Thursday, December 30, 2010

Making a List That Means Something

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This is the time of year when there are entire magazines devoted to Top Ten lists. Every critic and columnist feels the need to sum up what was most noteworthy in their particular discipline. And according to Ken Levine, it's the obligation of every blogger.

Mostly, making lists is a way of covering for the fact you're enjoying the holidays and the rest of your life, bloated with turkey, perpetually semi-buzzed and the last thing you're capable of is an original thought.

Following Will Dixon's spirited Twitter campaign, a number of Canadian critics less than anxious to publish picks finally filed them. Most were predictable, revealing, as all lists do, the subjective point of view of the lister as well as what kind of political, social or peer pressures they feel they're under.

God forbid you piss off some network publicist you might need next month, forget somebody you gushed over or rile the comment threads by admitting you actually quite liked "Sarah Palin's Alaska".

While on one level I get the point of awards, the "Top Ten" and even the "Top 40" and "Top 100", I really don't.

Nobody sees, reads or listens to everything. To do so would be a physical impossibility. So TV critic and pundit lists are based on sampling a few episodes and maybe what they witnessed by happenstance as well as their own hidden or clearly stated agendas.

I probably watched two decades of television before I ever read a review for a show, let alone was aware of TV critics. I'm sure they were around, but either people back then made up their own minds or weren't as obsessed with knowing what was considered "best" and what was not.

You just watched what you liked, not really giving much thought to whether it was culturally or socially important or somehow of measurably better quality than something else that was on. And I think that's how most people still approach the medium.

But there were also series I tried hard not to miss in an era where you either saw an episode on the night it was broadcast or waited for a summer re-run.

Which thoughts got me thinking about the shows I never missed in the last year.

According to stats I've often heard quoted, only a small corps of viewers tune into any particular series for every episode, while the rest of the audience occasionally grazes or can get by with missing some of the plot turns, side-stories and character insights that took place in the episodes they didn't see.

It occurred to me that anything on any "Best of" list would have to contain elements you either couldn't do without or didn't want to risk missing because something about a show's style or content made the outcomes far from predictable.

So I made a list of the series where I watched every single episode in 2010, figuring I'd have trouble getting to a Top 10.

But I surprised myself. There were eleven. Not all of them were successful. Some have already been cancelled. Some may not be around much longer.

But in 2010 they mattered enough for me to give them my time and full attention.

Like those critics making lists, mine probably reveals as much about me as it does my viewing habits. So be it.

But if I were to put my finger on one similarity among them it would be this -- I'm fascinated at how any of them ever got on the air in the first place.

And everything I know about Canadian TV tells me that if they had been conceived here not one would have gotten the time of day from any Canadian broadcaster.

My list is in no particular order, mostly because I have no concept of what kind of multi-layered, points for and against, assessment system anybody would need to concoct to accomplish that…

…which might explain why I'll never make a reliable critic or media pundit or even a guy with really good lists.

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MAD MEN

When virtually every cast member of a series is doing limited edition commercials for high-end automobiles you know it has become synonymous with class.

From the writing to the acting to period detail precise down to a particular week of 1965, MAD MEN epitomizes what demanding perfection can create. 

My own theory is that the series reflects the personal lives of the writing room as viewed from the POV of the 1960's. It's where we all came from and an explanation of how we came to be who and what we are.

It's a perfectly made cocktail with subliminal messages in the ice cubes -- just like Vance Packard said were there.

Easily dismissible at the concept stage on the basis of being of a time and place nobody really cares about anymore, it is undeniably brilliant on execution. And no matter how flawed the Don Draper character ever becomes, you know he will respond and that response will provide both transcendence and redemption.

"Mad Men" is an object lesson in writing with both class and a belief in your own inherent good. Not to mention the importance of celebrating your own history, no matter how unimportant it might seem to the rest of the world.

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BREAKING BAD

I remember reading a synopsis of this series when it went to pilot and wondering if the concept of a high school chemistry teacher who begins cooking Meth wasn't a sign that somebody was scraping the bottom of the "Let's be Outrageous for the Sake of Being Outrageous" barrel.

Even Post-Sopranos, what American audience would embrace the kind of moral relativism required to make such a main character sympathetic?

I hadn't considered that the scripts might also demand the kind of unblinking look at the drug world that no version of America's "War on Drugs" has had the honesty or courage to require of either itself or its population.

I also had forgotten how much the pure honesty and sheer courage of great actors like Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul can transmute any individual into an everyman.

"Breaking Bad" is all about proving you can get away with anything as long as you're honest and have the courage of your convictions.

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TERRIERS

There wasn't a single episode of "Terriers" that hadn't been flea dipped first in originality. In the process, one of the most familiar TV genres was taken somewhere even its most iconic writers had never contemplated that it could go.

All the network money that was spent and will be gathered to spend again on a reboot of "The Rockford Files" should just be given to the producers of "Terriers" to fund a second season. Nobody is going to do the LA Noir detective any better for a long time to come.

And "Republic of Doyle" -- please stop referring to yourself as "Rockford on the Rock", you're not even in the same ballpark. Like so much Canadian TV, you reference the touchstones rather than actually being able to grasp them and realize what you're holding let alone what you might do different with them.

This was a series that completely understood its world, delivered audacity on a shoestring and refused to surrender either its bravado or any shred of its deep humanity.

And when you've got the courage to write "Go ahead, smell my fingers!" as your episode's climactic moment, you've definitely got my attention for anything else you fucken "A" want to say.

"Terriers" was proof that refusing to compromise or simply live up to accepted standards results in great television.

And a great theme song never hurts either.

SONS OF ANARCHY: "The Culling."  SONS OF ANARCHY airs Tuesday, Nov. 24, 10 pm e/p on FX. CR: Prashant Gupta / FX

SONS OF ANARCHY

Another series that should have been killed in the pitch meeting. "Think Hamlet in a motorcycle gang" indeed.

It's a tribute to both Kurt Sutter for being able to appear sane after saying words to that effect and the FX network exec who didn't immediately toss him out of his office that this series has been allowed to grow into the mangy, rangy, no bullshit and impossible to ignore rabid animal it has become.

"SOA" is another example of a proven movie genre making the leap to television by allowing the movie tropes to become ambience to a deeper study of character that only television can do.

This is an ensemble cast who (not unlike a theatre company actually performing "Hamlet") knows the concept of working as a team to achieve a finite goal. That clarity of purpose combined with the sprawling, often chaotic storylines creates a reaction in audiences that can best be defined as "Engrossing".

"SOA" proves that you gotta get out there on the edge -- and reproves that ladies dig the bad boys.

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TREME

There are series that go out of their way to explain their world and its rules and how and why its different from what you know. And then there's one that just creates that world and leaves figuring it all out up to you.

I don't know if there's an actual plot or endgame to "Treme" and frankly I don't care. Like the music that permeates its streets and the nearby river that could flood at any moment, it simply rolls along and sometimes sweeps you away.

I also don't know if there has been anything on television so much set in a specific place or as populated with people who get no recognition on other shows.

We all know that no network executive and few corporate sponsors give a shit about who's paying attention in small, local backwaters. "Treme" shows you what a huge, unconscionable mistake that is.

It's also a series that reminds you of the importance of having those who would rather be different than fit in among us and of what we lose when we allow entire cultures to be gentrified or impersonated or simply ignored.

And the music. Oh, God, the music…

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SPARTACUS: BLOOD AND SAND

Okay, so I have a thing for History and CGI and Gladiator movies and "S:B&S" promised to be a so bad it's good cheeseball mix of all three. Actors hired for their pecs more than their talent, Hong Kong style flying stunts in a graphic novel inspired arena. It was video games melded with "B" movies and lots of cable TV sex.

Who could resist?

And then 4 episodes in -- just when the novelty was beginning to wear off -- it changed. Or rather, those watching realized we'd been seduced into something far deeper and darker and rewarding.

We realized that this wasn't some cheap, camp exercise in excess. It was a depiction of the current human condition and the ways of our own world as much as those of ancient Rome, a struggle between immoral predators and virtually helpless victims that continues no matter the century.

"Spartacus" became an examination of power and the ways corruption impacts the innocent. I also don't think I've ever seen a series that consistently led you toward the inevitable and then took sudden Left turns into the unexpected, turns that always changed and raised the stakes in the episodes to come.

By the final two installments it had become the model for how you end one season and set up the next as absolutely essential viewing.

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JUSTIFIED

Steven de Souza, the writer of "Die Hard" once said that the most important character in any drama is the villain. "Without Hans Gruber, John McClane is just a guy who's gonna have a couple of drinks and go home."

And "Justified" is crawling with exceptional villains, every one of whom apparently feels as justified to follow their paths of mayhem as modern cowboy Raylan Givens is in dispatching them.

And while you always know which side of the law is the right one, you always also sense that the other guy might just have a point too -- or a fairly acceptable excuse.

This is also a series that doesn't care what kind of story you think you came to see, it's got something else in mind and will do its story telling any way it damn well pleases.

It is additionally layered with the kind of Kentucky that no tourist board wants to talk about and no self-respecting regional tax break would ever support. Yet by its quality it proves that buying a little bad PR will pay off bigger than replicating what's always been in the glossy brochures.

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RUBICON

Most critics talked about how slowly "Rubicon" flowed. But the reality was that once it hooked you time almost stood still. And you needed it to do that.

Because "Rubicon" was all about detail, cramming hundreds of possibilities into every carefully delivered line and nuanced look. This was the kind of story-telling that made you aware that every second of screen time counts and every scene is there for a good reason.

In the end, the showrunner fucked us, opting for a conspiracy that became hackneyed somewhere around 1973, costing the series any hope of a future and forfeiting the lives of several beautifully crafted and performed characters as well as a world well worth further examination.

Despite the disappointment, I stuck with it until the end, enjoying all but the final moments when I realized it had become too late to pull one of those reveals that said, "We've been playing you as much as the bad guys, Mr. and Ms. Audience".

Nevertheless, "Rubicon" was about hoping that being really good at what you do is enough and knowing that sometimes that just isn't true.

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DEXTER

Another series where the moral ambiguities of the original concept should have been its downfall. But somebody said, "No, let's give it a shot". And for 4 seasons Dexter has managed to not only keep me watching but keep proving that you can always be better than your last time out.

I didn't think it was possible to top the demise of Rita that climaxed last season. That had to be the high point from which the traditional two year coast to TV obscurity would begin.

But like an Eveready Bunny equipped with scalpels and duct tape, "Dexter" just keeps coming back, using the last high point as merely the start position for the next stage of what now feels like a much longer ascent.

This is a series that reminds you to dig deeper, that there is always an option and there is always someplace even you never imagined a character could go.

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FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS

By this point it should be clear I'm drawn to dramas that refuse to compromise their premises, their characters and their sense of place to do what's "expected" or "tried and true" or simply follow "the path of least resistance" in the world of television.

By all measures, including ratings numbers, "FNL" should not have survived its first season, let alone be in a position to be starting a sixth. But it's still with us, primarily in my opinion, by sticking to the simple slogan of the Dillon Panthers -- "Clear Eyes. Full Hearts. Can't Lose".

In many ways that's the best advice writers can get when designing and running a show. Clarity of vision and knowing where you need to go. Complete commitment to the emotional lives of the characters. Just do what you love and the audience will follow.

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THE WALKING DEAD

Dramatically flawed, often as surface and simplistic as the comic book on which it is based and working in a genre that has literally been done to death and has left little room for re-imagination.

And yet -- there is incredible courage here both in front of and behind the camera that consciously and unconsciously attracts an audience.

For as popular as horror is in the film world, it has not had a stellar track record on television. Psychological terror, sure, but not splatter and gore. Knowing when the blood spillage has become excessive is as hard to determine in the edit suite as it probably is on a battlefield.

You simply become inured by seeing a hundred times what the audience will only see once. But overstep their boundaries a single time and you lose many of them forever.

Frank Darabont and his team walked the tightrope perfectly, pushing the envelope just a little more each episode and never apologizing or turning away from what you had to see (needed to see) in order to inhabit the world of the characters.

The tension and suspense were as thick as the Georgia humidity, the rare moments of relief clearly sending the message that things are only going to get worse (ie: better).

"Walking Dead" is a reminder that the reins of a show need to be placed in one pair of steady hands -- and left alone.

So there's my list. If you've missed any of the above, please take the time. I'm sure you'll find it well spent.

And start asking yourself why Canadian networks and producers can't seem to compile such a list of originality and uncompromising clarity of vision. It would be nice to see some homegrown titles when the list season rolls around next year.

6 comments:

greencollarme@yahoo.com said...

I agree with your awesome list! It coincides with my own with the exception of Rubicon. I would have replaced it with Boardwalk Empire or was that your 11th choice? Happy New Year!!

JA Goneaux said...

As irritating as lists can be, for all their predictability and groan-inducing WTF moments, thanks for alerting me to "Justified". Damn, Olyphant and Goggins in the same show?

One can only hope that the TV gods are leaning more towards "The Shield" than "Deadwood", with regards to how long this runs...

Anonymous said...

Personally my favourite is SONS OF ANARCHY...and I won't bore you with the 10,000 reasons why. I am only one of a gazillion+ fans world wide that are happy as hell that FX took the chance with Kurt Sutter and his awesome, no bullshit show!!
Betzblue, Tennessee

John McFetridge said...

Interesting, they're all highly serialized shows (and are they all 13 episode seasons?), not an episodic in the bunch.

And yet every Canadian network insists on episodic.

Carole Dearborn said...

I applaud most of your list. The show that would TOP my list is Sons of Anarchy. Sutter blends brutal drama with comedy (let's face it...Tig comes out with some darn funny stuff), passion and tears. There is something there for everyone. They are the best of the "Bad Boys". Chibs and Tig are two of my favorites, but the cast as a whole are fabulous together.

Dan said...

Great list!! Watched and loved all of them except "Terriers". How did you get to watch it here in Canada?
I'm just waiting for the DVD to finally come out.