4 TV Series That Should Not Be Missed


The following is the second article in a three-part AlterNet series appearing on Fridays on television and culture by Vanessa Richmond.

Humans are full of contradictions. I distrust the status quo, but I love TV, the piece of furniture that among other things, manufactures consent. Why? In part, because TV is rocket fuel for any conversation about that status quo.

And because though I like friends and kittens and books and “real life,” as much as most people, TV can be as delicious as the chocolate chip cookies I often gobble while goggling.

Really good serial TV is the best way not only to get a mini escape into another land, another life, another person's head, it's one of the best forms of cultural shorthand there is -- the fastest way to discuss values, politics and psychology with everyone from your boss to the delivery person.

As I mentioned last week, yes, most TV is utter mind-rotting crap. But I'm here to suggest we don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. There is good TV. And with some critical thinking added to the mix, TV can be a golden cultural artifact.

You want to talk about whether the suburbs work with someone other than a college professor? Well, you can try summarizing the recent urban planning tomb you read, hoping your friends don’t fall asleep in their wine before you finish, so you can actually get to the juicy bits in a particular theory about little boxes made of ticky tacky.

Or you can mention two words: Betty Draper (from Mad Men). Because so many people watch that show, that's all most people need to start a really heated conversation about urban planning, car culture and isolation -- then get into chestnuts like traditional marriage, gender, motherhood, depression, addiction, infidelity, beauty, consumerism and other favorite tropes. Think of it as a performance-enhancing drug for chewy debate that includes everyone.

And in the quest for discussion highs, it's worth looking to sources other than what's on the boob tube right now. Some series have wrapped, but are worth renting in their entire 60-plus-episode glory, partly because the way that they tackle certain issues -- drug culture, gangs, terrorism, racism -- is as good or better than in any other media being produced now.

And partly because, full disclosure, good serial TV episodes can be like a gateway drug. You watch one here and there, then suddenly, one rainy Sunday afternoon, you realize you want the whole season. And with a wrapped series, you can get your mittens on next fix, gorging yourself, without having to wait a full week or a full year for your next fix.

The Wire

Five seasons, 2002-2007

It's not a drug war; it's a drug game. There aren't two opposing armies, but well-matched teams in a giant league, each with smart, lazy, conniving, greedy, innocent, charming, inept, adept players.

The Wire is about the drug game. But it isn't simply a story of good versus bad or a documentation of social systems gone wrong. The series is "great modern literature, a shattering and heartbreaking urban epic" about Baltimore's drug culture and the characters on both sides of the line.

The dealers and the law have careers, marriages, sex, family, friends and identity tied to the game. Each has characters that are simultaneously irresistible and repellent, mundane and horrifying, victim and agent.

Like Omar, a gay, ethical, rogue drug-dealer robber and murderer, who often forges partnerships with the drug trade's untouchables and outcasts -- like women -- who is technically homeless, yet very much at home, and speaks in near Shakespearean dialect.

In one scene, a drug dealer's lawyer cross-examines him, asking how the court could trust the testimony of someone who profits from the spoils of the drug trade. "Same as you," Omar says simply, in his drawl.

In another scene, when one character says of Stringer Bell, the intelligent, systematic, businesslike No. 2 man in what can only be described as the drug corporation, "He's worse than a drug dealer, he's a developer."

It's about the complexities and costs of drug culture. But as one critic said, "They have done what many well-intentioned socially minded writers have tried and failed at: written a story that is about social systems, in all their complexity, yet made it human, funny and most important of all, rivetingly entertaining."

The Sopranos

7 seasons, 1999-2007

There are a few shows that critics fight over to crown the best series on television. In most cases, it's a three-way tug of war between The Wire, Mad Men, and The Sopranos. The Sopranos is dazzlingly good TV.

On the one hand, it's about a New Jersey mob. But it surpasses that often clichéd mafia genre because it’s about far more than guns, kneecaps and pasta. As much as it’s plot-driven, it’s character-driven. It's humorous and dark at the same time, full of "psychological thorniness, and bleak tragedy."

Its characters are complex, like actual people: they're compelling and petty, ambitious and insecure. Like Tony Soprano, the mob boss, who is so hell-bent on power, yet wracked with self-doubt, that he's in therapy.

He's not the only one drawn in fine detail, which is one of ways the series works its subtle magic on viewers. "Carmela Soprano's fingernails, the way Tony breathes through his nose when he eats -- stay with you long after you've forgotten whose cut of a garbage route has precipitated a beef between which wiseguys."writes Paul Brownfield for the LA Times.

The Sopranos is irresistibly beautiful and tragic, "like peering at a series of train wrecks as rendered by da Vinci."

And when an episode ends, I'm often mildly disoriented. It sounds implausible, but I've often been so transported by the grime and the euphoria, the anxiety and ambition, that I'm surprised to find myself in my living room and not in New Jersey, where I've somehow started to believe I live. As one critic put it, "if this isn't art, then neither is Mozart."


3 seasons (2004-2006)

When a friend recommended I watch a series about the Wild West in which the only two female characters were a sex worker and a widow, I thought that I'd rather give myself paper cuts with a good feminist book and squeeze lemon juice in them. Turns out, they were the two richest female characters on TV, pre-Mad Men.

Someone described it to me as The Sopranos of the Wild West: a complex web of conniving people out for gold and survival. The characters are at times cruel, manipulative, ambitious, violent, kind, loyal, ethical, and vulnerable. I wanted to see how each would stay alive, find love, outsmart others, and stay sharp in a world where breakfast consists of coffee and whisky.

As Chicago Tribune critic Maureen Ryan put it, "every scene teems with an enthralling, fully realized vision of life, the kind of jostling pageant of humanity in the most satisfying works of Dickens or Trollope."

Battlestar Galactica

4 seasons (73 episodes), 2005-2008

Battlestar Galactica (just "Galactica" or "BSG" to its cult-like, often Internet-based fans) has what could be called a long tail. I know some people who still talk about Frak parties ("frak" being the Galactican word for, well, I'm sure you can figure it out. And Frak parties being a phenomenon in which people would invite strangers to their house or yard, usually via Craigslist, to watch an episode -- with the assumption that that those people would be smart, socially-aware, like-minded people).

Also, two of its female stars, Grace Park and Tricia Helfer, both robots in the series, grace the cover of a men’s magazine this month. But fans say the roles they play on the show make them sexier than conventional sex-bot roles. On the show, they play two female robots – robots who have equal physical and political powers to the male robots (in fact, even though the robots make political decisions by consensus, one female robot carries the tie-breaking vote). And even among the humans, the best fighter pilot is a woman, as is the president (for much of it).

Sexy sci-fi isn't new, nor is soapy sci-fi (Star Trek anyone?) but an issue-driven series set in space is. One, for example, that challenges the notion of technological progress. In the series, humans have become so advanced, that the robots they created have taken over their planet, which has been destroyed due to "civil" war. The humans escape on a fleet of spaceships, bound for Earth, and the only way to evade their sophisticated robot enemies is to use antiquated technology. I know, I know, it sounds ridiculous. And, of course it is.

It's campy and soapy and full of scenes where sexy robots and humans wear far fewer clothes than are strictly required for the task at hand. But that's part of the pleasure. And it's arguably the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine (the hard hitting issues that are coincidentally relevant to what's happening on Earth, circa early second millennium: abortion, religion, terrorism, gender, war, nationalism, racism, and so on) go down.

This isn't the TV equivalent of rocket-science. Unless the real key to promoting progressive discussions is having sexy robots stimulate the debate.

Read part 1 of Vanessa Richmond's series on television and culture, Michael Moore Was Right: Progressives Don't Watch Enough TV

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