Top Five TV Dramas of this Golden Age

'Long as I got a job, you got a job; you understand?'

‘Long as I got a job, you got a job; you understand?’

I don’t know why I just ran across this a week or two ago. The piece ran in the NYT back in January. But for some reason I saw a Tweet about the list just days after the end of “Game of Thrones.” And to me, that made now a better time for pondering such a list than several months ago. Since everyone speaks of GoT as such a landmark and all…

Anyway, the headline was “The 20 Best TV Dramas Since ‘The Sopranos’.” It represents the consensus of three TV writers. (Consensus. I like that about it. That’s how we made decisions on the editorial board. Not enough decisions are made that way. It’s a great process.)

It’s a pretty good list. Of course, it contains a number of shows I’ve never seen, so I can’t judge whether they deserve to be on the list: “The Shield,” “Battlestar Galactica,” “Veronica Mars,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Friday Night Lights,” “Adventure Time,” “Enlightened”… hang on…. I just realized that I’ve never seen well over half the list.

That’s all right. Some of us are not paid to watch TV and write about it. Some of us are just people living our lives in a certain time and place and looking around us and occasionally trying to make some sense out of the tiny slices of existence we have time to experience.

Anyway, I have a snobbish disdain for Top Twenty lists. They lack discipline. They are promiscuous and indiscriminate. I continue to believe that Nick Hornby’s Top Five system represents perfection. You have to work at it. You have to choose. You have to be ruthless, and let the also-rans fall by the wayside, gnashing their teeth. You have to have standards, and stick with them.

On a couple of points, I’m right there with the NYT writers. On others, I have to wonder where they’ve been, or at least what they’re thinking. Anyway, here’s my list:

  1. The West Wing” — No surprise there, right? It topped the NYT list, too. And in describing why, Margaret Lyons admits that yeah, it’s a fantasy, “a fantasy about caring… because you’re my guys, and I’m yours, and there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you.” Or as Leo said, long as I got a job, you got a job. It’s about much more than that — the people care not only about each other, but about Things That Matter — but that’s an important part of it. When I went to work for the campaign, I told James I wanted to be a part of something again with a bunch of people who cared about things. Like on “The West Wing.” Go ahead and mock me. I was perfectly serious, and I’m glad I got that chance. Not everyone does.
  2. Band of Brothers” — This didn’t fit into the parameters of the NYT list, because they defined a series as something meant to go more than one season. But before I saw “The West Wing,” this was unquestionably the best thing I’d ever seen on television. I knew it would be that back before it existed, when I was toying with the idea of writing a letter to Spielberg and Hanks to suggest it (but I didn’t have to; I guess after they connected with Steven Ambrose it was just that obvious). And of course, aside from being wonderfully acted and directed and crafted, it was a story that mattered.
  3. The Sopranos” — This is a guilty pleasure, probably the ultimate example of that phenomenon in the annals of TV. It represents sort of the opposite of the first two, which are about good and decent and admirable people who care about the right things and are willing to work and sacrifice for them. The Sopranos is more typical of the serious Golden Age dramas, in that it lacks a moral center or characters to admire or regard as heroes. But it was supremely engaging, and again we’re talking craftsmanship. I have debates with my wife about this, which she always wins. She asks why time should be spent on stories and characters completely lacking in redeeming qualities, and I reply that it’s so well done! Which is a vapid answer, I know, but I’m a sucker for things that are done well…
  4. The Wire” — Best thing about the NYT feature is that the bit about The Wire is in the words of actor Michael K. Williams. You know: “Omar coming!” This series had a lot of contemptible characters in it, too, but you cared about so many of them, from soulful snitch Bubbles to the infuriatingly self-destructive McNulty to the Greek-tragedy labor leader Frank Sobotka. This was a work of fiction with hugely ambitious journalistic aspirations: This season is about drugs in the projects; this one is about the dead-end life on the docks; this one is about Baltimore public schools; this one is about city politics; this one is about the newspaper. And it really worked.
  5. Breaking Bad” — This was the hardest to watch, but I had to keep watching. It gave me something of a complex. I’d watch it at night after my wife had gone to bed — again, not her thing and I love her for that — and after another hour of Walter White’s traumatic slide into evil, I’d slip into the dark bedroom feeling guilty, as though I were the one building a drug empire and lying to my family about it. I think I half expected my wife to wake up and say, “Why do you have two cell phones?” or “Who’s Jesse Pinkman?” That’s how deeply the show implicated me in Walter’s evil madness. Which was not fun, and probably the main reason I haven’t rewatched the whole thing since it ended. I mean, I “lived through it” once, and that was enough…

So that’s it. Two that are about honor and courage and decency, two that are sordid as all get-out, and one — “The Wire” — that hovers between the two, although leaning toward the sordid.

The NYT writers allowed themselves a “Toughest Omissions” list, so I will, too:

  • Firefly” — Was it a drama? Was it comedy? Was it fantasy? I don’t know, but it was awesome, and I can’t believe those gorram network people cancelled it before the first season was even over. The only funny, heartwarming, witty, inventive show about space cowboys in the history of the medium. But even if there were a hundred such, this would have been the best one.
  • The Walking Dead” — I was determined I was never going to watch this, but one of my kids talked me into trying it and I was hooked. For awhile. I finally got to the point that it was no longer watchable for me. That happened in that hopeless episode in which Rick and the rest were captured by the Saviors, at the end of the sixth season. I don’t know what happened after that.
  • Barry” — I’m just trying to be topical, since this is newer than anything else on the list. As long as I still had HBO NOW for watching “Game of Thrones” (which you’ll notice does not make my list), I went ahead and finished the second season of this show about a hit man who wants to be an actor. I may sign back up when the third season comes out. This is worth watching for NoHo Hank if for nothing else. There’s also Stephen Root. And Bill Hader’s always great.
What, no Honey-Nut?

What, no Honey-Nut?

18 thoughts on “Top Five TV Dramas of this Golden Age

  1. Bryan Caskey

    1. West Wing
    2. Friday Night Lights
    3. Justified
    4. Breaking Bad
    5. The Wire

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      OK, there’s another vote for “Friday Night Lights”…

      I see that it’s available on Prime, so I might check it out. I need a new series to watch during my morning workouts.

      But first, a question: Should I watch the movie with Billy Bob Thornton first? I see that’s available on Prime as well…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Speaking of Billy Bob Thornton…

        During this morning’s workout, I watched the last of “The Alamo,” the 1960 version with John Wayne.

        It may be unAmerican of me to say this, but Billy Bob Thornton was a WAY better Davy Crockett. John Wayne just played John Wayne, as always.

        Billy Bob brought Davy to life…

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          By the way…

          After the depiction of Jim Bowie’s death — an unusually terrifying one by the standards of movies of the day, it made a big impression on me as a little kid — I suddenly realized something.

          Remember the weapon Bowie is seen with in the film? Not the Knife, but the gun? That made a big impression, too. And I had thought that seven-barreled weapon played a larger part in the movie than it did. I figured there was a scene in which he’s talking about it, or something.

          But if there was, I must have stepped out of the room during that part. From what I saw, you see him with the gun, but there’s no explanation of it.

          That weapon caused speculation among us kids — if EVERYBODY had had a gun like that, could the Alamo have held out longer?

          But I just did a little research, and discovered that the Nock Gun wasn’t a terribly practical weapon. It had been developed for the Royal Navy, for shooters in the tops to use repelling boarders. But all seven barrels fired at the same time, making it very hard to handle.

          And no, from what I can tell, Jim Bowie didn’t have one. And if he’d had one, he wasn’t in any shape to be firing it toward the end…

      2. Bryan Caskey

        No need to watch the movie first. You also don’t need to like football. The series uses high school football to move the plot forward, but the series deals with lots of issues in a generally optimistic way. It involves family issues, race, class, and how the characters deal with these issues in the context of a small town where football is very important.

        The marriage between Eric and Tami Taylor is a great, and perhaps is the most realistic portrayal of marriage in a recent tv show (in my humble opinion).

        I think you’ll like it. If you don’t, I’ll give you double your money back. 🙂

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Well, I made it through the first episode, but I almost didn’t. The deliberately, unnecessarily shaky camera work was driving me nuts. A character would be sitting still having a conversation with another character who was sitting still, and still the camera would be waving around, up and down, left and right, and it was EXTREMELY distracting. I don’t see how a person prone to seasickness could watch it.

          I wanted to yell, “Get a tripod!” and “There was an excuse for doing that in ‘Saving Private Ryan’!”

          But then, they got into the first game, and I stopped noticing it.

          I’m going to give the second episode a try.

          If I stop watching it, it will be because of the specific problem I have with football…

          I don’t hate football per se. I can even enjoy watching a play or two now and then.

          The thing I hate about football is that so many people MAKE SUCH A BIG DEAL OF IT. The lack of perspective and sense of proportion that I see in the way FAR too many people relate to that game is deeply offensive to me, a huge waste of human energy. People should find something better to care about — it shouldn’t be hard at all.

          And this is a show about a universe in which NO ONE keeps football in perspective.

          That scene at the car dealership, with those two idiot boosters harassing the coach, challenging whether he was up to the job, etc. — I just wanted him to haul off and hit them. They were too real. I run into too many people like that, and I find it intensely unpleasant…

        2. Brad Warthen Post author

          My wife, watching it with me, asked, “Why are they at the opening of a car dealership?”

          I understood why, but I wasn’t sure how to put it into words. Because cars. Because football. Because America…

  2. bud

    Since I don’t much care for these types of shows (although I did like Breaking Bad. Pretty good chemistry show) I’ll give my list of reality shows which I find much more useful:

    Amazing Race (Best travel show ever)
    Naked and Afraid (Survival and team building skills on display)
    Biggest Loser (Good show about exercise and nutrition)
    Beauty and the Geek (Two worlds collide showing how we all have much in common)
    Fear Factor (Most intense show in TV history)

    1. Doug Ross

      Try ALONE on History Channel. It;s the most “real” reality show. The only cameras are the ones used by the contestants who are dropped in a remote location by themselves and forced to live off the land. Last one standing wins $500K.

      1. bud

        I’ll check it out. There was a show a while back that was similar but it was done with an expert survivalist. Can’t remember the name of it.

  3. Mr. Smith

    These are definitely TV dramas, but one-season mini-series rather that series series, otherwise I can’t explain why they didn’t get a mention:

    Show Me a Hero
    The Night Of

    Also overlooked:

  4. Bill

    I’m not a snob but don’t care for much TV.I watched a few Breaking Bad episodes because I loved Bryan Cranston in,”Malcolm in The Middle”(still do),and thought it was great, but couldn’t keep up with something that long and drawn out.I LOVE awards shows.They should have an Emmy for best awards show.I think The Academy Awards is probably the best show running, even though I haven’t watched an entire movie in over a decade,plus there’s a new golden age of jazz upon us…

  5. Doug Ross

    I can’t rank them but Mad Men is my favorite. Just rewatched the whole series recently. Justified, Sopranos were good, too. Never got into Breaking Bad, Walking Dead, The Wire. Saw a few episodes of each. First two seasons of House of Cards were good.

    I lean more toward comedies anyway (Derek, Marvelous Mrs. Masiel, Transparent, Mozart in the Jungle, British Office, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Detectorists).

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Detectorists is a comedy?

      In any case, I love it.

      I’m glad you’re a fan of the REAL Office, by the way….

      I need to get back to Mad Men. I stopped watching it several years back. Trouble is, I can’t remember where I was in it. It was getting toward the later ’60s.

      It was about the time that Roger dropped acid. So that makes it the fifth season, which according to Wikipedia takes place between Spring 1966 and about a year later.

      I think I found watching the characters change along with the times disorienting. Roger dropping acid?

      I mean, these people were (to me) the older generation — older than my parents. So I expected them to remain mired in the social conventions of THAT generation. Roger was a WWII vet. That made him OLD, really old — like, maybe in his 40s. Old people like that had no business trying to act like members of the Pepsi Generation…

      But seriously, I’d like to go back and finish watching, if I can figure out where I was…

  6. Scout

    This is slightly off topic, but did you know that Aaron Sorkin has written the play version of To Kill A Mockingbird? If this has been mentioned already, I apologize. I’ve been out of it this year. But I am very intrigued.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Yes, I’m aware of that.

      And an old friend of mine who currently works at The New York Times reported on Facebook the other night that she was at the Shubert Theatre to see it.

      Which made me envious.

      But I’m more or less resigned that such experiences are out of my reach. I doubt that there will come a time in my life, at least in the foreseeable future, when I have enough disposable income that I can justify to myself the cost of going to New York and purchasing a ticket to a Broadway show….

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        To unpack what I just said a little….

        It’s not that it’s inconceivable that I could scrape up the money to go up there and see a show.

        It’s more about the justifying it to myself.

        Raising five kids for the most part on a newspaperman’s salary created in me a certain parsimoniousness where it comes to spending money on indulging myself. I’ll buy myself a beer now and then, but when you get into spending well up in three and possibly even four figures on a couple of hours’ entertainment, my brain goes, “Isn’t there a better way to use this money?”

        Even when I had the money, it would have been hard for me to answer “yes” to that.

        The only Broadway show I’ve ever seen was when I was in New York for the Republican National Convention in 2004. I saw Alfred Molina as Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof.” I enjoyed it. It didn’t cost me a dime. The deal was that the South Carolina delegation was invited to see it for free (if I remember correctly), and since I went along on whatever the delegation did, I accompanied them. My credentials got me in.

        And yeah, I did do some work. After the show, there were demonstrators heckling the delegates coming out. I interviewed some of them. If I’d been blogging back then, I could link you to what they said. But I didn’t start blogging until a few months later…

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