Wednesday, December 8, 2010

TV Power Rankings (part one)

In honor of my completion (finally) of the HBO series Deadwood, today I am debuting a new feature: my retroactive television power rankings. To qualify for this list, a show must be finished airing (thus the ‘retroactive’ part), and must be Anglo-American (so I don’t have to consider anime shows). Also, I need to have seen every episode, which drastically reduces the number of shows in contention. Okay, maybe not every episode, but enough to be able to thoroughly judge a show. And for Lord knows what reason I tend to watch things I like, so I recommend every one of these shows. If I didn’t, I would never have gotten through them.

At some point I might do a second list for ongoing shows, but for now I feel that they’re best left off this one. It’s just do hard to pin down an ongoing show with any degree of certainty; ask me how I felt about Friday Night Lights after seasons one and then again after two, for example, and I would have given very different answers. In ascending order then:

10. Extras
I confess that I sometimes struggle with Ricky Gervais’ work. His TV characters—Andy Millman here and David Brent on The Office—are just a little too unlikable, and I find the humor a little erratic. Not to mention that The Invention of Lying was terrible, but that’s neither here nor there. There are some other flaws as well; Maggie’s stupidity is overplayed, as is Andy’s manager’s (played by Stephen Merchant, looking eerily similar to a tall, gangly gopher) incompetence. And the overarching story, which largely focuses on Andy and Maggie’s tireless attempts to hit the big time, is rarely all that compelling. To be honest, there is little chance I would have stuck with the show for long if it weren’t on the hyper-abbreviated British schedule of 6 episodes per season (with only 2 seasons and a special finale, there were only 13 episodes produced).

And yet…the central conceit of Extras, wherein a famous guest star played an exaggerated version of themselves in a fake movie or tv show each week, is still good enough to be worth watching. The guest appearances varied from amusing (David Bowie, Ben Stiller, Orlando Bloom) to downright hilarious (Kate Winslet, Daniel Radcliffe, Ian McKellen). When only the guest star was funny, the show is tolerable. When Gervais’ other material is clicking as well—which does happen. There is a reason I used the word ‘rarely’ instead of ‘never’ above—the show is actually quite good. On balance, it’s well worth the small time investment.

Why it should be higher: It has some incredibly funny and memorable scenes (Sir McKellen explaining what acting is), and I suspect someone with a higher appreciation for truly awkward humor would find it even funnier than I did.

9. Firefly

One of the great missed opportunities in recent entertainment history, this show should have been fantastic and lasted multiple seasons. Unfortunately, however, a combination of general audience apathy towards sci-fi and Fox’s bizarrely inept handling of the show doomed it to a run of barely half a season. Joss Whedon never really got a chance to air out the show, and it seems half-formed. That said, it is still tremendously entertaining, with an exceptional cast, a neat premise, and some truly inspired writing. The fact that Firefly is so fondly remembered despite all that happened is a testament to how great the show should/would have been. Thankfully, we did get the movie Serenity, which wrapped up the story as well as one could reasonably expect. And, of course, it lost money as well. I guess America just isn’t ready for a Science Fiction Western. Alas.

Why it should be lower: The abbreviated run meant that it never really goes anywhere. Especially if the movie isn’t considered, the way the show ends is incredibly frustrating.

Why it should be higher: Nathan Fillion’s Mal Reynolds managed to stand out in a great cast of characters, and somehow has become an icon despite only 14 episodes of screen time. Judged by potential, this is an all-time show.

8. Flight of the Conchords

A testament to minimalist humor, Bret McKenzie, Jermaine Clement, and Rhys Darby deadpanned their way through this low budget and too short (only 22 episodes) show about a fictionally pathetic version of themselves. Clement in particular is one of the best deadpan comics out there, helped by a particularly amusing New Zealand accent. Nearly everything that comes out of his mouth (and most of Darby and McKenzie’s material as well) is funny, and some is fantastic. The show also kept an element of pathos that always kept the audience rooting for New Zealand’s 4th most popular folk parody duo.

Why it should be lower: For a musical show, the songs are surprisingly unmemorable. With a few exceptions, the musical numbers (while amusing) are rarely all that catchy. There are also a few fairly bland episodes, most in the first half of the first season.

Why it should be higher: While it may not often be side-splittingly hilarious, few TV shows (if any) or even movies manage to be as consistently funny as FotC. There’s something to be said for that.

7. Avatar: The Last Airbender

Wait, what? A kid’s show? You better believe it. Avatar is yet more proof that just a young target demographic is no excuse for poor quality, as if we needed any after the decade of Pixar and Harry Potter. As a pure adventure, there really isn’t anything on TV that tops Avatar; it manages to be fun, exciting, whimsical, and engaging all at once. The writing and animation are both top-notch, and although it was a shame that the show ended, it is a rare case of an American show ending for creative and not financial reasons. The story was over, high ratings be damned. It’s probably something I’ll get back to in another post, but watching Avatar always makes me regret that we can't have more (relatively) serious animated shows in America.

Why it should be lower: As great as Avatar is, the creators were still sometimes handicapped by the fact that the show aired on Nickelodeon. It’s good enough that it really doesn’t matter, but you can tell sometimes that the writers wished that they could be a liiiiiiitle more obvious with some of the racier and more violent material. Also, the episode “The Great Divide” (from the first season) is probably the single worst episode of any of the shows to appear on this list. They even make fun of it later on the show, during the third season.

Why it should be higher: Remember when you were a little kid and you wished you could shoot fire out of your hands? Or was that just me?

6. Deadwood

I think I can demonstrate how I feel about this show by only talking about the dialogue. On the one hand, writer/creator David Milch accomplishes something downright Shakespearean; the often profanity-laced dialogue (with a peppering of monologues, directed at anything from a horse to a decapitated Indian head) has an almost poetic sibilance. The layers of allegory and metaphor that Milch manages to convey through the word “cocksucker” has to be seen to be believed. And I’m not exaggerating a video of all the utterances of “cocksucker” from the first season alone takes two minutes. There’s never really been anything quite like it.

And yet, as fascinating and strangely beautiful as the writing is, a downside of the incredibly intricate and layered speech is that, more often than not, it seems like you need to consult a Talmudic scholar to figure out what the hell is going on. More than once while I was watching I thought to myself, “wow, that was amazing writing, and acting. Now, what the f- did he just say?”

And that is Deadwood in a nutshell: an amazing show that you may or may not understand.

Why is should be lower: Milch has a tendency to bite off more than he can chew, introducing some characters and stories that he doesn’t seem to know what to do with, like the theater troupe in season 3 (although Brian Cox did a great deal to redeem it). Also, the final episode, while fantastic on its own, was thoroughly unsatisfying as a series finale.

Why it should be higher: In terms of making entertaining but intelligent social commentary (in this case mostly having to do with the nature of civilization), only show #1 bests Deadwood. But that is for the next installment.

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