Hard to limit it to one, so I won’t, ha!
I have a tumultuous relationship with TV because I think a lot if is overrated and the current trend for a series formula that doesn’t alter much is getting very ponderous: a good intro, followed by filler, then a first act highpoint with a climactic sequence that’s backed to music or edited cleverly or is a single shot followed by lots of filler and then a warm to good finale. Legion and Westworld seemed to really suffer from this and it’s just getting really rote now and it does my head in.
Anyway, positivist! I will add that I have a lot of sympathy for TV programs that were clearly fucked by the networks that owned them, as I am far more interested in a creator grasping for success in a flawed system than I am in a show that gets all its toys out of the box with little friction.
The greatest show of all time is clearly The X-Files and it’s hard to dispute that I think. I mean go on, try it, I will counter you like Neo at the start of The Matrix Reloaded. Mulder and Scully are perfect as a double act and the plot is just bonkers and ambitious and I adore it. It’s easily one of the funniest programs on TV that isn’t a comedy. I think it has one of the best quality runs of TV from Season 2 to 6, with some of the best SciFi and Supernatural genre work done there. Vince Gilligan of Breaking Bad fame cut his teeth in this show, and his episodes are some of the best TV i’ve seen, but lets give them a hand for Clyde Brookman’s Final Repose which is up their with the best TV has to offer. How about Triangle by Chris Carter as well, where Scully explores a WW2 ship stuck between the past and the present with some of the slickest editing ever? And the overarching story with its impossible Evangelion like logic and the greatest badguy on all of Telivision with the Cigarette Smoking Man? Ugh. If only it didn’t have that damn ending, but when you have 4 seasons of brilliance, why let that put you off? Its just essential TV.
Then there’s Battlestar Galactica which I re-watched recently with my girlfriend who is way into TV. This show is genius. It knows what makes good TV and it knows that ain’t formulaic plot lines and characters that work as a narrative puzzle, but really strong characters that feel believable. Adama, Starbuck, Tigh, Six, Sharon, Helo, Tyrel, Roslin- they’re all amazing characters, and that’s before you even get to number one delusion sex pest Gaius Baltar, who is in the running for best TV boy ever. It’s a mix of old fashioned swashbuckling against all odds and high drama and intrigue thanks to the fact that anyone can be a Cylon. The way it navigates its various moral and ethical quandaries is excellent and endlessly compelling, and the end of season 2/beginning of season 3 is some of the most hardcore, give no fucks TV of recent memory - I honestly think it makes Game of Thrones look trite and pandering with its violence because in BSG it feels so very real, and so very linked to the political state of America in the early 2000s. Honestly just a rip-roaring meteor of a show that had its wings clipped by the network. Even so, I still love the ending which is only really bad in the last 20 minutes, and that’s after its made you punch the air, squeal with delight and have a big cry over one of the best on screen relationships ever.
It also feels remiss to not then talk about The Sopranos which is more likely than the X-Files to be the greatest piece of quality TV ever. I wrote about its incredible ending on my blog once, which you can read here and I think Tony Soprano as a character towers above Walter White. It’s one of the greatest TV shows ever for making you feel compassion for this total monster of a man, and it’s also effortlessly cool, complex and smarter than its audience at every conceivable turn. Someone else will no doubt right a better take on it here though.
A left field turn here into animation, as I believe The Legend of Korra is exceptional television that is slept on because its animated. It has one sub-par season with its second narrative arc, but its 100% true gold outside of that. Mature in a way that HBO wishes it could grasp, smart, funny, endearing, and with some of the best and most rational and empathetic villains you’ll find in a “kids show”. It should be dissected and taught in high school without a shadow of a doubt. Anyone that watches this show will become a better person.
As for comedy, I know the greats will get mentioned so I’ll petition for The Thick of It and I’m Alan Partridge*. The former is the smartest and scariest comedy ever (with its heels nipped at by Yes Minister I’d say) an absolute headfuck of political ineptness and spin doctor savagery that I expect many US viewers have seen via the film In the Loop, or Ianucci’s US take on the show, VEEP. Every time people laugh at and extol the cussing of Moviebob and Yahtzee I secretly hope they’ve never seen Malcolm Tucker, so they aren’t confusing the true king of swearing with these useless amateurs. Alan Partridge himself may be the perfect embodiment of the British consciousness, an exasperatingly small minded little man with delusions of grandeur and the ability to put his foot in his mouth endlessly. Steve Coogan and Armando Ianucci have consistently written his character of the space of 20 years and he’s so believable I am not really sure that he hasn’t been magicked into existence by force of will alone. Quick pitstop to give the nod do Nathan Barley, Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place and Brass Eye too for the peak of Brit comedy.
Finally, given the popularity of American Gods right now, lets not ever forget Bryan Fuller’s drug trip, murder husband fever dream that is Hannibal. The bloodiest, artiest, and most ostentatiously lavish show to ever air. A TV show that understands that one half of the word television is vision, and how important visuals are to the creation of a show. The dialogue often falls into inane lampooning and deep referencing of the books but every single frame of this damn show is a work of art designed to shit you up. It’s a delirious delight and it gave Mads Mikkelsen the nudge into the collective eye that he needed because he is human being that is more work of art that flesh and blood. If I could make love to a TV show, it would be this one.
Whew, and breathe! I got a bit carried away and I didn’t even mention Twin Peaks!