Saturday, September 21, 2013

The (Completely Arbitrary, Constantly Changing) Top 10 on Television Right Now

The Emmys are tomorrow night, so here it is: my list of the top 10 shows on television.

Before we get to the good stuff, a few notes: this is only based on the shows that I regularly watch, obviously, so it doesn't cover the entire spectrum of television available. This is also for regularly-airing primetime scripted shows: therefore, no reality series, nor miniseries, nor daytime television such as talk shows or soap operas. Finally, this is only for shows that are still airing/in production; since 30 Rock ended in January, it doesn't make this list (would it have? Maybe. But that's another debate). The caveat to that last point: this doesn't include shows that are premiering this fall, though it does include this past spring and summer premieres.

Anyway, all this is saying that this list will likely be irrelevant in a week. So enjoy it now!


Honorable Mentions: Homeland (Showtime), The Bridge (FX), Boardwalk Empire (HBO), It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia (FXX), Archer (FX)

10. The Middle (ABC)

The Hecks are a modern family: lower-middle class, doing their best to juggle bills, their three kids, and making ends meet. If this weren't an ABC sitcom, it would be the most depressing show on television. But thankfully, this is the best comedy in the network's stable, making hilarious jokes that come from an all-too-relevant place. The cast is universally strong: Neil Flynn and Patricia Heaton are sitcom vets, and make their Mike and Frankie, respectively, the weary parents in this insane household. Charlie McDermott takes oldest-child Axl to the extreme of boorish teenage boy behavior, Eden Sher - who is incredibly gifted in physical comedy - perfectly embodies middle-child Sue's indefatigable optimism, and Atticus Shaffer plays up youngest child Brick's bizarre tics without ever hamming it up. Amazingly, the show has only racked up one Emmy nomination - for hairstyling - in it's entire run. Hopefully voters - and the viewing public - will discover this delightful gem.

9. Hannibal (NBC)

He's pop culture's most notorious cannibal: Dr. Hannibal Lecter. He's the focus of Thomas Harris' novels, and Anthony Hopkins won an Oscar for portraying him in Silence of the Lambs, one of five films about the character. So what could a television show bring to the table that we haven't already seen? Hannibal pulls off a neat trick by mostly regulating its titular character to the sidelines, instead focusing on FBI agent Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), who himself is mentally unstable and, in Harris' books, eventually be the one to put Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen, in a brilliantly restrained performance) behind bars. The first season of the show - which aired this past spring - was unexpectedly complex, with a frightening portrayal of mental illness, along with a delectable game of cat-and-mouse between Graham and Lecter, the latter assisting the FBI in catching killers through his psychological profiles. That's to say nothing of the gorgeously macabre cinematography. It's beautifully terrifying.

8. Veep (HBO)

There are, essentially, two kinds of ensemble comedies on the air right now: ones with people you would love to hang out with, and ones with people you're glad aren't a part of your actual life, but don't mind watching for a half-hour each week. Yes, every character on Veep is a terrible, selfish person who wouldn't do anything unless it furthered their own interest. And that's the grand joke of this show: the people running this country don't care about anyone but themselves, and allies become enemies depending on what's necessary at the moment. It helps that the writing is punchy (and profane), with a cast that's nowhere near as incompetent as the characters they're playing, especially Julia Louis-Dreyfuss as Vice President Selina Meyers. Ask any political science professor and they'll tell you that the vice presidency is the worst position to have in American government. Luckily for us, that makes it a gold mine for this satire.

7. Parks and Recreation (NBC)

Parks and Recreation, on the other hand, is a "hangout comedy," one where every character is just so fun and sweet and funny that you could just spend all day with them (and yes, that does include Nick Offerman's prickly Ron Swanson). That's actually what sets this show apart from most of television at the moment: it's about good people trying to do good things. Of course, trying is the operative word, as it wouldn't be a sitcom without conflict that results in hilarity. And with a stellar comic cast that includes Offerman, Adam Scott, Aziz Ansari, Aubrey Plaza, Chris Pratt, Retta, and the incredible Amy Poehler, laughs are not in short supply. Watching the machinations of local government has never been so entertaining.

6. Mad Men (AMC)

You probably already know all the praise that Mad Men has been given over the years: four Best Drama Series Emmys, Jon Hamm's skyrocketing career, innumerable exclamations that it's "the best show on television ever." Well, a lot of that is well-deserved. The show takes on the advertising world of the 1960s, focusing mostly on Don Draper (Hamm), who has a mysterious past and plenty of spur-of-the-moment ideas. But what makes the show so fascinating is how it presents the era: America is in a period of tumultuous upheaval, and the Don Drapers of the world - as well as the Dick Whitmans - struggle to change with it (if they even try at all). This past season was divisive, as it took a closer look at duality and was more elliptical in structure, but it was also the show's best. It's going to be coming to an end pretty soon - start catching up now.

5. New Girl (FOX)

It had one of the most inauspicious beginnings of the past few seasons: Zooey Deschanel, the unofficial poster girl for the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope, appeared on every ad, with FOX plastering the portmanteau/abomination "adorkable" everywhere it could. And in those early episodes, it really was just 30 minutes of Deschanel being as whimsical as possible. But then something happened: character depth was added, and the relationships between Jess (Deschanel), Nick (Jake Johnson), Schmidt (Max Greenfield), and Winston (Lamorne Morris). Viewership went down, but suddenly New Girl evolved into the best ensemble comedy on network television. Creator/showrunner Elizabeth Meriwether and her terrific writers' room have crafted an indelible series, with many of the jokes improvised by the actors. And their chemistry is the lifeblood of the series, especially in the relationship between Nick and Jess. We'll see what season three brings, but right now, this series is on fire (and was unfairly snubbed in Best Comedy Series in this year's Emmy nominations).

4. Girls (HBO)

I've already discussed how this show feels relevant to my life, and make no mistake, that's a major factor in why I love this show. But it extends beyond that: the entire cast is absolutely fearless in their portrayals of these characters, and more often than not, they're being terrible to everyone around them. Especially writer/creator/director/star Lena Dunham, who seems to enjoy calling her Hannah on all of her hypocrisies. The rest of the cast is equally impressive, from Alison Williams' self-centered Marnie to Jemima Kirke's flighty Jessa to Zosia Mamet's petty Shoshanna. And let's give a hand to the boys of Girls: Adam Driver, Alex Kaprovsky, and Christopher Abbott all do great work as the men who are just as capable of being terrible and equally lacking that "have-it-together" quality. What's most impressive, though, is how the humor doesn't come from jokes (though it does have some great lines), but rather from the recognition of one's self in their humiliations. It's not afraid to take chances, with entire episodes breaking away from current subplots, which gives them the feel of short stories (Dunham majored in Creative Writing at Oberlin). All of this makes Girls one of the most fascinating and enjoyable shows on television.

3. Game of Thrones (HBO)

No show on television has taken the "no one is safe" attitude to the extreme that Game of Thrones has. It set this precedent early, killing off Sean Bean's Ned Stark nine episodes into the show's run, and yet, three seasons in, it continues to shock (the "Red Wedding," for example). But the high death toll, obviously, isn't what makes this show so great. The scope is epic, with multitudes of characters that are visited in any given episode, and the setting expands across the entire fantasy world of Westeros - believe it or not, there are number of characters who still haven't come face-to-face after thirty episodes. But the show's greatest strength is portraying the way its various characters are caught in a epically-complex power struggle, all of them pieces in a game that even those who've thought that mastered it don't completely understand. It may be hard to follow, but it's worth get lost in the tangled web these characters weave.

2. Breaking Bad (AMC)

"Mr. Chips becomes Scarface." This is the infamous pitch that creator Vince Gilligan used for Breaking Bad, and it couldn't be farther from the truth. What makes this show the best drama on television (for now...the series finale airs on 9/29) is how, over the course of five seasons, we've seen the real Walter White (Bryan Cranston): he's not "a good man who cooks meth to earn enough money to leave behind for his family after his cancer diagnosis." He's always been a monster, hiding in plain sight, who's finally letting himself be seen. Of course, the main focus of the show is about Walter's rise - and inevitable fall - in the meth business, but those he leaves in his wake are no less memorable, from Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), his former student/business partner/target of his manipulations, to his wife Skyler (Anna Gunn, in what may be the show's greatest and most underrated performance), to his DEA agent brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris). That's to say nothing of the show's breakneck pace and fantastic team of writers and directors. It's one hell of a ride.

1. Louie (FX)

It was a tougher call than you might think between Louie and Breaking Bad for this spot, but I always kept coming back to Louie. It's not a laugh-out-loud funny show, but it is the funniest show on television, relying on absurdist humor as much as - like Girls - seeing ourselves in the various situations Louis C.K. (playing himself, basically) finds himself in. It's a very experimental show, with each episode either telling one half-hour story or being broken into two vignettes. C.K. writes, directs, edits, and stars in every episode (well, edits almost all of them), making this the closest thing to an "auteur project" on television. But what's most exceptional about this show - and what makes C.K. one of the greatest comedians and, I'll dare to say it, filmmakers of our time - is that C.K. has found a way to make stand-up comedy routines cinematic, and mining that same observational truth in this show. It's funny, heartbreaking, thought-provoking, and evocative television. There's nothing else like it on television right now. And it's everything great television should be.


Shane Slater said...

Nice list. Here's my Top 11(yes, I have ties):

1. Breaking Bad
2. Homeland
3. The Good Wife
4. Mad Men
5= Modern Family
5= Game of Thrones
7. House of Cards
8. Enlightened
9. Girls
10= The Americans
10= Justified

Like you, I'm also a huge fan of Louie, New Girl and Parks and Rec. There are so many good shows!

Jason H. said...

Shane - Oh gosh, it took everything in me not to include ties on my list. But, as you said, there are just so many good shows right now! The Good Wife and Enlightened are both shows I've wanted to take the time to catch up on; the former especially, partly thanks to you! And I completely did not even think about Justified.

Great list, too! I think it's interesting that we both have Mad Men around the middle.