I don’t watch much television these days. There have been periods of my life when my weekly viewing probably matched the average American (i.e. waaaaay too much). And there’s been times when I watched none at all for long stretches. Growing up, I saw very little TV. There was one in the house but it was used sparingly and was heavily censored. My grandfather’s shrill denunciations of “that terrible box” reverberated throughout the many branches of my family tree. That terrible box was responsible for ripping the heart, and the church, out of Irish society he insisted. It sold selfishness and glossy foreign ways. I can vividly remember the furore when Dallas was first beamed into Irish televisions. It represented the death of Irish civilisation, and by extension – at least to grandad – the death of civilisation itself. It was brainwashing us into abandoning tradition and seeking lives of empty self-gratification.
Not that I want to paint the daft bugger as some kind of wise old patrician. His views about television may well have been perceptive, but his views on just about everything else were mad as a badger.
Just before I hit my teens (when my parents attempts at censorship would have ceased to be successful), we moved overseas and I spent the next seven years or so in countries where I didn’t speak the language. So I watched some CNN now and then, but basically the tellybox was where films on video appeared. By the time I hit my late teens I had unconsciously dismissed television as being trash. The world of soap-operas and sit-coms and light-entertainment and cop shows and cartoons was just one big gaping pit of cultural excrement. You could have pointed me towards David Attenborough‘s wonderful documentaries, or perhaps Monty Python’s Flying Circus. But my distaste for the medium blinded me to the idea that it had anything at all to offer.
The Truth Is Out There
Then, however, came The X-Files. For me, that was the beginning of television. In retrospect The X-Files was actually foreshadowed by Twin Peaks, but I came to that one late – many years after it had first been broadcast. I only stuck with The X-Files for the first few seasons, but it made me realise that the medium had finally matured to the point where something truly interesting could be done with it. This was sharp, smart, well-written stuff with production values that rivalled cinema. It was well-acted, had genuinely likeable characters and fit perfectly with the mood of the times.
But it wasn’t just like a half-length movie every week. The X-Files wasn’t cinema reinvented for the MTV generation. It was it’s own unique thing. You can do things over 12 or 20 episodes that you just can’t do in a film. In many ways, a good television series is far closer to a good novel than even the best cinema. The time exists to fully flesh out characters, to linger over intriguing sub-plots and to provide detail and atmosphere that would simply be sensory overload were you to compress it into 90 or 120 minutes. I think of good television as a form of literature.
Since The X-Files there have been a small handful of TV programmes that manage to reach or exceed the bar it set. Probably far fewer than there should be. But at the same time… it’s a wonder any get made at all, given the culture of anti-intellectualism that clearly exists within the television industry. For those interested; here is that list in its entirety…
- Twin Peaks. David Lynch‘s gloriously warped masterpiece. The one that began it all. An FBI agent shows up at the isolated mountain town of Twin Peaks to look into the murder of young and beautiful Laura Palmer. He goes about investigating the crime as though the murderer was one of the locals, yet all the while connecting Laura’s death to a series of others that happened miles away. Twin Peaks is filled with some of Lynch’s most memorable characters and a rich, dark, claustrophobic atmosphere that infects your dreams. Special Agent Dale Cooper – played to perfection by Kyle MacLachlan – would feature high on a list of Great Literary Characters. A latter day Sherlock Holmes (who switched the cocaine and opium for something a little more psychedelic), Cooper attacks problems with a singlemindedness that usually appears anything but, and a method that is often – quite literally – madness itself. You still can’t get Season 2 of this on DVD, which is nothing short of criminal.
- Millennium. This series was created by Chris Carter (the man behind The X-Files) and is – in many ways – superior to his more famous work. At least, the first two (of three) seasons are. If you assume the show ends at the final episode of season 2 then you have a near-perfect piece of television. It follows the experiences of Frank Black; another truly fine character, played this time by Lance Henriksen (Bishop from Aliens); an ex-FBI profiler recently recovered from a serious emotional breakdown. Frank gets visions. Of evil. And as the series progresses those visions become increasingly apocalyptic driving him closer to madness. The shadowy Millennium Group is trying to recruit Frank to their ranks, and as he battles to hold his family together in the face of internal and external pressures, the whole world starts to come apart at the seams. Dark as a dark, dark thing. And then some.
- Buffy The Vampire Slayer (including spin-off series, Angel). The best of them all. Potentially never to be bettered. Joss Whedon created one of the great works of literature of the late 20th / early 21st century, yet lots of people still think it’s “just Beverly Hills 90210 with monsters”. Certainly that’s the phrase I used when my friend Justin recommended it. I seem to recall he described it as “the best thing ever”. He was right. The premise is deceptively simple… vampires, zombies, werewolves, demons, ghosts… “everything you’ve ever dreaded was under your bed, but told yourself couldn’t be by the light of day. They’re all real!” But luckily for the human race, there’s one girl in every generation gifted with special powers to fight the hordes of darkness… the slayer. Sarah Michelle Gellar plays the lead role, but Buffy is very much an ensemble piece. That’s the beauty of the show; it’s actually about human relationships. Not monsters. From the beginning of Season 1 to the final moments of Season 7, the central theme of Buffy The Vampire Slayer is the human condition. Just like almost every truly great work of literature. The supernatural setting merely provides the writers with a wonderfully colourful backdrop against which to explore that condition. So in one episode they can magically remove everyone’s ability to speak… almost an entire episode with no dialogue. In another, Buffy gets the ability to hear everyone else’s thoughts… rapidly driving her insane. In yet another she becomes convinced that her entire world of vampires and demons is a psychosis she’s experiencing while confined to a lunatic asylum. In another, everyone gets their memory wiped by a spell gone wrong. Over and over these fantastical premises are used not (merely) as rollicking good eye-candy, but to highlight the strengths – and the frailties – of the human heart.
- Firefly. Like Chris Carter before him, Joss Whedon decided not to follow the massive success of Buffy by retreading the same ground. And like Chris Carter before him, this clearly displeased the moneymen. Firefly was never going to sell calendars and mousemats and pencilcases the way Buffy did. It just wasn’t that kind of show. Mind you, at its deepest level, Firefly had exactly the same premise as Buffy… a bunch of outsiders and misfits unite against a hostile universe, and through their love and friendship forge a life worth living. The Ur-Plot. I guess most people will be more familiar with the later film, Serenity, than with the original source material. Which is a tragedy of sorts despite the movie being excellent in its own right. Firefly was cancelled after half a season, and the film serves as a stop-gap “end” to a rich story that had been slowly unfolding. For those unfamiliar with either the film or the TV series, Firefly follows the travels of a starship, ‘Serenity’ (a ‘firefly’-class freighter), as the crew scrape a living on the galactic frontier, all the while evading the law… hot on their heels (in the form of shadowy, sinister covert agents as well as big starships filled with uniformed troops). It’s the life you imagine Han Solo was leading right up until that fateful day in Mos Isley. That said, there’s no aliens in Firefly. Space turned out to be empty when mankind started to explore it. Instead the setting is a very human one. It’s a dirty, dusty future that fuses China with the Wild West. And gone are Buffy’s highschool misfits to be replaced by a bitter war-veteran (from the losing side) and his best friend. Then there’s the best-friend’s Hawaiian-shirted pilot husband; the good-hearted and lovely ship’s engineer; an elderly disillusioned priest; a high-class prostitute; a once-wealthy and influential doctor and his young sister (the character around whom the primary plot arc revolves). The writing was of a quality you rarely encounter in any medium… somehow the characters that Joss Whedon creates have a life and a reality to them that makes him the envy, certainly of this writer, and I suspect many others too.
- Veronica Mars. Yet more Californian highschool shenanigans. This time though, we dispense with the supernatural and the science fictional. Veronica Mars does to the Whodunnit? genre what Buffy did to horror. The show starts a year after the murder of Veronica’s best friend. A year in which her life has been turned completely upside down. I wouldn’t be doing justice to the gloriously convoluted plot were I to try and summarise it here. Rob Thomas has clearly drawn a lot of inspiration from Raymond Chandler‘s novel The Big Sleep as well as the film based on it, and the whole genre it typified. At the same time, Veronica Mars feels fresh and very relevant… one of the central themes of the first two seasons is the economic inequalities that blight American (and by extension, Western) society… as rigid a class system as has ever existed despite the superficial “anyone-can-make-it” classless nature of America. When Veronica describes her school she points out, “if you go here your parents are either millionaires, or your parents work for millionaires.” Veronica is an exception, and is in the unique position of knowing what it’s like on both sides of the fence. Her father used to be the town Sheriff. Top law man. And power is as good as money. But when her Dad accuses the richest of all the rich men in town of the murder of his own daughter; Veronica’s best friend; he finds himself hounded out of office and becomes a Private Detective to pay the mortgage (and, it turns out, to continue his investigation into what really happened the night of the murder). Philip Marlowe meets Buffy without the monsters. But in a very very good way.
- Battlestar Galactica. I’m the first to admit that this programme shouldn’t be half as good as it is. I mean, a remake of a dodgy 1970s space opera famed as much for the preening ponces on the flight deck and their godawful cheesey dialogue as for the ludicrous Greek-mythology allusions. But the creators of the show (and it does seem to be the creation of a team, rather than the vision of one person implemented by a team) have clearly taken a leaf or three out of Joss Whedon’s book. The look and feel of the show is straight out of Whedon’s Firefly… a fact that’s very much to its credit. And just as with Buffy, the fantastical setting is used simply as the backdrop against which the writers can explore human relationships and moral problems. And it is when examining ethical and moral issues that Battlestar Galactica is at its best. The first two seasons are excellent television and alone warrant inclusion in this list. However the third season opens with — to my mind — perhaps the six finest episodes of television ever broadcast. Using the science-fiction setting to create the necessary ‘distance’, the programme examines — amongst other things — the potential justifications for terrorist attacks against an occupying force, up to and including suicide bombings. It does so in a shockingly direct and — dare I say it — compassionate way. More than once while watching I was reminded of Talking Heads’ Listening Wind. Can there be higher praise?
If I’ve omitted something obvious, then let me know. But that short list pretty much covers — for me — the literature of television. My stance with regards to that terrible box has mellowed a little over time, and there’s plenty of other things that are occasionally “worth watching” (The Simpsons, The Mighty Boosh, Futurama, etc) but by and large, when you consider the sheer number of hours of programming broadcast in the English language over the decades, it’s a disturbingly short list.