It is my goal to include a list of every fictional TV show I’ve ever finished in this space. However I can’t say I’ve written a lot of reviews for them, so we’ll see if that actually happens.
30 Rock – NBC (9/10)
The show that redeemed the sitcom for me.
Read the review of 30 Rock.
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)
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.
Community – NBC (9/10)
Deadwood – HBO (10/10)
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.
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.
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)
The Kids in the Hall – CBC (10/10)
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.
Monty Python’s Flying Circus – BBC (10/10)
The Office – BBC (8?/10)
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.
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.
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.
Seinfeld – NBC (9/10)
The end of the sitcom.
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 – though there are moments- and 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.
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.