* Twin Peaks - It’s unreal to me that this series first aired so long ago, because it still seems ahead of its time to me. Part soap opera, part police procedural and all surreal, probably no TV series in history was more successful at bringing the sensibilities of an auteur film director to television. The incredibly gifted cast of actors brought humanity and individuality to their characters, and when it was at its best, there was no better written series on television. Unfortunately, creators David Lynch and Mark Frost gave up too much control too quickly, and the series quickly spun out of control. By the time Agent Cooper’s sociopathic former partner showed up late in the second season, most viewers, myself included, had either already abandoned the show or were on the verge of doing so. Despite its flaws, the highs that Twin Peaks reached were so impressive and so resonant that an entire generation of quality TV drama owes its existence in large part to the trails Lynch, Frost and company originally blazed.
* The Prisoner - Talk about trail blazers. No one had envisioned what was possible on television before Patrick McGoohan turned the spy TV craze on its ear and imbued it with realpolitik ambiguity, dream logic and the indomitability of human will. The struggle of McGooghan’s unnamed Number Six to overcome his captors and regain his freedom reflected infinite facets over the course of the seventeen episodes of the series, culminating in a mind-bending two-parter that showed us everything and told us nothing. In addition to being one of the first true masterpieces of television drama, The Prisoner also provided some of the most unforgettable visual moments in TV history, from Rover to the human chess board to the crazy teeter-totter control room and Number Two’s groovy eggshell chair. You can’t look away because every moment provides you with another bit of visual stimuli you’ll carry with you the rest of your life.
* Star Trek - For a series beloved by millions that has endured and evolved for half a century, I am baffled why I almost always feel the need to apologize for my love of Star Trek, or at least put an asterisk after it, like it somehow doesn’t quite belong in the pantheon of great TV series. Well, fuck it. Gene Roddenberry, flawed and human though he was, had a vision of a starship crew of the future that represented humanity at peace with itself and coming to peace with The Other in the form of alien races like the Vulcans, Andorians and other peoples that made up the United Federation of Planets. The actors on the series had a diverse set of motivations that drove their work, and the writers and directors that contributed to the mythos all had their own sometimes conflicting ideas that they wanted to inject into the proceedings. The fact is, Roddenberry created a big enough canvas that other artists could contribute without destroying the core idea at the heart of Star Trek. Almost everyone since Roddenberry who has worked on Star Trek has added something positive to the mix that allowed it to live and breathe long after its creator moved on from this level of existence. Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, Uhura, Chekov and Sulu (and Chapel, and Rand, and Kyle, and…) will always be my favourites, and will always fire my imagination, but The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise all earned their place in the mythos, too, and J.J. Abrams’ nascent revival of the franchise shows every sign of maintaining Roddenberry’s dream long enough for the next generation, and the one after that, to keep the flame alive for decades to come.
* The Shield - I have yet to meet anyone that convinced me I am wrong that we all carry a petty, venal little mean streak within us. It’s the will to overcome this base selfishness that allows us to, for the most part, get along and have a society of rules and civility. The Shield’s Vic Mackey, on the other hand, shows us what the very worst in us, if unrestrained, can drive us to do. I have a friend who saw Vic as an anti-hero rather than a true villain, and I was always baffled by the need he had to see Vic as basically good. No, Vic Mackey was an evil, puerile thug, out for himself and willing to sacrifice anyone else to get what he wanted. This was a series about a very bad man and the people who were unlucky enough to fall into his orbit. Those Vic Mackey didn’t utterly destroy were the lucky ones. Michael Chiklis’s portrayal of Mackey was fearless and unforgettable, because he made Mackey vulnerable, and sometimes even likable, but the glint in his eye always relefect the absolute, irredeemable blackness at the center of his soul. Mackey was the last man standing at the end of the series, but no sane human being could possibly have wanted to end up in that place.
* The Wire - If you haven’t ever watched The Wire, you’ve probably been advised to. The advice might have included the caveat that you have to watch the first four or five episodes to start to know the characters and get a feel for the unique rhythm of the series. And that’s all true. One of the true, rare works of art created for television, The Wire immerses you in a world of crime, corruption, friendship and betrayal in a way no other series, possibly no other work in any artform ever has. The level of detail and the depth of insight into human behaviour is something anyone who enjoys good storytelling should experience. Plus, Omar. Fucking Omar, man.
* Firefly - I must confess I love just about everything Joss Whedon has had a hand in, so far. Buffy. Angel. Firefly. Dollhouse. Dr. Horrible. Avengers. Cabin in the Woods. There’s are common elements to all of them; wit and sarcasm as defense mechanism, the building of a family, the joining together to overcome that which is evil, wrong and bad. Whedon has been extraordinarily lucky to have a group of incredibly gifted actors in each of his projects, and to have surrounded himself with brilliant and committed producers and directors. At the current moment in time, looking back over all Whedon has accomplished, I think the most perfect expression of his storytelling talent to date has been Firefly. Despite network interference, this series brought together great actors, substantive scripts and a bold and sardonic vision of humanity’s future to create a series so entertaining and so profound in its understanding of humanity that it is almost painful to contemplate. The series as a whole, capped off with the Serenity movie, give us a group of loners who find a common cause to struggle together and love each other, and if there’s a better message than that, or a more thrilling to way deliver it than Firefly, I sure as hell don’t know what it is.
* Seinfeld - Okay, the first few episodes were a little shaky on their feet, struggling to find the right note, the right relationships, the right rhythm. Once Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David and their colleagues found that perfect harmony, they had the funniest TV series ever created, and they kept it that way for a good seven years. Sure, the show lasted nine, and outlived its own usefulness, but that’s fine. For what it gave us, we can forgive a couple off seasons, and even a devastatingly sour and unfunny series finale. For The Contest, The Chinese Restaurant, The Soup Nazi, and The Sponge, we can forgive even that.
* Fawlty Towers - The first foreign TV series I learned to love, thanks to PBS rerunning the series in the 1970s. The setup is laughably simple — frustrated, uptight Brit and his all-knowing and unflappable wife run a resort hotel populated by crazy people. Every episode is a gem, and I know it’s sacrilege but I hold this series in higher esteem than John Cleese’s other show, Monty Python’s Flying Circus. I always found Python hit or miss, but Fawlty Towers is consistently, gut-bustingly hilarious in every moment of every episode. That’s a pretty rare accomplishment.
* Mad Men - I’m wary of including this series because I’ve only been watching it since April. My wife was recovering from surgery and we ran through the entire series in a couple of weeks. The fifth season does seem to have stumbled a bit, for example in including Don Draper’s now absolutely unnecessary ex-wife Betty after the narrative clearly showed that her character had run its course. But I’m including the series because the heights it’s reached so far are high, indeed. Don Draper is a fascinating and flawed protagonist, and we never know if he’ll do the right thing or the wrong thing, and sometimes we don’t even know why he makes the choices he does. His relationships with the other characters, especially Roger Sterling and Joan Holloway, are brilliantly written and acted. Jared Harris’s run on the show was heartbreaking in its humanity and inevitability. I don’t know if I’ll still rave about Mad Men decades from now, like I do The Prisoner, Star Trek or Twin Peaks, but at the moment it seems to me Mad Men, at its very best, can be as good as those series were, and if the writing stays sharp, there’s no reason to think it won’t be remembered as a classic, and one of the best dramas ever on TV.
* The Sopranos - Definitely not a perfect series, The Sopranos made many missteps. Doctor Melfi should have been gone at some point, and we won’t even go into the Columbus Day episode. But as a weekly TV drama, The Sopranos was top-notch appointment television that always left you wanting more. The ensemble of actors gave it their all, and the fact that so many of us could relate to New Jersey mobster Tony Soprano despite having almost no reason to, is a tribute to the excellent writing and acting that were the hallmark of this series.
* Band of Brothers - I’m not a fan of war stories as a rule. The kind that attract me don’t glorify combat, demonize “the enemy” or make saints of those fighting on our side. Wars are fought by the poor, the oppressed and the unlucky and waged at the behest of the rich, the privileged and the insane. But war stories like the type Harvey Kurtzman told in comics, or Garth Ennis sometimes tells in his comics today, those appeal to me. The ones that show the hopeless futility of war and the random destruction that it rains down, those types of stories speak a basic truth about war that resonates with me. Band of Brothers was an extraordinarily high-quality TV drama that gave us all that, with a visceral reality and no loyalty to anything other than showing what war does to the people asked, or forced, to fight.
* Louie - Louis C.K. is probably the smartest and craftiest comedian working today, and his TV series Louie shows he is also an incredibly gifted and canny writer, director, producer and editor. His show is pretty much a one-man labour of love, and the heights of comedy and the depths of depravity it reaches make it an instant TV classic. Louis C.K. is the spokesman for our shared humanity, and our shared stupidity. He shows us so much about ourselves while making us laugh. Louie is a gift to each of us, doled out one episode at a time.
* Justice League Unlimited - All of the Dini/Timm animated DC Comics series were excellent: Batman, Superman, Batman Beyond, Justice League and Justice League Unlimited all were high-quality storytelling vehicles that I was happy to share with my kids when they were growing up, and which they were delighted to watch with the old man. But the absolute peak of the creative factory that turned out all these series was the Unlimited incarnation of Justice League, which blended incredible animation, top-notch voice acting, sublime writing, and passionate directing and producing to create a weekly miracle on television. Never before and never since has there been an animated series so perfect in its creative balance and appeal to all ages. DC’s heroes never seemed so engaging and fun, their adventures never seemed so thrilling, as when they were parceled out weekly on Justice League Unlimited. Given the contempt DC has shown its characters, creators and readers over the past few years, I doubt these characters will ever again reach the heights they did on this series, a humble cartoon about a colourful group of superheroes. But I am thankful this series got produced, I am very happy to have the every episode on DVD, and I will cherish it as long as I live.