Before Melissa and I were married, I watched very little television. Various sporting events comprised the vast majority of my TV viewing palette, along with a few select shows on HBO. Network television might as well not have existed: I never watched scripted shows on the major broadcast networks or cable channels. My belief was that most of the shows were boring and predictable, and by and large that was true at the time. But things have changed, and as Melissa and I introduced each other to our favorite shows and tried some new programs along the way I found myself enjoying multiple shows, some of them on the broadcast networks. We watch some reality shows like American Idol, but I like quite a few of the dramas and comedies on a variety of different channels. Some serials are better than others of course, so I decided to put together a list of my favorite scripted TV programs currently on air. There are good shows we haven’t yet watched (eg, Mad Men), and Melissa and I have shows we like together and some we like individually. Below is my personal list, and to be sure she has no desire to watch several of them, just as I have no desire to watch Grey’s Anatomy. Thankfully there is high quality programming in just about every genre, but it was not always so.
For most of the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s television was in a creative slump. There were very few good shows, and most of the regular programming was packed with cookie cutter sit-coms or night-time soap operas. There were good programs like Cheers, Seinfeld, and ER, but for the most part Americans did not have a compelling reason to tune in to the networks in prime time. Most of the comedies were light, trite, repetitive bilge, and most dramas were predictable and contrived. Up until 2005 I watched virtually no network television other than Seinfeld and ER, and even ER got old after its 7th season.
The premium channels (HBO, Showtime, Cinemax, Starz, etc) – led by HBO – offered a reprieve in the late 1990s and early 2000s by producing high quality shows like Sex and the City and The Sopranos, both of which were immensely popular and enjoyed widespread critical favor. Both shows were profoundly influential, adding a depth and complexity to television that hadn’t been realized in the past. The Sopranos is widely considered the greatest television show of all time – it’s certainly one of my favorites. It has spawned the proliferation of numerous cable and premium channel dramas, which attract big-name casts, sophisticated writing, high quality production, and ever-increasing viewers. Indeed, there are so many good shows on cable and premium channels today it is literally impossible to watch – much less follow – all of them, even with the help of DVR. Cable productions like Mad Men – which I have never seen – were not possible before The Sopranos.
The trend has trickled down to the networks, which have greatly improved the overall quality of their shows. Dramas like The Good Wife and Parenthood were non-existent a decade ago, but now there is at least one high quality drama every night of the week on network television. Comedies have been completely transformed, morphing from the cheap set, canned laughter, and slapstick tripe that existed through early 2000s to complex intelligent humor exemplified by Modern Family, 30 Rock, The Office, and hour long “dramedies” like Ugly Betty, Glee, and Chuck. And action-adventures like 24 also received an upgrade. With across the board enhancement of their productions of all genres, the networks are offering the best programming in television history.
Yet in writing a list of my favorite shows, I cannot claim intellectual consistency without acknowledging the difference between network and cable programming, and the even greater different difference between cable programming and premium channel programming. Network programming (as seen on ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC) is limited by strict content rules, along with need for a broad-based appeal. The networks are the most widely viewed and widely available media for scripted programming, which means they have great er legal restrictions, sponsor-mandated restrictions, and public restrictions. The FCC regulates the public networks much more carefully than cable channels, a circumstance that limits the amount of profanity, violence, and sex that can be broadcast. In addition, the networks are limited by sponsor proclivities. Taking extreme positions or advocating widely unpopular ideas can lead to fewer sponsors and less money. And of course the sponsors are driven by public appeal – a network show can’t take risks in terms of controversial political or religious commentary. In the same vein, network shows are much more prosaic, standard, and formulaic than their cable and premium counterparts. They often lack the complexity and sophistication of the cable shows, largely because they have fewer resources and executives are not willing to stray far from the standard fare.
Cable shows have more latitude, both in terms of FCC regulation and sponsorship tolerance. They are allowed more leeway in taking political stands, and can provide edgier themes that might not be feasible on a public network; a show like Nip/Tuck could never air on ABC or CBS. Content is still regulated because cable channels are part of public programming; they are bundled in with a group of channels and are not purchased independently the way premium channels are. Thus they are still considered public broadcasts, and while they have more freedom to push the envelope and develop broader themes and characters, they cannot match the premium channels in terms of creativity or content.
Premium channels have the best original scripted shows by a comfortable margin. They are not constrained by content, sponsor limitations, and they can take significant risks with their programming. Plus they have far greater budgets, investing many more millions on a given show than cable or network channels could ever spend. In terms of content, the premium channels can show virtually anything short of pornography. The violence is graphic: in last year’s Spartacus: Blood and Sand a victorious gladiator cuts the face off a vanquished opponent and wears it like a mask in his next fight. Sex and nudity are common, language is completely unlimited. While this freedom of content leads to plenty of gratuitous sex and violence (a nod goes to Big Love for keeping this to a minimum), it can also lead to more realistic portrayals – anyone who has lived in New York knows the profanity-laden dialog of The Sopranos is far from gratuitous.
But what really separates the premium shows from the rest is their quality and sophistication. Unlike network and cable shows, premium dramas offer much richer character development: Tony Soprano is a hero and villain, thinker and thug, cold-hearted killer and tender-hearted animal lover, often all in the same episode, if not the same scene. Network shows tend to have clear good guys and bad guys: cops chasing criminals, doctors fighting disease, spies beating up bad guys, etc. The line between the good guys and the bad guys is clear; the central characters are rarely anything more than mildly flawed, and when they do make mistakes apologies and reconciliation are common. Contrast this with the heroine of Showtime’s Weeds (Nancy Botwin, played by Mary Louise Parker) who is a drug dealing widow, a refugee, astoundingly selfish, and above all a terrible mother – there is little “good” about her. In Big Love the central polygamist family members are the protagonists in many ways, yet we are sympathetic to those who reject their lifestyle. The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire feature criminals as their main characters, something that would never happen on network shows.
And the premium shows can take creative and artistic risks the network and cable shows cannot. Case in point is Deadwood, a gritty Western that is truly Shakespearean in its tone, characters, thematic elements, and dialog. The show aired on HBO from 2003 to 2005, but never would have aired on network or cable. Aside from the violence and language, it was far too provocative: throughout the series the central character carries on a conversation with the head of a murdered Indian chief he keeps in a box in his office, and Chinese immigrants dispose of dead bodies by feeding them to their pigs. HBO can take risks on those sorts of stories, but the networks cannot. Even the historical dramas, such as Showtime’s The Tudors and HBO’s Rome, contain a production quality and historical realism too intense for anything outside the premium channels.
So while my list mostly contains shows from HBO, Starz, and Showtime, I must admit the playing field isn’t exactly level. And of course any list like this is inherently subjective: I’m sure plenty of you will disagree with at least some of my picks. In the next post – to follow very shortly – I will list my favorite, most anticipated TV programs. Stay tuned…