Archive for the ‘joss whedon’ tag
Spoilers for Angel (Season 5) and House (Season 4)
My official Best Television of the 2000s list will feature only shows that aired at least three seasons in the 2000s. I am making this restriction because one of the marks of a great show is its ability to sustain its stories and characters over a long period, and three seasons seems as good a cut-off as any. Also, since the traditional television season runs from fall to spring, I’ve decided to include seasons that began in the fall of 1999 and I am ending with seasons that concluded before fall of 2009. That means that shows debuting in fall, 2009, are ineligible (Community, Modern Family), and it also means that on-going shows that debuted in spring, 2009, are ineligible unless they had the bad fortune to be cancelled immediately; that means no Glee, Dollhouse, Parks & Recreation, Castle, or Better Off Ted. Those shows got too late a start to be included in the best of this past decade, as I am arbitrarily determining it. Because of these restrictions on my count-down list, I thought it appropriate to say a little bit about a few shows that didn’t make the three season cut-off, but were spectacular nonetheless. I’m also including three shows that I think managed to pull off one truly great season amidst a number of less spectacular ones, and those are included at the end. Below are the highlights, in alphabetical order.
Andy Richter and Conan O’Brien teamed up for a Thursday night mystery-comedy hybrid that only aired four episodes before being yanked. (Six were filmed.) Featuring a stellar supporting cast around beat-down everyman Richter, the show exhibited remarkable comic timing over its first few episodes. When Andy Barker, CPA, moves into the office formerly held by a private detective, he finds people mistaking him for a P.I.; he may not know how to handle a gun, but he can handle your taxes when it’s over.
For fans of Chuck, Remington Steele, accounting
Perhaps the greatest science fiction show to ever air on television, this series brought a legion of new fans to Joss Whedon. Its fans called themselves “Browncoats,” and turned Firefly into the most essential television show of geek culture in the 2000s. But is it any good? Beyond good, this show’s 13 episodes (shown, as jilted fanboys like to point out, out of order by the evil Fox Network) created a fully realized world from the first episode. The pilot is too slow and too long, but beginning in the second episode, this outer-space A-Team demonstrated that stories about vigilantes fighting against an evil centralized power could somehowstrike a chord with viewers during the Bush administration. Like many great shows, the most essential member of the cast was the location, in this case a creaky old spaceship with more smuggler’s holds than the Millenium Falcon. Wonderfully cast, with a sly sense of humor that combined Whedon’s subversive expressivism with Ben Edlund’s comic exaggeration.
For fans of Battlestar Galactica, The Tick, men in tight pants
Freaks and Geeks is remembered today as the greatest dramedy, the greatest high school show, the show most like your own life, and the show that launched a thousand careers. This brainchild of Judd Apatow and Paul Feig told the story of high school from those least interested in remembering it. Surprisingly, those of us who had successfully blocked our own experiences found glorious catharsis in watching the failures and (very occasionally) successes of the two bands of outsiders (those intentionally existing outside the system and those too nerdy to fit in comfortably). Essential viewing for people who love television.
For fans of Glee, Friday Night Lights, awkwardness
An unrepentant throw-back to a sillier form of science fiction and fantasy shows, The Middleman proved that sharp writing and smart characters can make great television using the flimsiest of CGI. When a smart young artist (Natalie Morales) working a temp job gets nearly eaten by a mutant science experiment, her unflappability catches the eye of The Middleman (Matt Keeslar) who recruits her as his sidekick. There’s perhaps never been a show in the history of television that required so many repeat viewings with a pen and paper handy to unpack its jokes and references. Often times, an episode would pick a theme (Die Hard, sixties rock band The Zombies) and build as many references as it could into its 44 minutes. This show never achieved the critical mass of devotion it deserved.
For fans of Get Smart, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, meta-humor
Chuck has found unexpected life, being renewed for a third season that begins this January. This is the only show on this list still on the air, so catch this bandwagon while its still hot. (Wow, now that is a mixed metaphor.) Chuck Bartowski is a hard-working Buy More employee whose brain, due to unexpected help from his college roommate-turned-nemesis, becomes the living computer that stores all of the US government’s information. This is a fun, funny, sexy, silly blend of action and comedy that really found its stride in its second season. The best thing to happen to Mondays since Memorial Day.
For fans of Alias, Eureka, Adam Baldwin
Immigration. Unemployment. Bureaucracy. Topics for a gritty documentary somehow became occasions for the musical comedy duo to perform their songs. Each episode is a poorly constructed attempt to cram three pre-established songs into 30 minutes of story. Somehow, despite the obvious problems with this plan, the show managed to create moments of sublime comic awkwardness squeezed between occasionally brilliant, occasionally boring musical set pieces. In its way, it was one of the most ambitious television shows of the decade.
For fans of Dead Like Me, The Ben Stiller Show, Michel Gondry
In its strike-addled first season, Life was a gritty cop drama, light-hearted character study, and on-going mystery in absolutely perfect balance. No procedural has ever managed to so perfectly blend those three elements as well as Life did in that first season. Its second season renewal came with strings attached: bigger (and subsequently less plausible) weekly hooks, less of the on-going story arcs, and Donal Logue as the new police captain. The second season fell to merely an above-average cop show, but was fortunately able to tie up many loose ends in its memorable series finale. The show drew out a nice parallel between generic Eastern religion’s emphasis that everything is connected and the basis of good detective work, which is following connections. Unlike most shows that attempt to make a character religious or philosophical, the writers were fully aware that the form of Zen being practiced by Charlie Crews is a watered-down, pop psychology version of Zen, which kept the show from ever falling into self-parody.
For fans of Castle, Burn Notice, staying out of prison
Abandoned by film, television became the home of screwball dialogue in the 2000s, and not even Gilmore Girls or 30 Rock could manage Pushing Daisies‘ speed. More brilliant color and wacky quirkiness than any show should rightfully be able to manage, Barry Sonnenfeld somehow managed to create an engaging dream world in which a pie maker brings people back from the dead and solves crimes along with the love of his life whom he can’t touch, a crabby detective, and Kristin Chenoweth. Death has never been so funny.
For fans of Dead Like Me, Wonderfalls, color
UPDATE: Silly me. I left Kings off the list. Great modern fable.
Long-Running Series with One Great Season
Angel never discovered what it could do well until its final season, by which point fans’ whiplash was so great from its overhauls each season that no one knew what this show was any more. However, by having Angel go to work for the evil law firm Wolfram & Hart, Joss Whedon and Tim Minear wisely guided the show into complex thematic territory: at what point do you stop protesting the system and find a way to work within it? Mirroring Whedon’s own complex relationship with the Fox Network, Angel and his band of merry men try to be constructive from inside a destructive system. And by bringing Spike over from the now-finished Buffy the Vampire Slayer, shooting for darker, more gothic horror, and achieving more sublime humor, the fifth season became by far the series’s best. Watching Angel is worth it simply for the show’s finale, which is perhaps the finest final episode in the history of television.
A weaker knock-off of England’s Prime Suspect, The Closer began its run on TNT as a law & order procedural with the added element of watching an unknown, and therefore untrusted, female cop head LAPD’s Major Crimes division. A breadth of capable acting by the supporting cast grounded Kyra Sedgwick’s head-flailing approach to characterization. In later seasons, the show became unbearable in its explorations of Deputy Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson’s inexplicable relationship with her boyfriend Fritz, unnecessary relationship with her adopted cat, and unwatchable relationship with her family. But in that first season, The Closer was a smart woman-in-the-workplace drama with workable stories about how only she could wrangle a confession out of the bad guy.
Modeled on Sherlock Holmes, Gregory House, M.D., is a jackass to everyone, including his trusty confidant, his busty boss, and his team of diagnosticians. The writers always knew how to write for House (or Hugh Laurie’s indelible performance at least made it seem that way), but he was always surrounded by thin, unnecessary characters led by Cameron, the whiniest female lead this side of Felicity. So when House fired his staff at the end of Season 3 and began Season 4 by whittling down an auditorium full of candidates, new life was breathed into this occasionally stale medical drama. House was allowed to be his devastatingly truthful and hilariously cruel self and a better cast of supporting characters stepped in. The writer’s strike created some story-telling problems for the back half of the season, but it was still an audacious reinvention that amazingly worked, at least until Season 5 became too enamored with the Foreman-13 story.
I’ve been inspired by at The Television, The Aughts, and I series at Cultural Learnings and the really excellent piece by Emily Nussbaum in New York Magazine called When TV Became Art to go beyond a typical Top 10 Best Shows of the Decade List and write something that is both personal and hopefully illuminates what happened this decade in television. This isn’t to disparage Top 10 lists; in fact you’ll probably see some Best of the Decade posts in the coming weeks on this site. Rather, I want to write about the convergence of technology and art that roughly coincides with the last decade of television, and I how I experienced this change.
My interest in television began in the summer of 2002. I had watched more television than was probably healthy while growing up, but television was an escape, a mindless activity to relieve boredom. I watched Saturday morning cartoons, CHiPs reruns, and other stuff that would interest a kid in the 1980s. A lot of the television I watched as a kid was old RKO and MGM movies on AMC, back when AMC was what TCM is now. In the 1990s, I watched TV Land on Nick at Night, where I learned about how a sit-com works and first encountered the Jewish Comedian Type by watching The Dick Van Dyke Show. I watched NBC’s TGIF line-up, and later its Thursday night block, so I saw ER and Friends from the beginning, but eventually lost interest in each. Through all of this, I just watched TV for something to do.
When I started graduate school in the fall of 2001, I intentionally did not own a TV. I feared how I would do in graduate school and that such a mindless diversion might keep me further behind my peers. I should be reading novels. Russian novels. Important literature. In my first six months of graduate school, I read Notes from the Underground, The Brothers Karamazov, and Crime and Punishment. I know I read other things as well (I remember getting ideas from the Pulitzer Prize winners list), but the Dostoyevsky stands out. How else would this humble Midwesterner talk to these Ivy League snobs? What if my professor made some obvious reference to some book not in my field but that every educated person should have read?
By my birthday in January, I was ready to accept a television as a gift from my parents. I realized that not having that pressure valve I grew up with wasn’t going to help me any. I had a $30 VCR attached to the 19″ TV (which a friend convinced me was bigger than anyone really needed), and had wires that would connect my laptop to the TV so that I could watch DVDs. I was expanding my film interests via Netflix, then a relatively new service. I also tested it by renting a disc of a show I had heard about but never watched, My So-Called Life. I enjoyed the first disc enough that I decided to purchase my first ever TV on DVD box set. I watched the series through, and found myself interested in this world of a mopey teenage girl, her even mopier love interest, and a sexually confused teenager trying to forge an identity for himself. I was a bit embarrassed to enjoy a show like this, but I understood well enough that this was something more than just pandering to an audience. There was something very beautiful and moving about this portrayal of high school. The topic of the show might be embarrassing, but I didn’t feel embarrassed by what these characters were saying or doing. They were believable, they had lives, and I didn’t feel like the show was praising their self-centeredness as much as lovingly showing that this is how life was for some people. In some ways, it was the flip side to Freaks and Geeks, a show my roommates and I gathered weekly to watch during my senior year of college. We laughed at these geeks because we were these geeks. But here was a show that felt very unlike my own experience of high school, but that I completely believed was somebody’s experience.
That show pales in comparison to the one that I discovered about the same time. Reruns were airing on weekends, and the commercials seemed pretty corny, more or less indistinguishable from Highlander and Xena. But I gave a chance to show called Buffy: The Vampire Slayer. And it turns out, it was pretty funny.
I was friends with a comedy writer at the time; he has written pieces for The Onion and McSweeney’s. He loved a character called the Mayor, and while he wasn’t willing to say he liked the show, he absolutely loved that incongruence between the 1950s TV dad and pure evil. What can I say? He was right about the Mayor. That gave me a little confidence to Netflix the first season of Buffy on DVD. (I’m not sure that we were using “Netflix” as a verb in 2002, but we certainly do so now.) What I discovered was that beneath the cornball exterior was a show that I really enjoyed. Here was a show working in a genre that I knew nothing about – horror – and yet I could understand that they were playing off genre staples, even if I had know real knowledge of those genre tropes. Here was a show that was incredibly witty where many of the best lines went to the most picked-on guy in school. Here was show where the very feature that made someone special and likeable was also what made them unpopular. Here was a show in which good battles against evil, but the lines are murky and the enemy is ever shifting.
Beyond all the elements that I liked about the show, one thing stood out to me then and made me fall in love with television as a medium. With BtVS, I discovered television’s power for serial story-telling. Unlike the sit-coms I enjoyed as a kid, or The Simpsons episodes I watched each day in college, this was a show that trusted the viewer to follow these characters through their lives. We trusted Joss Whedon to helm this story, a trust he earned in the show’s magnificent second season. Whedon trusted his writers ground the supernatural silliness in real human (okay, or vampire) characters, trusted his actors to switch from broad comedy to fear to grief in the coarse of a single episode or even scene, and ultimately trusted his audience to follow him through this world. This was a totally new idea to me in 2002. Here was a show that rewarded dedicated viewing in the proper order. It was a sea change in my thinking, the sort demanded by Alfred Hitchcock when he demanded that theaters allow no late entrants to Psycho.
And this was made possible by two emerging media: Netflix and TV on DVD. I think DVD has done more to help television than it has to help film. Studios may line their pockets with each successive technological improvement in home viewing (VHS, DVD, Blu-Ray), but the real change in movie viewing happened when VHS allowed people to watch films in their home on their own schedule. Television never performed well on VHS, so it was with the advent of DVDs that television entered its heydays. Netflix allowed one to sample these expensive box sets before buying them (or instead of buying them), and their contribution should not go unnoticed. But the real change happened with the ability to purchase an entire season of a television show and watch it as quickly as one dared. In the summer of 2002, I was taking an intensive Latin course, which I would rush home from each afternoon to plow through the newly released third season of Buffy on DVD. I didn’t have to wait 30+ weeks to watch the show as it aired; instead I could enter a world’s mythology and live in it for days or weeks at a time. This was unprecedented in the history of television. TV box sets of shows people loved in the ’90s, like Friends, The Simpsons, and Seinfeld were huge money-makers in the early years of this decade, but it was the ability to find more obscure shows that really transformed television.
Many others have told the story of what happens next. A show like Lost works because fans can devote themselves to rewatching it on DVD. A show like Survivor is heralded by the networks for its watch-now (read: no one cares about the DVDs) ratings. (A stunt less successfully attempted by Jay Leno’s move to prime time late in the decade.) A new business model emerges where shows like Family Guy and Futurama return from the grave because of strong DVD sales, shifting the emphasis from initial airings and syndication to initial airings, syndication, and DVD sales. (Later to be supplemented by iTunes rentals, Hulu viewings, and transmedia sales.) HBO can build its audience through fans discovering The Sopranos and Sex and the City on DVD. People can encounter international imports like The Office and Slings and Arrows for the first time. People can continue to be TV snobs, but in a new way. (“I don’t own a TV, but I love The Wire.”) Most importantly in this talk about the impact of TV on DVDs, however, is the thing that first drew me into the idea of television: a really good story told over a 6- or 13- or 22-episode season is a wonderful thing. A film may benefit from being concise and particular, but no film matches what a great television show like The Wire can do over five magnificent seasons. One hundred or more characters, each as focused and real and well acted as any on film, interacting in a complex drama set against the background of a city more real than any non-resident’s idea of the real Baltimore. And it’s not just The Wire. There are a dozen or more shows that have each used television’s unrivaled power of serialized, pictorial story-telling to achieve new levels of artistry. The technology and the shifting media models (let’s not forget the rise of cable) made it possible, but it was the David Simons and Ronald D. Moores and the Amy Sherman-Palladinos who rose to the challenge and gave us all a reason to appreciate what has happened this decade.
At this website, I hope to celebrate inessential things: things that are not necessary for survival, but that make life wonderful nonetheless. And television in the 200os was wonderful indeed.