I must be getting old. Doctor Who celebrated its 45th birthday yesterday. And it seems like only yesterday that The Black Adder first appeared on British TV screens; in reality, I noticed that the 25th anniversary of the series’ initial transmission came and went a few months back.
Which is as good an excuse for a list of my favourite TV programmes as any.
The television landscape has changed a lot in the past 25 years. Back then, the UK only had four television channels, Channel 4 having launched in November 1982. And our expectations of television programmes were very different as well. Stories unfolded at a much more leisurely pace – just watch a rerun of any old 80s programme on Bravo, ITV3 or the newly rebranded G.O.L.D. to see what I mean – and we were certainly more tolerant of budget-constrained production values and wobbly special effects. Whereas nowadays, if you have Sky, there are more channels than there are days in the year, we expect a thrill-a-minute adrenalin ride from programmes and no longer marvel at what CGI can achieve.
However, the more things change, the more they stay the same. No amount of green-screen pyrotechnics can replace engaging stories presented in an original format, which is why, despite my strong preference for sci-fi and other ‘genre’ shows, my list includes three series which date back 15 years or more and another which I don’t think ever used a single CGI shot.
So, in no particular order, here are ten of my favourite TV shows of all time:
1. The West Wing: A prime-time drama about the inner workings of the White House wasn’t the most obvious recipe for success. And yet, TWW remains one of the most intelligent, challenging and above all human series ever. For seven years I fell in love with a set of characters trying – and frequently failing – to steer a country I have never lived in via a system of government I have limited understanding of. TWW is perhaps the finest example of how you can generate pace in a story without having to resort to crash-bang-wallop, and that you can build exquisite dramatic tension just by having people talking without pointing guns at each other. Josh, CJ, Leo (the late John Spencer), Jed, Donna and all the others were, of course, not real people. And yet they absolutely were. Somewhere in my mind they still are.
2. Blackadder: Natch. Through four series of Edmund’s incompetent scheming and Baldrick’s “cunning plans”, this was British comedy at its finest – and it was a show only British TV could have produced, with its subversive and sometimes downright black humour. For me, Blackadder II and Blackadder Goes Forth in particular routinely reached heights on a par with anything Fawlty Towers ever produced. Best. Comedy. Ever.
3. Heroes: Yes, season 2 was too slow to get going, and this was one of the few shows for whom the WGA strike was probably a blessing in disguise. Yes, many of the characters’ powers are derivative. (Claire Bennet, for instance, is Wolverine with pom-poms.) And yes, a number of the characters are dreadfully dull or under-developed. (What, pray tell, is the point of Maya?) It’s not perfect; it is still, however, soaringly brilliant 90% of the time, combining complex, multi-layered storytelling with breathtaking CGI which puts many films to shame. And in the character of time-controlling Hiro Nakamura we have the poster boy for geeks everywhere. Gotta love it.
4. Knight Rider: I’m talking about the admittedly cheesy 80s original here, not the plethora of spin-offs which followed it (not least the abomination of a Ford commercial which is the new Knight Rider). Sure, the series and its basic format – Michael and KITT turn up in a small town to help a girl in trouble, KITT bails Michael out with the use of his ‘turbo boost’ and some pithy one-liners, Michael gets the girl – looks pretty dated now (as do the clothes and the hairstyles). But of all the one-man-and-his-hi-tech-sidekick series that proliferated in the early 80s (Airwolf, Street Hawk, Blue Thunder, Automan), this was the one which caught this young teenager’s imagination more than any other – I mean, come on, who didn’t think that black Trans Am wasn’t the coolest thing ever in an era of Mini Metros and Ford Escorts? – plus it had that killer theme tune and tag-line of “one man can make a difference, Michael” which are indelibly imprinted on my subconscious. Plus it never took itself too seriously or tried to justify the series’ many implausibilities (how exactly did they manage to cram so much gadgetry in a car which you could barely fit back-seat passengers into?), which I find always helps. Suspension of disbelief, people.
5. Battlestar Galactica: In this case, I’m talking about the present day ‘re-imagining’, which took the basic idea – remnants of the human race on the run and seeking the lost colony of Earth – of the ever-so-kitsch Star Wars-lite 1970s original, and turned it into a gritty political and religious allegory. The series is full of ‘good guys’ for whom the boundary between right and wrong has become immutably blurred – it is they, and not the supposedly evil Cylons, who resort to suicide bombing tactics – and which somehow manages to be unremittingly depressing yet ultimately uplifting. Also, Edward James Olmos: the man redefines the word ‘gravitas’.
6. Star Trek Deep Space Nine: Somehow, despite lacking the one big fan-boy’s favourite (Spock, Data etc), this, by far the darkest of the five Star Trek series, had the best ensemble cast, and maybe that’s exactly because it wasn’t dominated by one or two main characters. Here we had a crew of people bravely fighting the good fight in a morally grey world where even the supposedly whiter-than-white Starfleet has plenty of unsavoury skeletons in the closet, and there are as many downbeat endings – not least the ultimate fate of Benjamin Sisko – as there are happy ones. If that sounds a lot like the new Battlestar Galactica, that’s probably because of Ronald D Moore, BSG’s show-runner and co-executive producer on DS9. Hey, if it ain’t broke …
7. My Name Is Earl: An unapologetically cheesy premise – a former petty criminal who suddenly discovers karma (“do good things and good things happen”) – which shamelessly pokes fun at small-town Hicksville, trailer trash and some of the US’s more hysterical attitudes towards life, the universe and Operation Iraqi Freedom, among others. At its best MNIE veers from farce to cutting observational humour and back again several times an episode. And if there is a better, funnier supporting role on TV than Ethan Suplee’s Randy, I have yet to see it.
8. The Apprentice: Let me get this out of the way first: Sir Alan Sugar is an idiot, albeit one who gives good soundbite. He consistently fires the wrong person each week, despite the obviously high opinion he has of his own judgment. (I’m telling you, his sidekicks Nick and Margaret are the stars of this show.) The whole original concept of finding Britain’s best and brightest young entrepreneurs has been quietly forgotten in favour of what we really want to see: a succession of self-aggrandising tall poppies, and the inevitable schadenfreude that follows when some bright spark’s genius idea of selling beef to a vegan is exposed for its obvious stupidity. There are some basic lessons in business and selling here, but don’t ever be fooled into thinking this is even a semi-serious programme like Dragons’ Den: this is Big Brother in business suits.
9. Life On Mars: Never mind the high-concept premise – is Sam Tyler “mad, in a coma, or back in time”? – LOM was a lovingly created homage to 70s cop shows like The Sweeney, wryly observed through knowing 21st century eyes. Worth the price of admission for Gene Hunt’s one-liners alone (“He’s got fingers in more pies than a leper on a cookery course”, “He’s more nervous than a very small nun on a penguin shoot”). And bonus points for resurrecting the Test Card Girl and putting her front and centre in the plot – I always thought there was something vaguely scary about her, anyway. Best of all, the show went out on a high after just two series. Leave them wanting more.
10. Buffy The Vampire Slayer: A series which delighted in taking Hollywood conventions and turning them on their head. The helpless blonde cheerleader of a thousand slasher movies who turns out to be the girl who saves the world. A lot. Episodes conducted primarily in silence without any dialogue (Hush), without incidental music (The Body) and in musical format (Once More, With Feeling). BtVS did all that and more, making the fantastical seem commonplace while revealing that the greatest horrors can often be found within ourselves, and spawning a spin-off series, Angel, of such quality that it could get away with a giant talking hamburger and turning its lead character into a Muppet. Literally.
I’ve missed out plenty of series here which would have made other people’s top 10s, or which might have made it into mine on a different day: Who, and the first two seasons of both Lost and Alias for starters, but there you have it. Seven US series, three UK. Six genre shows, two comedies, one reality show and one drama. Pick the bones out of that.