I've so far avoided making "Best Of" lists, because the world really doesn't need any more of those: everyone's got opinions they need to share, and one more will only make the space more cluttered. Think of this more as my tribute to the shows I've loved, with full acknowledgement that not a lot of attention will be paid to another top (approximately) ten list. This list was inspired by my recent watching of both "Da Vinci's Inquest" (which is on the list) and "The Witcher" (which was fun, but isn't on the list).
This is more or less in reverse order: my favourite is at the bottom.
- "The Good Place" - seasons 1 and 2 were comedic gold.
- "Heroes" - season 1 was wonderful (but stop there, please).
- "Sherlock" - the first episode was a brilliant stand-alone event. Not so much a fan of the rest of it.
- "Due South" - the first couple seasons are just charming.
- "WKRP in Cincinnati" - probably the funniest sitcom ever made.
- "M*A*S*H" - yup, we're sick of re-runs and the last couple seasons weren't great, but ... what an amazing show.
- "Russian Doll" - Netflix's amazing re-interpretation of "Groundhog Day."
This one isn't for the faint of heart. Lots of sex, and a LOT of violence. So much violence that I really, really didn't like that aspect of it (and I'm not usually much bothered). And yet it still makes this list because it's so incredibly thought-provoking. This is far future science fiction, that speculates about the arrival of an alien technology that allows the backup of human conciousness - that allows people (by which we mean "the very rich") to change bodies at will (and never die). Our anti-hero Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman in the role he was born to play) was part of a rebellion - now 250 years gone - trying to prevent the spread of the technology as they believed that human life was meant to have a limited span. But now he's been brought back to solve a murder. The "victim" is still alive, but he lost two day's memory and doesn't remember how or why he was killed. Again: it's spectacularly dark. It's also deeply fascinating. I write this after only one season: another season is coming, and I don't know if Anthony Mackie can carry the lead. But I look forward to him trying.
Da Vinci's Inquest
Canada has a fairly active movie and TV industry, heavily subsidised by the government. And I dismiss most of its output out of hand. One documentary about that industry was titled "Weird Sex and Snowshoes," and that tells you a great deal about our movie industry - although it doesn't mention "identity," another popular topic up here. But occasionally we produce something exceptional. This is my #2 Canadian show after "Slings and Arrows." Dominic Da Vinci (Nicholas Campbell) is one of Vancouver's coroners. He's surrounded by a crew of pathologists and cops - and to some extent, politicians - who work cases with him. What makes the show unique is it's blending of the people's lives and work: it concentrates on the work, but their lives affect their work - and then we hear about it. You think you've seen that before, but you haven't - not like this. In six seasons, the cops have drawn their guns twice and only fired them once - and the one guy who fired suffered a couple seasons of depression. Realism in TV ...
"The Expanse" is based on a series of SF books. The characters are written to each have two or three strong characteristics they always follow. Which works for a season, but becomes too obvious part-way through the second season. So why is this show on the list? Because the solar-system-spanning politics are magnificently thought out, and physics - as we know them today - are followed. At one point someone announces that the missiles will arrive in 48 hours. Everyone is shocked and horrified because there isn't a damn thing they can do. No Hollywood "they'll be here in 30 seconds!" Just a realistic "we can see them and we're screwed," two days in advance. But the politics - played across Earth, Mars, and the Belt (the asteroid belt and further out) finds us in a three way war repeating every Colonial war ever, on a bigger scale than ever before as an alien species arrives. (This review is based on the three seasons available at the end of 2019. I'm dying to see the fourth.)
Veronica Mars, Season 1
"Veronica Mars" ran for three seasons, then after a long pause got a theatrically released movie, and is now (in 2019) back with a fourth season of TV. The first season is brilliant. I watched the second season but didn't like it much - and since all reviews said the third season was worse, I passed. I've seen the movie (ugh) and a couple episodes of the new series, but nothing compares to that first season. The writing shows us intelligent high-schoolers dealing with a lousy town, and Veronica (Kristen Bell) - daughter of ex-sheriff and now private investigator Keith Mars (Enrico Colantoni) - struggling between the rich kids and the kids from the projects. The writing doesn't condescend to our characters because they're in high school: they're in at the deep end and they know it. Veronica's best friend has been murdered, and she's been date-raped (and can't remember it) and is trying to solve both crimes between classes. As Now magazine said when the fourth season showed up: "... a double act by Bell and Colantoni that, 15 years on, is feeling like one of the greatest pairings in the history of television."
A British spy drama set when it ran, from 1978 to 1980. The main character manages a small group of British spies who are assigned the most politically sensitive - and often most dangerous - tasks. He's arrogant, high-handed, and extremely good at his job. And because of the jobs his crew are handling, he has to play god with the lives of others. He's always fighting to bring his people home in the face of twisty political changes while constantly struggling with brutal moral ambiguities. The production values of 1970s British TV are appalling, but the writing is terrifyingly good. So dark that I've utterly refused to re-watch it no matter how much I love it.
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell
Susanna Clarke's book Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is somewhat notorious as a book many people own and few have read. The prose is spectacular, the pace glacial, and the thickness that of a bible - I've read it twice. This brilliant TV mini-series (seven episodes of an hour each) beautifully shifts the action around to balance the pacing better. Combined with brilliant casting, great special effects and costumes, and in all other respects retaining the best of Clarke's prose and plotting ... this is unquestionably my favourite fantasy TV.
Joss Whedon is better known for "Buffy" (or, more recently, "The Avengers"), which many people would probably think should be on this list. I don't disagree: it was a great series. But I think "Firefly" is even better. This has often been referred to as a "Western in space." That's accurate, but the show is so much more with elements of crime, politics, the aftermath of war ... With a wonderful cast of characters, Whedon set up a great outcasts / outlaws story. Which was cancelled after 14 episodes. At least it never went stale! The movie rounded it out beautifully.
J. Michael Straczynski has had a varied career. With "Babylon 5," he was given an unprecedented five year run for a TV show (when has a promise like that ever happened?!) so he wrote a five year story arc. The first year is ... not good, but unfortunately you need to watch at least some of the episodes to understand what follows (contact me for a list of essential first season viewing). Somewhere along the line he was threatened with losing the fifth year, so he wrapped up the big story arc at the end of year four and concentrated on a smaller arc in the last year that I don't like as much. But seasons two through four are spectacularly good. This is galaxy-spanning space opera with multiple races, tricky politics, and war. It suffers somewhat from the TV format and special effects of the times (the mid 1990s), but the story is superbly written and executed.
Slings and Arrows
"Slings and Arrows" was initially meant as a six episode one-off mini-series in 2003. Written for and by many of the best of Canada's stage and small screen actors about a small town with a Shakespeare festival, it was so successful it spawned two further seasons in 2005 and 2006. The people who wrote it are actors who truly understand Shakespeare and no matter how much you know about him you'll learn a lot more. Woven into this are the lives of a bunch of eccentric actors, and the business of their festival - which is always on shaky economic grounds. The funniest and most dramatic TV I've ever seen in my life.