Sunday, July 14, 2013

Best TV Shows

In the last few years, articles about the excellence of TV shows have become quite common as have the number of people who watch entire seasons of a TV show in a weekend. After managing to stay away from these shows for a while, I decided to watch a few episodes. But as it turned out in most cases, I could not stop at a few episodes and over the last 2 years, I managed to watch complete seasons of many shows.

Here is a rundown of the shows that I saw, followed by thoughts about the best shows & other aspects of the series:

24, Season 1 and 8 
Boardwalk Empire, Season 1 
Breaking Bad, Seasons 1-4, Season 5, part 1
Dexter, S3 & S4, few episodes
Game of Thrones, S1, Episodes 1-4 
Homeland, S1 
House of Cards (USA), S1
Justified, S1-S3 
Mad Men, S1-S6
Person of Interest, S1 & S2, few episodes
The Walking Dead, S1-S2, S3 Episodes 1-3 

I am currently caught up with all seasons of Mad Men & Breaking Bad. I would like to be in sync with Justified as well but since the show is not on Canadian channels, I am forced to wait for the DVD release, thereby causing a delay.

Judging Criteria for best show

All the above TV series have different stories and take varying approaches in handling their material. So it is not straight forward to compare them but I used a simple gauge to measure their performance, Excellence Per Minute (EPM) & Soap Opera Moment (SOM).

1) EPM measures the dramatic high points of the show. Every minute of the show is not excellent, no matter what some TV critics say, but one can often pick out those great jaw dropping moments which involve a great piece of acting, repeatable dialogue or a memorable event. A rough tally of all these EPMs was used to determine which show had the best content per minute.

2) SOM is a negative indicator which will to be used to subtract from a  show’s EPM.

These two criteria were used to structure the overall ranking of a show.

In addition, each show varies in length. For example, an average Mad Men and Breaking Bad episode is either 47 or 48 minutes long while a single episode of Justified averages anywhere from 38 to 48 minutes. Plus, Breaking Bad has a shorter first season while Mad Men has the most episodes to choose from. As a result, Mad Men has a benefit of having more EPMs than the other shows. On the flip side, it also has more instances to have SOMs which will undermine a lot of the good work. Therefore, in order to have some sort of relative EPM/SOM comparison, I only picked shows for which I had seen atleast one complete season. This made Dexter, Game of Thrones and Person of Interest ineligible.

The following shows were eligible to be judged:

24, Season 1 and 8 
Boardwalk Empire, Season 1 
Breaking Bad, Seasons 1-4, S5, Part I
Homeland, S1 
House of Cards (USA), S1 
Justified, S1-S3 
Mad Men, S1-S6 
The Walking Dead, S1-S2, S3, Episodes 1-3

Comparisons were be done in the following manner: using only Season 1, Seasons 1-2, Seasons 1-3, Seasons 1-4, All seasons.

Best show: Season 1 comparison

Top shows in order of EPM/SOM:

1. Mad Men 
2. Justified 
3. House of Cards 
4. Homeland 
5. Breaking Bad 
6. The Walking Dead 
7. 24 
8. Boardwalk Empire 

Season 1 of Mad Men stands head and shoulders above the competition while House of Cards has atleast 9 stellar episodes out of 13. The first 6 episodes of House of Cards offer plenty of intrigue and addictive viewing but episodes 7-10 take a slight dip before E11-13 pick up the pace and end with a flourish.

S1 of Breaking Bad only had 7 episodes and nicely set the tone but there were not enough moments to catch fire as the later seasons do.

Boardwalk Empire, which finishes bottom of the 8 shows, does feature some very good acting but the supporting cast and framework is not as solid as the other shows. Also, the show has the least memorable production values, which seems surprizing given some of the big name producers involved. For example, Boardwalk Empire uses similar shots of people walking repeatedly on the pier and some of the sets are not as polished as the other shows. The only reason 24 finishes ahead of Boardwalk Empire is because of Kiefer Sutherland’s presence.

Best Show: Seasons 1-2

1. Mad Men 
2. Justified 
3. Breaking Bad 
4. House of Cards 

Mad Men still holds the lead but Breaking Bad makes up a lot of ground and starts firing up all cylinders.

Best Show: Seasons 1-3

1. Breaking Bad 
2. Justified 
3. Mad Men 

Breaking Bad finally takes the #1 spot while Justified continues to hold down the #2 spot. Mad Men takes a slight decline even though the overall show is still strong.

Best Show: Seasons 1-4

Both Breaking Bad and Mad Men had an excellent Season 4 which made this a tough comparison.

1. Breaking Bad
2. Mad Men 
3. Justified 

It is hard to pull both Breaking Bad and Mad Men apart after the first four seasons but I have to give a slight lead to Breaking Bad.

Best Show: All Seasons 

This is where the negative factors of soap opera moments comes into play and hits Mad Men hard with weaker Seasons 5-6 taking away a lot of the positive EPMs earned from S1-4. Also, the first half of Breaking Bad's S5 features some negative SOMs. While, Justified always managed to maintain a consistent level of excellent dialogue and acting, despite having the weaker story compared to Breaking Bad & Mad Men. So this results in the following surprizing table:

1. Justified, Seasons 1-3 
2. Breaking Bad, Seasons 1-4, S5, part I 
3. Mad Men, Seasons 1-6 

At this particular point in time having seen the above seasons, Justified has to be the best show on TV as it has only featured a few weak moments over its three seasons. Even though the show has never hit many riveting dramatic high moments like Breaking Bad and Mad Men, it has never hit some of the lows like the other two shows.

Of course, this rating could change if the second half of Breaking Bad S5 features some of the sharpness and high points that S4 did. Also, Justified could finally collect some negative SOMs in S4 as it is hard to imagine how the show can continue after an excellent S3, which appears to have reached a creative zenith and offered an appropriate point to end the show as most of the negative characters had been dealt with. But Justified returned for S4 and will now have a S5 as well. It remains to be seen if the show can still maintain its consistent level of fierce word play with a breathless mix of wit, sarcasm and verbal punches.

Other notable category mentions

Best Story 

1. Breaking Bad 
2. Mad Men 
3. House of Cards 

Best Dialogues 

1. Justified 
2. House of Cards 
3. Mad Men 

Best Lead Actor/Actress 

1. Bryan Cranston, Breaking Bad 
2. Jon Hamm, Don Draper 
3. Claire Danes, Homeland 
4. Kevin Spacey, House of Cards 
5. Timothy Olyphant, Justified 

Best Supporting Actor 

1. Giancarlo Esposito, Breaking Bad 
2. John Slattery, Mad Men 
3. Walton Goggins, Justified 
4. Robert Morse, Mad Men

Giancarlo Esposito’s Gus Fring has to be one of the best villains ever seen on a TV show. He appears friendly yet is a cold blooded killer capable of ripping one’s heart out (literally) in a blink of the eye.

No one may truly understands the job John Slattery’s Roger Sterling does in Mad Men but it is clear that the room gets brighter and a more fun place everytime Roger Sterling walks in.

Walter Goggins’ Boyd Crowder is a perfect foil to Timothy Olyphant’s Raylan Givens in Justified. When Boyd Crowder & Raylan Givens are together in the frame, it appears we are watching an electric scene from a Western, where two old friends are calmly talking before they will go out and kill each other in a stand-off.

Best Supporting Actress 

1. Christina Hendricks, Mad Men 
2. Natalie Zea, Justified 
3. Jessica Paré, Mad Men 

Christina Hendricks’ deserves more screen time in Mad Men as her character is far more riveting than most of her male colleagues. Unfortunately, the writers decided to relegate Joan Harris to the sidelines and included a needless scenario where she is forced to sell herself for the sake of the firm, a situation which ensures that her character will never earn the respect she deserves.

Best Visuals 

1. The Walking Dead 
2. House of Cards 
3. Game of Thrones 

The Walking Dead maintains a darkish palette which is in keeping with the story’s theme. In fact, it is the only show which looks and feels like a film in the way the camera moves about confined space. Unlike other TV shows, The Walking Dead features many tense moments where there are no dialogues and the camera follows characters as they look for zombies or quietly make their way around a city or a confined space.

The opening few minutes of Game of Thrones are eye-popping in terms of their graphic nature & pure darkness. I have only seen a few episodes of the show so far but even that limited viewing is enough to warrant a high placing of this show in a visual comparison.

Best opening credit sequence 

1. House of Cards 
2. Boardwalk Empire 
3. Dexter

The opening credits of House of Cards appear simplistic with shots of the city at nighttime yet those shots & background music embody the cool, slick look of the show and highlight that the best moments in the episodes take place at night time, at a time when half the city is asleep and the other half is scheming.

Dexter: it is appropriate that a show about killers features an opening sequence where every object looks like a dangerous weapon capable of shedding blood.

Long form novel vs short story

Many articles about the golden age of TV emphasize how contemporary TV shows are better than movies. Such comparisons do not appear to make much sense as TV shows and movies are completely different forms. By its nature, TV shows are a long form narrative arc which span multiple seasons. The average cable TV show season (such as AMC) contains about 13 episodes, with each episode lasting anywhere from 42-50 minutes. Taking an average of 45 minute per episode means an entire season would consist of 585 minutes or 9.75 hours. Multiplying this over 4 seasons would yield a total running time of 39 hours. Such a length ensures one can follow some characters’ development in fine detail, ranging from their personal life to career, affairs to relationship issues. On the other hand, an average film runs under 2 hours. Since 2012, many Hollywood movies have come close or exceeded the 3 hour mark but an average 1 hour 45 minutes running time is still common. Given their length, most movies will not dig too deep into a character’s psyche and will instead illustrate a snapshot of their lives or a critical period in their lives. While, TV shows have the luxury to go as far back into a character’s life as they want and also have ample time to focus on multiple events in their lives. So a comparison between TV shows and films is never a like for like comparison not only because of the length but the differing approaches they take to character development and plot.

We get to know TV characters with an informal intimacy that is quite different from the way we relate to the somewhat outsize personalities that fill the movie screen. We learn TV characters’ pasts, their hobbies, their relations with kin, and all the other things that movies strip away unless they’re related to the plot’s through-line.

That is why TV shows with the best developed characters end up being engaging and mesmerizing as they manage to draw audience into their world and can hold their attention for long periods. Shows such as Mad MenBreaking BadJustifiedHouse of Cards (2013) & Homeland have electrifying lead characters and an excellent supporting cast that help support the framework created by the writers and directors.

A show's creative life

Although, as excellent as these TV shows are, each show still has a shelf life with an expiration date. There is a point beyond which a show’s framework cannot support the characters and still maintain a fresh, invigorating spirit. A creative story with multiple subplots can go a long way in determining how long a show can continue on air but ideally a show should end just as it reaches its creative zenith. In this way, the show will go out on top and leave audience clamoring for more. But if a TV show overextends itself, then a natural decline will start which will end up undermining all the creative work done in the past.

Mad Men is a perfect example of a show that appears to have continued past its shelf life. Season 4 of Man Men was excellent and it finished with an open ended future, with the characters looking out of the window at the wide world they wanted to conquer. It offered a perfect end point yet the show has continued for 2 more seasons and next year’s 7th season will be the final one. Season 5 of Mad Men headed off in a different and even darker direction with death and suicide thrown in with a seductive song. S5 didn’t offer the same high dramatic points as many of S1-S4 did but it was still intriguing. However, Season 6 of Mad Men has largely been a letdown. With the exception of a few episodes, including an excellent Episode 6, Season 6 has managed to reduce Mad Men to a glorified soap opera with predictable sequences of affairs and break-ups. For the most part, Season 6 lacked the creativity and spark that made the show such a riveting watch. It remains to be seen if Breaking Bad can avoid this downfall. Season 4 of Breaking Bad was also the show’s high point when Gus, probably one of the best villains ever seen on TV, was eliminated. It was natural to expect a dip after Season 4 and the first half of Breaking Bad’s Season 5 has tried to maintain the same level of excellence in terms of acting and script but the driving force has not been there. It may be premature to judge the show with the second half of Season 5 still to be played out but atleast Breaking Bad will not return for a 6th season, which means it will avoid the soap opera path that Mad Men has gone on.

And AMC Pattern

There is an interesting pattern in both AMC shows Mad Men & Breaking Bad with regards to the shows strongest and weakest moments. Both shows have magnetic leads and the best moments of each show usually occur when the camera is focused on Don Draper and Walter White. And the weakest moments in both shows take place when the camera starts to follow the character’s wives. When Breaking Bad takes a diversion to examine Skylar’s (Anna Gunn) dealings with her company, the show loses some traction. While, Mad Men loses all energy and drive when Don’s first wife Betty (January Jones) is highlighted. Interestingly, both women have an affair with men who look similar in appearance. In Breaking Bad, Skylar has an affair with her boss Ted Beneke (Christopher Cousins) while Betty falls for Henry Francis (Christopher Stanley), a politician who she first starts to work with. However, the outcomes of the affairs takes a different turn as Skylar still stays with Walter while Betty divorces Don.


Sam Juliano said...

Fantastic, simply stunning Sachin!!! One of your very great posts, and an invaluable reference for television fans! Completely agree with you on poll position for Cranston and Esposito. I am a huge fan of BREAKING BAD and have very high regard for GAME OF THRONES and BOARDWALK EMPIRE. I do need to take on MAD MEN, and admit I have dragged my feet for way too long. You have given this project amazing and comprehensive study, and it's clear enough I need to see some HOMELAND, HOUSE OF CARDS and THE WALKING DEAD. This is one post I'll be coming back to and multiple times! Bravo!

Sachin said...

Thanks so much. Once again, you are very kind with your praise.

I need to finish GAME OF THRONES and then revisit this ranking. But at this point I am not sure if I will continue with the next season of BOARDWALK EMPIRE.

Timmy said...

This is great!

Unknown said...

Its a really a good information , very nice to see such a good post .

Thanks for this , keep updating .

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