Sunday 21st December 2014,
Televisual

Best TV of the Decade! (Top Three, For Me)

Aymar Jean Christian December 19, 2009 uncategorized 22 Comments

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 FalconFargo, 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!

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About The Author

Aymar Jean Christian is assistant professor of communication at Northwestern University. He writes about media and society for a number of publications. For more information, click the "About" tab at the top of the page.

22 Comments

  1. keithosaunders December 19, 2009 at 10:40 pm

    I don’t know if you’re right or wrong but your post definatley made me think it’s high time a rented The Wire.

  2. Derek Lee McPahtter December 20, 2009 at 6:50 pm

    I don’t know if you are wrong, but I know you aren’t right. you are never right.

  3. Aymar Jean Christian December 20, 2009 at 8:16 pm

    Yes, watch The Wire! It will change your life.

  4. Rachel Jones December 22, 2009 at 10:34 pm

    SO glad you mentioned Friday Night Lights! Just the opening credits alone are a total work of art. And it’s a testament to the talent of the writers that I can so completely sympathize with and identify with Christian Republican Texans — never thought that would happen!

  5. Anonymous December 24, 2009 at 7:09 am

    I know! If you’d told me 4 years ago I’d be watching a show about football-loving Christian Republican Texans I’d say you lie!

  6. Anonymous December 28, 2009 at 3:24 am

    First, I can’t believe your man was so evil to you on MY birthday. Shame!

    Second, I have only one request. I’m calling the intro to my dissertation “No Humans: A Story About Characters.”

    I think the very notion of “humanizing” a character lends credence to the strength of the expectation that they would be anything other than that, based on some identity marker and its attending stereotypes. In other words, every positive image is only positive by consistently recalling the shadow of the thing it is not, the entrenched negative image.

    Besides, (and yes I’m going to be naughty), don’t white guys (the central, complex characters at the center of most stories) have tons to answer for, in terms of being INhumane? So, this “human” that everybody’s trying to be, who is the standard of it? And why isn’t our species’ tendency toward inhumanity part of the story of being human. In other words, who says being human is such a good thing?

    Ok, before pomoMad jumps on me, I’m gonna hush.

  7. Aymar Jean Christian December 28, 2009 at 5:47 am

    Oh I love when you comment on my blog! Such interesting issues. For me, “humanization” is about allowing characters to justify their actions, give voice to their concerns/doubts/desires and make decisions. They exist not only to confirm the identities of other characters, but voice their own beliefs and make choices. Many of the characters on The Wire are extremely stereotypical, but they have motivations, dreams, obligations, doubts, etc. This does useful political work: in order to understand how institutions/groups fail (from city hall to gangs to the police), we need to know more about those who run them.

    I think representing inhumanity is useful, if needed for political ends. Characters who speak only in terms of their inhumane motivations (Hitler is obvi the classic example: he only speaks of killing Jews and German nationalism) can offer insights. But inhumane decisions coming from people negotiating complex realities and making tough decisions are much more powerful, like in season three when politicians choose to shut down a de facto legalization of drugs (that’s actually helping the community) because of personal and professional goals.

    My only standard for being “human” is that a character’s concerns, motivations and decision-making processes are voiced. It has little to do with stereotype; in fact, even Friday Night Lights and Sex and the City). I just watched “Nine” — focused, yes, on white male existential angst, which I find dreadfully uninteresting — and most of the women do not get speak except to embody Guido’s thoughts and fantasies. It’s not even that they’re stereotypes, which most are, because stereotypes allow inhuman characters to be easily intelligible. It’s that they have no thoughts or actions aside from the plot. We’ve seen this before, i.e. 80% of American Hollywood AND independent cinema. And it’s just dull.

    That being said, comedy and satire go great things with inhumane characters — like the many caricatures of George Bush — so I certainly don’t demand humanity, I just prefer it. It’s simply more interesting to me (not to mention more challenging to do).

    You know, I have to say I spend a lot of time thinking about “humanization.” It’s a huge concern of mine. When I’m tenured and wiser I need to do the necessary reams of reading and write a book on it.

  8. Miles Grier December 28, 2009 at 10:37 pm

    Hi, Aymar

    I see you saw through the disguise my anonymity. I guess Im pretty obvious, eh? Thanks, as always, for the response. I’d love to have a long talk with you about the category of the human one day. In the meantime, my best wishes for you and yours in 2010.

  9. madison moore January 5, 2010 at 2:34 pm

    u picked the exact ones i thought u would pick, save friday night lights. yay for SATC!!!!

  10. killervirgo January 26, 2010 at 8:37 pm

    I kept hearing how great The Wire was and I thought it was just hype … until I watched it. I watched all 5 seasons in less than a week because I was blown away by the quality of this drama. I am only disappointed that they didn’t go further into Dep. Comm. for Ops William Rawls personal life. There was a big WTF? moment, but it was further explained or talked about. But knowing that newly revealed info made you look at his character differently.

  11. Aymar Jean Christian January 26, 2010 at 8:50 pm

    That’s true! I always forget about that unexplored Rawls storyline; I sometimes even forget about the secret all together.

    I too watched all five seasons in less than a week! And of course all the “hype” is just because the show really wasn’t highly rated when it came out and received only one Emmy nom throughout its life (perhaps the biggest snub in TV history), though I’m sure it’s had a good second life on DVD.

  12. Donnie Swearingen April 14, 2011 at 11:39 am

    yesssss, the wire….lookin fwd to it!!!!!!! My summer entertainment :). Can’t wait!!!

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