What’s Good on TV

For many years I proudly avoided TV. Everything I saw on it was, to a greater or lesser extent, boring and anti-intellectual. This was so pervasive that I became convinced it was a flaw of the medium itself: television (I figured), with its constant commercial breaks and 44 minute cap, had nothing to teach us and was incapable of communicating emotion. Then I discovered Buffy.

Here was a show that communicated drama, emotion, life lessons, and facts, while doing it with beauty, grace, and humor. I was hooked.

Good television is out there. It’s hard to find, not taken seriously, ignored by the critics, and quickly canceled by the networks, but it’s out there and it’s wonderful.

So here’s my opinion on what’s good on TV (your contributions appreciated).

(I’d like to also feature the opinions of others. I’ve put up a page with the reviews of SF TV reviewer, Tim Goodman.)

Watching

Here’s what I’m watching currently:

24: Government agent has 24 hours to save LA, again. Discussed below.
Angel: Joss Whedon does West Wing. Discussed below.
Arrested Devlopment: Very funny dysfunctional-family comedy.
West Wing: Season 5 sans Sorkin. Sorkin’s era discussed below.
Wonderfalls: Beautiful snarky adolescence-adulthood-transformation show.

Here’s what I plan to watch (on DVD unless otherwise noted):

Here’s what folks have recommended:

Watched

(These are shows that are entertaining, educating, and beautiful.)

Note: If you’re going to watch a show from the beginning, give it several episodes before you reject it. Shows seem to take about four episodes before they get good, and usually just keep getting better from there. (Except for their declines towards the end.)

Ryan Murphy’s Nip/Tuck

Just as the two plastic surgeons at its center pull away skin to reveal the guts inside, Nip/Tuck goes behind the facade of the perfect TV family to reveal the horror within: the wife doesn’t feel anything, the husband wants an affair, the son’s a criminal, his girlfriend’s a lesbian — even the villain has a good side. Nobody is simple (except, perhaps, the 8-year-old daughter we rarely see).

Through these characters, the show tackles topics like faith, rape, drugs, suicide, ethics, and sexual identity with such honesty and care that it’s hard to believe they got away with it on TV. Lesbians, transgenders, and threesomes are treated as nothing out of the ordinary. Predictably, conservatives have decried the show for its immorality, but if anything the opposite is true: every sin, from rape to closed-mindedness, gets punished, whether through its external consequences or internal guilt. Everybody wants to do what’s right.

And the show is beautiful to boot. The opening sequence, with twitchy mannequins and a highly appropriate song, is one of the best I’ve seen. And once an episode they do a surgical ballet, literally spilling their clients’s guts in time to rock music. Without a doubt, this is the best drama on TV. 60m, one summer season and counting. (BitTorrent, FX, DVD coming soon)

(When I wrote this review, I hadn’t seen American Beauty. After watching it, it strikes me that Nip/Tuck is a lot like what you’d get if you tried to make American Beauty: The TV Show.)

Joss Whedon’s Buffy

Comedy, drama, thriller, and horror are just some of the styles seen in this epic story. Joss has a knack for combining an entertaining show with a valuable lesson, and his impressionistic portrayals of life are almost as compelling as the storyline and characters that pull you from episode-to-episode. Occasionally Joss breaks away from the storyline to do his own thing, and the result is some of the best stuff on television. 60m, 7 seasons. (DVD, Online, FX, Syndication, formerly UPN)

Joss Whedon’s Angel

While it lives somewhat in the shadow of Buffy, Angel was an exciting series on its own, exploring some of the darker and more adult places (although Buffy went even further in season 6). The show manages to remake itself each season, most notably with season 4 doing Joss’s version of 24 and this season (number 5) promising to bring us his West Wing. Hopefully, we’ll see the show will tackle pragmatism vs. principles, while keeping plenty of monsters in the game. 60m, 4 seasons and counting. (WB, Online, DVD, TNT)

Joss Whedon’s Firefly

Joss takes his own brand of TV to this sci-fi western which chronicles the lives of good people in a future that’s taken a turn for the worse. Unfortunately the show was mistreated by Fox when it was on the air and canceled after only a handful of episodes, leaving the viewer wondering what will happen to the characters they’ve quickly come to love. Still, the episodes that we have make a beautiful and exciting drama. 60m, 15 episodes. (DVD coming soon, Online, formerly Fox)

David Greenwalt’s Miracles

Leading an even shorter life than Firefly (only six episodes), Miracles was a positively eery but compelling look into the supernatural. Like some sort of satanic mystery, each episode features some genuine supernatural occurance that is investigated and solved by the heroes. The show manages to combine hart-tugging drama with sometimes icky horror with an unusual result. 60m, 6 episodes. (Online, formerly ABC)

More on the above: Joss Quest, Joss Update

Aaron Sorkin’s West Wing

We’re inside the White House, watching the behind-the-scenes battles and personal issues of the staff who have to deal with everything the country does, and more. Each show combines witty banter and compelling drama with interesting issues (death penalty, right to privacy, census sampling) that Sorkin has a flair for making come alive. While most shows have a rather formulaic structure that gets old after a couple seasons, when Sorkin cuts loose, sparks fly. 60m, 4 seasons. (Bravo, NBC, DVD coming soon)

Aaron Sorkin’s Sports Night

All the banter and drama of the West Wing, but with the heavy issues replaced by comedy and uplifting stories. This show is so much fun I feel like dancing after each episode of characters I’ve quickly come to love simply try to make their lives work and put out a TV show. The show starts out poorly in the first few episodes, but just keeps getting better and better. 30m, 2 seasons. (DVD, Comedy Central)

Popper and Serafinowicz’s Look Around You

Describing this show is simple: it’s an absolutely deadpan 70’s British in-class educational show about science, except all the content is made up. Describing why it’s funny is harder. The show takes particular aim at science’s pomposity, which is ripe for parody. What if the all-knowing narrator doesn’t really know all that much? What if scientists are just making stuff up as they go along? What if we studied the world of our imagination, with the same tools that scientists study their world of rigor? Whatever the reason, the show is dead-on and does all the right things picture, sound, writing, and structure. Too bad it’s so short. 10m, 8 episodes. (R2 DVD)

Jhonen Vasquez’s Invader Zim

Jhonen Vasquez, a deeply-dark comic book artist with an unhealthy obsession with doom, brings his bizarre world to the screen. Premise: An alien invader visits Earth on a mission to destroy it, blending in as a student in the mean time. Normally this stage is only used to parody sci-fi cliches, with only sideways glimpses at Jhonen’s world (the teacher keeps telling the students they’re doomed, the school mispells its name SKOOL, the children jump out the windows when the bell rings) but sometimes the show will point its satire at the wider world (one show was on the problems with the electoral process, another on the media’s obsession with “crises”). Either way, the crazy world makes the show interesting and hilarious. 2x15m, apx. 1 season. (Nickelodeon, BitTorrent, DVD coming soon)

“Invaders blood marches though my veins, like, giant riadoactive rubber pants! The pants command me! Do not ignore my veins!”

Surnow and Cochran’s 24

At first glance the show is an expensively-produced thriller providing only the adrenaline boosts and cliffhangers necessary to keep viewers tuning in than an engaging drama. But its real-time style and split screens and multiple-angles are innovative and the plots elucidate important political and societal issues (not to mention lots of ways to kill people). The show seems to have a lot of geek fans, perhaps because their technology material is unusually accurate. 60m, 2 seasons and counting. (DVD, Fox, FX, Online)

Update: In Season 3 the whole accuracy thing went out the window.

Jon Stewart’s Daily Show

Lisa Rein likes to call it “the best news on television” and it probably is. The show, while never taking a particularly strong political stance, provides left-leaning satire of the stupidity in the news. Styled as something of a parody of the local news, it forsakes their standard death, sex, sports, weather formula for sharp commentary on news, showbiz, ads, and newsmakers themselves with Jon playing the common-sense everyman and his correspondents taking absurd positions to try and argue why the news makes sense. In doing so, they make it clear just how absurd the things we’re asked to believe really are. 30m, daily. (Comedy Central)

The Brothers Chaps’s Homestar Runner

This quirky comedy features a cast of bizarre characters, tons of in jokes and retro references, and lots and lots of humor. Available as a series of Flash webpages, there are suprises and easter eggs everywhere, and jokes everywhere else. I’ve now watched everything there is to see, and eagerly await next week’s installment. The site seems to be catching on fast — I see people talking about it and wearing their merchandise everywhere — and it seems to be one of the few independent, noncommercial, ad-free places on the Web that’s making money. 5m, weekly. (Online, DVD coming soon)

Watchable

(These are shows that have two of three.)

Quick Hits

3: The Office. BBC office mockumentary, every other episode was funny.
3: The Tick. Clever, artful show, but not always so funny.
3: Clerks: The Animated Series. Zany madcap animated show. Great we-just-got-a-show-by-accident commentary.
2: Skin. Promising, but wasn’t given much of a chance.

Shows I only watched partially:

3: Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Interesting once, quickly gets repetitive.
2: MI-5. Bad 24 knockoff.
2: The Critic. Occasionally funny. The movie parody stuff is good, the rest of the show is aimless.

Andy Breckman’s Monk

Monk is an obsessive-compulsive detective, brought on as a consultant to solve San Francisco’s toughest murders. Pulling you along with Monk’s comedic antics, his dramatic relationships with the other characters, and, of course, the mystery, the show always gives you a fair chance to solve things before or at the same time Monk does. Usually, however, the mystery is not who did it, but how and the writers seem to have quite a supply of clever tactics. As you may have guessed, I’m not a mystery fan, but this show keeps me coming back. 60m, 2 summer seasons and counting. (USA, ABC)

Seth MacFarlane’s Family Guy

This animated comedy is a little slow (I can watch it in fast forward and not miss much) but filled with jokes and packed with references and parodies. It’s more than you’d expect from an animated comedy, filled with song-and-dance numbers and political commentary humor. 30m, 3 seasons. (DVD, Online, Cartoon Network, formerly Fox)

Surnow and Cochran’s La Femme Nikita

After you get over the bizarre premise (a secret government agency almost as evil as the bad guys they fight), you notice the sci-fi setting and action sequences keep you entertained while its writing strings you along. It seems to have a devoted fanbase and more to it than meets the eye, but I haven’t found out exactly what it is yet. 60m, 4 1/3 seasons. (DVD, Oxygen, formerly USA)

Alton Brown’s Good Eats

Good Eats is certainly not your average cooking show. Alton Brown combines scripted dramatic segments with information about the science behind cooking and the relevant technical details. His shows are fun with a light-hearted humor and often a stylistic parody of other things (horror stories, reality TV, etc.). The show is a big hit with geeks, probably because of the simple scientific explanations. 30m, seven half-seasons and counting. (Food Network, DVD)