It is my goal to include a list of every fictional TV show I’ve ever finished in this space as well as non-fiction miniseries. However I can’t say I’ve written a lot of reviews for them, so we’ll see if that actually happens.
You can find much more information about the shows I’ve given up on at that link.
30 Rock – NBC (9/10)
The show that redeemed the sitcom for me.
Alias Grace – CBC (7/10)
Very well done for Canadian TV. Read the review of Alias Grace.
Aqua Teen Hunger Force – Adult Swim (8/10)
Though not quite as convention-destroying as Space Ghost, Aqua Teen Hunger Force is still pretty balls-out convention destroying. From the opening cartoon gambit of “Dr. Weird is up to something again” to the lack of coherent plots, the random appearances of so many recurring characters, and the complete disregard of episode-to-episode continuity, I suspect it would be hard to ever watch a straight cartoon again (well, most straight cartoons).
And it’s funny, though not always consistently: some episodes are definitely way funnier than others. But I must admire the point.
Baseball – PBS (9/10)
Battlestar Galactica – Sci Fi (7/10)
Blue Planet – BBC (8/10)
This is a beautiful nature documentary about the world’s oceans. Having watched the excellent Planet Earth earlier, this feels like a bit of a let down, just because I think Planet Earth is more magnificent. That isn’t the fault of The Blue Planet, but I can’t help feeling some deja vu and also, that the production values improved on the more ambitious one.
But this is still great to look at and reasonably informative.
Boardwalk Empire – HBO
I made it to the third season, then I wrote this: “Did Boardwalk Empire Jump the Shark?”
Bored to Death – HBO (7/10)
This is an amusing-to-hilarious – depending on the episode – comedy that is perhaps a little too rooted in the Brooklyn of the early 21st century for its own good.
The scenario is utterly implausible but it is absurd enough so that we stop caring about that and focus more on the sort of meta-hi-jinks that ensue.
The Brak Show – Adult Swim (9/10)
I was a little sceptical coming into this because I never liked Brak when he appeared in other Williams Street shows. I found him annoying and a distraction.
But I was wrong. As Space Ghost destroys talk show conventions – and pretty much everything else – and as Aqua Teen destroys so many TV drama conventions, so does Brak, only Brak takes on the sitcom. It is equally effective as the other two shows, and as funny – it might be more consistently funny than Space Ghost, if not quite as ruthless.
Another awesome cartoon.
Breaking Bad – AMC (9/10)
No, it’s not the greatest fictional TV show of all time. Calm down.
Also: Worst. Ending. Ever.
No, not really. But a really bad one.
Carnivale – HBO (7/10)
Carnivale does a good job focusing on age-old, time-tested mystical themes from religion, mythology and superstition.
But like most of the programs / works that handle these themes – and like the religions and mythologies themselves – Carnivale becomes less compelling when it gets to the specifics. When it remains obscure, it stays mysterious and intriguing. But like any religious mystery, when things are explained they are a let down.
That being said, the show is still mostly well made and definitely well acted. And unlike certain shows that try this angle – Lost would be the best example – Carnivale has actually worked out its own mythology ahead of time, so that the mythology does indeed make sense once we get down to specifics, even if those specifics are kind of disappointing. I’d rather this than the confusion of most shows and movies that tackle these types of pseudo-religious themes.
And though it is certainly the least of the major HBO dramas from HBO’s golden age – the others being Deadwood, Six Feet Under, The Sopranos and The Wire – it is still worth watching and still ranks as an example of how to make good – if not great – television. Some of the more confused shows that we have gotten in the last decade could do well to follow Carnivale‘s example of pacing and a coherent mythology, and it is a shame we will never seen the third season and whatever was up with that Atomic Bomb.
The Civil War – PBS (9/10)
I first watched The Civil War when I was 8 or 9 and never since. On watching it this time, I am amazed I still remember some of it; it obviously had a big impression on me.
This documentary is an important landmark – kind of like the American version of Shoah – the first long-form American documentary about American history. And it’s also iconic – so much of what is contained in this film has become cliche but that’s not because it is cliche, just that Burns’ style has weaseled its way into American documentary storytelling, especially in the case of TV documentaries. Watch any PBS documentary or basically any American documentary about the past, and there will be some aspect of the style of The Civil War.
The film does have its problems; it relies too much on hearsay and on mythology. A more accurate, less poetic history of the Civil War wouldn’t give us so many anecdotes. But part of the film’s power is this mythologizing of this truly central event in American history. It may not be entirely accurate, but it is more compelling from a narrative point of view. Also, something this long and large, based on something that occurred nearly a century and a half prior, necessarily has to rely at least a little bit on legends. I don’t think the film is lesser for it.
Clone High – Teletoon (8/10)
Community – NBC (9/10)
The Confession Killer (8/10)
A maddening story of a serial killer and what happens when law enforcement gets its hands on him. Read the review of The Confession of Killer.
Deadwood – HBO (10/10)
My vote for the best western of all time.
The Dust Bowl – PBS (9/10)
This is Ken Burns’ shortest major TV documentary mini-series yet but, as with his other more recent work, it is significantly stronger than some of the longer documentaries, if only because there is so much less to pick apart.
The film is very much in the same tone as his other films – it very much bears his mark as a filmmaker/showrunner – but unlike previous films (with the exception of The War obviously), the people who lived through the events are here to tell the tale. And that gives the film a great deal more power than his films that rely solely on celebrities reading quotations with music in the background.
I didn’t know all that much about this – I only just read The Grapes of Wrath and the Joads didn’t even live in the Dust Bowl – and so I learned a lot about the era, in addition to being moved by the human tragedy.
Among Burns’ best work in my opinion.
Extras – BBC (8/10)
Generation Kill – HBO (8/10)
Generation Kill bears an uncanny resemblance to Jarhead. Yes, it’s a different war. And yes, these soldiers actually do get to fight. But we are still following overly intelligent but somehow still dehumanized, over-trained soldiers given inappropriate missions and placed in bizarre situations that don’t make any sense, even in the context of their mission (and outside of that context, make far less sense).
This show is obviously a little more expansive. More of an ensemble piece. A little more interest in the “why are we here” angle. But it’s it still echoes the Sam Mendes movie. And honestly I think that’s a good thing.
These people have been trained to kill. They are so good at killing they don’t really sustain casualties. And yet their operation is a model of incompetence. And when they are done they will be unbelievably fucked up. And essentially that’s what we need to convey. No matter how much you perfect this, it’s still a terrible thing to subject anyone (victim or victimizer) to.
Get Smart – NBC/CBS (?/10)
I can’t confirm I’ve seen every episode of this show, but I’ve seen most of them.
Giri/Haji – BBC Two (6/10)
At times sublime and at times so frustrating I wanted to turn it off. Read the review of Giri/Haji.
Greg the Bunny – Fox (7/10)
This is pretty much the TV version of Meet the Feebles. And because it was made for American network television, it was inherently restricted from the beginning.
That being said, the show is pretty off-the-wall for a sitcom, manages some really funny moments and manages to at least somewhat critique the whole nature of TV (in a limited way). It’s pretty evident that even within the only season they were struggling for plots that fit the characters (Junction Jack’s mall buddy obsession makes no sense whatsoever) so it’s probably good for all of us that this got canceled before it got terrible.
Entertaining. Fun. But nothing extraordinary.
Hannibal – NBC (5/10)
One of the most celebrated TV shows of the 2010s – certainly among the most celebrated network TV shows of the 21st century – is, um, not very good. Read the review of Hannibal.
Himalaya with Michael Palin – BBC (8/10)
Himalaya is yet another excellent Michael Palin travel series with the usual: great scenery, fascinating places and people, and Palin’s general affability.
The only thing I can really say in criticism is that it seems a shame they were only able to get 6 hours of usable footage out of 6 month trip through some of the most spectacular scenery in the world. I am guessing that a longer series would have involved endless shots of him walking up or down or along a mountain.I would have been okay with that, personally.
Well worth seeing for any fan of travel documentaries, as is always the case with everything he has made in this vein.
PS That opening is hilariously bad.
It – ABC (6/10)
This has a lot in common with Stand by Me, only this time it is a horror movie along with a coming of age movie. The TV budget is painfully obvious at times but for the most part it is only the cast that is a dead giveaway that this was made for TV.
Up until the climax, it mostly works as some kind of horror meets coming of age story.
But the climax is pretty brutal, and they saved the worst effects for last.
Still, as horror on TV goes, I can’t think of anything that much better circa 1990.
Jazz – PBS (4/10)
Jekyll – BBC One (6/10)
I seem to remember mostly enjoying this modern take on it, especially once I saw some of the terrible older versions.
The Kids in the Hall – CBC (10/10)
Killer Inside – Netflix (6/10)
Interesting but a bit of a mess. Read the review of Killer Inside.
The Knick – Cinemax (9/10)
I didn’t write a review at the end of the second season because I believed it was coming back (ostensibly with an entirely new cast, set a decade or two later).
At some point I will have to try to write something about it.
The Larry Sanders Show – HBO (10/10)
Having recently (re)watched The Larry Sanders Show:
I think The Larry Sanders Show is one of the great American television programs and one of the great comedy programs of all time. Though it was certainly not the first TV show to parody TV, nor was it the first show to be about the behind the scenes goings on of talk shows, it was the first laugh-track-less American comedy I know of – setting the stage for the numerous laugh-track-less comedies we have now – and it was about as dark and outrageous as anything then on television at the time. The acting is so good that you sort of forget it’s a comedy at times, and start thinking of these people as real people. I will forever think of Garry Shandling as Larry Sanders. Sorry Garry. It is an incredible thing and, as I mentioned, also very influential. There really isn’t anything else like it in the history of TV comedy.
It belongs with Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Kids In The Hall and select few other shows (perhaps) as one of the greatest TV comedies of all-time.
The Last Dance – ESPN (7/10)
An enjoyable summary of Michael Jordan’s career with the Bulls. Read the review of The Last Dance.
Monty Python’s Flying Circus – BBC (10/10)
The Office – BBC (8?/10)
OJ: Made in the America – ESPN (9/10)
One of essential documentaries of the decade. Read the review of OJ: Made in America.
The National Parks: America’s Best Idea – PBS (8/10)
This is probably Burns’ most over-mythologized documentary to date, and that alone should make it kind of bad. I mean, it’s practically insufferable how over-the-top some of these interviewees are with The Meaning of the National Parks. All of Burns’ other mini-series that I have seen have done this to an extent, but this one takes the cake.
However, there are a few reasons why I am overcome by the film to stop caring about the bullshit pouring out of these people’s mouths.
- For one thing, it is gorgeous to look at. Combining both contemporary footage and historical photography and a little painting, this is as good a glimpse of the nature of the United States as you are going to get outside of a BBC-style nature documentary.
- The history of the parks is extremely fascinating. That alone makes the film worth watching. Whether or not the Americans really were the first people to have ‘national’ parks – and I really doubt that this is true – the history of how the parks came about is intriguing and also illustrative for our generation and future generations.
- Finally, though I have never myself been to a US national park to my knowledge, I have been to many of Canada’s. And though I recognize much of what the park myth-makers spew out as bullshit, that bullshit has a great appeal to me, because I have had similar experiences in Canada’s parks. The difference is that I am not going to project my personal experience on the entire population of the country and claim that my experiences in these parks is somehow some kind of glue that knits my fellow 35 million Canadians together with me in the social fabric, blah blah blah. I recognize that many people, especially poor, urban populations, haven’t had these experiences.
So even though there are moments during this film that I wanted to puke because of the horseshit about Americanness, this is one of my favourite Burns documentaries. I like the rest of it that much.
Over There – FX (5/10)
This is the Boston Public of War shows. Or, if you prefer, the NYPD Blue of War shows.
Remember how on Boston Public there was always an “issue” that was taken as representative of school life in America that week? Or remember how NYPD Blue tried to balance serial drama of the characters with issues that normally were resolved within the 40+ minutes allowed per episode? (Or when Law and Order fell to that in its later years and spinoffs?) That’s Over There.
Over There completely ignores most war movies that exist since the ’70s – or at least the good ones – and especially Jarhead, the film that taught us what the “first” Gulf War was really like. Or maybe it tries to condense most of these war movie plots into too short periods of time, and just figures they can pretend each one happened to the same unit.
Anyway, the squad which is the focus of this show is taken to be representative to US soldiers in the “second” Gulf War. So one day they make the news when they shoot women and children. Another time they find $5 million. Another time they have a friendly fire episode. And every episode something happens. Never mind what you see in all those documentaries out there about the Iraq War. That’s not real. This is. Even though its clear the people who wrote this have never been in the army.
And to add to it, the creator wrote the theme song. It’s one thing if this song were supposed to be composed by a soldier, as we are told in the pilot. But then we get a theme-song-driven montage at the end of every single episode. The terrible lyrics wouldn’t be so noticeable if the song’s arrangement weren’t the most cliche thing I have ever heard. Ugh. Screenwriters: you are officially not allowed to write your own theme songs and perform them. Just because you think you can write a TV show doesn’t mean you can write music or lyrics.
Watch Generation Kill instead.
Pole to Pole – BBC1 (9/10)
This remains the definitive Michael Palin travel documentary and probably the best series of its type at least until the Long Way Round. [Note: I don’t think I ever finished The Long Way Round.]
Palin seems more honest and human here than he does in later series; less like a host and more like a traveler. It’s an incredible journey that is not without its problems; he takes some pretty incredible risks by the end. And his reflections are, though hardly philosophical, at least thought-provoking and universal.
Watching this, I feel like Palin is the Paul Theroux of TV. (Well, with a much better sense of humour.)
Pride and Prejudice – BBC1 (8/10)
This is how you adapt a novel. Read the review of Pride and Prejudice.
The Prisoner – ITV (8?/10)
I was obsessed with this show when I was younger. But, despite its originality, it is extremely flawed, especially throughout the second season.
The Prisoner – AMC/ITV (3/10)
I was certainly skeptical of this but I guess I couldn’t help myself. I have a fondness for the original even though the second season was unnecessary and kind of terrible and even though the whole series has dated rather horribly.
But I don’t know what these guys were thinking; they have changed enough of the story to make it somewhat unrecognizable: the village is significantly less creepy this time around and far less sinister given that there are actually people who want to get out.
The new version is an excuse for over-directing galore and some pretty odd pacing and editing. The whole thing is significantly more confused than the original, which was already somewhat confused- but at least it was also inspired.
I really don’t know what to make of this mess – especially given the presence of McKellan – and I really think this was a missed opportunity to update a pretty classic TV premise with better technology and some more consistent storytelling.
Prohibition – PBS (9/10)
Prohibition is the shortest Burns mini-series yet, and I am tempted to say it is the best, or at least the most consistent of the mini-series he has helmed to date. It also feels the least mythological, which is refreshing coming from Burns, a man who can never avoid mythologizing or re-mythologizing his country’s history.
Though I knew a fair amount about the era, it’s safe to say there is still plenty to learn about it in such an intensive treatment – it is about 6 hours long or thereabouts – and, as always, Burns provides interesting personal stories and interesting insight from people who have thought about this a lot more than you or I.
This era stands as a lesson to pretty much anyone who wants to change behaviour and it feels particularly relevant given the moralizing of a certain portion of Americans, who are always trying to tell other Americans (and the world) how to live. The fact that they constitutionalized this moralizing and it was an abject failure should have convinced people that these kinds of moral crusades don’t work. Alas.
Anyway, it’s well worth you time.
Quark – NBC (5/10)
I certainly wish I had enjoyed this more than I did.
I like the premise and I really appreciate the Star Trek fun-poking, even if that could have been a little more consistent.
The problem for me, I think, is that I loved Get Smart as a child / tween but I doubt I could sit through it now. Same goes for this: Buck Henry’s sense of humour is from another time and those of us who have grown up with Monty Python, SCTV, Kids in the Hall etc have different – and I would say higher – standards.
Frankly it’s just not funny enough and the ’70s TV budget has dated pretty horribly. It has its moments but they are few and far between.
Rome – HBO (7/10)
The first season of Rome is some of the best historical fiction you will ever see on TV, despite some pretty strong creative license. The production values and acting are both excellent, as is the sense of place and time.
The second season is a mess: the show was canceled and they attempted to cram 2 seasons of story into 1. (Though, to me, it felt like it was really 3 seasons of story crammed into 1 season of TV.) The smarter decision, I think, would have been to just keep the story the same and end it like Deadwood, in mid story arc. Always leave them wanting more.
Sahara with Michael Palin – BBC
This is an entertaining and fairly informative travel documentary. I do agree that sometimes Palin gets in the way of his own role when he is trying to be funny, and I feel like this is a little more apparent than in Pole to Pole. It’s still good to watch and it makes me pretty desperate to travel to Africa ASAP.
I find Palin’s latest career to be pretty much the greatest job ever and I wish I could somehow steal it from him. 3 months traveling around a single desert. Amazing.
Seinfeld – NBC (9/10)
The end of the sitcom.
Space Ghost: Coast to Coast – Cartoon Network (9/10)
The talk show is now dead.
The Staircase – Canal+ (8/10)
The main part is an excellent depiction of how messed up the US justice system is. The sequels are less worth watching. Read the review of The Staircase.
State of Play – BBC (8/10)
For about all but a half hour of its run-time, this is a fantastic – if occasionally unbelievable – miniseries about political corruption and journalism. It’s like the British All the President’s Men – yes it’s that good – but with a little bit of soap thrown in. (Apparently they couldn’t resist.)
The one thing keeping it from being an all-timer, as mini-series go , is the ridiculous ending that does not in any fit with the behaviour of one of the characters. It seems as though, rather than identifying a likely source of all this, the creators thought they had to “keep it in the family” by making a previously introduced character responsible. I get that from a dramatic standpoint, but it doesn’t fit with that character’s actions in the rest of the show.
And that’s too bad, because otherwise this is great stuff.
That’s My Bush! – Comedy Central (7/10)
That’s My Bush is no Brak Show Starring Brak but it’s still a pretty ruthless and relatively subtle satire of sitcom conventions, though the last episode is a little more obvious about it.
It’s a bit of a one-joke premise and so it is often more “oh that was a clever reference” than laugh-out-loud funny. But there are moments. Unfortunately a few too many of those laughs come from jokes from the sitcom formula – which are just more risque than they otherwise would have been – rather than the satire of the sitcom formula.
It makes sense to me that this failed. I think it’s a little too close to home for most American TV audiences.
Toast of London – Channel 4 (7/10)
So very stupid. Read the review of Toast of London.
Unscripted – HBO (8/10)
If you can over the total utter Soderberghishness of this – much of it feels like it is Traffic without the drugs and cops – this is an excellent series. Don’t focus on whether or not it was improvised or semi-improvised either; I don’t really see why that matters.
This is probably as close as we will get to fully understanding how hard it is to make it in Hollywood. Now, that in itself is pretty inconsequential; I mean who really cares about actors? But the leads are all very convincing as people – whether or not they are truly playing themselves – and the whole thing is both affecting and hilarious. Langella is particularly good.
The West – PBS (7/10)
This is a “Ken Burns” documentary series, but unlike his most famous works, he acted only as Executive Producer. (Or, perhaps, Show Runner, as we call it now days.)
The show is, at times, incredibly Burnsian, despite Burns’ seeming relative lack of involvement. And this is the biggest problem with what is an informative and interesting, and at times, affecting, miniseries. Some episodes are more in debt to Burns’ trademark style than others. (Some feel like carbon copies of The Civil War albeit with different subject matter.)
Burns’ remaking of American myths is on full throttle here, and it feels as though the filmmakers almost tried too hard to create a mythical world around which “The West” could revolve.
That being said, the show is remarkably fair, covering the experiences of all cultures and valuing all.
But the idea that “The West” is a place and possesses an essence is a little too strong. And the decision to imitate Burns’ style – despite the direction by a different filmmaker – is at times a little much.