(numbers 10-6: Extras, Firefly, Flight of the Conchords, Avatar: The Last Airbender, Deadwood)
Simultaneously very well-made (apparently the two seasons combined cost HBO some $100 million) and trashy, Rome would be an unequivically guilty pleasure if the quality were just a hair lower. Instead, the care put into every aspect of the show—particularly the absurdly gorgeous set designs and cinematography—work to highlight all of the sex, violence, and nudity in a manner that is, simply, glorious. The cast, which included a few actors that have become reasonably sought-after since (Kevin McKidd and Ray Stevenson especially) does a great job of both going way over-the-top and giving more conventionally strong performances, depending on the needs of a particular scene.
In short, off the top of my head, I can’t come up with any other production that so thoroughly exemplifies the term “gratuitous”. And I most certainly mean that as a compliment.
Why it should be lower: Lasting only two seasons, you get the sense towards the end that the writers were rushing. HBO had told them during pre-production of the second season that they had to wrap it up, and there was simply too much left to do. This is especially pronounced with the somewhat awkward mid-season actor change for Octavian (the character had gotten too old, almost comically so, for the actor cast in the first season). The producers did as well as one could expect, but they still had to fit in 13 years of eventful history into 10 episodes. Season 1, for contrast, covered about 8 years in 12 episodes.
Why it should be higher: At one point during the first season, Mark Antony is lying in bed. His lover, Caesar's niece Attia, tells him to get up. Antony answers with this absolute gem: “I’m not getting up until I’ve fucked someone” (Attia, after a pause: “Fine. Go get that German whore from the kitchens”). That a show can simultaneous pull off that scene and, say, the assination of Julius Caesar at the end of the first season (which is genuinely harrowing, with some fantastic acting by Ciarin Hinds) is mind-boggling.
Speaking of shows that pull off dramatically contradictory tones, I present exhibit A. Scrubs, which only very recently ended its eight season run (I don’t count, and didn’t watch, the sorta-spinoff sorta-9th season on ABC). At least 90% of the time, Scrubs is a fairly standard network comedy, if an exceptionally well-written and funny one. What seperates it from the pack, though, is the way that the show handles rare but significant moments of genuine pathos. I hesitate to call it a ‘dramedy’ in the mold of, say, House (the comedy-to-drama ratio is too heavily tilted towards the former), but the more serious moments are so incredibly well-done that it almost feels that way sometimes.
What makes the show even more exceptional is that the humor is (usually) exceedingly goofy. It’s not like #2 on this list, which used a more wit-based humor with its drama. That sort of mix is nothing new, probably because it works. Scrubs, however, indulges more in absurd and often surreal humor, and I still can’t figure out exactly how it pulls this off without a severe case of mood whiplash. I give credit both to the writing team and the sneakily exceptional cast.
Why it should be lower: Like any truly long-running show, especially one with little cast turnover, Scrubs started to show its age towards the end of its run. The writers compensated by exaggerating the characters (especially the lead, J.D.) another notch or two past the already halfway absurd level at which they started. It kinda worked…but it also kinda didn’t.
Why it should be higher: With the partial of exception of Zach Braff (and maybe Neil Flynn), none of the Scrubs’ cast has really hit the big time. That’s a shame, because I think they did a truly spectacular job over the years. The writing helped, of course, but a key part of why the show worked so well is that I truly cared about the characters, maybe more so than for any other show. And much of the credit for that goes to the cast.
3. Arrested Development
Very simply, Arrested Development is the funniest thing I have ever seen on television. The show makes no pretensions about what it is; unlike most comedies in the post laugh-track era, Mitchell Hurwitz and company never try anything even remotely resembling serious drama. Character development, narrative cohesion, and plausibility are all sacrificed at the alter of comedy, and it pays off spectacularly. The show is just funny. The humor comes in all sizes and shapes, from slapstick physical comedy to subtle multi-season recurring wit, and all coaleces into a wonderfully comedic blend. Jokes fail so rarely on the show that when they do (like a few with Gob’s soap-actress girlfriend in season one) they’re memorable.
I’ve never thought that comedy and quality are necessarily different, and so I have no hesitation placing Arrested Development at number three on this list. It’s some of the best pure entertainment you’ll find anywhere.
Why it should be lower: As much as there are any unfunny moments on the show, the beginning of the first season has a few. After the pilot, it takes the writers a few episodes to find their groove again. Also, one possible downside of the remarkably consistent humor (and lack of any other elements to the show which, again, I do not mean as criticism) is that that individual episodes are notably unmemorable. The plot, such as it is, blends together and, in retrospect, I’d have a very tough time pinpointing when any particular event occurred. Whether that is really a negative is open to debate, but I do find it (very) mildly annoying.
Why it should be higher: Beyond all of the praise I’ve already given it, Arrested Development is spectacularly rewatchable. Perhaps because much of the humor is so clever and witty, it also remains funny on multiple viewings. I’ve seen every episode three or four times and still laugh almost as much as I did the first time I saw them.
2. The West Wing
The best example of a network drama that I’ve ever watched, The West Wing takes a phenomenally rich premise (the workings of a President’s inner circle) and mines it for all that it’s worth. There’s a reason that Aaron Sorkin is as highly regarded as he is, and much of that reputation is based on his work on this show. The often brilliant writing, exceptional cast highlighted by president Martin Sheen, and the alternately fun and insightful approach to national politics combine to place The West Wing in rarified air. It’s a show that is smart, sharp, and usually very fun.
There’s also something to be said for the idealistic approach that the show takes towards Washington; it’s as though Sorkin placed it in a slightly alternate universe where politicians (and their staff) genuinely care only for the public, and where a dedicated public servant can actually do some good. That may not be the case in real life, but it works for the show.
Why it should be lower: There are two real nitpicks with the show. The first is that the writers were much better at coming up with story ideas—particularly for guest stars—than they were at resolving them. Oh Ainsley Hayes, we hardly knew you. The other is that the show had a difficult time writing Republicans that were both believable as modern conservatives (sorry Senator Vinick) and were also genuinely sympathetic and/or likeable characters. Of course, this is really an industry-wide problem, but a show about politics in Washington D.C. really probably should have done a little better.
Why it should be higher: If it weren’t for that pesky HBO, it would be. No network show, at least that I’m familiar with, has been so consistently excellent. Even the worst episodes were still very good, and the show grew and evolved as it went along. Just as the Bartlett era was running out of steam (and constitutional presidential terms), the show made a seamless pivot into the Santos-Vinick race. Sorkin left, and the show kept plugging along with only a very small dip in quality. All of this is quite an accomplishment, and I give it every bit of praise that it deserves with it’s silver metal here.
1. The Wire
What can I say about The Wire that hasn’t been said before? The consensus greatest drama of all time (I’m not really qualified to say that, but people who are do), it really is about as close to perfect a show as we’re ever going to see. Five seasons and sixty episodes with an incredibly intricate story, and there isn’t one bad episode, one story or character that doesn’t quite work, no matter how minor. Indeed, a fifth season story arc involving a serial killer is criticized because it was only really, really well done. When that is a singled out as a weakness on a show, you know you have something special.
I wrote when I finished the fifth and final season a little over a year ago that it was the greatest work of fiction that I’ve ever experienced, in any medium, and I stand by that. It’s a show that is simultaneously tremendously entertaining, thought-provoking, and moving, all while maintaining an intricate verisimilitude that is nothing short of breathtaking. It’s a cop show and a ghetto opera; it’s a heartbreaking tragedy about the state of the American dream and a dark comedy about institutional dysfunction. And it is, above all, amazing.
Why it should be lower: It shouldn’t. So there.