The Revolution Was Televised by Alan Sepinwall

The Revolution Was TelevisedConsidering the amount I write about television shows, I read relatively little on the subject. I follow plenty of blogs scanning through dozens, if not hundreds of news stories and interviews via the marvellous productivity aid of RSS, but the number of books I’ve actually read can be counted on the fingers of one hand and is entirely limited to books dedicated to specific shows.

The Revolution was Televised had come up in passing from several television pundits I respect, most notably Maureen Ryan, currently of Huffington Post, who always adds depth not just to reviews of individual shows and episodes, but of the television landscape as a whole. I popped it on a Christmas list and had finished it by 3rd Jan.

The concept of the book is that there was a revolution in the way television was produced starting in the late 90s and those changes can be tracked back to a dozen key shows, that were not necessarily ratings hits (or even critical hits, although most of them are), but marked a step change in the way that television shows are created, run, marketed and watched . Alan Sepinwall takes us through each of these shows telling their stories and explaining their importance.

DeadwoodYour enjoyment and empathy with the book is going to be somewhat dependent on how many of those shows you’ve seen and what you thought of them. But, I was actually surprised at how engaged I was even in chapters on shows I’d never seen a single episode of. Out of the dozen shows, I would consider myself a fan of about half of them (Deadwood, Buffy, Battlestar Galactica, Friday Night Lights, and Mad Men), five others I’ve seen a few episodes or couple of seasons of and have some respect for even if they weren’t to my taste (The Sopranos, The Wire, The Shield, Lost, 24) and two I’ve never seen at all (Oz, Breaking Bad). But Sepinwall does a great job introducing each show and making you see what was groundbreaking and even magical about each show whether you were already on his side or not.

The dozen chapters telling the story of the shows are built up from interviews with a range of people involved with each show – the creators, producers, network executives that bought them, even the people who didn’t support them at the time. The comments are very open and honest, pride in successes, acceptance of mistakes and Sepinwall weaves them all together to form a detailed picture of the world of television production. Throughout the book there are also plenty of references to both older shows that lay the foundations and the newer ones which built upon them, charting the whole thing in a giant network of giants’ shoulders. Thanks to it going all the way up to the Summer of 2012 and talking about shows that are still on the air, it feels extremely current, although I guess the flip side of that is that it may not age so well.

LostMy only frustration with the book was that as it went on, it felt like it lost sight of its premise a little. Each chapter focussed more and more on the show itself and less on what was revolutionary. The reader is left to draw a lot of conclusions themselves, which is slightly frustrating. Also, for a book which is so current, there was surprisingly little said about how television distribution is changing both with the internet (pirated or otherwise) and even the rise of dvd sales over the period. Although it’s touched on a little in the section on Lost, there’s also very little coverage of the other effects the internet drives including marketing and fandom. Mind you, those subjects could easily fill whole books just by themselves.

This is an absolutely brilliant book for anyone interested in how television really works, not just gushing about shows that people love, but about how the industry develops and innovators can succeed in a massively competitive and generally risk averse environment. Alan Sepinwall is clearly a television fan, but he is not blind to the fact that it’s a commercial endeavour – he doesn’t vilify the networks who cancel low rated series and he doesn’t sanctify show runners whose poor working practices overwhelm their brilliant creative ideas.

Buffy the Vampire SlayerI found this book fascinating, entertaining and completely un-put-downable. Sepinwall has reminded me of just what a complex and fascinating medium television can be. He’s given me a fresh look at shows that I adore, brought to my attention shows I knew nothing about, and encouraged me to give second chances to ones that I’ve struggled with in the past. If you’ve read any of the dribble I’ve written, go read this and see what a professional can do.

The Revolution Was Televised by Alan Sepinwall (2010) is available in paperback from Amazon. It amuses me that if you search amazon for the book title you get a number of suggestions including The Revolution Wasn’t Televised (1997), The Revolution Will Not be Televised (2008), The Revolution Will be Televised (2010), Will the Revolution Be Televised (2012) – so it would seem the jury is still out on the question.

Battle of the Shows: Semifinals, and Final

Previously on Battle of the Shows: Rerunning Vulture.com’s battle of the “Best shows of the last 25 years”, led to two of their semi-finalists being knocked out in Round 1 (Breaking Bad and The Sopranos) and the other two being knocked out in Round 2 (Mad Men and The Wire. To save building the tension any further, here are the semis and the final all in one post!

Friday Night Lights v. Six Feet Under
Considering this is the semi-final this choice really wasn’t very difficult, which I think shows up the problems of this structure, but never mind, thems the rules. While this is an easy win for Friday Night Lights there is an interesting point of comparison because I took a break from watching both of these shows, not because I wasn’t enjoying them, but because I was too invested. For both shows I was spoilered on what was coming up (Season 5 for Six Feet Under, Season 4 for Friday Night Lights) and I found it incredibly difficult to bring myself to watch the events actually playing out on screen. I had formed such an attachment to the characters that I didn’t want to see bad things happen to them. The difference however is that I eventually went back to Friday Night Lights because I just couldn’t stay away, while for Six Feet Under I still haven’t quite got round to it.

The West Wing vs Buffy the Vampire Slayer
This is also not a massively hard choice for me, but one that I feel slightly sadder about. I’ve obsessed over both of these series, but my Buffy obsession came before my West Wing obsession and is fading into memory. I can no longer easily quote chunks of dialogue or identify episodes, my love of all things Whedon has been expanded, but also diluted with Angel, Firefly, and even Dollhouse on occasion. My friends of the period that shared my obsession have dispersed and although my box set is in pride of place, I haven’t re-watched it in years.

Meanwhile although West Wing was on at the same time as Buffy, I didn’t actually watch it until several years later when my obsession led to me watching the first 2 seasons in 8 days and maintained a similar pace until I caught up with the dvd releases during season 5. I’ve watched the series end to end at least three times, unable to watch an individual episode without hitting “play all” on the dvd and running it through to the end. Current friends share my obsession and we can cheerfully lose hours trading quotes and references.

I think in many ways Buffy is the more important show, both for its themes and messages, but also for its influence on ‘genre’ and ‘teen’ television ever since, While I do have a sense of regretful rememberence of past love, when I’m asked which show I prefer, I can only really go with The West Wing, the obsession that still burns strong.

The Final: Friday Night Lights vs. The West Wing
It was always going to come down to this choice, it always does. And as I always do, I will give the award to The West Wing.

Friday Night Lights gives you a beautiful insight into a group of people’s lives and makes a seemingly small and unimportant subject fascinating, it’s very intimate both in subject and in directorial style with extensive use of documentary style footage and overlapping dialogue.

The West Wing meanwhile has a much wider scope because while it may focus on national and international politics, it is also ‘just’ about the people who are going to work every day and doing a job. The relationships and personal traumas may not be as front and centre, but they are always there, quietly bubbling and developing over the years. It’s style is completely the opposite of Friday Night Lights, polished movie quality shots and such amazing dialogue that it borders on the improbable.

I am extraordinarily grateful that I got to watch Friday Night Lights, it feels as if I was allowed a privileged insight into something beautiful. But I suspect in a few years time, it will have faded into memory, much like Buffy has done. While I suspect I shall be putting those West Wing dvds in and being unable to resist ‘play all’ when I’m old and grey.

A final note
The final outcome of the battle will be of no surprise to anyone who’s read more than a few pages of my blog. But I am self-aware enough to realise that any knock-out battle or ‘top X list’ can very easily be swayed by preconceptions. Trying to find a balance between not looking at older shows with rose-coloured glasses, while also not being skewed towards more recent memories of new shows.

I certainly think that there’s also a massive distinction between my favourite shows, the ‘best shows’ and ‘the most important’ shows. I do find myself wondering if in 10 or 20 years when I come to evaluate shows from this era I’ll role my eyes that I was so caught up in what was well written, acted and directed, and what was enjoyable to watch. Will I actually look back and realise that the shows that I should have given more consideration to were the ones like Lost, Buffy and Battlestar, shows that will stand out because even if they weren’t technically as good, they were innovative and therefore hugely more important?
Ah well, seeya in a decade to check.

Battle of the Shows: Round 2

Previously on Battle of the Shows: Vulture.com came up with a list of 16 “Best shows of the last 25 years”, set them up in a fight and then proceeded to make all the wrong choices. I re-ran the fights to show you what should have happened.

Round 1 was pretty easy, outcomes were largely based on technical quality, impact and in one moment of excitement – a coin toss. Round 2 is where things get tricky. Ish.

Six Feet Under vs. The Shield
It comes down to the simple question of which one I’d rather watch. Although I haven’t been able to bring myself to watch the end of the series, I have been known to re-watch older episodes of Six Feet Under. I don’t regret for a minute watching the episodes of The Shield that I have, but I have no desire to re-watch any of them again and only ever recommend it to the toughest of television fans. Six Feet Under is just a more pleasant experience, which is saying something given that it’s a show entirely about death and the difficulty of living.

The West Wing vs. The Wire
The West Wing. Easy. I will get round to The Wire again, too many people who’s opinion I respect have recommended it. But after season 1 of The West Wing I went straight out and bought season 2 for full price in an actual shop and sat and watched it during my lunch break. After season 1 of The Wire, I never watched another episode.

Friday Night Lights vs. Battlestar Galactica
OK, that’s a lot tougher. I’m going to vote for Friday Night Lights, but I’m not 100% sure that isn’t just the easy option. It’s the show I’ve watched most recently and it’s certainly the easier show to watch. That’s not to say that Friday Night Lights is laugh a minute or anything, it’s a show about hope and dreams, and a lot of the time, those don’t work out. But Battlestar takes it a step forwards and shows you what happens when a distant hope is all you have and that really isn’t much at all. Friday Night Lights is about making the best you can and fighting for what you want; Battlestar is about desperation and fighting even once the war is lost, because what else are you going to do? Battlestar is obviously the more ambitious show covering a multitude of science fiction ideas, time and space, while Friday Night Lights is ‘just’ about teenagers playing football, but both shows take plenty of time to examine the people and relationships. While Battlestar Galactica is a superb achievement, Friday Night Lights more smoothly blends entertainment and drama, just making it a more pleasant viewing experience.

Mad Men vs. Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Ouch another tough choice. Buffy means so much more to me than Mad Men. I used to get my family to video it and when I came home from university for the weekend my mum and I would watch it in marathon sessions. I think Mad Men is the better show, it’s crafted like fine art to be studied, appreciated and discussed, but that makes it occasionally academic and cold. But Buffy to me is something to love, it’s far from perfect, but it’s something you have a relationship with.

Previously – Round 1, next up – the semifinals and the final

Battle of the Shows – Round 1

Vulture.com are doing a sort of battle of the best TV drama of the last 25 years. I started reading it and was really impressed at the depth of the analysis and with the unexpected outcome of the first decision. But then I read a second article and I could not have disagreed more strongly with their choice. I figured I’d run through their choices myself and explain why they are wrong.

NB – They have started out with a shortlist of 16, which was already wrong. There’s a few of my top shows of the decade missing from the get-go and of course it ignores the output of every country other than the US (oh and Canada, there’s some Canadians on the list!). But I wanted to use the same list.

So round 1 – ding ding:

Deadwood vs. Buffy the Vampire Slayer
This was the first category I came across (because I got the link from Whedonesque) and thought that Buffy would be in for short shrift. But I was impressed not only by the depth of the analysis, but by the fact that Buffy won. Although I’m well known as a Buffy fan, even I don’t think this was an easy competition to judge. I really love Deadwood, it’s a fascinating and unusual show that brings the poetry of Shakespeare to potty mouthed prospectors. Buffy on the surface is just an American high school show with cheerleaders who happen to fight vampires, but of course as any number of sources will tell you it’s really about life and destiny and choice. The beauty of Buffy is that it’s actually both, it’s hugely entertaining and it’s really very important. It created its own genre and dozens of shows owe Buffy their success.

The other issue to me though, and this is what really swung it – Deadwood is incomplete. Cruelly cut down in its prime, it never got to finish its story. Of course that’s not the shows fault, but when I evaluate the competition Buffy got more time and told a complete story.

The X-Files vs. The West Wing
This was where Vulture.com lost me. I’m sorry, but no way in this universe or the next is The X-Files a better show than The West Wing. My love of The West Wing is well documented all over this site, so I’ll not go over how smart the dialogue is, or how fascinating the subjects are, or how much I adore all the characters. On the flip side you won’t find any article about The X-Files because I haven’t re-watched it since I started writing reviews properly about 8 years ago. Now like every geeky teenage girl of the mid 90s I adored Fox Mulder, obsessively videoing every episode and dissecting them with my friends. But even my adoration couldn’t stick with the show when 4 seasons in it degenerated into overly complicated, drawn out conspiracy theories and endless will-they-won’t-they relationship bumblings. Then it went on another 28 seasons or something. Yes, The West Wing had some dodgy phases and although it eventually clawed its way back for a breathtaking season 7, it never really reached its original heights; but the best of The X-Files was never as good as The West Wing’s, and its worst was considerably worse and much longer.

Breaking Bad vs. Friday Night Lights
I have never seen Breaking Bad, I have sesaon 1 on dvd, but I just haven’t got round to watching it. So, I don’t really have any right to make a judgement here. However while I’ve heard stunning things of the early Breaking Bad, I’ve also heard some disappointment at the direction of later seasons. So with an acknowledgement that I’m not being fair, the only way I can vote is for the show that appealed enough for me to actually watch it. An easy win for Friday Night Lights.

The Sopranos vs. Six Feet Under
I’ve seen one season of The Sopranos and four of Six Feet Under, so I’m 5 seasons short on Sopranos and 1 season short on Six Feet Under. But the reason that I haven’t finished either season is the key to my decision. I thought season 1 of The Sopranos was ok, but I never really connected to the characters and there was nothing calling out to me to watch more. The counterpoint to that is that I haven’t seen the final season of Six Feet Under because I don’t want to say goodbye to the characters. I have had the season 5 dvds on my shelf for years, but haven’t watched them because although I know it is a superb season and often described as one of the best series finales ever, I enjoyed the show too much to watch it end. It’s stupid, but that’s why Six Feet Under wins.

The Wire vs. My So-Called Life
This is a bit like the battle of who cares less. I have friends who threaten to disown me for this, but I just didn’t get along with The Wire, I watched one season and really struggled to follow what was happening. I do have vague intentions to give it another try though. Meanwhile, I’ve got the box set of My So-Called Life and haven’t made it past episode 2 – I can’t tell you anything about it, just that I haven’t bothered to put the dvd back in. So on episode count alone, The Wire wins.

The Shield vs. NYPD Blue
This one is another unfair one as I’ve never seen an episode of NYPD Blue in my life. I suspect it’s also not fair because without NYPD Blue, would The Shield exist? I’ve seen the first few seasons of The Shield and thought it was amazing, BUT I haven’t watched the whole series because I just couldn’t take any more. It was all just too bleak, violent and depressing. So do I go for the show that is a foundation for so many great shows after it but that I’ve never bothered to watch, or the one that takes those foundations to their logical but eventually unwatchable extreme? I genuinely flipped a coin and it came down in favour of The Shield.

Twin Peaks vs. Battlestar Galactica
I’m about two thirds of the way through Twin Peaks. I watched the first half obsessively over the space of a week and have got at least 4 blog posts in my head about it. So why haven’t I finished watching it? Mostly because like most people who watched the show, I found that after they solved the initial mystery of who killed Laura Palmer, the momentum of the show just disappeared. Secondly I wasn’t actually a fan of the levels of weirdness it degenerated to, I liked the kooky and odd stuff, but the resolution to the mystery was just too much. Battlestar Galactica came pretty close to losing me a few times along the way as well with its rather extreme mythologies. But I stuck with it, because it was so well written and produced and in the end, I think it all came together, and then it dutifully stopped. Maybe if Twin Peaks had just stopped, it would have stood a chance, but as it didn’t, Battlestar wins.

Mad Men vs. Lost
I gave up on Lost somewhere in the third season, because I lost faith in the writers. I felt they were trying too hard to make a television show that could be stretched out for as many years as possible, rather than telling a well paced mystery story. By all accounts I should probably go back and watch it through because I hear it pulled it all back together in the end, but I haven’t got round to that yet. With Mad Men however, I have nothing BUT faith in the writers. It’s one of the slowest series I’ve ever watched, half a dozen episodes can go by with seemingly nothing happening except gorgeous period detail and subtle acting. But every now and then, something happens – two characters share a moment, or a single line of dialogue and you realise that all that nothingness has been building to that one perfect moment. It’s breathtaking. The only proviso I put on awarding this win to Mad Men is that it’s one of the few shows on this list still airing new episodes and it still has time to blow it.

Next up – Round 2, and the semifinals and the final

Please watch Friday Night Lights

I spy that Sky Atlantic are about to start showing Friday Night Lights, and this is my begging grovelling desperate petition for you to give it a shot.

I used to just watch what happened to be on, whatever caught my eye in advert breaks, I might go an extra bit of effort to seek out the more illusive scifi shows, but for the most part I only watched what was available on the channels I had. Gradually though I started getting more interested in what critics told me I should be watching, which meant seeking stuff out on random channels, buying dvds or using more circuitous methods to obtain shows that didn’t make it to the UK at all.

Friday Night Lights is almost the epitome of that. In the US its lacklustre ratings led to it being taken off its original network, but it was saved in a unique deal that saw it premiering on a minor cable channel first. In the UK ITV4 showed one season at some ridiculous time and you can’t even get the rest of it on DVD. Despite it being hard to find though it is one of the most critically acclaimed shows of recent history.

The primary reason that people won’t want to watch Friday Night Lights is that it appears to be about American high school football. But if you let that put you off then you’re not watching television right, it’s not a matter of what the subject is, it’s a matter of what the show is really about. American football is the subject of Friday Night Lights, but really this is a show about people and relationships. It’s about kids who have dreams and kids who don’t, kids who are going places and kids who aren’t, it’s about the friends and families and teachers who will fight for every single one of those kids whether it’s their own son, or a random kid at the back of the class. The football games aren’t about kicking a ball through the posts, it’s about kids finding their confidence, a coach inspiring his athletes, a team supporting each other and an underdog overcoming expectations. It’s epic. But it’s just a small town in Texas.

Friday Night Lights and its cast has been in my ‘awards’ lists every year I’ve watched it. It’s on my shows of the decade list in second place. I can’t think of a single show that I’ve become so emotionally invested in, I had to take an extended break at one point just because I found out a spoiler that I didn’t want to see come true, not because it was a bad story or an illogical one, but because it made so much sense but broke my heart anyway. I cried my way through box loads of tissues over the years with almost equal measures of sorrow and joy.

Friday Night Lights is why I blog. I discovered it because people told me I should watch it, and I blog so that people like you might listen to me when I say you should watch it. If you listen to one thing I say, just one out of the hundreds of things I post here. Please, just give Friday Night Lights a chance.

Friday Night Lights starts Tuesday 14th February on Sky Atlantic, 8pm

My reviews: Television of the decade, seasons 1, 3, 4 and 5. I’m not alone! The Guardian has done not one but two pieces on why you should watch.

The 2010-2011 Season

As always my definitions of what counts for a season are a bit variable, pretty much anything that aired somewhere between the beginning of September 2010 and the end of August 2011 are fair game for this.

Blue Bloods: S1
Bones: S6
Brothers & Sisters: S5
Castle: S3
Criminal Minds: S6
CSI: S11
CSI:NY S7
Doctor Who 2011
Downton Abbey: S1
Friday Night Lights: S5
Fringe: S3
Game of Thrones – S1
Glee: S2
The Good Wife: S2
Grey’s Anatomy: S7
House: S7
Leverage: S3
Lie to Me: S3
Mad Men: S4
Merlin: S3
NCIS: S8
NCIS: Los Angeles – S2
Sons of Anarchy: S3
Stargate Universe: S2
Supernatural: S6
Terriers: S1
The Big C: S1
The Walking Dead: S1

There’s a few bits and bobs that don’t make the list – Outcasts (meh), Mad Dogs (ok), Warehouse 13 (fun but poor), Bedlam (awful), Falling Skies (still haven’t got round to finishing) more documentaries than I might expect (I remember being impressed by a lot of them but the only one I really remember is the superb Inside Nature’s Giants).

Between everything listed above and the pilots I reviewed that’s getting on for 600 episodes of television, probably about 500 hours, which given the national average is somewhere between 20 and 30 hours a week, actually is still way below ‘average’. Of course most normal people don’t watch television in the ridiculous concentrated way that I do, so I guess I shouldn’t jump up and down and declare myself well adjusted just yet.

All in all, I’ve not been massively impressed with this year. Although I found it hard to narrow down most of the categories below there were relatively few things that I’d label as outstanding. I don’t know whether this is because I’m getting increasingly hard to please in my old age or because television writers and networks are getting more willing to settle for mediocre in the tough financial times. Either way, given that several of the shows I mention below have come to an end or are looking at likely final seasons, it doesn’t bode particularly well.

Best Shows
These are the shows that are superb – with amazing writing, beautiful direction, compelling acting and thought provoking stories. The ones that the Emmy’s and Golden Globes *should* be nominating.

  • Friday Night Lights – I don’t think season 5 was the best season of the show, I never fell in love with the Lions as much as I did the original Panthers, but even with that in mind it was still one of the absolute highlights of the year and I will miss it.
    Mad Men – this show can appear very slow and dull to a casual viewer, but if you invest in it and pay attention there is such incredible depth that with a little bit of analysis and discussion you have a real sense of satisfaction fitting everything together.
  • Fringe – I rewatched a few episodes of the first season recently and who knew that the ok but unspectacular X-Files wannabe would turn out to be such a fascinating and creative story about alternate worlds literally colliding.
  • The Big C – A comedy about terminal illness, really? But it manages to combine being hilariously funny with being beautifully moving without becoming cloying or preachy. It’s one of the most uplifting things I’ve seen in a long time.
  • Stargate Universe – as far as I’m concerned season 2 was as near to my idea of perfect science fiction as is likely to be seen for a long time. It had interesting stories and ideas, but more importantly was all done with a fascinating group of characters and a lot of humour.

Favourite Shows
These are the shows that I adore. They’re the ones that I desperately wait for new episodes of, the ones that I follow on blogs, the shows that make me smile, cry, and forget that the characters aren’t actually real. Comparing these to Mad Men is like comparing apples and oil rigs, but they still deserve recognition.

  • Glee – this is far and away my favourite show of the year. It has massive consistency problems when it comes to writing and storylines, but every single episode makes me laugh, and simply hearing one of the songs on my ipod can make me forget all about my troubles and grin like a fool.
  • Grey’s Anatomy – with the exception of a questionable couple of storylines towards the end of the season Grey’s has been right back on the sort of form that got me addicted to the early seasons of the show. Even my frustrations with what I describe as poor writing choices are only because I’m so unhealthily emotionally tied to these characters.
  • Doctor Who – I’m not sure whether I’m referring to the previous season that ended at Christmas or the one that’s currently half way through (which is likely why I’m missing the season review), but it really doesn’t matter because each has been superb, somehow managing to be hugely entertaining Saturday evening family viewing, but also superb quality drama with delicate and beautiful writing. This one really could have gone in either category.
  • Terriers – This may be a partial pity vote, if it hadn’t been cancelled would I have been so passionate about it? Don’t know and never will, so it’s on this list because I thoroughly enjoyed it.
  • Downton Abbey – I’d been looking forward to the remake of Upstairs Downstairs and probably to the BBC’s consternation, this ITV almost-rip-off blew it out of the water. A great cast, hilarious writing and a lovely Sunday evening vibe to the whole thing made this a lovely piece of television to watch with friends and family.

Male actors

  • Tim Roth, (Cal Lightman, Lie to Me) –Roth’s performance was so entertaining and unpredictable that it took me three seasons to notice that the rest of the show around him was actually not very good at all.
  • Jared Padelecki (Sam Winchester, Supernatural) – I’m a Dean girl through and through, but even I have to acknowledge this season that Sam got the better material and Padelecki acted his way through Sam’s splintering personalities impressively.
  • Matt Smith (The Doctor, Doctor Who) – who knew that I’d start forgetting David Tennant. The energy and charm of Smith’s doctor is just infectious.
  • John Noble (Walter Bishop, Fringe) – Noble made it on to my list last for playing the wonderfully bonkers character of Walter – sometimes brilliant scientist, sometimes emotionally unstable child. Given that in addition to that performance he adds on the character of Walternate, an alternate universe version where he’s a terrifying politician, there was no way he wouldn’t make the list this year too.
  • Kyle Chandler (Coach Eric Taylor, Friday Night Lights) – poor coach had a miserable couple of years struggling with having to chose between the lesser of two evils over and over, nothing ever seemed to quite go his way. Chandler’s understated performances just broke my heart.

Female actors
I still find myself struggling to find 5 decent nominees for this category, I hope that it’s just a coincidence of the shows I watch, but I fear that it’s representative and that’s very troubling.

  • Laura Linney (Cathy Jamison, The Big C) – I imagine this is the kind of role that actors dream of. Linney is simply phenomenal.
  • Julianna Marguiles (Alicia Florrick, The Good Wife) – I think this season of The Good Wife lost its way a little, but that doesn’t change that this continues to be a wonderfully rounded character and a lovely performance.
  • Anna Torv (Olivia Dunham, Fringe) – I’ve found her character a bit bland in previous seasons, but this season thanks to playing multiple different characters, Torv proved that it’s the character that’s bland, not the performance. The subtle differences with her alternate universe version were fascinating, and as for her performance of being possessed by Leonard Nimmoy…
  • Connie Britton (Tami Taylor, Friday Night Lights) – like her husband, nothing ever seems to go Tami’s way, every piece of good news is balanced with a difficult decision. She’s got more stoic and resigned to this as the years have gone by, but watching her wrestle with the potential break up of her family at the end of the season felt like the world was ending.
  • Katey Segal (Gemma Teller-Morrow, Sons of Anarchy) – I very nearly put her into the group category alongside Maggie Siff’s Tara because these two women at the heart of the male oriented motorcycle club are incredible. But Segal’s performance is the more nuanced one, the balance between confidence and insecurity, cold blooded scariness and utter devotion to her family.

Casts
In cases like Tom Sellek there’s one actor holding together an otherwise mediocre group, in cases like Laura Linney, she’s clearly carrying the weight of the series and standing out from an already very good supporting team. But for these guys and gals it’s the pairings and groupings that are the standout, if I commented on one of them, I’d have to comment on them all or I’d have the guilt.

  • Grey’s Anatomy – this show has always been the gold standard of ensemble acting and character development and this season has been no different. Everyone has interesting relationships that grow and mature (if you overlook some terrible backwards steps) and all are equally capable whether dealing with melodramatic emotions, intense medical scenes or hilarious comedy.
  • NCIS LA – the season has been an exploration of what it means to be partners and each of the pairings has delivered fascinating and entertaining performances, ably supported by the centre point of Hetty, NCIS could learn a lot from its offspring.
  • Glee – although Chris Colfer is clearly my (and the writers) favourite this is a spectacularly talented bunch of kids. The movie proves that they can perform just as well live in front of thousands of people, while the tv series shows that they can also deliver even the most ridiculous of storylines compellingly. All this on a ridiculously intensive schedule, imagine what they could do with decent material and a bit of sleep.
  • Donal Logue and Michael Raymond-James (Terriers) – My new favourite partnership sadly gone too soon, but I loved the easy camaraderie and open friendship of two people who came from entirely different backgrounds and ended up exactly the same.
  • Stargate Universe – it took a while, but eventually I came to love these characters and performances, right from the flamboyant ones at the front, through to the ‘supporting’ array of scientists and soldiers who could steal an entire scene with a throw away reference to Star Wars or a perfectly timed eye-roll. A dysfunctional family, just like lies at the heart of every great science fiction show.

Notable absences
Not listing Supernatural as one of my favourite shows of the year actually hurt, but it came down to a choice between it and Terriers and Supernatural was edged out just because my abiding memory of the season is one of sadness. It all just got a bit much this season for the show to be as enjoyable as before, but while it was all done really well it doesn’t quite make it into the other category of top shows because it wasn’t quite even enough to stand alongside the other shows.

Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead – being a genre fan I also find it sad that I can’t comment on these more favourably, but just being about a different subject doesn’t give you a free pass, you still need to be good. Game of Thrones was good, it only narrowly missed out in the favourite category, but The Walking Dead just wasn’t good enough, yes it’s great to see zombies on television but it still needed to just be better – better writing, better characters, better acting – just better. My feelings on BBC’s Outcasts meanwhile were so confused that apparently I never even got round to writing a review of it… it tried hard, but it really wasn’t very good.

British TV – there are a few British series that I watched all the way through this year, and a few that were so short they didn’t make it to proper reviews, but generally I find that I really have to force myself to watch them. Partly it’s self-fulfilling, I watch mostly US stuff, so I mostly read US blogs etc and therefore mostly find out about US stuff. I often find out about British stuff a couple of episodes in and then never get round to catching up. iPlayer et al help, but it’s one of the areas that I’d like to watch more of this year.

Friday Night Lights: Season 4 & 5

I took an unconventional approach to watching the last two seasons of Friday Night Lights. I watched the first half of the fourth season and then stopped. Then I watched the second half of season 4 and most of season 5 in a week. Then it took me a month or so to bring myself to watch the last two episodes. This reluctance to watch isn’t because it’s bad, but completely the opposite. I had to stop watching season 4 because I read a spoiler of what happened to one of my favourite characters and I just couldn’t bring myself to watch that happen on screen. Then within sight of the ending, I realised that I wasn’t ready to say goodbye and if I didn’t watch the finale, maybe it didn’t happen.

Eventually I just had to suck it up and watch though, driven predominantly by the fact that if I didn’t see it, I couldn’t include it on my end of year awards and I didn’t want to deprive it the opportunity. Suffice to say that not only will it be certain to appear on that list, but it maintains its second place on my TV of the decade list and would place similarly highly in a best show of all time list.

It’s hard to find anything to add to reviews of previous seasons, to find anything new to say about how a show that on paper is about football and small towns in Texas can be such a spectacular look at the lives of a group of fantastic characters. How boundaries were pushed on network television for what issues will be addressed. How beautiful direction combined loose and open documentary styles with breathtaking sports sequences. How actors like Kyle Chandler, Taylor Kitsch and Zach Gilford did so much while saying so little, while actors like Connie Britton and Adrianne Palicki were so subtle while shouting out loud.

There was a relatively smooth transition from the original Panther team to the Lions team of the last couple of seasons but unfortunately I never really bonded with the new kids as much as I loved Saracen, Riggins, Street, Smash and Landry. Seeing the other side of Dillon, the massively underprivileged Lions fighting for every penny and every bit of respect highlighted how easy the original team had it in many ways. Watching characters like Vince, Jess and Becky fight for every opportunity, particularly in the last few episodes was inspiring and heartbreaking.

I felt some of the plots of the final season floundered a bit. I never really liked Julie Taylor much and was a bit frustrated that while other people left high school and left the series, she lingered around making her usual poor choices. I also found the storyline that saw the Taylors’ fighting over their future very troublesome. It didn’t feel realistic to me that they’d be so unable to communicate, that they would come so close to letting themselves be pulled apart. But I find myself unable to make an accurate, unemotional assessment; I want so much to say that this was bad writing, engineering a crisis that the characters wouldn’t really have allowed happen, but is that purely my love of the characters speaking? Just like I was so mad at the show for having Tim Riggins screw up his life so badly, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t entirely consistent in how the character would behave in that situation.

I always had to struggle to watch this show, I was so emotionally invested in every game, every relationship, every character, every choice… every single scene… it was exhausting. I worked my way steadily through half a box of tissues in the final episode alone, but alternated every tissue with laughing out loud. As a critic, I felt the finale was a bit willowy as it showed all the characters getting happy endings and lacking the grittiness of previous storylines – but as a fan, I would have been devastated if it had finished any differently.

Clear eyes, full hearts…

The Upfronts: NBC

What’s out
The only show that I actually watch on NBC is Friday Night Lights and the end of the show has been planned for a while, giving plenty of time to wrap it up in a satisfying fashion. I adore the show, think it’s superb, but have to admit that I haven’t quite had the emotional strength to watch the last season yet, knowing it’s the last actually made it harder.

There are plenty of new shows that won’t be back, most of which never got off the ground at all – The Cape, Chase, The Event, Law & Order LA (which couldn’t be rescued even by a complete overhaul mid-season), Undercovers, and several sitcoms. Not a good year for NBC.

What’s back
Chuck has been renewed for a final half season wrap up, for a show that’s been bubbling since it started, 5.5 seasons seems like a bloody good run. But I don’t watch it so I can’t really say.

Harry’s Law is one that I wanted to like, but the more I thought about it, the more troubling I found the tone of the pilot. I may investigate whether it got better and go back to it as it will be returning next year, slightly surprising given that I haven’t heard any critic say anything about it in months and the ratings weren’t spectacular.

Parenthood is a show I keep meaning to catch up on, initially staying away from it because I didn’t want to fall in love with it as it seemed doomed to early cancellation. Now that’s just been renewed for season 3 so I guess that excuse has worn out.

Other things I don’t watch that are returning – 30 Rock, Community, The Office, Parks and Recreation and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, although there seems to be the suggestion that they might be making big cast changes (if anyone reading this cares).

What’s new
Awake – Hello to Jason Issacs! You seem to have landed yourself a pretty amazing looking show.

Bent – I like Amanda Peet and the rest of the thing isn’t horrific, although it all looks a bit unremarkable.

Grimm – Kind of Supernatural meets Criminal Minds from the looks of it, sounds interesting, but I wasn’t massively impressed with the trailer.

The Playboy Club – This could end up being the kind of show that you tell people to ignore the title and the blurb and just watch because it’s superb. Or it could be horribly sexist and offensive. The trailer leaves me optimistic.

Prime Suspect – I’ve not watched the UK version, but this doesn’t look like Helen Mirren. I like Maria Bello a lot and this doesn’t look half bad.

Smash – Hey, Glee is massively successful right, why don’t we do a show about musicals?! Frankly I’m amazed that every network isn’t belting out show tunes at me. This looked… all right, not sure how they’re going to make it a series rather than just a tv movie though.

Up All Night – I actually chuckled a couple of times at this!

Free Agents – Damnit, I chuckled a couple of times in this one too. I hate myself.

Whitney – I did not laugh. I feel better about myself.

Are You There Vodka? It’s Me Chelsea – dear god in heaven, this is possibly the most offensive and horrific thing I’ve ever seen labelled as a comedy. Drinking and driving… so funny!

Also a TV adaptation of The Firm (coming next Jan, so there’s no trailer for me to label as boring yet) and something called Best Friends Forever which seemed awful from the only clip I could find.

Links: The TV Addict, The Futon Critic, TV Squad.

End of year report card

The start and end points for the television year is pretty fuzzy. Given that I watch mostly US shows, I tend to go by their year which runs roughly from September rather than the calendar year. So I decided that I’d count the start of the year as 1st September (and I go by American air dates, not the UK). BUT life isn’t that simple, because what do I do with shows that start in one year but end in another. For example Mad Men season 3 ran August-November 2009, running one year to the next. Then I looked at what the Emmys do and it turns out they run June 1st 2009-May 31st 2010. BUT they don’t strictly speaking pay attention to show seasons, it’s just whichever episodes ran in that time frame, which means from what I can tell – the last two episodes of the season of Glee weren’t eligible for entry as they aired in June 2010.

So after all that, I decided to hell with it and I’d count what I felt fit within 2009-2010 and be pretty much arbitrary about it.

Bones – Season 5
Brothers & Sisters – S4
Caprica – S1
Criminal Minds – S5
CSI – S10
CSI:NY – S6
Defying Gravity – S1
Dollhouse – S1
Doctor Who – 2010
FlashForward – S1
Friday Night Lights – S4
Fringe – S2
The Good Wife – S1
Glee – S1
Grey’s Anatomy – S6
House – S6
Leverage – S2
Lie to Me – S2
Mad Men – S3
The Mentalist – S2
Merlin – S2
NCIS: Los Angeles – S1
NCIS – S7
Outnumbered – S3
Sons of Anarchy – S2
Stargate Universe – S1
Supernatural – S5
Trauma – S1
Warehouse 13 – S1
White Collar – S1
V – S1

Top of the Class – Best Drama

  • Mad Men: For once, I’m in absolute agreement with the Emmys. Season 3 (season 4 has just started on BBC4) was a work of near perfection. The pacing, the way everything had been so carefully and subtly built up until the final episode which was one of the most satisfying hours of television I’ve ever seen. The detail of this show is incredible, it’s a slow burn, but it’s really worth it.
  • Friday Night Lights – I have a guilty relationship with this show, because despite the fact I have it ‘available’, I haven’t managed to bring myself to watch the second half of the season. This season has felt like really hard going, everybody’s’ lives really seem to suck and it’s just hard to watch. But that doesn’t make it any less superb or any less worthy of its position in the number 2 slot in the drama category.
  • Sons of Anarchy – There’s just something about this bunch of gun running, murdering, hells angels that just makes you forgive them everything they do. The closest thing I can think of to this show is Brothers & Sisters, it’s got the same sense of families fighting amongst themselves, but ultimately doing anything for each other – just with more Nazis.
  • Trauma – Maybe this show wouldn’t have made the cut if I didn’t feel bad for it being cancelled, but I really do think it was one of the better shows of the year. It’s not perfectly refined like Mad Men, but the heart and soul of it are true, the characters and relationships are interesting and different and I enjoyed every episode.
  • The Good Wife – Proving that ‘legal procedural’ doesn’t have to mean Law and Order or wanting to kill all the characters. The ensemble cast is amazing and contains some of my favourite actors, and seeing them together creating such complex characters is immensely satisfying.

Head Boy – Best Male Actor/Character (you don’t get to be a great actor without a well crafted/written character and great characters don’t survive great actors)

  • Tim Roth (Cal Lightman, Lie to Me) – I don’t understand why Tim Roth and Lie to Me don’t get more attention. In a world of dark, sober, troubled and angsty television detectives, Tim Roth lights up the room. He’s manipulative and arrogant, but he’s also a brilliant father, a caring friend and of all the investigators on television, he’s the one I’d want in my corner the most.
  • Matt Smith (The Doctor, Doctor Who) – I had my doubts, not because he was young or unknown or anything like that, but just because I thought David Tennant had created an un-equalable character. Matt Smith blew me away with his charm, his goofiness, his terrifying speeches and his ability to make a fez look cool.
  • Kyle Chandler (Coach Taylor, Friday Night Lights) – This man seems to do less acting than anyone else on television, he hardly says anything, sometimes he barely moves, but somehow you understand every single thing the character is thinking.
  • Jenson Ackles (Dean Winchester, Supernatural) – I was a bit disappointed by the season of Supernatural, but I was never disappointed with either of the lead performances. Part of what frustrated me about the season was that it was all over the range from slapstick to suicidal angst, via homicidal range and utter psychosis. Jenson Ackles nailed each of the emotions and how stubborn, but over-his-head Dean would approach each one.
  • Hugh Laurie (Dr House, House) – I didn’t like this series of House much, as per usual I think it spent too long coasting through the middle of the season and then made some dubious relationship choices. But Hugh Laurie was consistently great throughout, except for the bookending episodes, where he was absolutely amazing.

Head Girl – Best Female Actor/Character (is actress politically incorrect?)

  • Julianna Margulies (Alicia Florrick,The Good Wife) – A breath of fresh air on network television, a woman with kids, a career, issues and most importantly a personality of her own. I loved when she got drunk with Kalinda, or acted as a big sister to Cary, or didn’t quite know how to interact with Diane. But mostly I loved the way she fell back to being a college student falling for her friend and not knowing what to do about it.
  • Katey Segal (Gemma Taylor-Morrow, Sons of Anarchy) – Gemma had the epitome of a bad year on Sons of Anarchy, but through it all she was their Queen, she loves all the members of her family and fights to protect them, whether with a gun, her fists, or just by keeping a secret. Katey Segal was amazing.
  • Connie Britton (Tammy Taylor, Friday Night Lights) – The other half of the best couple on television, Tammy’s not had a great year either. But like her husband, she doesn’t have to say anything for you to understand the multiple faces the character presents to everyone, including herself. When she steals her little victories wherever she can, and fights for her kids (the whole school load of them) it makes me want to hug her.
  • Ellen Pompeo (Meredith Grey, Grey’s Anatomy) – Meredith grew up and got happy and made me love her. Last year I put her on this list partially out of pity, this year she’s there on merit, actually taking her position as ‘lead’ actress more than just being a ‘prominent female member of the ensemble’. She’s completely settled into her position as the mother of the group – her reaction to her marriage and the loss of her friends was really mature. Whiny Meredith is hopefully gone for good.
  • Sally Field (Nora Walker, Brothers and Sisters) – When Sally Field cries, I cry. When she screams, I hid under a cushion. Whether herding her unruly brood, or causing chaos all by herself, I love her to pieces.

Prefects: Boys (Supporting actors)

  • John Noble (Walter Bishop, Fringe) – Walter is crazy. Utterly and completely, self-medicatingly, one-too-many-magic-mushrooms, bucket loads of crazy. But then in alternate world Walter is utterly sane and calm and scary and slimy. Noble bounces around between Walters multiple personalities and bodies with amazing talent.
  • Chris Colfer (Kurt Hummel, Glee) – The best thing in Glee. He’s completely over the top and ridiculous to the point you almost want to throw him in a dumpster yourself, but then he does something heartbreaking. Also, he can belt out a tune like the best divas out there.
  • David Blue (Eli Wallace, Stargate Universe) – He’s exactly what the stereotypical Stargate fan would be like if they found themselves inside a Stargate series. He’s got no clue about the military, or really people at all. He’s a massive geek who breaks tension by making Star Wars jokes. He brings a bit of reality to the otherwise slightly highly strung Stargate team.
  • Cliff Curtis (Rabbit Palchuk, Trauma) – Cliff Curtis became one of my favourite actors this year playing the deeply troubled, but utterly charming Rabbit. A really fascinating character and a slightly unlikely leading man, but he was the heart of this show.
  • Enver Gjokaj (Victor, Dollhouse) – I ummed and erred between Victor and Fran Kranz’s Topher, but eventually the Doll edged out the geek because he got to play a different role (and accent) every week and nailed them all, even managing to play Topher to perfection.

Prefects: Girls (Supporting Actresses)

  • Chandra Wilson (Miranda Bailey, Grey’s Anatomy) – She wasn’t even nominated for an Emmy this year, which I was so astonished by I had to check multiple times. Bailey follows the Sally Field rules – she cries I cry, she shouts, I actually cheer out loud. Her final scene of the final episode just destroyed me.
  • Elisabeth Moss (Peggy Olson, Mad Men) – “I’m Peggy Olson. And I want to smoke some marijuana” and “Beg me? You didn’t even ASK me”. Nuff said.
  • Christine Baranski (Diane Lockheart, The Good Wife) – Although her colleague Archie Panjabi (Kalinda) got the Emmy, I think Christine Baranski was far superior if for no other reason than she seemed to be having so much FUN with the role. Not afraid to flirt with a colleague or laugh out loud at the ridiculousness of a situation.
  • Allison Scagliotti (Claudia, Warehouse 13) – like Eli in Stargate, Claudia is the voice of the fan. She’s a geek who loves a gadget and points out the idiocy of all the plans. She, and her ever changing hair colours, brings life to the show.
  • Linda Hunt (Hetty Lange, NCIS:LA) – A breath of fresh air, a bizarre mix of motherly and drill sergent that manages to make even LL Cool J quake in his boots.

Team Players (Best pairings/ensembles)

  • Callen and Hanna (NCIS:Los Angeles) – A perfect yin and yang thing of hot headedness and cool, all bundled up in a caring (but not out loud!) partnership. Who’d’ve thought it.
  • Team Free Will, Supernatural
    “This is it… Team Free Will. One ex-blood-junkie, one drop-out with six bucks to his name and Mr Comatose over there. Awesome.”
    “It’s not funny”
    “I’m not laughing”
  • Christina and Meredith (Grey’s Anatomy) – When Meredith revealed the plans for her and Derek’s dream house and pointed out Christina’s Room I burst into tears yet again. I love these two sisters.
  • The Walker Clan (Brothers and Sisters) – You can’t really break this group up. They squabble and occasionally even fight, but the group of them together and the complex relationships between all of them are amazing.

Points for effort – The home of the things that are solidly doing their job, are entertaining, and occasionally verging into brilliant, but are generally just really solidly plugging away doing what they do.

  • CSI:Original had a really solid season, settling down after the changes of recent years and just turning in an entertaining, reliable and interesting season, there’s not many shows that can say that moving in to their 11th season they’ve still got some spark.
  • Grey’s Anatomy deserves a lot of praise for bouncing back from the previous terrible season, I nearly gave up on the show, but I’m glad I didn’t.
  • Brothers & Sisters – cheesy, melodramatic, sappy and utterly sentimental – it embraces these things with such enthusiasm and does them so well, it’s hard not to love.
  • Glee – If only the quality of the plots were more consistent, this would be worthy of considerably more praise. As it is, I enjoyed most of the episodes, but ended up frustrated that it wasn’t just slightly better.

Must Try Harder

  • The Mentalist – A nice idea, a charismatic lead character… but ultimately the character development isn’t, ‘mysteries’ aren’t, and the novelty wore off.
  • Outnumbered – It was still funny, but it just wasn’t as good as previous seasons. Not least because it seemed to spontaneously stop dead, to such an extent that I completely failed to note it had finished and never got round to writing a review.
  • Science fiction – it’s not been a good year for science fiction imho. V, Caprica and Flashforward were all disappointing.
  • NCIS – Still flipflopping all over the place with a lack of consistency and character development. Maybe it’s time for this one to retire.
  • Criminal Minds – I praised the show for finally having the team come together and having an impressive group of strong female characters… then they sacked two of them.

Television of the Decade

Way back in December various websites, magazines and newspapers started compiling ‘lists of the decade’ and I watched with interest how different those lists were. For a start the lists did different things – “best of the decade”, “most important”, “most influential”, “our favourite” – each allowed a slightly different take on it. But even taking that into account there was a huge range. I decided what I would do was amalgamate those lists into one summary list, so in January I gathered twenty of them up and started doing some statistics.

As it turned out it was pretty hard to merge them together, some had ordered their lists, but others hadn’t, so how did I compare the two. I decided to go out, get some fresh air and post a letter and have a think about it. That’s when I broke my arm and everything went to pieces for a bit.

Two months later I came back and figured I should finish it, but by then I’d changed my tune a bit. Who cares what other people think the lists should be, they’re idiots and only my opinion is right. So while I consider whether to bother writing the original article, here’s my top twenty shows of the last decade. Chosen because they’re important, good, enjoyable or just because I love them.

1The West Wing (reviews, quotes)
I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again and again and again – The West Wing is the best piece of television ever produced. Yes, yes it went downhill after Sorkin left, but it eventually sorted itself out and the final couple of seasons were very close to its original glories. No other show has this cast, this dialogue, this power, this humour and this passion, it’s about as perfect as seven seasons of television can get.

2Friday Night Lights (reviews, quotes)
A show about high school football in a small town in Texas has no right to be as good as this does. The show is very intimate, filmed handheld getting right into the nitty gritty of everyone’s lives – players, supporters, teachers and all their families. You will not find a more real feeling group of characters and a better chemistry, particularly between Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton as the coach and his wife. The show grows and develops each season as kids actually age and have to decide who to be and what to do with their lives and makes you care about every single screw-up and success.

3Firefly (review, quotes)
Cruely limited to just a handful of episodes, this may go down as one of the biggest ‘could have beens’ in television history. An interesting and unusual concept partnered with a great ensemble cast and perfect writing. It’s possible that it wasn’t sustainable, that the reason that the show appears on so many lists is that it never had the chance to go downhill (I’m not the biggest fan of the movie) but the world will never know and this will live in the hearts of bitter fans forever more.

4Battlestar Galactica (reviews, quotes)
Just as Babylon 5 would have appeared on my top of the 90s list, so does Battlestar Galactica for raising the bar of what a science fiction show can do. The vision for this show was impressively epic and depressingly dark. It wasn’t always perfect but the ambition was admirable and it succeeded far more often than it failed. It’s the only show on this list that I will probably never re-watch because part of the brilliance is in creating a likeable bunch of characters and making their lives increasingly miserable. Thankfully there’s enough beautifully crafted space battles and action sequences to prevent your brain exploding from the complicated debates of religion, politics and what it means to be ‘human’.

5Buffy the Vampire Slayer (reviews, quotes)
I haven’t re-watched this show in years, and I very nearly selected Angel for the list instead, but in the end I selected Buffy just for what I remember it meaning to me when I watched it. I was amongst those who mocked it when I first heard about it and then fell in love with the show when I finally caught up with it. It was a show that I had my family tape for me, and when I came home from university my mum and I would camp out in front of the tv and catch up. Angel may well be a ‘better’ show, more grown up and learning from some of Buffy’s mistakes, but Buffy earns it’s place by not so much breaking the mold as completely refusing to believe in the existence of a mold. Joss Whedon has two shows on this list, because he creates unique concepts, gathers talented actors and writes the best dialogue in the world.

6Supernatural (reviews, quotes)
I became addicted to Supernatural just last year and watched 4 seasons in roughly two weeks. Then I went back and re-watched them all again. It’s entirely fitting it ends up in this list just after Buffy, because it’s clearly an entry in the chain of successors of shows that on paper are aimed at teenagers, but are actually so much more. “Two brothers road trip across the US fighting ghosts and monsters” and yet it actually has the most carefully and satisfyingly crafted plot and character arcs of any show on this list. As it approaches the conclusion of the planned five year story arc the way everything falls together becomes more impressive with each episode. Yet while dealing with all this depth, it’s hugely entertaining and self-aware and fun. I love these characters and am utterly, hopelessly obsessed and not ashamed to admit it.

7Veronica Mars (reviews, quotes)
Another show that owes a bundle to Buffy. There may not be any monsters, but the spunky blonde at the heart of this show could easily take on a vampire in her spare time. There was a great cast of supporting characters but the heart of the story was the brilliant father-daughter relationship and the will-they-won’t-they relationships between good girl Veronica and bad boy Logan. Sadly the show peaked with its first season, the two subsequent seasons trying and failing to recapture the perfect mix of characters, episodic cases and the slow investigation and reveal of the season mystery. But even when those elements decayed, the dialogue and central relationships, along with the superbness of the first season, earn this show a place on mine, and many other people’s lists.

8Farscape (reviews, quotes)
I was sure this was a 90s show, and that was why not one single other list mentioned it, but actually it premiered in 1999 so with 4 seasons, thoroughly qualifies and people have just left it off because they’re stupid. There are few shows that have caused me to drop my jaw in disbelief so many times – this show was just WEIRD. Setting Jim Henson’s Creature Shop loose on science fiction show in another galaxy brought a creative craziness to the screen that hasn’t been seen before or since. But it wasn’t just weird, it was good. It’s like Blake’s 7 with puppets and budget. It was fun and heartbreaking but never ever dull.

9Deadwood (reviews)
Deadwood is the very epitome of what can be done on cable television in the US where they don’t have to deal with censors or advertisers and can do almost whatever the hell they want in terms of swearing, sex and violence. Deadwood is what Shakespeare would have produced if he’d written about an American frontier town in the wild west and been able to say f*** 1.5 times a minute. It does get a little overwhelmed with storylines by the third season, but by then you’ve fallen in love with the poetry, the period and the characters, even those that raise the label ‘dubious moral character’ to new levels.

10Mad Men (reviews)
I can’t really imagine watching Mad Men one episode a week as very little plot happens in each episode, meaning you’re relying on the acting and writing to provide interest, which while superb occasionally leaves you asking “but what actually happened?”. However watching it in a chunk, or even a whole season at a time reveals a show of such breathtaking subtlety that the fact that it is so popular actually makes you feel better about the human race. Anyone that says the US can’t do period drama should look at Mad Men (and Deadwood for that matter) and apologise. The unashamed way each portrays its history is fascinating, there is no judgement in showing everyone chain smoking, or a pregnant character drinking, it’s just there in the background. The slow development of the characters and plots over the first three season all paid off in the final episode of season three with one of the most satisfying episodes of television I’ve ever seen.

11Outnumbered
Outnumbered is another show I only picked up recently, in fact Christmas 2009 when my brother brought the dvd along for family Christmas and we ALL found it hilarious. Then I shared it with a housemate who doesn’t usually watch this kind of thing and HE found it hilarious. It’s hard to explain how a show set almost entirely inside a house with 2 parents and 3 young kids can be this funny, but it is so fresh and real and “oh god, I can’t breathe” funny that I couldn’t leave it off this list.

12Six Feet Under (reviews, quotes)
This show almost didn’t make the list, Dexter was in this slot right up to the point that I started writing this paragraph, but as I started writing, I realised that actually, although Dexter is superb and has an amazing character at its core, it just didn’t have the same level of impact on me as Six Feet Under did.

Six Feet Under deals with the big philosophical questions of life and death, but balances them with the day to day dysfunctionality of the characters’ lives and the practical issues of dealing with death. The humour in the show is about as black as it comes, but it is really very funny. It is also beautiful, created and heavily influenced by Alan Ball of American Beauty, each episode has a movie level of thoughtfulness about the way it’s crafted. It’s not an easy show to watch, and I’ve never quite managed to bring myself to watch the final season, but it is superb and thoroughly deserving of a place on this list.

13Band of Brothers (review, quotes)
The only mini-series on this list and I almost excluded it for that reason, but then I figured that if Firefly can make the list with only 13 episodes, it was unfair to remove this because it had only 10. It’s a series that I wanted to re-watch almost as soon as I’d finished it, because at first I didn’t really appreciate it. I had a hard time telling the characters apart, not realising that they really did have characters beyond their ranks and positions. It’s basically Saving Private Ryan but 5 times as long and that is nothing but a complement. The same people are bringing out Pacific this year to serve as a partner to the show and I can’t wait.

14Doctor Who (reviews, quotes)
I always enjoyed Doctor Who as a kid, but wouldn’t have counted myself as a fan, it was just something that the family watched on TV. I don’t know whether it’s just the age difference or a change in quality/budget, or the structuring of the series, but I’ve connected with this new version a lot more strongly. The way it’s been brought up to date without losing sight of the past has been really impressive and the quality of it just oozes from every aspect. It earns its place on this list for achieving what I thought was impossible, taking an institution and bringing it up to date without losing the heart and soul of what it was.

15CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (reviews, quotes)
Few shows define a decade so neatly and impact upon it so much. The CSI story is a fantastic one, it was turned down by three networks before CBS picked it up to air in October 2000 and has been in the top ten rated shows ever since. It spawned not only two spin-offs but hugely influenced dozens of other popular (and not so popular) shows. It turned CBS (and Channel Five in the UK) into the CSI channels. But it also earns it’s place because I actually really like it, after over 200 episodes, I still enjoy the mysteries, the characters, the fantastic graphic style, the music and the humour.

16Grey’s Anatomy (reviews, quotes)
Grey’s Anatomy raised the game in terms of what writers must do. Shows are now aiming to be ‘the next Grey’s Anatomy’, and the majority of them are failing. Grey’s is an ensemble drama in the truest sense, not only does it have a massive collection of characters, but every character has a believable relationship with every other character, be it professional, personal, or inappropriate. The characters aren’t always likable and aren’t always smart, but they’re always themselves. It’s the kind of show that when the writers make a miss-step with their characters, the audience gets upset because it’s just not right.

I think it’s those mistakes that this show off a lot of people’s lists (it only appeared on one), but at the same time it’s the way that the show has earned that kind of passion that means it deserves to be here. I almost didn’t watch the new season, but I did and it immediately suckered me back in the way the show always does. I can’t think of another show that makes me laugh, gasp and cry almost every single episode. I hate myself a bit for it, but I adore this show.

17The Thick of It
Only the second comedy on this list and another one I’m a late convert to. It’s a modern day Yes Minister, but with a level of swearing that would have made perms fall out in the 80s. While Deadwood is notable for its quantity of swearing, The Thick of It is astounding for the creativity it brings to it, the pure poetry of the diatribes that spew from these characters is breathtaking. The comedy is slightly depressing when you consider that it’s quite possibly not a million miles from the real way a government department might be run, but somehow the characters always manage to come down on the “at least they mean well” side of incompetency.

18Planet Earth
This is on the list as a representative of all the output of the BBC Natural History Department. What always impresses me is the mixture of cutting edge technology such as ultra zoomable steady-shots from helicopters with the old-school requirement of a guy sitting in a hide for 3 months to capture 15 seconds of footage. The way they’ve taken to doing a ten minute of ‘making of’ at the end of each episode makes everything feel a lot more real somehow.

19Stargate SG1 (reviews, quotes)
Stargate in one form or another has been on the air since 1997 and with about 350 episodes in the franchise at times of writing it’s just been quietly soldiering along almost un-noticed. Longevity alone isn’t quite enough to get you on the list, but Stargate has managed to make all those episodes entertaining in one way or another. Even when the episode plot was nothing special, or the massive arc storylines were getting a bit bogged down in the epic mythology, they could always fall back on some really great characters and dialogue. Unlike the Star Trek characters a lot of the time, Stargate’s characters felt real, these were real scientists and grunts and officers and diplomats dealing with aliens on distant planets. They knew it was cool and scary and bizarre and pulled you right along with them.

20Top Gear (quotes)
Scraping its way onto the bottom of the list is Top Gear. For quite a while this was pretty much the only thing that I actually watched on live television rather than on dvd or.. um.. other methods. The show has become a bit of a victim of its own success, becoming something of a parody of itself, but at its best it was by far the most entertaining thing on. It’s not so much a car show, as an excuse for three blokes to just muck about a bit, make fun of each other and do really daft stuff. Challenges like the amphibious vehicles have had me laughing so hard it’s difficult to breath, while trips like riding bikes through Vietnam or driving to the pole left me craving adventure. It’s fun and often the perfect thing to watch on a Sunday night to escape the world for just a little while.