In first place remains Deadwood, David Milch's masterpiece. The dialogue is unmatched and not just on television. You'd probably have to go to the stage to find any other drama wherein the dialogue was used for poetic purposes, not just as a utilitarian way to illustrate characters or move the plot forward. Characters spoke in complete sentences and paragraphs, and even had soliloquies. Every third word was profane and yet it made such beautiful music.
The concept itself: "How does barbarism become civilization and at what cost?" was more ambitious than anything I have ever seen in drama. It was unflinching in examining this -- unjust deaths, horrible people -- both damaged and damaging, and yet progress was made somehow. Like all of Milch's HBO work, it had to be left unfinished, but what ending there was was perfect. The town progresses, becomes a safer better place for it's residents, but the cost was the murder of an innocent. No judgment was passed, you are left to figure out on your own whether the end justified the means. Besides it's philosophical and poetic audacity it has something else that very few other serious dramas can claim. It is optimistic. Whatever ugliness and horrors occur, the bottom line is that things get better, both the world and the people in it. That cannot be said for any of the other shows on this list.
Number two is The Sopranos, a brilliant riff on the costs and benefits of self-delusion. It was just astounding on the subtleties on interpersonal power dynamics in the workplace (The Mob) and at home. Everyone was a victim, yet nobody was innocent. You sympathized with killers, then were shamed for it -- calling into question your own self-delusion. Death and destruction await pretty much all the characters, but you're still left with a nagging question, would they have been better off without their self-delusions. Or more philosophically, can you really not delude yourself, or do you just exchange one delusion for another?
Bonus points for the best sustained acting performance ever, by James Gandolfini, and quite probably the second best, by Edie Falco. Further bonus points for the very best depiction of the "The sins of the fathers..." ever. Extra credit for founding the Golden Age to begin with back in 1999. Slight deduction because there was a bit of fat in the middle seasons; it disappeared once the end was in sight.
Third place goes, conditionally, to Mad Men. Conditionally, because there is still one season left and if they make a hash of it, it drops. Up until this season I had always thought of Mad Men as a show that was "almost there", it just had this quality or that quality missing. But no, it's all there. Here's the interesting thing to me about Mad Men (which is a clue to it's quality): My take on much of the content is very different from most people. To wit:
- Initially, many thought it to be a curious piece of demi-satire about the backwards troglodytes in the early sixties. Since I had memory of those times I didn't see it so. To me it seemed a sharp piece of history wherein things were different, and while I would agree that things are better now, there was a sense of how much has been lost in terms of simple freedom of action and basic manners.
- Later, Don chose to marry a young cookie over a mature career woman and the public howled over his caveman sexism and how he was doomed to be unfulfilled by his child bride. To me that presupposed that the highest and best achievement of a man is to have a dedicated partnership with a woman built on the intellectual respectfulness and quite probably regular couples therapy sessions to raise awareness of each other. Don chose warmth, motherliness, virility, conflict, and emotional connection over clinical self-actualization. Yeah, I was on Don's side.
- In the season that just ended, the general consensus has been that since Joan bravely defied her husband who had the audacity to feel duty bound to the serve in Vietnam and underwent the ultimate degradation for a partnership in SCDP; that she has courageously turned her sex-centered victimhood on its head. Me? Well it looks to me like she married the poor schlub because she was afraid of spinsterhood, when he joined the military to support her she promptly went and had slept with Roger and got pregnant and passed the baby off to her husband as his own, then kicked him to the curb without ever telling him the truth, meanwhile taking a turn as a prostitute to get ahead. She's a horrible person, just horrible.
Bonus points to Mad Men for the near complete lack of violence or bombast. Also no lurid sex (which the HBO shows keep in their pocket for an cheap thrill). It is the only show in this list that relies on "normal" people, the sort of folks you see everywhere all the time, to generate interest. That's taking the hard path.
The Wire moves down to fourth and I don't feel completely confident in that ranking. The Wire's central conceit is brilliant on par with Deadwood. That is: Modern Institutions are really modern version of Greek Gods: they are arbitrary and vengeful; they cannot be resisted and control our fate at their whim. For high concept this is on a par with Deadwood. But the execution was less even and perhaps a bit too reliant on mythology of the characters rather than the humanistic insights of the narrative. To best illustrate this contrast consider season four, featuring the journey of four teenage boys through one summer in the Baltimore ghetto, compared to the final season. Season four was a brilliantly told story with the most palpable sense of fate and helplessness this side of Oedipus the King. They four boys were made or broken based on how they happened to interact with the structures of society around them. But at the end, in that final season, the writers, and David Simon in particular, took the opportunity to tell you what to think rather than capture the shades of gray, and we got snark and pot shots. Sorry, but consistency counts and it's a big minus for The Wire.
Likewise number five, Breaking Bad, started out with a sharp identity. Not as high concept as the others, it simply asked is it better to be a good and a doormat, or evil and respected? Walt started out a milquetoast. His son idolized his tough guy cop brother-in-law while never seeming to give him a second thought. His wife was a relentless, contemptuous nag. He barely provided for his family and was facing going begging to a patently more successful former rival to cover the costs of his cancer treatment. Facing death and eternal insignificance, was it really a bad decision to take the path he took? Through intellect, guile, and ruthlessness he became fearsome -- an alpha male who secured wealth for his family and respect for himself. His son came to idolize him and his wife to fear him. Most people, as usual, took another angle, seeing him as a man who had morally fallen from the grace of happy citizenship and turned evil. Fair enough, and through four seasons it could have been taken either way. But the current season (on hiatus after the first half as I write this) has the answer. Walt pushes too far and for that he must pay -- there is no grey anymore, there is no doubt -- his hubris will his unmaking. Walt is evil and must be punished. While it has be absolutely killer television -- the train robbery episode was utterly riveting -- the dramatic depth is gone. It's now just a matter of waiting to see how he gets his just desserts. I suppose having a pat moral to the story helps with closure. But I miss the messy humanity of conflict. (I'm speculating here, since the final 8 episodes aren't coming for a few months. It is possible it won't work out as I have described it.)
The real sadness: HBO greatness is gone and the last seasons of those AMC shows are coming with a year and then that's all she wrote. Nothing currently running or in planning has much hope of breaking the Drama Pantheon. Perhaps there will come a time in the future where a new wave of quality TV will wash over us. I hope I live to see it.
Writing this made me think I should do something similar for sitcoms. Seinfeld would probably be first. Cheers second. After that things get tricky. Sitcoms are so uneven over their lives. Almost all of the best of them start out slow, flat-out nail a season or two then slow fade into oblivion. (The Office, The Simpsons, Rosanne, Taxi, Cosby, South Park, Family Guymaybe even Big Bang Theory fall into this category). Most comedies thrive long term by being populated with characters you want to hang with for a half hour or so. The funniest current sitcom I know of is Archer but that begs the question of how to rank animated shows.
Also, I must admit, I'm not up on the latest sitcoms. I watch Archer and Wilfred. Louie is very well done, but to call it a comedy is a stretch (maybe dark comedy), and frankly it leaves me a bit cold despite its obvious quality. I catch occasional episodes of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia which can still kick out a knee-slapper ever ten or so tries. But the highly spoken of Parks and Recreation, Community, and Modern Family, I have never seen. And the bits and pieces of 30 Rock that I have seen indicate that it might be flat out bad. Nope, not qualified to write a pantheon of sitcoms.
This might be the longest post I have ever written. Enough of me. Here: read this oral history of Cheers. Key quote: "Kurt Vonnegut (from a 1991 interview):I would rather have written Cheers than anything I've written."