Much can be said of TV in the beginning of the 21st century. We've seen the basic downfall of major network television. We've seen "reality" TV soar. We've seen cable networks and pay channels take the lead in innovate shows. We've seen 24 hour news channels destroy journalism. But in midst of all of this, I have to say a handful of amazing and well-written shows have captured many hours of my life in the last 10 years. I find I am getting more and more drawn to TV shows because they take time to tell a story and develop their characters in ways movies often can't due to time constraints.
Perhaps I'm thinking about this in terms of my own writing journey. In the last year, I've been writing longer works that take more time to tell their stories and narratives. TV shows and poetry may seem like they have little in common, but many shows have greatly inspired me with their sharp writing, their attention to detail, and their pacing.
As one of my end of the year lists, I wanted to devote this one to the top ten TV shows that have captured my attention this past decade. A few of these began prior to 2001, but all aired most of their seasons in this decade.
10. Dexter (Showtime) 2006-Present
Michael C. Hall is amazing. How amazing? Well, two of his shows appear on this list. I first became aware of him in my absolute favorite TV show of all time (see my number one), which you would think might make it hard to see him in another show playing a very different character, but it's not. Hall is just that talented and plays the title role of Dexter with great skill and truly holds the show together. For those who don't know, Dexter is about a serial killer who kills other serial killers. About two weeks ago, it ended its fifth season. The concept of the show is original and immediately draws you in, but the strong acting by the majority of the cast keeps you invested season after season even when the writing hits a few bumps. The show is entertaining and suspenseful and sometimes rather insightful into the line between what makes us good or makes us evil. The show is probably the weakest written on this list, but the concept and all around clever twists of the show makes it well worth watching. Best Season: 4
9. Weeds (Showtime) 2005-Present
Weeds is another rather clever concept for a show. Mary-Louise Parker stars as a mother of two who turns to selling weed in her suburban neighborhood after her husband dies of a sudden heart attack. What I love about this show is the wonderful acting by Parker and the bravery of the writing team behind this show. They've taken Parker's character down a path and made it fairly believable. Her character has developed over six seasons to be addicted to danger and adventure. They never let her off easy and have done an amazing job of developing the characters of her two sons, which are both rather damaged by the choices of their mother. The show took a huge risk in season four by abandoning the "suburbia" setting and diving into the Mexico boarder issues facing our country. This past season (six) made a few missteps and was the most uneven season, but the show never stops sucking you in and making you think and laugh. Parker is one of my all time favorite actresses, and she is so good at making you dislike her at times, yet still root for her, which is an amazing feat. Best Season: 2
8. Queer as Folk (Showtime) 2000-2005
As a 20-year-old recently out college boy home for summer in a small Indiana city, Queer as Folk saved my life. That summer I rented the whole first season and madly fell in love with a gay community I knew nothing about. I knew no other gay people at the time and I was lonely and naive. Queer as Folk, at the time, was the only show ever to be geared toward a gay audience. The show takes on every issue imaginable in the gay community within its five seasons. It's funny, heartbreaking, thought provoking, and actually groundbreaking. I learned a lot from watching this show. I liked the diversity of the characters' approaches to life, sex, and relationships. I will always be madly in love with Hal Sparks because of this show. The show was a basic soap opera, but with real purpose and guts. It will always hold a special spot in my heart. Best Season: 4.
7. Sex and the City (HBO) 1998-2004
This show, maybe more than any on this list, changed television forever. The show is bold, sexy, funny, and helped capture a moment in our human history. The show brought sex into people's lives in all of its graphic detail. I love the show for all of these reasons, but mostly for the risks it took. For a show that was primary a comedy, it took some dark twists at times and challenged the viewers by making the lead characters make bad decisions. The most famous of these is when Sarah Jessica Parker's Carrie cheats on Aiden with Big. Few shows would let their main character do something that questionable and unlikable. Best Season: 3
6. The West Wing (NBC) 1999-2006
This is the only show on the list that I watched from the very beginning. I remember sitting down and watching the very first episode as a young high school kid. I was immediately blown away. I actually accredit this show with pushing my interests in politics and turning me into a more well-informed person. The writing of this show is fantastic as is the acting. In the seven seasons of the show, I only missed one episode, which I later caught on DVD. Aaron Sorkin's writing skills and pacing are unmatchable. While the show got a little weaker after he left, it was still one of the smartest things ever on television. Allison Janney will always have a piece of my heart. If you are looking for one of the best Christmas episodes of any TV show, look no further. The Christmas episode from season one entitled "In Excelsis Deo" will move you. I watch it every year. Best Season: 1
5. Absolutely Fabulous (BBC) 1992-2004
I love the Brits! This show is literally playing on repeat in my apartment constantly. Dustin actually introduced me to this show when we first met and I fell in love. Jennifer Saunders writes and stars in the show. Her ability to get right at the heart of our star-obsessed consumer culture is absolutely the biggest strength of the show. The show is absurd, but absurd with a purpose and true social commentary throughout. The show has some of the most quotable lines of any show I've ever been a fan of (and I'm not one to quote stuff). If you've never seen this show, go rent it and give it a few episodes. British sitcoms are a little different than American ones, so it might take a little time to adjust. Best Season: 4
4. Big Love (HBO) 2006-Present
What I love about Big Love is that it truly challenges me. Being openly gay, an atheist, extremely liberal, and pretty open to a variety of sexual desires, it takes a lot to truly challenge my ideas, especially about relationships, but this show does. It makes me invested in people very different from myself, which is a true tribute to the writing. The show takes on polygamy in multiple ways. It also challenges religious beliefs of all kinds. Where is the line between a religion and a cult or something dangerous? The show take a bit to get into due to the complicated history of the characters and sheer number of them. But it is well worth your time. The acting is, again, brilliant. I can't wait for season 4 to come out in a few weeks on DVD. Best season: 2
3. The Comeback (HBO) 2005
This might be the show my readers know the least about on this list. It only survived one season, which I think is the biggest mistake HBO has ever made. The show stars Lisa Kudrow as a washed up sitcom star looking for a comeback. Her comeback takes the form of a reality TV show that follows her attempt to rise back to the top by playing a supporting role in a new sitcom with much younger and hipper co-stars. The show is structured as the "raw footage" of her reality show. It is brilliantly put together and Kudrow is at the top of her game. If you only know her from Friends, then you truly need to give this show a go. I absolutely fell in love with the concept and the delivery. It is a great examination of celebrity culture and of reality TV. Kudrow's performance is hilarious and yet heartbreaking in surprising ways. I only wish HBO had seen the genius of this show and kept it going. Best and Only Season: 1
2. Mad Men (AMC) 2007-Present
If I taught any sort of film or directing class, I think I would just make my students watch Mad Men over and over again, which would probably get me fired. This show goes against almost all of current TV and movies. Mad Men is so subtle and so steadily paced that it feels like something from a different time period, which works because the show is set in the 1960s. When I first watched it, I was amazed at how real it feels. Most films or shows set in the 1960s feel like some over-romanticized version. Mad Men is so perfectly done. It is detailed and specific. The dialogue is exceptional and so is the acting. The pace of the show is a bit slow for many 21st century TV watchers, but the pay off is unbelievable. It is also a show that seems to just get better and better and better. The last two seasons have been the best I've seen. If you've read stuff about this show and thought it was all just hype, listen to me and go rent the first season. You won't be disappointed. Plus, Jon Hamm is gorgeous. I do sometimes wish this was an HBO show so I could see a bit more skin from him, but oh well. Best Season: 3
1. Six Feet Under (HBO) 2001-2005
What can I say about this show? Well, if you've ever met me in person, I've probably already told you everything I can. It is the best show I've ever seen in my life. It is amazingly well-written, acted, directed, produced, edited, and whatever else you do to a TV show. The show focuses on a family who owns a funeral home and each episode begins with the death someone. These deaths get pretty creative over the five seasons. Michael C. Hall plays one the best gay characters that's been on television. All of the characters are interesting, compelling, and so complex. No one is ever right all the time or wrong all the time. At its heart, the show examines what it means to be alive and how to live your life in the face of the fact that we will all die. The show also has the best series finale of any show ever (this has actually been stated by many critics and viewers, not just me). You owe it to yourself to watch this show. I recently let my friend Mark borrow my boxset and he was not disappointed. Best Season: All of them
I hope you enjoyed reading my take on these ten shows and will give some of them a try in the new year!