Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Ten Of The Best

I was holding this back anyway in case anything really magical snuck its way onto the air before Big Ben chimed the hour. And then we started partying. Dark and stormy Old Year’s Night may have been, but at least the wind and rain eased off when it came time to light the fuses and blast a colourful hole in the sky.

Once that was done there were far more urgent matters that held it back even longer. Still, it’s done now. Better late than never, right? Unless of course it’s an actual deadline. Then of course zebras and lions start fucking and their killer mutant offspring take over the world. At least that’s what I was told.

Anyway, instead of going out to the movies in 2006, I seemed to grab what free time there was at home watching the box. Cinema may be great for sheer spectacle and entertainment but television, if it’s well made, is still proving to be the home of strong, complex stories.

Since I don’t have any porn channels, here’s what made me sit up and pay attention. With one exception they’re all dramas, unsurprisingly. Some titles that should have found for a place are omitted simply because I didn’t have the chance to catch them. One drawback with the emphasis on ongoing storylines is, miss an episode here or there and you’re basically screwed.

Under those circumstances it was simply better to bail out and wait for the DVD boxset. Which is why the recent series of The Sopranos isn’t on the list, or the fifth day of 24, having only caught the first two hours. Sometimes, trying to be even an average couch potato can be bloody difficult.

There were some real disappointments last year, or shows that I simply couldn’t connect to like Prison Break or Life of Mars, but they’re far back there in the dust and not worth dwelling over. Now that it has tipped over into 2007, this means that I’ve got to concentrate on the good things. Which were:

The Wire

What else is there to top the list? After an extended absence The Wire came back for a very welcome fourth season. The time it was away should have been long enough to come up with even more superlatives to describe the show. After all, while justified, “Best drama. Ever” is starting to get just a tad repetitive.

After starting out in the drug-infested low-rise projects before focusing on the Baltimore docks and then municipal government, the drama put the spotlight on the city’s crumbling school system as a quartet of young boys at a West Baltimore middle school. As they struggle with their past and present circumstances, the continued fight for city hall puts the politics of politics under the microscope, showing that the real crimes against the good citizens of Baltimore aren’t being committed out on the street.

Without Barksdale or Stringer to take down, the Major Crimes Unit defanged due to political manoeuvring and the members of the detail sidelined, and even that onetime “gaping asshole” McNulty reduced to a bit player as he happily pounds the beat and gets his life back together, The Wire still manages to engage and reward the viewer for paying attention.

Even better news is that HBO has granted David Simon a fifth and final year to round off his inner city opus. In the meantime, anyone who says they enjoy intelligent television drama but doesn’t watch The Wire should be looked upon with suspicion.

Battlestar Galactica

Harlan Ellison, who recently presented Ronald D. Moore with Screenwriting Expo 5’s Television Writer of the Year award, once described good science fiction as a reflection of the present day, with the mirror askew.

Taking that lead, Battlestar Galactica’s third year opened with suicide bombers, Star Chamber show trials, dissent amongst the crew – and these were just the good guys. Some viewers suggested last year’s finale, with the sudden one-year jump forward in the colonisation of New Caprica, might be the show’s undoing. Instead the audacious move added new dimensions to the characters, now suffering the effects of the physical and psychological tortures inflicted upon them during their time on the Cylon-occupied world.

Catering to the ‘sci-fi’ audience who like their bright and shiny bright and shiny, we were treated to the incredible sight of the Galactica jumping into low orbit above New Caprica and plummeting like a rock as it launched its Vipers. Or the Pegasus going out in a blaze of glory and taking out two Cylon Base Stars with it. Even then, the spectacle was always married with subtle character moments that emphasised the human drama.

Handing the award to Galactica’s recreator, Ellison said: “This award is for the astonishing job of making one of the worst television series ever made into one of the best television series ever made.” Amen to that.


Back when Deadwood premiered it was the language critics remarked upon. It may have sent John Wayne spinning is his grave, but nobody could quite say “cocksucker” like Ian McShane’s Al Swearengen. Soon it became evident that there was more to the drama than that, in much the same way NYPD Blue wasn’t solely reliant on bare asses and network-approved colourful turns of phrase.

The third season of David Milch’s western saga has been remarkable in its depiction of the inhabitants of the mining community coming together in the face of a common enemy – George Hearst. With such a large cast of perfectly realised characters, almost equal in numbers to The Wire, as much importance was put in the struggle between Hostetler and Steve the Drunk over the Deadwood livery, the choice of fruit served as refreshment at town meetings, or the children being walked to school, as the larger season-encompassing power struggles.

For all the luxurious, sepia-toned visual imagery, the critical acclaim for Deadwood once again comes down to the language. Except now, instead of the inventive cussing, it’s how Milch imbues the rich dialogue with a remarkable Shakespearian iambic pentameter. This Old West doesn’t come cheap. With a reported $60 million per 12-episode season and nobody else reaching into their pockets to help pick up the tab, when Milch pitched his new surf noir drama John from Cincinnati, HBO decided to put it into production in place of the proposed fourth season of Deadwood.

This may be a misstep for both the show’s creator and the channel, but at least we’re promised two television movies that’ll see Deadwood off into the sunset. Looking back, the two parties have created a world in 36 episodes that has done much more than simply tell us something pretty.


It may have become an irritation for the poor folk who just want to know the answers to all the questions spelt out for them, but if they expected the secrets of the hatch and the motivations of “The Others” to be surrendered so soon, that’s pretty retarded of them. If they don’t like it they can quite frankly always piss off and watch Heartbeat or something equally simple-minded.

Lost certainly has evolved into a conundrum – for both the audience and the programme makers. One signature element of the unfolding story is the subtle changes in perception. Over the first two seasons and into the third, Lost has slyly shifted its weight from being plot-driven to a character-driven drama. The regular flashbacks may initially have been dreamt up as a device to get the survivors of the downed Oceanic Flight 815 off the island. Almost immediately the presented hard evidence of what made them the people they are today and whether they have managed to learn from their past mistakes.

It can be exciting and infuriating in equal measure, but that’s what makes it fun – trying to work past the bluffs and the blinds to join together the dots as the story moves forward in increments. While other network shows are a tee-shirt at best, Lost should be written about for years to come. If they don’t fuck it up.


Ah, superheroes! They work in comic books or the cinema, where millions of dollars could be spunked on their widescreen super fisticuffs, but on television it’s either cheap and nasty Saturday morning cartoons or eyebrow-arched campery bubbling away in a cauldron of pubescent hormones that attracts an audience of teens and paedos. Until now. Who would have thunk it?

Thankfully Heroes creator Tim Kring wasn’t steeped in the culture of years of twisted comic book lore and instead just wanted to tell a story about ordinary people being given extraordinary powers. It may seem like a good idea at the time but the handful of characters see their change as a blessing or a curse and embrace their newfound talents or rail against them. It’s only when they gradually join up and try to figure it out that the pieces of the much bigger picture gradually start to come together. From the looks of things it’s not going to be pretty, but at least there’s no brightly coloured costumes. Although we are promised a sword in the future, which is cool.

Maybe not all of the character’s stories gel quite so well so far, but the specky, cherubic Hiro, who enthusiastically embraces his new-found time-bending talent, is certainly the hero of the hour. Nerd power has a delightful pudding-faced face. And you can’t fault a series that has one of the leads wake up in the middle of her own autopsy. Don’t you just hate it when that happens?

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip

Obviously being one of the most anticipated new shows of the year can be problematic when you don’t deliver what people expect. Why people assumed the drama to be a comedy is anyone’s guess. Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip swiftly became the drama America’s sitcom writers publicly loved to hate. At least until the LA Times puts their vehement dislike of the show in print, in which case they quickly backed down.

It may be far too clever to sit alongside its disposable real-life counterparts, but this is Sorkinland after all, not the real world. Call me a great big snob, but I love clever. In fact, the more elitist it is the better. So for me, the Gilbert and Sullivan parody was just priceless, while the New Orleans jazz musicians’ rendition of Oh Holy Night on the Christmas show was sublime. Critics may complain that Sorkin is lecturing to us. If that’s the case, can I have a desk right at the front of the class.

The series set-up addresses the broader issues of television within the sketch show environment rather than going for simple chuckles. Still, fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke. And anyway, isn’t having Ed Asner playing a venal capitalist funny enough? My other question is, has Steven Weber always been this good an actor?


A blood spatter analysis expert for the Miami PD who’s a full blown serial killer might, on paper, seem like a high concept that’s gone so high it’s become starved of oxygen. But centred around Michael C. Hall’s remarkable blank-slate performance as the sociopathic Dexter Morgan, the series works a treat as it effortlessly slides back and forth between gruesome dark drama and hilarious black comedy without ever losing the plot.

Preying on the guilty little maggots who have slipped through the cracks in the criminal justice system may make Dexter appear honourable in a twisted way, but it’s also a good way for him to prolong his activities without causing too much attention. While killing is easy, it’s faking the emotions as he goes around his daily routine that proves the really hard part for Dexter. Wanting to be in a relationship, because that’s what people do, but unable to show any feelings? His answer is to simply hook up with a rape victim who can’t deal with physical intimacy. But typically even that eventually has its pitfalls. Then there is the mysterious Ice Truck Killer, taunting Dexter throughout the series and raises the bar when it comes to killing.

Dexter’s advantage is, coming from a cable channel, it only runs for a dozen episodes and doesn’t outstay its welcome. Just when his arch nemesis, is finally revealed to the audience and it looks like the show is going to settle back into predictable crime drama conventions, the drama pulls one more rabbit out of the hat. And then expertly wrings its neck.

The Shield

Partway through the fourth year of The Shield my interest started to wane. It didn’t help that I‘d managed to miss the whole of the third season, revolving around the aftermath from the Strike Team ripping off the Armenian Money Train. While the arrival of Glenn Close’s Captain Monica Rawling, taking over from David Aceveda, and the disbanding of Mackey’s crew, shook the show out of any potential ruts, I felt too far out of the loop to really get into it.

Season five made me sit up and take notice. Back in play, bulldog Vic Mackey was once again off the leash, raging about and being an even bigger bastard than a prep school sports master. This time he had a far more worthy adversary in Forrest Whittaker’s less than clean Jon Kavanaugh from Internal Affairs, an even bigger, more manipulative sonofabitch than Mackey himself. Out to take down the Strike Team and rub their noses right in it, his in was through Curtis Lemansky, who was always the crew’s conscience, putting on the pressure by trying to connect him to their past transgressions.

Of course it was all an elaborate bluff and Kavanaugh would have conceded if Mackey hadn’t made it personal. Which left Lem to take the fall and Shane Vendrell, who always was a twitchy little fucker at the best of times, using his own initiative to make sure that his old buddy won’t ever rat them out. You just know that, come next season, there’ll be hell to pay.

The State Within

Finally, some home grown drama makes the list. Hurray for that! It’s not that I give everything that’s been produced here of late the thumbs down, but I get a feeling at times that UK drama is just stumbling around the ring, punch drunk from getting a gleeful pummelling from its US rivals.

This past year especially there’s been so much damn hype rolling in, in advance that when they eventually arrived the shows turned out to be all hot air and bluster with little substance. And then there was The State Within. This is what we do really well: meaty, densely plotted, conspiracy thrillers. Sure, they may only come along once in a blue moon, this one was right up there with Edge of Darkness, A Very British Coup and State of Play.

Not only was it multi-layered, thought–provoking drama, but also, in its execution, The State Within borrowed stylistically from its American counterparts which made it stand head and shoulders above everything else in the schedules. And hardly anyone watched it. What was all that about? After just one episode the ratings went into a virtual freefall. Was it too complicated for an audience conditioned to stare blankly at hours of mindless pap? Well, to hell with them. I’ve always liked puzzles and problem solving. The State Within left me guessing up to the very last episode, which is a rare thing these days.

Planet Earth

The UK may not make consistently good television drama anymore, but nothing beats the output from the BBC’s Natural History Unit. Once again they excelled themselves with the sheer magnificence of Planet Earth. It’s easy over here to grumble about the license fee, but not when it produces results like this.

Of course new technology helps. In this instance the real bonus was a new camera lens that could produce perfect close ups from over 400m metres away. Attaching them to helicopter mounted gimbals, it meant that vast animal migrations could be filmed for the first time undisturbed. Naturally it wasn’t just a case of taking to the air and pointing the camera downwards. The diary shorts which rounded off each episode showed how hardy and patient you have to be filming wildlife, and foolhardy too. Top marks went to the crew member whose snoring disturbed the nearby lions when they were out, using specialist night vision equipment, to document the pride taking down a lone elephant on the great plains of Africa.

As it effortlessly moved from the poles to deserts, jungle to the ocean, all you could do was watch agog and throw every superlative imaginable at the screen. For all the natural beauty and sheer spectacle of the astonishing crystal formations in the Lechuguilla caves, nothing was more affecting than the footage of the polar bear, weak from having to swim two days now that the ice flows were rapidly melting. Severely wounded after desperately attacking a herd of walrus to gain sustenance, the bear just dug a shallow bowl in the ground and lay down to die.

* * *

So that’s what put a smile on my face over the last twelve months. That said, I can’t go without giving Prime Suspect: The Final Act an honourable mention. After months of lacklustre dramas, ITV brought two old favourites back to the screen. The return of Fitz in a new Cracker proved to be a disappointment, because Jimmy McGovern had evidently forgotten what made the drama so special in the intervening years. Broadcast two weeks later, Prime Suspect: The Final Act thankfully avoided any similar pitfalls.

When she first appeared in 1991, Jane Tennison was out to get the respect from her colleagues that she deserved. The bittersweet Final Act, examined the cost exacted upon her. Here was someone who had sacrificed family, friends and relationships to put their career first, facing retirement and wondering whether it had all been worth it. Trying to make some amends comes close to destroying not just her last murder investigation but also herself.

Because this was Prime Suspect‘s last hurrah before the curtain came down, ITV's publicity machine went into overdrive, taunting the audience over whether Tennison would make it to retirement or leave the job feet first. Normally this kind of thing would drive me to utter distraction, but this time I was prepared to give them some leeway, especially when faced by another utterly remarkable performance by Helen Mirren. For once ITV deserved all the attention it could get.


At 4:18 am, Blogger wcdixon said...

No quibbles from me...might try to squeeze in 'Veronica Mars' or 'House' somewhere - and the Spike Lee doc about New Orleans post Katrina was pretty amazing...but hey, it all can't make the lists.

Swell summary of tv year, Good Dog...and very well written.

At 10:16 am, Blogger English Dave said...

Great post gd.

I'm liking the new series of Shameless.

At 4:23 pm, Blogger Lee said...

Great roundup, and very, very little there that I'd take issue with. Of all the shows listed, the return I'm looking forward to the most is The Shield's - the 2006 season was terrific, and the aftermath of the finale should be damn intense.

At 8:03 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...

Thanks guys, glad you like the list.

Will, I like House but if I miss the odd episode it doesn't really bother me that much. I guess because most of the time the epsiodes are more self-contained.

Have to admit that I've never seen Veronica Mars. I know everyone raves about it. Not even sure if It's shown over here. I guess it is. Looks like another show to put on the DVD list.

ED, Must say I missed the opening episode of Shameless. What is this, the fourth series? Loved the first two. But once Abbott moved on to other things, it started to veer toward parody, cranking up the extreme-o-meter.

Lee, how intense is The Shield going to be next season? That was supposed to be the final year but they had to ask FX for another year to round things off.

Shame Sony have decided not to release any more seasons on DVD because the first two didn't sell well. Especially since the R1 sets are cropped.

At 6:23 pm, Blogger Wyndham said...

A great list... with the exception of The State Within, a ponderous, bloated series with poor characterisation, self-conscious dialogue and not an original idea in its head. That's why viewing figures went into freefall. Carry on.

At 9:18 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...

Triffid, I have to disagree.

After being subjected to the likes of Doctor Who, Torchwood, Waterloo Road, the dreadful return of Cracker and, worst of all, that massive floating turd called The Outsiders, The State Within was an altar to gratefully worship before.

Plus, I'm a sucker for political conspiracy thrillers.

At 8:20 pm, Blogger Lee said...

I think I prefer the cropped versions of The Shield. It's how the makers prefer it to be seen also - I've read that Shawn Ryan shoots widescreen but then edits to 4:3 because he likes to really push into the characters' faces, to make the viewing experience claustrophobic and unsettling. It works, in my opinion - the R2 releases don't quite have the same effect.

Like the difference between the R1 and R2 releases of Buffy - sometimes widescreen is not the film maker's preferred format.

At 9:32 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...

That's interesting. I guess I'm used to seeing The Shield in it's filmed aspect ratio, whether it's correct or not.

The one show that works brilliantly in 4:3 is The Wire, obviously. It helps give it a faux-documentary feel.


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