Judging this by the programmes that changed our expectation of TV, said something new or had the ability to touch me, sometimes every episode. As usual, I've chosen 8 (as in Opinion8). Some of these shows I didn’t see first time around but I’ve listed them in date of broadcast order.
First, a disclaimer: By all rights Buffy the Vampire Slayer should be in this list but I want to include it in my Opinion8 Top Teen TV Shows and as I’ve already put Buffy herself in another blog, I didn’t want it to be Buffy overkill. I don’t want to detract from its importance. I think it was a watershed in television and will always remember seeing the first episode on BBC2. My Dad and my brother also saw it, each of us separately and I definitely spoke to one or both of them on the phone afterwards. I seriously think we can talk about TV as pre- and post-Buffy. It’s just a shame that there have been so many derivative rather than innovative programmes resulting from the super-popularity and sheer brilliance of the original. I don't include Angel in this category. If anything, Angel surpassed Buffy, in humour, action, characterisation. I mean instead the Twilight franchise, True Blood, The Vampire Diaries. I could go on.
1 Roots (1977)
The theme music here sounds far jollier than I remember. I’m sure the version on the BBC series was more stately, more sombre but I might be wrong. I wrote this to begin with: true-life drama on an epic scale, bringing to the forefront the evils of the slave trade and its consequences but I’ve just read that what I thought was the result of an investigation by Alex Haley into his heritage, was actually a novel. I’m a little disillusioned but still can't fault the TV series and the programme makers’ courage in tackling such an emotive subject and doing it so brilliantly. A classic in the era of the TV miniseries. It worked because the characters were so easy to like and empathise with (who can forget Kunta Kinte, Kizzy and Chicken George?) and because the narrative was hauntingly compelling.
(Wiki facts: The series won nine Emmys, a Golden Globe and a Peabody Award and its finale still holds a record as the third highest-rated US television programme.)
2 Brideshead Revisited 1981
Was held so completely spellbound by this superbly crafted and impossibly romantic series with its evocative theme music that I went on to do a dissertation at university on Catholicism in the novels of Evelyn Waugh. Just like Charles Ryder (Jeremy Irons), we all fell at least a little in love with the beguiling Sebastian Flyte (Anthony Andrews), fascinated by his vicissitudes, excesses, denials. As someone who was already suffering from nostalgia when I left primary school (at 11), I was a total sucker for what Waugh calls ‘a kind of gluttony … for the splendours of the recent past’, even though it wasn’t my recent past. I identified completely. Spawning the heritage drama of Merchant-Ivory and forerunner to the Downtons and Austen adaptations of today or what we heard a Sidcup resident describe more prosaically as ‘those olde worlde ones’, it was sumptuous to look at and I was happy to immerse myself in a place and time that was so far removed from my own.
(Wiki facts: In 2000, the serial was tenth in the BFI’s 100 Greatest British Television Programmes, in 2010, second in The Guardian’s Top 50 TV dramas of all time.)
Must-see TV before the term existed, a water-cooler subject before we even had water-coolers (in the UK at least, yes, seriously). I could talk to people I had nothing in common with but this. ‘What about Doug and Carol then?’ Believable and likeable characters, entertaining or affecting situations – I think I cried nearly every week. Totally escaped my life for an hour. Stuck with it till the end despite not really being enamoured of the new characters in the final season. I was crazy about so many of these people: Carol, Doug, Mark Green, Luka (the episode when he escaped execution in Darfur was heartbreaking), Lucy (how did Kellie Martin end up in the Mystery Woman series – she was excellent), Ray and Neela and their failed-to-ever-get-there romance (we were rooting for him but he got hit by a truck and lost his legs). Week after week the writers put us through the wringer. And we loved it. ER – I’ll never forget you.
Aside: As touched on in a Kinks blog (about who should play Ray and Dave Davies in the upcoming movie), Parminder Nagra (Neela) is another actor who had an early acting role with Keira Knightley and showed way more promise (like Hans Matheson in Dr Zhivago) but who was left eating dust as Keira raced on to become a major film star. And what has she done since? Ok, Noah Wyle’s (Carter) in Falling Skies, which isn't my cup of tea. Julianna Margulies (Carol) has a lead role in The Good Wife (although Archie Panjabi usually steals the show and Julianna has a hard ask to pretend to be aroused by Will Gardner when Chris Noth is more appealing; having said that, Calinda has hardly featured in the current season). And we all know what happened to George Clooney (Doug). I liked him when he was Booker in Roseanne so didn’t need any convincing.
Never thought I would succumb to a Wild West miniseries but this is simply magnificent TV. The scenery, the acting, the script, the characterisation, the production values are all top-notch. While Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones are beautifully flawed heroes, I fell hook, line and sinker for Dish (D. B. Sweeney), his unrequited devotion to Laurie (Diane Lane) so moving. How could she resist the hat and the moustache, not to mention his soulful gaze? Just hearing the soaring sweep of the fantastic theme music (by Basil Poledouris) effortlessly evoke the vast vistas of Montana can bring tears to my eyes.
(Wiki facts: National Television Critics Association’s Program of the Year and Outstanding Dramatic Achievement; won the D. W. Griffith Award for Best Television Miniseries, with CBS garnering the Peabody Award for Outstanding Achievement in Drama.)
Weird and wonderful, we’d never seen anything like this on TV. Filmic values, interesting characterisation (Killer Bob, the Log Lady, Special Agent Dale Cooper, Audrey the Lolita, played to perfection by Sherilyn Fenn), cups of Joe, cherry pie and diners, surrealist dreams with people talking backwards. All this plus a murder mystery plot. Some of the time, we didn’t know what was going on but it didn’t really matter. Alien and enchanting, it probably generated my abiding interest in Americana. Even the credits are leisurely and otherworldly in that Lynchian everything-is-ordinary-but-nothing-is-quite-what-it-seems way.
(Wiki facts: The pilot ranked 25 on TV Guide's 1997 100 Greatest Episodes of All Time; series ranked 45 on TV Guide's 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time in 2002; in 2007, it was in Time's Best TV Shows of All-Time.)
W..a..a..y before The Wire, Vic and his crew didn’t exactly blur but totally obliterate the (thin blue) line between cops and criminals. As corrupt as the gangs they fought, loyal (at least to begin with) only to each other, not so much flawed as riddled with evil intent, I think each viewer experienced a turning point, when they suddenly started to root for this bad-ass band of brothers. Moments to remember are Vic chasing a bad guy down an alley: the runner climbs over a wooden fence, Vic thinks twice then barges straight through it. In an interview room, Vic says: ‘Good cop and bad cop left for the day. I’m a different kind of cop’. Visceral action, sometimes hard-to-catch dialogue, The Shield put us on the streets with the villains (there were no good guys),Walton Goggins even managed to make me feel sorry for his character Shane after he’d killed another member of the team out of misguided fealty. His confusion and pain were evident in everything he did. The first season of Justified positively fizzed with the chemistry of the dynamic between Goggins’s Boyd and Timothy Olyphant’s Raylan.
(Wiki facts: It won awards, including the Golden Globe for Best Television Series – Drama in 2002; 2008 AFI Award for Best Television Series; and some individual prizes for Michael Chiklis.)
Mysterious, sexy (the Jack/Kate/Sawyer triangle, not sure which of these I fancied the most), thrilling, it never really mattered that the denouement didn’t quite resolve all the narrative threads. We lived for the intrigue and rooted for the characters as unlikely heroes developed (Sayid, Lock) in their bid for survival against whatever the island (the writers) would chuck at them next – smoke monsters, the Hatch, the Others, supporting them even when they went back in time to the 70s. They played their roles with such conviction that we accepted various implausible events and the notion that these could all have been orchestrated by the enigmatic Dharma Initiative.
(Wiki facts: Lost won several awards: the Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series; the Writers Guild of America Awards for Outstanding Achievement in Writing for a Dramatic Television Series; and the Screen Actors Guild Awards 2005 for Best Ensemble Cast.)
This was an incredible documentary by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, that follows the ins and outs, ups and downs of a murder trial (the suspect, a novelist Michael Peterson, is accused of killing his wife). Riveting from start to finish, with all the components of a crime/courtroom drama, it was hard to believe that all this was actually happening. Truth really is stranger than fiction. It has since been made into a movie but it’s nowhere near as involving as the original film. The ‘blow-poke’ (poker to you and me), the disappearance of the ‘blow-poke’, the internet correspondence with an alleged rent boy, the death of another friend of Peterson’s in similar circumstances, the exhumation of a body in Germany. I could go on. Getting the inside track on all this was simply compelling: you felt that you were involved in the process; each episode provoked endless discussion in our house, not least on how ramshackle the process sometimes seemed.
(No Wiki facts but it did win a couple of awards, such as one from the International Documentary Association in 2005 and a Peabody Award in 2006.)
I have to admit that I love anything that is dramatic, thrilling, funny, involving and usually those sort of programmes cross genres, are hybrids. After all, I couldn’t categorise my life as a TV or film genre. It’s comic and tragic by turns. It’s not a romcom or a mystery. Actually, scratch that. It is a mystery.
Band of Brothers
Queer as Folk
(original Danish version only)