After reading the excellent article in Maxim (never thought I’d use those words) Maxim Interrogates the Makers and Stars of The Wire, it made me start thinking about my favorite shows. It irritates me when people diss on television. Yes, there is a lot of crap out there, but there are many examples of stellar storytelling in the television format. There have been a lot of great series that have come out in my lifetime. And I think the extended format of serialization can actually improve a story. So here they are, the best twenty TV shows of the last thirty years according to me.
But before I go into it, I have to explain two omissions that many might consider shameful: The Sopranos and Sex and the City. Sex and the City I watched when I was younger. It’s like candy, and I sometimes watch it now for light, brainless entertainment. But it really hasn’t had staying power in my mind. There are too many things that are problematic about the series – the lack of ethnic minorities, the frivolity, the relationship between Carrie and Big that I find really problematic, the gimmicky writing, and the subsequent horrible film franchise the show spawned. As for the Sopranos, it’s not included in the list for a very simple reason. I haven’t watched it. I’m sure I would love it if I did (same with Game of Thrones).
20. Six Feet Under. I have to admit, this show lost me in some of the middle seasons, but I include it nonetheless because of the well-done season finale. I won’t spoil it for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but the finale, which elevates Claire to the true protagonist of the series, was perfect.
18. Gilmore Girls. This show makes me think of my mom. We’re friends, and we talk a lot. Have you ever noticed that in a lot of shows they never talk about other current shows, movies, books, or music? Real people do, though. GG was one of the first shows I can remember to make pop culture references, and about 50 a second with their fast talking. Love it.
17. Friday Night Lights. Tim Riggins and his long, greasy hair, yes! I love shows that deal with middle class and working class problems of people who don’t live in New York or L.A. And Mr. and Mrs. Taylor are one of the best couples in television history.
16. Deadwood. It’s like reading a dense, intelligent book. It’s amazing to me that a “western”, usually the domain of cowboys and outlaws, could have so many amazing female characters like Alma, Trixie, Calamity Jane, and Joanie.
15. Community. Again, Community has many of the elements I love in a TV show: middle class issues, ethnically and age-diverse casts, and pop culture references. I adore each and every one of the characters, but Troy and Abed are a match made in comedy heaven.
14. Parks and Recreation. Like Community, it’s the characters that do it for me with this show. They grow, change, and surprise me. Plus “Treat yo’self!” might be the best life philosophy to ever come out of a TV series.
13. Planet Earth. Anything that produces so much awe about the world we live in deserves a place on this list.
12. Pee-wee’s Playhouse. I grew up on this show, which probably explains a lot about my sensibilities. Pee-wee is a mad genius. There are so many incredible elements to this show from the word of the day to Penny to the tiny dinosaurs living in the wall to Lawrence Fishburne as a cowboy.
11. Curb Your Enthusiasm. Larry David is hilarious, the show is often shocking and surprising, and nothing beats this ensemble cast’s ability to improv crazy situations.
10. Battlestar Galactica. Unlike many people, I loved the finale of this series. An example of how good science fiction can comment on socio-political issues and big picture human quandries in a way other genres can’t.
09. Chapelle’s Show. Dave Chapelle is smart and silly, an amazing combination. The ways he was able to speak about race on his show are pretty astounding. And I have a lot of respect for the reasons he ended the program, even though I miss it and him.
08. Absolutely Fabulous. Patsy and Edina are goddesses. This show has been a long-time favorite and warrants many re-watchings.
07. Misfits. Even though I was pretty disappointed by last season (Simon and Alisha deserved better), I’m a sucker for shows about smart juvenile delinquents. I thought the first three seasons were surprising and clever. Nathan forever!
06. My So-Called Life. I was 11 when I first saw this show, and it came out at the right formative moment to inform many of my ideas on what it means to be a teenager. Angela, Ricky, and Rayanne were the epitome of cool. And Jordan Catalano… swoon…
05. Freaks and Geeks. Like My So-Called Life, Freaks and Geeks came out at the right moment in my teen years, and like MSCL, it treated the teen experience with respect. What made the show for me were the changes that the characters go through (and in one too-short season!). I identified so much with Lindsay Weir. I love shows that are about, at the core, the wonderful weirdness of people.
04. Twin Peaks. Speaking of the wonderful weirdness of people, there is also the terrible, dark weirdness that human nature can exhibit. Twin Peaks is about both the good and bad in human beings. David Lynch is the Man, and it’s amazing that he created a hit television show that is also as weird as this show is. I remember seeing the commercials for Twin Peaks and knowing I was too young to watch it then, but would watch it someday. When I found the VHS of the entire series while baby-sitting many years later, I started watching it as soon as I put the kids to sleep. I was hooked. The mom of the kids let me borrow the VHS. I watched the entire show that weekend on a tiny TV in my attic bedroom. The images have stuck with me ever since.
03. Mad Men. The look, the complexity of the characters, the nostalgia, the cleverness – there is so much to love about this show. But I think the craft of the writing is what makes this show great. Each episode is like an amazingly well-written short story.
02. Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Women watch more television than men. I sometimes wonder if it’s a more maligned medium than film because of this fact. It might also be because of this fact that some of the best women characters come out of television shows. Buffy is one of them. So are Willow, Anya, Cordelia, Tara, and Faith. The change and growth Buffy goes through throughout the series is probably more realistic than any other teen show, and it’s amazing that this happens within a sci-fi/fantasy landscape. This show is really dark too, tackling issues of good versus evil, mortality, creating a family from your friends, and taking control of your own fate. It’s big stuff, and it shows a lot of respect for the experience of teens and young adults. And one last note, how many shows are so real about teen and young adult sexuality, especially in the U.S.? Respect.
01. The Wire. One thing I actually agree with Maxim on. This show is not only the best television has to offer, it is the quintessential text on contemporary American society as far as race, politics, education, and economics in this country work. It’s honest and unflinching. It’s painful and beautiful. I’m stuck on season four, because the story-line about the teens of East Baltimore is too painfully true to watch. But I am eager to start it up again, because this show is too darn good not to finish.