Monday, October 10, 2011

The Ten Best TV Shows of The Last 20 Years

Just to cut to the chase, and before you scroll down to see what number one is, the best TV show of all time is The Sopranos.

There's no argument.

As I write this, I have just finished watching the entire series through for the third time (over the course of a few weeks, at leisure, not in some crazy capicola-fueled marathon) and it has only further confirmed that there has never been a show this good on television and there hasn't been since.

The Sopranos has everything: obviously crime, drama, violence, and sex but also philosophy, psychology, politics and a ridiculously wicked streak of dark humour. The Sopranos changed the way people think about television and elevated the one-hour television drama to an art form. It would be difficult to find, over the course of the series' 86 episodes, one single episode that didn't stand on its own as a succinct and satisfying viewing experience in and of itself - essentially, each its own quality one-hour movie. And yet the series as a whole developed some of the richest story lines and most complex characters in the history of television. 

Hundreds of critics (thousands?) have analyzed and praised the show, university courses have been devoted to its analysis, and The New York Times once called it "The greatest work of popular culture of the past quarter century," so I'm not going to bother getting too much into the myriad reasons this is the smartest and most accomplished show on television, I'm just going to state unequivocally that it is and move on to the rest of the list.

Mad Men
You probably saw this one coming, but for my money if there's any show that comes remotely close to the level of The Sopranos, it's AMC's Mad Men. It's got an almost ridiculous attention to detail for recreating the early 1960s and everything from the books in Don Draper's office to what the weather was on the actual day they're attempting to portray is meticulously researched. It's got all the same rich character development of The Sopranos but deals with themes of early 60s gender equality, office politics, pop culture and the advertising world at the dawn of a very interesting era in media. Plus it's just so sexy to look at.

It probably helps the show's awesomeness that the show's creator, Matthew Weiner served as a writer and executive producer on seasons five and six of The Sopranos and that a number of Sopranos writers and production staff migrated with Weiner, but this show is without a doubt the greatest show currently on TV (whenever the hell it returns). Random sidenote: It would be pretty sweet to be Matthew Weiner. Apparently he's got eight Emmy Awards and three Golden Globes and was named one of Time magazine's 100 Most Influential People of 2011. And he knows Christina Hendricks.

This is probably the grittiest and nastiest television show that has ever existed. I don't imagine it's too popular with most ladies, but if you like a show that simultaneously manages to be about politics, the settling of early American communities, and violent conflict--along with filthy dudes drinking excessive amounts of whiskey, gambling, whoring, and occasionally beating each other to death with their bare hands, then this is the show for you. And it's also peppered with the most liberal use of the word "fuck" in the history of popular culture. Unfortunately there are only three seasons of Deadwood. It eventually ceased to exist simply because it was far too awesome.

30 Rock/Community

These two shows represent contemporary scripted television comedy at its absolute finest. Probably no other show (ever) has more jokes per minute than 30 Rock and both shows are self-referential television that manage to  be witty and cerebral while simultaneously never taking themselves too seriously. With myriad pop-culture references, self-deprecating mockery of the genre's conventions, and a generally nerdy inside-jokism, 30 Rock and Community are television shows for people that like to watch funny television not only because they are funny, but also because they clearly understand and respect the history of other funny television shows.

Where Community falls somewhat short of 30 Rock in terms of its brilliant writing (hardly an insult considering the heights 30 Rock has reached), it more than makes up for it with ingenuity. Obvious examples of Community's spectacular willingness to try new things are the claymation episode and the epic, two-part, season two finale that paid homage to not only Star Wars but also Sergio Leone Westerns.

The Simpsons

Unless you have never seen the show before (in which case, please kill yourself), I find it hard to imagine that too many days go by where you don't either use or hear some tidbit gleaned from the ridiculously pervasive writing of The Simpsons. Who hasn't reacted to bad news with a resounding "boo-urns?" Expressed happiness by noting that "Everything is coming up Milhouse?" Spelled smart "S-M-R-T?"

With the possible exception of Seinfeld, which I'll get to, no show in history has simultaneously reflected popular culture and changed it as much as The Simpsons.

Click Milhouse's head to read
The Real Hipster's argument
for the Best. Episode. Ever.
Regardless of what you may think of the show and its recent seasons, The Simpsons is without a doubt one of the smartest and most ground-breaking comedies that has ever been on television. And with "D'oh" and "meh" as official entries in the dictionary, The Simpsons has literally changed the way we speak. I'm confident a person could make a pretty cromulent argument that no other show in history has had such an impact on our collective popular culture.

Seinfeld/Curb Your Enthusiasm
I don't really think I need to exert much of an effort in order to explain why Seinfeld, arguably the most successful show in the history of television, needs to be on this list. It somehow managed to create a style that seemed brand new while also presenting humour that spoke to that absurdity in everyday social situations that has been around since the dawn of social interaction.

Despite the regretful fact that its massive success spawned the co-opting and poor replication of the style into all manner of "white-single-people-spout-pithy-dialogue" (ahem, Friends), Seinfeld deserves a spot at the top of every "Best of" television list for being such a game changerand, obviously, for being brilliantly written and hilarious.

That increasingly absurd and awkward side of Seinfeld in the brilliant writing was due if not entirely than certainly mostly, to the uber-neurosis of the show's co-creator, Larry David. Thus, it would be difficult to list Seinfeld on this list without also listing Curb Your Enthusiasm. Indeed, Curb seems like the natural progression of the Seinfeld comedic aesthetic: at the height of the show's popularity, when virtually everything the show and its creators touched turned to gold, the show ended, to emerge later as a far more grown-up, slightly darker, and more awkward portrayal of the semi-fictional life of Larry David. You could never have one without the other, and so both make the list.

I imagine this will be the most controversial choice on this list and I understand the hesitancy to include a "reality" show among the ten best television shows of all time. However, I've argued this show's merit at length previously (here, in Five Reasons Survivor is One of The Best Shows on TV) and I stand by those claims. Survivor is really the first reality show and while you may think that earns it a notorious place in history for ushering in some of the shittiest and exploitative elements in the history of pop culture, it doesn't change the fact that Survivor is simply one of the most entertaining programs on TV. It's got virtually every kind of drama and conflict and, of course, everyone is basically in their underwear. Plus it's "real;" meaning I'm aware that the footage can be edited to manipulate the storyline, but it's still the actions, words, and images of actual people and not actors. There's still something fascinating about Survivor to me, even 10 plus years later.

The Office/Parks and Recreation

No show tackled the monotony of the administrative life that a majority of North Americans live every day from 9 to 5 better than The OfficeThe Office, with it's long, awkward pauses and Steve Carell's I-can't-even-watch inappropriateness, captured that sort of quiet desperation of office-life perfectly and united us in the laughs. The Office was a sort of means for the collective TV-watching middle class to say, "Oh fuck, everyone's work is like this? Oh good. I was about to bring my toaster in the bath tub."
Heading into its eighth season, it is still one of the few shows on television that routinely makes me laugh out loud; however, while it still easily commands a spot on this list, I will admit that The Office might be slipping a touch in terms of its brilliance these past few seasons. And with the departure of the man who epitomized the show's mood, it isn't unreasonable to suggest the show might be on its last legs.

Which is part of the reason Parks and Recreation is here, too. Seemingly poised to take up the mantle of "that modern workplace" comedy, Parks and Recreation seems to do everything The Office does, but  better. They've taken the monotony and desperation up a notch by placing the action in the most mundane workplace imaginable--a municipal bureaucracy. They not only build on the improvisational style of both shows, but they seem to champion it, often having characters run multiple punchlines and rambling lists. And finally Parks and Recreation's cast comprises a hilarious and mostly fresh-faced group helmed by the absolutely brilliant and hilarious Amy Poehler.

Bonus Awesomeness: Ron Swanson, played on Parks and Recreation by Nick Offerman, was once tasked with giving the opening words at an art show. This was his speech.

Sidebar: The End of The British Office vs. American Office Bullshit
Anyone still clinging to the idea that the British Office holds any sort of superiority over the American version is simply being pretentious. Sure, in the first season of Steve Carell's version, one might argue that the show didn't have much to offer as it rehashed the exact same story lines as its predecessor. However brilliant it might have been though, the British Office was short-lived. It was 12 episodes long and then it was over. The American version, entering its own eighth season and still pretty funny, has long since proven its merit. Those who still claim allegiance to the British version are probably those that call soccer "footie" and wear scarves with no coats. Stop it. You're just being a dick.


Simply for being the first and best show that is not only starring and written by a comedian, but that is also actually about comedy and the reasons people become comedians, for any lover of comedy, this show is must-watch television. Interspersed with Louis CK's stand-up, Louie is equal parts hilarious, endearing, depressing, and gross--in short, it's got all the ingredients necessary for great comedy.

Louis CK is a funny guy (obviously) and he probably could have made a show that was "just" hilarious. Instead, CK decided to include parts in Louie that are shockingly real and achingly earnest, and in so doing created a show that exposes the weird insecurities that make most stand-up comedians tic.

There are episodes of Louie that are so very dark ("God" from season one wherein a doctor gives a young Louie a graphic and medically accurate account of the the crucifixion, "Eddie" from season two wherein an old friend living in his car explains he has nothing to live for), that it's understandable how one might be put off.

There are also scenes which are awkward to the point of being cringe-worthy (e.g. anytime Louie talks masturbation--which is quite often).

But the brilliance of this show is that it does show everything.  Those who know great comedy know that the best stuff is personal and Louie, a show where Louis CK holds nothing back, is intensely personal and, as a result, is a brilliant and hilarious television show.

The Wire
In an increasingly digital age, the argument could be made that the great stories of this century aren't being told on paper any more. As an English major, such talk makes me want to cut my wrists with the gilded edges of my copy of Beowulf in its original Old English.

However, if you wanted to show that the great American novel could in fact actually unfold on screen now, The Wire, with its intricate and complex narratives that traced five seasons of life on the streets of Baltimore, would most certainly be the strongest argument that it were possible.

With a story that mainly focused on the criminal drug industry in Baltimore and the police tasked with fighting it, The Wire served as a sort of sad and funny tribute to decline in America, weaving in the corruption of most of her institutions from the schools, to the unions, to public office, to the newspaper industry, and along the way it changed the classic American genre of the cop show. Which is to say nothing at all about being responsible for Omar, one of the greatest characters in the history of television.

Honourable Mentions:

Rome, Boston Legal, NYPD Blue, Cheers, Six Feet Under, OZ, Northern Exposure, Band of Brothers, Arrested Development, Flight of The Conchords, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Modern Family, Community, Tim and Eric Awesome Show Good Job, Six Feet Under, 24
Shows people will argue should be on this list that really shouldn't:

Dexter, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead,  Lost, Heroes, South Park, Californication, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Star Trek, Freaks and Geeks, Battlestar Galactica, True Blood

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