The Blog Formerly Known as Rebel Prince

Cult TV, Gen Y rants, and endless opera.

The HBO Rankings: #11 – #1

Posted by therebelprince on February 3, 2012

Bret McKenzie in “Flight on the Conchords”

Hi there, folks! This is a follow-up to yesterday’s post, in which I ranked HBO’s major series from worst to best. (Well, from least great to greatest… I kinda like them all, so it seems unfair to say otherwise…)

Please check out those rankings for some explanation of my views, or just dive in below:

Awkward moment alert: After buying and loving the first season of Louie, I automatically assumed Louis C.K.‘s morose, refreshing take on life was an HBO program. Today, as I hunted on the website for information about season 2, I realised it was not. FX fail! So, the good news is that every show from my previous post can move up one. Yay!

11. Flight of the Conchords (2007 – 2009)

I know I’m biased in this regard, but the absurdist adventures of Bret McKenzie and Jermaine Clement delight me more than almost any other comedy on the HBO roster. (Louie is a better show, but I love these guys more.) Over the course of the two seasons, Bret and Jermaine – a long-time New Zealand singing duo, whose songs are primarily parodies – used up all of their repertoire, and really all of their ideas. (Occasional episodes show signs of this creative fatigue, admittedly.) So it’s perhaps a good thing that the series was rested when it was, as we can savour these two delightfully ridiculous seasons in all their glory. From fundraisers for dog epilepsy to Murray’s failed greeting card money-making scheme, they’re just two more foreigners lost in New York, but their perspective on the situation is highly missed.

It may seem heresy to place Conchords above Sex and the City, and I recognise that (for the record, Carnivale and Boardwalk Empire could certainly get into the Top 10 if they could/can finish their respective stories). But to me, the measure of an HBO series is both how it uses that status of being outside network parameters, and whether it creates something whole. Sex was raunchy, and necessary, and very zeitgeist-y, and that’s all wonderful (and being the 17th greatest show on an all-time-great network isn’t that bad). Yet, I don’t think it ever gave us images as bizarre as Bret being aided by a chronologically shifting spectre of David Bowie, or the rise and rise of New York’s newest ghetto, New Zealand Town; or plots as absurd as Aziz Ansari‘s fruit vendor, inexplicably racist toward New Zealanders, or the way the boys’ fortunes unravel when Bret foolishly spends their savings on a second tea cup. (Conchords‘ most delightful running gag is to do an episode with a plot encompassing misfortune, tragic love, poverty, and friendship break-ups, while complementing the action with deadpan title cards that reveal to us the whole thing took place over two or three days.)

Cast MVPs: Rhys Darby is marvelous as the band’s self-effacing manager Murray; Arj Barker is really very funny as their good friend Dave, who lives with two people who claim to be his parents, but whom he assures you are just his housemates; and the very weird team of Kristen Schaal and David Costabile as the band’s single fan and her beleaguered husband, whose backstory becomes more and more hilarious as the episodes go by.

Highlights and lowlights of the show’s musical numbers will of course vary from fan to fan, as most of them specifically reference a performer or genre (with often remarkable similarity in sound and style). I particularly enjoy You Don’t Have to be a Prostitute, Robots, Albi the Racist Dragon, and Bret You Got It Going On.

Lisa Kudrow as Valerie Cherish in “The Comeback”

10. The Comeback (2005)

Lorelai: It’s a great show, you should watch it.

Lane: I will.

Lorelai: It’s canceled.

Lane:Oh, sorry.

Lorelai: Well, it’s your fault.

— Gilmore Girls

The Comeback is perhaps the most forgotten of HBO’s comedies, but that’s decidedly unfair. As Valerie Cherish, one-time sitcom star, Lisa Kudrow created a devastatingly real character, whose every flaw and blemish was captured live by her documentary crew, as she attempts to make a comeback on an excruciatingly bad network sitcom. As she’s over 40, Valerie is of course playing the ugly, quirky aunt, on a show that clearly doesn’t want her. The Comeback was strongest when it skewered the shallow Hollywood lifestyle of its characters. Little moments like Valerie asking what her husband would like for dinner, and then getting out her folder full of take-out menus, were what made the series. From the actress who will dance around in her bikini each week, but then has strict limitations because she’s a Christian, to the Chuck Lorre-esque writers just coming to work each day for a paycheck, The Comeback refused to let any of its characters off lightly. The final episode, in which Valerie learns the truth about the documentary crew and their project, manages to throw in one more delightful yet – for me – unpredictable twist, which is the perfect cap to this much lamented series. It’s Kudrow’s series, but the entire cast are in fine form, particularly Robert Michael Morris as her totally-not-gay hairdresser, and guest appearances from Amir Talai and young Danny Pudi, as a pair of Indian-American comics brought in to spice up the series-within-a-series’ ratings. Longtime NBC director James Burrows plays himself, as the director of the fictional series Room and Bored.

At the same time, there’s a touch of heart to The Comeback. It would be stretching things to link the series to Christopher Guest’s comedies, but not by all that much. While no one gets off lightly, The Comeback takes some pains to shade in the edges. Valerie may be another sitcom diva, but she tries oh, so hard. Even obnoxious writer Paulie G. (Lance Barber) is really just another studio pencil-pusher, working with a supporting cast member who he perceives as a menace, and trying to get through the job in the hopes that one day he can break free of the network system. For me, The Comeback said more in one season than Entourage could in eight (and, by attacking the system more than the people, it felt less two-faced than when a multi-millionaire Hollywood star decides to make a quick buck by “satirising” Hollywood). It had ambition, and a sterling cast, and now it’s gone.

9. Treme (2010 – present)

Treme is the most HBO thing ever broadcast by HBO. Watching this languid series, in which a bunch of tired people go about their deliberately anti-dramatic lives in post-Katrina New Orleans, you could be forgiven for suspecting that this is all one big case of the emperor’s new clothes. After all, series creator David Simon created that critical darling The Wire, and if you can’t see the brilliance of this new plot-free work, you probably need to hand in your reviewers’ credentials, right? Well… not really. Treme can be taxing, uneven, and occasionally on the nose. Some of the storylines haven’t really taken off after two whole years (I love you, Clarke Peters, but this is television, not an art gallery), while others, like the misadventures of a drug-addled street musician (Michiel Huisman) ask us to invest a lot in a relatively unlikeable character, in the hopes that he’ll come good in season four or five. And whenever the series tries to compare New Orleans with some place else – particularly witness the rovings of New York-based Del (Rob Brown) – Simon and co push the anvils up to eleven, a little like they did with that patchy final season of The Wire.

Treme, however, is a whole new style of storytelling, which can be remarkably affecting. The series uses primarily diagetic music, dialogue that strives to be realistic (meaning there are often entire scenes or subplots that go by in fascinating, parsed monosyllable), and a desire to create characters with no moral absolutes. In that last respect, at least, I think Simon has triumphed. Cocky trumpeter Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce) and upstart chef Janette (Kim Dickens) are among its greatest creations, three-dimensional humans who act according to their own needs and beliefs in the moment, rather than any story-bound template. Even my least favourite character, self-absorbed “DJ” Davis (Steve Zahn, who has really taken on this loathsome rich kid and refused to soften his edges), has begun to grow on me. Finally, the series’ palette, with its washed-out frames, intertwined characters, and growing aggression at an inhuman system, has a flavour that is distinctly American, moreso than any other HBO series.

I’m not, I think, a complete Treme convert. The series to me is more of an interesting experiment in a new method of plot and character construction, which sometimes comes good, but sometimes flounders. It’s telling, I think, that my favourite plots are those that are most typically TV (even if, by TV, I mean HBO): the social dissatisfaction of Creighton Bernette (an affecting John Goodman), or the crushing season-long story in which his wife (Melissa Leo) hunts for the truth about the younger brother of LaDonna (Khandi Alexander), who was lost in The Storm. Perhaps Treme will never make it further up my list, but each week it produces an hour that is unlike any other made on television. And isn’t that the point of HBO?

Freddy Rodriguez as Rico in “Six Feet Under”

8. Six Feet Under (2001 – 2005)

Six Feet Under holds a very special place in my heart. As an eager and slightly precocious 14-year-old wannabe writer, watching the series’ first episode, in which the death of a funeral director (Richard Jenkins) brings together his grieving family in all their dysfunctional glory, I was instantly hooked by its subversive sense of humour, the deeply neurotic characters, and that glorious, individual style. It was the first HBO show that I watched from day one, and I’ve barely missed one since.

For its time, Feet was groundbreaking in just about every way. Each episode opens with one or more deaths of people who usually become the Fishers’ “clients”, and the uncompromising nature of these scenes was just the start. The series tackled a host of dark themes and issues with a depth and comedic sensibility that bested its contemporary Sex and the City, yet with a frankness that often eluded the deliberately hazy The Sopranos. Amongst a cast of stand-outs, top marks must go to Jeremy Sisto as a young bipolar sufferer, Frances Conroy in a revelatory performance as the repressed Fisher matriarch, and Michael C. Hall – before he was reduced to playing the most boring serial killer on earth – as her equally repressed, homosexual funeral director son. (Patricia Clarkson also first found her way to my heart here, as Ruth’s free-spirited sister, Sarah.)

At the same time, Six Feet Under is perhaps the most dated of HBO’s “greats”. Creator Alan Ball is a masterful writer with an understanding of thematic links that sets him on par with HBO’s three Davids, but he’s not exactly showrunner material (just check out the creaky, poorly-structured plots over at True Blood).  After a bold but experimentally rough first season, Six Feet Under knocked it out of the park with its luminary second. From then on, it was a bit of a downhill ride. Determined not to be reduced to its original recipe, the writers let the characters disperse and wander through their own separate lives, with mixed results. The separate adventures of Claire (darling Lauren Ambrose) and Nate (Peter Krause) in the real world were well-acted but sometimes reduced to replaying the series’ main themes over and over again in less original permutations. Meanwhile, the increasingly kooky secondary characters threatened to take over the series at every turn, and Ruth’s later love affair with geologist George (James Cromwell) always seemed to be a plot waiting to boil, but merely simmering.

There is perhaps no HBO series more iconic than Six Feet Under, and I’m glad it propelled the careers of so many talented cast members (Matthew St. Patrick, where are ye?). The series definitely deserves several points for being one of the few major cable dramas to end its run with a finale that was almost unanimously praised, and not unfairly. In the grand scheme of things, however, it’s become somewhat antiquated, rendered a curio partly by that feeling of the show increasingly turning in on itself, and partly by the inevitable grandeur of the series that began during, and after, its reign.

7. Band of Brothers (2001)

Alright, I made a big show of including this on my list to replace Nerve.com‘s K-Street, which I’d not seen. In retrospect, this was a bad decision, as it opens the door for several other classic miniseries, like the jaw-dropping John Adams. But… I’m sticking with my instincts. Like Oz, Six Feet Under and Sex and the City, Band of Brothers proved what many of us had always suspected: you can do so much with television. For decades, most television programmes emulated film, theatre, vaudeville, or the short story format. Long-form storytelling was the domain of soap operas until Twin Peaks, and even then, the ’90s largely shunned the format. Tying a work together through themes and dramatic unity was a dream achieved only by ‘epic’ miniseries. And big-budget, location-shot series? Forget it. Can’t be done, they’d argue. The final two years of WWII are captured in lavish, gritty, heartbreaking realism through the men of E Company, in a series that mingled true stories and anecdotes with literary flair and a healthy dose of fiction. At the head of the cast is Damian Lewis, proving himself as always in a leading role, with notable supporting turns by Ron Livingston, Kirk Acevedo, the ever-reliable Neal McDonough, and – surprisingly – Scott Grimes (who knew, right?). As with its successor The Pacific, and its spiritual successor/opponent Generation Kill, the size of the ensemble could sometimes hinder individual characterisation. Yet, in some way, that served the show’s purpose. The tale of specific long-dead men, fighting our grandparents’ war, could easily have become a nostalgia piece. Instead, these are real stories of men at the end of an age of honour and wonder (shades of Carnivale… somewhere out there, someone must be doing a Tommy Westphall-esque mind-map linking all HBO’s series together, right?). It was a story told at a level of cinematic ambition never before reached on television. But for HBO, it was only the beginning.

Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen on “Game of Thrones”

6. Game of Thrones (2011 – present)

It is, of course, ridiculous to put Game of Thrones so high on the list after only one season. This fantasy epic, about the War of the Roses-esque political battles at the heart of a medieval kingdom, has become something of a commercial and critical darling since it first aired last year. That’s partly because of its mind-blowing visuals, filmed on location from Malta to Iceland; partly because of the soaring scope of the story; and, let’s be honest, because geekery is finally ‘in’ (c.f. Doctor Who).

Game of Thrones has some terrifying times ahead. The source novels by George R.R. Martin become ever more complex: more and more subplots at various locations; stories that are largely internal (something they did well, but briefly, with Sansa in season one); a shifting tone as the global plot unfolds; characters whose true identity remains unknown to us because we can’t see them; and the fact that the unfolding of the plots is very book-friendly, but not particularly TV-friendly. It already seems apparent that Nikolaj Coster-Waldau will have more scenes in season two than his character Jaime’s sole appearance in the respective book, for instance. (And let’s not even mention the fact that Martin still has two books to write, and his pace ain’t great.)

So, why is it at #6? Ambition. A show of promise. And the fact that Game of Thrones‘ first season – while imperfect – bears none of the longueurs or rough patches evidenced in the early days of Boardwalk Empire or Carnivale. I’m currently rewatching the first season for this blog, and I’m even more impressed by the skill with which creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss (in consultation with Martin) layer the world of Westeros before our eyes. The dedication to the source text is evident in the exquisite opening credits, which present an ever-shifting version of Westeros (depending on which locations are featured that week) through an unfolding model city, bringing to mind the craftsmanship of the age, and reinforcing the notion of Lord Varys (Conleth Hill) that this is all a game. And, to top it off, each actor’s name is supplemented by the sigil of their character’s house.

It’s not perfect. In recreating the earthy tone of Martin’s books, the series may have gone a little overboard on the naked ladies (although, to their credit, the men get to be objectified on occasion) and, while I enjoyed the rambling, autumnal speech of Grand Maester Pycelle (Julian Glover) in the first season finale, few critics or fans seem to agree. This just reminds me that Game of Thrones is a long way from being Deadwood.

But I’d be lying if I said that my heart wasn’t in my chest for at least eight of the first season’s ten instalments. Bringing to life the unceasingly complex world of Martin’s Westeros cannot have been an easy challenge. Aided by superior designers and set teams, and notable acting turns from – among others – Sean Bean, Peter Dinklage, Lena Headey, Jason Momoa, Harry Lloyd, Mark Addy, Maisie Williams (the first time I’ve been unashamed to say I have an acting crush on a young girl) and – though I’m still a little unsure of him – Aidan Gillen, Game of Thrones is one to watch.

05. In Treatment (2008 – 2010)

I don’t think I know a single person who has seen In Treatment. This probably says more about my friends than the world, but it still saddens me. As psychiatrist Paul Weston, Gabriel Byrne has one of the toughest acting gigs on TV. He’s required to be the straight man in a series of half-hour dramas, keeping a sober face as he listens impassively to his clients’ tales, while at the same time letting the viewers at home in on everything Weston thinks – both about his patients, and himself. Initially broadcast five nights a week for nine weeks, each subsequent season of In Treatment lightened the load a little bit. Nonetheless, this made it a tough experiment for viewers. Luckily, those who stayed for the ride were rewarded with some of the most exciting television being produced.

With perhaps one exception, each miniseries of episodes is a masterclass in acting. Almost without exception, each episode features Paul with a patient (or couple of patients as required) and, over the course of the season, we grow to understand his or her neuroses, desires, fears, beliefs, and relationships. The calibre of the cast is perhaps unsurpassed: Blair Underwood as an Alpha-male Air Force pilot, unable to see the murkiness just below his surface; Mia Wasikowska in a star-making role as a suicidal gymnast; Hope Davis as a blame-shifting attorney whose life is devoid of meaning; Irrfan Khan in perhaps the series’ greatest storyline as a recently immigrated Indian man struggling to adjust to a different culture; and Dane DeHaan in an almost uncomfortably real performance as a manipulative teen. Each storyline will cater to different fans, depending on their preference for the actors and writing – Alison Pill‘s turn as a young cancer sufferer was affecting but perhaps too rushed for me – but In Treatment is perhaps the ultimate indication, to me, of what HBO should be doing: powerful, unusually structured drama, with a focus on the ambiguities and lack of absolutes in life.

Like anything, it’s not without flaws. Melissa George – an actor I’ve always found too stage-y, at least until she vividly inhabited her character in The Slap – gives a performance in season one that seems to show the strings far too often. Worse, it’s the first of several storylines which try to tie Paul directly into the lives of his clients, making us doubt his medical ethics. (Thankfully, the third and final season – in which Paul swaps his complex relationship with psychiatrist Dianne Wiest, for Amy Ryan – attempts to make these gray areas part of the plot.)

If you love acting in its purest form, you must see In Treatment. If you don’t… well, why are you watching HBO?

Sonja Sohn as Kima Greggs in “The Wire”

 04. The Wire (2002 – 2008)

Ooh, he challenges the system by not putting The Wire further up the list. I am a tease.

I’m not gonna lie: The Wire is perhaps the most perfect example of why HBO exists. As David Simon and his team explore Baltimore over five seasons, they pick up the disparate stories of politicians and teachers, cops and robbers, port workers and reporters, from the projects to Capitol Hill. Is it the scope of the plot? The complex stories which encourage and reward close viewing, with moments from one seemingly inane conversation having follow-on effects three years later? The tired-but-true cliche of the series’ Dickensian aspect? The talented, naturalistic, diverse cast, taking roles which on paper seem stereotypical and imbuing them with hopes, regrets, and concerns? Perhaps it’s the series’ overarching themes and motifs, depicting the decaying industrial wasteland of America, and a system which needs to be dramatically changed, even as those within it struggle to find that change, or to create it once they’ve found it. Maybe it’s that – in spite of these heavy issues – The Wire is often really fucking funny? Or that it’s a geek’s dream to follow a series so certain of its own continuity, and where the connections between characters are often unspoken rather than made explicit.

It could be all of these things, and perhaps it is. There’s an inevitable backlash in some quarters against The Wire because of the perception that Simon’s shows exhibit an “Emperor’s New Clothes” element. Reviewers want to like them, so they do, and they’ll excuse any number of flaws to do so. I’d vehemently disagree. As above, I think Treme has several flaws to be ironed out before it can be a perfect series. The Wire has only three, and those depend on how you feel. 1) Truth be told, events take a few episodes to get going, and the first season doesn’t reveal the elaborate tapestry to come. 2) The final season does at times threaten to beat you over the head with the issues it just spent four seasons delicately presenting. (Like the odd final book in the K-PAX quadrilogy, though, it almost seems like a desperate plea: “We’ve told you in a number of different ways, don’t you get that you need to listen!?”). And 3) While this shouldn’t matter, The Wire isn’t exactly a show where you pull a random disc off the shelf and enjoy it, as befits almost every other series on this list.

It’s not something to be watched with pizza and friends, no. And hipsters may have attempted to claim it as their own for far too long (“I’ve watched The Wire; I know what life is like”). But that doesn’t stop the towering achievement created by David Simon. Not one bit.

03. Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000 – present?)

Larry David is his own man. After toiling as an aggressive, anti-mainstream comic for years, David co-created Seinfeld, and then began to fear its success and expectation, threatening to quit every year, until finally he did. The real-life George Costanza (on more than one occasion, Jason Alexander took issue with a ludicrous plotline, only to be told by David that it was drawn from his life) is the perfect candidate to head HBO’s most bonkers yet sublime comedy.

Curb is really nothing more than the perils of Larry’s fictionalised self as he wanders through Los Angeles, a multi-millionaire who will still get angry if you don’t keep up an even ratio of paying for Chinese food, a champion of social equality (why would any store have two separate but uneven lines, when you can have one line that offloads onto two counters?), and challenger of the often pointless social conventions (those flowers may have been part of a roadside memorial, but it’s not like the deceased was using them anymore…).

At its best, Curb is wonderfully naturalistic, socially pointed, and just plain unexpected in its absurdity. While the show is known best for being about how everything bad happens to Larry, some of my favourite episodes are about the opposite. The Car Pool Lane, in which Larry picks up a prostitute (Kym Whitley) so that he can use the car pool lane, becomes an amusing story in which the pair bond. One of my all-time favourite episodes features Larry needing to use a toilet, and befriending the Muslim lady (Moon Unit Zappa) in a full burqa who takes pity on him. The supporting cast – Jeff Garlin is beautifully naturalistic as Larry’s agent; Cheryl David provides the perfect foil as Larry’s wife; Susie Essman is a foul-mouthed thing of wonder as Jeff’s wife – are aided by guest turns from a host of celebrities not afraid to play funhouse mirror versions of themselves, particularly Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen, a gut-bustingly funny John McEnroe, a decidedly unfriendly David Schwimmer, and – although he’s probably just playing himself – Richard Lewis. Most notable, of course, was the series’ Seinfeld reunion, as Larry and Jerry Seinfeld set about recruiting the cast to do a reunion show. It’s a fitting tribute to the series (I, for one, appreciated that show’s finale, but ending as a mock tribute on a show about misanthropy seems just perfect), and done in a uniquely David style.

As I’ve said about everything, Curb has its flaws. If an episode’s basic conceit makes no sense (as Jerry Seinfeld pointed out, why stick the doll down your pants?), or if the various pieces of the Jenga tower are too obviously placed, an episode can tend to fall flat. The series’ largely improvised format can contribute to this too. And I’m still not sure what’s with that gurning Larry does as he’s being variously chased/attacked/drugged. But these are minor qualms. Curb is delightfully misanthropic, trivial yet important, and takes a look at a slice of life we should all aspire to.

Jeffrey Jones as A.W. Merrick in “Deadwood”

 02. Deadwood (2004 – 2006)

I’m tired of writing long reviews: the town of Deadwood springs up in the 1870s, numbering among its citizens a handsome lawman (Timothy Olyphant), a soliloquising saloon owner (Ian McShane), a city-born rich widow (Molly Parker), a trumatised war veteran doctor (Brad Dourif) and many others. There’s an autumnal beauty to Deadwood from beginning to end which outdoes any other series ever invented. EVER! The nutty mind of creator David Milch brought us some of the greatest dialogue ever written for the small screen (“My bicycle masters boardwalk and quagmire with aplomb. Those that doubt me, suck cock by choice!”), in which meaning is forever conveyed in subtext often unintelligible even to those in the conversation. (In one self-referential moment, William Sanderson‘s brilliant E.B. Farnum reflects on a bastardisation of an old Italian Maxim: “Did they speak that way then?”) Every character on Deadwood is haunted by the past, and their gradual discovery of those around them makes for some surprising and powerful connections. Drunken reveller Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert) and the beautiful, broken prostitute Joanie (Kim Dickens); Jewish businessman Sol Star (John Hawkes) and blonde whore Trixie (Paula Malcolmson); the delightful pairing of loquacious newspaper editor A.W. Merrick (MVP Jeffrey Jones) and telegraph operator Blazinov (Pavel Lychnikoff). No expense was spared in making every episode look and feel stunning, as the bustling camp of Deadwood becomes a thriving town.

Unlike most of HBO’s greats, Deadwood was about creation and construction, rather than immobility and destruction. It stands out as a paean to hope and man, even if it does so by exposing how broken we all are. There isn’t a dud script, director, or cast member (Gerald McRaney! W. Earl Brown! Dayton Callie! Jim Beaver!) in the bunch. The third season (intended as a pair with the fourth, and arguably final season) left a bunch of plot threads hanging, most notably – for some fans – the arrival of a theatre troupe led by the inestimable Brian Cox. I know I’m that guy, but I delighted in the somber undertones and theatrical overtones of Langrishe’s troupe. Some people saw them as an incursion into a series already stuffed with complex but underused characters, and I can understand that, but I’d as happily spend time in their company as any of Milch’s other unparalleled creations. (And it’s not as if Milch’s mind couldn’t sometimes run amok anyway: just what the hell is going on with Cy Tolliver in the latter half of the series, I’ll never know.)

Deadwood is, without any hyperbole, the most tragic example of a series cancelled before its time. Fan lore argues that there would only have been one more season (although I’ve seen conflicting reports from initial sources), but the idea that the series could have wrapped up its themes, plots external and internal, and presumably end with the historic burning of the town (prefigured in an early episode when Trixie and Dan swear to burn the place to the ground to save it), Deadwood will always stand as the greatest “what if?” in the history of television. You are missed, you self-assured, languid, agonisingly beautiful series. You are missed.

Tony Sirico as Paulie Gualtieri in “The Sopranos”

 01. The Sopranos (1999 – 2007)

The Sopranos is my favourite series of all time, and a testament to the medium that is television. It’s not as lavish as Deadwood, nor as tightly woven as The Wire, and rarely does it shock you out of your comfort zone like Six Feet Under. Then again, it doesn’t need to. The tale of a New Jersey crime family (in all the connotations of that word), headed by James Gandolfini as mobster-in-therapy Tony Soprano, The Sopranos is a damn near perfect piece of work.

On a surface level (and the level at which many of my college chums watched the show, to my dismay), the series tells of the lives and deaths of Tony and his men, as they and their families live life in the suburbs, off the spoils of their many criminal procedures. There are executions, egotistical mob wives, amusingly dimwitted henchmen, numerous Godfather impressions, of course. But The Sopranos is oh, so much more than that. Creator David Chase weaves a tale that can be endlessly mused upon: the resistance to change and susceptibility to childhood programming that drives would-be writer Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli) into a spiral of aggression and violence, for instance. Tony’s therapy with Dr. Melfi (an increasingly under-used Lorraine Bracco) gives he and us insight into the war that was his childhood, and his arduous journey to the brink of self-awareness is the series’ skeleton. As Tony’s wife Carmela, Edie Falco created one of the most complex characters committed to film. She’s a mob wife completely aware of where her security comes from, but torn by her religion and self-pity. She’s a woman aware that her husband seeks pleasures elsewhere, and doing all she can to make this fit with her idealised life. Most intriguingly, she’s a mother jealous of the opportunities afforded to her daughter (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) and seeking something in life she can truly call her own. The intertwined subplots include mob girlfriend turned double agent Adriana (Drea de Matteo), ageing mobster ‘Junior’ Soprano (Dominic Chianese), Tony’s hellish mother Livia (the inimitable Nancy Marchand, whose death after season two saw the writers pull off an unfortunate Jabba the Hut move, but which ultimately progressed Tony’s development in an important direction), and others.

From a production standpoint, The Sopranos had few of the special effects that dominated most of its HBO brethren, but it remains perhaps the most consistently designed, directed, and styled series to ever make it to the airwaves. (The posters for each season, which became increasingly symbolic, are still things of beauty.) I don’t think it’s overstating matters to argue that The Sopranos, like The X-Files, Twin Peaks and 24 had a remarkable impact on the filming aims of most series today.

Perhaps it ran too long, stranding several of the supporting cast – Junior, Janice (Aida Turturro), Silvio (Steven Van Zandt) – as cameo players in their own series. Perhaps, with hindsight, characters like Melfi could have been better integrated into a series endgame. The series’ final season rode a wave of controversy, 90% of which was entirely unjustified, and came about – as with Lost or Battlestar Galactica (two series which did make mistakes in their final seasons) – because of the intense media and public interest in the series. Nothing short of an all-out bloodbath was going to satisfy the punters (and that’s not a judgement call; I had to rewatch season six in my own time to appreciate it fully). What we got instead in that last year was an often maudlin look at modern life – personally, professionally, culturally – while Tony struggled to consider his future and the futures of those around him, as old sins cast long shadows, and anyone who thought they could change inevitably became exactly what they had once despised. Yet, in my mind, isn’t that exactly what the whole series was about? The Sopranos was never about who was gonna get whacked next. It was gory and ballsy and funny and intense, sure. But it was always about so much more. (And that final episode, so often misinterpreted or maligned, in which Chase pokes fun at the viewers scrambling for violence, while reminding us that the Sopranos themselves are just like you and me? Stunning. Don’t stop – –)

A tapestry of broken, filthy, well-rounded characters in a series with something to say about almost every theme in American literature (which is, really, an apt description of television, no?), The Sopranos is less self-serious than The Wire, less oblique than Deadwood, and more structurally self-assured than them all. From the homely first season through the densely plotted third, from the tight pas de deux that is the once divisive fourth season, to the withering, wintry sixth, The Sopranos may not be everyone’s favourite series, but it’s perhaps the greatest ode to what television can do, and I can’t ask for much more.

Well, that’s that. What I love about HBO fans is that they’re true lovers of the medium of television, so I’d love to hear from dissenting opinions below!

My other late night rants can be found here.

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2 Responses to “The HBO Rankings: #11 – #1”

  1. […] The HBO Rankings: #11 – #1 […]

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