Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Best TV Of The 2000's

Noted TV critic Alan Sepinwall recently blogged about his participation in a 'best TV of the 2000s' poll. He had to pick his six favorites in the categories of best drama, best comedy, and the best lead actors and actresses in dramas and comedies. Naturally, this post drew a lot of suggestions from readers and everyone (including me) threw in their own two cents about their own personal picks.

I've decided to reprint my choices here, with some mild adjustments to the original concept. Since I never know where to fit dramadies, and since so many of my favorite actors are part of ensembles and not really technically leads, I decided to shuffle the categories around and simply list a top ten general Shows, Actors and Actresses. It's a cheat, yes, but honestly, opening it up to a flat ten choices in all genres is actually quite a bit harder. Also, Sepinwall's poll said that any series that aired episodes in the 2000s is fair game, but I've stuck just to series and performances that really had their heyday in this decade. For instance, Kelsey Grammer did some fine work on 'Frasier,' over its last four seasons, but obviously his best days with the character were in the 1990's.

So here are my picks of the best on TV from the past decade....feel free to argue. That is, unless you agree with me completely, in which case we should be best friends. And if I'm not including your favorite show, just assume I haven't seen it. (p.s. Should I be writing this list before I start watching The Wire? Oh well.)

Will Arnett, Arrested Development.....The only question was, which of the AD cast would end up in the final ten? This is when it's hard to quantify the supporting vs. lead argument, since someone like Michael C. Hall (spoiler alert: Hall makes it) carries his whole show, whereas Arnett is merely one part of a great ensemble. I narrowly picked GOB over Tobias, George Michael and George/Oscar (don't discount Jeffrey Tambor in a dual role), but in the end Arnett got the nod just because he gave GOB's douchiness so many different dimensions.

Alec Baldwin, 30 Rock.....No-brainer selection. It's funny, without SNL, Baldwin goes down in history as a well-regarded theatre actor and a mid-range movie star. Now, after umpteen brilliant hosting appearances, he's known as one of the best comic actors of our time. One Emmy already, and he should win another just for his pronunciation of 'Jackie Jormpjomp.'

Steve Carell, The Office (U.S. version).....Bonus points to Carell for both managing to live up to Ricky Gervais' original performance, and also creating a totally unique character independent of David Brent. I DECLARE BANKRUPTCY!!!!!!

Bryan Cranston, Breaking Bad.....If I was ranking these in order, Cranston would be guaranteed a top-three position. He is just unbelievably, career-making good on 'Breaking Bad,' which has probably been the best show on TV this year. The original 'terminal cancer patient chemistry teacher becomes a meth dealer' premise has blossomed into an absolute emotional gut-punch every week. Cranston had two pantheon scenes in the last four episodes alone --- his attempt to bullshit his wife about his 'fugue state' disappearance, and his embittered rant at his ex-lover.

Michael Emerson, Lost.....Well, you knew someone from LOST was making it. It was just a question of whether it would be Emerson or Terry O'Quinn, and hey, since Ben always seems to get one over on Locke on the show, it only feels right that it extend to the list. Emerson had arguably the harder task in joining the show midway through the second season, and interestingly enough, his character wasn't supposed to be recurring. It was only because Emerson was so good that the producers decided to expand the Ben Linus character. Emerson has put himself in the running as the best villain in TV history, and this is inarguable even if it's eventually revealed that Ben isn't totally a 'villain' within LOST's story.

Ricky Gervais, The Office (U.K. version)/Extras.....Gervais already earned himself a spot due to David Brent, but then he had to go and just really reinforce things as Andy Millman on Extras. Is Gervais just playing himself? I remember an old interview with (of all people) Stone Cold Steve Austin, where he said that the best characters in pro wrestling are those when the wrestlers are just playing themselves, but with the volume turned up. David Brent is Gervais turned up to 11, and with an evil twist. Well, maybe not 'evil.' Just pathetic.

Michael C. Hall, Dexter.....I can only hope that this show stays fresh and manages to stave of the going-downhill warning signs of its most recent season. That doesn't really affect Hall, who has arguably the finest line to walk of any character on this list. He has to make you like a total sociopath, and hopefully the series keeps its balls and doesn't make Dexter too schmoopy now that he's married and has a kid on the way.

Jon Hamm, Mad Men.....In the words of Mad Men's John Slattery, 'even James Bond would love to play Don Draper.' A few actors could've matched Hamm's control and power as Don, but even fewer could've also managed the complete 180 that Hamm does when he switches over into 'Dick Whitman' mode. Even more impressively, Hamm himself seems to be something of a dorky goof in real life, so that's two totally separate personas that he's able to create for the show.

Neil Patrick Harris, How I Met Your Mother.....The last of the no-brainer selections on the list. I started with Baldwin, Hall, Gervais, Cranston and NPH and went from there. It's funny that Craig Thomas and Carter Bays wanted to make a show with four mostly realistic leads and one over-the-top zany sitcommish character, and yet it's the sitcommish character who is perhaps the most fully realized of the bunch after four seasons. The biggest compliment I can give NPH is that at this time in 2009, people have pretty much forgotten about him as Doogie Howser. To escape that kind of typecasting is a Jackie Earle Haley-esque feat.

Richard Schiff, The West Wing.....Curveball! I had some real thinking to do over this last spot, weighing everyone from Chi McBride to Kiefer Sutherland to Terry O'Quinn to Grammer and David Hyde Pierce (since really, they were both still pretty damn good even in Frasier's latter years) to everyone else from Arrested Development and TWW itself. But Schiff gets the nod in the end because, of all the great characters on West Wing, Toby Ziegler is the most original and difficult to describe of the bunch. Just a wholly one-of-a-kind character that could only exist within the peculiar realm of an Aaron Sorkin show. In fact, it's notable that Toby as a character really sort of lost a bit of direction after Sorkin left the show. I find it hard to believe that Sorkin would have ever had Toby leak classified information about that shuttle launch and betray President Bartlett.

Kristen Bell, Veronica Mars.....No-brainer #1 on the ladies' side, and I'm not just saying this because Kristen Bell is a former winner of the Imaginary TV Girlfriend Award in my old student newspaper TV column. (An award that, in hindsight, sounds really creepy. Uh....) A few marks deducted for the very end of the series, when Veronica got just a bit too bitter and snarky, but I figure that the show was going off the air anyway and the writers were phoning it in like the New Orleans Hornets by that point. No fault of Bell's. Odd Veronica Mars-related question I've always wondered about: in the flashbacks they show of Veronica pre-Lily's death, she seems like kind of a vapid idiot, and your classic stereotypical 09er. There was no sign of the intelligence she showed in the present-day rest of the series as a detective. So basically, I'm wondering if Lily's death wasn't, in a way, pretty much the best thing to ever happen to Veronica? I guess this could've been a post on its own, but when else will I get an opening to discuss a cancelled teen detective series?

Kristin Chenoweth, Pushing Daisies.....The Olive Snook character was, on paper, a somewhat predictable fly-in-the-ointment to prevent Ned and Lonely Tourist Charlotte Charles from getting together. Instead, the show took us in a more original and satisfying direction by having Olive and Chuck become best friends, while she still acknowledged her feelings for the Piemaker. Also, any situation that involves Chenoweth bursting into song is greatly appreciated. The writers even found a way to work in her rendition of 'Candle On The Water' in an episode that was obliquely based on (of all friggin' things) the old "Pete's Dragon" Disney movie. ABC are complete morons for canceling 'Pushing Daisies.' This cannot be overstated.

Marcia Cross, Desperate Housewives.....I have one other Housewives character on the list, but Cross got the duke for taking the most one-note of the four major Housewives (the anal-retentive matronly 'traditional' homemaker) and still making Bree a semi-realistic, relatable character in spite of all the unbelievable nonsense that she's been through over the course of five seasons. I feel there's still some stories to be told with Bree, whereas in the cases of Susan and Lynette, the well is bone dry.

Tina Fey, 30 Rock.....Oh, Liz Lemon. Truly a hero of our times. I think the moment that 30 Rock turned the pop-culture corner was when I realized that almost every female friend I know who watches the show identified with at least one of Liz's quirks. Dismissing Liz as merely the normal center around which the rest of 30 Rock's crazy characters orbit is a disservice to all the time and effort that Tina Fey has gone through to make Liz a hilarious character in her own right. This one was the no-brainer of all no-brainers.

Alyson Hannigan, Buffy The Vampire Slayer/How I Met Your Mother.....Like Smilex gas, neither Willow or Lily alone would've gotten Hannigan on the list. In combination, however, those roles are deadly. Now, I did have to stretch my 'heyday in the 2000s' rule just a wee bit, since Hannigan's best work on 'Buffy' probably came in the show's first three season before Willow inexplicably became a lesbian and a planet-threatening witch, but even still, she put in good work no matter what the writers did to the character.

Allison Janney, The West Wing.....Another no-brainer. It says something that Janney was able to rank so highly on the list in spite of Sorkin's well-established difficulty in writing female characters. I always feel like the casting director is the underrated hero of any Sorkin show. Toby as played by anyone but Richard Schiff perhaps comes off as an unlikable curmudgeon. Jordan McDeere as played by anyone other than Amanda Peet could've been a fantastic character. And CJ, given actions like openly contradicting the administration's policies on dealing with Qumar and asking more (in my opinion) than her fair share of questions that a White House press secretary should know the answer to, could've devolved into another Mandy Hampton or Amy Gardner were it not for Janney's great work.

Ashley Jensen, Extras.....Has anyone done better work on a series and received so little recognition for it? Not real-life recognition (Jensen has won several awards), but rather recognition in the sense that of every conversation I've ever had about 'Extras,' the topics have solely concerned a) comparing it to The Office, b) comparing Andy to David Brent and c) how funny Stephen Merchant is as Andy's agent. Jensen is brilliant as Maggie. I'd watch a Maggie-centric show before I watched a Stephen Merchant-as-the-agent show, as funny as that would nevertheless be.

Kathryn Joosten, The West Wing/Desperate Housewives.....Another curveball, this one coming from the ladies' side. In just a part-time role on TWW, Joosten created a character so memorable that Mrs. Landingham became Jed Bartlett's emotional conscience for the rest of the series. Put it this way --- if Joosten hadn't knocked Mrs. Landingham so far out of the park, then 'Two Cathedrals' (perhaps TWW's best episode and one of the best episodes of any series ever) doesn't carry nearly as much emotional heft. But Joosten, like Hannigan, made the list due to the cumulative power of her 'Housewives' role, and if that series had any creative juice left, it would've made Mrs. McCluskey a central character three years ago. I mean for god's sake, they even brought in Lily Tomlin as McCluskey's sister, which is a comic premise that could fuel a whole new series, let alone a DH season. These complaints would probably carry more weight if I wasn't the last person in the world watching Desperate Housewives.

Jaime Pressly, My Name Is Earl.....Another no-brainer since Pressly's Joy character is one of the few true 'funny every time they're on the screen' characters on TV. Though My Name Is Earl throws in a few emotional curves every once in a while (i.e. the recent episode with Joy as Randy's childhood sweetheart), basically Joy's only role is to be funny as hell. Mission accomplished.

Amy Sedaris, Strangers With Candy.....A no-brainer after the fact, since it was only after I was perusing a list of 2000's shows that I suddenly remembered I had forgotten about the very funny 'Strangers With Candy.' Amy Sedaris is one of those people who should be more famous than she is. She just needs a vehicle to really push her into the limelight, though whatever theoretical role this would be would be hard-pressed to top middle-aged, ex-con, bisexual, racist high school student Jerri Blank.

Angel.....Maybe a bit of a surprise entry, as the 'Buffy' spinoff beats out Veronica Mars, American Dad and Curb Your Enthusiasm. 'Angel' was the rare show that actually got better as it went along, while its parent series 'Buffy' got increasingly worse. S4 was like a season of 24 in its ever-increasing pressure and crazy plot twists, while S5 wrapped up the whole concept of the series quite nicely by having the crew actually in charge of Wolfram & Hart. And as much as I would've loved to have seen a sixth year to see if the show would've continued to get better, I must admit that the final Angel episode was one of the best finales I've seen of any series. N.B. the guy who played Lorne, Andy Hallett, recently died. Aw man.

Arrested Development.....I think the episode 'Save Our Bluths (S.O.Bs)' was perhaps a little too self-indulgent and heavy on in-jokes. So that would be my pick for the, ahem, 'worst' AD episode. So the final score is 52 masterpieces, one okay one. Wow. I'm at a loss to think of any show that lasted more than a season that has such a high batting average of fantastic episodes. As much as the early cancellation galled me at the time, part of me is happy that Mitch Hurwitz got to do the show he wanted, no matter how brief it seemed. And really, 53 episodes is pretty substantial if you think about it. In this age of shortened seasons of cable shows, 53 episodes would've been five years' worth of stuff on an HBO program. And that's not even counting THE MOVIE~~~! WHICH IS ACTUALLY HAPPENING~~~!

Breaking Bad.....As I mentioned before in my half-entry, half-panting mash note to Bryan Cranston, BB is arguably the best show on television today. It creates gripping, panicked situations out of elements that would be throwaway sequences on another crime show. Getting rid of a body on, say, The Shield is an off-screen development. Getting rid of a body on Breaking Bad is a three-episode arc. It's also great that a show that began as a dark comedy is slowly getting darker and darker on its way to being what will no doubt be a near-traumatic drama. If you've never seen BB, the first season is only seven episodes long and is well worth a rental.

How I Met Your Mother.....While AD has the high batting average, HIMYM has the best conversion rate of any series I've seen in a while. Literally everyone I know who's started watching the show has become an instant fan --- there are no complaints of "it's too cute" (Pushing Daisies), "it's too confusing" (Lost) or "it's too boring" (The Office...seriously, this was an actual complaint. Egads.) But everyone, it seems, can relate to the antics of Ted, Robin, Lily, Marshall and Barney. The best way I can describe HIMYM is that it's like the lovechild of Seinfeld and Friends. If you just got a mental image of Michael Richards trying to seduce Courteney Cox, well, I'm sorry, but HIMYM combines Seinfeld's ability for great wordplay and comic setpieces with Friends' heart and ability to mix humor within a group dynamic. And, as I said before, Neil Patrick Harris literally couldn't be more perfect in this role.

Lost.....I just hope it ends well. At this point, I'm as invested in LOST as I have been in any TV series ever. I'm 85 percent confident that the producers have a distinct and mind-blowing ending in mind. Some of the blanks they've filled in this season has given me great hope that a plan has been in place this entire time. But still, nothing would be a bigger letdown than if this rich tapestry of a series unravels over its final season or last few episodes. A bad ending can just kill a series. You'll notice the absence of Buffy the Vampire Slayer on this list largely because pretty much everything after the musical episode was just total garbage. I'm so worked up about this that I've spent all of Lost's entry worrying about the final season without even mentioning that to this point, it's one of the most unique shows and viewing experiences in television history.

The Office (U.S. version).....In the same way that Carell channels but doesn't copy Gervais, the US Office channels the UK Office but has a distinctly different and separate feel to it. The UK version is claustrophobic, the US version is more open and took fuller use of its large cast. Hell, even the large cast is itself unique to the US version, since the UK Office almost wholly focused on the main four characters. This current season has provided enough new twists --- the Michael-Holly romance and the Michael Scott Paper Company storyline --- that I have full faith that there's enough juice left in the concept to last at least a couple of more seasons.

The Office (U.K. version).....But of course, while the US Office did about as good a job as possible of translating the Gervais/Merchant masterpiece into a mainstream American sitcom, let's not forget that the original series is still very, very, funny. In just 12 episodes plus the Xmas special, Gervais/Merchant created arguably the most influential comedy of our age.

30 Rock.....By the end of this season, 30 Rock will have 58 episodes in the books. I feel a comparison post pitting it against 'Arrested Development' is warranted sometime in the future. A bold statement, but hey, 30 Rock is just that damn good. I'm so glad and maybe more than a bit relieved that Tina Fey delivered a show that was just as good as predicted, given that her, er, shaky (read: bad) last couple of years running SNL threatened her place on my list of personal heroes. But, she has more than held her position, and in fact now she sits comfortably between Paul Molitor and the guy who invented Sudoku puzzles.

24.....Okay, sure, the sixth season was a total trash heap. And the show has taken a lot of hits given its rather right-wing leanings, particularly in the ongoing debate about torture. But has any show recorded the number of Holy Shit moments that 24 did over its first five seasons? It is, in my view, the best pure action show in television history. Sure, the plots didn't always make sense and there were at least two situations per season that got a bit ludicrous ("Oh no! A cougar! Save me, Johnny Drama!"), but good lord can this show ever be gripping. For all of you TV connoisseurs who love this current era of self-contained serial dramas, I'd argue that it was actually 24 that really brought this era to mainstream network TV. At the very least, 24 is to be credited with the popularity of single-season DVD sets of television shows. 24 was so big that it even earned Kiefer Sutherland a guest appearance on 'Corner Gas,' which is the height of any show business career.

The West Wing.....The second season of the West Wing alone might have gotten the show onto my list, given that S2 was probably the single best season of any show I've ever seen. An old professor of mine once said of George Bernard Shaw that Shaw's greatest talent was his ability to deliver social commentary about ostensibly dry subjects within plays that were nonetheless witty, suspenseful and tremendously entertaining. Aaron Sorkin has that same gift. It takes a gifted writer to make being a White House policy wonk seem like the greatest job in the world.


Chad Nevett said...

I don't disagree with around half of each list, maybe a bit more. I would give more props to Curb Your Enthusiasm and Freaks and Geeks. Hmm... I should do a list.

But, I wanted to bring a site to your attention that the guy who runs the Comics Should be Good blog I contribute to. It's a site where he discusses legends around sports and entertainment, finding out if they're true or not. Seems like something you'd dig (I sure do), so check it out:

Hal Incandenza said...

Awesome idea for a post. The only category where it wasn't a stuggle to narrow it to 10, for me, was Best Actress. My picks:

Actor: Arnett, Baldwin, Carell, Gervais, Hamm, Hall, plus: David Hyde Pierce, Henry Ian Cusick, Michael Chiklis, Kyle Chandler, Bradley Whitford, John Spencer, and James Gandolfini (not sure if I could really narrow it to ten, but Chiklis and Chandler would have to be included).

Actress: Bell, Fey, Janney, Jensen, plus: Cobie Smulders, Elzabeth Mitchell, Edie Falco, Jenna Fischer, Connie Britton (for FNL), and Janel Maloney.

Show: Angel, AD, Lost, UK Office, 30 Rock, The West Wing, plus: CYE, Friday Night Lights, The Shield, The Wire, The Sopranos, and Mad Men. (If it absolutely had to be ten, I'd dump CYE and--heart-breakingly--Mad Men, the latter only because it probably needs another season to reach full legendary status).