Monday, 29 July 2013

BEST TV SERIES SINCE 2000



This is a blog-post about TV series... and not even about the economics of it (Matt Yglesias did that late last June at the time of James Gandolfini's sad death) but about which series I liked and didn't like and why.

I don't know why exactly but, this past month, I have had this urge to classify and comment on TV series since the Sopranos revolutionised the format (TV series by the way are not TV shows! FrasierFriends, let alone Jon Stewart's Daily Show, which I've seen included in others' lists are not the subject here) and, without a proper website to do so, I figured this blog was as good a place as any for it.

Minor housekeeping note: I shall probably start using tags for my blog-posts. This one will be the first with a 'Miscellaneous' tag...

Anyhow, on to the good stuff! And, no, despite the banner-head, Game of Thrones is not first!

NB: There's good stuff I have heard about but I haven't seen - The West Wing, Arrested Development, The Walking Dead, The Office etc etc. They're not on the list or commented upon but it doesn't mean I wouldn't like them...



1- ROME



"Rome" usually rank fairly high on most TV fans' list but not that high. For me, though, it is number one.

I am a big fan of History and historical dramas so, of course, the subject-matter was always going to interest me. But, as we will see with other history-focused TV series, that is not enough in itself. Here, I was especially impressed by the wealth of details about Roman life and Roman social attitudes the producers included.

Another big plus was the fact that the two main protagonists are revolving around historical events and historical figures but aren't themselves historical figures. It's a technique I like in most mediums (movies, books etc) but it is surprisingly hard to do well. I've lost count of the B-movies or cheap techno-thriller books with a "save the President from a deep dark conspiracy" plot-line who utterly fail in this regard. So, again, kudos to the authors for creating interesting personal stories connected to, nay, smoothly integrated into historical events, influencing them and being influenced by them.

A common critique I've heard is that it's just another 'tits and blood' serie. As per the above, I think this is deeply unjust.

First, there isn't that much 'blood'. If anything, I'd have liked more battle scenes. The opening sequence, where we see the Roman legion's tactic of switching first lines in its shield wall is the kind of realistic historical detail we rarely get to see and an example of what I was referring to above. The battle of Pharsalus, the battle of Philippi, let alone the naval battle of Actium are all given short shrift, which is understandable given the costs involved but sad nonetheless.

There are certainly more 'tits' - I guess they are more affordable than 'blood'! And, in all honesty, I have to admit that not all of the sex scenes are indispensable to the serie's narrative. But, one, not being prude, I don't truly care and, two, it does have the positive effect of reminding us that the Romans circa 50 BC were not Christians and did not share our morality, let alone our sexual mores.

So, while the ambitions, the loves, the despairs and the fears of the characters are universal and make us feel close to them, their attitudes towards slaves, toward religion and indeed towards sex help remind us that they are also not like us.

The past is a foreign country, as they say...

I will forever regret that costs considerations impacted the second season and precluded the serie from carrying onward - Strengthening the second season and concluding the serie in a third season would have been awesome.


2- THE WIRE



As number two, this is a fairly conventional choice, though I was surprised to learn (from the Wikipedia article) that its ratings had been modest and that it never won any TV awards.

When it comes to books, I am quite a fan of the police procedural sub-genre, with authors like Michael Connelly or Jo Nesbo among my favourites. In terms of TV shows, on the other hand, I was never attracted to things like CSI or Law & Order. It seems to me those shows prayed on Americans' fear of crime, regardless of the fact that crimes statistics were coming down fast and, in any case, they lacked, in my opinion, artistry or ambitions.

But 'The Wire' is more than a TV show and more than 'procedural police'. As has been noted by all TV fans, it is also a near documentary on the sociology of Baltimore, from its struggling inner city Black ghettos or blue-collar whites to the very institutions citizens rely on. As such, it transcends its roots and give us an ambitious portray of a city, worthy in scope of some of the best 'social panorama' literature, a la Dickens or a la Zola.

How could I not love it?


3- GAME OF THRONES




Not only is it a great serie in its own right but, having read the first three or four books by GRR Martin, I really appreciated the quality of the adaptation. This was not an easy feat and the producers managed as well as could possibly be expected.

What worries me is that, as the books themselves become tedious and ill-paced, adapting them successfully will only get harder. Hopefully, they'll compress them to keep the momentum but it would not be a bad idea to talk GRR Martin into concluding his epic.

Is Jon Snow the son of Rhaegar and Lyanna? Will he unite with Daenerys and her dragons to beat back the White Walkers? What of Tyrion Lannister, a fav' character if there ever was one? C'mon, time to wrap it up!

But, while Game of Thrones may disappoint in the future, today it stands as some of the very best fantasy I've seen on TV. And the serie format suits the epic admirably.


4- FIREFLY



Due, in part, to bad programming, the serie never found a large enough public to keep it going beyond season 1. But what a season it was!

The mixing of western and space opera tropes was done quite well, there were lots of smart little things (such as the swearing in Chinese/Mandarin etc) and the overall story arc might have been ambitious, had it been allowed to develop.

In the movie 'Serenity', the revelation of the origin of the Reavers is quite interesting and it would have been nice to see that story developed over a longer time-frame.


5- BAND OF BROTHERS


Band of Brothers just got to me. It's everything "Saving Private Ryan" wasn't. Not only is the serie just as gorgeously made as the movie, with no money spared to really give the viewer the impression of being there with the main characters but these characters are actually interesting and believable. Which I guess makes sense as they are based on real people.

The interviews with the veterans in prelude to every episode was powerful and, despite its sometimes glorious treatment of warfare, I would call 'Band of Brothers' anti-war because, frankly, what can possibly be worth the amount of mental and physical trauma war puts on soldiers? 


6- GENERATION KILL


Generation Kill is the best TV I've seen on the Iraq war(s). It leaves in the dust everything else - from Jarhead to Green Zone and including the Hurt Locker. The only movie that could compare, in my opinion, is Black Hawk Down.

One thing that I liked in Generation Kill was that the documentary aspect was assumed - the embedded journalist is made into one of the main character and it is clear that the story is his viewpoint, his recording of the events that took place.

A movie like The Hurt Locker failed, in my view, because the director could not decide whether to be a documentary or a fiction.  


7- BATTLESTAR GALACTICA


Yes, the ending sucks. Yes, the series suffered from the writers' strike in 2007. Yes, I don't understand why the Colonials couldn't figure a Turin test to resolve their stupid metaphysical issues about Cylons' emotional capabilities. Yes, the metaphysical elements and the later Gaius Baltar as a believer in his own Prophet role got a bit heavy.

It's still a great sci-fi serie and I liked it a lot.

8- DEADWOOD


As you can probably tell, I am a big fan of westerns in general. But I do have a predilection for westerns mixing macho guys with guns and some sociology, history or economics. For example, when it comes to western movies, I've got a soft spot for those movies featuring range wars such as Chisum, Man without a star or Open range.

And, since I've heard of the law of the Apex and its use by the Anaconda Copper Mine (what a name!), I always thought it'd be awesome to have a movie around the Copper Kings, the miners of Montana and the ensuing struggles.

Deadwood isn't quite that since it's centered on the Black Hills gold rush and there's relatively little in terms of the economic consequences of it but, still, the series does an awesome job of mixing minor historical characters (Seth Bullock, Charlie Utter and Al Swearengen actually existed!) with slightly bigger ones (Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane and George Hearst) and I really enjoyed it!


9-JERICHO


Too bad they stopped it so soon. Still, it seems that there is a third season in the making so all is not lost!

I know I said I don't like "deep, dark conspiracies" plot-lines. They often fail to be believable, fresh or even just to be entertaining. But it's not an absolute rule. The Manchurian Candidate is very good, in my opinion, despite its relatively low IMDb rating (I haven't seen the 1962 version, which is rated a lot higher. It's now on the to-watch-list).

And, here, I think that this aspect of the series pales in comparison to its most interesting element: The post-apocalyptic setting. How would we react in a situation where our whole world was turned upside down, where the law would break down and hunger became an issue again? This is what I really loved about this series. I hope that, if they do go through with a third season, they don't destroy that aspect in a quest to elucidate "who's behind who's behind"...

10- THE AMERICANS


On-going but I truly liked this series' beginning. I found it easy (!) to relate to a case where the wife's obsession with duty interferes with her new-found love for her husband.

I can't wait for the next season and I hope to hell they don't muck it up...

11- HOMELAND


I still have to catch on with season 2. But the first season was truly awesome, though, I am not sure that the creators were really aiming for me routing for Sgt Brody. I was not quite for him blowing himself up, though his intended targets probably did deserve some form of punishment for their callousness. Post-Iraq war and post-"Who is George W Bush? Never heard of him", I guess you take the closures you can.

But, as soon as he switched to a "influence them from the inside", I was like "Yeah, man, I hope you can pull it off".

So I'll try to watch Season 2 soon and I hope it won't disappoint.

12 - HELL ON WHEELS


Did I mention that I like westerns? The inclusion of the building of the railroad made this revenge-flick, Josey Wales-like, seems fresh and interesting.

Looking forward to the new season...

13- JUSTIFIED


Tim Olyphant and some slight references to coal mining and eastern Kentucky social ills were enough to sell me the series.

So far, I haven't regretted it.

14- VIKINGS


Two years ago, a friend of mine gifted me a comic, Sven the Returned, the first from the Northlanders series. And, since then, I have been quite in love with the Viking Age.

Now, Vikings is not without flaws. It does actually fairly little compared to, say, Rome to describe the Northmen milieu and mores. It is a bit slow paced. I would have preferred a series concentrating on the establishment of Danelaw in the British isles.

But it is still good and I am, again, looking forward to the new season.

15- SUITS


I don't know why but I find 'Suits' quite good in the light, entertaining category. I will never be a devotee but I am waiting for Season 3 with anticipated pleasure so the producers and creators must be doing something right...

In conclusion, here are the ones who didn't quite make the cut: Breaking Bad (I get the main theme but lost interest nonetheless), 24 (I really liked the first season but it got boringly repetitive afterwards), Lost (I really dig the first season but it got too long and too convoluted for its own good), Prison Break (Again, great first season but I couldn't get into the following ones), Heroes (I loved the premise and the ambiguity of the beginning but couldn't sustain the interest), The Tudors (for me, this series exemplifies the problem with taking major historical figures as main characters. I would have preferred a focus on Thomas More, Wosley or even more obscure/fictional characters), Spartacus (now, that is truly 'tits and blood', if there ever was one. I mind the "300" theatrics a lot less in gladiatorial combats than in battle scenes but it still give a very cartoonish feel to the whole thing. And everything else, from the dialogues to the scenery is bad!), Dexter (a good series but, again, I eventually lost interest. I thought the first two Dexter books were better), MadMen (I don't know, I watched the first episode of the first series but it didn't hook me) and Sons of Anarchy (I liked the first three seasons very much as I watched them one after the other over a few weeks' time. After several months of waiting, I was looking forward to season 4. But, as the first episode started with SAMCRO released from jail, I found I did not care all that much anymore. So I never got around to watch beyond Season 3).

Anyone got comments? I'd love to talk some more with fellow TV series fans!