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The “golden age” of television (generally cited as starting in the early 2000s) has ironically been shaped by shows that are dark. The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, The Wire: the great dramas of our age are defined by antiheroes and moral decay. Oft forgotten in the talk of artful television is one of FX’s earliest productions, The Shield. Premiering back in 2002, The Shield chronicles the operations of the LAPD, specifically their corrupt Strike Team. Led by Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis), the Strike Team employs sinister methods in their war on crime, breaking laws and bones to make arrests. Their corruption extends beyond merely an “ends justify the means” style of crime fighting. They also profit off crime, extorting protection money from more easily cowed criminals.
In contrast to the broad infrastructural analysis of The Wire, The Shield keeps its focus fairly tight, examining the personal struggles of the Strike Team and their less corrupt colleagues. It’s a bleak and often violent show, on par with the many great dramas that have come to overshadow it.
Villain protagonists are the concept du jour in contemporary television, and Damages takes that idea further than most shows, following the misdeeds of a law firm that routinely employs blackmail, theft, and even murder to get what they want. Rose Byrne plays Ellen Parsons, an attorney fresh out of school who takes a job working for Patty Hewes (Glenn Close). Hewes is completely amoral, stopping at nothing to win cases, and viewing Ellen as her protege, she hopes to teach the young lawyer to swim with the sharks. Ellen’s struggle is as much against her own shedding of ethics as it is against rival attorneys.
Damages eschews the case-of-the-week formula typical of legal dramas, instead building season-long arcs that emphasize character development and byzantine plots. With a body count rivaling Game of Thrones, it’s not a show for those who get easily attached to characters. Given its strong cast and audacious morality, however, there are few legal dramas of its caliber.
Next Page: Comedy
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There are few shows in television history as important as Seinfeld, and so much has been written about its impact that it seems pointless to add a few more notes to the field of Seinfeld criticism. Often referred to as a “show about nothing,” Seinfeld follows the lives of titular comedian Jerry Seinfeld and his friends as they go about their daily lives. The seemingly mundane premise masks what made the show so iconoclastic: it cast aside the life lessons and happy endings of traditional sitcoms, instead portraying its cast as selfish, somewhat awful people who make things worse for those around them. What may seem to younger viewers as a quaint sitcom was actually one of the most cynical, postmodern shows of the 90s, and its cynicism has crept down into so many of the comedies that have come since.
Seinfeld’s impact extends beyond sitcoms, having popularized or even invented a number of common terms such as re-gifting and Festivus. Today, the show’s humor may seem a bit blunt compared to the more jagged mania of its successors (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia comes to mind). However, its sharp writing and focus on the personalities of its core cast make it truly timeless.
Before the rise of the Marvel Studios hegemony, live-action adaptations of comic books were relatively uncommon and even more rarely successful. At first glance, The Tick should have been one of the many failed superhero adaptations (and in terms of ratings, it was.) It’s a live-action adaptation of a comic book that started as a joke, featuring a protagonist most viewers had probably never heard of, and mostly ignoring action scenes in favor of showing the characters in their daily lives. It’s one of the strangest concepts ever to make it on network television.
The Tick turned out to be a cult favorite, garnering praise for its smart writing and likable characters. Patrick Warburton plays the titular protagonist, bringing his iconic deep voice and old-school charm to the character. Only nine episodes were produced before the show’s unfortunate cancellation, but they present some of the finest and most surreal comedy around.
Blue Mountain State
Blue Mountain State is a comedy about a college football team, created by the people responsible for shows like The Sarah Silverman Program. Which is to say it’s crude, raunchy, utterly unconcerned with propriety. So lowbrow that it can taste subsoil, Blue Mountain State follows the exploits of a few members of the Blue Mountain State “Mountain Goats,” a team who care as much about partying as they do about winning a championship. Those who pine for the frat boy shenanigans of classic college comedies will find them here.
The comedy scene has always been a fraternity of sorts. Comedians often collaborate and frequent each other’s shows and podcasts. Jerry Seinfeld’s web series, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, provides a window into the social world of comedians, with each episode following Jerry and a particular guest as they drive around, drink coffee, and talk shop. The series is refreshingly laid back, with guests generally dropping their typical acts and just talking as themselves (for better or worse). The show is often willing to shake up its format, particularly when the host’s Seinfeld co-stars make appearances. Half travelogue (each episode features a different restaurant and vintage car), half interview show, Comedians in Cars is a singular series and one of Crackle’s best original productions.
Next Page: Animation
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Anime has a reputation in the west for being, to put it lightly, absurd. Gurren Lagann does nothing to disabuse this notion, taking some of the mainstays of Japanese animation (giant robots, outlandish fashion, and speeches about the power of friendship) and taking them as far as they can go. In the distant future, mankind has been driven underground by an evil overlord and his army of beastmen. Protagonist Simon is a digger, a worker whose job it is to dig tunnels to expand the subterranean society. It’s a miserable existence, only broken when Simon discovers a giant robot buried underground and uses it to break through to the surface.
While the premise may seem like a generic hero’s journey, Gurren Lagann sets itself apart through sheer audacity. The show takes every opportunity to ratchet up the intensity of its action scenes, which often playfully shatter the laws of physics (if they bother to think of them at all.) It helps that Gurren Lagann is gorgeous, often utilizing sharp contrasts contrasts and bold lines in its character designs and some of the smoothest animation ever for a television show.
Some anime tend to stick to a central conceit, whether it be giant robots or teenagers with cool powers or so on. Others go all out, throwing in a little from columns A-Z. Occult Academy is one such show. Set in the prestigious Waldstein Academy, the show follows Maya, a consummate skeptic whose father is the principal and also obsessed with the occult. After one of his attempts to summon a demon proves successful, he is killed and Maya must step up to deal with the forces he has unleashed. This would be a novel but not too ludicrous premise if it weren’t for the addition of a psychic time traveler named Fumiaki, sent back to Maya’s time to prevent an alien invasion in the year 2012. The two genre-crossed protagonists team up to solve mysteries and save the world. Perhaps aware of its ridiculous concept, Occult Academy doesn’t take itself too seriously, allowing a lot of levity to accompany the apocalypse. Muted color palettes and detailed figures give the show a more mature look, making it one of the most aesthetically pleasing anime in recent years.
A spiritual successor to the acclaimed film Blood: The Last Vampire, Blood+ is the story of Saya, an amnesiac who finds herself recruited into a secret government agency called Red Shield. The agency’s mission is to hunt down “chiropterans,” vampiric monstrosities that are nearly invincible. Their only weakness? Saya’s blood. So begins Saya’s journey to vanquish the threat and discover the truth of her identity. It’s a stylish show, with slick animation and very gory fight scenes. The show is fairly violent and sometimes disturbing: death and despair abound. Vampires, once figures of terror, have been reduced to cute and brooding romantic figures in a lot of media recently. Blood+ rectifies that, often horrifically.
Next Page: Memory Lane
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The show that put the Fox network on the map, Married… with Children was one of the most controversial shows on the air during its run, garnering protests over its bawdy jokes (which, in a post-South Park world, may seem tame.) The show stars Ed O’Neill as Al Bundy, a former high school football star whose prime is long behind him. Living with his wife, Peggy (Katey Sagal) and their two children, Al struggles to get ahead in life, even if by mere inches, and is constantly foiled by his own ineptitude. Married… with Children is a portrait of the nuclear family at its most dysfunctional, and is in many ways bolder than the sanitized family sitcoms on air today.
The world did not get enough Phil Hartman. The SNL alumnus was one of the most beloved comic actors of the ’90s, and his tragic death at the age of 49 left behind a body of work far too small for someone so talented. This only makes his available work all the more precious, and NewsRadio stands out as some of his best. Which is not to say it was The Phil Hartman Show. NewsRadio features a strong cast including Dave Foley, Andy Dick, and Joe Rogan in a comedy that fell into the tragic role of “critically acclaimed, but small audience.” The show follows the crew of a New York radio station as they go about their hectic jobs, navigating troubles both personal and professional. The show’s frantic pace and well-defined characters make it a sort of predecessor to to more recent comedies like Arrested Development.
The 70s were a tumultuous time for America. All areas of life (economic, political, personal, etc.) seemed to be in upheaval, and art of the time period tended to reflect that. One of the defining TV shows of the decade was All in the Family, a sitcom from prolific show-runner Norman Lear that sneered at the conventions of network television. Centered on blue collar veteran Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor) and his family, the show explored taboo topics at the time such as race, gender, and sexuality. Archie is a man of a bygone era and the show focuses on the conflicts between his antiquated values and the changing attitudes of American culture.
The show has been praised for its writing and willingness to engage with controversial subjects. Given the odious attitudes of its protagonist (who is, despite it all, portrayed as good-natured beneath it all), it seems unlikely such a show could ever make it on network television today. All in the Family stands as a product of its time, one of the most important artifacts in the history of television.
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