1. Six Feet Under (2001-2005)
An extraordinary and poignant show about death and loss set in a family-run funeral home named Fisher and Diaz. Each episode of Six Feet Under begins with the death of a (random) individual and then explores this death on a personal, religious and/or philosophical level through the show’s main characters. The characters through this death have to contend with their own lives and its continual interaction with loss. A program about death is groundbreaking and such an anomaly in the United States where there is a continuing obsession with youth and staying young. 50 is the new 30 and so on. Death is not part of the American Dream.
All of the show’s characters attempt to endure their lives in the face of death, to understand themselves and to arrive at some sort of peace or compromise with the sometimes sadomasochism of daily existence. This pain of daily life is heightened by their proximity to death and loss at the funeral home. Often, they achieve a temporary peace through sex. All of the characters use sex to some degree to temper and combat the loss and pain that surrounds them. Sex serves as a testament to life and intimate connection, however fleeting or ultimately negative such a connection becomes for the characters.
The eldest son, Nate, returns to the family run business at first because of his father’s death, but also to sort out his relationship to his father and especially to women and himself. He continually tries to do what is right and moral despite the difficulties of his life. He often fails. In the final season, Nate dies and in the remaining episodes the other characters must contend with his loss and how it affects each of their lives.
David, Nate’s younger brother, struggles with his sexuality and his feelings of loyalty to the family business. Through the series, he comes to terms with his same-sex desire and finds love and his own family, but not without difficulty and setbacks.
Ruth, the Fisher matriarch attempts to hold the family together by sacrificing herself. She is at first a stereotypical wife and mother. Through the series, however, Ruth learns to express and fulfill her own desires and needs and breaks out of her confined, traditional role as a wife and mother. She achieves a degree of happiness and freedom at the end of the series.
The show also explores the journey of growing up in the youngest Fisher, Claire who seeks to define herself as she becomes a young woman. She is the only character to leave the Fisher clan and business. In the series finale, Claire sets off to New York to a new life and job as a photographer. As she drives, the viewer sees what happens to all of the characters throughout their remaining years and of course sees how they die until we come to Claire, the sole survivor, an old woman in bed, surrounded by photographs of her family and about to die at the age of 102. It is an extremely beautiful and emotionally moving sequence of images and music and I believe the first time a series really and truly ends. The characters all die and we experience their loss, their achievement and failures in life. We experience their end as the death of a good friend or family member. I will always remember this final sequence.
2. The Shield (2002-2008)
The Shield is a riveting police drama set in a fictional area of Los Angeles called Farmington. It centers around The Strike Team, an anti-gang and drug unit, headed by the swaggering Vic Mackey played by the hottie Michael Chiklis. The show centers around Mackey’s questionable tactics to accomplish his job, his use of his job to enrich himself financially and the police department which continually tries to undercover his illegal activities. In the first season, Mackey kills an undercover agent sent to determine The Strike Team’s criminal activities. From that moment on, the viewer knows that Mackey is bad, but in a sense we love him for it. He gets the job done by cutting a few corners. But all of the characters of the show are neither all good or all bad. For example, Mackey himself is tender and caring to his family which is in marked contrast to his life as a police officer.
But, of course, all this illegal activity goes horribly wrong in the end. In season 5, one member of The Strike Team murders another and the fallout eventually causes Mackey’s demise. At the end of the series, Mackey is not jailed, but given a more existential punishment. He is confined to a desk job at Immigration and Customs Enforcement, forced to wear a suit and tie and produce daily written reports. The man of the streets and action has been neutered. He has lost his family and is despised by his co-workers and fellow cops now that his criminal endeavors have been exposed. The final scene is a poignant moment. The sexy take charge cop is reduced to an office drone. Yet, the viewer, I believe, is satisfied with Mackey’s punishment and realizes that despite his ability to fight crime effectively, the compromise between vice and virtue is too much to bear.
3. The Office (UK) (2001-2005)
Ricky Gervais created and starred in this brilliant comedy about a paper company named Wernham Hogg located in boring Slough, England. The series has no laugh track and is filmed as a mockumentary about the life in an office. Gervais plays David Brent the head of the office who continually attempts to win favor with the employees under him as well as his bosses. His efforts, however, always fail to great comedic effect revealing his unknowing racism, sexism etc. The scenes are hilarious and embarrassing such as when David tries to compete with his boss Neil and undermine him in a dance off meant to raise money for charity. Of course, the result is a disaster:
4. The Comeback (2005)
This self-reflexive and brilliant comedy of a show within a show within a show starring Lisa Kudrow who also co-created the series with Michael Patrick King unfortunately lasted only one season. Kudrow stars as Valerie Cherish a Dlist actress and celebrity who starred in a low-brow sex comedy from 1989-92 called I’m It! Like so many actresses of this type, she is attempting a comeback through a reality show which films her as she embarks on a new cheesy network sitcom called Room & Bored in which she plays a character called Aunt Sassy with 2 girls and 2 guys who are all quite young and extremely good looking.
Kudrow’s character is continually humiliated throughout the series both in the fictional (and actual) reality show and the made up sitcom. It is at times cringingly embarrassing to watch, but often a funny, satirical send up of Hollywood, network politics and reality shows. If only it had lasted more than 13 episodes.
5. Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009)
Battlestar Galactica is a sophisticated remake of the 1978 series which I had loyally watched in my youth. In this way, it is partly about nostalgia for me. While the 1978 Battlestar Galactica was pop science fiction, the new series is an engaging dystopian drama. After 40 years of peace, the Cylons, machines created by humans, return for their revenge. They utterly destroy the 12 human colonies with the help of a human traitor named Baltar. The survivors of the apocalypse pursued by the Cylons, escape into space in a caravan of ships protected by the last military asset to survive, the Battlestar Galactica. Unlike the 1978 show, the effects of the apocalypse: emotional, personal, cultural, religious, practical, political are dealt with throughout the series.
And in a new twist Cylons have achieved the ability to assume human form. There are 12 models. The series in part is about the discovery of these Cylons and particularly the 5 models which are hidden and not known to either the Cylons or the humans. The show on one level becomes an exploration of our relationship to technology and how it has changed our lives and the potential negative ramifications of that technology.
Also, the show must be seen in the context of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in which the American view and understanding of the world was shattered. Now, no matter how much denial there is, we are engaged in a military and philosophical struggle with groups who seek to harm the United States. It makes sense that a series which deals with a society that is utterly destroyed, whose ideals are challenged and who must survive in face of attack would resonate with viewers at this time.
6. Mad Men (2007-present)
Stylish and sexy with its sartorial splendor, drinking and smoking Mad Men is set in an advertising agency in the turbulent decade of the 1960’s in which the dominant culture was challenged on the level of race, gender, sexuality and class. The agency within the show which deals with perception and identity is a metaphor for the program as a whole. All the show’s characters against this backdrop of instability and change are seeking to find and understand themselves.
The clearest expression of this notion is Don Draper, played by the total hottie Jon Hamm, who has assumed the identity of another man and is continually trying to not only hide this fact, but deal with it in terms of his marriage and business. Or Sal Romano. He is confronting his sexuality and attempting to come to terms with it in a decade in which homosexuality is virulently and violently negated within society. Or Peggy Olson. She emerges from the secretary pool to the level of copy writer and is trying to navigate her way as a woman who is smart, independent and professional in the midst of the rampant sexism of the advertising firm. Or Betty Draper, Don’s wife. She is seemingly trapped in her role as wife and mother in a marriage based upon a lie and is a testament to and example of so many post-war women who were confined to the new enforced sphere of domesticity.
In a wonderful episode from this past season entitled “The Gypsy and the Hobo”, Don and Betty take their 2 older children, Sally and Bobby, trick or treating. Sally is dressed as a gypsy and Bobby is a hobo. At a neighbor’s house, the neighbor answers the door and says, “We’ve got a gypsy and a hobo” and then looking at Don and Betty, he says, “And who are you supposed to be?” This line is an extradiegetic moment in the narrative. It could be the tag line of the entire series and asked of all the characters. Who are you supposed to be in this turbulent and changing world of the 1960’s? Yet, it is also a metaphor for the viewer too. Who are we in 2010?
7. Cash in the Attic (2002-present)
So, this choice is gratuitous and self-indulgent. There is nothing that can quite explain my utter love and attachment to this show. It goes beyond my love of antiques or the useful information that the show sometimes imparts, or the attractiveness of the hosts (My favorite is the adorable Alistair Appleton) and antique experts (My favorite is the sexy and knowledgeable Jonty Hearnden).
Cash in the Attic is sort of a game show, but not really. An individual wants to raise money for a particular thing or endeavor so they call the Cash in the Attic team- a host and an antique expert. They come to the applicant’s home and value the individual’s goodies with an auction estimate and some good information along the way. In the second half of the show, the objects are brought to an auction house to be sold. Sometimes certain pieces excitingly exceed their estimate and sometimes the pieces are sold for less or not sold at all.
HGTV tried to recreate this show for American television and failed horribly. In part, I believe, because in general most Americans have a lot of junk and not the lovely antiques prevalent in the original UK show. Also, the host and antique expert were not appealing and the auction houses where the items were sold seemed beat and broke down.
These 7 shows are my picks for the best of TV in the last decade. I tried to think of 10 that standard best of number, but could only reach 7 which resonated with me when they aired and continue to engage me now. There are plenty of other shows that I watch like Project Runway or The Real Housewives on Bravo, but they are momentary and guilty pleasures that do not endure for me. I don’t have a desire or need to see them again like these 7 programs.
What are your favorites? What is your guilty TV pleasure? How do you understand the importance of the shows I discussed? Or do you disagree? What do you think I left out? Comments are always welcome and happy TV viewing.