Best TV of the Aughts: The Second Tier
by Jason Mittell — Middlebury College
December 23, 2009 – 16:26
Time for my next chunk of Best TV of the Decade list, but first I want to point readers to my guest appearance on the excellent Television on the Internet podcast (which should be posted within the next day or so), where I debate many of these programs (and some that won’t appear on my list at all) with Todd VanDerWerff and Libby Hill. Great fun to do, hopefully equally enjoyable to listen to…
Calling a group of shows “Tier Two” might imply a degree of inferiority, implying second rate or second class. But when you’re dealing with the second tier of the best shows of a decade – especially a decade that might be as good as any in television history – there’s no second class here. These are all excellent shows that fall short only of being the best of their categories. If I were numerically ranking, these would all fall somewhere between the #6-#20 marks – in other words, very high praise. But here they’re in alphabetical order to avoid mathematical wrangling.
Before getting to the shows, one thing that writing these lists has highlighted for me is how difficult it is to compare programs – not just because they stem from different genres, aim at different audiences, or even have different lengths and formats. More unique to television, the longevity of a series is an external variable that has little to do with the actual quality of a show, but rather is forced by the American television system that either cuts a series before it reaches maturity or sustains a series beyond its expiration date. Many of the programs I’ve previously discussed benefit from not overstaying their welcome – had HBO encouraged (i.e. bribed) The Wire to run for more seasons than its creator wanted (as they did with The Sopranos), it certainly would have lessened its quality. Lost has thrived once ABC granted the series an end date. And while Arrested Development might have been able to sustain itself beyond 3 seasons, odds are that longevity would have produced diminishing rewards.
Thus many of the following shows suffer from being sustained beyond their prime time, reaching toward the infinity model of American broadcasting. On the other hand, others feel curtailed by early cancellation, unable to reach their prime due to lack of network support. And in the case of the first show on the list, network meddling both sustained it past its prime, and forced it to become something it shouldn’t have been.
Alias: In the fall of 2001, three espionage shows debuted in bizarre synchronicity – while they were well into production throughout the summer, 24, The Agency, and Alias all debuted after September 11, making it seem as if they were responding to the attacks. The Agency seemed most in tune with the zeitgeist, as a straight-forward procedural valorizing the CIA – but despite solid ratings, it lasted only two seasons. 24 seemed like the most formally risky, with its highly serialized real-time format – but its torture-first, action-heavy politics resonated with a large section of the audience (as did its crack-like strategy of delayed narrative satisfaction), and it has improbably stretched its limited format to 8+ seasons (and this shall be the only mention of 24 on my best of decade list…).
The innovations of Alias seemed shallower at first glance, with an emphasis on stylish visuals and narrative gimmicks over any sort of political relevance (although its gender politics were quite rich, at least if you judge by many SCMS presentations over the years) – but the spectacularly twisty pilot also revealed a compelling narrative hook of nested (and related) double agents. Moreover, the show soon found its foundation in the fabulous triangle of parental interest – Jack Bristow as the world’s least warm but most ass-kicking dad, Arvin Sloane as the warm fatherly stand-in with evil in his heart, and Sydney as the hurt child looking for parental love and revenge, but also the world’s most talented secret agent.
Had the show been canceled after season 2, it would be regarded as a cult classic, an all-time great that failed to find an audience (see Arrested Development and others on this list). But ABC showed faith that it could grow its audience if only it downplayed its serial twists and simplified the storytelling. J.J. Abrams acquiesced, and the audience did grow enough to last 5 seasons – but the show suffered from the network interference, and the final two seasons certainly undid much of the affection in fans’ eyes. While it’s true that the Rambaldi plot never really paid off, and many of the choices in the last season were ludicrous, I’ll still savor the brilliant final fates of Jack and Sloane (clipped below) and have nothing but fondness for one of the series that first triggered my research interest in television narrative.
Angel: Another key innovator in narrative complexity, Angel might be the least regarded of Joss Whedon’s holy trinity, but it’s my personal favorite. The show definitely struggled during its erratic first season (half of which was in the 1990s), but found its groove in the 2nd season Pylea episodes. Seasons 3-5 are uniformly great, with both stellar stand-alone episodes both moving (“Waiting in the Wings”) and hysterical (“Spin the Bottle” and “Smile Time”), and a series of excellently crafted serial arcs. Although Buffy is rightly hailed for balancing the monster-of-the-week and the big bad, I think Angel more fully explored what long-term arcs could do, especially in the season four Jasmine storyline.
Even more impressive is how the characters develop over the series – the three Buffy cast-offs were never particularly multidimensional on the parent show, but all three were transformed on Angel into highly rich, multifaceted people. Wesley’s arc, and Alexis Denisof’s amazing performance, is unparalleled within Whedon’s world, and later Fred’s transformation is also stellar. And although I think the series had more life in it, it went out on a peak with a highly satisfying series finale.
Battlestar Galactica: A brilliant remake of an unremarkable original, BSG showed how television sci-fi could simultaneously present engaging long-form stories and deliver social commentary like no series before. At its best, it was as good as anything on television, but meandered a bit in its latter two seasons. I don’t hate the finale like some, but its lack of a payoff equal to its lead-in has dulled the show’s effectiveness in my memory. Still, I can’t think of a “hard sci-fi” series that I’ve found more compelling and rewarding.
Curb Your Enthusiasm: In a decade full of comedies that feature formal experimentation, no sitcom was more original than Curb. Not only mastering the pseudo-documentary single-camera style, the improvisatory approach to dialog makes the show sound and feel different than any other series. Even though the plots are, at their best, highly constructed machines of cause-and-effect, the scenes feel alive and loose in a distinctive way that no other series has matched – in fact, the one show that has a similar feel (to completely different emotional effect) is Friday Night Lights. Curb pushed “cringe comedy” into really painful realms, and delivered more often than it stumbled. The recent Seinfeld pseudo-reunion season marked a return to form, raising the show into this tier and making me hope that Larry David finds another season’s worth of petty kvetching to extend to the next decade.
Firefly: One of the problems with most Joss Whedon shows is that they take awhile to find their footing – but Firefly is the exception, coming out of the gate as a fully-realized unique storyworld. While the serialized plot never got a chance to take hold as firmly as we would have liked – and the limited resolution in Serenity mostly made me long for what a second full season might have done – the Western and sci-fi mixture works far better than it had any right to, and the cast is as good as any on this list. But I do have to wonder what might have happened had the show found enough of an audience (or a more appropriate cable channel to air on) how the show might have stumbled in the long run – would its later seasons mar its early successes like Buffy and Alias, or could it have maintained the quality for the long haul? While we’ll never know, it highlights the challenges of comparing short and long-running series.
Freaks & Geeks: Another one-season wonder that I haven’t watched since its original run at the beginning of the decade. Due to the memory gap, I convinced myself that it was overrated and didn’t belong this high on the list given the ways that TV storytelling has evolved in the past 10 years. Then I started reading the many celebratory posts (like this one by Daniel Fienberg) and remember how much I loved it. It’s true that the show is comparatively conventional in its storytelling structure compared to many of the series that have followed in its wake, but few match its combination of sincerity, pathos, and humor. Plus it was a launching pad for so many great young actors and writers, featured some truly classic moments (including the one embedded below), and introduced the world to the singular genius of Bill Haverchuck. The only question for me now is whether to rewatch soon or wait until my kids are old enough to enjoy it with me.
Gilmore Girls: Working under the assumption that the final season never happened (which it didn’t for me, as I boycotted it!), this family dramedy was one of the most charming shows I’ve ever seen, offering a warmth in its idyllic visions both of a small-town community (which resembles my hometown of Middlebury in some creepy ways) and a parental bond. Moreover, it featured arguably the best female performance of the decade, with Lauren Graham sustaining everything with a manic energy and wit that is simply unmatchable. Additionally, Kelly Biship and Edward Hermann were pitch-perfect as the blue-blood parents that Lorelei couldn’t quite detach herself from, and the show exhibited an enviable level of pop cultural literacy. Again, this is a show I’m looking forward to rewatching with my daughters when they reach their teenage years.
Malcolm in the Middle: History has been unkind to Malcolm, as it is remembered more for its excesses than its innovations. I never found the late seasons to be as bad as many, but it certainly peaked early, especially in the parts with Francis in the military academy. Nevertheless, this was the series that first demonstrated that a single-camera reflexive sitcom could be a ratings hit – and none of the more fondly-regarded shows that have followed in its footsteps have approached its mass appeal. The actors were uniformly strong, especially Bryan Cranston’s shame-free performance as Hal and Erik Per Sullivan’s demented youngster Dewey. Probably Malcolm is the decade’s most influential sitcom for the doors that it opened, and I’d contend still one of its best.
The Office: I’m one of those rare souls who prefers the US version to the UK one, in large part because the American adaptation created a richer and more expansive world, with arguably the largest ensemble of effective regular players in sitcom history (maybe Soap had more, but they shuffled their appearances more erratically). It also extended the possibilities of the mockumentary format from the British version into new directions, creating scenes where the presence and placement of the camera is woven into the narrative to great effect. I also prefer how Michael Scott is ultimately a more well-rounded character than David Brent – not to belittle Ricky Gervais’s performance, but the character doesn’t prompt the mixture of pity, outrage, and frustration that Steve Carrell elicits. But most of all, the American version has now run for 100 episodes longer than the original(!), and is still producing strong episodes – I’ve got to acknowledge the power of the marathon over the sprint.
Pushing Daisies: I’ve rhapsodized this series before, but this short-lived show simply brings joy to my heart, hitting my sweet spot of whimsy and sentimentality. One of my strategies in my Television and American Culture course is show a few pilots of my favorite shows to expand my students’ televisual horizons – Pushing Daisies has been the most successful in grabbing student interest and getting them to dive into the series. For a medium that is typically defined by “innovation through imitation,” this show is truly unique and its fall-from-ratings grace will always be the most sad collateral damage of the writers’ strike.
Six Feet Under: I vacillate between thinking that this show is over- and under-rated – it certainly wasn’t as subversive, deep and profound as it often seemed to think it was. But it also was groundbreaking in its integration of black humor and drama, its treatment of adult subject matter like death, drugs, and sex in new ways for serial television, and its presentation of arguably the most mature and compelling gay relationship ever seen on American television. I’ll rank it high in large part due to two standout moments: “That’s My Dog” is probably the most intentionally harrowing episode of serial television I’ve ever seen (whether or not that’s a good thing is up for debate), and the show’s finale was simply perfect in a way that television finales never are. Here’s the incredibly-spoilery final scene for those who want to relive the perfect ending – I just did and have the tears to prove it:
Veronica Mars: The first season was expertly crafted and tidy, if you can call a twisty long-form mystery stretched over 22 episodes “tidy,” and was launched by a near-perfect pilot. The second season was more ambitious, with more characters, more twists, and more complex revisions on first season stories that seemed to have been wrapped up already – it was less successful than the first, but still a great season of serial television. The third was certainly weaker, both in ways that most high school shows stumble when moving to college, and in concessions to The CW to simplify the plotting. But in all, it’s a fabulous show with a stellar lead performance by Kristen Bell, great supporting work by Enrico Colantoni and Jason Dohring, and some of television’s most class-conscious politics shy of The Wire.
The West Wing: One of the many stellar 1999-00 season debuts (including Angel, Freaks & Geeks, The Sopranos, Malcolm in the Middle, and Jon Stewart taking over The Daily Show), it seemed unlikely that this show would succeed where Aaron Sorkin’s previous series Sports Night has failed to reach viewers. A behind-the-scenes political drama seemed unlikely for network television, both due to political divisiveness and lack of previous successes. But it became a staple among a core group of viewers, whom I’ve heard described as the elusive audience of “people who don’t otherwise watch television,” or what I like to think of as “NPR listeners.” It worked in large part because of Sorkin’s brilliant writing style and a cast able to deliver the snappy dialog, but also as a refuge of idealism for viewers suffering from 1990s political scandal fatigue and bracing for the unforeseen horrors of the Bush administration. The fourth season was a mess, and the fifth was nigh unwatchable in Sorkin’s absence, but the final two seasons delivered both compelling drama and an eerie foreshadowing of the Obama/McCain election. My personal favorite episode is “Noël,” which features this beautiful scene that I’ve featured in many lectures as a quick encapsulation of 2000s-era narrative complexity:
And on that apt note, have a happy holiday and I’ll return with the rest of my list and acknowledged blind spots before the new year!
Posted in Television, TV Shows Tagged: alias, angel, Battlestar, best of the decade, curb your enthusiasm, firefly, freaks and geeks, gilmore girls, malcolm in the middle, pushing daisies, Six Feet Under, the office, Veronica Mars, west wing