Guides | August 29, 2008 | Comments ()
Here it is, folks. The 20 Best Seasons of the Last 20 Years, laid out in all its splendor. We don’t mean to brag, but agree or disagree with the substance of the list, I don’t know any other website or periodical that’s taken on an endeavor of this size: Extensive, detailed write-ups covering on the some of the smartest, most complex, and most irreverent television shows that have aired over the last 20 years.
Since we began this list six months ago, there’s been a lot of chatter about subjectivity, objectivity, the bias of the list, shows we missed from the earlier half of the 20 years, omissions, and shows that had no business belonging in the 20 of 20. Certain people have gotten legitimately upset, while others have insisted we reveal the criteria to make it easier to impugn. Rather than get into defending our choices, we’d just like to say that we feel readers tend to gravitate to Pajiba because of certain like-mindedness, and we put the 20 of 20 together not with a show’s critical or commercial success in mind (after all, many of the shows on our list were ultimately canceled prematurely), but with an eye toward showing an appreciation for our own favorites. We have no problem with a groundbreaking show like “Seinfeld,” or a long-running sitcom like “Friends” or “Frasier,” nor did we think that “The Sopranos” was unworthy of recognition. It’s just that these particular shows, and other incredibly worthy shows, don’t necessarily fit within the mentality of the site - slightly geeky, wholly intelligent, and massively bitchy. There are a lot of other shows that barely missed the cut (“Lost,” “The Boondocks,” “Alias,” “Scrubs,” “Sports Night,” “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” “Homicide,” “Quantum Leap,” “My So-Called Life,” “30 Rock,” and yes “The Sopranos,” an amazing show with no stand-out seasons), but in the end, we feel that the Top 20 of 20 best reflects what this site, its writers, and its readers are all about.
So, take a final look at our 20 of 20. Take issue if you’d like; we appreciate that our readers aren’t quick to agree with us simply for the sake of agreeing. But if you can look it over and enthusiastically agree with 10 or 15 of the shows on the list (which is as many as most of those who put together the list can agree upon), then we believe you’ve found an Internet home. It also suggests that you may enjoy some of the shows on our list you haven’t gotten around to watching or may not have heard of. Likewise, if the list inspires fury, rage, bitchiness, or an overwhelming sense that you’ve been morally wronged, then though you might not agree with our tastes, you certainly agree with our values.
Here it is, alphabetically:
1. Arrested Development, Season Two: The second season is where the show was just knocking it out of the park — tits to the wall — for 18 gloriously brilliant episodes. I’ve talked before about my deep infatuation with really good comedy. Not that there’s anything wrong with well-done crass and crude — the dick and fart jokes of the world — but I think that truly smart, engaging comedy is one of the hardest things to get right in the world of entertainment. And while many have been close, no comedy series has ever touched the levels of “Arrested Development,” particularly this second season. I’ve watched this show several times over, and yet I still find new things to laugh at and appreciate with each go-round. The show actually grows, and I find my perspective and appreciation changing with repeated viewings.
2. Battlestar Galactica, Season One: “Battlestar Galactica” is amazing precisely for what it isn’t: It isn’t formulaic, it isn’t predictable, and it sure as hell isn’t your standard science-fiction show. The series is in the process of wrapping up its final year now, a season that’s been mired in mythology and steeped in clunky plots and bad acting, but the first three years were stellar ones, kicked off by a breathless first season in which the show could do almost no wrong, when it turned convention on its head to present a gritty, believable, and thoroughly compelling human drama about the lives and heartbreaks of the sole survivors of an alien genocide. Running a trim but densely packed 13 episodes, Season One remains the best of the show’s run because it balanced the burgeoning mythology with relatable characters and pure-fire run-and-gun storytelling, the kind of adventure show that makes you realize how much damn fun it can be to see it done right.
3. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season Two: When it comes down to it, Season Two is the season that defined the series, and has easily got the best overall season arc. In the beginning of the season, Buffy is dealing with a lot of shit. Granted, Buffy is dealing with a lo of shit at any given point during the series, but she was in a particularly dark place at this point. Still dealing with the reality of being The Chosen One, reeling from her brush with death, haunted by the nightmares of that big white maggot of a vampire, The Master, and fending off his tiny Anointed protégé; it was time for a fresh start. And while there’s no denying that Season Two was a hell of a lot of fun, it was the mix of heartbreak and poignancy that made it one of the best seasons of television ever.
4. Deadwood, Season One: In many ways “Deadwood” and “The Wire” are opposite ends of an hourglass. The former deals with a community as it forms, the latter with a community as it disintegrates. But the devil’s in the details, and “Deadwood” goes deeper. Where “The Wire” offers us passing glimpses into the lives of disparate yet interconnected fully formed, compelling characters, “Deadwood” cracks open its characters’ chest cavities and gives us a window into the darkest reaches of their souls. Creator David Milch, scion of Shakespeare, master of the modern soliloquy, offers terrifying insight into just how fucked up we all are. But “Deadwood” doesn’t just plumb the depths of the human soul struggling to survive in a chaotic and complex environment: It does so using every tool in the artists’ arsenal, to the fullest of their potential. Writers, actors, designers and directors: Every performance of every character, every word and gesture, every hair pinned in place, every corset, every cravat, each and every rough hewn ceiling joist seems to have leapt intact from some parallel 1876 South Dakota universe and onto our TV screens. The world of the show, so foreign to modern eyes, is complete, unwavering and undeniable. From every angle, “Deadwood” is storytelling at its absolute finest.
5. Farscape, Season Three: It’s perhaps better testimony than I can give to present the fervor surrounding the show’s abrupt cancellation after Season Four because of ratings issues (read: the Sci Fi Channel being retards). The resultant fan outcry, which led to a concluding miniseries (which was also excellent), was one of the first mass internet campaigns to inveigle something substantial from network politicking. The fans wanted more of something great, and got it. Regardless of whether you’re a sci-fi enthusiast, you’ll probably love this show for the chemistry between the actors and the relationships between the characters, including one of the best love stories (Aeryn/Crichton) and the best hero-villain relationships (Crichton/Scorpius) of the last several decades, more than anything else. And that, in my estimation, makes for damn good television, no matter the genre.
6. Firefly: When you boil “Firefly” down to its rawest essence, it’s an equally funny and dramatic character piece about a bunch of disparate personalities on a perpetual roadtrip. Yes, it has science fiction elements — they all live on a space ship after all, traveling from planet to planet, scavenging and thieving and taking whatever rogue jobs they can find to get by. And yes, it’s got a lot of Western to it, from Captain Malcom “Mal” Reynolds (as old-school a cowboy as they come) to the frontier settlements on various planets, where folks still travel by horse because they’re too poor to have the fancy technology available to the elite. But what Whedon and company managed to do is not make the show about these things — rather, these elements are deftly used to serve the nine characters that live on Serenity (the name of the Firefly-class ship which the show, itself, is named after).
7. Freaks and Geeks: This show is the high school we all went through, regardless of what era you were there or what group you hung out with. Turning back to the objective/subjective distinction I talked about many thousands of words ago, it’s like this — we might objectively get what it’s like to work in the White House or have a yellow-skinned dim witted father, but we subjectively understand what’s going on in “Freaks and Geeks.” We empathize with the characters and the situations in a way that rarely happens with any movie or TV show and it just hits home. And if that’s not great TV (and great art), then I don’t what the fuck is.
8. Friday Night Lights, Season One: A show best described as a modern-day dramatic-version of “The Wonder Years,” except instead of 1960s suburbia, it takes place in Dillon, Texas, a small Southern town steeped religion and football. It’s “Freaks and Geeks” centered on the side of the cafeteria: The jocks, cheerleaders, bullies, skanks and rally girls, the ones many of us — the band geeks, dorks, geeks, stoners, and outcasts — viewed superficially with equal parts envy and hatred. “Friday Night Lights” humanizes the very people in my high school I was often incapable of humanizing myself. But more than that, and the reason the first season was so outstanding, is because it’s as real-to-life as any show on television. Granted, the characters are slightly idealized, but they are real people, not just the stereotypes that we, ourselves, couldn’t look beyond when we were there.
9. The Larry Sanders Show, Season Five: While it’s style and tone (single camera, often handheld; character-based comedy) feel right at home in today’s TV comedy landscape, it was a gale of fresh air when it premiered on HBO in 1992. It was like nothing that had been on TV. In many ways it put HBO on the map. This was the beginning of “It’s not TV, it’s HBO.” Most everything I love about the genre these days can be traced back to “Larry Sanders.” It was a comedy boot camp of sorts for the likes of Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman and Judd Apatow. Tina Fey and Ricky Gervais wax all kinds of reverent when talking about it (Gervais cites Hank “Hey Now” Kingsley, played by Jeffrey Tambor, as an inspiration for David Brent). Like “Arrested Development,” “The Office,” or “30 Rock,” “The Larry Sanders Show” is a gift that keeps on giving. The more you watch, the more you catch, the funnier it becomes, the deeper the understanding of just how broken these fuckers are that make us laugh so hard.
10. Murder One, Season One: “Murder One” may be yet another legal drama, but it aired before we began to suffer symptoms of law-show fatigue hastened by the David E. Kelley onslaught. The series’ immediate inspiration wasn’t other legal dramas but the recent OJ Simpson trial, and the way that trial harked back to the days of execution broadsheets, which transformed justice into entertainment. “Murder One” plays with many themes — ambition, civility, negotiation, and the lack of trust between individuals and institutions — but its favorite chew-toy is the way justice can, in certain historical moments, be packaged like a consumer product and disseminated through the media with an enticing crust of fiction. This is something we’ve been educated about extensively since the Simpson trial, but the mid-1990s American public — according to pundits, anyway — was still coming to grips with the fact. “Murder One” taps into that anxiety with relish and remains one of the best artistic examinations of the phenomenon.
11. The Office, Season Two<: Aside from the fantastic writing, part of the appeal of the US version of “The Office” is that it’s so damn relatable. The archetypes found here are ones that can be found in virtually any office-type working environment throughout the country: the dipshit boss, who was likely “promoted” to lower-management after proving too incompetent to function as anything else other than a glorified babysitter; the spinster prude who dresses like a grandmother… or possibly a Quaker; the office disgusting guy; the office creepy guy; the not-“out”-in-the-workplace homosexual; the trainwreck office romances and star-crossed crushes; the functioning alcoholics and the old-timers waiting out their pensions — they’re all represented. There’s no greater environment for a melting pot sampling of humankind’s hilariously variant characters quite like an office setting. And that’s what makes not just “The Office,” but particularly Season Two, so great.
12. Sex and the City, Season Four: A lot of what the series had to offer was well worth despising on face value: (1) Characters who enjoy all the perks of adulthood yet never really seem to grow up; (2) Rampant elitist consumerism offset by conveniently rent-controlled brownstone apartments; (3) Supposedly empowered women whose only real power is that they choose to sexualize themselves; (4) All four characters slept with loads of men, yet only one was considered a slut. Unreigned sexual empowerment can do that sometimes, but that’s one of the many ironic twists of this television series. Prada, Fendi, and Manolo Blahnik aside, what I’ve always liked about the show is its satire of dating rituals. One really can have it all — career, independence, beauty, friends — and still get hung up on the fear of ending up all alone in life. So, things really haven’t progressed much from Edith Wharton’s turn-of-the-century novels of social Darwinism. Or have they?
13. Six Feet Under, Season One: The show was at its best when it focused simply on the deaths — when it used the loss of life to prove a point about living. Like no other show before or since, “Six Feet Under” confronted death head on, splintering taboos, and taking a hundred different maxims and extracting all the cliché out of them, making us appreciate what death meant without the torture of “He’s in a better place now.” In fact, in the final episode of that season, Nate offered up the best thing I think anyone has ever said about dying, something that — ten years after my own father’s passing — still manages to offer me a small amount of consolation. When a hysterical woman asked Nate, “Why do people die?” he paused briefly, and then offered the perfect rejoinder: “To make life important.”
14. The Simpsons, Season Four: For a rabid fan of “The Simpsons” such as myself, writing about the show’s fourth season is a bit like a baseball historian considering the ‘27 Yankees, or a European scholar trying to sum up the Renaissance, or a toothless hillbilly struggling to express the soul-rattling edification he feels sitting in the glow of “Blue Collar TV.” In short, it’s overwhelming. This is the best I can do at summation: “The Simpsons” is the best show in television history, and the fourth season was its peak. So much of that season holds up, and in order to fall back under its spell, at its speed — considered wacky at the time, leisurely now — you only need to watch an episode or two. It’s like reading Shakespeare in that way, as long as I’m comparing it to heavyweights.
15. South Park, Season Ten: Very few shows can claim to have permanently altered the entire landscape of television content and style like this poorly made ‘toon about four foul-mouthed 4th-graders and their quiet, little, redneck, podunk, white-trash, hmmmneh, mountain town. Whether you feel it was for better or worse is a matter of personal taste, but it cannot be denied that “South Park” has skidmarked its brown stain on the collective undershorts of not just animation or comedy but all modes of television. If not for this crudely animated gem, Comedy Central would not be as strong a presence in the original programming market, the bar for offensive content would not be set nearly as lowbrow and sewage-skimming, and most cable networks would still be running rebroadcasts of Hangover Theatre-level films and long-dead syndication.
16. Twin Peaks, Season One: The world of “Twin Peaks” is so fully rendered, so intricately detailed, that for much of the show that central theme — the murder of Laura Palmer — seems almost secondary. It instead becomes a series of tales about the lives and relationships of the town’s denizens, and all the strange, sweet, and sometimes terrible and venal actions they take. Although everything seems like it may be linked to the murder, the characters are so richly developed that one could easily imagine any one of them being the focus of their own show. As a result, “Twin Peaks” is a masterpiece of densely plotted, gorgeously filmed television, the likes of which I’ve never seen before and have yet to see since.
17. Veronica Mars, Season One: Season One that remains the sharpest crystallization of what “Veronica Mars” promises: A show about a girl solving the mysteries and exploring the dangers of her own life, from the death of her best friend to the truth about her own family. There’s a comforting beauty in the season’s structure as each episode shifts between levels of intrigue and plot, ranging from the mystery of the week, which was solved by the end of the hour; the gradual evolution of stories closer to the heroine’s heart, including her parentage and more; and through it all, driving like a steady pulse toward an inevitable conclusion, the question driving Veronica to the edge and back: Who killed Lilly Kane? Far more than just a teen drama, “Veronica Mars” was a drama about a teen, a dark and complicated and unavoidably heartbreaking show that did something only the best ones do: It respected its audience enough to ask them to take the ride for something intricate and intelligent and brutally honest.
18. West Wing, Season Two: Season Two of “The West Wing” remains its best because it is the tightest and truest manifestation of the show’s core essences of emotional resonance, pitch-perfect writing, and an unabashed sense of hope that the hearts of men and women can lift American society and its government from its typical vulgarity and elevate it to something like poetry. Season Two possesses a mythical element that gives it an edge, and it brims with an energy and verve the burned brighter than at any other time in the show’s seven-year run. It’s a sweeping human drama about what it means to struggle against impossible odds, to know that a loss is inevitable but to fight nonetheless simply because it’s the right thing to do. As President Bartlet would discuss with a staffer a season later, it does indeed matter how a man falls down: When the fall is all that’s left, it matters a great deal.
19. The Wire, Season Two: The Wire,” addresses various elements of the downfall of America’s Rust Belt inner cities — from the political gamesmanship, to the unmourned deterioration of a school system hanging on by its fingernails, to the petty-minded complicity of the media in the addled, bovine inertia of the public view of poverty and the drug trade. Not content to sound the alarm bell over the utter failure of traditional policing and incarceration in the face of poverty and the drug trade, “The Wire” undertook an epic exploration of the failures of our society to create a viable environment where people have desirable choices other than crime.The first step off the easy path, the leap from the well-worn track … that is the hard step. The second and third steps are critical, even admirable, but they cannot exist without the fundamental decision to abandon rutted convenience. For television — for narrative as an art — “The Wire” represents a New Way, a 90-degree change in course that straightened the line.
20. The X-Files, Season Four: “Star Trek” may have been the original geek show, but “The X-Files” was the modern one, a show that blended sci-fi, horror, and procedural elements with the smallest touch of romantic intrigue — never enough to alienate its viewers or even force a coupling to satiate them, but just enough to leave them curious and maybe slightly hopeful, knowing, of course, that if the two leads ever openly consummated their relationship, the series would be tainted, turned into another melodramatic soap opera, a show where the aliens, mutants, and freaks would take a backseat to arguably the best onscreen couple in the history of television, and certainly the most complicated, Fox Mulder and Dana Scully.