Sunday, March 28, 2010

American (TV) Without Tears

And so to the latest challenge...

"Moving away from music based challenges and into the world of television …. Your all time top 10 US TV series imports. 

They must be a proper series over a number of years (ie Band of Brothers, as good as it was, wouldn’t count as it is a one off mini-series).  They must have been shown on a British channel (even an obscure Sky channel would count!) so cult box-sets bought via the internet also are out.  You also must have seen all of the relevant available series.  Just having seen a couple of series and raving about it doesn’t count. 

Apart from that anything else goes …. comedy, soaps, sci-fi, drama… the choice is yours!"

Oooh - tough one!

After negotiating a bit of leeway in the above rules, I give you the following.  I can't hand on heart, say I've seen every episode of every series, and it's slightly skewed to more recent stuff, but there are some gems in here.  You should go out and buy them all on DVD...


Or, to give it its proper title, 'The Phil Silvers Show'. The series against which all comedy series should be measured.  Running from 1955 to 1959 (and no, I didn't get to see any of the episodes when they were first broadcast.  How very dare you) the show records the antics of Sgt Ernie Bilko, ostensibly in charge of the motor pool at Fort Baxter in Kansas.  Bilko is, of course, far more interested in running scams and get rich quick schemes to the despair of his long suffering Colonel.  Phil Silvers steals the show as Bilko, but is ably supported by his squad, including cuddly Duane Doberman.  Still funny today, fifty years after its release.

(Oh, and an honourable mention to Top Cat as well, which is essentially Bilko in cartoon form.  Nearly made onto this list in its own right).


For years, this show kept me in on a Friday night and out of the pub.  Which is quite ironic, in an Alanis Morrissette kind of way.  A great cast with a wonderful range of characters - Cliff, Norm (Norm!), Frasier, Woody, Carla - a place where everyone knows your name, indeed.  Running for so long, with quite a stable cast, meant that you really got to know the characters and pick up on their back stories...which were essentially rather sad - you felt that outside of the bar, people like Cliff and Norm had quite empty lives.  But when they were in Cheers bar, they found the companionship and friendship they could get nowhere else.

Twin Peaks

Twin Peaks just about qualifies as it did run to two series, but deserves its place on the list anyway for completely subverting the conventions of the television drama series.  As with his filmwork, especially Blue Velvet, David Lynch created a series that peeled back the thin veneer of small town respectability to reveal the evil and horror lurking beneath.  On the face of it, a simple murder mystery - Who Killed Laura Palmer? - but it became so much more.  The joy was in the detail, the little twists and unexplained mysteries.  Where was the Red Room?  Why the dwarves and giants?  What was it with the owls?  A shame the second series lost its way slightly after pressure from the producers to provide some 'explanations' - the joy was in the unexplained and the wierd.

The Simpsons

I doubt very much I've seen every episode of The Simpsons, but I've seen more than enough to convince me this is television material of the highest quality.  Initially derided by politicians (who should have known better) for its supposed portrayal of a 'dysfunctional' family - when in fact the Simpsons are the most functional family ever portrayed on screen. The hero is of course Homer - not Bart, who seemed to attract all the original attention.  There is a little bit of Homer in all of us - and so there should be.

Again, the joy is in the detail - repeated watching reveals all sorts of wonderful details in the background you'll have missed first time round.

Honourable mention also for Futurama - more great grown-up cartoon fun from the same team.

Prison Break

Just finished watching this one on DVD, so it's fresh in my mind.  Not the most cerebral of shows, but hugely enjoyable all the same.  The tale of two brothers, Lincoln and Michael.  Lincoln has been wrongly convicted of murder and is on death row.  Michael gets himself deliberately incarcerated in order to break Lincoln out.  From there, the four series alternate between freedom and incarceration as the brothers try to uncover the evil corporation that framed Lincoln in the first place.

Yes, it's absolute tosh, but hugely entertaining tosh for all that.


Stretching the rules a wee bit here, as we've only seen the first two of the four series that have been produced.  In my defence, it's only the first two series that have been released on DVD, and the third series is on order with Amazon.  So it's in.

A very clever twist on the serial killer motif here - in that it is Dexter, our hero, who is the psychopath in this case.  His day job is as a blood splatter analyst for the Miami police, but after hours Dexter is out there fulfilling his urges by offing the bad men who the police are unable to catch.

Equal parts amusing, exciting and genuinely shocking on occasion, this is one series where you really will be rooting for the bad guy.


More gloriously far-fetched, entertaining tosh here, and although it has lost its way a touch in recent series, it is still a magnificent show.  The central conceit is, of course, that all the action takes place in real time - so the '24' hourly episodes represent just one day's activity on the part of the protagonists.  Completely unrealistic and impossible, but who cares?  This is Bourne, Die Hard, Bond and any other action film you care to mention stretched out over 24 hours and, if occasionally casually racist and violent, is the perfect way to suspend disbelief and see the goodies triumph over the baddies.  Cowboys and Indians for the modern age, Johhn Wayne replaced by Jack Bauer.

The Shield

Cops and robbers - except the line between the two is blurred here to the point of invisibility.  The Shield records the day to day existence of a crack police squad who are, for the most part, as corrupt and venal as the criminals they are trying to bring to justice.  There is not a single sympathetic character in the whole series, yet you still find yourself rooting for the bad guys (again - bit of a theme developing here).

Michael Chiklis excels as the 'star' of the show, Vic Mackey, but the supporting cast is uniformly strong and has attracted some big names like Glenn Close and Forest Whittaker for important roles in certain series.  Harrowing and gritty, but hugely entertaining.

The Sopranos

I've not placed these series in any particular order - apart from these last two, which I think represent some of the finest television drama ever produced.  Firstly The Sopranos, the long-running saga of the New Jersey-based mafia family.  Yet again, we are rooting for the bad guys, but we know this - and also know that some bad guys are badder than others.  Tony's battle to keep his business together whilst dealing with family issues (ageing parent and uncle, growing kids) and his own mental issues is fascinating - and just when you feel you are getting to understand him as a human being, some incident will happen to remind you - graphically - that we are dealing with some very nasty and disturbed individuals.

Powerful drama that pulls few punches - and ended in memorable fashion.

The Wire

As good as The Sopranos is, it's not a patch on The Wire, which I honestly believe represents the best, sustained television drama ever made.  Set in Baltimore over five series, the underlying theme is the battle between the police and the drug cartels in the city.  Where the series succeeds so well is by covering the stories from all viewpoints - the police force, the corner boys, the politicians, the drug barons - and by judging all protagonists equally.

The show makes no concessions to the viewer - many people have watched the early series with the subtitles on to catch all the nuances of the language of the corners - and it can be difficult to get into - but once you are in, you are hooked.

The series gives no answers, and cleverly depicts the 'circularity' of the streets - as characters die or move on, new individuals come along to fulfil the roles left vacant - but it has some strong and powerful messages about how best to control the drug epidemic in the inner cities, about education, politics and journalism.

A work of true genius.

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