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.

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.


Pilot Review: Stargate Universe

Since Stargate Universe (SGU) was announced months and months ago as the successor to Stargate Atlantis I’ve been cautiously following the news and buzz about it. The creators say they want to make a Stargate that’s edgier and darker, one that learns from shows like Battlestar Galactica. They got off to a really good start with some impressive casting. I was surprised a Canadian sci-fi show could attract talent such as Robert Carlyle (surely most famous for Hamish Macbeth, but I guess also Trainspotting) and Ming-Na (ER). Most of the rest of the cast weren’t big names, but through interviews and blogs seemed to at bring the enthusiasm and energy I would expect of a Stargate cast.

The information that started coming out about the plot didn’t really grab me though. A slightly random group of people unexpectedly find themselves evacuated onto an Ancient ship cruising between galaxies. They must find some way to work together and maybe find a way home. So this is Stargate Voyager then? Also, Atlantis was supposed to be about a group of explorers trapped far from home, but they bottled out of that idea after a couple of seasons seemingly once they realised that surely by now the expedition would be out of ammo and batteries.

The trailers looked good, feeling a bit more grown up than the usual Stargate, even the music was used rock music instead of orchestral pieces and set a completely different tone. The trailer left me feeling excited and interested, but the two part pilot (technically it’s a three parter, but they only aired the first two parts together) left me feeling pretty unenthused and disappointed. It’s not that the show is bad at all, it’s thoroughly ‘ok’ and ‘acceptable’ and ‘serviceable’, none of these words indicating much in the way of powerful emotional response.

The large cast works pretty well together and there’s certainly plenty of material for relationships and conflict amongst the dozen or so characters that were featured. Robert Carlyle is impressively disconcerting, an extremely complex character on first appearance with dubious motivations. Some of the younger members of the group also do great jobs with characters completely out of their zones of experience, contrasting with the nonchalant attitudes of SG1 and Atlantis of “Oh yeah, just travelling to another planet, back for tea”.

The concept is also fine, it’s pretty basic but it gets the job done. It’s not original and it’s a bit contrived and rushed, but it’s perfectly acceptable. There’s a mechanism introduced for how the planet of the week can be introduced and again, it’s perfectly serviceable if maybe a little too easy as a plot device.

A whole bundle of stuff can be described in the same way – basic but functional, missing opportunities is to shine. I had hoped the musical style of the trailer might be continued, setting a different tone and style from the other Stargates, but it goes back to plain old orchestral stuff. The direction was utterly unremarkable except for a slightly tedious device to allow a kind of first person perspective in places (you’ll know it when you see it). I was a bit disappointed with the extraordinarily minimal grey set design, but again it makes sense. Most of what we see in the pilot is just dusty and grey utilitarian corridors, maybe once they get the lights working some character will appear.

I actually watched this pilot twice through before writing this and what grabbed me the second time was that the opening few minutes were really great. The characters arrive at speed through the Stargate, into an empty, dusty room; they had no idea where they were and the audience has no idea who they are. It’s brutal and interesting. But then they immediately backtrack into a flashback and there’s an immediate loss of adrenalin and this pattern continues through the episode. Like the worst episodes of Lost someone in the present would say something slightly cryptic, look meaningfully into the distance and ZING to flashback that immediately explains what they were thinking. What happened to the good old days where in order to understand a character’s back story the writers had to subtly interweave it with present day narrative and the audience had to pay attention?

Often when I watch things a second time I’ll spot flaws and irritations that I didn’t notice the first time, sadly with SGU I didn’t have to wait for the second viewing to have found plenty of frustrations. This pilot and concept has been in development a long time. I really don’t expect to watch this wanting to ask questions like “Why didn’t they just..?” or “what happened to the…?” every five minutes. The whole pilot was packed full of ridiculous dramatisations and writing tricks. By the fifth time someone was summoned away from their assigned task with “You need to come here and look at this” I was desperately wanting someone to just respond with “Kinda busy saving our lives, how about you provide me with a decent sit-rep and I’ll decide if it’s worth my time?” It’s sloppy, lazy writing and it happened over and over again.

The thing is, it’s all perfectly OK. Stargate has always been about good characters and fun adventures. SGU certainly has the former and the potential for the latter. It’s *not* Battlestar Galactica, and I really don’t want it to be. I watched Battlestar because it was absolutely superb, but I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it and was glad (in a satisfied and exhausted way) when it closed after five seasons. I watched 15 seasons of SG1 and Atlantis because I enjoyed them, not because I thought it was amazing. If Stargate Universe tries to be good, but not necessarily enjoyable, I think it’s going to end up being mediocre and dull and fall on its arse.

Links: Official site at MGM, imdb,
TV Squad review, CliqueClack review

Stargate Universe is on at 8pm, this Tuesday (6th) on Sky1 (repeated on Wednesday on Sky2)

Stargate SG1: Season 9

I’ve been rather unexcited with this new season of SG1. The series has had to go through several changes following the conclusion of most of the old arc storylines and the change of several cast members. The new cast are doing a good job and could be interesting, but I just don’t think they’re being given the material by the writers and the original cast have teh same problem. I think they’re trying to do too much too fast – introduce new major characters and a new arc plotline all within a few episodes. in doing this they’ve missed out on the standalone episodes that made SG1 fun to watch on a weekly basis.

Of the new stuff – the Ori plot just doesn’t interest me, I think it’s been rushed. Ben Browder’s Cameron Mitchell is frequently amusing and potentially interesting – if only he’d drift a bit further away from John Crichton. The new general is a bit bland (although so was Hammond) and the new doctor seems irritatingly bitchy. By far the highlight of the season were the 6 episodes with Claudia Black’s Vala creating mayhem and hilarity. The rest of the season so far has just not had the fire that those episodes do.

Stargate SG1: Season 1

My flatmates have acquired many many seasons of this on dvd and I felt it was someone’s duty to watch them. That and I was bored this weekend and not in the mood for Farscape. So back I went to 1997 (!) to watch season 1. It turns out Stargate hasn’t changed *that* much over the years. I still found it at it’s most fun when the characters were interacting, although the acting occasionally left something to be desired and many of the personalities hadn’t completely settled. The stories were almost entirely stand-alone (although the majority of them ended up being touched on again in later seasons) and it worked quite well as a “sci-fi idea of the week” kinda show. The end of the season had the gradual realisation of the depth of the problems they’d unleashed on the planet with an excellent 3/4 parter across to the next season, only interrupted with an annoying clip show (even more annoying when at most it’s only been 48 hours since you saw it the first time). There’s a good balance of all the things that make SG1 good – humour, action, sf, characters. I did spend most of the season wishing that Daniel would get a haircut and wondering why Carter was much… spunkier.

DVD Special Features
The dvd box set had absolutely no special features on it beyond a rather funky animated gateroom menu system thingy. Although there were additional scenes in the pilot that I didn’t remember from before (most notably a long scene at Jack’s house with him and Daniel that I’m sure I’ve never seen before).