Saturday, January 28, 2012

E Blog: Top 10 TV Shows from 1995-2005

Yes, I know it’s Oscar nomination week. And I’d love to write about the list of nominees, but I’ve only seen a few of the films. Despite my love for movies, I rarely go to the theatre anymore. It moved down my list when I realized I was continually telling people to shut their damn phones off. So my wife and I bought a 50-inch Plasma instead. These days, the movies I watch tend to be a bit, err, aged. I see the occasional blockbuster when it comes out (Hello, Dark Knight Rises), but for the most part I wait until they’re on Netflix. My wife and I don’t have Netflix, but we… ah, hell never mind.

Instead, I decided the first Top 10 list should recognize some TV shows back in the day, back when network television was watchable. (Thanks to my man, Jason Ramsay, for the Top 10 idea).

Comments are welcome. Be as passionate as you like in disagreeing, just don’t be offensive. And if you don’t know the difference, look up “douche bag” and figure it out. I have faith in you.

RULES FOR TOP TEN SELECTION:

Any show that appeared between the 1994-1995 season and 2005-2006 season. Also, I had to have seen the show. Most of those shows on the list, but not all, are network shows (CBS, NBC, ABC, FOX) because I didn’t have HBO, which was the only cable channel with their own programming back then. And so before anyone starts shitting on my list, I’ve never seen the Sopranos (or Arrested Development) which is why it isn’t in my Top Ten.


Top Ten (Mostly Network) TV Shows From 1995-2005

10. XENA/HERCULES (1995-1999)

XENA and HERCULES had to be on this list together. Xena actually originated as a character (a villain) in Hercules, before spinning off into her own show. I loved them both. (I write fantasy, remember?) Special effects were just starting to improve, enough so that what we saw on the screen wasn’t Clash of the Titans cringe worthy. (I mean the original, with Harry Hamlin in a short skirt and that stupid metal bird.) Kevin Sorbo’s Hercules was cool and kind, but it was his relationship with Iolaus (Michael Hirsch) that really fueled the show. The same was true of Xena (Lucy Lawless) and her deepening relationship with Gabrielle (Renee O’Connor). I was going through a personal shitstorm when these two shows were in their heyday, and they were the perfect escape, along with offering a bit of inspiration. Gold.

9. AMERICAN IDOL/ SURVIVOR

I don’t want to include either of these shows, because I prefer to reward (intelligent)narrative. However, both of these shows changed the entire course of the television industry. Which means we’ll be stuck with shit like Big Brother and Jersey Shore forever. (That’s fine, so long as you promise to never release a “book” from people like Snooki. Hand out something healthier for the kids to read. Like crystal meth, for instance. Or heroin.)

If you weren’t around for the first five or six years of SURVIVOR (The US edition), you missed a phenomenon. SURVIVOR parties. SURVIVOR nights. Everybody watched it, and nearly all of us were entertained.

Until the past two years, AMERICAN IDOL has been a ratings behemoth, spinning off into X-Factor, the Voice, Dancing With the Stars, and a whole host of others. I’m not sure why I still like it, although it peaked probably in season 6 or 7. Sure, it’s all a giant commercial, but nobody does stories like AI. So far this year, however, the show is showing its age.

8. HOME IMPROVEMENT (1991-1999)

Great chemistry. Great cast. Strong female lead. Patricia Richardson is wonderful here, and her gentle affection for her husband while providing a strong female lead is palpable through the screen. Tim Allen’s grunts were heard in hardware stores all around the country. Or in my case, the bookstore disco. (Don’t ask.) Tim’s friendship with Al is the best part of the show, and as a throw in, Pamela Anderson got her start here. (Yeah. You forgot that didn’t you?)

Favourite line: (From Al) “I don’t think so, Tim.”

Note: I had to decide between Home Improvement and Frasier here, and I chose HI because Frasier just wasn’t as consistently funny.

7. LAW & ORDER (1990-2010)

Before the cable explosion, and before this show expanded to 3 different cities, you could watch Law & Order 83 times a day if you had the time. A formulaic legal drama that rotated its (top-notch) cast about every three years, it always delivered with good writing and a winning formula. It was the best way to kill a few hours if you were a student. And hey, any show with Michael Moriarty as part of its original cast has to be on the list, right? Favourite cast members include Jill Hennesy, Angie Harmon, Chris Noth, Sam Waterston, and Jerry Orbach.

6. THE SIMPSONS (1989 – present)

The longest running night time series in television history, the Simpsons changed the notion that animation was a ‘children only’ format. It was considered a risky experiment when it first aired, and a number of idiotic "family" groups pressed for years to have it cancelled. (There will always be people too stupid to understand smart comedy. These are the same people who feel Huckleberry Finn should be banned from schools.) These days, it feels tame, as a number of shows like South Park have pushed The Simpsons to the mainstream. I’ve had a harder time digging into a number of the new animated “satires”. They’re not nearly as intelligent. The Simpsons was smart and funny, but it had a heart too. A tough trick, but one it has managed for over twenty years.

5. SEINFELD (1989 – 1998)

A show about nothing, that like the Simpsons, provided the culture with a number of idioms. (Personal favourite: “sponge worthy”) Jerry Seinfeld’s straight man was the hub around which these quirky, hilarious characters revolved. A ratings blockbuster, Seinfeld was the meat in NBC’s Must See Thursday night sandwich in the nineties. It would probably be higher on this list if the show had been a bit more poignant, but the characters were empty narcissists. Even comedy needs something of a heart. In terms of pure humour, however, Seinfeld is probably the most consistently funny sit-com ever.

4. ER (1994 - 2009)

Lightning paced. Superbly written. Wonderful (revolving) cast. Compelling storylines. For the first ten years or so, ER was that rare show that was a ratings blockbuster and loved by the critics (with a record 124 Emmy nominations). It faded at the end, but that doesn’t diminish what it was or the impact it had on the industry. I wish more TV producers would learn from a show like ER, and not appeal to the lowest common denominator. You can have a popular, thrilling show and have your flawed characters speak intelligently. Great, great show.

3. ED (2000 – 2004)

A quirky show about a hotshot lawyer Ed (Tom Cavanaugh) who sets up his practice in his old hometown when he’s fired by his big firm, and tries to win back his high school crush Carol (Julie Bowen). Yes, this show is higher on the list than ER and SEINFELD. I don’t care. This show was friggin’ awesome. Ed was a smart, funny complex character, as were all the characters on the show. Having a main character in a wheelchair, dealing with serious issues for teenagers in a serious way, and an overall egalitarian bent made this show an original. And Ed’s relationship with Carol, along with the chemistry between the two actors, pulled this show along for four brilliant seasons.

NOTE: This show hasn’t been released on video. There’s a good deal of original music in the show, and the show’s creators did not work out an arrangement with the musicians before the show went to air. That would never happen now, as every show goes to DVD or Blu-Ray. You can still find episodes online as torrents. Worth the download. Wonderful show, and I still miss it.

2. THE WEST WING (1999 – 2006)

When The West Wing first aired in the fall of 1999, it was must see TV almost immediately… for politicians. For four years, Washington watched closely as one of the best script writers ever to wield a pen (Aaron Sorkin) took a swipe at those in power. How? By creating a fictional white house and filling it with flawed, intelligent and big hearted characters. This wasn’t a show about how things worked in the White House, but one that wondered “what if”? It was a show of possibilities manned by an amazing cast, and for the first four seasons it hummed along. Allison Janney had the role of her life here, and she blew the doors off it. When Sorkin left after the fourth season, the show took a dip, but the seventh and final season, the election campaign, eerily foreshadowed the 2008 Obama-McCain race, and was mesmerizing in its own right.

Brilliant.

1. FRIENDS (1994 – 2004)

“You’re over me? Um, when were you… under me?”

(Ross to Rachel, with her riding on his back in the kitchen trying to get to the phone. Do you remember?)

There are great shows, and then there are those rare shows, those few gems, that define a generation. In the seventies, it was MASH. In the eighties, it was CHEERS. From 1994- 2004, it was FRIENDS. And if you’re one of those idiot critics that think FRIENDS was “over-rated”, tough shit. FRIENDS spawned, like many other shows on this list, a host of imitators. None of them got it right. Well, not like this. The romance between Ross and Rachel was poignant to the end, even when the show started to lose steam after season seven. Joey and Chandler were, well, Joey and Chandler. (“What are they doing?” “They’re running.” “Oh?” “They do it a lot.”) The cast for the show, the six primary actors, had the kind of chemistry show runners drool over, and the writing was top notch, especially the first five seasons. When I think of FRIENDS, I think about my life during those years. Even now, I can flip over to an episode (Yup, they’re still in syndication) and I’m immediately taken back to my life in my mid-twenties. FRIENDS was funny, but it had a big heart, too. We laughed and cried with them, felt their pain and enjoyed their triumphs. And when it was all over, and when Ross and Rachel decided to give it one last try, one of the greatest decade long rides in TV history was over, and we were better for it.

1A. ROME (2005 – 2006)

A two year series produced by HBO for nearly 200 million dollars. Twenty-two episodes. The best television show in history, perhaps because it’s filmed like a twenty-two hour movie. I have it as 1A here, because it did not define a generation, and it falls somewhat outside the purview of this list. Gritty Rome in all her earthy glory. A fantasy writer’s delight, for certain, but there’s nothing not to enjoy in this series. Intelligently done, well acted, with unbelievable sets that take you to another time and another world. You can’t do television any better than this…

-Steve