For the longest time, I tried not to watch TV. I was a regular watcher when I was a kid, but when reality TV made its appearance on the cultural stage, and when it looked as though it would be the wave of the future–with the wave of the past appearing to encompass shows that featured great writing and the great writers who got paid a lot of money to put out great writing–I thought that any love affair I had with TV was over for good. Oh sure, I would watch the news and sports, but even those television-related interests diminished; after all, one can get the news from the Internet, and for a while, I found televised sports to be boring.
It was, of course, a mistake to think that TV shows with great writing, great plots, great acting and great directing would go the way of the dinosaur, though depressingly enough, reality TV seems to have an awful lot of staying power. Happily, smart television is still possible, and we can still enjoy it. Indeed, I have come to think that for those of us who appreciate smart TV, we are living in something of a Golden Age of Entertainment.
So, I decided to write up a list of really smart television shows which I thoroughly enjoy watching. I am sure that a great many of these shows are already watched and loved by readers, and about the only major revelation that you will get out of this post is finding out that I’ve been in something of a cultural cocoon for the past few years when it comes to good television shows. For many of these shows, I’ve had to engage in marathon TV watching in order to catch up, but I can’t say that the experience hasn’t been fun. This list, I should add, is in no particular order, and bear in mind that a lot of these shows are not for young viewers.
Anyway, without further ado . . .
- Breaking Bad. Yes, I know that I wrote that this list is in no particular order, but one has to begin with Breaking Bad; it is primus inter pares. The acting is brilliant; Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul put forth otherworldly performances, and they are splendidly backed up by superb actors like Giancarlo Esposito and Jonathan Banks. Really, the entire cast is marvelous. So is the writing and directing; the plot never insults one’s intelligence and the dialogue always crackles. Perhaps, as some say, the final episode was a bit too neat, but that hardly detracts from the utter brilliance of the show. Go catch it on Netflix tout suite, in the event that you haven’t been watching already. The show is one of those rare things that really is as good as advertised.
- Mad Men. Another outstanding entry by AMC (and before anyone writes in and tells me, yes, I know that I have to start seeing The Walking Dead at some point). Again, excellent acting, dialogue and plot. A writer friend of mine has mentioned his belief that when compared to Breaking Bad characters, Mad Men characters seem to have no interior lives. I’ve come to appreciate the shrewdness of that observation, but the characters’ personalities are certainly rich enough to appreciate. Also, the use of history to help advance the plot is very effective, and the authenticity of the set design and the social mores makes the show utterly outstanding.
- Sherlock. By far the best television show coming out of the United Kingdom. A wonderful re-imagining of the classic detective series in 21st century London, the show features enough homages to the classic series to keep any Arthur Conan Doyle fan happy, and at the same time, it enhances the stories with twists from the writers. The rapport between Benedict Cumberbatch (Holmes) and Martin Freeman (Watson) is superb, and Cumberbatch is perfect as Holmes. Also perfect: Mark Gatiss as Mycroft Holmes and Andrew Scott, who plays a truly brilliant, truly terrifying Moriarty. Honestly, I concur with those who say that the tales told via the television show are more interesting than anything Arthur Conan Doyle dreamed up, and I write that with boundless respect for Arthur Conan Doyle’s talents.
- Arrested Development. Hysterically funny television. Michael Cera steals the show, as far as I am concerned.
- Game of Thrones. I have not yet read the books (I know, I know, I should, I will), but the series is marvelous. Peter Dinklage is a show-stealer, as is Charles Dance, and Jack Gleeson is brilliant at making me, and everyone else on the planet hate his character. Again, excellent plot and dialogue, and I love the political intrigue.
- House of Cards. I like the American series better than the British series, though the latter is very good, and you may want to watch it before watching the American version–Ian Richardson positively eats up the scenery. The problem is that Richardson didn’t have as good a cast backing him up as Kevin Spacey does, and Spacey does an equally extraordinary job with his role. There are some things about the American version that simply don’t make that much sense–how is it that any House minority whip is able to see the president of the United States and his chief of staff as much as Francis Underwood does, without attracting the ire of the speaker of the House and the House majority leader?–but the American version benefits from being much less cheesy than its British counterpart was. Additionally, Robin Wright is much stronger in her role than was Diane Fletcher, who played Francis Urquhart’s wife in the British series.
- Foyle’s War. Set in Great Britain during World War II, the acting is, at times, lacking. The dialogue sometimes falters. And whenever Foyle uncovers the mystery and gets the villain, the villain, without fail, confesses and hardly puts up a fight–save occasional appeals to disregard whatever crime was committed because punishing the villain might interfere with the British war effort (these appeals are almost invariably ignored by Foyle). But the plot is fun, twisting and complex, and Michael Kitchen is an amazing Foyle; he is quiet, he is understated, but he is very much a presence. The show treats its viewers as intelligent people; indeed, one has to keep one’s thinking cap on in order to truly appreciate the show’s ingenious subtleties.
- Downton Abbey. As one can tell, I have a thing for British television shows. The acting, plot and dialogue are very well done. Michelle Dockery is my favorite cast member. Biggest weakness: Occasionally, the show fails the historical accuracy test. (See also this.) But that hardly makes Downton Abbey less appealing or addictive.