The Top Ten Dramatic Television Programs

February 6, 2014

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You knew this was coming, I just haven’t had the time to properly broach the subject. This recent (third) re-watch of The Wire has found me proselytizing far too much for my own good. “Wasn’t that amazing?” “Impressive, right?” “That’s why this is the greatest television show ever made.” I keep spouting shit like that because, well, it might just be true. Usually I chalk it up to hyperbole, which I often fall back upon when I’m at a loss for words. But what if I sat down and actually tried to figure it out. What if I weighed the pros and cons of all my favorite shows in an attempt to suss out which one really is my favorite. What would those rankings look like? What program would top the list?

Some ground rules: Dramas only. Don’t like for The Simpsons or Seinfeld on this list. You won’t find them. They aren’t competing against each other for awards, nor should they have to compete against one another. There are too many differences in structure, writing, and style to rank all genres beneath the same umbrella. Also, only shows that have completed their entire run (read: no longer in production) are to be included. No, that’s not why Mad Men isn’t on this list. I don’t even like Mad Men. I think Matthew Weiner took a few too many plays out of The Sopranos playbook (he wrote for and produced several episodes over the course of three years) and it has impeded my ability to enjoy his show. I watch certain scenes and it almost feels a little too close to “Sopranos did it!” for me to appreciate Mad Men. The penultimate rule: No mini-series. Sorry, Band of Brothers. You don’t count, as good as you were. And, lastly, no Twilight Zone. That would be number one for me in a landslide, but I’m not entirely comfortable calling it a “TV drama” because I think it defies classification. Its creator, Rod Serling, is one of the most underrated, unheralded artistic geniuses in American history. But how do you compare a show like that to The Sopranos and Breaking Bad? It just doesn’t feel like they’re cut from the same cloth. Sorry, Twilight Zone. You’ll always be my number one.

The Top Ten Dramatic TelevisionPrograms

10. Columbo – Don’t laugh. You’re probably already thinking, “Fuck it. I don’t have to read the rest of this list. He’s an idiot.” Well, yes, I know I’m an idiot. But I also know that without an incredible police procedural like Columbo — which I watched a lot as a kid, thanks ma! — there probably wouldn’t be shows like the CSI series, Law And Order, maybe even The Wire. Columbo set the bar for what a crime show could be, and created the standard by which all other mystery/law/crime programs produced since it left the airwaves can be judged. Yes, it deserves a spot on this list. And — if I can defend myself for a moment — you’re the idiot if you can’t comprehend why.

09. Twin Peaks – This show would have been so much higher on the list if it didn’t go completely OFF THE RAILS in the second season. As good as the first season was, parts of the second season were equally bad. Nadine joins the wrestling team? If the great episodes weren’t so amazing that alone might be enough to excommunicate the show from this list. There’s no denying the impact and staying power of Twin Peaks. It was an absolute phenomenon when it originally aired (who here hasn’t seen the SNL parody from 1990?), it garnered cult status amongst kids my age when it first appeared on DVD (remember how expensive the foreign box set with the pilot episode became when US fans learned the pilot wasn’t available on the domestic DVD release?), and whispers of reboots and movies still make headlines when they surface. For its few foibles, the lasting legacy of Twin Peaks is that of a show that pushed the boundaries for what a television drama could be. Could a head-scratcher like Lost connect with an audience in a world that hadn’t already predicted and theorized and speculated its way through Twin Peaks? I doubt it.

08. The Prisoner – I was late to this show. Probably because it aired on British ITV in the late ’60s and I was born in the early ’80s. Still, I neglected to watch a single episode until I was loaned a copy of the complete series on Blu Ray in 2011. Its run was incredibly short (17 episodes) compared to other shows on this list. In those episodes, though, viewers were treated to a surrealist psychological drama that is unparalleled in the history of television. Aside from maybe The Twilight Zone, what other show in history was as rich in metaphor and allegory? What other show on this list has been so influential that its list of homages, parodies and influences requires not one but two distinct Wikipedia entries: The Prisoner In Pop Culture and The Prisoner in other Media.

07. Six Feet Under This is one of the only television shows I’ve ever actually made a pilgrimage to find a filming location. The other is the Seinfeld apartment exterior in Koreatown. I was “all-in” on Six Feet Under about halfway through the first season. My girlfriend at the time (when I was a senior in high school) invited me over for a marathon of maybe four or five episodes, and from then on I watched every episode during the show’s five-season run. Admittedly there are some weak plots that I found tired after a while (pretty much anything to do with Jeremy Sisto), or some characters whose arcs I stopped caring about (David, Claire), but it was undeniably one of the best programs ever made. It started with the pilot, which was one of the most immediately gratifying and unique intros imaginable. Most of the characters were flawlessly developed, the writing was always top-notch, and the ending had me in tears when it first aired and three years later when I re-watched the whole thing. For a man’s man like me who is incapable of feeling, that’s a pretty awesome feat.

06. Oz – When I started watching Oz a couple years ago I wasn’t anticipating much. I’d heard it was brutally violent, and I was looking forward to the promised gruesomeness. What I quickly learned was that it was a show that went far beyond violence. The acting performances were stellar. Some of the stories were a bit on the cheesy side, but it was unflinching in its honesty and its grittiness. It can be seen as the first television show in history where the phrase “no character is safe” was a reality. You think the major character deaths in Game Of Thrones or The Wire are shocking? Try getting attached to any character on Oz. The show has the capability of wounding you in ways that will absolutely leave scars. Go ahead, watch Lost and then watch Oz. No more will you ever refer to Harold Perrineau as “Michael,” he’s Augustus Hill. Never again will Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje be “Mr. Eko,” he’s Adebisi. Once you’re locked in with the inmates of Emerald City…it can be difficult to escape.

05. Deadwood – The wordsmiths who wrote this show deserve a blog entry all to themselves. That they were able to find such an incredible roster of actors to bring their poetry to life is an even greater accomplishment. What other show in recent memory has asked — maybe even required — that you seek out a history book upon completion because you’re sitting there asking yourself, “Did this really happen!?” And, yeah, a lot of the historical drama is fictional. But a lot of it is true, too. And whether or not this event or that conversation really happened becomes totally irrelevant once you allow yourself to focus on the writing. Oh my God, the writing. Lyrical, foul, borderline Shakespearean, if I were ranking shows based solely on that attribute Deadwood would quite likely be #2 behind The Wire. It might even be #1. Yeah, it’s that special.

04. Lost – Don’t let my roommates see that I ranked Lost number four. Please don’t let my roommates see that I ranked Lost number four. In the end, it was all about the ride. The mind-bending mysteries, the weekly cliffhangers, the development of the characters, the music of Michael Giacchino, all of that and more combined to make this show a once-in-a-lifetime program. Just think about how many shows have come and gone since Lost went off the air in 2010 that have used its title as part of their marketing. “What if Lost and 24 had a baby!?” “From the producers of Lost…” and how have those shows fared? VFlash ForwardThe EventRevolutionAlcatraz, did any of those achieve anything close to what Lost did? And then, of course, there was the social aspect. Until Breaking Bad came around what other show did we pile onto the couch and watch with complete reverence every week? What other show inspired wild boar cookouts, costume parties, or anything remotely resembling the level of obsessed fanaticism Lost inspired? Yeah, it’s definitely a Top 5 show.

03. Breaking Bad Perhaps the first shocker of the list. I think most people I know think I’d rank this number two — or maybe even number one — but I’m not buying it as the best TV drama ever. The acting performances were stellar. The writing was sometimes genius and sometimes (hello early season(s) Hank and “yo yo yo” homeboy Jesse!) goofy. The direction (episodes like “One Minute” and “Full Measure”) was typically brilliant. Everything clicked. It achieved the rarified air of forcing us to converse about whether or not it was the greatest TV show of all time. Any program that has us debate its merits and grade it on the all-time scale requires way more dissection and debate than I have time for right now. So I’ll just say this: it’s not a perfect show. It achieved its remarkable tone over the course of its run, but to say it was — from start to finish — an unimpeachable model of the ideal television drama would be inaccurate.

02. The Sopranos – You have to understand, as someone who describes the nihilistic masterpiece Martyrs as one of the most intriguing and emotionally resonant films I’ve ever seen, The Sopranos is as close as I’ve ever seen to a television analog to that film. The psychotherapy aspect alone is enough to warrant a 300-level university course. My tried-and-true line I deliver when people  question my unabashed love for The Sopranos is this: Should you choose to watch it as a show about a violent mob boss, it will provide you with a rollicking good time. But if you want to really lose yourself in it, if you’re willing to follow David Chase down his rabbit hole, the reward is one of the greatest, multi-layered works of art in the history of the medium. And the ending? A stroke of fucking genius. Don’t believe me? Follow this rabbit (spoilers aplenty!) and your opinions about the show may forever change. What other ending has been so devise, so frequently discussed, so beloved and so loathed? What other show has commanded that much attention? MASH? Seinfeld? What?

01. The Wire – You knew this was coming. I’ve been talking about it and debating it for the past few weeks as I work through my most recent re-watch of the series. It’s not just the best drama ever made. It’s one of the most important statements about America that has ever been made, and an indictment of pretty much everything and everyone contained herein. In the eyes of David Simon and Co., we’re all complicit in creating a society in which the truths that The Wire depicts can and do occur. It’s a show that is both hateful  and empathetic, that blurs the line between good and evil, that sheds light on systems that continue to fail us and keep us oppressed. The judicial system. The educational system. Politics. If The Sopranos was a nihilistic masterpiece I don’t even have the vocabulary to describe what The Wire is. The bleakest fucking story ever told. And what makes it even more heartbreaking is that it’s real. It’s the most cynical, dark, harrowing tragedy in television history (actually, The Corner might even be more depressing — I never even made it through all six episodes). And, yeah, that also makes it the best. What the hell else has inspired more emotion — more anger and more empathy — across the spectrum of television? I defy you to find a more perfect example of drama.

Year Of No Light – Gèhenne [MP3]

2 comments

  1. |

    never seen FNL but i will start soon. the killing is still on the air, isnt it? that disqualifies it. i’ve never heard of the bridge.

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