sure. Take a look at the trailer below or just take my word for it and go get the boxed set here!
9. Arrested Development
Not usually a fan of vegetable comparisons, but I have to in this case – Arrested Development is the comedy onion. A sitcom based around a disfunctional, previously endowed with money, and thrown into financial strife – the show gives you layer upon layer of in-jokes, references, self parody and originality. Narrated by none other than Ron Howard (of Happy Days fame), the show follows the Bluth family as main character Michael (Jason Bateman in an awesome but maybe typecast-making performance) tries to keep the family housing development business going as his father George (the awesome Jeffrey Tambor) is indicted for fraud. The rest of the family are incredible unique characters, from Gob, Michael’s ‘Illusionist’ brother (the amazing Will Arnett), to Tobias Funke, an incredible character played but the incredible stand up comic David Cross – the show is bursting with comedic power!
The show ran for 2 and a half seasons (the third was cut in half by Fox’s lack of understanding about digital distribution, but check out the amazing jokes at Fox’s expense as the writers had to tie things up) but a comeback movie is currently being produced that should take us back to the world of the Bluth’s once more. I’ll finish as I started by saying you really must watch this onion of a show – each time I rewatch it I notice something new I didn’t see first time around, so it really is the comedy that keeps giving, so please, for your own comedy sake – grab the full series.
Check out the first season trailer to get a feel for the show, but I defy you not to enjoy this!
Cocksucker! Cocksucker! offended? okay so maybe HBO’s seminal western drama Deadwood isn’t for you. In case you hadn’t guessed just yet, this series is no stranger to profanity, and along with a generally raw and realistic feel to the entire series – Deadwood’s remit is to blast you back to the old west, and is certainly does that. So lets get down to business for a second and clear up some misconceptions about this show – first off, its not about profanity or crudeness, they are simply as much a part of the scenery and feel of the show as the amazing characters, relationships and backdrops. Secondly, this show is unfinished – yes you heard right, it has no particular ‘ending’ as it was written with plans for continuity into a fourth season that never materialised.
But wait! what’s that I hear you cry? I haven’t told you anything about the show yet? Okay, sorry so I got a little carried away, I only just discovered the beauty of Deadwood myself, years behind the curve, oh well. Let me start over.
Deadwood is set in the infamous eponymous camp of the 1870s, a camp just finding its feet, forming a society, and battling to find its bloody way into civilization. Self proclaimed head of the camp, Al Swearengen (career best for Ian McShane) is owner of the Gem Saloon, the hub of the camp and center of Al’s world – he’s out to keep order and do what’s best for the camp, provided its best for him too. Seth Bullock – a rare and brilliant performance by Timothy Olyphant – is former sheriff of Montana and arrives in the pilot episode – a man of law and righteousness that was always bound to conflict with Al’s own law of the land. I’m starting to realise at this stage that there really are far too many wonderful characters to list, but an honorary mention must go to William Sandersson for his portrayal of ‘E.B. Farnum’ – Al’s right hand man, and a snivelling little weasel of a character who is as cunning and eloquent as he is stupid – he steals the show many a time with some fantastic writing.
Okay I’ve already said far too much, you need to watch all of this show. Its easily the best written period show I’ve ever seen, and a contender for the best show – full stop (that’s ‘period’ to you guys). Sure, you could watch the trailer below, but ideally you should go get the boxed set right now.
And that’s it! You’ve got plenty to be getting on with here right? Unless you’ve seen all of these shows, in which case, well done! now recommend me something ok?! Any thoughts warmly welcomed in the comments.