One nice thing about a Top Five list of TV shows is that you can bill it as “all-time” and still stick to stuff you know from your own lifetime. You don’t feel like you have to go back and pull in “Greensleeves” or “Veni, veni, Emmanuel” to make up for neglecting Top Songs before Elvis.
Sure, there was some TV before my time, like “Your Show of Shows,” which went off the air about eight months after I was born. But while I’ve heard people rave about it, I suspect I didn’t miss all that much. I mean, I’ve seen some of Sid Caesar’s stuff, and he was good, but to me, Imogene Coca was the cavewoman on “It’s About Time” — which I assure you isn’t going to make my Top Ten.
I thought at first that I wouldn’t have the discipline to stick to the Top Five format, since this is a pretty broad field — All TV Shows, ever. I figured I’d do 10, and then go back to the Nick Hornby standard when we do top sitcoms or something narrower like that.
But after I’d made a list of 10 and started trying to rank them, I realized the Top Five were very clear, and stood out well above 6-10. So I did five, and then another five. I hope Barry will be proud.
And yes, this is inspired by what I mentioned a couple of days ago — the Rolling Stone list that outrageously didn’t include “Band of Brothers” in its top 100. Bud already reacted with his own Top Ten list, which I urge you to peruse as well.
Anyway, here goes:
- The West Wing — If not for streaming, I would not even be a fan. I never watched my first episode until years after the show ended. I’m so glad I was able to watch it on Netflix. I regret that it’s only available now on a service I don’t subscribe to. Why do I love it? It makes me feel happy about the world I live in. (It makes me actually appreciate human beings, and have hope for the species.) Not many things do that out there in the media universe. But someone who understands America as well as Aaron Sorkin does can do that.
- Band of Brothers — You should understand that I felt invested in this from the beginning, long before the first episode appeared on HBO. I had been thinking for some time about what an awesome TV series Stephen Ambrose’s book would make — if it were made by the right people. Specifically, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, who brought us “Saving Private Ryan.” (I was also thinking about “From the Earth to the Moon” as a model, so I should probably mention Ron Howard as well.) I even thought about writing them to suggest the idea, but I’ve never done fanboy stuff like that. As it worked out, I didn’t have to. They went ahead and did it anyway. You might say I wished it into being — and it was everything I had wished for. I need to figure out how I did that, so we can finally get that Jack Aubrey series…
- The Wire — Wow. This was just so awesome on so many levels. It’s a newspaperman’s fantasy — an amazingly high-quality production that shows exactly what things are like in his city. And of course, it was written by an unusually gifted newspaperman, former cops reporter David Simon. He switched careers for a very newspaperman reason: “I got out of journalism because some sons of bitches bought my newspaper and it stopped being fun.” Well, it was often intensely painful to watch, but The Wire was also fun. I will end by simply naming some favorite characters: Omar, of course. Major Rawls. Kima Greggs. Beadie Russell. Jay Landsman. Brother Mouzone. Tommy Carcetti. And most of all, Bubbles the snitch.
- Firefly — I’m not going to go into the horrible thing that happened, and how all the people in charge at Fox network are a buncha gorram idiots. Although obviously they are. I mean, come on! It’s the only series ever that’s about space cowboys — something that previously only existed in the imagination of Steve Miller. That made it automatically better than any show that was merely a space opera or merely a western. And then, the characters and the writing took that advantage and blasted it clear across the known ‘verse. The use of language alone — “‘verse,” “shiny,” and the odd bits of Chinese thrown in — made it irresistible. Not quite on a “Clockwork Orange” level, but way up there. Favorite characters? Well, I guess Kaylee was my true favorite, but my publicly admitted favorite (so I don’t seem to be a dirty old man) is Jayne. Third would be Mal. Sorry, captain…
- The Andy Griffith Show — Yep, I’m a sentimentalist. If I wanted to be critical and judge it by Golden Age of Television standards, I’d object to the flaws. Like, how come only about two characters beyond Andy have Southern accents? Or how come, if he’s the sheriff, he seems to work for the mayor of Mayberry rather than being a separately elected county official? Why did Andy go from being the main comic figure to being the straight man in later seasons? But never mind all that. I love it, and I’ve loved it almost all my life (it wasn’t around for my first few years). If you want to love it as well, remember the main rule: Never watch an episode that’s in color. The good ones are all in black and white. Favorite character? Ernest T. Bass. Second fave is Floyd the barber. But I love the others as well. Except some of those who came along after Barney left.
Just barely got in one comedy, because the list needed it, and because I love me some Mayberry. Here’s the next five:
- The Sopranos — I didn’t mean to disrespect you, Tony. Really. The show was awesome, and probably launched the whole Golden Age. I respect Rolling Stone‘s decision to make it No. 1 on their list. And I had it in my Top Five, truly. But then I realized I had completely forgotten “Firefly.” Anyway, fave characters: Paulie Gualtieri (played by an actual Wise Guy), Silvio Dante (possibly the most inspired casting decision in TV history), Adriana La Cerva, Artie Bucco.
- Seinfeld — This came just about as close as you can get to being the perfect sitcom. And there was never another one like it. It did not fit in any kind of category. I could say much more, but do I really have to convince you? The only way I can imagine you disagreeing is if you get on my case for not having it in the Top Five.
- 30 Rock — And this one may have been THE perfect sitcom. It took the same foundation upon which Carl Reiner based “The Dick Van Dyke Show” — in his case, his experience writing for “Your Show of Shows” — and expanded upon it and went wild with it. So many great characters, from Liz and Jack down to guest stars like Al Gore playing themselves (“Quiet!… A whale is in trouble! I have to go.”) But the one who amazed me the most, and could alone have put it on this list, was Kenneth Ellen Parcell.
- Hill Street Blues — Kind of dated now, but wow was it impressive at the time. We had a sort of minor cult following at the paper in Jackson, Tenn. I remember one night watching it over at the publisher’s condo. He and his wife, who was our business reporter, served nachos. I had never heard of nachos. Of course, I couldn’t eat them anyway. But we all enjoyed “Hill Street.” Capt. Furillo was my ideal leader. As news editor at the paper, I wanted to be just like him in dealing with my reporters. But my favorite character? Renko.
- Mad Men — One of the most glittering examples of Golden Age TV — brilliant in writing, direction, cinematography and acting. Like entering another world — one in which we got to see Christina Hendricks way more than we did in “Firefly.” For some reason though, once we got way into the 60s and people started dropping acid, I stopped watching. I need to go back and finish. I suppose I’ll have to start from the beginning, dagnabbit. Favorite character? Not sure. Maybe Joan. Or maybe Roger, the acid-dropper. Now I’ll do something different and list by far my least favorite: Pete Campbell. What a creep and a half.
There were a lot of other great shows out there, some of which didn’t even get a mention from Rolling Stone. So here’s a random bunch of honorable mentions:
- Key and Peele — I suppose this is the thing on this list that I got into most recently — like, within the past decade. These guys are incredibly brilliant, and there’s no one else like them. However they first met and teamed up, we’re lucky they did. Best bits? Well, I love the obvious choices, such as “Obama’s Anger Translator,” “Substitute Teacher” and “I Said (I quickly look around before continuing) Biiiiiiiitch.” But my fave might be “Retired Military Specialist.”
- The IT Crowd — For years, I saw this available on Netflix, and ignored it, having no idea what it was. Then my younger son talked me into watching one episode — and now I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve watched the whole three seasons. It’s hard to describe how funny it is. Now, I’ll watch pretty much anything that has the players in it. Fortunately, Chris O’Dowd has gotten a lot of work, and if I need a Richard Ayoade fix, I can always watch some “Travel Man” on Prime. But my greatest frustration is that it’s hard to find my favorite, Katherine Parkinson, anywhere. Last time I saw her was in “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society,” and it really wasn’t all that funny. Best episode is either “The Work Outing,” “The Dinner Party,” or “Are We Not Men?”
- Breaking Bad — Are you thinking it’s kind of weird that this didn’t make either the Top Five or the next five? I sort of am, too, but I just kept thinking of things I liked better. It might be that this was the most stressful TV show I have ever watched, and the stress has lingered. But it still seems worthwhile to have watched it all, because if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have appreciated the last episode, and that was really good.
- Green Acres — I have mentioned a number of times that the possibly the most amazing night ever on television (from an 11-year-old’s perspective) was Sept. 15, 1965, the night that “Lost in Space,” “Green Acres” and “I-Spy” all debuted. We had returned to America — and to television — five months earlier after two-and-a-half years in Ecuador, and I was already overdosing on popular culture, and loving it. But that was the biggest night. At the time, my fave was probably “Lost in Space,” but “Green Acres” was definitely the one that aged the best. As was written in my favorite reference work, The Catalog of Cool, “To be truly cool, one must genuinely understand the uselessness of logic and reason in a world gone mad. ‘Green Acres’ understood it better than any other show.” I’d never seen anything like it before, and I haven’t since. Favorite character? Eb, of course.
- The Office — The real one, the British one. Absolutely brilliant, although admittedly sometimes hard to watch, because David Brent. Favorite character? Probably Gareth.
- Friday Night Lights — I’m sort of putting this here as a way of thanking Bryan for getting me to watch it. But I’m also putting it here because it was really, really great. Even though it was about, you know, football…
- The State — I loved MTV when it started, when it knew its job was to show music videos, and have them be introduced by people like Martha Quinn or Daisy Fuentes. And it was wonderful. Then it got into other stuff. I will never forgive it for launching the scourge of reality TV. But I can almost forgive “The Real World” when I consider “The State.” If only it had lasted. And if only I could find the old skits online somewhere. Best one ever? “Prison Break.” (But that’s “off-limits”…)
- Life on Mars — OK, this show was really uneven, and sometimes the writing was shaky. But it was a lot of fun, and I’ve watched the two seasons (the two series, since it’s British) several times. And not just to see Liz White as Annie. When I saw it on The Guardian‘s 21st-century list, I decided I had to mention it. A warning, though: Do not try to watch the American imitation. I couldn’t even make it through the first episode. Sure, it’s got Harvey Keitel in it, but he couldn’t save it.
Finally, I know I’ve forgotten something. Maybe several somethings. The way I was almost done when I remembered “Firefly.” But you’ve got to start a discussion somewhere…