Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Zrbo's Favorite TV Shows of the 00s

Back now with another 'Best of' list. This time, instead of the focus being on delightful videos, I've decided to write about something marginally more substantial - television! (applause) Warning: spoilers ahead!

After countless hours of soul-searching I've compiled a list of my top 5 shows of the zeros/2000s/aughts/naughts or whatever term you prefer to reference the last decade. So let's get things moving shall we?

Doctor Who

Ok, let's just be honest here. I'm a bit of a sci-fi geek, and you're going to see some sci-fi on this list whether you like it or not. And here it is, first up to bat is Doctor Who! Who's Doctor Who? Well, the show (or serial) started all the way back in the damn 60s on the BBC. Essentially it's about the titular character, usually just referred to as "the Doctor", who, as the last surviving time-lord, travels through time and space in his TARDIS (which due to a mishap with it's chameleon circuit is stuck permanently in a 1950s style British police box). I used to watch the show when I was a kid until it disappeared in the early 90s. Earlier this past decade the BBC decided to revive it, and I have to say, it's arguably better than it ever was before.

What makes Doctor Who great sci-fi is it's use of interesting concepts and ideas to examine the human condition. Unlike a lot of modern sci-fi though, Doctor Who eschews explanation in favor of more "big idea" concepts. For example, what if there was a world where everyone was stuck in an eternal traffic jam? Or what if reality TV took over to such an extent that everyone was in a reality show all the time, without their consent, and the penalty for losing was death? Doctor Who takes these novelty situations and explores how we might react to them.

There's several notable aspects of Doctor Who that make the show what it is. One of those is the Doctor and his complete and utter pacifism. Unlike most (American) sci-fi, the Doctor doesn't run around with machine guns or lasers and makes it a point to never, ever kill. It's an interesting facet that gets explored quite regularly, especially in the current Doctor's farewell episode "The End of Time" where the Doctor's pacifism is put to the limits (by none other than Timothy Dalton playing the bad guy). It makes the Doctor quite the man when, even when staring the most aggressive, nasty alien out there, the Doctor will sit there and try to have a friendly conversation with it.

But that's not to say people never die on Doctor Who. Oh no, people get killed all the time. In fact, pretty much every episode guarantees a death. And the show is great about not giving into any sympathy you might have for its characters, something else we don't usually get in American sci-fi. Some old man who shows up and gives the Doctor directions? The next scene he's probably going to die, I can guarantee it.

Another notable aspect is the changing face of the Doctor. I mentioned above that the recent "End of Time" special was the farewell episode for the current Doctor. From its inception Doctor Who has used the clever device that the Doctor can regenerate his body to allow for different actors to take on the role of the Doctor. This is what's helped given Doctor Who its staying power over the years, it doesn't matter if the current actor is getting old or wants to quit, the Doctor can go on (and that actor can then usually expect little-to-no career after that, such as roles in GI Joe movies).

Finally I have to mention the low budget look of Doctor Who. Yes, the sets, costumes and effects are decidedly low budget, but once you start watching, it doesn't really matter. Once you're hooked by the story you hardly notice the cheap special effects, and frankly it gives the show a lot of its charm. Just use your imagination buddy.

Favorite Episodes:

"New Earth" - In the reboot the Doctor brings along a new travelling companion, an Earth girl named Rose (played by Billie Piper), and asks her where she'd like to visit. She wants to go to the final day of Earth, so off they go to the far future on the day the Earth is swallowed by the sun going supernova. On a spaceship cruise liner they meet trees which have evolved sentience and the last human being who's had so many plastic surgeries that she's literally a piece of tight skin with a face, the whole situation seems to be a nod to Douglas Adams' Restaurant at the end of the Universe. A great way to kick off the new show.

"Blink" - Perhaps the best and scariest episode to date. Starring An Education's Carey Mulligan, the show barely features the Doctor, instead exploring an amazing time-travel trick the likes of what hasn't been seen since Marty went back to the dance in Back to the Future Part II.

Battlestar Galactica

I've pretty much already said my piece on Battlestar here. The remake of Battlestar Galactica was the perfect show for a post 9/11 world. It told the story of an unsuspecting civilization about to have their lives turned upside down by a great calamity. The enemies? They're nearly indistinguishable from us. Their motives? They speak of the one true god who wants them to smite us for our sins. Sound familiar?

Favorite Episodes:

"33" - The first real episode after the initial mini-series starts off in medias res as the Galactica finds that no matter what they do the Cylons catch up to them every 33 minutes. High tension right out of the starting gate.

"Pegasus" - The Galactica comes across another surviving ship, the Battlestar Pegasus, where their cries of joy slowly change to cries of horror as the crew learns that the Pegasus hasn't been keeping the same sense of ethics and morality as themselves.

"Precipice" - The Cylons finally get the humans and are holding their colony of New Caprica captive. The Cylons say they just want to bring peace and understanding. The humans don't buy it and begin suicide bombings against the Cylons and against the Cylon instituted human police force. A direct commentary on Iraq and suicide bombings, this episode turns the situation around so that we're the suicide bombers. Chilling.

"Exodous Part II" - Eventually the Galactica comes along to save the Cylon occupied New Caprica. Commander Adama, played by Edward James Olmos, pulls off one of the greatest military maneuvers of all time, putting him up there with Captain Kirk and his triumph over the Kobayashi Maru. It's now affectionately called 'the Adama Maneuver'.

The Wire

TV critics will tell you that The Wire is the greatest show of all time. They might be right. The Wire takes a look at modern day society and its institutions and basically shows you that "this isn't working". From the police in the precincts to the thugs on the street, The Wire has a sense of realism that no other show has. It's almost like watching a documentary at times. The characters are nuanced, shades of gray in a world that we've been told by other shows is black and white. The cops aren't the greatest of people, most just want to work undisturbed to get their promotions and pensions. The corner boys selling drugs aren't the greatest of people, most just want to work undisturbed to earn their money. You see where this is going? Nearly all of the characters have something to teach us, whether it's the questionable city councilman Carcetti or the homeless drug addict Bubs.

The show examines the city of Baltimore from multiple fronts, giving you the impression that this is a real place, and not just some idealized version. The first season shows us how drug dealers operate and the futility of the war on drugs. The second season switches focus to the docks and the workers there who've seen their industry fade over the past 50 years. The third season goes back to the dealers and creates a nearly Shakespearean setup. The fourth season examines the schooling system and how inner city schools are just training grounds for life on the streets. The final season enters the newsroom, where we see how newspapers make (and make up) and break these other stories, and how our impression of these stories are colored by what we read.

A few notable things about The Wire. It can take a while to get into. It's not like other cop shows on TV where they throw you into the action to grab your attention. You'll watch the first few episodes asking yourself "is this it?". Instead, the show is more like a book, it slowly builds it's characters and works towards a conclusion. For example, in a typical CSI episode they might say "we need to get a wire tap on the suspect to see if he's the murderer" and BAM! in the next scene they're listening in on the bad guy's conversation. In The Wire, the entire first season is just about getting one lousy wiretap and all the trouble and bureaucracy the police have to go through to get it.

I should also mention the music of The Wire. It's interesting because there really isn't any music. Well, really all the the music is diagetic, if you hear music it's because it's coming from within the world - a car radio for example. Not only does it help add to the realism of the show, but it helps in that the lack of a traditional soundtrack means our impressions aren't influenced by what we're hearing. We're not told "this is a sad scene" or "you should be happy now". Also worth mentioning is the opening song. The creators of the show took Tom Waits' "Way Down in the Hole" and had it performed by a different artist each season. The first season features a bluesy version by the Blind Boys of Alabama, second season's was done by Waits himself, the third season by the Neville Brothers, the fourth season features a hip-hop version, and the final fifth season by Steve Earle (who also plays a character on the show).

Favorite Episodes:

"Middle Ground" - The Wire isn't afraid to kill off its major characters. I also said the third season was like Shakespeare. This is the penultimate episode of that season where one of the major characters finally meets his demise. Such an amazing ending to a fantastic story arc (especially with the addition of the pigeons for added effect). If you're interested, watch it here.

The Fuck Scene - Ok, so there's no sex involved, just the word 'Fuck' and all of it's colorful uses. This is one of those rare scenes in The Wire that's just all humor. I don't want you to think this is a typical scene from The Wire, it's anything but. But damn, is it funny.

Mark Cronin and Chris Abrego reality shows (Flavor of Love, Surreal Life, Rock of Love, etc.)

Before you snicker, hear me out. We're all familiar with reality shows at this point, especially dating-oriented ones such as The Bachelor. In shows such as The Bachelor the audience is led to believe that if you put a bunch of girls together and give them two weeks to try to woo a guy, that they'll find true love, get married, and go live happily ever after. Needless to say, that never, ever happens.

Mark Cronin and Chris Abrego realize this. Instead, they've carefully crafted a series of reality shows that essentially mock the traditional reality show. Cronin and Abrego know we're savvy enough to realize that the chance of anyone finding love is pretty slim. Instead they give us what I'd call 'post-reality television'. They cast the weirdest, zaniest people, throw them in a mansion stocked with plenty of alcohol, and let the cameras film the ensuing chaos. Oh, there's usually some pretense that they are there for love. But the real trick is in the editing. The show constantly mocks its own contestants, so that, say, whenever the stripper with the thick French accent speaks, they put up hilarious faux-subtitles.

What's amazing about these shows (all on VH1, did I mention?) is how they're essentially spin-offs of spin-offs. For example, the recently premiered 'Frank the Entertainer in a Basement Affair' is a spin-off of 'I Love New York', which is a spin-off of 'Flavor of Love', which is a spin-off of 'Strange Love' (with Brigitte Nielsen), which is a spin-off of 'The Surreal Life'. Mark and Chris have manufactured a small army of reality show personalities, giving the most popular their own shows. Do these people deserve our time? Not really. Are the shows tasteless? Yes. But not including these shows as my favorite would be like not highlighting The Jerry Springer Show when looking back at 90s television. We all groan at how trashy the people are, but really, we're all relieved to know there's people a lot worse than us out there. And it makes for fine entertainment.


Of all the shows from the 00s ABC's 'Lost' is by far my favorite. What I originally thought was some sort of scripted 'Survivor' turned out to be anything but. Instead, it's a grand mystery that just happens to take place on an island. On one level Lost is a basic mystery show, on another level it is a labyrinthine epic which fans can lose hours arguing over the significance of the copy of The Brothers Karamazov that happened to be laying on a table in some scene.

Lost is perhaps the first truly 21st century show. Moments after any episode of Lost premieres, legions of fans take to the internet to try to decipher what they just saw. A show like Lost couldn't have existed 10 years ago. It relies on the 'meta' aspects of the show to keep the mystery going. Half of the fun is just discussing with others what it all means. You could get lost (no pun intended) for hours on Lostpedia keeping track of all the characters, their motivations, and their relationships to each other. Sometimes the mysteries don't even come from the show, but from the various viral marketing campaigns and 'alternate reality games' that take place in the Lost universe. For example, the meaning of the infamous numbers have never been explained in the show, but if you've paid attention to the 'meta' aspects of the show (such as 'The Lost experience'), you might know what they mean.

I like to think of Lost as the thinking man's show. For example, nearly every week the character Sawyer (a modern day take on the Han Solo type) is usually reading a book, and fans love to dissect the significance of whatever he's reading, whether it be the aforementioned Brothers Karamazov, The Fountainhead, or, in a more comical moment Are you there, God? It's me, Margaret. Or take the names of some of the characters, John Locke, Rousseau, Hawking. It's like the creators of the show are just begging us to look for deeper significance, and in what makes the show work so wonderfully, you, along with thousands of others on the internet, can look for and discuss that significance.

Favorite Episodes:

"Pilot, Part 1" - The original pilot is still one of the most riveting episodes. From the plane crash to the mysterious noises coming out of the jungle, I quickly realized this was not going to be 'Survivor: the Sitcom'. What really sealed the deal for me was when the characters finally get the radio to work only to hear a looped distress signal in French repeating over and over again "I'm on the island alone. The others are dead. It killed them all. Please help."

"The Other 48 Days" - In the second season we are introduced to another group of survivors from the tail section of the plane who ended up on the other side of the island. This episode shows that their experience wasn't quite as nice as our other survivors. A freaky episode full of lots of tension.

"Through the Looking Glass" - The third season finale was a real doozy. The show uses flashbacks to show what each of the characters were doing before they arrived on the island. This episode turns all that around in one of the greatest feats of writing the show has ever had. When it all comes together in that final scene outside the airport, it's just such a 'Wow!' moment.

"Man of Science, Man of Faith" - The entire first season revolved around a mysterious hatch found buried in the ground. At the end of season 1 the characters blow open the hatch. It wouldn't be until season 2 that we get to see what's inside it. In what can only be described as the biggest twist since we realized Bruce Willis was a ghost (OMG!) we get perhaps my favorite opener of any show ever, all set to The Mamas and the Papas Make Your Own Kind of Music. Brilliant.


Little Earl said...

Well look at that; you've been up to something after all. But what was wrong with posting each pick one at a time? Too...suspenseful?

Herr Zrbo said...

When I started writing I didn't realize how long it would end up. Sorry if it wasn't suspenseful enough for you.

Anonymous said...

I love your list! Well done and, aside from Dr. Who, I have seen them all and totally agree. Fantastic!

David Weinberg

Little Earl said...

Hey I wonder who "Anonymous" is?

Herr Zrbo said...

With a name like Weinberg, my guess is that he's some Jewish bloke.

Herr Zrbo said...

Hey, hey, looks like the AV club just put up a 'Better Late than Never' bit on the first season of the Wire. Check it out: