Welcome back to The Three Strike Rule.Â You’d think I could come up with a better title for this week’s column than that, huh?Â Today is my daughter Sophie’s 10th birthday.Â When you hear that cliche, “I don’t know where the years went,” believe it.Â I have watched a baby grow into an inquisitive toddler, then transform into a bright little preschooler and finally she has become an empathetic (I throw that word around a lot when I discuss my little girl), smart and talented 10-year-old. As I am prone to giving her advice (which she has already begun to ignore), I have opted to dedicate this week’s column to highlighting 10 standout television shows from the past 10 years that I hope Sophie will seek out to be entertained and enlightened.
In the past 10 years, due to DVD box sets, TiVo, and the Internet, we have seen a change in attitudes about television.Â No longer is it just considered “disposable” entertainment.Â Viewers are seeking out quality programming and making it successful.Â Moreover, stars generally associated with motion pictures (once considered the high brow art form) no longer look at television as slumming it.Â Instead, actors, writers and directors have taken to TV as a way to create and produce ongoing works of fiction that they wouldn’t be able to do in the expensive film industry.
Since any list is subjective, I’m sure some people will gripe about my selections and what was left off.Â I hope so!Â he purpose of this great website is ti incite conversation and debates.Â In case you’re wondering, my criteria was that the shows selected had to premiere in 1999 or thereafter.Â I must confess that I have not seen Dexter and I never went back to The Shield after the first few episodes (i.e. pre-TiVo in the Malchus household).Â What I tried to do was pick shows that were consistent in their quality from season to season.Â So, even though I loved the first couple seasons of The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and 24, the quality in the writing really started to suffer in subsequent years.Â Sacrilege, I know, because The Sopranos is considered by many critics to be the greatest TV show ever.Â Oh well, it’s my space, and since this is a special list I want my kid to read someday, these are the shows I feel are the best of the last 10 years.
So, without further ado…
10. Two and a Half Men (CBS, 2003-present)Â Charlie Sheen and Jon Cryer are brothers Charlie and Alan, forced to live together due to Alan’s crippling divorce settlements. The two comedy vets play off of each other like Lucy and Ricky in this hilarious, sometimes crude comedy that stretches the boundaries of what is acceptable on a network show, and often pushes past those boundaries. Two and a Half Men is a traditionally sitcom taped before a live studio audience and sometimes you can see the joke coming from a mile away. But damn it, the writing is so funny, you don’t care. But it’s not just Sheen and Cryer. Creator Chuck Lorre has surrounded them with a superb supporting cast, including Holland Taylor as their self-centered mother, Conchata Ferrell as their biting, sarcastic housekeeper, and of course, Angus T. Jones as Jake, the “half man” (and Alan’s son). He may be the funniest secret weapon in television. New episodes continue to air on Monday nights. The show is also in syndication and the first four seasons are available on DVD.
9. Everwood (WB, 2002-2006) A career-minded New York City brain surgeon (Treat Williams), overwhelmed by grief over his wife’s tragic death, uproots his two children (Gregory Smith and Vivien Cardone) and moves the family to the small Colorado town of Everwood. There, they discover love and friendship — and that life in a quiet town is no simpler than living in the big city. The WB may have become famous for teenage material like Dawson’s Creek, but in Greg Berlanti’s family drama, they got more than just teenage angst. Everwood was topical (tackling teenage sexuality, abortion and religion from all sides), sincere, and very often funny. What really stuck with me was its pointed examination of relations between fathers and sons, something rare in television. Williams and Smith dug into their roles with ferociousness. And the writers (including the great Rina Mimoun) allowed this relationship to ebb and flow over the years and not simply resolve itself in a couple of pat hours. Never a ratings hit, Everwood lasted four seasons due to a loyal audience and early support from the network (also something rare in television). It also had the biggest heart on TV. Season 1 of Everwood is available on DVD. Hopefully the remaining three seasons will someday be released. Until then, they are viewable at TheWB.com
8. Mad Men (AMC, 2007-present) – Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner took what he learned as a producer and writer on The Sopranos and has created an equally compelling drama about the Madison Avenue ad men who ran New York City in the early 1960’s. Jon Hamm stars as Don Draper, an enigmatic man who seems to harbor more secrets than the government and manages to twist and turn his lies to keep those secrets from almost everyone, including his wife, Betty (January Jones). In the show, as the innocent 60’s are gradually giving way to the turbulent era of flower power and revolution, through the show’s characters we are watching a microcosm of the country come apart, grow and eventually persevere. From production design to the writing to every single performance by the cast, Mad Men is well on its way to becoming one of this century’s greatest dramas. Season 1 is available on DVD, and Season 2 is soon to follow. The third season of Mad Men is scheduled to premiere later this year.
7. Once and Again (ABC, 1999-2002) – From the thoughtful minds of Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, the men who brought us thirtysomething and My So Called Life, came this great drama about families coping with divorce. Sela Ward and Billy Campbell starred as single parents who fall in love, and we watched as their two families try to become one. It isn’t easy. At the same time, we see the effects of the new American family through the eyes of the children, friends and ex-spouses. Once and Again took the lives of the teenagers as seriously as the lives of the adults, and introduced the world to the talents of Shane West and Evan Rachel Wood (whose anorexia storyline was heartbreaking). Moreover, the show reminded everyone that Ward and Campbell are great actors, and that Patrick Dempsey (as Ward’s brother suffering from mental illness) was more than just a heartthrob. The first two seasons are available on DVD. Fans anxiously await the day ABC finally releases the third and final season.
6. The Wire (HBO, 2002-2008) – Not to demean the other great cop shows that came before it, but The Wire is the greatest cop show ever. Creator and executive producer David Simon took everything he learned from working on Homicide: Life on the Streets (based on his book) and his time spent working for the Baltimore Sun as a crime reporter and gave us one of the great stories of the 21st Century. Each of The Wire’s five seasons was like a well paced novel, with characters that tread the line between black and white with such delicacy, you weren’t sure who to root for. Although star Dominic West was the central character through it all, it was the unknown actors who were a part of the brilliant cast that made the show worthy of repeated viewings, in particular Idris Elba as Stringer Bell, Lance Reddick as Lt. Cedric Daniels, and Felicia Pearson as Snoop. Not only was The Wire an examination of how the police work and drug dealers operate, but it was a careful study of an American city in decline, as much about our entire country as it was about the city of Baltimore.Â All five seasons are available on DVD.
5. The Office (NBC, 2005-present) – Ricky Gervais’ now-legendary BBC series may have been the basis for the NBC adaptation, but the U.S. version, a comedy that follows the everyday existence of life in the Dunder Mifflin paper company in Scranton, PA, has provided many more laughs than the original 12 episodes of the UK series. The Office manages to mix pathos with slapstick, something so few shows are capable of doing, and makes us care about not only slacker salesmen, but the jerks they are required to work with. Steve Carell leads the group of characters who make up the cast of The Office. His character, Michael may be the most clueless boss in all of television; he’s the living example of failing upward. However, over the course of the show’s run, we have seen his humanity. The love story between Jim (John Krasinski) and Pam (Jenna Fischer) has also kept viewers captivated, too. Kudos to Greg Daniels (who developed the show for NBC) and company for managing to sustain the laughter. New episodes continue to air on Thursday nights while the first four seasons are available of DVD.
4. Lost (ABC, 2004-present) – This sprawling drama is about so many things that it’s difficult to sum it up in a few sentences. On the surface, it’s a show about survival as a group of castaways struggle to stay alive on a dangerous, uncharted island. Then there are the flashbacks, flash forwards and other forms of nonlinear storytelling that help make Lost one of the most gripping hours of pop culture in recent memory. Lost continues to take science fiction to a new level and has managed to be not only a drama, but a poignant tragedy, romantic comedy and action adventure show all wrapped in one. No character is safe from being killed off and nothing is beyond the imagination of the creative team of Carlton Cuse, Damon Lindelof and JJ Abrams. This show should be laughable (an evil black cloud that haunts the island? Really?), but it all works, and will continue to mess with the minds of viewers until the entire series comes to an end in the spring of 2010. The first four seasons are available on DVD and every single episode is viewable at ABC.com. The fifth season premieres at the end on January.
3. Friday Night Lights (NBC/DirecTV, 2006-present) – Friday Night Lights is simply the best family series in decades. In which the heroes aren’t lawyers, doctors or cops, but ordinary citizens struggling and succeeding in life. This series, based both the book by H.G. Bissinger and the 2004 film directed by Peter Berg (one of the television show’s producers) follows the lives of the people of Dillon, Texas, a downtrodden town whose heart comes to life each Friday night when the high school Panthers football team takes the field. But, oh, this is not just a TV series about football. No, football tends to take a back seat in most episodes. Uplifting, thought provoking, funny and poignant, this is one for the ages. Plus, Friday Night Lights has one of the greatest portrayals of marriage on television. Through the bumps and bruises and triumphs, Connie Britton and Kyle Chandler as Tami and Coach Eric Taylor are inspiring and should not be missed. Friday Night Lights has had some troubles in the ratings, but through an innovative deal with DirecTV, NBC co-produced a third season and hopefully will continue the partnership for at least a couple more years. The first two seasons are available on DVD and also available to view online at NBC.com. The third season wraps up on DirecTV in the coming weeks and will premiere on NBC January 16th.
2. Arrested Development (FOX, 2003-2006) -Â “Now, the story of a wealthy family who lost everything, and the one son who had no choice but to keep them all together. It’s Arrested Development.“ Every once in a blue moon a show comes along that redefines television, not just how it’s made, but how we watch it. Arrested Development may have been the first TiVo television series, where the laughs were so plentiful and came at you so rapid-fire that you had to go back two or three times to catch them all. Thanks to technology, you were able to keep up with the Bluths without missing a beat. And when the DVD TV box set boom took off, Arrested Development was at the front of the pack. Upon those second and third viewings, you still laughed your ass off and were likely to catch something new. Behind the scenes of this Emmy-winning comedy series were show creator Mitch Hurwitz and a staff of brilliant writers and directors. In front of the camera, you had the most eclectic group of comedy actors ever assembled. From Jason Bateman’s deadpan to Michael Cera’s bumbling shyness to the over the top humor of Will Arnett and the weirdness of David Cross, to the dry as a bone sarcasm of Jessica Walter. And then there was the “aw shucks” narration by executive producer Ron Howard that just added to the insanity. Each episode was like a mini-comedy film, and each episode is as fresh today as it was when it originally aired. All three seasons are available on DVD and full episodes can be watched at Hulu.com.
1. Freaks and Geeks (NBC, 1999-2000) – Through just 18 episodes, creator Paul Feig and producer Judd Apatow crafted the greatest show about adolescence ever put on television. When my daughter wishes to know what it was like growing up in the Midwest during the early ’80s, I will sit her down and tell her some of my stories. If that isn’t enough, I will give her my Freaks and Geeks box set and tell her “this about says it all.” The show follows the lives of Lindsay Weir (Linda Cardellini) and her dweebish, kindhearted brother, Sam (John Francis Daley) as they wade through the minefield of high school in the year 1980. Lindsay is undergoing some soul-searching and ditches her brainy friends to make new ones with the “freaks” or stoners in school. Those kids include characters played by then undiscovered talents James Franco, Jason Segel and Seth Rogen. Meanwhile, Sam and his geeky friends (played by Martin Starr and Samm Levine) do their best to fit in during their first year of high school. At times, Freaks and Geeks could make you laugh, cry, get pissed off, and just shake your head in wonder at how well the show’s creative minds captured the adolescent experience. Freaks and Geeks was a difficult sell for NBC, and they shuffled it around their schedule so much, even the hardcore fans couldn’t find when it was on. After the plug was pulled, it continued to build a cult following showing up on cable. After years a haggling with music labels, the complete series was released on DVD with every single classic rock song from the late ’70s and early ’80s intact. To date, the Freaks and Geeks DVD collection remains one of the best of its kind. Not just one of the best shows of the past 10 years, but one of the best of all time, Freaks and Geeks shows the greatness that television is capable of and sets an example for all shows of its kind to follow.