With Breaking Bad coming to a triumphant close — depending on who you ask — this past Sunday, it’s time to take immediate, knee-jerk stock of the television landscape and anoint a new MVP: Most Valuable Program. Here are 25(!) series that are vying for the prize. Let’s choose one, shall we?
“IN THE CONVERSATION”
There are a handful of shows that just have passionate followings, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t start with these. They’re NOT the “best show on TV,” but like how sports fans get pissy when their heroes don’t at least get acknowledged, I ought to at least include them so nobody gets offended: FX’s freshman border-town series The Bridgeand gang drama Sons of Anarchy, both of which have built idiosyncratic worlds perhaps at the expense of coherent storytelling; Jason Katims’s (godfather of Friday Night Lights) low-rated tear-jearker Parenthood (NBC); and soapy throwbacks The Good Wife (CBS) and Scandal (ABC), which may not be top-shelf “prestige drama” but from all accounts are quite good at whatever it is they do. Even a polarizing series like Treme deserves respect, simply because it came from the mind of David Simon (The Wire, a.k.a. Greatest Of All Time).
The epitome of an “in the conversation” show, however, is AMC’s The WalkingDead.Alternately praised and derided on a season-to-season (sometimes an episode-to-episode) basis, it’s the most-watched series on cable and thrills legions while not really being that excellent or rewarding. In preparation for this column, I enlisted some friends to rise to the defense of their favorite shows, and here to throw down for Walking Dead is Chase Branch (@chasebranch):
Admittedly, The Walking Dead probably isn’t the best show on TV. But is it the most enjoyable? That’s a real possibility. There’s something viscerally satisfying about seeing sheriff Rick Grimes and his band of survivors battling it out with hordes of reanimated corpses every week. Lots of shows claim they constantly place their characters in life-or-death situations and that anyone can die at any time, but Walking Dead might be the one show that actually lives up to that promise. If all you need on Sunday night is an adrenaline-pumping gore-fest to incite your fantasies before the work week, The Walking Dead has you covered. But if you’re curious for an examination of how people react in the absence of organized society, or if morals really matter when you’re facing the daily possibility of a horrendous death, The Walking Dead is there for you, too. It’s AMC’s most-watched show for a reason, because – most of all – it’s wicked fun.
I’ve made no secret of my love for British TV. I’ve already written at length about the excellent sci-fi series Orphan Black and the psychologically devastating Broadchurch (HERE and HERE, respectively), so I won’t go into too much more detail except to say that they’re fantastic, but it’s too early to judge on both. OB could go completely off the rails in its second year, as many high-concept shows tend to do, and I’m still not convinced Broadchurch even needs to return at all. So, with those eliminated, we still have the venerable Downton Abbey, which remains high-class entertainment despite having burned bridges with last year’s callous killing off of beloved characters. You also can’t forget Doctor Who, celebrating its 50th year this November — not as great as it used to be just a couple of years ago, but it’s still one of my absolute favorites.
However, rising above even these excellent and worthwhile series is Sherlock, featuring perhaps the very best incarnation of the sleuth to date, cleverly written by Steven Moffat and brought to sparkling, loin-stirring life by Benedict Cumberbatch. As Watson, Martin Freeman is completely charming, and the modernization of Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic stories never ceases to impress. It’s funny, visually inventive, and an absolute blast to watch over and over again. Its second season ended with an intensely emotional cliffhanger, and I can’t wait to see how they resolve it. It hasn’t produced a bad episode yet.
You’d assume the Most Valuable Program would have to be a drama, right? Almost certainly something dark, with anti-heroes and shades of gray aplenty, and the infrequent dead person thrown in for good measure? Well, not necessarily! Comedies can be just as transcendent, even if they’re often disqualified for being too “light” or too “not depressing.” Some of the sharpest writing on all of TV can be found in a show like Veep (HBO), an absolutely withering satire of American politics, fearlessly led by Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Created by British genius Armando Iannucci (The Thick of It, and the brilliant film In the Loop based on it), Veep is frequently scathing and uncomfortable, but always funny. A show in a similar vein is FX’s Louie, where writer-director-producer-star Louis C.K. lays his foibles bare for us to see on a weekly basis. Even New Girl (Fox) is wildly successful at what it sets out to do, with memorable character work and consistent meme-spawning gags (the drinking game “True American” comes to mind).
Bob’s Burgers features what is probably the most realistic family on television (no, seriously) with some of TV’s most heartfelt moments (outside of Parks and Rec) — despite the fact that the misadventures of the Belcher clan are nothing short of ridiculous. The writing is sharp, delivered by a key voice cast that is absolute comedian gold (which makes the often dry humor hit its moments with consistency), while the guest cast propels it to epic status.
ROOKIES WITH A HIGH CEILING
This category is for new shows with enormous potential. Jump on them now, and get rewarded later when/if they ascend.
Netflix fired a shot against the bow of the television industry with its slate of new (or new-ish, like one we’ll get to in the next section) series this past year, catering to the binge-watchers among us. With the rise of the DVR and on-demand viewing, the way we consume television is changing, and Netflix wants to be at the forefront of that movement. First out of the gate was the David Fincher-produced House of Cards, which carried a lot of big names (Kevin Spacey, devouring the scenery like a Christmas ham; Robin Wright, terrifying ice queen), and a “prestige” premise set in Washington, D.C. I really liked it, because it’s exactly the kind of thing I like, but I didn’t love it for a number of different reasons (writing dependent too much on coincidence, the lack of any redemptive characters). That said, a lot of people DID love it, and I’m hopeful that it can make the leap in it’s yet-to-be-scheduled second season.
It’s everything I loved about the early seasons of Weeds – a rich, eclectic cast of characters, all of whom are likeable in their own way, witty dialogue that constantly dips into a level of crudeness not often seen on the tube, and situations that walk an odd line between cliche and zany, though somehow they’re totally believable. It’s worth noting that it also features one of the most female-centric casts on TV, all of which are great in their roles (and Jason Biggs is probably the best he’s ever been). Highly recommended.
For my money, however, the SHOW TO WATCH is FX’s The Americans. Its first season was tantalizingly close to faultless, and could really come into its own when it returns next year. Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys are outstanding as a pair of Soviet operatives posing as American spouses, with a house and American-born kids and a new next-door neighbor who happens to work for the FBI (Noah Emmerich, absolutely peerless. He’s SO, SO GOOD in this.) The sequences of 80s-era spycraft are fun and expertly-staged, but the beating heart of the show is the relationship between “Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings,” who are here to do a job but have to navigate the suddenly-blooming real feelings they have for each other. It’s taut, well-crafted, and will hopefully be around for quite a while. Get in while you still can!
TITLE WINDOW CLOSING
A few series have had chances to sit atop this list, but have perhaps squandered them. As excited as I was about a new season of Arrested Development (Netflix, but originally cancelled by Fox in 2006), it proved to be an extremely experimental — and not as reliably funny — attempt by Mitch Hurwitz and company to challenge our expectations by doing something else entirely. Its Rashomon-esque structure paid off at the end, but still didn’t feel like it added up to a coherent whole (unexpectedly leaving us on a cliffhanger would contribute to that, too.) Similarly, the burden of expectations doomed the sophomore season of Homeland (Showtime), which began as an exhilarating counter-terrorism mystery but devolved into a less-interesting love story between a conflicted traitor and the bipolar agent doomed to obsess over him. There’s still enough there to be enjoyable, but the storytellers’ confidence in themselves has obviously waned, and it no longer feels like the Next Great Drama. It’s just pulpy Homeland. Still exciting, not revolutionary.
One HBO series has walked a difficult path, feeding its viewers slowly, seemingly devoting more of its energy to atmosphere and mood than (to read the reviews) to engaging characters and narratives. That series is Boardwalk Empire, and rather than simply throw around other critics’ mixed opinions (like “slow,” “over-produced,” “lifeless,” etc.), I’ll give it a fair chance by letting the biggest Boardwalk fan I know, Sean Knight, defend it:
It would be easy to take even a passing glance at Boardwalk Empire and recognize it as one of the most aesthetically pleasing shows on television. From the meticulous recreation of 1920’s costumes to the complete integration of visual effects into the production design it is a staggeringly impressive visual feast. A closer look reveals that it has some of the top most acting talent working on television giving fully nuanced performances that are polished in thick shades of gray. But Boardwalk Empire is also a show that requires patience. Its plotting and character developments are so precise that even the most mundane of passing interactions are never superfluous. It is also a show that is unafraid to follow a story thread to its natural and oftentimes audience-turning conclusion. Few shows would have the audacity to kill off one of its two main characters at the end of its second season. Fewer still would be able to be able to follow that murderous show-ending act with a season even more passionate and forceful than the last. It is the perfect writing that continues to make Boardwalk Empire the best and most under-appreciated of all the big cable shows on television.
THE LEGIT CONTENDERS
I believe there are four series that can truly make a case to be the new Most Valuable Program. You’ve made it through 1800 words on the also-rans, so let’s get to the finalists…
The first, I shudder to admit I haven’t seen…yet. (It’s in my queue! I’ll get to it!) The fifth series on this list from the very underrated network FX, Justified might be the true “successor” to Breaking Bad — at leastspiritually, and perhaps even in quality. Caleb Saenz (@calebjsaenz) elaborates:
You can’t approach a new series assuming it will perfectly fill the dimensions of a show like Breaking Bad, but it is possible to find a show that possesses much of the same dramatic DNA. The show you’re looking for, I’d argue, is Justified. Breaking Bad was, at its core, a western, specifically an Eastwood western built around an anti-hero with a decayed moral center. There’s a little bit of Walter White in Justified’s Raylan Givens, played by the impossibly cool Timothy Olyphant, but where White schemed to create an empire, Givens twists the law to achieve a brand of justice he defines himself. Justified also features a well-developed cast of supporting characters (and even a few neo-Nazis), and though showrunner Graham Yost doesn’t maintain a pace quite as breakneck as Breaking Bad’s, he knows how to create an endgame and continually raise the stakes. But perhaps more than anything else, Justified shares a key trait with Breaking Bad in its devotion to its locale. Just as Albuquerque, New Mexico was a character all its own, so too is Harlan, Kentucky, its hitmen and drug pushers and crooked politicians key cogs in a well-oiled dramatic machine. Featuring incredible performances and pitch-perfect dialogue, Justified should fit nicely into your newly opened television void.
Next is the very best comedy series on TV, and maybe — just maybe — the best series of any kind. Parks and Recreation (NBC) is not only still wonderful for a show now in it’s sixth (and likely last) season, it’s INSANELY wonderful for a show that struggled like it first did out of the gate. The problems with Parks‘ early episodes are well-documented, but nothing can’t diminish the unstoppable, energetic force for good (like its protagonist Leslie Knope, played by Amy Poehler in the role of her life) that it has become: reliable, heartwarming, extremely funny, and full of characters that are just fun to hang out with. If you haven’t really given this show a fair shot, first: WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH YOU, and second, GET ON THAT. In the immortal words of Donna Meagle, “Treat yo’self.” I promise, promise, promise you won’t regret it. It’s an uncommonly nice show, and it’s got FOR SURE the best character on the planet in mustachioed, libertarian he-man Ron Swanson. If you think this should be number 1, I’ll high-five you.
It’s my own prejudices against “unchallenging” material that ranks Parks below what to many is the presumptive new MVP, Breaking Bad’s AMC sibling Mad Men. Before BrBa really asserted itself a year or two ago as the dominant gorilla, the acclaim went to this three-time Best Drama Series Emmy winner, and it’s easy to expect MM to reclaim the top spot on the eve of its final season (split into two parts — thanks, AMC).
And why shouldn’t it? It’s meticulously constructed, written and shot with layers upon layers of hidden meaning. It’s unafraid to take risks, both with its characters and structurally. The characters themselves are as well-written as they’ve ever been, with Don rising to the peak of hubris and crumbling again, and Pete, Peggy, Roger, and the rest adding new shades with each passing year. And yet, creator Matthew Weiner started to catch some backlash in 2013, for pushing to make the show even more inscrutable and esoteric, while possibly “mishandling” major aspects of history like the civil rights movement. Can it still be the best show on TV? Absolutely. But is it right now?
No. I’m going to say no. The series that currently holds me deepest in thrall, that has gotten better every season and has me ready to burst with the possibilities of the next, and had the seminal water-cooler “DID YOU SEE THAT” moment of 2013 (Red Wedding, yo), is HBO’s Game of Thrones. Initially dismissed as a high-fantasy lark with a far-flung cast and too-dense mythology, Thrones followed the impeccable character development of George R.R. Martin’s novels and has grown its audience even as the narratives have sprawled. What’s so great about this show? Everything, basically. In fact, I argued in my Emmy predictions article that GoT, not Breaking Bad or Mad Men or anything else, deserved the top prize on the strength of its third season.
For starters, it’s the best-looking show on TV. The cinematography is gorgeous; the exotic locales (Scotland, Croatia, Malta, Iceland, Morocco, and more) are breathtaking; the special effects simply astounding. Its finest hour of season 2, “Blackwater,” gave us the most thrilling full-out battle sequences since The Two Towers. But looks aren’t everything, you say! Fine. Expertly written by producers David Benioff & D.B. Weiss, each episode is thematically rich even as it ping-pongs around Westeros and the lands beyond. At this point they’re a well-oiled machine, with all of the parts perfectly in balance. The cast is uniformly spectacular, given the best material ever written in this genre, and fully committed to their roles. You know how good Peter Dinklage is, along with Maisie Williams, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Season 3’s breakout), Lena Headey, Charles Dance, Emilia Clarke, and over two dozen other principal actors as dimensionalized human beings in a fully lived-in land that, you know, just happens to feature dragons and magic.
With heart-stopping action, powerhouse performances, dazzling visuals, heaping helpings of Shakespearean court intrigue,
and gratuitous nudity (ah, not necessarily a positive, I guess), Thrones is peaking at the perfect time, and as a lover of the books I can tell you that Season 4 should be EVEN SUPERIOR to Season 3. After that…well, it’s anyone’s guess, but the next 18 months belong to Game of Thrones. It is known.
Agree? Disagree? You know you do. Let me hear it in the comments.