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The top 15 English-language television shows of the post-network era?

[ 298 ] March 24, 2012 |

Since 1) I have nothing better to do on a Saturday afternoon besides grade 170 essays and 2) we’ve been talking about trolls and trolling of late, I thought, “Scott, you should troll your own blog!” So here goes:

After watching last night’s episode of Fringe and consulting the deep recesses of my nerdy soul, I’m going to declare that Fringe is very close to eclipsing The Wire as the best English-language television show I’ve ever watched. That final conditional means I’m not going to include shows from the dark days of network television, because I’ve seen more silent films than I have episodes of Hill Street Blues or Airwolf. Now, I know you’re going to complain that Fringe opened as an X-Files clone and didn’t evolve into anything interesting until midway through its second season — when, threatened with cancellation, the writers decided that if they were going to be cancelled, they may as well do so on their own terms — whereas The Wire‘s first season was a well-orchestrated slow-burn, and I’m not going to disagree. But what I appreciate about Fringe is that it’s become what it is despite itself. Or maybe I’m just being unduly presentist. Either way, here’s my list:

  1. Fringe (technically 1a)
  2. The Wire (technically 1b)
  3. Deadwood
  4. Buffy the Vampire Slayer
  5. Mad Men
  6. The first season of Twin Peaks
  7. The only season of Firefly
  8. Seinfeld
  9. Every episode except the series finale of Battlestar Galactica
  10. Doctor Who
  11. The first and second seasons of Homicide, as well as that episode with Vincent D’Onofrio
  12. The UK version of Prime Suspect
  13. The first season of the American version of In Treatment
  14. The second and final seasons of Angel
  15. The UK version of Life on Mars
  16. UPDATE: Shows some idiot neglected to include on this list include: Arrested Development; the second, third and fourth seasons of Babylon 5Breaking Bad; the UK version of The OfficeFreaks and Geeks; Leverage; and …

Plus all the ones I forgot or couldn’t stomach including, like the Michael Moriarty episodes of Law & Order, which have been retroactively ruined by his crazy Canadian racism. I imagine I’ve forgotten quite a few, but I’m just as (if not more) interested in discovering and/or being reminded of items not included above.

Comments (298)

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  1. bob mcmanus says:

    St Elsewhere. I know it precedes your period, but it needs to be mentioned anyway.

    • Quercus says:

      So ‘post-network’ means “All in the Family”, “Hill Street Blues”, “Soap”, “Police Squad” and “The Simpsons” are out, but “Seinfeld” is in?

      Also, since the subject is ‘shows’ not ‘dramas and comedies’, what about, say “Mythbusters”?

  2. Chuchundra says:

    I really liked Babylon 5 back in the day, but now I find it pretty much unwatchable. Between Stracynski’s tin ear for dialogue, his penchant for sledgehammer o’ message and the sub-par acting talent (Jurasik and Katsulas excluded) the whole thing plays out like a direct to YouTube show to me.

    • SEK says:

      Bruce Boxleitner’s stilted delivery and ham-fisted cliches are realism at its finest, or have you not been paying attention to the Republican primaries?

      • Chuchundra says:

        Heh.

        There was some speculation at the time that, after Sheridan became President, Boxleitlner’s hair and makeup were being done is such a way as to make him look somewhat like Bill Clinton.

        B5 was really an early example of the type of SF/Genre show we see a lot of today, with it’s serialized episodes, central mysteries and long, multiyear, series-spanning story arcs. Pity that it wasn’t better done.

        There really was quite a lot to like about B5. JMS the control freak really squeezed the life out of it, unfortunately. If he had allowed more of the episodes to be written by people other than himself it would have been a much better show.

        At one point he bragged that he had written fifty episodes in a row. Fifty! What kind of crazy do you have to be on to think that’s anything like a good ides.

  3. Lee says:

    You’re rating fringe above the wire?!? I don’t even rate it above firefly. And what about the West Wing? And putting in all of Dr. Who? You should at least narrow it down by individual Dr. And if you’re going to include mini-series like Life on Mars you open the door to a whole bunch of other British TV (House of Cards anyone?).

    • SEK says:

      I’m close to doing so, but only because I’m as much of a nerd as I am a film/television theorist.

      As for Doctor Who, I’m really only talking about Baker and Tennant and Smith, which I’m sure will earn me much deserved shit, but there you go. (And I’ve been trying to find House of Cards, but that illegal site that I don’t frequent that has a torrent of it never has any more than one person seeding it. I’ve literally been downloading it for months.)

  4. past contingent says:

    Nobody’s going to tag Coupling?

    FLCL is six short wonderful episodes, but I feel like I’m missing most of the references. I do know Neon Genesis Evangelion and see a lot of connections, but as TVTropes sez NGE is the Deconstructor Fleet for much of what went before it. Maybe I’m picking it up indirectly from there. FLCL is worth watching anyway but it’s not the newcomer-friendly Cowboy Bebop.

    I wonder if there are any useful connections between BSG and NGE. The famously confusing plot in the latter has a good explanation: the second half of the series was written under increasing time pressure and later still, produced with crushing budget problems. There’s a lot of portent up front alluding to plots and conspiracy vague enough to be filled in later, when hopefully the writer will have figured out where the hell they’re going; mileage varies on whether they ever deliver, but like BSG the characters do better from living in a world where honestly nobody knows what will happen next. In NGE the world really does fall apart about the same time the author does so it works as a metanarrative for me. The NGE Rebuild movies (two out of four complete) appear to have real foreshadowing because this time They Have A Plan. Not sure whether this will be better.

    GitS:SAC helped to magic Anonymous into life, so it may be worth glancing at on that basis.

    • ReinWeiss says:

      FLCL’s reference pool is hilariously broad. I don’t think anyone actually got every reference the first time. But not having a solid backing in previous GAINAX anime (such as the aforementioned Neon Genesis Evangelion) would certainly leave one scratching their head.

      Its still quite enjoyable on a more superficial level though, its quite the ride regardless.

      I do wish some newer anime than NGE (1995!), Cowboy Bebop (1999!) and FLCL (2001) would enter the western consciousness though.

  5. andrewsomething says:

    As a Who fan, you should really check out Steven Moffat’s Sherlock.

    • SEK says:

      I’m teaching it next quarter. I start with Doyle’s Scarlet, move to Moffat’s, then to House, then to Superman Returns, then to Doctor Who. People look at me funny when I say that, so I’ll preemptively qualify it:

      Holmes and Watson = House and Wilson

      Holmes and House = Desperate last chance

      Bryan Singer made House and Superman Returns =
      Desperate last chance

      Moffat’s making Sherlock and Doctor Who = Desperate last chance

      That’s not my best shorthand, but it should suffice.

  6. Lisa says:

    The show no one watched and the last three episodes of the aborted first and only season (only 9 eps) were only aired in France? Seriously: Profit. Sure, how it represents computers in the early 90s is horrifying, and visually icky (and hilariously bad) — but, still. The craziest, most extreme, most absurd, most psychopathic protagnoist Ever. Freakishly the granddaddy of Things We Like. Watch it and marvel at how others have picked up its threads. Clumsy compared to what picked up its threads, for sure (looking at you, Mad Men, and differently, Deadwood), but let’s at least have a moment for its unacknowleded importance.

  7. Gus says:

    I will NEVER understand the love for Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

  8. Dave says:

    Great list. I only watched a few episodes of Fringe. So I can’t say much other than it would have needed to get better by leaps and bounds for it to be on this list. Though you could have said the same thing about Buffy. So it’s possible.

    I’m almost done with Battlestar Galactica. I’ve been watching it on BBC America. I’ve loved the vast majority of it, aside from the stretch in season 3 where they focused heavily on Apollo and Starbuck’s relationship. This isn’t the first time I’ve heard rumblings about how it ends. But you have me worried.

  9. Chaz says:

    “John Safran v. God.”

    Actually, any of the John Safran shows should be on this list. Unfortunately, the DVDs are not available in the U.S. but I recommend the many YouTube clips.

    Also, I’m not sure that it meets your “post-network” criteria, but “Larry Sanders” rocked.

  10. Halloween Jack says:

    I’m not going to go into your ranking B5 above DS9, simply because I’ve learned that it’s a waste of my time to do so, generally. But putting Firefly on your list and relegating Breaking Bad to the honorable mention list? Are you high? Firefly is a bad show with good dialogue that is severely overrated by browncoats who consider a day wasted if they can’t repeat the same quotes from it over and over again. Whedon’s indifferent, slap-dash attempts at world-building are usually excused by its being a “space Western”, but it’s not even very good at that–how many Westerns are set aboard a boat?

  11. Your neglect of the television programming of Ghana is strange.

  12. Hebisner says:

    First Season of Veronica Mars
    First Two seasons of Alias

  13. hickes01 says:

    Any list should begin and ends with “Justified”. Simply the best.

  14. Mike says:

    No love for “Chuck”?

    Or “Dead Like Me”?

    Inconceivable!

  15. Martin says:

    First, I can’t believe that a serious scholar of narrative would just pretend that the hara-kiri of Deadwood’s 3rd season just didn’t happen — esp. in a list that takes pains to name specific seasons in some cases. Deadwood was a work of genius to some degree, but narratively the series is simply broken. It’s a serious failure on Milch’s part.

    Second, by mentioning British series, you’re opening the door to a great many series that should be on here, including Cracker, Waking the Dead, the original State of Play, the Smiley series, The Forsyte Saga, The Pallisers, I, Claudius, When the Boat Comes In, A Touch of Frost, and so on. A lot of this is highly talky TV, but excellent TV.

    Also, I think season 2, arguably 1&2 but definitely 2, of True Blood ranks with almost everything mentioned here. And I echo the above commenter’s recommendation of Life, not perhaps an all-time great but still a very interesting and engaging and original bit of network TV.

    Did anyone mention Friday Night Lights?

  16. marc sobel says:

    I thought highly of Caprica.

  17. [...] = [];}…and are disappointed that none of you lot pointed out. Namely, that when I wrote this post a month ago, it never occurred to me that I was unconsciously admitting to a desire to be bossed [...]

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