Top 5 Shows on TV Right Now
Posted by Ashish on 08.08.2012
From Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones to Mad Men and more, 411's Ashish counts down his Top 5 Shows on TV Right Now!
The current era of TV shows has often been criticized for struggling to follow in the footsteps of the previous era, an era many consider to be the best in TV history (especially for dramas) with shows like The Wire, The Sopranos, Deadwood, Six Feet Under, Lost (the first half, anyway), etc. all airing at roughly the same time. But after a slow start, this current era has picked up steam, largely due to AMC taking the mantle from HBO as TV's top home for drama with Mad Men and Breaking Bad (and you can throw The Walking Dead in there too), HBO slowly starting to make a comeback with Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire, and Treme (with Curb Your Enthusiasm still kicking around), Showtime breaking out beyond Dexter with Homeland, an innovative show in Louie and some decent comedies in Modern Family, Community, and Parks & Recreation.
My top five current shows are below. I evaluate these shows not only on the entertainment factor of how enjoyable it is to watch each week, but also how true the show is to its world and characters (does it consistently follow the same rules, pursue story lines to logical conclusions instead of catering to audience building, do character actions make sense, etc.) and from a historical perspective of whether it is offers up anything new in style, message, themes, etc. Obviously with these shows all still on air, how they end will go a long way in where they end up in the all-time list of best TV shows.
I've labeled the major spoilers in the article, but obviously some minor things from shows will be talked about, so you've been warned.
"'I'm bored' is a useless thing to say. I mean, you live in a great, big, vast world that you've seen none percent of. Even the inside of your own mind is endless; it goes on forever, inwardly, do you understand? The fact that you're alive is amazing, so you don't get to say ‘I'm bored.'"-- Louis CK
Some like to think of Louie as a comedy, some say it's more of a drama. The show, outside of the parts showing Louis CK's stand-up, doesn't even really try to be funny all that often. The category it falls in doesn't really matter. What it is is a show that is so uncompromising and with such a unique voice that it is always pushing creative boundaries. This is a show that covers topics other shows rarely cover and is presented in such a real, honest way. Louie CK has complete control over the show and it shows. He isn't afraid to come off as ugly, as insensitive, as vulgar, as a coward (it's still hard to watch him get punked in "Bully"), as... whatever. And yet it never comes across as a show that is attention-grabbing. It's always authentic.
Sure the show can sometimes take itself too seriously and get a little lost in Louis CK's wannabe indie art house sensibilities ("Miami") but even then, it's better than any other drama/comedy on TV because, well, there isn't really anything else like it on TV. Sometimes it's short stories ("So Old/Playdate"), sometimes it's movie-like ("Duckling"), sometime's it's funny ("Dr. Ben"), sometimes it's serious ("Eddie"), sometimes it's brilliant ("God"), sometimes it's just flat-out weird ("Travel Day/South") and sometimes even kinda pointless ("Night Out"). Basically, it's whatever Louis CK wants it to be that week, and that honesty and freedom is what makes the show unique and interesting. I doubt any other show could make a Dane Cook cameo as interesting as Louie managed to do, or make Robin Williams watchable.
But everything aside, Louie is often a beautiful show because you can tell just how much Louis CK cherishes life's weird, happy, sad, strange, odd moments. There is a real love of just living and observing that comes across in Louie that makes it such a great show, regardless of what happens in a particular episode and whether it fits into a particular category.
4. Boardwalk Empire
"The beginning's over, the end hasn't come yet. All I care about is now."-- Nucky Thompson
After a first season that was often criticized for being cold and detached and more interested in the sweeping shots of old Atlantic City and the politics of Nucky Thompson than actual character development, season two saw an evolution to more personal stories and the show was better for it. Like The Sopranos, where Boardwalk goes in season three as it tries to move from "just another crime show" to a show that actually has something new to say will go along way in determining if this is a show that will be remembered or forgotten 10 years from now. The final two episodes of season two ("Under God's Power, She Flourishes" which was one of the best episodes of any show last year and the controversial season finale, "To The Lost") really displayed how good this show can be when it pays off stories with character development, exposition, and emotion, instead of cold political maneuvering (and also elevated Gillian into the ranks of the worst TV moms, with Livia Soprano and De'Londa Brice).
Boardwalk Empire is gorgeous to look at and has cool historical ties (any mob fan will get a kick out of young mob icons like Al Capone and Lucky Luciano being presented as regular characters), but the show does sometime force those ties in. WIth the direction it went in at the end of season two, there will be a lot of pressure on Steve Buscemi (and the writing for his character) to play Nucky a bit more colorful. The Nucky character often comes off as completely grey and will need a bit more of the empathetic qualities of Tony Soprano and a little less of the political qualities of Stringer Bell (though Nucky is no where close to as interesting a character as Stringer Bell was... yet) if he wants to be a gripping lead. Hopefully we'll get more of Jack Huston next season as well, as Richard has consistently been the most fascinating character on the show so far.
SPOILER WARNING. The show will have a big test in the next season without Jimmy, who was the heart of the first two seasons, but that should open up more time for a huge ensemble cast. Hopefully that means more Chalky "Omar Little" White. They made a very ballsy move to close the season, a signature of HBO dramas and hopefully a sign that the writers now have the confidence to take the show into bold new areas and not stick to boilerplate mob stuff. END OF SPOILER WARNING.
But despite its problems, Boardwalk is a show that is showing signs of coming into its own, and has something to say, set in a fascinating decade when all anyone was concerned with was the present, all while the future of depression and war looms. Lots of material to work with, and the writers seem ready to take it on in a bold way.
3. Game of Thrones
"The gods have no mercy, that's why they're gods."-- Cersei
No other show on TV is telling a story as epic and grand as Game of Thrones. The cast is huge, the wars are big, everything is at stake, and everything matters. If Mad Men is an epic story told through small moments, Game of Thrones is an epic story told through even more epic moments. "Blackwater" is as cinematic and epic as TV gets.
It's a show full of uncompromising story lines and characters that are ruthless and, if they don't know how to play the game, suffer the consequences. The show doesn't insult our intelligence. SPOILER WARNING. On a more "traditional" show, Ned Starck would have never died so fast. But he was naive, and it would have made no sense for someone like him to be able to survive in a world like this. And so, he died. This show holds its characters accountable for their actions, even if that means advocating political deception. The parallels to the real world are endless. END OF SPOILER WARNING.
Peter Dinklage's performance as Tyron Lannister remains the best, most consistent, show-stealing performance, but it's a huge ensemble cast full of great characters. From the sweet-but-out-for-revenge Arya and the honorable Jon Snow to the wicked Cersei, the bratty & evil King Joffrey, and the scheming unic Varys, it's a show with so many interesting characters that the show often doesn't have time to do them justice. Hell the Dany storyline often felt like an afterthought last season because of how much was going on. The show moves forward with such an aggressive pace that it leaves you wanting more as the world is always changing, key players often are removed, and new ones come right in with their own strengths and weaknesses that reshuffle the entire field and make you look at things differently.
A show like this has never been done on TV before, and while that does sometime result in growing pains (character progression and story lines are often rushed to keep pace with the books, scenes that would be really expensive for TV are sometimes glossed over, etc.), it's still done extremely well and makes for gripping TV. The honesty and ruthlessness that the characters are portrayed with lead to some of the darkest, cruelest moments on TV, but makes the world that much more authentic and the show that much more satisfying. It's a show that rightfully shows the world of war in greys, not dumbed down black and whites. Even the show's sweet, cute nine year old girl is plotting murder. Everyone has their reasons and there are justifications for virtually every action a character takes, no matter how cold or gruesome it may seem.
2. Mad Men
"What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons."-- Don Draper
A year ago, I would have said Mad Men was the best show on TV, but Breaking Bad has taken things to another level recently and Mad Men, as brilliant as it is, seemed to struggle just a bit with its last season (compared to its previous ones, anyway). Still though, it remains the most intelligent, subtle, and complex show on TV. Breaking Bad vs. Mad Men has certainly become the new Sopranos vs. The Wire. This is an artistic drama with the best ensemble cast on TV and fleshed out, rich, real characters. Unlike Breaking Bad, which sometimes struggles when it strays too far from Walter White (anybody care about the Marie stealing storyline? Didn't think so.), Mad Men thrives as much with Don Draper scenes as it does with Peggy scenes or Pete scenes. No other show could pull off Megan's slinky sexy performance of "Zou Bisou Bisou" in "A Little Kiss" and turn it into an iconic TV moment.
It's a show that uses history without it ever seeming forced (watch and learn, Boardwalk Empire) and applies novelistic scope, themes, and pacing in a way that no show has done effectively since The Wire. And while the last season seemed to have a few signs that the show may be struggling to find its next chapter with moments that sometimes felt like placeholders (Betty Draper), it created moments like Megan on all fours in "A Little Kiss" and Roger's LSD trip and Joan's decision to whore herself out.
Unlike all the other dramas on this list, Mad Men doesn't have instantly compelling plot devices like epic wars and constant murder plots to spice things up and use as drama crutches. It's a show that takes a relatively small story, such as Peggy's rise in a male-dominated industry, and uses it as a proxy for the much grander things going on in the country during the 60s. Mad Men is a story told in personal moments that, with the use of subtle gestures, methodical pacing, key words, lofty writing, heavy subtext, and good use of history, tell an epic story about the change of an entire country. It's a show full of characters that through the advertising and marketing and promises of America are always wanting more in a country always wanting more, characters always unsatisfied with the promise of America and what they feel they deserve or are owed, and what happens when they don't get it.
And the setting of an advertising agency is a perfect tool to show a country ignoring its rotting core, like that of the show's characters, while building itself up on messaging, perception, and wealth. Don Draper is the king of selling lemons, in a country that would come to be built on passing off lemons to the next shmuck until people realize they're stuck with lemons, not the happiness they were all promised.
If Breaking Bad is the flashy guy at the bar calling for attention, Mad Men is the Don Draper of the bar: confident, often cocky, wearing an expensive suit, quietly smoking a cigerette and drinking an expensive glass of scotch in the corner, knowing he owns the room. It's a show that never feels it has anything to prove. Walter White laughing like a mad man in "Crawl Space" was an amazing moment of acting, but Don's calm breakdown and tender kiss of Peggy's hand in "The Other Woman" was just as powerful, but done with a lot less. The question now is, how will Don Draper evolve? What's next? We've seen how Walter White evolves, and it's taken Breaking Bad to another level. Now it's Mad Men's turn to take the show to a new place.
1. Breaking Bad
"Every life comes with a death sentence, but until then, I'm in charge. That's how I live my life."-- Walter White
Breaking Bad & Mad Men are the closest we've gotten to the heights of The Wire and The Sopranos, and in the case of Breaking Bad, it is climbing that mountain on the back of Bryan Cranston who is delivering one of the all-time great TV performances as Walter White (whether it gets to the top of that mountain will depend on how the show concludes from here). Cranston is, so far, perfectly pulling off the "Mr. Chips to Scarface" evolution that creator Vince Gilligan often uses to describe the direction of the show, playing a man who uses cancer as an excuse to grab control of his life by the throat. But aside from Cranston, there is so much to love about this show. It's patient, it's confident, it never backs down, and it's beautifully shot with innovative camera angles and edgy editing.
What started in the first season as a show that sometimes seemed more interested in laughs and "cool" moments over substance and depth has evolved into a show that is by far the darkest on TV (AMC deserves a lot of credit for really letting this show and Mad Men raise the bar for what can be done on network TV and away from HBO) and a show that understands its world completely. The recent Walter White/Skylar moments have often been downright creepy and disturbing, but brilliant. It's not easy to deliver "top this" moments like the ones we saw in "Crawl Space" and "Face Off" and then be able to calm down and regain a patient pace with episodes like "Fifty One" (which served up the best husband/wife gloves-come-off shout-out since Tony & Carmela in "Whitecaps") but Breaking Bad does it with ease. It's often times a Western, often Quentin Tarantino-quality neo-noir, and often a more personal version of The Sopranos. And it racks up iconic lines ("I am the one who knocks") and iconic moments (coolest tie-straigtening scene ever) right up there with the best crime movies and shows.
Sure, like many crime dramas, the show sometimes pushes the realms of what is realistic (does anybody buy that this much has happened in what is supposed to be one year for Walter White?), but it never gets excessive. And beyond that, the show holds its characters accountable in the same way that the show it's probably most similar to, The Sopranos, did. It never lets characters off the hook for convenience. When Big Pussy or Richie had to go, they went, regardless of how big a character they might have been. The Sopranos told a story to its end, even if it meant killing off a popular character or making a move not catered to a mass audience, and Breaking Bad has the same type of confidence. It's a show that is uncompromising and never dumbed down, not afraid to turn its "hero" into an evil monster. Even the supporting cast, which started as the weakness of the show, has grown with it. While the show's cast will never be as strong as Mad Men, Aaron Paul as Jesse often steals scenes on his own, Saul Goodman is the best crooked TV lawyer since Maurice Levy, and even the show's dart board, Skylar, has been intense and on-point this season.
But above all else, it's a Bryan Cranston showcase, and Cranston never flinches or hesitates to show how ugly and dark Walter White can get in his pursuit to control his life. Who knew Tim Whatley had it in him.