I normally dislike “best of” lists. I don’t read them and dislike writing them. But I’m writing a chapter for a book on a very solid television series, and I thought: I have to give this some praise.
So instead of doing a “Top 10” I decided to keep it simple. My top three television series of the 00’s. (UPDATE: Here’s a great compilation of “best of” TV lists by Chris Becker…Thanks for linking to mine).
Warning: Not on this list: The Sopranos, The West Wing, Mad Men, Lost, 24, Six Feet Under, Battlestar Galactica, The Office, The Comeback, and probably a dozen other critical darlings. There was too much solid television this decade to be comprehensive. The following shows are not only emotionally meaningful to me — my television habit matured in the aughts — but also revolutionized, in my opinion, what we think of as “television.”
In general, these are three shows, which, I think, proved television is in fact better at storytelling than film.
Here we go!
This is an easy one. Critics are increasingly reaching a consensus here: The Wire was the best show of the aughts. Undeniably. It’s no surprise Emily Nussbaum at New York used The Wire to prove her thesis that in the 00’s television became art.
Why is everyone trumpeting The Wire? In part because it never got the Emmy love it deserved. It needs trumpeting.
But for me, the case for The Wire is simple: it proved television is so far the only audiovisual medium — much better than film — capable of representing the complex story of how individuals, institutions and society interact and fail each other. This is a bigger deal than it sounds. The truth is, few films have ever been able to show the complex ways governments, the media, the educational system, the courts, lawyers, the police and the policed all interact to not solve our problems. Why? Because the story takes time.
And The Wire took its time. It refused to follow the traditional TV formula of conflict, resolution, cliffhanger. Instead, structured like a novel, it slowly built on each storyline, adding layer after layer of plot and characters to show how our social problems result from perpetual shortsightedness: “criminals” need a quick buck (much like corporations), police need short-term improvements in stats, city hall only thinks about the next election, schools want quick fixes, and the media needs a good headline. Throughout this story, it added, through its characters, on issues of race, sexuality, class, alcoholism and drug abuse,prison reform, generational change and parental neglect.
It also offered solutions. Its “Hamsterdam” storyline showed more concretely than I’ve ever seen how legalizing drugs could solve crime and public health issues.
Don’t get me wrong, The Wire wasn’t a five-season dissertation on urban politics. It’s also a good yarn. It followed the police’s desire to topple a drug kingpin and, at the same time, a crime family’s rise to success. This is a solid story, filled with finely drawn characters (dozens of them), intrigue, action and adventure. It’s the best of cinema — The Godfather, Taxi Driver, Touch of Evil, Chinatown, Maltese Falcon, Fargo, The Untouchables, and many more — taken out of the realm of the spectacular and brought down to earth. It isn’t one big case, it’s many small cases, and the numerous side cases all required to squelch crime. And then it questions whether all this effort in crime-solving is even worth it. Pure brilliance.
Get thee to Netflix.com and watch this show! Now. Why are you reading this blog? What The Wire did by improving cinematic story — in a much more realistic way than Lost and 24, by the way — Friday Night Lights did with character.
Simply put: Friday Night Lights attempts to portray in an intricate way how a diverse community– FNL‘s “real America” is not homogenous — is a collection of individual stories: diverse in race, gender, class, and sexuality. It humanizes all of its characters.
It portrays an invisible and unglamorous part of America, people left to their own devices and looking for signs of hope, struggling to find and define themselves. It’s about the search for victory even when surrounded by defeat, about small dreams (it is high school football by the way) and big dreams (leaving Dillon).
The show’s docudrama aesthetic — with links to direct cinema, Dogme 95 — helps it make the case that character studies take time. The series focuses on “little moments” — with close-ups, careful pauses — to reveal a character’s most revealing and traumatic moments. As Minka Kelly says in the first season’s DVD extra, the camera operators are as much as part of the story as the actors: “They’re catching these specific little moments that you wouldn’t catch in a traditional way of filmmaking. They get to be as creative as we do.”
FNL treats its stories agnostically: we see the “good girl” and the “bad girl” in an equal light. We see characters grow and mature, from town slut Tyra, to the loud black kid in Smash, and the star quarterback Jason (falling from grace and remaking his life). Every time the show sent one of these characters off, I’ll admit, I cried.
Had I not seen parts of season four, FNL might not have made this list. But season four really delves into some interesting territory. We see star quarterback number two, Matt, finally grow up and strike out on his own. And, most importantly, we see Coach Taylor try to unite a team divided by race, poverty and skill (they aren’t very good). It’s a remarkable petri dish for talking about cultural and personal difference.
Plus, it got me to watch football every week. Now, that’s a feat.
This one’s going to get me in trouble with some of my friends. But I don’t care!
Sex and the City is the best comedy of the aughts — yes, it started in the 90s, but the best stuff’s in the 00’s anyway. First, this is a story about women and it is about female empowerment. Don’t shoot me! What I mean is, the show asks the question, “are these women empowered?” in a way neither self-serious nor degrading. It allows you to say: maybe, or maybe not. SATC puts women’s agency at thematic center and allows you to agree or disagree. (I’m cutting the movie out of this analysis). In the end, two of the characters are married (one quite non-traditionally) and two are not, and happily so. All of these are seen as legitimate options. Of course, the last shot of the show is of Carrie, partnered up but alone, still independent. Let’s not forget Samantha, one of television’s few self-assured bachelorettes — that’s nothing to sneeze at.
We see these characters grow and, even at their age, mature; once again, something television is uniquely positioned to do (it’s also something critics of the show, particularly on the left, miss: you can’t take isolated incidents and extract theories about the series. SATC is very much about the whole story, all six seasons. In any one episode, the women can be sluts, bitches, elitists, racists, anti-feminists, but the series as a whole fleshes out these issues in intricate ways.)
That being said, I’m not sure any TV series or film has ever so fully explored the sexual and dating lives of single people — specifically women and gay men. I don’t care who you are: SATC has explored at least one of your relationship problems in a storyline. Challenge me!
SATC revived interest in women’s sitcoms, bringing back The Golden Girls and Living Single. It spawned a glut of copy cats: Lipstick Jungle, Cashmere Mafia, Girlfriends, My Boys, Desperate Housewives, Private Practice, The L Word, not to mention movies like The Women, Why Did I Get Married? and men’s shows like Big Shots and Entourage. None were as success as successful as the original, because SATC was just that good.
Unlike my previous two choices, SATC largely eschewed issues of race and class, instead presenting a largely whitewashed New York fantasy. Yet this criticism also makes it a product of its time. When scholars speak about the gentrification of cities at the turn of the century, how cities became hip again, Sex and the City will be the example. Luxury and excess — with links, I think, to camp — allowed it to embody a cultural moment more so than any other show of the decade, like Dynasty and Dallas did for the 80s, and Friends and Seinfeld did for the 90s.
I haven’t even mentioned its trademark wit and frankness, touching on issues as diverse as rimming and S&M to cancer and infertility. A critical part of the SATC story, moreover, was the work of Patricia Field, who proved costume was crucial to story; it adds drama and whimsy.
SATC remains one of the most popular women’s franchises in American media history. The show is making buckets of cash in syndication, on DVD, in books, and in movie theatres (a tough medium for women).
So, that’s my list! Am I wrong? Let me know!