Friday, January 15, 2010

Thoughts on top TV: the Guardian Top 50 TV drama shows and missing hobby-horse choices

Earlier in the week, the Guardian TV Club provided its list of the Top 50 TV drama shows of all time.

The list in full - with my own notes on whether I watched it [avidly, inconsistently], can recall it being on TV, haven't yet got around to it, or wouldn't really be bothered:

1. The Sopranos - watched, fairly consistently, til C4 started mucking around with the schedules and channels
2. Brideshead Revisited - barely recalled if I am honest
3. Our Friends in the North - avidly consumed and vividly stuck in my memory
4. Mad Men - *whistles* erm, haven't got around to this yet, for shame!
5. A Very Peculiar Practice - recalled as weird and grown-up
6. Talking Heads - watched some, but at the time felt to be an acquired taste. I think I needed to be older to appreciate
7. The Singing Detective - recognised it as important but didn't watch
8. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit - watched
9. State of Play - gripped from start to (rather disappointing) finish. Since it stars the god-like Bill Nighy, it could do no wrong
10. Boys From the Blackstuff - recalled but unsure how much I watched it at the time
11. The West Wing - duh. Addicted. But C4 did nothing to help with its scheduling.
12. Twin Peaks - watched seasons 1 with Neil, lost the plot in s2 (rather like those making it)
13. Queer as Folk - I knew it was on, and have since seen lots of bits of the episodes, but for shame I still haven't watched the whole thing.
14. The Wire - it is an acquired taste, and probably one worth acquiring. Undoubtedly brilliant, ruined only slightly by the adulation heaped upon it.
15. Six Feet Under - again, ruined by C4 scheduling. Great whilst I watched it, but didn't pursue.
16. How Do You Want Me? - erm... great cast, but I'm not aware I ever watched this
17. Smiley's People - didn't knowingly watch this
18. House of Cards - addicted to all three series. I couldn't possibly comment any further.
19. Prime Suspect - interestingly the first and I think third series (with Peter Capaldi in a significant role) are the ones that have stayed with me most.
20. Bodies - I know many who loved this, but I never got into it. (see below for one reason why)
21. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy - I think I watched it, but it hasn't stuck in my memory
22. Buffy the Vampire Slayer - I have a deep awareness of every episode which over-steps nerdy.
23. Cracker - Gripping and uncomfortable viewing at times, but
24. Pennies From Heaven - I was a bit too young to be watching, so just awareness at the time.
25. Battlestar Galactica - though the original version has its addicts, the new version hit a whole new level of awesome. Still rate the mini-series which preceded the series proper as some of the best TV ever. I haven't worked my way through the final season yet though.
26. Coronation Street - never really a soap fan, but had passages where I watched regularly.
27. The Jewel in the Crown - watched, with my parents
28. The Monocled Mutineer - half watched. Knew it was important
29. Clocking Off - watched the first series, and then lost track.
30. Inspector Morse - I must have seen all of them, yes?
31. This Life - Neil got me into this and we were slightly ahead of the repeats curve before everyone got one board with the show. It still tears my gut to recall Milly's furious punch on which the show ended.
32. Band of Brothers - never watched it, never felt a need to watch.
33. Hill Street Blues - addicted as I grew up.
34. The Prisoner - watched on DVD. Insane stuff - in a good way. I think.
35. St Elsewhere - Dipped in an out.
36. The L Word - never watched it and despite friends attempts to pull me in, I actually don't think I'm that bothered.
37. The Shield - Rev/Views may fall out with me for not having watched this avidly. I've caught some parts of some series (mostly with Forest Whittaker) but it didn't stick with me across the scheduling.
38. Brookside - never a fan, but occasional bits caught over the years. I recognise its importance.
39. 24 - series one, a work of astonishing invention. s2, a little more. S3 onwards, no Sky TV. Are there enough hours in the year to work through this many box-sets?
40. The Twilight Zone - of its time, a classic. Some of them STILL give the heebees.
41. Pride and Prejudice - I didn't watch this at the time, but somehow feel I have watched it since. A frothy reinvention of a classic.
42. Red Riding - bleak, bleak and more bleak. A difficult one to enjoy re-watching.
43. Oz - important, dark, violent. Should have watched it, but haven't.
44. The Street - erm, haven't actually watched it
45. The X-Files - I've mostly lost heart with such conspiracy-theory nonsense but it remains utterly watchable and was genius in its time (til Chris Carter got an 'its-all-about-God'-complex)
46. Bleak House - Loved it. one of the best recent Dickens adaptations for sure.
47. The Sweeney - watched it, even though it was 'naughty', whenever I could. Ground-breaking in its day, but Life and Mars highlighted how far we have come from those days
48. EastEnders - really? maybe I just don't watch soaps enough (at all these days) to get the importance
49. Shameless - tried to watch it, hated it with a fiery passion.
50. Grange Hill - important in its day, whenever that was. I watched it through school for sure.

Within two days, there was a piece following up the list acknowledging the vociferous complaints regarding omissions: for example, how could a list of top TV miss out Deadwood?

Missing shows and personal hobby-horses
Whatever criteria you use to create a Top 50 TV drama shows of all time - e.g. influential, ground-breaking, popular - to have a top FIFTY and have no sight of Doctor Who seems to be rather missing some kind of pretty crucial point. Perhaps they couldn't get past the idea that it was something other than drama as a genre, but that's just weak as an argument.

We'll let it go because otherwise we would be here moaning a very long time.

Amongst those the Guardian acknowledged (in responding to its readers' comments) were the following:
Edge of Darkness
I, Claudius

...and in brief:
Northern Exposure
Holding on
Homicide: Life on the Street

So what of the missing treats? From personal viewing, I'd definitely hold up Edge of Darkness from those first missing items - and I'd support the others as reasonable inclusions. Of the latter six though, I'm more ambivalent: GBH, possibly; Homicide - Life on the Street, certainly. And from a personal taste, Northern Exposure (especially its early series) and Holding On (even if it was 'Our Friends in the South') are worthy of places.

Here are just a few items I think are missing (*beware of possible spoilers on links*):
The Beiderbecke Affair - the trilogy if I can, though the first was the most wonderful
Cardiac Arrest - a show so brilliant it meant I always felt Bodies was a shallow follow-on
Casanova - perhaps the most perfect candy-box piece of funny emotional drama that RTD has produced.
ER - in its own way just as important as M*A*S*H* (also excluded) or St Elsewhere
The Kingdom - the Danish TV series. BONKERS stuff.
Life on Mars - for bringing us Gene Hunt.
The Sandbaggers - political and savvy. Great characters.
Spiral - we'll try and avoid getting into the UK/US-centric nature of the list, but it really did need to reflect a broader televisual world
Takin' Over the Asylum - funny and dark; the Psychos of its day.
Tutti Frutti - still brilliant after all this time. Great music.
A Very British Coup - thrilling stuff; the PM Broadcast when he goes off-script still makes me squeal with delight.

I'll also acknowledge some very much personal choices like Funland, NCIS, Middlemarch, Our Mutual Friend, and The Vice. Being Human will definitely make a future list I'm sure. And I'm personally deciding to treat the inclusion of 'Buffy' in the mainlist as the Whedonverse as a whole: Angel was certainly worthy of its own inclusion in my books, but I can understand its spin-off status. Firefly and Dollhouse are worthy as occasionally successful incarnations of Whedon's brilliant mind.

Any other thoughts people? I've probably missed a lot of gems, especially from pre-1980 and across the world.


Skuds said...

Had a look at the list. I have only watched 7 of those! (+Eastenders for a while in the 80s)

I used to spend a lot of time watching TV and I wondering what the hell I was watching all that time - can't have been all comedies, music and documentaries. Probably wasting my time watching lightweight nonsense like Crazy as a Fox...

I wonder where the line is drawn between drama and comedy though - I only ever caught a bit of one episode of Shameless and it looked half & half to me.

If that is allowed then I would have Teachers in my list. I would also have the 80s adaptation of Day of the Triffids.

Persephone said...

Well, from the Guardian list, I'd cite Brideshead Revisited, Talking Heads, The Jewel in the Crown, Band of Brothers, and St Elsewhere as being examples of television at its mind-boggling best. (Lisa, what on earth has age got to do with appreciating Talking Heads? It's top-notch writing and top-notch acting, end of story, period.)

I'd add: from Canada -- Slings and Arrows and Anne of Green Gables. I rank the latter under "labour of love", a production aimed at capturing the spirit of the original book -- and surely Brideshead Revisited and Pride and Prejudice were made with the same care and attention to detail. (Frothy???? Really??? And this is not a Jane-ite talking, nor was I transfixed by Colin Firth in his wet shirt...) Both S&A and AoGG are showcases for the very best in Canadian acting.

From the US, I'd add Three Sovereigns for Sarah, a powerful and remarkably accurate retelling of the Salem witch trials.

From Britain (and ancient history), I'd consider adding Poldark and To Serve Them All My Days, two series that left you groaning at the prospect of waiting a week to find out what happened. And yes, I, Claudius was remarkable.

I don't know if The Street and Shameless are the absolute best, but I find them riveting, and am puzzled why the latter should enrage you so. Do tell.

chrissie_allen said...

Good hobby horse choices Lisa.

I used to like "The Expert" a series which ran for four seasons
(very pre 80's) 68-76. Marius Goring was so great as the Home Office pathologist, Prof John Hardy. I know that shows like
CSI:NY et al are much more slick than that used to be way back, however I loved it. A superb forerunner to all the present day stuff of the same genre...and, dare i say good as or better than some. No names.
A Family at War very watchable I thought and The Onedin line sometimes pointed up interesting storylines. Queer as Folk was brilliant! The US series of that was fair too in my opinion.
Agree with Skuds about the 80s Triffids too, simply great.

Lisa Rullsenberg said...

Persephone: I think I was just GREEN at the time I caught any of the Talking Heads - now of course I think they're works of genius. (I'm also trying to be honest and not make myself seem more 'with it' back then than I was. Frankly much of my tastes as a teenager sucked - although 'A Question of Attribution' was, from first screening one of the most brilliant bits of TV ever)

P&P - I think I used the wrong phrasing - the audience reaction was frothy for sure...

Poldark: me and my mother ploughed through the books at one point when a season break left us hanging. It didn't help, but we LOVED it. Thanks for the reminder.

Skuds: TEACHERS!!! I loved Teachers (Kurt and Brian was it? they were brilliant)

Skuds and Chrissie: Day of the Triffids scared me witless in my youth. I think that means it was good...

Rob said...

I only watched nine of the original list, and would agree with many of your omissions, such as Doctor Who, Tutti Frutti and Taking Over The Asylum. And of course Dexter and I, Claudius.

So what else? Well "Bones" cries out for inclusion: a witty script and great chemistry between the characters. I first saw "Das Boot" when it was serialised: I know it's really a film but I always think of it as a drama series. "Doomwatch" - the first ecologically aware drama, and Robert Powell's first big TV role.

And I should perhaps be worried that I not only never watched "Deadwood", I'd never even heard of it......

Anonymous said...

Every why has a wherefore.........................................