Saturday, December 15, 2007

SDD's Top 100 Series of All Time -- Supplemental list #5: New-ish shows I like that didn't make the list

American television is in a pretty good spot at the moment, even if this fall, thanks to fears of a writers strike, boasted the weakest slate of new shows in years. Because of the sheer number of networks and the need to just program that many hours, more and more interesting things are slipping on the networks than would have decades ago. A show like Journeyman hasn't quite lived up to its promise yet, but would something that ambitious have been programmed in the 60s or 70s? Probably not. The series doesn't accomplish everything it sets out to do, but it sets out to do so much. The failures of television at present tend to be those of over-ambition, rather than just doing enough to get by.

To that end, here are 10 shows in their first and second seasons that are worth keeping an eye on, along with some advice as to how they could crack the list in the future. Obviously, 30 Rock, Mad Men and Friday Night Lights made the list already, so just consider them grandfathered in.

10) Chuck
NBC, in its first season

I almost wrote Chuck off after its sixth episode or so. The central structural problem of the show -- how do you get the computer nerd who stays in the office on most spy shows out into the field in every episode? -- led to some really strained and strange plotting in the early episodes, and the fake relationship between Chuck and Sarah struck me as something that was a better idea on paper than it was on screen (largely because Zachary Levi and Yvonne Strahovski have had to grow into their chemistry). But the show has really grown into itself in its last few episodes, and there's the potential for more here, even if it seems the series deliberately wants to be a throwback to the light action dramas of the 80s. There's the potential for something more like Buffy than Alias here -- a lightly-plotted, mostly comic hour that occasionally tosses in some relationship angst. I don't know that there's anything weighty enough here to reach the level of Buffy at its heights, but if this show can really pull everything it wants to do together, it could become the kind of comic souffle that lands in the 80s or 90s. Keep getting better, Chuck!

How can it get on the list?: While the interpersonal relationships on the show are starting to light up (even if they should have kept Rachel Bilson around longer), I think the show could be benefited by improving the spy stories just a little. Even Buffy's monster-of-the-week outings were rarely this dull.

9) Aliens in America
The CW, in its first season

Shows that accurately portray the alienation and strangeness of high school are few and far between, usually ignored in favor of crazy teen soaps. Sitcoms that portray this are even rarer (there's what? Room 222 and Square Pegs?), and that's what makes Aliens in America such an impressive accomplishment, even if it hasn't quite ironed out all of its quirks to the point where it's completely solid. Still, there's a lot of promise here, thanks largely to a talented ensemble cast and a skewed vision of what it's like to go through high school that owes more to Freaks and Geeks than Beverly Hills 90210. The Midwestern setting allows the show to do a little wry commentary on American xenophobia (even if that commentary occasionally pushes too far), and the characters are quite well-drawn.

How can it get on the list?: The series feels a little jokey, and I think it could do better if it stopped making the broad comparisons between the alienation of a young nerd in high school and the alienation of someone who's not actually from this country. Still, there's a lot to like here, and the show gets better from week to week.

8) Tell Me You Love Me/Brotherhood
HBO, in its first season/Showtime, in its second season

It's the "depressing cable dramas that play better on DVD" hour! Tell Me You Love Me and Brotherhood can be almost excruciating to watch from week to week, with plots that crawl along and oft-depressing storylines that seem fraught with the inevitabilities of modern life. HBO's hour is about three couples in couples counseling and the woman who is their therapist. At first, it seems like something you could probably skip (one commentor memorably described it as "Like watching paint fuck"), but over the hours, it wraps its tendrils around you and gets you invested in these couples, offering up, finally, a nicely bittersweet denouement. I watched the whole series on DVD this summer, and I think that's a much better way to watch the show than to wait weeks between episodes. Brotherhood is a similar treat. It moves glacially if you're watching week-to-week, but on DVD, it attains a real tragic weight, as this family (anchored by two brothers -- one a politician and one a criminal) tries to find a way to make its way in the world of Providence, Rhode Island. I'm not surprised the show hasn't been a big hit, but these two series just might be the best two you're not watching.

How can they get on the list?: Both of these series need to find a way to boost their weekly excitement quota. Even the slow-moving Wire has at least one bit of the case snapping into place from week to week; you don't get that sense on Tell Me or Brotherhood.

7) Heroes
NBC, in its second season

Maddeningly inconsistent, Heroes was held up by many in its first season as the anti-Lost, the show that would provide big plot twists and big answers, all at once. The series' first season was riotously entertaining, scooping up the audience and zipping them along through a story of superpowered individuals on their way to saving the world. It wasn't great TV, but the sheer narrative momentum that the show attained roughly halfway through the season meant that it could keep the audience along for the ride, provided the finale and final chapter in the saga was as good as it seemed it might be. Then, the finale dropped the ball, and the flaws in the show became more glaring, simply because they were easier to overlook when it seemed as if this might be one big fun adventure. Instead, it became obvious that the show WAS the anti-Lost -- full of fun and adventure but mostly consisting of empty calories. In its second season, the show floundered around for a bunch of episodes, creating false drama, before righting itself with a couple of good episodes that still couldn't match up to the handful of really good ones in season one. Heroes is the latest case of the emperor having no clothes, and it remains to be seen if it can pull off a Lost and reveal what it was doing all along later on. Lost, at least, had a compelling thematic basis; it's questionable that Heroes has even that.

How can it get on the list?: Learn about better serialized story construction -- Heroes' second season feels like a blatant attempt to ape the series' first season, while the best serials (even the ones with seasonal resets like 24) take time to build upon prior seasons' work. Heroes just scattered the characters to the winds arbitrarily in season two because that was what happened in season one.

6) Pushing Daisies
ABC, in its first season

Slightly overrated when it debuted, Pushing Daisies had a fine pilot that promised it might do great things if it found its footing. The episodes that followed were all very good but hadn't quite nailed the mixture of mystery, character stuff and quirk, usually skewing too heavily toward one or the other. The recent string of episodes, however, managed to get most of that balance correct, and it's starting to seem as if the show might find its footing as early as the middle of its first season. Now, of course, the show is going to be cut short by the strike, but this feels like a show that could return from that sad eventuality (ratings pending) and reel off a string of great episodes. It's another show on this list more for promise than anything else, but those episodes give me hope that promise will be realized.

How can it get on the list?: The biggest thing Pushing Daisies can do is have faith in its crazy convictions. The character stuff on this show doesn't feel like it should work, but it does more often than not, so I think they could pursue that a little further. They also might beef up the mysteries a little and cut down on the cutesy endings where Ned and Chuck realize just how much they wuv each other.

5) The Boondocks
Cartoon Network, in its second season

The Boondocks is another inconsistent show, but when it's on (which is all too rarely), it's better than almost any other show on this list -- an incendiary blend of social commentary, political jokes and solid small-town sitcom. The story of two young boys and their grandfather who live in the suburbs, the series is almost like a more-political, African American King of the Hill (if you can wrap your brain around that). Sometimes, its jokes lean toward the too obvious, but when the show is on, it's like nothing else on TV in terms of what it aims to do and say. At its best, The Boondocks is scabrous and brilliant, ready to mock anyone and everyone but always with a consistent emotional core (unlike its most obvious forebear, South Park). If The Boondocks could just throw together a consistent season, it could easily land in the top 30 on the next list.

How can it get on the list?: Too often, The Boondocks takes the easy route to humor. Its strongest episodes (A Huey Freeman Christmas, Return of the King) are the ones that examine all viewpoints and find them all wanting, and that complexity drives the inner engines of the show (which also have a mournful quality to them). The show would be better if it embraced that complexity and didn't continually give in to the easy jabs.

4) Dexter
Showtime, in its second season

What a difference a season makes! In its first season, Dexter was an uneven show with a strong through-plot but an episodic nature that often left the show struggling along, largely due to its bland and uninteresting supporting cast. The central performance on the show was as good as everyone said it was, but the stories on the show were often boring, and the series felt as though they had to give the rest of the cast things to do, when they were only interesting insofar as they were connected to Dexter (and some of them were so blandly drawn that their connection to Dexter was similarly bland). Dexter in its second season is a show that thrillingly takes chances, doing things with its form and function that the first season simply wouldn't allow. As Dexter is forced to tap dance his way away from being caught by the Miami PD and occasionally gets sloppy when he lets his inner monster out (this season has seen him ignoring the "code" that he lives his life by to great effect). Not everything here works (Dexter's new girlfriend/sponsor is a weakly conceived character, though watching Dexter's hopes that she'll understand him is interesting; the supporting players are still very weak), but Dexter in its second season is doing the bold sorts of things we expect out of the best dramas. Paradoxically, it seems to have turned off fans of the more procedural-esque first season, even as it gains fans in first-season skeptics like myself. Here's hoping it doesn't cave in to its fans' demands. (In fact, I wrote this a few weeks ago. The recent episodes have been so good that were I making the list now, instead of back in October, I probably would have pushed it into the bottom 10.)

How can it get on the list?: Perk up those supporting players and make them something more than people whom Dexter has to avoid.

3) Brothers & Sisters
ABC, in its second season

I actually have my doubts Brothers & Sisters will ever make the list, but it's enjoyable enough socks-folding TV, and that has to be good for something. I'm actually surprised the series hasn't caught on more quickly than it has, as it's an enjoyable update of the family soaps that used to dominate TV in the '80s (it's not quite as wacky as Dynasty, but it's certainly on the level of, say, Falcon Crest). A big, talented ensemble anchors the show, and the strong hand of uber-producer Greg Berlanti has given the show its well-earned tear-jerkiness. The show's far from perfect, and it's mostly a surface-level one, but it has its charms, and it's insanely addictive. This one could be the sort of show that we watch for years to come with the proper care and feeding. Brothers & Sisters isn't horribly flawed like some other shows on this list, but it doesn't aim as high as most of them either.

How can it get on the list?: I think that if the show maybe opened its universe up a little more to incorporate some interesting characters outside of the family and those they date, it might gain a little dimension, which is really what it needs to deepen its world.

2) Ugly Betty
ABC, in its second season

I usually hate camp, but I love Ugly Betty, one of the most riotously over-the-top shows in the history of television, and a program that's half telenovela and half soap opera parody. Anchored by an effortlessly sweet performance by America Ferrera, Ugly Betty is kind of uneven, even inside of individual episodes, but the cast is so winning, and the writing is so daring in its discussion of American class differences and racial imbalances that it gets away with more than it probably should. It helps that the supporting players are excellent, especially the wacky Michael Urie and Becki Newton. It also helps that the show locks all of its storylines into an emotional core. I really don't know why Ugly Betty isn't on the list at present. I just want to see that it can last a little longer at this level of quality. The better-than-the-first-season second season (so far) is helping its case immensely.

How can it get on the list?: Just keep doing what it's doing and do it for seasons to come. This is one show where the accretion of time will really help push it over the top.

1) Flight of the Conchords
HBO, second season upcoming

The only thing that kept Flight of the Conchords off of this list was the fact that the tone of a goofy, lackadaisical comedy is perhaps the hardest thing to sustain in television. The number of basically plotless but hilarious comedies that had a strong first season and a disastrous second season is legion, and the Conchords ran through almost all of their stage songs in season one. Will they have enough material for a second season? I'm cautiously hopeful, as Newsradio creator Paul Simms is a creative consultant on the show. Simms managed to make a low-key, goofy show run for season after season in hilarious fashion, and I don't think there's anything stopping him from doing so here. Conchords deserves to be the next huge cult hit, and here's hoping that it can pull off a second season as hilarious as its first.

How can it get on the list?: Really, just be as funny as it was in season one in season two. That should be enough.

Today's Christmas tune: One of the most popular new Christmas tunes in recent years is Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas Is You." Here's an old friend offering a cover version from him and another of his friends (from 2003, no less). I actually haven't listened to it, so let me know how it is!

Tomorrow: Places 60-51, including lots and lots of sitcoms and a children's TV phenomenon.

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