Boardwalk Empire (HBO) I was impressed, but not overwhelmed, when I watched the first episode of this series, set in Atlantic City on the eve of Prohibition in 1920. The pilot was directed by Martin Scorsese (Executive Producer on the series). My expectations were very high, and while the period ambiance and attention to detail was amazing, there didn’t seem to be much life to it, and I found it hard to connect with the characters. But I stayed with it, and after a few episodes became more and more involved. Strong, interesting characters are essential to any story, and Boardwalk Empire has an abundance of them — embodied by a great cast, led by Steve Buscemi as Nucky Thompson, who oversees bootlegging and vice in Atlantic City. Two of my favorite characters this past season have been Richard Harrow, the badly disfigured WWI veteran who wears a painted mask on one side of his face (played by Jack Huston, a grandson of director/actor John Huston), and Gyp Rosetti, a psychotic gangster who threatens Nucky’s turf. Gyp is played by Bobby Cannavale, in a genuinely frightening performance.
Breaking Bad (AMC) I didn’t watch this series when it first appeared in 2008 because I thought I wouldn’t be interested in a protagonist who cooked and sold methamphetamine. Little did I know. I kept hearing great things about the series in both the press and from friends, but still stayed away. When a friend sent us boxed sets of the first three seasons, I was finally ready to dive in, and was immediately blown away. My wife and I burned through the boxed sets, bought the fourth season and finished that just in time to start watching the fifth, though now we had to watch the episodes one at a time on a weekly basis like everyone else. Breaking Bad is amazing, breathtaking, the best series since The Wire — and that’s saying something, since I’m one of those true believers who thinks The Wire is the greatest television series ever. Like all good series, Breaking Bad has a great cast. Bryan Cranston’s portrayal of Walter White, as he transforms from a terminally ill high school chemistry teacher to a meth-dealing gangster capable of murder and worse, is something to behold. He’s a monster, but you can’t take your eyes off him. The moral center of the series is Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman, Walter’s partner. Other favorites include Bob Odenkirk as shifty lawyer Saul Goodman (“Better Call Saul!”), Giancarlo Esposito as Gus Fring, and Jonathan Banks as enforcer Mike Ehrmantraut. I can’t wait to see the final eight episodes this summer. I’ll feel bummed out when it’s over for good; but like The Wire, it will always be there.
Downton Abbey (PBS) This high-toned soap opera from the U.K. portrays the aristocratic Crawley family and servants in their palatial home, Downton Abbey. The series begins in 1912, progresses through the First World War, and is now in the 1920s — all periods of change and upheaval for a tradition-bound society. Downton Abbey is impeccably produced from top to bottom, and has terrific performances by a top-notch cast. The storylines and characters are so compelling and well played that I can forgive it for being painfully contrived at times (Matthew walks!). Each episode is filled with one melodramatic turn after another, but it doesn’t matter. I just want to spend as much time with these people as possible (especially Maggie Smith as Violet Crawley). We didn’t watch the first season when it originally aired, but I was definitely aware of it (though for a long while I thought the title was Downtown Abbey, which would probably be a different sort of show). My wife wanted to watch it, and when the first season re-aired as a lead-in to the second, we jumped in and got hooked.
Fringe (Fox) A case can be made that without The X Files (1993-2002), Fringe would not have existed. They certainly share DNA in their basic set-up of federal agents investigating paranormal cases. As much as I loved The X Files (excluding the final two seasons when it went fatally off track), for me Fringe was the better show; the stakes were higher. Never that strong in the ratings, the series ended last month after an abbreviated fifth season. Fringe, through complex storylines, increasingly became about fathers and sons, parents and children, regeneration and redemption. Initially attracted by the bizarre sci-fi trappings, I was drawn in by the strong emotional content and an ensemble of characters I truly cared about.
This promotional clip offers a recap of the show leading into the final season.
The Good Wife (CBS) I was skeptical of this series when it first appeared in 2009: the story of a humiliated “good wife,” Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies), who stands by her husband, Peter (Chris Noth), the Illinois state’s attorney, when he is sent to prison as the result of a sex and corruption scandal (sound familiar?). But I was quickly won over by a great cast, interesting characters, and strong storylines. The show, now in its fourth season, has continued to grow and improve. I wasn’t that thrilled with the recent subplot involving Kalinda’s violent ex-husband, but that’s been the only real misstep so far. Julianna Margulies anchors the series as Alicia. I wasn’t watching ER when she was on that show, but Margulies got my attention in a short-lived series in 2008, Canterbury’s Law. She’s excellent in The Good Wife, as are the rest of the cast. Standouts for me include Archie Panjabi as the mesmerizing Kalinda Sharma, and Alan Cumming as Peter Florrick’s campaign manager, Eli Gold.
The Hour (BBC America) In just two short seasons of six episodes each, The Hour quickly became one of my favorite shows. “The Hour” of the title is a fictional British news program, similar in format to “60 Minutes.” The first season was set in 1956 against the background of the Cold War and the developing Suez Crisis. The sense of period is spot-on and the production design is stunning. But, as always, it was the cast, the characters, and the writing that drew me in. I always like seeing former cast members from The Wire in new roles: Clarke Peters and Wendell Pierce in Treme, Lance Reddick in Fringe, Michael K. Williams in Boardwalk Empire, and now Dominic West as philandering, morally conflicted news anchor Hector Madden on The Hour. The strengths he showed as alcoholic detective Jimmy McNulty on The Wire are more than in evidence here. Ben Wishaw, who I first remember seeing as poet John Keats in Jane Campion’s Bright Star (2009), and more recently as the new Q in last year’s Bond film, Skyfall, plays Freddie Lyon, a young, whip-smart reporter determined to ferret out the truth. Ramola Garai completes the triangle as Bel Rowley, the show’s producer and close friend of Freddie’s, who has an affair with Hector in the first season. Last year’s second season focused on an investigation into police corruption and illegal arms deals involving nuclear weapons. In each season so far, six episodes didn’t seem like enough time to fully work out the stories, but it’s been excellent nonetheless.
Justified (FX) This series, now in its fourth season, is based on an Elmore Leonard short story, and really captures the Leonard tone. Justified is relaxed and easy-going, with great dialogue and off-beat characters, and given to sudden, matter-of-fact displays of violence. Timothy Olyphant stars as Deputy U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens, a looser version of his role as Sheriff Seth Bullock in HBO’s Deadwood (2004-2006). At the start of the series, after a questionable shooting in Miami, Raylan has been reassigned to Harlan County, Kentucky, where he grew up. He’s someone who doesn’t go out of his way to shoot someone, but doesn’t hesitate when he has to. Olyphant is enormously appealing as Raylann — as is the rest of the cast, especially Walton Goggins as Boyd Crowder, Raylan’s boyhood friend and now criminal adversary. The show is filled with Southern good-old-boy behavior, with everyone on a first-name basis, lawmen and criminals alike, most of whom have known each other for years. Justified has gotten better from year to year, more assured of itself. So far, the second season (2011) has been the strongest, but that was mainly due to the presence of Margo Martindale in her Emmy-winning role of Mags Bennett, one of the most memorable, multidimensional villains I can remember seeing in anything. I love the series. It’s always a pleasure seeing something this well done.
Mad Men (AMC) After five extremely popular seasons (2007-2012), Mad Men is unquestionably a phenomenon. The series tells the stories of people working at a Manhattan advertising agency in the 1960s, reflected through the light and shadows of the events and issues of that decade: civil rights, Vietnam, sexism, homophobia, women’s liberation, the Kennedy assassination, etc. Mad Men gets talked about a lot, and with good reason. It’s a show that makes you wonder how it can possibly get better, and then it does. From the beginning, the narrative has been very strong and has continued to build throughout subsequent seasons. As with so many good series, an excellent cast and compelling characters really sell the goods. At the center of it all is Jon Hamm as Don Draper, a supremely confident man who hides the secret of another life, another identity entirely. A large part of the show has been putting Don through the wringer and seeing how he weathers that. Standouts in the cast include Elizabeth Moss as Peggy Olson, who rises from secretary to successful copywriter in a business mainly run by men; Vincent Kartheiser as the weasely, ambitious Pete Campbell, who I particularly enjoyed watching get punched out by Jared Harris’ Lane Pryce last season; John Slattery as Roger Sterling, Don’s confidant, drinking buddy, and fellow womanizer; Christina Hendricks as Joan Harris, office manager and eye-candy for propective clients. Hendricks was amazing (and heartbreaking) in one of the strongest episodes of the series last year, “The Other Woman,” in which Joan, with the promise of a partnership, is pressured to prostitute herself in order to land an important client for the firm. This was Mad Men at its best.
Here’s a clip of Don’s new wife Megan surprising him even more at his surprise birthday party in a scene that got a lot of attention when the episode aired last year. It’s followed by a video of series creator Matthew Weiner and some of the cast of Mad Men on Inside the Actors Studio last May:
The Simpsons (Fox) From its beginnings as a series of shorts on The Tracey Ullman in 1987 to its own half-hour show in December 1989, The Simpsons is now in it 24th season, an amazing accomplishment for any show. In 2009 it surpassed Gunsmoke (1955-1975) as the longest-running primetime, scripted show on television — a feat that I’m sure would have incensed James Arness, who was quite perturbed when Law & Order (1990-2010) matched Gunsmoke‘s record of 20 seasons in 2010. The Simpsons has become ingrained as a part of American culture. Homer’s signature “D’oh!” has entered the vocabulary. It’s odd now to remember how many guardians of society and culture were totally bent out of shape when The Simpsons first appeared, certain that its irreverent attitudes (“I’m Bart Simpson. Who the hell are you?”) were going to destroy American family values. The show has so far received 27 Primetime Emmys and a prestigious Peabody Award (1997). Books written about The Simpsons include “The Simpsons and Philosophy,” “The Psychology of the Simpsons,” and “The Gospel of the Simpsons.” Aside from all this serious acceptance, it’s just a great show and shows little sign of slowing down. Through absurd, complicated storylines, The Simpsons references itself and the world at large, socially, politically, and culturally. Not every episode hits the mark, but when it does it can be stunning.
The opening couch-gag segments are a constant source of delight, the show at its most consistently inventive. Here are three that illustrate that. The first takes off on Mad Men (the clip compares The Simpsons version side by side with the original Mad Men title sequence); the second was created by the artist Banksy; the third, the extended “Homer evolution” couch gag, is simply amazing (though I apologize for the distracting Hulu banner at the bottom of the screen).
30 Rock (NBC) Inspired by Tina Fey’s experience as a head writer on Saturday Night Live, 30 Rock is set in the world of a fictional sketch-comedy series called TGS (aka The Girly Show). Though never strong in ratings, 30 Rock received critical acclaim and many Emmy nominations (22 in 2009 alone) and awards (Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series in 2007-2008-2009). In a world where new shows are sometimes cancelled after one or two episodes, NBC kept 30 Rock on the air for seven seasons (2006-2013), until the series finale on January 31 of this year. Tina Fey is obviously some kind of comic genius. The combination of Fey with Alec Baldwin (now more popular than ever), and supported by an excellent cast with inspired guest appearances, has achieved a level of comic inspiration that will be hard to match. I don’t know if 30 Rock will be as fondly remembered as Seinfeld — which, for all it’s craziness, was more reality-based and reached more people, but it probably doesn’t matter. From one season to the next, 30 Rock became increasingly outlandish and inventively deranged. It seemed to me that in this final season they cast off all restraint and went for broke, which was great to see.
Treme (HBO) Created by David Simon and Eric Overmyer, who previously worked together on The Wire and Homicide: Life on the Street, this series is a celebration of life and survival set in a post-Katrina New Orleans. A large part of that celebration is conveyed through some of the most beautiful, energized music you’ll ever hear that weaves in and out of each episode. Simon brings his usual razor-sharp eye to showing us how things work. A great cast, including Wendell Pierce and Clarke Peters from The Wire, takes us through storylines that feel largely plotless in any conventional sense and that unfold in ways that feel more like life than fiction. The third season, which aired last year, was the strongest so far for me. The word is that HBO has renewed Treme for an abbreviated fourth season that will end the series. This won’t be the first good series to end before its time (Deadwood, Rome, Bored to Death, Fringe, and Men of a Certain Age come to mind), but it seems a shame. The show has so much heart.
David Simon spoke about Treme in an excellent interview in Wired magazine last November. And finally, here’s a clip with Wendell Pierce, who played Jimmy McNulty’s partner Bunk in The Wire. His character, Antoine Baptiste, is a musician who has taken a job teaching music in a high school in order to earn some needed cash. This scene conveys some of the relaxed beauty of the series.
Doctor Who (BBC America)
Project Runway (Lifetime)
The Mindy Project (Fox)
If you’re wondering why Homeland isn’t on this list, there’s a simple explanation: I haven’t seen it yet. Everything I’ve heard about Homeland makes me think I’d love it, and I plan to catch up with it soon. I’m sure there are other great shows out there I haven’t seen, but there’s only so much time, alas. – Ted Hicks