Monday, January 04, 2010

Ten Years on TV: The 50 Best Seasons #10-1

Low Resolution celebrates the end of the Double-Oh decade with an enthusiastically biased take on the last ten years on TV. I've limited myself to one season per series, tried very hard to keep it to seasons that began and ended in the Aughts, and haven't included mini-series and TV movies, but for two extremely worthy exceptions. Enjoy!

[Previously: #50-41, 40-31, 30-21; 20-11]

#10 (tie). Freaks & Geeks, Season 1 (NBC, 1999-00)
Popular, Season 1 (WB, 1999-00)
I'm combining this entry because I do feel like it's a cheat to stretch back across the divide into the '90s. But how can I not include these two most perfect seasons? Freaks has been lauded by writers much more authoritative than me, and I agree with every word. Brilliant comedy wrung from teenage awkwardness that was always incredibly real. In many ways, Popular was its exact opposite, a show that could not have been LESS real. The fantastical nature of the show, with its Kim Novak ladies rooms and its androgynous bio teachers and its Mary Cherry, made it more uneven, but the peaks were the most inspired lunacy.

Top Episodes: "Beers and Weirs" (Freaks), where a house party gets both crazier and way more pedestrian than Lindsay ever imagined. And "Caged" (Popular), where the girls all get locked in the Novak, spill their secrets, and claw at each other over the last Lady Time pill.

#9. Veronica Mars, Season 1 (UPN, 2004-05)
Buffy moved to UPN in 2001, and America's Next Top Model premiered in 2003, but it was this unlikeliest of teen dramas that finally gave the lil' netlet some respectability. Of course, "respectability" doesn't properly convey the astonishment from curious viewers at the slick, smart, funny, tense program this was. Kristen Bell was a real find, but the show's biggest asset was a fierce and fun dedication to continuity and telling a compelling mystery across a full season -- a degree of difficulty that probably cost them viewers but made it all the more satisfying.

Top Episode: "A Trip to the Dentist," where the long-gestating truth about Veronica's rape came to light (and yes, I am ignoring the fact that much of it was invalidated by the conclusion to Season 2's mystery.)

Click below for #s 8-1...

#8. The West Wing, Season 2 (NBC, 2000-01)
It's funny when I think back on the shit I got from some readers for not liking Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, saying I was biased against Aaron Sorkin. The truth was, during the Sorkin years, The West Wing was probably my favorite show on television. It reruns remarkably well, too -- those rapid-fire policy debates in increasingly darkening White House corridors are still thrilling, as is the way the characters were allowed to be well-intentioned but flawed public servants. A fairy tale? Perhaps. But a great one.

Top Episode: So many to choose from, but I think "The Stackhouse Filibuster" gets edged out by "And It's Surely to Their Credit," where Ainsley Hayes gets her first rocky introduction to the White House and Sorkin indulges in his Gilbert & Sullivan fetish. (Cue the "Two Cathedrals" contingent -- I liked that one, but maybe a smidge too operatic for me.)

#7. Project Runway, Season 2 (Bravo, 2005-06)
There are few things more exhilarating for a TV show than when everything comes together at once. For Runway, it was the confluence of new attention from curious viewers, a network coming into its own, Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn becoming our national sweethearts, and, with Season 2, maybe the most perfect reality show cast ever. Great villains (Santino; Zulema), great heroes (Chloe, Nick, Daniel Vosovic), loveable weirdos (Andrae, Diana), not-so-loveable weirdos (Guadalupe, Daniel Franco). Even the boring ones (Kara, Emmett) helped facilitate memorable moments (the former was on the business end of Zulema's "cry and cut" tirade; the latter designed a figure-skating outfit that showed entirely too much tootie).

Top Episode: "Social Scene," where a challenge to design for Nicky Hilton turned into a most unexpected dance party, featuring "Dirty Diana," a designer walk-off, and my first real notice of Daniel V, my eventual favorite.

#6. Battlestar Galactica, Season 2 (Sci-Fi, 2005-06)
Probably the most engrossed I've been by a TV series this decade, and Season 2 -- which began with Adama getting shot end ended with the human race forced into Cylon slavery -- covered so much ground in this story, it almost feels like a cheat to included it. But while it was split into two halves, it's undoubtedly a whole, moving the Colonial fleet through crises first external, then horribly internal, before humanity's children once again returned, this time to find they'd been dumb enough to elect Gaius Baltar. The characters all got deeper, darker, more complex, and the critiques (of the Iraq war, specifically) never more trenchant.

Top Episode: "Resurrection Ship, Part 2," where the conflict between Adama and Michelle Forbes's Admiral Cain came to a chilling conclusion.

#5. Friday Night Lights, Season 1 (NBC, 2006-07)
It became a cliché to say that the TV version of FNL was "not even about football, really." Bonus for me, I guess, because in addition to getting all the character relationships exactly right, they also did the football parts damn proud too. Almost everything about this show is improbable, starting with the fact that it survived to a second season. And that cast -- I've prepared myself for the fact that we may never again get performances this perfect from Taylor Kitsch, Adrianne Palicki, Zach Gilford, even Kyle Chandler and the miraculous Connie Britton, who should have all the Emmys right now.

Top Episode: "I Think We Should Have Sex," which actually IS one of the episodes that's not at all about football -- Tami and Julie have The Talk, and it's about as harrowing as realistic and complicated as it should be; plus Tyra's mom drunkenly calls our Buddy Garrity. At church!

#4. Alias, Season 2 (ABC, 2002-03)
I'm not here to talk about the alleged downturn in quality of its last couple seasons. It's a truth, albeit a slightly overblown one, that doesn't really matter when discussing the absolute perfection that was the second season. Did Alias peak too early? Maybe. I'm not sure if stretching out the payoffs we got in this brilliant stretch of episodes would have made them any better (more likely, worse). Credit J.J. Abrams for knowing his show was headed to an early crest and decided to ride through it at full speed. Also credit Lena Olin's dazzling performance as Irina Derevko for kicking things up a notch. Her scenes with Jennifer Garner and Victor Garber got the poisoned familiarity thing exactly right.

Top Episode: All due respect to "The Telling," which was an absolute corker of a finale, but "Phase One" was as daring a mid-season episode as I've seen in a serial drama. People today throw the term "game changer" around so much it's become an actual joke, but back on Super Bowl night in '03, Alias changed the damn game.

#3. Survivor, Season 1 (CBS, 2000)
Yes, yes, it ushered in the cultural apocalypse. But besides that! It probably speaks as poorly of me as it speaks well of Suvivor, but my summer of 2000 was defined by this show. Racing home on Wednesday nights to watch pre-DVR era episodes, obsessing over the EVIL AND WRONG concept of tribal alliances, arguing with random whoevers over what Jenna and Colleen and Greg and Gretchen and Kelly and Sean (GAH! Stupid Sean!) should have done. It was a total all-encompassing obsession and easily the most intensely communal TV experience of the decade.

Top Episode: "The Merger," that slow-moving horror movie in which no matter how loudly you yelled at the Pagong tribe, they couldn't hear you, and you all had to watch them each vote for somebody else while the Richard Hatch alliance took out wonderful Gretchen. What a world.

#2. Deadwood, Season 2 (HBO, 2005)
Crafting a TV season this intricate, dense, complicated, and ultimately satisfying is such an immense undertaking, I'm amazed anyone even had the energy to do a third season. But when your ostensible Wild West show turns out to be more about how scattered people form living, breathing communities, intricate and complicated are pretty much required. Much as Ian McShane's performance was a powerhouse, due credit to Deadwood for never leaning on him and coasting on the rest of the canvass. This show spread its arms wide and found all manner of cocksuckers to show us.

Top Episode: "Requiem for a Gleet," the most harrowing account of a kidney stone's passing, ever, plus an Ellsworth/Wollcott confrontation to beat the band.

#1. Angels in America (HBO, 2003)
Unfair to place a miniseries atop my list? A) Don't think so, and B) don't care. Nothing on TV was more exhilarating, artful, sad, funny, eye-opening, poetic, profound, well-acted, well-written, well-cast, well-promoted, quotable, memorable, and overall transcendent than the Tony Kushner-scripted, Mike Nichols-directed stage drama adaptation. Nothing this decade better combined aesthetic watchability (the sights and sounds are peerless in their execution) with intellectual and emotional curiosity and insight. Not just about AIDS, either. It irks me when it's limited that way. It's about everything -- progress, modernity, race, religion, politics ... um, Utah. I'm still finding new angles to emerge from it.

Top Episode: "Millennium Approaches: Chapter Three - The Messenger," the crescendo of the first half features the hollering schism between Joe and Roy Cohn, Prior and Louis dancing to Henry Mancini, and Hannah Pitt's encounter with a crazy person (and the Bronx) en route to Brooklyn. And the Messenger arrives.


Kirk Hamilton said...

This is a great top 10! Massive concurment from me on pretty much everything - I think I personally prefer Deadwood Season 1, for whatever reason, but I haven't seen S2 in a while. Runway Season 2 is the best of that show, for sure.

I don't see The Wire anywhere on your lists, and given their incredibly comprehensive reach, I can only conclude that the omission is deliberate?

Far be it from me to declare that that show possesses some sort of objective awesomeness or whatever, but all the same, I'm curious as to why it didn't make the cut.

Hipster Mongoose said...

1) I really need to rewatch Angels in America.

2) I forgot how amazing season 2 of The West Wing was until I rewatched it last week.

Scott said...

If only Runway had a Daniel V and an Andre every year. The last season, yeesh. And yes, Dirty Diana was funny.

I can't believe Survivor 1 was in this decade. It feels like it's been on for 15 years.

And I go back and forth on whether Veronica Mars is better in season 1 or season 2. I'd probably say season 2 - though that rewriting of the show's history that you mention is one of the most annoying things I've seen on a good show in the last decade. Season 3 was bad, but messing with the series and the lead that way, in some ways that was worse. Partially because Trip to the Dentist was so good.

Rinaldo said...

Thanks for the fun list, all installments.

But dare I mention in connection with Project Runway that his name is "Andrae," not Andre? (I figure if he has so many loyal fans, they'll want to get it right.)

Joe Reid said...

Kirk: Have not (yet?) watched The Wire. I figured the world could go one list without The Wire on it. (Kidding, internet! Obviously no list can go without The Wire on it!)

Hipster: Both are amazingly rewatchable, right? There are mornings I don't want to go to work because TWW is rerunning the early seasons on Bravo.

Scott: I was super into Season 2, even though the end, but it didn't sit well with me and it festered. Probably due a rewatch.

Rinaldo: GAH! And I knew it was Andrae, too! Unconscionable error. Forgive me, Andrae!

Kirk Hamilton said...

Wow! Allow me to be the 1,000th person to say that when the time comes that you're able to watch it, you're in for a real treat.

Just don't let the prosthelytizing of the converted put you off. :)

Brook Brooks said...

Hot damn, Alias Season 2. I rewatch it over and over. Hardly a bad episode in the bunch. I would submit 'A Dark Turn' for the best of the season, though.

Glenn said...

Great list! In regards to Project Runway I'd have to go with season 3 as my favourite if for no other reason than bringing the amazing Laura into my life. That woman is, perhaps, my favourite reality program contestant ever. Her wicked sense of humour put me in hysterics each and every time she opened her mouth.

Jon said...

So glad for the "Alias" - Season 2 love. That is one of the best television I have ever seen. Also, big ups for "West Wing", though I'm such a fan of the show I also have love for Seasons 6 & 7.

Re: "Project Runway", I have to say that I prefer Season 1, though I really do like Season 2. The cast was pitch perfect, and Wendy Pepper to me is still the face of Reality TV evil. The argument she has w/ Kara Saun & Jay in the 1st part of the finale is still my favorite argument in a reality TV show.

I love the lists! Thanks a bunch!

Jon said...

For me, the best thing about the first season of Survivor was the way Kelly won immunity challenge after immunity challenge in the final few episodes. In a game that always seems to come down to alliances, she demonstrated that actual physical and psychological strength could get you to the top.

Mike said...

First and foremost...reality TV is not good TV, PERIOD. Would like to see those taken off for shows that deserve to be on a "top" list.

Thank you for recognizing Clone High and Frisky Dingo, two quirky yet extremely well written and unforgettable shows that deserved much larger audiences.

A few shows that come to mind that should of been on here: The Wire, Breaking Bad, Oz, Trailer Park Boys, Firefly, Rome, Summer Heights High, Eastbound and Down, South Park, Metalocalypse......and if were including miniseries: John Adams.

jessica said...

Mike, I'm pretty sure this is just Joe's list of things Joe saw and liked, and his favorites of the decade. Perhaps you should make your own list?

Marie said...

great list :) thanks for it. For me previous 10 years were the best period for tv seasons.They became so popular... we just can't wait for another season.