Thursday, January 29, 2009

Love Me. Love My Television

I’ve never been shy about my love for television. Some might even call me a bit defensive about my habit. (It’s hard not to be, when friends get all haughty about not watching TV except for Lost and The Wire, of course. Yeah, that’s TV friend.)

I’ll admit to wishing my kids watched a little less, but I could never, ever be one of those people that says “we never turn on our TV and don’t even notice.’ Oh, I’d notice. From the halls of Bellevue, I would notice.

In trying to think of my favorite shows of all time, I’ve encountered two problems, one being that I also want to make a list of my favorite characters and the other being that most of my list includes recent shows. I either have a short memory or I’m easily influenced. Or both. Or TV has gotten better. Or I take my TV way too seriously. Ok, that’s it.

First, reality shows I love, but don't want to include on the list: American Idol, Survivor, The Amazing Race, Real World: Seasons 2-5 and The Osbournes: Season 1.

Second, new shows I love that aren't ready for the list: Mad Men, Gossip Girl

And finally, the list (memorable moments may contain spoilers):

10. The Cosby Show

In the pre-Rodney King, post-racial 80s, The Cosby Show represented an upper middle class black family as commonplace as the Cleavers. It was a revelation for many baby boomers, which had not seen a family like the Cosbys on TV before, but for me, it was just a funny show. I had siblings that locked me out of the bathroom and parents that liked to hug and lecture and crack wise to help me learn my lesson. Bill Cosby brought situation comedies back to life and ushered in — and out — a television moment where race didn't matter.

Memorable moments: The singing and dancing performances for the grandparents, Denise picks Hillman, Denise makes a shirt for Theo, Stevie Wonder, the first episode.

9. Thirtysomething/Once and Again

This is a bit of a cheat, since I am listing two in one, but it's all part of the Zwickian oeuvre, which could also include My So Called Life, if anyone in my high school household had been quiet long enough to let me watch it consistently. Woe the days before DVR. Thirtysomething was the first grown-up show I watched (Moonlighting doesn't count), and I think it epitomized the emotional and intelligent writing and natural acting style that defined modern melodrama and even, in a way, a generation. They were yuppies, but not Gordon Gecko. They owned nice homes but weren't rich or poor. Their marriages and businesses failed and flourished; they got sick and had car accidents; they got well and moved on. It was the end of the 80s and Dynasty-era excess.

Memorable Moments:
Gary's death, Nancy's cancer, Elliott the cad, Elliott and Michael's agency going under.

Once and Again was Thirtysomething redux, only this time it was the early oughts and the adults were post-divorce, dating, marrying again and dealing with children that were nearly grown, but achingly struggling through teenage-hood. I am a major Sela Ward fan, so that is a big part of my love and sometimes everyone was too beautiful and expressive and teary, but it worked, because sentiment was often enough thrown aside for messiness and real life.

Memorable Moments: Lily and Rick meeting, Lily and Karen's face-off over Eli, the birth of Jake and Tiffany's baby, the wedding, Jessie's eating disorder.

8. The Daily Show

I almost didn't put this on the list, because truthfully I didn't watch it this election as much as last. I found myself watching the 'real' news more and skipping Jon, because while his intro is flawless, his interviews are not particularly. And I miss his old correspondents. But I decided to include it, because Jon's take down of liars, fools and douche bags of liberty is peerless. It was also, for a long time, the only show that dared go there and for that he has the thanks of a grateful nation.

Memorable moments:
Many, but the best was when then correspondent Stephen Colbert took all of his "doubts, fears, moral compass, conscience and all-pervading skepticism about the very nature of this war" and placed them in an empty Altoids box, until Iraq was liberated, leaving him more free time for yoga and travel.

7. Felicity

Felicity? Seriously. Mainly the first season, before Keri Russell got famous and Felicity got a cuter wardrobe. It was the smartest (and funniest) show about the way that college really is. About a time where you make mistakes and twist in the wind, and try to discover what you like separate from the comforts of home. It's a little weird that I picked Felicity over Gilmore Girls, of which I have seen every episode and quite loved, but I always kept Rory at arm's length and that last season badly, badly sucked, plus it's my list, I can do what I want.

Memorable moments:
Felicity's sweaters; Ye Olde Waverly Inn, Megan, Richard, Ben, Noel, Javier, Javier's wedding to his partner, characters that rode the subway and got jobs, Sean's inventions, "hey."

6. Sex and the City

The post-SATC world of war and economic disasters, makes watching the show now either a pleasant escape or a cringe-inducing cringe fest. The excess! The diaper shorts on Carrie! The total lack of any connection to the larger world! It can be a bit like visiting an old high school friend and finding you have nothing in common with her and that she laughs like Tatiana Del Toro. Having said that, in its prime it really was a wonderfully perfect show about friendship. I loved that Carrie, Miranda, Samantha and Charlotte really laughed and cried and got angry, and though the clothes got increasingly more ridiculous and the Mikhail Baryshnikov story didn't really work (it pains me to say that), the show never lost its heart or intelligence.

Memorable Moments
: The death of Miranda's mother, the Way We Were episode, Carrie's down-payment spent on shoes, both Aidan break-ups, Steve, Big showing up at girls' night.

5. The West Wing

I remember after President Bartlett was shot, hopping up and down on my couch with excitement. I wasn't excited that he was shot, but I was so amped to watch the episode. I love politics and so did The West Wing. It might have been too smart (whatever that means) and too pedantic, but it wanted us to know that good people could work hard for their government and not lie (much). The writing crackled and popped; the chemistry between characters from the Oval Office down, was intoxicating and the prescience of Santos, a little-known, good-hearted, fiercely intelligent minority winning the White House, was icing on the cake.

Memorable Moments: Josh and Donna finally, the President's Rose Garden chat with Charlie during the MS scandal, Toby and the ball against the wall, Leo, Mrs. Laningham, Sam's tour of The White House.

4. ER

It's been on so long and had so many cast rotations, that people forget how good it used to be and (maybe) occasionally still is. And now it's ending after 15 years. Good bye to Mr. Rubadoux, Haleh, Doug on the dock in Seattle, Abby and Luka, Carter in Africa, Benton's rare laughter, happy Mark and Elizabeth and Kerry's cane clicking down the hallway. Lastly, a 'very special' good bye to those early, glorious days when characters ruled the show, not melodrama. It hasn't been the same without you.

Memorable moments
: Julianna Margulies' performance in Doug's almost last episode, the entire Doug and Carol arc, Carter and Benton, Kerry's coming out.

3. Friday Night Lights

I think I've made my feelings about this show pretty clear here on Back to Me. Eric and Tami are the best couple on TV, maybe ever. And if any show has used sports as a more effective metaphor than FNL, I couldn't begin to think of what it is.

Memorable Moments: Tami's sex talk with Julie, the Taylor family meltdown when Eric was in Austin coaching, Mrs. Smash, Saracen.

2. Lost

I don't have a clue how this show is going to be resolved. I don't think all of the mysteries will be answered. How could they? But the getting there is more exciting and unexpected than anything else you'll find on TV. When the show first began and it's mysteries unfolded one after another — the smoke machine, the polar bear, evil Ethan — I couldn't imagine what would come next. It's incredibly rare to find that on television. Not every twist and every character has worked. The tailies have been mostly a bust, except Bernard, but considering what J.J. Abrams and crew have thrown at us, it's amazing that so much has been so effective. There are critics that watch this show as an elaborate science project, looking for every Easter Egg and researching every character name for obscure reference. I just watch it. Call me old school, but the mystery is enough for me. (Also, Doc Jensen over at takes care of any questions I might not be able to resist asking.)

Memorable moments: The plane crash, Sawyer leaping from the helicopter, Desmond and Penny reuniting, Bernard and Rose reuniting, the Swan, the first whiff of time travel, Michael Emerson, and countless other WTFs.

1. The Wire

I know that being from Baltimore is part of my affection, but even still, there really is no other show that more accurately captures the pathos of urban life like The Wire. Or really, the pathos of life, full stop. I’ve heard complaints that it’s not good for the city, or accurate, that’s it hard to understand the characters vernacular. Bullshit. It’s just hard to watch, period. It’s gut-wrenching and serious and it will break your heart. The outcome of certain character's stories will leave you relieved and weeping tears of joy that you thought you had reserved for real people. It's also addictive, funny, and very entertaining.

Ultimately what is remarkable about The Wire is the understanding it gives you of the cops, users, bangers, hoppers, desperate people and sick, scared kids that exist in a very dark, nearly untenable life that doesn't care very much what happens to most of them. When Dukie asks Cutty, "How do you get from here to the rest of the world,'' Cutty can only reply, "I wish I knew."

Memorable Moments:
Randy, Dukie, Michael and Namond, Bubbles' recovery, Omar going out for cereal, Bunny's conversation with Weebay in jail, Bunny saving Namond, Keema's shooting, Wallace and Frank's deaths, Bunk and McNulty's conversations.

Honorable mention: Sopranos, Friends, Arrested Development, Roseanne, Homicide, Homefront.

So that's it. Man, this was hard! Hard to narrow down; hard to find time to write and hard to keep short. (I clearly failed at the last one!)

In blogging news, the Friday Night Lights recap will be up in the next couple days. In the meanwhile, what are your favorite shows and memorable moments?