Wednesday, February 20, 2008

"Don't. Praise. The. Machine."


Best of the Decades Project, Part 1: The 90s.

Best TV Shows

Oh, 90s (or, as I prefer, "80s Jr."). Has it really been eight years since you ended? My how the time flies....

Methodology: I've decided to use five metrics to evaluate these shows (and now I can cross "metrics" off of my "1,000 Words to Use in My Blog" list--score!). Each category is worth five points for a total of twenty-five--though the ranking has not been determined on the basis of lowest score to highest, you'll note. A bit on each, though they're mostly straightforward:

Timelessness: Really, this amounts to a "rewatchability" rating, which boils down to the following test: if this show is on in syndication, to what extent am I compelled to watch it?

Originality:
Has it been done before, done before but with a twist, or totally novel?

Highest Highs:
at its absolute best, how good was it?

Lowest Lows:
at its worst, how terrible was it? This also doubles as a consistency rating. Please note that the higher the score here, the less painful the low was.

Quotability/Memorability of Characters:
How quotable is the program? Note: most dramas are not inherently quotable so, in those cases, I’ve gone with: how memorable are the characters?

Shows that I admittedly didn't watch (much or at all) and would likely rank on another person's list: Homicide: Life on the Streets (what I saw I liked, but I didn’t see enough of it to justify putting it on the list), NYPD Blue (aside from The Wire, I don't really do police procedurals), The Real World (I didn’t start watching it until the Vegas season (in 2002-03), so I can’t really include it here. Consequently, everything I know about the seasons from the 90s comes from Chuck Klosterman and Bill Simmons).

Shows that I did watch that simply didn't make the cut: Party of Five (at one point my favorite show on TV, this one rapidly ran out of steam—when, you ask? Just after Bailey’s intervention, I think); My So-Called Life (a great show, there’s no disputing that, but nineteen episodes simply isn’t a big enough body of work to qualify), Northern Exposure (Carrie’s a big fan…and I found the show to be generally enjoyable, but, looking back, it might have been too quirky for its own good).

Onto the Top Sixteen:

16. The Practice (16.5 points)

Timelessness: 3.5. Um...I suppose this one holds up fairly well, though it never seems to air in syndication before 2 a.m., which is a bit of a kiss of death.

Originality: 3.5. Yes, L.A. Law pretty much had the courtroom drama/comedy market cornered at this stage, but The Practice had a couple of things going for it: (1) they played it totally straight. (I recall the show being deadly serious most of the time), and (2) the writers weren't especially hesitant to depict the partners in an unfavorable light, to the point where Bobby and Co. often resorted to morally questionable tactics at trial. Sure, most of their stunts--I later found out--would get them disbarred in a heartbeat, but it was an entertaining ride. Interestingly, only the faintly ridiculous (but highly watchable!) and ill-fated Justice has tried this particular angle since The Practice went off the air. (I refuse to acknowledge Boston Legal.)
Highest High: 4.5. The major murder trials in S3-5, when Bobby got really personally invested then would be utterly crushed whenever he lost. Good times.

Lowest Low: 3. No real drop off here...though after a while, it did become repetitive. Of course they would lose the case when their client was actually innocent....and of course the acquitted client would immediately confess (for no apparent reason) to the team as soon as he left the courtroom...and of course the Court of Appeal judge had a personal vendetta against the firm...and of course Lindsey would inexplicably shoot her stalker in the face. Hmmm...come to think of it, I guess it did drop off a bit. I'm lowering this score to 3.

Quotability/Memorability of Characters: 2. Unless you count talking about "Plan B"-ing someone or making the Bobby Donnell face (aka, "I'm so angry with this judge's decision/jury verdict/what-my-client-just-told-me-after-I- got-them-acquitted that I may cry" face), it's not terribly quotable. In terms of memorability...meh. I mean, I know all their names, but I don't exactly miss their presence on my television.

15. Saved by the Bell (20. 5 points)

Timelessness: 5. and how! If we’re still around 500 years from now, I guarantee you that some channel will have the Bell on three times a day—or they’ll, you know, beam it into our brains upon request. (Note to future occupants: If this blog is around 500 years from now, please adjust my comments in this section to suit current trends. Thank you.)

Originality: 4. Strange as it sounds now, I think it was fairly original (Zach breaking down the fourth wall, summer season on location, very special episodes, etc.), and it spawned countless imitators (the atrocious California Dreams, the charming Hang Time, and the I-can’t-believe-I-actually-watched-this City Guys).

Highest High: 4. The awesome Malibu Sands summer episodes with Stacey Carosi (featuring a young Leah Remini—unbeknownst to her, this would be the high point of her career); Jessie on pills; the incomparable “Rockumentary” (where Zach essentially dreams an entire “Behind the Music,” complete with the price of glory section, and featuring Casey Kasem as the narrator); the one where they struck oil at Bayside; the one with the movie star that came to Bayside to shoot an anti-drinking PSA but actually tried to get the kids drunk.

Lowest Low: 3. Let’s ignore the New Class altogether. The only thing I can think of is that Max (the owner of the eponymous diner that, without explanation, served as the school’s de facto cafeteria) was kind of useless (seriously, dude: magic tricks? They’re not seven.) Thankfully, he—curiously—simply stopped appearing partway through S2.

Quotability/Memorability of Characters: 4.5. “I’m so excited…I’m so excited…I’m so…scared” is always a party favorite, as is singing the lyrics to “Friends Forever” from the indescribable dream episode (less so: dumping oil over all sorts of things while shouting “is THIS what you want for Bayside, Mr. Wealthy Oil Prospector? Is it?”) Beyond that? Precious little. But from a memorable character standpoint, it’s pretty tough to top Zach, Kelly, Slater, Screech, Jessie, and Lisa (though isn’t it somewhat dismaying that Mario Lopez is arguably the most famous of the bunch at this point? Would you have bet that at least two of the original six—likely Gosselaar and Thiessen—would’ve become hugggge stars? I mean, he’s not even all that famous.) See Chuck Klosterman’s excellent essay on the show (“Being Zach Morris” in Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs) for a far more thorough analysis of the show’s personalities (my favorite, as observed by CK, is—perhaps because eps aired out of order or possibly just out of sheer laziness—in some episodes Zach and Slater would be BFFs and in some they’d be bitter rivals…with no apparent connection between the two and no explanation ever offered.)

Fun Fact: 1. What's more disturbing: The episode where Zach met a girl in a wheelchair and, to prove how tolerant he was, went over the top to shelter the girl, in the process making her feel way more sensitive about being in a wheelchair, culminating in an impossibly embarrassing wheelchair basketball game featuring Zach et al.; that Screech, by any real-world legal definition, actively stalked Lisa with no repercussions; that Zach could stop time; that Bayside only had 14 students yet routinely won state titles in any number of athletic and academic competitions; that the school evidently had only one classroom (watch it again); that Belding had a secretary who would buzz visitors in, yet his office opens directly into the hallway; that Mark-Paul Gosselaar was typecast as a date-rapist for years after his run on the show ended (seriously, check his imdb profile); or that MPG and Lark Voorhies dated in real life (IRL, baby!) for nearly the show's entire run?

(Personally, I'd vote for the secretary, although the MPG-Voorhies thing, which I stumbled upon last week while researching this, blew me away.)

2. After our Band of Brothers marathon on Family Day and many, many glasses of red wine later, Ryan and I caught an episode of Boy Meets World and it occurred to me that, on practically every level—better writing, funnier, more subversive (for reals!), general awkwardness (remember when Cory and Topanga eloped? Wow!), more adept at handling serious issues (see Fred Savage—in a bizarre yet brilliant casting turn—sexually harassing the wife of his real-life brother), positive role models (SBTB had Mr. Belding, who was kind of a walking joke, while BMW had Mr. Feeny, Mr. Turner, and Cory’s parents…who actually brought something to the table--BMW is superior to SBTB. This, then, begs the question: why is SBTB fondly remembered and BMW more or less forgotten? Originally, my answer focused on the hot girl quotient, but really, aside from Kelly (and, to a lesser degree, Tori), the Saved by the Bell girls weren't anything special and Topanga in the later years probably offset this (CREEPINESS ALERT, time to move on...), so it can't be that. I think, ultimately, it comes down to one thing: Ted Turner. That's right. Mr. UN himself, since it was his network (TBS) that chose to rerun the show easily six times a day for eight years, which, in turn, compelled all teenagers (who were probably too old/too self-conscious to get up to watch episodes at 10 in the morning on Saturday) to tune in, even if only as background noise. Boy Meets World, on the other hand, airs at 2 in the morning on the Family Channel, where it is watched by upwards of 75 nostalgic insomniacs, NORAD employees, alcoholics, and drug addicts on any given night…

3. …you know what? Screw it. I’m declaring a tie for 15th between SBTB and Boy Meets World. You’ve finally made it, Ben Savage!

14. Quantum Leap (20 points)

Timelessness: 3. I’m sure it would seem silly now (Space stopped re-running the show a few years ago, no doubt for this very reason) but the concept is still cool.

Originality: 5. oh, my, yes!

Highest High: 5. The evil leaper stuff; Sam being electro shocked; Sam leaping into Al’s body; Sam’s leap home; The three-parter with Lee Harvey Oswald (some were annoyed with the ending—Sam “saves” Jackie instead—but, realistically, how else could they have resolved it? JFK surviving and serving a second term? How wonderfully offensive! Take that, real life Secret Service!).

Lowest Low: 3. Sam repeatedly leaping into a woman’s body (“hey, it’s Scott Bakula in drag! …again”—it got a little boring eventually); the series finale, while entertaining, seemed a bit contrived and wasn’t altogether satisfying (remind me again why they couldn’t have let him leap home?); the Marilyn Monroe episode (totally unnecessary).

Quotability/Memorability of Characters: 4. though it’s always fun to cite random probability stats like Gushy, the only thing I can think of is “oh, boy” (every episode), which was pretty lame to begin with and has gotten approximately 5% lamer every year. On the plus side, Sam and Al were great characters and their interactions essentially made the show.

Fun fact: the Wikipedia entry on the show is a preposterous 10,000 words long (longer, even, than this post!). By contrast, the entry on quantum mechanics weighs in at 6,200 words.

13. The Wonder Years (19.5 points)

Timelessness: 4. Tough one, since the show, being set in the late 60s/early 70s, is MEANT to be dated. There’s no doubt that it holds up very well upon re-watching.

Originality: 4. Lots of it. The narration thing, the use of historical clips, the use of classic music. Really, a pretty daring idea.

Highest High: 4. Seasons three though five, particularly: “Frank and Denise,” the one with Jim Caveziel as basketball phenom Bobby Riddell, the one where Kevin’s caddying for his dad’s boss, Chocolate Mousse girl (who I had a big thing for at the time—which was perfectly age appropriate then but seems kinda pervy now, so let’s move on…), the one where Kevin meets Cara on his summer vacation, the one where Kevin steals Wayne’s girlfriend. This period corresponds roughly to the time between Kevin being too young (and thus not having interesting problems) and Kevin being too old (and thus being kind of awkward to watch roaming the halls of McKinley high).

Lowest Low: 3.5. the last couple of seasons weren’t exactly appointment television. But even its lowest lows were still highly watchable. Slight deduction for the show—incomprehensibly—revealing in the series finale that Kevin’s dad died two years after the events depicted in the episode. This was necessary why exactly? To see if a 14 year old boy would cry about the off-screen passing of a fictional character? Mission accomplished!

Quotability/Memorability of Characters: 4. Amazingly weak in the quotes department. (The fake narrating bit might have had legs, but it was used in a Simpsons episode…and then shamelessly ripped off by Family Guy years later.) Seriously, the most memorable line is probably Wayne calling Kevin a butthead. For characters: Kevin and Jack Arnold, Paul (“seriously, for the last fucking time, I am NOT Marilyn Manson) Phieffer, and Winnie Cooper were all fleshed out. Bonus marks for Kevin’s math teacher, who would pop up once a season (until the episode where he died) and never failed to deliver the goods.

Several additional points: 1. In September '06, TVTropolis began airing the Wonder Years at 4 p.m. Carrie and I were of course ecstatic, and taped it whenever we couldn’t be home to watch it. Then, abruptly, it was moved to 4 a.m. (almost as if they’re was a programming error) in January 07. So, fine, we’re not up at that hour so I set the tape. Then, about a week later, they stopped airing it altogether without a word of explanation. What the fuck, TV Tropolis? (I have no point here—I just wanted to vent.)

2. If the show is ever brought back into syndication, I suggest the following experiment: count how many times an episode revolves around Kevin horribly disappointing a middle-aged or elderly character. It happens surprisingly often--his dad (repeatedly), the hardware store guy, his math teacher, the choir instructor, and so forth... (It’s also fun to keep tabs on Fred Savage’s ever-expanding waistline throughout the show’s run. By season six, those vintage Levis have to be at least 42s to support his ample rear…)

3. I’ve always loved this bit of trivia (from imdb.com), though I profess that I’m somewhat amazed a 90210 producer didn’t utilize this strategy with Jason Priestley: Part of the show's running storyline is a falling-out between Kevin and Winnie, who becomes a background character for several months, until she and Kevin reconcile. The main reason for this part of the storyline was that actress Danica McKellar had had a growth spurt, and she and star Fred Savage, already shorter than McKellar, didn't look right standing together. The characters reconciled after Savage began to catch up in height.

12. Law & Order (18 points)

Timelessness: 3.5. Many of the older episodes look pretty dated but they’re still very watchable. Plus, it’s always fun to spot current cast members playing other roles (such as the lieutenant being a crack whore).

Originality: 4. There had been cop shows before and legal shows before, but L&O was the first to combine the two (unless that’s not true). High marks for that.

Highest High: 4. the last two years of Moriarty’s run and the first four of Waterson’s—those were the golden years, with the absolute best being the episode where the mob systematically wipes out all the witnesses in the final ten minutes.

Lowest Low: 2.5. Right around the time they started “ripping stories from the headlines” (which quickly became a none-too-subtle code for “our writers have become profoundly lazy and no longer have any interest in creating their own plots and from this point forward will copy stories in their entirety from the New York Times).

Quotability/Memorability of Characters: 4. aside from “she doesn’t have an aunt” and “is this because I’m a lesbian?” (which is always fun to drop into conversations), the show isn’t quotable in the slightest, but, to its credit, it does have several memorable characters: especially Schiff, McCoy, and Briscoe.

11. Beverly Hills: 90210 (18.5 points)

Timelessness: 4. God! Carrie and watch it every day at 4 p.m. and everyone on the show, to a man, looks like a total jackass, but dammit if it isn’t still addictive after all these years. It’s Mystery Science 3000 wisecracking potential is off the charts.

Originality: 3.5. Sort of. They did a pretty good job of incorporating cliffhangers in later seasons (at the start, most episodes were self-contained), which few, if any, shows were doing (meaning that it owes a debt to Dallas—which is fine by me). Focusing on teenagers in primetime was also novel. Ah, simpler times!

Highest High: 5. Dylan; Steve (unintentionally hilarious…always); Brandon (hell, he was an executive producer from S5 on, so they did give him the good stories); Kelly in the cult (wildly funny in retrospect—embarrassing if they intended to play it straight back then); the S3 Summer Season (Why don’t more shows do this??) where Kelly hooked up with Dylan while Brenda was in Paris; Dylan and Toni Marchette (bar none, the best thing 90210’s ever done).

Lowest Low: 2. anything involving Andrea; when they clearly ran out of ideas for Claire (around S6) and blatantly recycled plots (at this point, she’s flipped out on Steve for EXACTLY THE SAME REASON—sadness over her mom’s death when she was very young—a half-dozen times); the fact that Ray Pruit performed at the Peach Pit After Dark every other episode for nearly two seasons; Nat; Emily Valentine; David and Donna making “music videos”; Donna; mostly everything after Dylan left the first time (mid-season 6). I’ll say this: when the show fell, it fell HARD. The season 7 stuff we’re into now is BRUTAL.

Quotability/Memorability of Characters: 4. Plenty of quotes—“Donna Martin Graduates!” “I choose me,” anything mean that Dylan ever said about the Walshes, and (my personal favorite) “squash it”—though most of them are embarrassing to drop in a convo…unless you’re being ironic. Lots of characters to choose from, but only a select few were remotely memorable: Kelly (for having everything awful that is imaginable happening to her. Seriously, check out her Wikipedia page), Steve (for being pathetic), Brandon (though many knock him for being—almost comically so—too much of a goody-goody), Valerie (for being evil personified…and the whole weight fluctuation thing), and Dylan (who was so much of a badass—did you know that his character was a heroin addict when he came back a second time?—that it often seemed like he had his shown that just happened to overlap with the 90210 universe on occasion). A special anti-memorable shout out to Andrea who NEVER ONCE had a single interesting thing to do on the show yet remained a cast member for six SEASONS.

10. Dream On (20 points)

Timelessness: 4. pretty high, I assume, though I must admit that this show is LITERALLY never on in syndication, so…

Originality: 5. Off the charts. The conceit was that Martin (played by Brian Benben) would go about his daily life as an editor but his inner monologue was replaced with old-timey film clips. (Yes, I know full well this sounds dumb). For whatever reason, this really worked, and never ceased being amusing.

Highest High: 4. Martin’s rivalry with Richard; the first show I ever watched that had nudity (so much of it, in fact, that, for a time, it aired on SexTV in Canada, and the show’s imdb page lists the following four keywords, and nothing else: “nudity,” “female nudity,” “erotica,” and “sitcom.” Great work there.).

Lowest Low: 3.5. hmmm…I guess you have to suspend a whole lot of disbelief to not question Benben’s character getting so much ass. Also, the show didn’t so much end as simply stop (I think, but am by no means certain, that they thought they might be coming back for a 7th season), but that’s it really.

Quotability/Memorability of Characters: 3.5. …not unless you can readily incorporate film footage from the 50s into your day-to-day life. As far as characters: Martin, Eddie, Judith, and Richard (the best sitcom character never to have appeared on screen—take that, Maris and Vera!) were all believable and (at times) sympathetic. Deduction here for Martin’s son, Jeremy, who, sweet as child, ended up being a giant douche as a teenager on the show. (Variety calls this the “Jody Sweeten effect.”

Other notes: Sorry, Ryan. I thought I had more to say about this one.

9. Sports Night (22 points)


Timelessness: 4. Yes...though one might question Aaron Sorkin’s decision to use fictitious names for the sports stars (for legal reasons, mind you, this might have been his only choice).

Originality: 4. Allegedly, Sorkin stumbled upon the idea for the show—behind the scenes of a Sportscenter-type show—when, while holed up in a hotel working on The American President, he realized that the 11 o’clock highlight show was the best written thing on TV. A pretty cool idea, actually.

Highest High: 5. “Eli’s Coming”; the apology in “The Apology” ; the speech that Casey gives his son in “What Kind of a Day Has it Been” (lovely); “The Six Southern Gentlemen of Tennessee”; “Shoe Money Tonight”; anything involving Isaac; the opening montage in “Special Powers” (featuring “She Will Have Her Way”—one of the best songs ever); William H. Macy’s speech in “Cliff Gardner”; “Draft Day, Parts I and II”; Dan’s slow disintegration. Lots and lots of high points. This was a fabulous show…and had it lasted longer than 45 episodes, would probably have cracked the top 5.

Lowest Low: 4.5. given that it ended too soon (damn you, Paula Marshall!), going after the show seems kind of cruel, though: Dana could be annoying on occasion, and the way they artificially kept Casey and Dana apart during S2 was kind of brutal). Also: Shuk will want me to point out that every single time Jeremy and Natalie (who were dating for most of the show’s run) got in a fight, Jeremy always won, which is a fair point. Finally: a slight deduction because the strength of this show led me to believe that Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip would also be awesome. Oh, how wrong I was…

Quotability/Memorability of Characters: 4.5. “Eli’s coming,” “shoe money tonight” (shouted, preferably), “quo vadimus,” and…not much else. But, then again, this was the thinking man’s sitcom, so, unless you’re prepared to cite densely-worded paragraph-long passages, you won’t be referencing Sports Night all that often. On the plus side, the big six (Dan, Casey, Dana, Jeremy, Natalie, and Isaac) were all fully-formed characters. Probably only Friends can make a similar claim (and probably not even successfully as, there, at no point were more than three of them actually being developed at one time—with Phoebe, Joey, and, in later seasons, Monica getting short-shrift)

8. The X-Files (21.5 points)

Timelessness: 3.5. Some of the first season effects look remarkably shitty now, but, that aside: still lots of fun to watch.

Originality: 5. I suppose it did ape The Twilight Zone to a certain extent, but this show, with its rich (if often befuddling) mythology, is in a class of its own.

Highest High: 5. “Hollywood A.D.,” “Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space,’” “The Unnatural,” “Home,” the one where Krycek gets locked in the silo (“Apocrypha”); the early conspiracy episodes; anything involving the Cigarette Smoking Man; most of the Lone Gunmen episodes (but NOT the Lone Gunmen series); the one where Mulder and Scully are stuck in a dream world; Doggett’s backstory; Doggett and Reyes in S9.

Lowest Low: 3. (The second half of the movie—but that may not count.) I suppose it was around season six that most viewers realized that Chris Carter was never really going to pay off the conspiracy storyline in any sort of a satisfying way, which was, of course, a major disappointment. It was also around S7-8 that the show started to spin its wheels, but, as mentioned above, it came back with a vengeance in S9. Pretty consistent from start to finish.

Quotability/Memorability of Characters: 5. aside from “The truth is out there” (and pretty much anything else that popped up during the opening credits), not much here. But we’re talking Mulder and Scully! And Skinner! To this day, those three are responsible for roughly 65% of all erotic fanfic on the internet.

7. ER (22 points)

Timelessness: 3.5. I can’t say that I’m too keen on watching reruns. Case in point: I bought Carrie S2 of the show for her birthday in September ’06, and it’s still in its packaging (sob). That said, if it was on (which it never seems to be), I’d probably tune in.

Originality: 4. meh…not especially. I guess you could call it Hill Street Blues in a hospital—with a large group of characters working together with semi-overlapping stories—although it doesn’t approach HSB in terms of grittiness. Misha has always referred to ER as “indoor Baywatch,” a description I’ve never embraced, but one I’m including for full disclosure here.

Highest High: 5. Doug saving the kid during the rainstorm (“Hell or High Water”); in fact: anything involving Doug; Mark getting jumped and then becoming a colossal asshole for half a season; the one where Gant (played by Omar Epps) kills himself; the one where Carter and Lucy get shot stabbed [thank you, Ryan]; Carter addicted to painkillers arc; the one where Mark and Doug go to bury Mark’s dad; the one where Mark lets the rapist die when he’s alone with him in the elevator (S7’s finale—“Rampage”—which was awesome); Mark having cancer (though I still wish they hadn’t killed him off); the backwards episode with Luka (S9’s “Hindsight”); anything involving Archie now.

Lowest Low: 4.5. In the 1990s? None to speak of. (Maybe Clooney leaving in ’99…or the live episode—that sucked pretty bad). Edwards departure in ’02 really hurt the show. Around 2004, it ceased to be even remotely interesting for me, but I jumped back on in ’06 and I can safely say: it’s…not bad. (One running subplot that continues to drive me insane is that every single male character falls in love with Neela. Enough already!)

Quotability/Memorability of Characters: 5. ZERO quotability, but all the first run characters—Ross, Benton, Carter, Mark, Carol, Jeanie—except, arguably, for Susan Lewis, who never quite clicked with me, were very interesting, especially in comparison to the largely forgettable current crop of docs and nurses on the show (Archie being the major exception).

6. Buffy the Vampire Slayer (22 points)

Timelessness: 5. I imagine that the season one episodes look very dated at this stage, but this is just a guess, as BtVS isn’t on anywhere at this point, to which I can only say: attention every network everywhere: there are more shows available for syndication than Two and A Half Men, Frasier, Seinfeld, Friends, According to Jim, The King of Queens, Family Guy, and The George Lopez Show. I swear to God. You can even look this up…

Originality: 5. Well, yeah, there was the (if we're being honest: rather bad) movie first, but aside from that, this was a very original and, at times, wildly inventive show.

Highest High: 5. Seasons 1, 2, and 3, with the show getting stronger each season. At its best, I don’t think any other show before or since could be both consistently laugh-out-loud funny and heart-rending, often in the same episode. My four favorite episodes remain “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered” (which I later found out was a song), “Hush,” “Once More With Feeling,” and “The Zeppo.”

Lowest Low: 2. This is where it gets sad, as seasons 5 and 6 were virtually unwatchable; “Beer Bad”; anything (ANYTHING) involving Glory; nearly everything to do with the Dawn retcon.

I’ve been tinkering with something called the Our Lady Peace theory for a while now and its as follows: if you really like something or someone (as I did, with OLP) and this group churns out quality material (Naveed, Clumsy) and follow their exploits (three concerts) and then they release a so-so album (Happiness…is Not a Fish You Can Catch) and you start to make excuses for them (“everyone’s entitled to one subpar album), but then they start to suck more and more (Spiritual Machines, Gravity) and eventually become pussified (now, see in particular Rain Maida’s objectionable solo work) and you start to hate them, to the point where you’ll listen to their old stuff, but have to turn off their latest single (while making a pained face) if they’re on the radio. (I had a point here, I swear. One sec…) ANYWAY…you end up being intensely critical of this now-mediocre band, even though, in most ways, their still vastly superior to lots of the other crap out there (Nickelback, Creed, etc.) not so much because they’re lousy (though they are), but because you know that they’re capable of so much more…and so it’s really about them letting you down more than anything…

…THAT’S how I feel about BtVS, which was, at one point, my favorite show, but started to slump in S4 (focusing around the uninteresting “Initiative” and the frankly bizarre Adam as the major villain) and then went completely off the rails in S5 (the truly awful Glory year) and S6 (Willow as lesbian/possessed witch and the amusing-enough-but-hardly-worthy-of-Big-Bad-status “Troika”). S7 introduced us to the Slayerettes (banging my head against my desk), but was a significant improvement on the previous three years and at least delivered a semi-effective send off.

So you’re #6, Buffy. Someone could make a convincing argument that you should be four places higher or five lower and I’d probably agree. But let it be known that legendary status was completely within your grasp…

Quotability/Memorability of Characters: 5. Very, very quotable…although I have to dock it half a point because it sent me scampering to the internet to find them. This leads me to believe that there were: (a) lots of good lines (basically anything Xander, Spike, or Giles said, frankly), but that (b) they were context or scene-specific and thus don’t translate especially well to your day-to-day life. Case in point, my all-time favorite Giles line—to Spike: “if I wanted your advice, Spike, I'd of asked fo--never mind. I'm never going to want your advice…”—can’t ever be used, unless you want to look like a dick. But the show more than made up for this with its outstanding cast. Think about the following stereotypes (which might’ve been cardboard cutouts in terms of development in less capable hands) and what the show did with them: the stuffy professor, the bombshell, the prissy cheerleader, the bookish good friend, the best friend that’s not-so-secretly in love with the bombshell (some might say that John Hughes perfected this character-type in the 80s. No. It was Nicholas Brendon here. End of discussion). Add to that—and, remember, this is only the first three seasons—two wickedly compelling (for wildly differing reasons) villains (the Mayor and bad Angel) and one pretty good bad guy (The Master in S1) and you have a show that, for a time, was firing on all cylinders.

5. Friends (22.5 points)

Timelessness: 5. Sigh…look, I have my issues with this show (mainly: it never reached it’s potential after the first two seasons…which were admittedly outstanding and that people perennially overrate it), but the reruns are downright addictive.

Originality: 4.5. Seinfeld-light with life lessons, I suppose. That’s pretty trite (and not wholly accurate), but it was a pretty original idea, which only one show since (How I Met Your Mother) has come remotely close to matching in terms of feel.

Highest High: 5. Seasons 1, 2, and 5; Chandler and Monica (pre-engagement); Richard and Monica; Paul Rudd; The One with the Prom Video; The One Where No One’s Ready; The One the Morning After (where Ross and Rachel break up—absolutely gutting…even 11 years later); The One with the Resolutions (paste pants!); The One With All the Embryos (the quiz, aka the bet for the apartment); The One Where Everyone Finds Out; The One Where Ross Got High; The One Where They All Turn Thirty—look, it had its moments, I won’t begrudge it that, but…

Lowest Low: 3. …most of Seasons 4, and 7 through 9; Joey being in love with Rachel; the show going to the “Monica in a fat suit” well wayyyy too many times; Monica becoming less of a real person than a caricature (compare her in S1-2 to S6-10). Friends, I’ll argue, around 1996, decided that it was content to be a regular sitcom with overly telegraphed punchlines and contrived scenarios (while raking in massive ratings) instead the daring/revolutionary sitcom it appeared to be on the verge of becoming after its first two seasons. Yet, somehow (and this has never really properly been explained to me), people kept treating the somewhat pedestrian post-S2 Friends (the awesome 5th season being a notable exception) like it was still had its S1/s2 fastball. This bothers me more than it should because of a behind the scenes documentary on the show that I saw five or six years ago which prominently featured the insanely arrogant Martha Kauffman (writer, producer, and co-creator) behaving like they’d stumbled upon the cure for cancer. There’s a reason the show only won one Best Comedy Series Emmy during its run (oddly: in 2002): it wasn’t nearly as funny as everyone involved wanted to believe it was.

I also think that they should’ve done a 9/11 episode (NYC being such a key part of the show), but if this prevented another “Isaac and Ishmael,” I’m probably OK with their decision to ignore the matter altogether.

Quotability/Memorability of Characters: 5. Oh my yes. Almost annoyingly so, really. What’s always rankled me is that roughly 80% of Chandler’s good lines came in the first two seasons, while, for the latter eight, he was mostly (and, I’ll add, inexplicably) de-balled. All things considered, the entire “paste pants” exchange probably goes down as my favorite.

One Last Thing: Because I think came off kind of prickish in the “lowest low” section, let me reiterate: I do love this show…I just feel like it could’ve done more for the genre.

4. Frasier (23 points)

Timelessness: 5. reruns remain highly watchable (even if Grammer’s early season hair is hide-your-eyes bad) as the dialogue is incredibly sharp.

Originality: 3.5. Really, if you think about it, this is standard sitcom fare…but done extremely well. Now…being a huge Cheers fan, I watched Frasier from the start and, for the longest time, it reminded me of something that I couldn’t quite place my finger on. It wasn’t until the hijinx in the Ski Lodge episode (a classic) that I hit upon it: it’s a classy Three’s Company. Think about it. (Seriously: think about it.) If you replace that seedy bar that Larry and Jack used to go to with the sherry station in Frasier’s apartment (and, you know, replace the smut of the former with the highbrow wit of the latter) the two are eerily similar. (And yes, I realize that one show won five consecutive best comedy Emmys and one…didn’t.) Anyway…I probably have to dock Frasier slightly in light of this observation, but not a whole lot.

Highest High: 5. some of the great set pieces, like the aforementioned ski lodge, the one where Niles and Frasier run a restaurant, and “Three Valentines,” a season six episode which consisted entirely of three eight-minute scenes (the first one—with David Hyde Pierce channeling Mr. Bean—remains one of my favorite sitcom moments ever); most of the Niles and Daphne stuff prior to them getting involved; anytime Frasier had a tormenter (often).

Lowest Low: 5. Not a whole lot, frankly. Frasier hooking up with Jean Smart never made much sense to me and the arc where Niles had a heart-attack was perhaps a tad overdramatic. But, all things told, the show was remarkably consistent over its 11 seasons.

Quotability/Memorability of Characters: 4.5. Aside from doing the Frasier Crane voice (rapidly escalating in pitch and intensity), the show isn’t quotable, which, given that it’s generally held as the best written sitcom ever, is, if you think about it, kind of unusual. But the show more than made up with it with highly memorable characters.

3. The Simpsons (23 points)

Timelessness: 5. the reruns are spectacular. Enough said.

Originality: 5. um…yes. Not only was it the first animated show to thrive in primetime since the Flintstones, but it was also one of the first shows (I’ll argue) that grasped the inherent hilarity of metafictional references (three quick examples: “I knew we shouldn’t have watched him open the mail,” the end of “Homer Loves Flanders,” and probably all of “Homer’s Enemy”). Now, did this metafictional stuff contribute to its precipitous decline in recent years? Undeniably. But, in its heyday, this was mind blowing stuff.

Highest High: 5. From “Burns Verkaufen der Kraftwerk” (ep 3.11) through to, say, “Homer to the Max (ep 10.13) this show enjoyed an unprecedented run, with only a handful of weak episodes over that 171 (!) episode stretch. If forced, I go with “The Flying Hellfish,” “Monorail,” “Homer’s Enemy,” “You Only Move Twice,” and “Behind the Laughter” as my five favorites.

Lowest Low: 3. Anything featuring a Simpsons anthology set in a different period (“Simpsons’ Bible Tales,” “Simpsons Tall Tales,” etc.); Mostly everything from S15 though 19. Here’s the thing, that 171 episode stretch is phenomenal. Unfortunately, the show has now aired 412 episodes. So…yeah.

As for reasons for the decline: Shuk is way, way, way more qualified to deal with this than I am (and I hope he does!). Maxtone-Graham is, by all accounts, part of the problem, but I think the biggest issue is that the Simpsons, circa 2007, seem like less of a family than an assortment of characters living under a shared roof (ironically, this was the very concept that made “Behind the Laughter” possibly the funniest episode in the show’s history).

Quotability/Memorability of Characters: 5. Totally off the charts. With all due respect to Seinfeld, this is the most quotable show ever (I think roughly half of my post titles are Simpsons references).

2. The Larry Sanders Show (24 points)

Timelessness: 4,5. Sadly, these episodes aren't being show anywhere that I'm aware of, but I have them on DVD and I can tell you: the show holds up extremely well. When I started this list, I was pretty much certain that Seinfeld would be number one, but, having thought about it, it's actually much closer than I anticipated.

Originality: 5. A behind-the-scenes look at the life of fictional late night talk show host (and the talk show itself) with celebs willing to come on and spoof themselves? It's novelty is off the charts. It should also be noted that Extras and 30 Rock owe--and, to their credit, acknowledge--a significant debt to TLSS.

Highest Highs: 5. "The Roast"; the episode where Phil sexually harasses Brian; "Adolph Hankler"; and pretty much the entire bittersweet sixth season. The writing was insanely good and--because the show had no problem sending up celebrities and making the star look like an asshole--wickedly funny. (And the series finale--"Flip"--was pitch-perfect. As good of an ending as one could possibly hope for...Seinfeld, I'm looking in your general direction!)

Lowest Lows: 4.5. Season One; the episode where Artie gets drunk at the studio after-hours, Larry dating Roseanne. The first season was clearly its weakest, with the show still trying to work out it kinks: Larry was married (which hampered Shandling from a comedic standpoint), and Hank was actually likeable (instead of--as he was in later years--a profoundly fucked up sycophant who desperately wanted to appear likeable).

Quotability/Memorability of Characters: 5. The show actually wasn't especially quotable (save for the entire roast episode and everything said by Phil in "Putting The Gay Back in Litigation"--neither of which are printable), but the characters left an indelible mark. The insecure Larry, the pathetic Hank, and the gruff Artie may all be sitcom archetypes, but they're archetypes at their absolute strongest. High marks too to the supporting cast, in particular: Stevie, Beverly, Brian, Sid, Mary Loud, and Phil.


1. Seinfeld (24 points)

Timelessness: 5. Staggeringly high. Ten years since the show ended and the re-runs are as relevant (and funny) as ever. I'm willing to bet this will also be the case ten years from now.

Originality: 5. "no hugs, no lessons" and "a show about nothing." Enough said, really. No show before or since has come close to matching this show's irreverence.

Highest High: 5. Anything from the 7th season onwards, excluding the lamentable finale, is absolute gold. The idea for season seven (George getting engaged) likely would have killed a lesser show (think Friends) but it actually took Seinfeld into a different stratosphere of hilarity. Episodes like "The Soup Nazi," "The Sponge," and "The Rye" are sensational, as are later classics like "The Dealership" (my personal favorite), "The Betrayal" (the highly underrated backwards episode), "The Merv Griffin Show," and "The Little Kicks." I've always been of the opinion that the shows that real put Seinfeld on the map--mainly: "The Chinese Restaurant," "The Parking Garage," and "The Contest"--have always been a little overrated...the first two because they're slightly too gimmicky for their own good (and don't really hold up as well on repeat viewings) and "The Contest" skating by on its high degree of difficulty (NBC censors not letting them "masturbation") despite having fewer laugh out loud moments that literally dozens of other episodes. But from S7 through 9, when the plots got more and more absurdist, the show could basically do no wrong.

Lowest Low: 4. I don't really care for the first two seasons (even the third, while entertaining to watch, isn't something to write home about). It's interesting to note that a lot of these early episodes are pretty forgettable, if not--in some cases--outright bad (see for instance: "The Keys," "The Library," "The Heart Attack," and "The Dog") and it's actually not until surprisingly late in the game (episode #43: "The Pitch") that the show hits its stride. The series finale was also a rare misfire--a glorified clip show made even more inexplicable by the fact that they had already aired an exceptional actual clip show immediately before the last episode. Nevertheless, these eps are still perfectly watchable...except for season two's "The Statue," which is flat out bad.

Quotability/Memorability of Characters: 5. Next to The Simpsons, probably the most quotable show ever. There's no point in mean re-hashing them, so I'll just end with the one that's always been my favorite: "all I want is an apology, my 75 cents back, and for him to be fired."

In the words of Mr. Peterman, "this certainly looks like a lot of words." Count on all future decade- related lists being more pithy.

2 comments:

Sean said...

So Northern Exposure doesn't make the cut because it is deemed "too quirky." Fuck me. I'm a forgiving man so I decide to read on, although I'm still a little bit pissed off by the time I stumble upon Friends at the #5 spot. Very interesting.

The metrics, I dare say, are applied inconsistently, as evidenced by the fact that Friends is narrowly bested by The Larry Sanders Show.

It goes without saying that Kids in the Hall got shafted here, although by my calculations it would fare a modest score of 57.

Are you familiar at all with Mr. Show? I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Kyle Wasko said...

I'll admit, I was a tad glib in dismissing NE. It was a very good show. Personally, however, I eventually grew weary of its idiosyncracies (look how much older I am than my hot wife! I live in a bubble! And so forth...) and stopped watching.

I'm not sure if the metrics are applied inconsistently so much as they're just not terribly revealing. Clearly, from my comments, you can tell that I think that Larry Sanders was leaps and bounds better than Friends, but it was hard for me to--honestly--grade it any lower than I did. I think, ultimately, it was difficult not too conflate "best show" with "most influential show" (altough, under the latter model, Friends would--like it or not--come in #2 or #3.)

Truth be told, I never got into KitH...and I can't quite explain why. I watched it for an entire season at one point, but only found it intermittently amusing. Perhaps I'm not actually Canadian...

What I've seen of Mr. Show (mainly: the intervention for the guy that has too many interventions and the first day of law school sketch), I've really liked, but, all told, we're talking about four episodes tops for me...and I couldn't rank it having seen only a fraction of the episodes. It's something I'm looking forward to catching up on.

Since everyone is clearly riveted by this list (one whole comment!), I'll throw this out there: any other egregious omissions on my part? Care to rank your own top 5 or 10? I'm all ears...