My 10 Favourite TV Shows
Most of our top 1o lists try to consider all angles. We try to rein in personal opinion as much as possible so we speak to the reader. Not today. It’s my birthday, and it’s my very own Top 10 TV Shows, by the barometer of me. In order to narrow this list down I’ve tried to stick to shows that have been consistently good during their run (sorry Community) and have gotten far enough through their lifespan to show that they’ve got staying power (maybe next time, Bojack Horseman).
Let’s start with a local gem. Frontline ran in Australia during the 90s to great critical acclaim but never got picked up overseas in spite of its similarities to monster hits The Office and Summer Heights High. The premise is a behind-the-scenes look at a fictional current affairs show, taking a dryly satrical look at the immoral way they make their stories and cynical, ego-driven world view. From dim-witted host Mike Moore to the manipulative reporter Brooke Vanderberg, they’re a wonderfully horrible cast of characters.
What gave the show a real edge was their habit of parodying the news stories making headlines at the time. Every controversial story or journalist coming to public attention got a nod in the show, casting a bright spotlight on the problems that still exist in the current media driven culture. The show generated enough respect from the community that real Australian media and political figures often played themselves on screen, with the opposing candidates in the current federal election – John Howard and Paul Keating – appearing in a debate on the show. That’s the local equivalent of Obama and McCain appearing on Parks and Recreation.
There’s something to be said for a show that saw me, my father and my kid sister (ten years my junior) sitting down together to enjoy it. Daria is a show that will be fondly remembered by those who grew up in the 90s, perfectly capturing the era. Every familiar high school figure, parental archetype and teacher we encountered in our real life was represented in the show. It was consistently smart and while the style has put off newer viewers the original fans will always keep this on a pedestal. I doubt MTV will turn out something this insightful ever again.
8. Veronica Mars
There were a lot of shows that came out after Buffy the Vampire Slayer that tried to capture the same audience, some seeing the supernatural element as the crux of the show and giving us garbage like Ghost Whisperer. In the flip side of the coin we have shows like Veronica Mars, which took the same format and swapped out the horror genre tropes for Film Noir. The casting of young star Kristen Bell helped bring the show to life, and show runner Rob Thomas set an amazing tone for the series. Veronica is an outcast in her high school and her father is a local private investigator. In a town rife with corruption, blackmail, gangs, secrets and murder there’s plenty of work for him to do, and Veronica works in the family business alongside her father. She’s smart, brimming with sass and a devil for details. Crossing her earns you a spot on her revenge list, and she will pay that debt.
Clever mysteries and pay-offs make up the bulk of the individual episodes, with one large case tying each season together. It’s extremely well plotted to keep the audience involved and guessing, with some of the most entertaining leads in modern television. Quite often you’d watch it just to see Veronica tearing the culprit a new one at the end. Just a shame the crowd funded movie got hung up on running every single obscure cast member past the screen for a cameo instead of telling a great story, or we could’ve had more.
7. The Gruen Transfer
Time to mix in a non-fiction show. Down here in the land of Oz we get this fantastic panel show all about advertising and marketing. Hosted by comedian Will Anderson and co-hosted by leading advertisers Todd Sampson and Russel Howcroft along with weekly guests, it deconstructs the role and methods used by advertisers in the modern world. Over time the show has morphed and adapted to include Gruen Nation (focusing on federal elections), Gruen Sweat (looking at marketing associated with the Olympics) and Gruen Planet, taking a broader look at the role of marketing on a global level including politicians, the Royal Family and more. These days the show just goes by Gruen but is no less brilliant.
The show features multiple segments involving analysing the process of advertising, debating merits of the industry and challenging the guests to come up with ways to promote unmarketable products like whale meat or find the worst ads ever made. The show maintains a light, comedic tone – delivering plenty of laughs throughout – but takes a serious look at one of the most all encompassing forms of communication in our world. As someone who both studies and teachers media this is a real gift of a show, being both valuable as an educational resource while being entertaining enough for students to get drawn in. It’s little wonder some of the fake ads they’ve made have gone viral.
6. Avatar: The Last Airbender
The one show on this list aimed squarely at the younger crowd, but also one of the most mature. Set in a world where the human population are divided into four tribes, each one with individuals holding the ability to command the elements of water, earth, fire or air. Peace and balance is kept by the Avatar, one individual born with the ability to control all four of the elements and communicate with the spirit world. With the current Avatar missing for decades, the Fire Nation has been waging war against the other tibes and already destroyed the Air Nomads. The series begins with the return of the Avatar, a young boy named Aang, he goes on a journey to discover his power and restore the world to order.
For a show created for children, this has some amazing writing and character development behind it. Aang and his companions Katara, Sokka, Toph and villain turned ally Zuko are wonderfully layered and fleshed out characters, and following their journeys are as rewarding as they are entertaining. That would be enough, but there’s also he imaginative depiction of the Bending abilities, with every battle bringing something new and unique to the concept. This show is remarkable in that action, drama and comedy exist side by side and in equal measure. We weren’t even that disappointed when the show came to an end after three seasons because it was an immensely satisfying conclusion.
Then, of course, came Avatar: The Legend of Korra, following the next generation’s Avatar in a whole new world. Came very, very close to matching the original.
5. Game of Thrones
Breaking the rules a little bit here, as this show is still running and from this point on we don’t know where the writers are going with it. But what we’ve had thus far has been BRILLIANT. Like the #1 pick of this list, Game of Thrones took television to a whole new level. The sheer scale of the show is enormous for a big budget feature film but with a more complex, involving story and massive cast of fascinating characters. From Ayra Stark to Daenerys, Mother Dragons, to Jon Snow on The Wall, these seemingly unconnected characters provide keyhole glimpses at a conflict spanning the entire width of this fantasy world.
There’s been a surge of similar big budget shows since, such as Vikings and Black Sails, but Game of Thrones maintains its edge. This is in part to George R.R. Martin’s deep and dark imagination, but also down to some amazing casting. A special award needs to be created just for casting, as almost every member of extensive cast are perfectly matched to their roles. It’s easy to get invested in their stories because of how perfectly they play their parts. Then there’s the fact that any character could, at any time, get brutally murdered. Eye gouging, beheadings and betrayal are the order of the day. Although the endless violence and sex may deter some viewers, those with a strong stomach are in for a treat.
Just missing out on the list is Battlestar Galactica, a reboot that took sci-fi television to an equally brilliant level of writing, production and performance. Sadly it stuttered a bit in the final season.
Yeah, the one that got away. I may rag on the Browncoats from time to time because, let’s face it, it’s not coming back, but what we’ve got left is one of the tightest, perfect examples of genre television the world has ever seen. The unseen potential the half season hinted at plays a part in the legacy of the show, as it’s left to the fans to imagine how it may have gone. Western and science-fiction come together in Joss Whedon’s new universe of scoundrels and cowboys, and we follow the crew of the ‘Serenity’ as they try to make it in the ‘verse. Nathan Fillion leads the charge as Mal Reynolds, now an icon of geek culture, and he shares perfect chemistry with the cast of mostly new actors who subsequently got picked up by bigger projects, including Alan Tudyk (the villain in every new Disney film), Gina Torres (Suits), Morena Baccarin (Homeland, Gotham), Jewel Staite (Stargate), Summer Glau (The Sarah Conner Chronicles), Ron Glass and Sean Maher.
The show played to Whedon’s strengths, building a detailed and involving mythos for the fictional world the characters inhabited and making the characters the heart of the show. The blending of cultures and genres made for a unique and rich setting that has been successfully adapted into other formats. Nowadays we get to live out our own Firefly adventures in the multitude of board games now available.
3. The Simpsons
I don’t really keep up with The Simpsons these days, but they’ve given us so many seasons of pure gold that you don’t need to. How bloody long has this been running? Well, when the show first aired in Australia I was the same age as Bart. Next year I’ll be turning the same age as Homer. I kinda hope they cancel the show in 2017 just to make that a neat little bit of personal trivia. At its best the show cast a cruelly humorous mirror up to the work, using stereotypes as the primary basis of humour. It’s massive range of characters and talented voice cast backed by brilliant writers have helped inform the style of humour for an entire generation. It also opened the doors to edgier and more adult animated programming such as South Park and Bojack Horseman, and the world is a better place for it.
2. Doctor Who
In a word: adventure. Beginning life more than 50 years ago the tale of an alien time traveller known as the ‘Doctor’ and his spacecraft disguised as a Police Box (used by British police in the 60s to detain criminals and call reinforcements), the show was intended to educate as well as entertain by switching between historical and science based stories. Eventually they dropped the education pre-tense and focused on imaginative story-telling. As the show gained popularity and the elderly William Hartnell struggled to keep up the workload they introduced the concept of ‘regeneration’. When the Doctor sustains life threatening injuries, he regenerates his body (and to a degree his personality), allowing new actors to take on the role and for the character to adapt to the changing times. We’re on our 13th official version of the character and rumour is that we’ll see the 14th before long.
The Doctor and his companions, the people (humans, aliens, robots, things) that he invites to travel with him explore space and time and get into all manner of scrapes. They battle evil monsters such as the iconic Daleks, Cybermen and Weeping Angels and rub elbows with famous figures ranging from Shakespeare to Churchill to Marco Polo while changing history and their own lives. The characters remain the heart of the show with some of the companions going on to lead successful post-Doctor Who careers, such as Billie Piper and John Barrowman, and fan debates constantly raging about who the best Doctor is. For the record I like all of them except the 6th. It’s a wonderfully good-hearted show that can be goofily funny, inspiring, haunting and heartbreaking. It’s very much an icon of the genre and British culture.
1. Buffy the Vampire Slayer
I was 13 when the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer turned up at the local video store and while it wasn’t terrible, it was pretty damn cheesy. Cheesy enough to have Luke Perry in it. Some parts of the movie totally work, with Donald Sutherland playing the Watcher and Rutger Hauer as the bad guy, and some genuinely funny moments. When the movie’s original writer developed the concept into a TV series 5 years later I didn’t pay it much attention. It wasn’t until the 3rd season episode ‘The Wish’ that I caught an episode and was immediately hooked. It says something that an episode based in an alternate universe, playing to audience expectations of the characters, can be so engaging for a new viewer. I followed the show from that point on, and eventually went back and filled in the gaps when the DVDs started coming out, as well as picking up comics, playing games and everything else I could find.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer was in full swing when I transitioned from high school to university to partake in media studies. There fans gathered together to talk about the genius of Joss Whedon. BtVS was a landmark series, redefining the structure of serialised television and proving that a genre based series can’t have top shelf writing behind it. Whedon’s team of writers became as well known to fans as the actors and have gone on to work on other ground breaking shows including Daredevil and Game of Thrones. Buffy was smart, funny, quotable, clever and on occasion downright scary, and it forced television to left its game. It was also one of the first shows to bring together a passionate geek community online, becoming an early landmark in modern geek culture. If you haven’t seen it, start watching tonight.
Also worth a look – spin off series Angel, continuing the adventures with a noir flavour.