As promised, here are my favorite current TV shows – those I look forward to watching most each week, in no particular order:
The Good Wife. (CBS) This legal/political drama is the best show on network television, and one of the programs I look forward to most every week. It is the only network show that comes close to the premium shows in terms of thematic complexity and character development. Unlike most legal dramas, the central law firm is often wrong, and frequently on the right side only because of expediency or the promise of financial gain. The internal politics of the firm are nasty and underhanded, matching the external political atmosphere of the corrupt Chicago machine.
The title character of the show is Alicia Florrick, played by Juliana Margulies (a veteran of ER and The Sopranos). The premise of The Good Wife is based on the extra-marital affair of her husband – the Illinois Attorney General – and her reaction to it. She remains married to him, though their relationship is irrevocably harmed. In addition to his philandering, he is sentenced to prison for alleged corruption; he is eventually acquitted, though it’s unclear whether or not he is actually guilty. Alicia starts work at a prestigious law firm in the aftermath of her husband’s conviction, though she has not worked anywhere since her teenage children were born. As a lawyer Alicia is shrewd, clever, diligent, and perceptive, though by no means the best attorney on the show. Yet her character is a very likable one, often quiet and demure, struggling to keep up in a tough, competitive firm. She is not a hard-charging go-getter – she simply wants to do her part and do it well.
The show succeeds because it advances the intertwining narrative arcs of the series while at the same time allowing each episode to intrigue in its own rite. Alicia is constantly juggling her topsy-turvy home life, which inevitably impacts and is impacted by her husband’s political career into which she is reluctantly drawn, which in turn has ramifications for her law firm and thus her career. Now in the middle of the second season, each episode consists of a court-room mystery with side-plots focusing on the Florrick family, the dirty Chicago politics, and the other lawyers at the firm and their office politics – often all of these elements are intimately related. The Good Wife blurs the lines of the the good characters and the bad. Alicia remains married, but her motives aren’t entirely clear: love and devotion? Expediency? Financial gain? Career advancement? External pressure? And while she has not had an affair with an office co-worker, is it due to her morality and marital loyalty, or to lack of opportunity? And her sometime faithful sidekick, Kalinda Sharma, is effective but ruthless and unprincipled as the firm’s investigator – perhaps the most interesting character on the show. The courtroom scenes are easy to follow and not overly dramatic, and I like the unique personality of each judge. But above all I like that Alicia and the firm lose cases now and then – rarely do legal dramas allow their heroes to lose
True Blood. (HBO) Yes, this is a vampire show, but it is a far cry from the weepy, light, teen angst-driven contemporary melodramas such as the Twilight films. Instead True Blood is a gory and violent supernatural drama set in modern day Louisiana.
The premise of the show is the development of synthetic blood, Tru Blood, that allows vampires to survive without feasting on humans. In theory they can integrate and function in normal human society, but their integration is anything but smooth. The series focuses on a handful of characters in a small town called Bon Temps – the central character is Sookie Stackhouse, a waitress who can read minds. She falls in love with a vampire named Bill Compton precisely because she cannot read his mind. Now in between the 3rd and 4th seasons, the show has introduced the audience to an array of vampire characters and a host of other magical creatures, including werewolves, fairies, shape-shifters, and my personal favorite, the maenad. The maenad is the chief villain of the second season, made powerful by her ability to channel a person’s greatest desires into overwhelming self-destructive obsession.
The show has an addictive story-line, but its main appeal lies in the richness of the characters and the complexity of their motivations. There are no “good” vampires per se – all have the strong desire to kill and exploit humans (and all do so to varying degrees), but some are more self-controlled than others. Ultimately their society is archaic and uncivilized, yet humans on the show are just as bad in many ways; the vampires are honest in their evil intentions, while the humans try to disguise theirs. True Blood has plenty of humor, and isn’t afraid of poking fun at itself with some obvious campiness: the main vampire bar is called Fangtasia, and humans can become addicted to the supernatural effects of vampire blood, terming it an “addiction to V.”
True Blood‘s main flaw is that it goes overboard with its use of vampire paranoia as a metaphor for minority persecution, particularly homosexuals. Not only is it transparent and repetitive at times, but it seems misplaced: many vampires advocate the destruction of the human race – isn’t that a legitimate reason for fear? But overall it is a fun, fascinating hour of entertainment during the summer months, which are usually devoid of original programming.
Boardwalk Empire. (HBO) Upon making it’s long awaited premier last fall, Boardwalk Empire was considered a remake of The Sopranos set in Prohibition era Atlantic City. Certainly the series focuses on organized crime, but otherwise it is very different in terms of characters and scope. The plot centers around Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, the corrupt Atlantic City Treasurer who effectively runs the town (both politically and criminally) just as it comes into prominence at the beginning of Prohibition. Outlawing alcohol only makes business boom for organized crime, which now has the monopoly on a very desirable product. Thompson, played by Steve Buscemi, is crafty and devious. As a slick politician, he knows how to manipulate, coerce, and bribe the right people in order to advance Atlantic City’s – and thus his own – best interests.
Boardwalk Empire is set in one of my favorite times in American history: the Jazz Age. With the rise of the bright lights, swanky restaurants, and lavish entertainment, the era certainly seems like a grand one. The show highlights this grandeur as well as the underlying corruption that supports it. It also touches on the prominent mafia figures of the day, including Arthur Rothstein, Meyer Lansky, Lucky Luciano, “Diamond Jim” Colosimo, and a young Al Capone. These are intriguing characters, and their intermingling with Nucky Thompson drives much of the plot. The show’s other characters are just as compelling, including an Irish widow who seems innocent on the surface but is just as manipulative and debauched as the others when push comes to shove. A World War I veteran who attempts to break into Thompson’s organization is ruthless and savage, and his counterpart, an upstanding Prohibition agent, actually drowns a man while baptizing him. One of the most fascinating characters is a relatively minor one – a disfigured WWI sniper who wears a mask on the right side of his disfigured face, painted to match the left. He is quiet and yearns for a family, but children are instinctively frightened by him. He is gentle around women and children, but murders Nucky’s enemies without compunction.
The show’s first season was enjoyable but a bit slow in places, and with its heavy, serious tone I think they need more humor and a lighter touch at times to provide balance. Boardwalk Empire isn’t as popular as The Sopranos, and I think the main reason is because its lack of relatability: Tony Soprano was a modern figure, the father of a typical American family in a typical American suburb, struggling with problems involving his children and spouse; Nucky Thompson is a childless widower in a very different era. Even so, Boardwalk Empire is a great show, one I find compelling and, at times, moving. The second season is slated for Fall of next year.
Glee. (Fox) As a married male in his 30s with very little musical talent or sense of connection to pop culture, I’m not exactly the target audience of Glee. But the Fox musical series is the most unabashedly fun show on television, combining catchy musical numbers, exuberant and over-the-top dancing, and a parody of modern high school culture. Its thematic elements and character complexity fall considerably short of every other show on this list, but what it lacks in sophistication is makes up for in purely fun, escapist entertainment and creative originality.
Set in a typical mid-American high school, the series centers around the members of the glee club, a group mostly composed of social outcasts: the mousy, obnoxiously ambitious aspiring Broadway actress, the overweight black diva, the effeminate gay male, a disabled kid in a wheel chair, and a punk Asian girl. They are joined – reluctantly – by the star quarterback, a juvenile delinquent, and several members of the cheerleading squad who are there as spies for their conniving coach. Like the students, the teachers are caricatures, from the Indian principal who addresses the students as “children” at assemblies to the manly female football coach (aptly named Coach Biest), along with the well-meaning but effete glee club director, who divorces his wife because she pretends to be pregnant. This group of teachers is antagonized by Sue Sylvester, the loud, sweat-suit wearing cheerleading coach whose goal in life is to end the glee club so her cheerleading squad can subsume their budget.
All of these characters provide plenty of laughs, though Glee does take a serious turn when it demonstrates the ways in which the outcasts of the glee club face ridicule and bullying in the school halls. Such portrayals can be powerful and moving, but they comes across as preachy and heavy-handed at times, especially this season with the significant time devoted to Kurt’s struggles with his open homosexuality. Glee is at its best when its’s being gleeful, and too many dark turns easily steer it far off path. As long as it provides fun, unique entertainment (how many other musical TV shows do you know?), Glee will continue to hold a place on my must-see list.
Spartacus: Blood and Sand/Gods of the Arena. (Starz) Spartacus was a real person, a gladiator in the Roman Republic who led a slave revolt and army that out-dueled the mighty Roman army for years. This series is a fictional account of his life, starting with his time as a gladiator in Capua. This period occupies a few sentences in the history books, but the first season of Spartacus: Blood and Sand is a 13-episode narrative of his time as a gladiator, beginning with the enslavement of Spartacus and his wife. So confident were they of its success, Starz boldly ordered a second season of Spartacus before the first one ever debuted. Their confidence was well-placed: Spartacus more than doubled its viewers throughout the first season, giving Starz its highest ratings ever, and allowing the network to compete with Showtime and HBO in terms of original programming. That trend continued when the prequel to the first season (Gods of the Arena), debuted in January with record numbers for a Starz premier.
The appeal lies partly in its pure entertainment value: that Spartacus is a cross between the films Gladiator and 300 is so glaringly obvious it is almost cliche to mention it. The entire first season and prequel series (6 episodes) take place in a ludus, or training school for Roman gladiators. Thus every episode contains at least one gladiatorial fight, in the ludus or arena or both. The set is highly innovative for television, almost entirely CGI-driven with stylized violence and effects that give it a graphic novel feel. Usually that style isn’t to my liking, but Spartacus blends realism with stylized effects very well, even if the excessive amounts of blood are cartoonish, especially in the first few episodes. The show warns of graphic violence before every episode, and with good reason: there is plenty of death and mutilation, including the gruesome crucifixion of a dismembered man.
The violence can be excessive, but Spartacus powerfully depicts a historical reality and poignantly illustrates its central theme of man as slave and master. A man is crucified because he attempts to kill Spartacus, also a gladiator. The punishment isn’t for attempted murder in itself, but because Spartacus is the property of Quintus Batiatus, the owner of the ludus. And the motivation for the murder is freedom, which he is promised by his owner (a rival of Batiatus) if he kills Spartacus. In the end not only does he fail to secure his release, but also suffers the worst kind of execution. The gladiators, while cheered and adored in the arena, are treated as mere commodities by their owners. They are used as propaganda for political gain, as street thugs, hit men (one gladiator is ordered to kill a 6 year old boy), sex objects, and in perhaps the most emotionally wrenching scene of the season, Spartacus is forced to kill his best friend on the whim of a teenage boy.
While the characters are not as fleshed out as they are in other premium series (the fight scenes take away from that), the key figures are interesting: Spartacus is initially motivated to victory to win his wife’s freedom from a Syrian harem, but after she dies Spartacus continues to fight, motivated for a time by the glory of the arena – what he initially abhors he comes to embrace. Crixus is the “true believer” gladiator, motivated by the honor of fighting and dying in the arena. Batiatus is the owner of the ludus, vengeful and violent, while simultaneously villain and victim. And Doctore is the lead trainer of the gladiators, loyal to Batiatus but sympathetic to his fellow slaves. With some unexpected plot twists, fascinating characters, and excellent acting, Spartacus is far more than a mere testosterone-driven sword and sandal epic.
House. (Fox) As a physician, this is the one medical drama I can stomach. It’s not because House is particularly realistic, mind you: there is no such thing as a “Diagnostics” department, an attending like House would never be forced to work in a clinic, fellows don’t process MRIs lab results themselves, and treatment usually occurs after a diagnosis is made. But they make an effort at portraying realistic conditions and presentations, and the interaction between the different specialists is often spot on.
But House is really about the cantankerous title character, Gregory House, played by Hugh Laurie. House is a cynical, bitter pessimist who assumes the worst of intentions in others. Patients are never altruistic in his paradigm: when a man saves a stranger from being hit by a train, House claims it is due to desire for recognition and acceptance rather than selflessness. His team of fellows generally disagrees with his cynical world view, and over the course of a given episode we find out which of them is right about the specific patient. Moral dilemmas are a mainstay of the show, and often it is apparent there is no “right” answer. But the team members are more than mere foils for House’s peculiarities, and each has a very nicely developed character.
Yet the highlight of the show is his interaction with two other characters: his girlfriend and medical director, Lisa Cuddy, and chief oncologist and best friend, James Wilson. The ongoing banter and series of intellectual duels between House and Wilson are crucial elements of the show and the ongoing development of House as a character. His relationship with Cuddy is solid but somehow based on the acceptance of a degree of dysfunction. When it comes to moral decision-making House fails constantly, and has no problem lying to and deceiving his friends. He remains likable in part because his intentions are (mostly) good, and in part because of his boyish audacity and brazenness.
The biggest flaw in House is its repetitiveness: in every episode there is an interesting case, a series of pranks and/or banter with his staff, and a “lightbulb” moment toward the end when he finally figures out the diagnosis. But somehow House never gets boring, largely because we buy in to the fact that House’s team accepts and tolerates his crankiness and hijinks. Wouldn’t we all?
So there they are – my favorite current shows. I’m looking forward to a few new series debuting this Fall: Chicago Code on Fox, The Borgia on Showtime, Camelot on Starz, and Game of Thrones on HBO. What do you think? Are my favorite programs worthy, or do you have others you like? Looking forward to some interesting comments…