Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Essential TV Viewing

Updating and rearranging my 2016 grand index of must-see TV.

I didn't own a TV as an adult until 2006. So for me, TV began in 2006 (notwithstanding a childhood smothered in F-Troop and Gilligan's Island). Here's my assessment, carefully ordered, based not on "quality" (whatever that even means) or my personal fondness level, but on essentiality; the degree to which it would upset me to know you hadn't seen these shows.

I've linked to either my most recent or most in-depth writing for each show (and I might have missed some, so use the Slog search engine if you care).

I highly recommend reading episodic recaps by Alan Sepinwall for shows he covered - which included many of the following. Sepinwall currently writes for Rolling Stone, but had a bunch of prior gigs, plus a long-time blog, so his output is fragmented (here's an episode-by-episode index of his early stuff). However, his name is fortuitously unique, so just google "Show-Name Sepinwall".

I haven't seen Deadwood or John from Cincinnati yet. And Mad Men was excellent but not transcendent/essential (not for lack of effort to seem so). And The Sopranos hasn’t held up well.

You'll Never Be Whole Until You View

Succession (HBOmax) My Take
Atlanta (Hulu) My Take
The Leftovers (HBOmax) My Take Tip: if you dug this show, check out Station Eleven, currently unfurling on HBOmax, with some of the same writers.
Rectify (You'll have to buy this one from Amazon or AppleTV) My Take
Breaking Bad (Netflix) My Take
Rick & Morty (HBOmax and Hulu) My Take...and another quick take
Patriot (Amazon Prime) My Take
Hannibal (Hulu) My Take

The Wire (HBOmax) At this point, for many people, The Wire seems Shakespearian in all the wrong ways. It's the big bulky tome you never get around to despite everyone's insistence that it's well worth the time and effort. It may have come to feel more like vitamins than entertainment. But stop whining and snap to it. Yes, you'll need to pay attention, but it helps to follow Alan Sepinwall's superb recaps (here's an index - note that he did recaps for newbies and a whole other set for re-watchers)

Prehistoric Bonus
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy This 1979 BBC John le Carré series starring Alec Guinness still stands up, as does its 1982 follow-up, Smiley's People, also with Guinness. Foundational, masterful, devastating. This, along with the roughly contemporaneous Roots, helped catalyze the notion that TV might be phenomenal (buy DVDs for TTSS and for Smiley's People). [UPDATE: Someone uploaded all six episodes of TTSS to YouTube as well as all six episodes of Smiley's People]. God bless the BBC! Speaking of whom, if you never saw Top Gear (the classic UK version up to season 22) and assume it's for car fans, and/or have heard that Jeremy Clarkson is an asshole, watch it this instant (on Amazon Prime or HBOmax) because, at its best, it may be the greatest show on this whole list. I'd suggest working down this list of best-loved episodes. You're welcome.

You Can Maybe Miss, but Why Impose Needless Suffering on Yourself?

Better Call Saul (Netflix) My Take. This will almost surely graduate to the immortals' list, above, but it still has one season to go, and if they kill Kim Wexler, I swear to god I'll never watch anything these people ever make.
The Americans (Amazon Prime) My Take
Perpetual Grace, LTD (Amazon Prime) My Take
Mr. In-Between (Hulu) My Take
The Young Pope/The New Pope (HBOmax) My Take
Midnight Diner (Netflix) My Take
Party Down (Hulu) My Take. Note: they're going to do another season!
Fargo (Hulu) My Take
Legion (Hulu) My Take
The Bureau (aka Le Bureau des LĂ©gendes) Buy on AppleTV (it's worth it) My Take
You're the Worst (Hulu) My Take

Note: There are perhaps a hundred more really really good shows, some every bit as good as these. But, remember, this list is about essentiality - major or minor. I loved, for example, Get Shorty, Narcos, Fleabag, and Barry, but if you missed any of them, I'd be okay with it. I'd recommend them, but if you ignored me, I most likely wouldn't chase you down, grab your lapels, and scream in your face like a crazed maniac...whereas the above shows are CYDGYLSLCM (pronounce "kai-DEE-gee-LESS-lah-khem").

"But what's the show about? What's the genre?"

Think about that question for a moment, and consider which side of things it puts you on.

Before TV got good, genre product was produced to sate genre thirst and we all stayed in our lanes. Then TV got good, and transcended genre. A few examples:
  • Game of Thrones wasn't a sensation because millions had an abiding interest in fairies and dragons. Everybody watched because it was great.

  • The Battlestar Galactica reboot wasn't full of bug-eyed monsters and laser-warring spaceships; it was literature (at least up until that sucky finale, which marginally disqualified it from the second list above).

  • You don't watch Better Call Saul because it's a "legal drama", you watch it because Bob Odenkirk and Jonathan Banks and Rhea Seehorn - and their writers, directors, editors, and cinematographers - are fantastic.

  • The Twitterverse is full of Occupy Wall Street types avidly watching Succession while hating themselves for it. They ordinarily have ZERO INTEREST IN RICH PEOPLE AND THEIR PROBLEMS....but the show's just so sublime.
Awesomeness renders genre irrelevant. I dislike tomato soup, but worship the version at Blazer Pub. Not because I "changed my mind", but because it's AWESOME. And I don't have a crush on actress Lizzy Caplan because she's brunette (the crudest taxonomy); it's because she's AWESOME.

If you're still making your viewing choices based on genre ("I like shows about plucky millennials but dislike science fiction"), you are a reactionary force, pulling things back to 1978. If you really value art that transcends, why embrace the damned launching pad?

So what are the above shows about? They’re about filling you with wonder and delight, okay?


Unknown said...

Note that full series Bureau and Rectify are available on AMC+ which you can get for a year for $24 right now. They hint they will have the last season of Better Call Saul (but right now they have neither it nor Breaking Bad).

James Leff said...

Yeah, true, I know (I use to track who carries what). But in this era of streaming fragmentation, I feel like I’d confuse and frustrate readers by sending them to services they likely don’t already own.

Also, fwiw you can get two months of AMC+ (also other streamers) for like a buck on Amazon Prime right now

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