Let’s take a trip back to the final scene of Mad Men’s fifth season.
As Don walks away from Megan as she is about to begin the acting career that he finally enabled, take a look at his face (picture above). You can’t see it. It’s shrouded in darkness. As Don moves closer and closer to what seems like an interminable abyss, Nancy Sinatra’s rendition of “You Only Live Twice” broodily revs up as Megan’s image continues to shrink into the background. Finally, the scene shifts to a familiar setting: a bustling bar. Don leans into the bar, orders a “neat old-fashioned” and lights a cigarette like he’s done hundreds of times over 5+ seasons. Home at last. No longer faking it like the actor Megan pretends to be. And of course no Don bar scene would be complete without a female prowler, who left us pondering the question, “Are you alone?”
As a child of the 80s and 90s, I bore witness to the tail end of the so-called Golden Age of broadcast TV, when sitcoms, cop dramas, and (later) reality TV ruled the free airwaves. These shows routinely garnered sky-high ratings at a time when original cable shows were still far inferior in quality and certainly viewership.
But a strange thing happened once the new millennium turned. Some of the most creative minds in television—future pioneers such as David Simon (The Wire), David Chase (The Sopranos), Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad) and Matthew Weiner (Mad Men)—started looking beyond the traditional formulaic TV formats and looked to films for inspiration. Instead of creating 24 essentially standalone episodes of a show spread out over 6 months, these and other early pioneers began creating what essentially amounted to 13-hour movies that rewarded careful viewing and attention to detail. And here’s the thing, even the most viewed shows’ ratings paled in comparison to some of the astronomical numbers of broadcast TV’s salad days. And I think TV is all the better for it. Once cable gained traction and writers were able to flee the FCC’s broadcast strictures, I believe a new Golden Age emerged, an age where quality trumps viewership numbers. So without further ado, here is my list of my top 10 TV series since 2000. Ranked. No copping out behind, “No, I can’t rank them,” blah blah blah.
1. The Wire (HBO, 2002 – 2007) – This show turned the cop show formula on its head. An unfiltered look at villainous heroes and heroic villains. Possibly the greatest anti-hero in TV history (Omar Little). Small characters routinely had big moments—a true ensemble cast. Rewarded careful watching. Underrated humor that helped soften some of the harder moments. For my money, I put season 4, which looked at a broken education system and the kids struggling within it, against any season of any show in the history of TV.
Last night, my wife and I curled up on the couch and watched the first two episodes—both directed by David Fincher of Se7en and Social Network fame—of Netflix’s second original series, House of Cards, which debuted Friday night and was developed by independent production company Media Rights Capital. The episodes had quality acting, atmosphere aplenty, and political intrigue that was thicker than grandma’s homemade slow-cooked chili. But with 11 episodes still to go in the 13-episode arc, I cannot provide a full review.
But what I can do, if I so desire, is watch the remaining 11 episodes on my couch (or anywhere else I can get an Internet connection, for that matter) in a half-day-long marathon tomorrow and provide a full series review by early next week.