Just Five? The “Best” TV
Someone, who I will now blame sans nom for forcing me to think about such things at 1am, asked what our “Mount Rushmore” of TV would be? It’s an impossible question, tossed asunder by problems of recall and immediacy and of course personal preference.
Never stopped me before.
I will say that there are probably brilliant episodes of TV that I’ve watched, shows like Hill Street Blues or Saint Elsewhere that I haven’t gone back to watch and that I simply don’t recall in detail because of the distance and my age when I first saw them.
I made the mistake once of going back and watching one of my favorite TV shows of my youth. Miami Vice does not hold up. At all. Almost comically bad, yet there were elements of theme and shot, soundtrack and tone, that I could see why it worked at the time. It’s hard to remember that it changed how car chases were filmed. That it changed how soundtrack was used in TV (though that was an echo of the popular trend in films of the time, which I believe John Hughes mastered in the mid-80’s.)
I’ll probably regret this list and change it a million times in the next few years, but my brain got thinking and in the shadow of five great years of Breaking Bad, consider this my send-off.
So here’s my list:
The Sopranos, Pilot
Many will cite “College”, which many will forget came very early in the series (1e5) or “Pine Barrens”, but the pilot is self-contained brilliance. It set everything else up, obviously, but does it by unselfconsciously kicking almost every stereotype there was for the mob genre. Tony talks? Ducks? Panic attacks and a nagging wife? Ok, Edie Falco grew a lot from the clear pastiche of Diane Keaton from Godfather, but the seeds were there in both the casting and the range they gave her. The crew around Tony were brilliant and think about this - almost everything you ever know about them besides details was introduced in this episode. Live or die, these characters weren’t just defined in the pilot but etched in stone. It’s hard to find more brilliant tv than this, especially when so many pilots are stuck in exposition.
The Shield, Family Meeting (finale)
It’s the last scene. Where The Sopranos set everything up from their opening episode, the uncontained explosion that was Vic Mackie finally burned too close to the fuse. He’d gone too far before, but he’d never fully lost control. He never saw that there was no way out. Mackie was a fighter and in the end, the questions of the last scene make us wonder just how far Vic would go when we all thought he’d gone too far. The brilliant direction by Clark Johnson (himself a brilliant cast member in Homicide) is rippling tight. Walton Goggins is amazing in his tortured final moments and Ronnie Gardocki’s betrayal is that moment where a man’s soul is ripped out. Both of them were worn down to the core by just being near Mackie. Mackie must have felt it, but it never quite showed through the rock-hard veneer of Michael Chiklis’ cold eyes and smooth scalp. Would we all feel better if we knew Vic Mackie was still out there or that he wasn’t ever again?
Breaking Bad, Ozymandias
I’m probably too close to this to really put it up here, but watching this episode, I think everyone knew it was an instant classic. It was the end of Heisenberg. Walter White tried the hat on one more time, but it never fit the same. Hank went down with dignity while the empire crumbled in the sand, all for nothing. The barrels vanished and so did Hank and Gomie, at least for a while. It’s a Peckinpah-esque symphony of destruction, muted by knowing that this was coming. The entire final season of Breaking Bad was like one of my favorite magic tricks. Penn & Teller do a version of cups and balls with clear plastic cups. They explain it along the way and you’re still amazed by the sheer brilliance and audacity of their work. Vince Gilligan did the same, showing us time and again where things were going with flash-forwards and foreshadows across almost every horizon, but then making us watch as he put everything together perfectly.
Seinfeld, The Contest
So many Seinfeld episodes in our mind aren’t really episodes. Ever think about the episode with the Soup Nazi? Or the one where Jerry and his girlfriend go with the sickening baby talk? Same episode. There’s almost always two plots in each episode and our minds seldom connect them. Fewer had immediate carryover (though there were obvious returning characters and running gags.) Remember as well that NBC fought this episode, thinking masturbation wasn’t a good topic for primetime. Hard to believe now, but this was 20-something years ago. “Master of my domain” is still a thing. Seinfeld is never not funny, but this episode plays better the more you watch it, as the subtle details come out. Watch how Kramer slams the money on the counter. Watch how Elaine reacts to missing Kennedy. It’s brilliant writing and unbelievable lightning-in-a-bottle comedy timing coming together.
Doctor Who, Vincent and the Doctor
I have the hardest time putting this one here. There are shows I love, from The Wire (which is the single best series ever), The Shield, and more, but for a sheer moment, none beats the last ten minutes of this quirky standalone episode of the British classic. The writing, done by the brilliant Richard Curtis, best known for Love Actually, hits the perfect tone throughout this tale of Vincent Van Gogh. Tony Curran is perfect in his manic-depressive angst and without spoiling it, his looks of wonder and that hug at the end are a love song to a painter, a poem that Van Gogh never got to read. The scene with Amy Pond and the sunflowers is also perfect. The monster of the week was, at best, weak, and served no real purpose other than to get us from Point A to one amazing Point B. You don’t have to know the minutae of Doctor Who geekdom to love this and if you don’t, you may not be human.