Why do The Wire, Deadwood, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Friday Night Lights and The Slap make my top list for the Best TV I’ve ever seen?
What I have come to value in cinematic watching experiences above all else are nuance, and believability (which does not exclude genres such as Science Fiction). I’m a huge fan of character study, but not without story arc. Character studies without an overall arc run the risk of turning into soap operas, and many recent shows have fallen into this trap.
I almost don’t need to talk about The Wire, as it is widely acclaimed as the best show ever made. What I love about it is that there is little difference in the “goodness” or “badness” of the characters, no matter which side of the law they are on. The people are complex. McNulty, the ostensible “star” of the first season becomes so disgusting at some point that I felt I could smell the stale liquor and vomit on him. Many of the drug dealing characters are heartbreakingly endearing. And what makes the show most remarkable is the barely connected plots from season to season: from drug dealing to human trafficking to the education system to politics and finally the media, with characters evolving and reccuring from one season to the next.
Deadwood comes a very close second, partly for dialogue that is so fantastic it’s a pure delight to parse. The characters are intense and the plot is brutal. Al Swearengen is the role and performance of a lifetime for Ian McShane, as a man so basely human and yet surprising in the revelation that he is not, in fact, a psychopath (his delivery of the raving minister from his misery being one of the great scenes of this show). E. B. Farnam, that mewling little sycophant, gets the richest dialogue, serving as king’s fool to Swearengen. In fact every nearly character is rich beyond the degree of any other show I’ve ever seen, with the exception of poor, wooden, humourless Seth Bullock played by Timothy Olyphant. Presumably the intended hero of the show, he is easily overshadowed by the other players, as he skulks around with a rictus of bared teeth and little else to show for himself. Initially I was concerned by the depiction of women in the show, but they quickly came into focus with some terrific roles: The resourceful and tough-as-nails Trixie, tragic Joanie Stubbs, beleaguered yet oddly comical Jewel, and of course the fantastic force of nature that was Calamity Jane, played beyond belief by Robin Weigert. Three seasons was not nearly enough for me: at that calibre I could have watched it for ten.
The Sopranos earns its place by being the first to delve deeply into the psyche of its characters, notably Tony, through the device of speaking to his psychotherapist. It is particularly in the first two or three seasons as he reveals his ordinary vulnerability, and middle class concerns, contrasted with the brutality of his business, that made this such a surprising delight. The death of Nancy Marchand as his mother was a huge loss for the show, as it took with it Tony’s third side (as child), as well as the only comic element of the show. Without his mother, and for a while without his therapist, Tony and the show became one-dimensional: a show about the mob. Which is not to say that there weren’t brilliant episodes in subsequent seasons, but at the beginning of the 5th season I realized that I despised each and every character in the show and I stopped watching (though caught up later, a few years after the series ended.) The second strongest character in The Sopranos was Tony’s wife, Carmela, played by the wonderful Edie Falco. She twists and turns throughout the series, at times disingenuous about her part in the Soprano family business, at times every bit the mobster’s wife, with full advantage of the position. Her morality escapes her even as she genuflects and prays.
Breaking Bad makes most people’s Top TV lists, but for me it ended up there mostly on the strength of the final season. Don’t get me wrong, this show had me from the opening scene of the first episode, but it wobbled at times, and nearly lost me in the 4th season. However, Bryan Cranston’s lauded portrayal of an ordinary man who transforms into a megalomaniacal killer pushes through what flaws the show has. One of the other strengths of this show is Walter White’s wife, Skylar, who wobbles on the edge of her husband’s insanity. At turns horrified, frightened, and conciliatory she both abets her husband’s schemes and plots her escape. She is the metaphor for every woman trapped in an abusive relationship without ever succumbing to stereotype. Walter’s Jekyll and Hyde transformation into Heisenberg, particularly over the first few seasons when the Jekyll in him was still occasionally apparent, was a delightful and fascinating transformation, but it wasn’t until the fifth season when you see everything he worked for falling apart, and the man comes out of the monster in the realization that he has lost absolutely everything, including the love of his family, that the story arc brilliantly completes.
The presence of Friday Night Lights on this list may be baffling to some. But what could be written off as wholesome American schmaltz is in fact one of the best acted, most loving portrayals of a group of people that I’ve ever seen. This show is a standout in this arena because unlike the vast majority of good shows on TV, it’s about good people. No cops or killers or psychopaths, no crime or mystery or incest or rape. It sounds deathly dull. In fact, the subject of the show contains three words that fill me with profound disinterest: Texas Highschool Football. So how does it do it? By portraying, in believable, gorgeously acted detail, the lives and concerns of very ordinary people. With one or two small exceptions, I loved every single character in the show. I cared about them. I marvelled at their tangibility. Kyle Chandler may have just been playing himself, but his ability to express himself in the slightest look was like watching someone you intimately know. I loved these characters so much I forgave them their Christianity, and that’s not something I forgive easily. The show has a major flaw, and that is the second season, where it lost its way so badly in implausible plots and dead ends that at the beginning of season three they wiped half of them from the slate, like it had all been a dream. From there on it marches firmly forward to a strong fifth and final season. I can genuinely say I miss these characters, and remember them fondly.
The last show in this list, The Slap, is a slight cheat, because it’s a miniseries, and as such benefits from the lack of pitfalls of multiple seasons. However, it is an utterly brilliant show from beginning to end. Based on the book of the same name by Christos Tsiolkas, it follows the aftermath of a party where the parent of one family slaps the child of another. As in the other shows, it is a study of characters, but driven by plot in which your allegiances change as the show progresses. Contempt turns to pity, sympathy turns to disgust. Your support of one character disintegrates while another one builds and then falls again. A situation that seems simple gets complicated and your opinion changes as each character takes their turn, episode by episode. I was positively riveted throughout, and have recommended this show with urgency to everyone I’ve met. The version I saw was Australian, though I understand an American version has been made—I can’t imagine why, as the Australian version is brilliantly and perfectly acted and staged throughout.