July 27, 2010

The golden age of television.

Editor's Note: If a show is mentioned that you haven't seen yet, be careful. I might spoil it for you. Keep reading, of course, but read cautiously.

I remember, at some point in 2002, stumbling upon the pilot episode of The Shield. Up to that point, I didn't watch much TV. I was an avid fan of The Simpsons, Frasier and Seinfeld, but I never invested my time in anything else. For some reason, however, I decided to give this new FX show a chance.

If you haven't seen it, buy the entire series immediately. It's the best $100 you'll ever spend. I was hooked; first chance I got, I told my friends about my new obsession. Coincidentally, they had their own series to share with me: 24. Season 1 had ended, but I was able to buy the box set at Best Buy soon after.

And of course, like everyone else, I fell in love with the show's action-packed, edge-of-your-seat brand of serial drama. So began my love affair with television, and, coincidentally, the golden age of television.

Everything changed after I met Vic Mackey and Jack Bauer, for both myself and the medium. My interest in 24, along with the quality of the show, evaporated after a few seasons, but I followed The Shield until its bitter, heart-pounding end. I watched Season 1 of The Sopranos with my brother in the upstairs bedroom of my grandmother's house; we packed it into about 30 hours, stopping only to sleep and eat. We flew through Season 2 soon after.

I loved every second of the first season of Lost, but not as much as I loved the first season of Twin Peaks. I might be the only remaining Sports Night fan on Earth. Arrested Development, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Party Down, The Office (British version only, please), 30 Rock, Community, Eastbound & Down...I've torn through them all.

And I haven't slowed down since entering the real world. In the last year, I've watched Mad Men, Battlestar Galactica, Breaking Bad and The Wire in their entirety. These are the shows I'd like to talk about; these four, plus The Shield, are probably the greatest television series of all time, and my brain has absorbed every second of them over the past 365 days. It's been a crash course in Amazing Television 101, and anyone lucky enough to own what used to be referred to as an "idiot box" should get down on their hands and knees and kiss it daily. It now offers the smartest, most in-depth entertainment on Earth.

My preference for The Wire has already been documented, but I haven't gotten much of a chance to wax poetic about the other three. I started with Battlestar Galactica on a recommendation from my friend Walt, based on the fact that a) I love science fiction and b) it melded sci-fi with real character drama like no other show in history. And he wasn't wrong.

My viewing of Battlestar coincided with a nine-day family cruise, and at the risk of exposing myself as extremely nerdy, I was very tired of fun in the sun by Day 8. Even though I felt like an extreme waste of life, I decided to hang in the cabin after lunch and enjoy a quick Battlestar ep before heading back out into the world.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how big of a loser you are), I was about to watch the two-part Season 2 finale. Also known as the episode where Gaius Baltar surrenders to the Cylons. Also known as the episode that sparks the action shifting from outer space to New Caprica, a chain of events that both changes the complexity of the series and blows your brain out the back of your head.

Although there were a few clunkers from there until the end, and even although the end itself felt a bit rushed and unfulfilling, that was enough to suck me in forever. I laid in my cabin and watched about eight episodes in a row; my brother had to come in and pull me outside, and all the while I was babbling about Brother Cavil, Colonel Tigh and the Chief. If there was one TV show I could have wiped from my brain to be watched fresh, it would be Battlestar.

Mad Men was next on my list, and as that's still ongoing, it's a little tougher to comment on. A lot of people harp about how pretty the show looks and how well it captures its era's style, but I think the show has produced its own beautiful style, a style that its audience is now immersed in; this is how the '50's and '60's feel, even if they didn't before. Mad Men has defined a generation 50 years after the fact; while that might not be a good thing, it's an impressive thing.

The creator, Matthew Weiner, worked on Sopranos, and you can tell he studied at the feet of David Chase. Much like the world that surrounded Tony Soprano, Weiner's ensemble cast makes the most of their screen time, fleshing out the Mad Men universe and creating a slow-paced, intricate character study. This kind of show used to be an HBO-only, but now it's on a pay-cable station that usually shows Catwoman and The Last Samurai.

Don acquires your sympathy through his genius in navigating the advertising world, much like Tony's self-awareness made him feel like more than just a nameless, soulless mob boss. Where he goes in Season 4 is anyone's guess; last Sunday's episode indicated that he may be ready to self-promote, perhaps even overextend himself, which could lead to new levels of fame or the downfall he always used to fear. But as long as Roger Sterling is there cracking wise, and Joan Holloway remains busty and attractive, and Bert Cooper continues to...wander around being weird and old, well, I'll be onboard.

Finally, there is Breaking Bad. I just finished this about a week ago, and it was the greatest change of pace from The Wire imaginable. After the near-endless ups and downs of the giant Baltimore-based series, it was refreshing to watch television on a smaller scale, to buy into Walt and Jesse's adventures on a more personal level and connect with them as characters, rather than numerous chess pieces on the giant board of life.

You can't say enough about what Bryan Cranston has done on this show; to go from Tim Whatley to the Malcolm in the Middle dad to a meth-selling, cancer-stricken chemistry teacher is the most amazing metamorphosis I've ever seen in popular entertainment. Minus some of Walter White's more clever moments, which allow his comedic chops to seep through, you'd never know they were all played by the same actor.

But if we're going to talk about intensity: the intensity of The Shield, 24, certain parts of The Wire, even Battlestar Galactica, well...it doesn't get more intense than Season 3 of Breaking Bad. Other than the first three seasons of The Sopranos and the Forest Whitaker season of The Shield, Season 3 of BB might be the best season of television of all time.

The shootout between Hank and the cousins, increased appearances from Bob Odenkirk's Saul Goodman and Mike the Cleaner, the episode where Walt and Jesse are trapped in the RV, the incredibly introspective "Fly" episode...you can't make TV better than that. More than anything, I'm excited for Vince Gilligan's masterpiece to get back on the air. I can only hope that, unlike The Sopranos, it doesn't soil itself by sticking around for too long.

But besides Season 4 of Mad Men and the upcoming BB season, whenever that may be, I feel a little lost. I'm not sure where to turn for my latest TV fix. I've got Dexter and Friday Night Lights on my radar, and everyone keeps telling me to watch Weeds. And Deadwood, which I've never really considered watching until very recently, might end up being the best of them all. I've heard nothing but good things.

To anyone who's undecided about investing time in one of these lengthy, engrossing television series, please do so. I beg you. I love movies as much as anyone, but when it comes down to it, this is the best place to spend your entertainment dollars and waste your entertainment time. Showrunners continue to work within their means, promote original new ideas, shrug off expectations and craft a form of poetry on the screen. It's pulse-pounding, it's imaginative, and it's entertaining as all hell.

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