THE TOP TEN SERIES ON AMERICAN TELEVISION: PART 1
This is the first of two Telegenics offering my highly subjective ranking of the top ten dramatic series currently airing on American television.
10. Dexter (Showtime, 2006- )—I thought long and hard before assigning Showtime’s long-running series (now in its sixth season) about Dexter Morgan, a Miami PD blood splatter expert who is in reality a serial killer who kills other serial killers to the final slot in my top ten. As Dexter, Michael David Hall (the younger Fisher brother in Six Feet Under) remains the primary, if not the sole, reason to continue watching. Almost all the series I love have fascinating secondary characters; on Dexter the other cast members are almost all unbearable (some even rival Kim Bauer on 24—yes, they’re that bad).
Our Favorite Serial Killer. Image from Showtime.com.
Image from I. B. Tauris
But the guest stars, the visiting Big Bads—from Jimmy Smits, to John Lithgow, to Edward James Olmos—are often welcome diversions. When I wrote about “Dexter’s Narrative Strategies” for Doug Howard’s 2010 book, I was already wondering if the series had not painted itself into a corner. Nothing in the two seasons since has convinced me otherwise. And yet I wouldn’t think of missing it.
9. NCIS (CBS, 2003- )—A year ago I had seen only one or two episodes of Don Bellisario’s series about the Navy’s Criminal Investigation Service when I began to watch it for purely professional reasons. Although I was well aware that NCIS had climbed in the ratings year by year in unprecedented fashion (it ended its fourth season ranked 20th in the Nielsen’s but is now often the #1 scripted show on television), I did not expect to enjoy my time with it.
Pauly Paurette as forensic specialist Abby Sciuto on NCIS (photo from Wikipedia)
But, thanks to all its quirky characters—from Mark Harmon’s Jethro Gibbs to Michael Weatherly’s Tony DiNozzo, Pauly Paurette’s gothy Abby Sciuto, and David McCallum’s “Ducky” Mallard (McCallum’s best role since The Man from Uncle)—NCIS has all the charm of a great workplace sitcom, and it’s very exciting as well, a procedural that’s much more engrossing than its CBS competitor CSI.
8. Sons of Anarchy (FX, 2008- )—For many years Shaun Ryan’s bad cop masterpiece The Shield was one of the best shows on TV, a basic cable rival to “not TV” HBO’s The Sopranos. The saga of an outlaw California motorcycle club, Sons of Anarchy was created by Kurt Sutter, one of Ryan’s key writers, and it often succeeds, as did its FX predecessor, in beguiling us into identification with criminals. I can’t stop watching it, but I am more than a little disturbed by my interest in this violent, often brilliant show.
Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter (photo from Wikipedia)
7. Boardwalk Empire (HBO, 2010)—When Robert Thompson set out to identify the distinguishing characteristics of “quality television” in Television’s Second Golden Age (1996), that “quality TV usually has a quality pedigree” was number two on his list. “Shows made by artists whose reputations were made in other, classier media, like film, are prime candidates,” he would add. The creation of Boardwalk could of course claim as one of its creators no less than one of the all-time greatest cinematic auteurs, Martin Scorsese, but its quality pedigree has roots in television as well, for this extraordinary historical drama set in Atlantic City, New Jersey during Prohibition was the brainchild as well of David Chase’s right-hand man on The Sopranos, Terence Winter. Movie actors Steve Buscemi (a Coen Brothers regular, who had also directed some of the best Sopranos episodes), Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road), Michael Pitt (The Dreamers), and Kelly Macdonald (No Country for Old Men)—all play pivotal roles, as does The Wire’s Michael Kenneth Williams (Omar Little). Boardwalk paints on a very large, completely mesmerizing canvas.
Michael Shannon as Agent Nelson Van Alden in Boardwalk Empire
6. Justified (FX, 2010- )— In my forthcoming “creative portrait” of Joss Whedon, I offer the following account of the-man-who-would-give-us-Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s “script doctoring” of Jan DeBont’s 1994 smash hit film Speed.
Told that he was not permitted to change any of the stunts but that he had a blank check to alter every word, Whedon authored most of the dialogue in the final film. . . . He had a hand, too, in minor reconstruction of the plot. . . . His task, as he understood it, was to find “the emotional reality of the characters and [get] them from A to B in a realistic fashion.” Because of Writers Guild of America rules, however, his name did not appear on the finished film, and Graham Yost was given sole credit as Speed’s author.
In a later encounter, Yost would awkwardly try to convince Speed’s uncredited author that “You would have done the same thing”—i.e., taken sole credit if it was offered, a rationalization with which Whedon strongly disagreed.
Timothy Olyphant and Margo Martindale (photo from TV Guide.com.
What does this have to do to with Justified? That same Graham Yost, over fifteen years later, would create another series, one of several “local color” series on American TV (it’s actually filmed in Pennsylvania and Southern California), about a US Marshall reassigned to his home state of Kentucky after a not-entirely-justified shooting in Miami. Justified . Many Kentuckians, constantly complaining about its geographical errancy and possible trading in southern stereotypes, would strongly contest that Justified deserves a place on my list, but with a strong cast that includes Deadwood’s Timothy Olyphant as Marshall Raylan Givens and The Shield’s Walton Goggins as his childhood frenemy Boyd Crowder, and the great character actress Margo Martindale, who deservedly won an Emmy for her Season Two performance as backwoods matriarch Mags Bennett, Justified’s blend of humor and action is so compelling that it remains one of my most-looked-forward-to shows.
Coming soon: my top five.
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