Sara’s comment on my Farscape entry the other day set me thinking. Does Farscape feature in my top 5 all time television series? What are my top 5 (or 10)? I’ve produced lists of my favourite films, albums, and videogames, but top TV shows is not a list I’ve ever given much thought to. (Some day I’ll need to put together a list of my favourite books, too, but that’s going to be really difficult.)
Now that I’ve been thinking about it, judging TV series is quite different that judging films. With films, you might have been showered with trailers and pre-release buzz, or you might have gone to see it on a whim, with no foreknowledge. Either way, the film has about two hours to grab you and make a permanent impression. You might go back and see it at the cinema, or buy the DVD, or see it again when it comes around on TV; but fundamentally, a film is all about a one-off whack of entertainment.
TV series are different. Not only does each episode give it a new opportunity to shine or suck, but the episodic nature also changes the amount of attention you have to pay to it. It’s not enough to just buy a single ticket, and enjoy the show: you have to set aside a time slot each week for several months to watch it. It requires a greater investment of time, attention, and emotional energy. The best TV series can suck you in to the point where you organise your entire life to have that one evening free.
(Consequently, the requirements for series characters are higher than for film characters. Even a shallow hero can be entertaining and engaging enough to see you through a couple of hours. But to see you through twelve or twenty-four weeks, a hero has to have depth, history (and a future), and a personality that cares about more than just blowing shit up.)
Precisely because of this episodic format, I find TV series more difficult to watch again. They are bound to their own time in a way that films aren’t. The sustained effort of following a show for a whole season instantly adds an element of nostalgia whenever you look back on the experience, and nostalgia is fragile. Would watching the series again, in a comfortable DVD format, spoil its memory? If catching all the episodes in sequence is as easy as pressing a button, do you prize the experience less?
In considering my list of favourite series, I’m primarily going by the impact that the shows had on me at the time they were shown. Whether they have stood the test of time for me is a secondary consideration. Here we go:
There are only six episodes of this very modern, slick vampire story. Starring the ever-cool Jack Davenport, as a policeman whose partner gets bitten by a “leech” (they don’t use the term “vampire”), this is actually more of a crime story than a fantasy. There are plenty of thrilling moments, but it doesn’t feature any high-octane martial arts antics like Buffy. The setting is London, the feel is gritty, and the morality is very, very grey.
The X-Files did two things very well for a while: the ongoing global conspiracy plot, and what Abi calls the “creature of the week” spot. The conspiracy episodes got tiresome after a while, because you knew that the series writers never had any intention of letting Mulder and Scully get to the bottom of anything. (I stopped following it by the middle of series 5.) The creature episodes were consistently entertaining, though. They mixed paranormal elements with criminal investigations, and hopped back and forth between horror and humour to ensure that you never knew what was going to come next. And occasionally they would throw some groundbreaking storytelling or visual techniques at you.
The series neatly tapped into two cultural uncertainties. When the first series was shown in 1994, the Cold War was over, and the Western world was left wondering who the next enemy was going to be. The X-Files gave us the shadowy government conspiracy. In addition, there was the whole millenial, pre-apocolyptic doom thing going on, which X-Files creator Chris Carter would later explore in more depth with Millennium.
Finally, there were Mulder and Scully themselves. Both gorgeous, cool, and yet they were still underdogs. You couldn’t help but root for them, or want to be them. Great stuff.
Where The X-Files combined the science-fictional supernatural with criminal investigations, Buffy took the fantastic supernatural and put it up against suburban teen life. Buffy was always the more comedic of the two series, but it was nevertheless unafraid of confronting the darker side of the series villains, and of the protagonists themselves. With a larger cast of core characters, it was also able to spend more time on interpersonal issues than The X-Files‘s constant will-they-won’t-they interplay between Scully and Mulder. It tackled the themes of love and loss in ways that televisual science fiction and fantasy had never dared to before. Just as with The X-Files, it went off the boil in later series, but it never stopped producing outstanding, groundbreaking episodes.
Murder One tilted the idea of “story arcs” in TV series on its head. In most TV shows, a story arc is a plot line that runs over several episodes, sometimes spanning seasons. But generally, the story arc is built to fit the show. Murder One did it the other way round. They took a story arc, and then based the show around it. (Setting the scene for shows like 24.) In many ways, it was a traditional (though very good) legal/courtroom drama series, with parallel plots, and characters developing in ways that didn’t necessarily serve the core plot. But it always came back to the central mystery: who really killed Jessica Costello? It was a grand old whodunnit, filled with false leads and twists. The characters were strong, and the dialogue sizzled. Classic TV.
Take a stereotypical Canadian Mountie (overly helpful, polite, upstanding, wholesome, and flawlessly honest), send him to Chicago, and pair him up with a cynical, wise-cracking, bend-the-rules cop. They fight crime!. It’s a fun and quirky take on the traditional buddy theme. There are a number of beautifully poignant episodes where the characters explore their pasts, emphasised by an extraordinary selection of incidental music. (It was through buying the Due South soundtrack that I first discovered Sarah McLachlan.) The strength of the characters was also the series’ downfall: when David Marciano left after season 2, watching the rest of the cast carry on was…painful. Still, it was great while it lasted.
The easy way to sum up Coupling is to say that it’s just like Friends, only British, and with more sex. Okay, so it has six main characters, three men and three women, and we follow the story of their lives and romantic (mis)adventures. But that’s about where it ends. Coupling is more condensed, energetic, and inventive than Friends. Steven Moffat keeps coming up with new ways to plumb the characters’ depravities and proclivities, and new ways to make jokes about sex and its tenuous link to romance. (And not just puerile sniggering gags, either, but good grown-up jokes that would go stright over the head of many a teen.) It makes the moments of touching honesty all the more powerful when they do happen. Definitely of the best TV shows (of any kind) the BBC has produced in recent years.
Conclusive proof that science fiction series needn’t rely on special effects. What it had instead was a collection of anti-hero characters (thieves, smugglers, killers) who were constantly at each other’s throats, classically trained British stage actors who knew exactly how to deliver their lines, and writing that emphasised these qualities. Forget the dodgy sets, dodgy science, and often silly plots: you watch Blake’s 7 for the backstabbing, the quips and put-downs, and the desire to see these rag-tag rebels struggle against forces you know will eventually overcome them. (And you watch it for Avon.) To its shame, 25 years on, the BBC still hasn’t produced a science fiction series to better, or even match it.
(About two years ago, it was being re-run at 7am on Saturday and Sunday mornings on some cable channel or other. I hate getting up in the mornings, but when getting up involved sitting on the sofa downstairs, with Alex on my lap, and Blake’s 7 on the TV, I didn’t mind it quite so much.)
The first thing I remember thinking about Babylon 5 is, “Hmm, they’re not using models for their special effects.” Of all the things that were made Babylon 5 a good show, the (exterior) special effects were probably the least important, but they still stick in my mind. At the time, they were very much at the cutting of TV-level CGI, and even though they never fully pushed my “wow, that’s real!” button, they were still different enough to register.
What was important about Babylon 5 was its dedication to the characters. (Again, and as usual, it’s the characters that make a TV show memorable.) They weren’t always on the side of good, and even when they were, they still regularly made morally dubious judgements, but they were always true to their natures. And that made it fascinating to watch. Take Londo Mollari, for example. The fact that he is often likeable and kind makes his descent into evil and destruction all the more compelling. You keep waiting and hoping for him to get a chance at redemption.
Also, a story arc taking in not just one series, but five, and the culmination of an interstellar war that has spanned millennia. It’s big. It’s good.
Homicide was just electrifying. I never really warmed to NYPD Blue, but Homicide grabbed me straight away. Maybe it was the fact that it was set somewhere other than LA or New York. It meant that they didn’t have to linger on emphasizing how this was the gritty underbelly of an otherwise hospitable and tourist-friendly city. They just got on with the crimes and solving them. Excellent character portrayals by the actors (particularly Andre Braugher) made every episode absorbing. The off-the-cuff camera work and fast cutting and editing stripped away the distance and unreality that television imposes on violence and drama, and served to heighten the sensation of actually being there.
Other shortlist candidates:
Here are some of the other TV series that I have thoroughly enjoyed, but that don’t necessarily make it all the way to “all time great” status.
(I still haven’t figured out where Farscape fits in the picture, though. One of the discs in the box set was damaged, so I’ve had to send it back to Amazon. And I’d been so looking forward to watching the whole first series in sequence! The 45-minute episode format is just perfect for late evening viewing, while waiting for Fiona to fall asleep….)