I've always been something of a cinema snob. Whatever television can do, movies do it better. Budget, time constraint, talent: there's no getting round the gulfs that exist. Exceptions have always been rare: I, Claudius; Twin Peaks, X-Files, Star Trek: TNG. But recently, incredibly, the exceptions have become the norm. IMO, the greatest advantage TV has over film is the passage of time. A movie has two or three hours to familiarise you with a world, its characters, patterns of dialogue, a filmmaking style, and provide a full plot and resolution. But a TV program can draw you in over weeks, months, years of familiarity, during which time you truly care about these people and their plights. The characters are your virtual friends. They are as real as the actors playing them. Serial television is to film what the lengthy novel is to a poem or a short story. You live these shows a chapter at a time.
I never thought I'd say this, but TV is pretty awesome these days. Not that I ever watch shows as they air. Hell, the last time I did that, The A-Team and Knight Rider were hot. But over the past decade, DVD has revolutionised television. No longer throwaway schedule fillers, shows now have a shot at immortality and huge sales revenues, as network competition and audience demand for quality has hiked a handful of series into hitherto undreamed of levels of bravura filmmaking.
I know I'm missing some absolute corkers, but for now, here are the recent American TV shows I can't get enough of (on DVD):
1. West Wing - I realise it's finished, but for those seven series, Aaron Sorkin's political drama was the best thing in the history of television. I don't say that lightly. It's scripted like a neverending fuse to a series of dazzling verbal fireworks, which the cast nail every single time. Bradley Whitford is superb as Josh Liman, the sharp but arrogant Deputy Chief of Staff, but Allison Janney gets the role of a lifetime as Press Secretary C.J. Cregg. Martin Sheen's President Jed Bartlett might just be the greatest match of star and character in television. Unmissable.
2. House - Hugh Laurie was one of the goofiest BBC comedians on shows like Blackadder and Jeeves and Wooster. So who the hell came up with him to play the sarcastic Sherlock Holmes of medicine? A genius, I reckon. This is quality stuff through and through, and I've been a huge fan of Robert Sean Leonard ever since Dead Poets Society. The humour is biting, the diseases mind-boggling, and the script is very, very clever.
3. Boston Legal - Completely absurd and irresistable show set in the world of high-priced attorneys. I would never have given this a try but for the cast. So glad I did. Quality acting from the likes of Candace Bergen and Julie Bowen, but this belongs to two sleazy, unpredictable characters played to perfection by James Spader (often magnificent) and a hilarious, non-PC William Shatner as Alan Shore and Denny Crane, respectively. It's preachy, heartfelt and insane in equal measure. Great show.
4. Lost - Not much to say about this other than it's either going to be an ending of unprecedented genius or an anti-climax. No middle ground. So many disparate supernatural threads and coincidences--it's often infuriating (why do characters never give more than half or cryptic explanations) but always compelling. The quality of filmmaking is stunning. Matthew Fox as Jack Shepherd is another brilliant piece of casting. He's got charisma to spare. Evangeline Lilly is gorgeous and enigmatic as Kate Austin. High class show.
5. Prison Break - formulaic yet always exciting cons-on-the-run show. It benefits from a good cast, a frenetic pace, and about a dozen twists per episode, so it's never, ever dull. Ridiculous, maybe, but count me entertained.
And a few other shows which, for various reasons, I revisit are:
Ghost Whisperer - Jennifer Love Hewitt's Melinda Gordon is an iconic apple pie (and eye candy) medium. She has a perpetually patient husband, a loyal friend, a cute, never-quite-finished house in small town America, and moreover she's sweet, with good morals, even with the spooks turn all Freddy Kruger. Its the corny little sister of shows like Medium and Supernatural, but Hewitt makes it all work. She's luminous and really seems to believe in all this stuff. Plus she's incredibly hot.
Firefly - Okay, so it was yanked off the air eons ago, but this western in space is the best sci-fi show since Star Trek: TNG. Pretty much everything works: the jokes, the storylines, the cobbling together of sci-fi elements. It's a wonderful show, with a genuine sense of danger when needed. Criminally overlooked, it was resurrected in a one-off, and not quite as good, movie called Serenity. If nothing else, this should have made a star out of Nathan Fillion as the gruff, Han Solo like captain, whose quick draw and quicker mouth would out-gun most western heroes.
I'm always on the lookout for new, quality shows. I hear Glenn Close's Damages is worth a look. Might have to give that a whirl...on DVD, mind. TV has its second wind, on the shiny discs.
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