Rewatchable TV Series


Shield, The  
Based on all seven seasons.

An incredible cop action-drama and possibly the best show ever made. This should mean a lot considering I find most other cop shows uninteresting. Taking its cue from Homicide, the police-work, crises and mysteries aren't solved in a single episode, but continue even over several seasons and don't always end neatly. The camera-work is dynamic and gritty and the characters are never black and white, breaking conventions by constantly shifting characters back and forth between good and bad. This show doesn't fall into the boring realism of Homicide however, and takes everything one step further with many overlapping plot lines, intense action and violence that sometimes goes for shock but remains realistic, and dilemmas and situations that are gripping and unpredictable. It pulls this off by pitting together a special unit of tough detectives and strike cops with their fingers in the criminal pie, and a violent, very crime-ridden part of town. The ensemble of colorful actors interact intensely and are ALL top-notch and fascinating characters without exceptions. This show demonstrates what can happen when the casting prioritizes personality and acting chops over looks. Somehow, there are no weak episodes and every season finds new ways to re-invent itself with no signs of slowing down season after season. New developments and characters keep upping the ante, all actions have far-reaching consequences, the writers never cheat or take short cuts, always working extremely hard to write the story around realistic outcomes instead of manipulating and compromising. There is no political correctness, no dragging of heels, no repetitive writing, no manipulation or insulting of audiences, no weak links, no moralizing, no easy black and white characters, no cheating. This is one long, continuous and incredible show that lasted for seven seasons without dropping the ball once, leading up to a very powerful, sophisticated and unusually satisfying ending. Amazing.



Sherlock  
Based on the first three seasons.

I was prepared to ridicule and nitpick this show to death before even seeing it, simply based on its overly-ambitious and cheeky goal of modernizing Sherlock Holmes. But this is Steven Moffat we are talking about, who managed to make even a sitcom about sex into brilliantly structured entertainment with adventurous writing. At the core of Sherlock Holmes is not a smart detective solving mysteries, but a personality that worships a good and preferably dangerous puzzle, whose arrogance is tempered by his submission to logic and challenge, and the sheer joy that is to be extracted from it, until he conquers the mystery and moves to the next one of course. His lack of social graces, his impatience, brusque attitude and nearly antisocial behaviour all derive from this, and not from any mean-spirited neurosis, which is why he is both fascinating and loved. This core personality is retained and re-imagined in a modern setting, dropping the Victorian manners and adopting more modern and relative rudeness. It is Sherlock as if he were born in our times. They did a great job there. Another is in the casting: Despite the unusual face and questionable haircut, Benedict Cumberbatch fills in these shoes from the start in a gripping and incredible performance. Martin Freeman is also very good as his friend and handy ex-soldier John Watson, and they thankfully make fun of the public seeing them as anything other than heterosexual. The mysteries themselves are often very loosely based on scattered details from the books, with miles of creative embellishments, modernized clues, crimes and police-work, and clever twists that only Moffat could write. The challenge here is to stay ahead of the audience, feeding clues and partial solutions, allowing the audience to figure some things out for themselves, but to always have Sherlock several steps ahead of the game. The show also employs structural and editorial experiments, juxtaposing scenes and careful flashbacks, overlaying information and plot devices in different ways to make the developments and character interactions even more mentally invigorating, sometimes reminiscent of what Moffat did in Coupling only more advanced. It's a breakneck pace and the 90-minute episodes are as gripping as they are complex and dense. In short, this is a perfect job and a superb series, and the only complaint is that the sixth episode had too many twists, and the eighth has a preposterously impossible murder, which are minor gripes indeed. The high-standards almost never let up for the first three short seasons, emphasizing quality over quantity, and the third season features some superbly soaring character development as well.



Singing Detective, The  

A monumental classic TV mini-series written somewhat auto-biographically by Dennis Potter about a sick, bitter man who writes pulp detective stories. His skin disease reaches nasty, debilitating proportions so he has to be hospitalized. While in bed, taunted and provoked by various characters in his hospital ward, he rethinks his mysterious story about a singing detective, his childhood memories and his paranoid relationship with his wife, these three stories intertwining like a braid to reveal his complex and interesting psyche. Clues in all three plot-threads reveal truths within other plot-threads, hallucinations and musical numbers blend them all together, and everything comes together like a puzzle. Superbly acted, wonderfully written.



Fawlty Towers  
Based on both seasons.

A perfect and hilarious sitcom that only gets better with repeated viewings. Sporting only a trim 12 episodes and with John Cleese and crew at the helm, this is a side-splitting funny show about an annoying, angry, brown-nosed hotel manager who always gets himself in embarrassing situations with his bitchy wife, employees and various hotel guests. He flatters the high-class visitors, mistreats everyone else, has to sneak around with hare-brained ideas behind his practical but difficult wife, and is ultimately condescending to Manuel the Spanish waiter. It avoids the dumb man vs smart woman cliche with hard-edged, and entertainingly extreme characters. Great stuff.



Monty Python's Flying Circus  
Based on all four seasons.

From the moment a scraggly character with a beard crawled and gasped onto British TVs and said "It's", comedy and TV were changed forever and no one has managed to match the lunacy, silliness and wit that is Monty Python since. The sketches are hit and miss and vary from boring to side-splitting, and silly to inspired satire, but they fly by at top speed, they always find new conventions to break, and poke fun at themselves to the point of poking fun at poking fun at themselves. The third season is weaker and the fourth is a loser, but the first three are all essential viewing.



Mr. Bean  
Based on all episodes.

Mr. Bean is an acquired taste and not all people enjoy his slapstick or they hate watching 'the most annoying and embarrassing person on Earth'. But personally, I laugh at his antics until tears stream down my face. The scattered episodes revolve around an extreme, dim-witted klutz who always gets himself in trouble over trifles, escalating the problematic situation to painful proportions due to incompetence. The comedy is very physical to the point that Mr Bean almost never talks, and other characters mostly make faces or grumble. In other words, a much funnier and more extreme version of Jacques Tati's Mr. Hulot. Brilliantly structured, over-the-top slapstick hilarity.



Band of Brothers  

Imagine Saving Private Ryan expanded to 600 minutes with the same production values. An epic war series by Hanks and Spielberg, each episode exploring a different stage of WWII. It mainly follows the heroics and contributions of a single regiment, from their training through D-Day, several European battles, Market Garden, and some unique missions in Germany. Many soldiers share the spotlight here, and for a while, it is hard to differentiate between them, their characters straining to find depth, but some gradually grow on you. Another slight flaw is that it focuses mainly on action and isn't as educational as I would have hoped, but you do get a strong feeling of the scope and technical details of the war and the action and effects are amazing. Not a replacement for a good documentary, but definitely deserves high praise.



Shogun  

A miniseries based on James Clavell's huge novel about an English navigator's adventures in 16th Century Japan. He is shipwrecked, encounters a culture-clash so severe that his life is often at risk, but gradually learns some rules and thanks to some lucky opportunities, he grows in power and becomes entangled in a power struggle that ultimately leads to the Shogunate. The novel is not only huge, it covers an amazing range of characters, each with incredibly complex detail, thoughts, cultural descriptions and plots. Because of this, any movie adaptation can only disappoint. However, it serves as an entertaining accompaniment to the book and is fascinating thanks to the main actors Chamberlain, Mifune and the beautiful Shimada who all act to perfection. Avoid the butchered two hour movie version at all costs.



Fargo  
Based on the first two seasons.

Many may call this blasphemy, but I considered the movie this show is based on fun but overrated. I found the quirky acting and accents overdone, exaggerated and artificial, as if the directors were more interested in poking fun at silly people rather than bringing them to life. This series fixes those flaws, and delivers a very solid season-long story with very similar elements and superb characters, and therefore (I'm going to say it): It is better than the movie. It involves murder, accidents, escalating chaos and crime, where one crime leads to another, both by regular people that have been pushed too far, and by professional criminals and mobsters, while the local small-town law-enforcement tries to piece it all together. As with the movie, the 'Minnesota-nice' form of speech and dialogue is a star in itself, only it's more realistic here. The interesting clash between desperate, lucky, simple folk and professional violent killers is a strong element in both the movie and the series, and so is the balanced smattering of smart and stupid people on each side of the conflict. In fact, one of the joys of the first season in this series is that the meek upcoming criminal, the professional killer, and one determined police-woman, are all wonderfully clever and are constantly trying to outsmart each other. The other joy is the strong emphasis on personalities and very strong character-development, and the show is confident enough to take breathers and sometimes just explore the quiet inner turmoil that each character is going through. The first season is a superb, fascinating, rich and flawless exploration of escalating crime and its effects on a laid-back town, with realistic characters and black humor.

The second season correctly doesn't try to stretch out the story of the first season beyond its natural ending, but starts a new story, this time in the late 70s, with some subtle connections to the first season. It takes a while to get going, and the emphasis is more on an escalating gang war rather than on quiet characters, which makes it inferior to the first. But it still throws an innocent, if slightly unbalanced, couple into the mix, and some small-town smart cops, and the escalation is superb. It also takes some risks with a couple of unusual satiric endings and surreal sci-fi elements, as well as a highly eclectic soundtrack, which fits in with the chaos. In fact, this time around, no one is able to control or outwit others for long, and the cops are basically just trying to keep up with the nihilism for most of the season. As mentioned, all this makes the second season inferior, but it is still superbly written and is fascinating as well as entertaining.



Deadwood  
Based on the all three seasons.

HBO's take on the Western is rough, edgy, complex and as you've never seen it before. The sugar coating has been removed from the wild west where ruthless men are truly scary, abused whores are abused whores, not feminist heroines, the streets are mud, the diseases are rampant and no one is an idealistic hero. Deadwood is based on true events and characters such as Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane, and it pulls no punches while telling dense, season-long tales of numerous characters clashing and trying to make a living in the lawless new town of Deadwood.

The first season works. I have rarely seen so many outstanding actors instantly fill their rich characters with such intensity while backed by such intelligent writing. The dialogue is somehow both elegant and crude, employing poetic and formal language as well as way over-the-top cussing. But an etymology dictionary states that 90% of the curses they use in the show didn't even exist at the time. The whores' appearance is also highly suspect and the show tends to go out of its way to shock the audience with graphic sex and endless cursing. The argument is that today's audience wouldn't appreciate the effect of the real language of the time, but this ruins the authenticity of the show as well as insults the audience. That said, the first season is still amazingly good once you get past the jarring anachronisms. Subsequent seasons, however, take a gradual but rapid slope downwards as flaws are accentuated: The dialogue starts feeling flowery, stiff and convoluted, lacking the elegance of Shakespeare as well as any form of realism; The most endearing characters from the first season are no more, and others start becoming annoying; Writers forcefully stretch the plots, as motivations become less realistic and ridiculously complex, making me miss the straight and quick shootouts of old Westerns; The show's atmosphere becomes too limited, featuring anger, violence, filth, anger, tension and more anger. The third season's dialogue is so awkward as to make it unlistenable, and therefore unwatchable. So it lasted three seasons but it should have been a mini-series, and only the first season is recommended.



Rome  
Based on both seasons.

A collaboration between HBO and the BBC that is as good as it sounds. This series takes on the period of Rome from Caesar's conquest of Gaul until Marc Antony's death (similar to the movie Cleopatra with Richard Burton) with a rare combination of factual historical detail and entertaining interpretive or imaginative writing. Any recreation of such an ancient period is bound to contain guesswork, the subjective selection of contradictory academic studies or even biased source material, and this vision of Rome is as good as any I could imagine. But this series is not targeted at those looking for a more comprehensive or infallible history lesson, and criticising it for inaccuracies is folly. The series manages to do several things: It covers historical events in depth with plausible and even insightful detail; It depicts what life in Rome may have been like without any obvious anachronisms, glamorous Hollywoodization, Feminist and PC revisionism, or cheap sensationalism; And it recreates the story of Rome via the eyes of two interesting fictional soldiers and cleverly twists the events to revolve around them in an entertaining fashion. Full of superb acting, solid, complex writing, an ensemble of colorful characters, a refreshingly unglamorous characterization of Cleopatra, a non-PC approach to slavery and morality, and more. Sometimes revels in the usual HBO excesses of violence and sex, but this is what we would expect of Rome I suppose.

The first season is great. The second has many subtly growing weaknesses in the writing and suffers from a few too many younger actors, but these are very minor flaws in another satisfying season.



Monk  
Based on all eight seasons.

I had long given up on anything ever being comparable to the sharpness, wit, personality and fun of Sherlock Holmes until Monk came along. Monk is a detective with an extreme case of OCD, made worse by the traumatizing death of his wife. He has multiple phobias, obsessions over neatness, hygiene, and symmetry, and he notices every little detail, calling it both a gift and a curse. With his finicky personality and approach to solving complicated crimes, perhaps he should best be compared to Poirot rather than Holmes. In any case, he works as a consultant for the San Francisco police and solves cases on a weekly basis based on minute clues and details, while battling his fears of heights, germs, and asymmetry. He is accompanied by an assistant/nurse who gives him moral support as well as an endless supply of tissues and wipes. The result is a very entertaining combination of character drama, comedy, mysteries and detective work. Tony Shalhoub delivers an unforgettable and classic performance, bringing Monk to life in three-dimensions with a superb combination of heart and comedy. Unfortunately, the writing greatly fluctuates in quality from season to season when it comes to the mysteries and Monk's personality. They really needed a Monk to check the scripts. But, overall, this is a quality show with several good seasons.

The first season is brilliant. The second is still good fun but cracks start to appear: Monk's quirks start to feel too whimsical and even inconsistent, the writers giving him new silly fears and phobias every week. The mysteries also deteriorate, some being too convoluted or contrived, making criminals do ridiculously complex actions to solve challenges that could have been performed in much simpler ways. In the third season, Monk's personality completely falls apart. He started off as a complex adult with quirky eccentricities, a lack of social skills, and a sharp, detail-oriented mind, but from season three onwards is too-often turned into an idiotic child and a mass of inconsistent phobias and psychological disorders, and lazy, populist ticks and quirks. Although most fans complain about the cast change mid-season three when they replaced a headstrong, colorful assistant with a blander, but much kinder and more pleasant character, the real problem is in the sloppy writing. Season four partially recovers with a good first half and a weaker second half, featuring formulaic mysteries with simple and convenient clues that that tie plot developments together, and criminals that go to great lengths to hide their actions. But at least Monk is back to being an adult and a proper character for the most part, and the majority of the mysteries are fun. Season five features some entertaining episodes but most episodes are weak and Monk is back to behaving in silly, childish ways. The surprising sixth season is the best since season two and treats Monk as an adult again for most of its run and also offers many entertaining mysteries and some character development. Season seven turns Monk back into a child again and contains a majority of weak episodes. Season eight features another strong comeback in the first half with superb mysteries and sharp detective work, then a bunch of weak episodes, and then a very nice finale. In short, the writing constantly fluctuates and I can only solidly recommend seasons 1, 2, 6 and 8, and perhaps 4 as well.



War and Remembrance  

An epic, continuous 25 hour mini-series on WWII covering Pearl Harbor to Hiroshima. A sequel and vast improvement over the barely tolerable Winds of War, with most of the weaker actors replaced with great ones, a huge budget, and a better balance favoring the war and real drama as opposed to the petty soap, so much so that I recommend starting with this one. The narrative is split amongst several plot-lines: There's the war, nicely combining historical footage with relatively high-budget but obviously smaller-scale recreations and war scenes, and many gripping submarine battle scenes. These are backed by a narrative that educates, not trying to be comprehensive, but covering enough well-researched aspects of the war to give us the big picture. There are the politics, with a superb, charming Bellamy as Roosevelt, and many other fine actors filling in the shoes of historical figures as they take part in and engineer world events. This aspect of the show is also very good, giving insights into how things came about, and into the motivations and character of these people.

Then there's the gripping German side of the story, with an electrifying, perhaps somewhat over-the-top, performance by Berkoff as Hitler. Presented is a masterful grand picture of how the SS and the German army functioned, fed by the intense engine that is Hitler at the top, the pressures propagating down the hierarchy causing German officers to work harder at killing in order to impress the chiefs, and showing how ambitions, peer pressure and madness overshadow any hiccups of conscience. The attention given to the details of the Final Solution is admirable, with one inspired unforgettably horrifying sequence simply showing the handling of thousands of newly arrived Jews as they are meticulously processed stage by stage from the train to the gas chambers like a factory, all the soldiers trying to impress the visiting Gestapo officers with their efficiency.

Then there is the Henry family drama and love affairs, by far the biggest flaw of this series. It is mind-boggling to watch intense war scenes and horrifying concentration camp scenes, and then suddenly shift to petty soap drama, love triangles, and one party scene after another. Every time Pug's wife appears, the series topples back into the gutter, and as soon as one affair wears itself out, the shows starts two more, one involving a dead hero's wife. Thankfully though, this plot-line is gradually squeezed out by the increasingly intense war drama in the last half.

Finally, we have the devastating heart of the series: The story of the Jastrow family as they flee through Europe trying to find a way to America. At first, this story is annoyingly banal and overlong, with what looks like a high-class travelogue through Europe by secular Jews with special social privileges granted to them by Germans, one of them being a somewhat arrogant and blind intellectual. But there is a strong payoff for this setup, their special status resulting in some unusual drama and experiences, the abuse gradually increasing, ironically awakening their Jewish identity, until they find themselves in a concentration camp. The final sequence of events is unflinching, detailed, and very very devastating, using a simple, straightforward but painstakingly detailed approach to let the Holocaust speak for itself. In summary, this series is epic and strong, but there is a much stronger and trimmer 15 hour version in here. This is a series that can change your perspective on life, so the few flaws and the commitment needed to watch such a heavy long series are worth it.



Pacific, The  

A follow-up by the same team behind Band of Brothers (Hanks, Spielberg, et al) covering the American war in the Pacific during WWII. First, it must be made clear what this mini-series is NOT: Although it has the same general approach as Band of Brothers by following various members of a single regiment throughout several key wars in a grander theatre, it does not have the same focus. Whereas BoB focused on the action and a whole group of soldiers, this places emphasis on three marines and friends (based on real people), and tells their tale from start to finish to explore their full experiences and how it affected them, including the stuff in between, such as their stays in hospitals and romantic adventures back home and in Australia. Another difference is that BoB may have been brutal, but it was relatively uplifting and energetic compared to this heavy, but very real drama that truly explores all of their suffering under the extreme jungle, mud, other terrains, and the extremism of the Japanese. So anyone expecting 'Band of Brothers on the Pacific Islands' will be disappointed. It is also not a history lesson, and many important aspects of the war are not even mentioned. Even the strategies behind the battles are not touched, some fights are confusing and chaotic, and the Japanese remain savage mysteries for most of the show. In other words, the producers put in effort to not spend a single second on anything but what it was like to be an ignorant marine sent to kill. That said, the first four episodes are weak and slow, one full episode involving a mostly uninteresting stay in Australia, and it's only during the superb middle three episodes covering the horrible Peleliu battle that it all starts to sink in, only to build for worse things to come (Iwo Jima, Okinawa), until you welcome the final episode where they go home and face what they went through. This series is grim, heavy, dark, sometimes too much so, but it manages to do the impossible: to find new ways to communicate the horrors of war and how it affects young men and their attitudes towards the enemy and life in general. It's all very real, and you will feel for these marines, so it did its job well, despite its flaws.



House of Cards Trilogy      

Three British mini-series, each 4 hours long, involving the continuous Machiavellian machinations of Francis Urquhart, a politician who starts as the Chief Whip and then becomes Prime Minister. He uses clever manipulation tactics, willpower, blackmail, power, bureaucratic tricks, and even force and murder as necessary all to his advantage. The tone is mostly satirical but also dramatic, and Urquhart frequently addresses us, the audience, with a personal wink and narrative, involving us in his schemes, or trying to justify the necessity of his extreme actions to us. This usually doesn't work in other films, but Richardson makes it work unbelievably well, even causing the occasional disturbing reaction. The actors make this show great, with strong presences, characters and superb acting by most of the cast, especially by Ian Richardson who carries the show with his unforgettable presence and voice, and Susannah Harker who holds her own against Ian.

The first part is the most intense and evil with a disturbing ending. Plot-wise, it is a tad lazy, featuring a combination of superbly detailed machinations with some glaringly easy solutions: He ruins politicians just a little too easily, with too many bending to his will, and gets away with things just a little too cleanly. Still, the majority is gripping and the intelligence, wit and charm are all very high, and it is a powerful story. The second part "To Play the King", is slightly less intense and inspired but is much better from a writing point of view, featuring a superbly complex battle of wits, viewpoints and willpower with the King himself, who properly challenges Urquhart. "The Final Cut" is a step-down and relatively a more ordinary but well-written, fascinating and intelligent political thriller with a dark but powerful ending.



Yes, Minister & Yes, Prime Minister    
Based on all five seasons.

Possibly the sharpest and wittiest TV show ever made. The topic is British politics, with a minister (who soon becomes prime minister much to his surprise) always hindered by the civil service and red tape while his civil secretary is trapped between two bosses. The personal machinations and political games evoke witty banter and amusing reactions from the naive minister as he tries to improve the government, and he slowly learns a few tricks on how to manipulate the system and achieve his political goals. Between the pseudo-idealism of the minister who is usually primarily interested in his public image, and the pseudo-humble civil servants who are actually running the country through bureaucracy, not much ever gets done and any achievement is acquired through power-games. Nigel Hawthorne is the most slippery Sir Humphrey, providing befuddling and hilarious double-talk and ingeniously manipulative red-tape. Bernard is the pedantic secretary trying to serve both masters while splitting hairs over their mixed metaphors. Although the show is about British politics, the viewpoints, motivations, political machinery and bureaucracy are universal and educational. The show is more subtle than West Wing, much more cynical, and most importantly, it has infinitely more interesting characters.

The structure of the episodes sometimes gets repetitive, often involving the minister trying to achieve a goal, hampered by the opposition or the civil service, until one of them finds leverage to use on the other. But the topics vary enough to keep it interesting, and the dialogue is always hilarious, sharp and fresh, with some episodes trying different settings, brilliant plot-devices or tackling interesting issues. The quality is consistently high throughout the seasons, with more color, variety and energy in the last two seasons. A superb, hilarious and sophisticated show for the political minded.



Wire, The  
Based on all five seasons.

Turns out The Corner and Homicide were just warm-ups for David Simon who wrote this astounding show on Baltimore, the drug-industry, and all of the people, institutions and circles that it affects. It starts big, then every season expands the circles even further to include the competing criminal gangs and families, police (homicide, narcs, wiretaps, etc), some people in the legal system, the seaport, politicians, schools, media, etc. And with all of this massive scope and ambition, it never loses sight of the individuals, focusing on how all of this eco-system affects specific people in various circles, developing their characters with depth. The acting is always top-notch and well cast, and the seasons feature continuous plot-lines, each season developing and building on details of the previous. And then there is the writing: Always top-notch, painfully realistic, complex, interesting. It never treats its audience as anything but highly intelligent, telling its story with the most minimal scenes and dialogue, using anything it can to say what it needs to say in the least amount of time. It provides insight into issues such as why law-enforcement is getting nowhere, what happens to people caught in the middle of this mess, the effect it has on the criminals and addicts, and it even explores what-if scenarios, all of this leaving you feeling educated. This is not just a show that matches the scope and details of a good and well-researched book, it also makes use of the fact that it is a visual story to enhance the experience. Forget Traffik, and forget anything that came before on TV; this is something previously unseen and unimaginably impressive for TV. The writing is so comprehensive for this topic, that David Simon can only go elsewhere after this.

All of the above comes at a price which a discerning audience should be willing to pay: This is challenging viewing. Close attention must be paid or else details will be easily overlooked. The dialogue is very jargon and slang heavy, and you will be learning a whole new vocabulary. This show forsakes the intensity of even a show like The Shield, and frequently explores day-to-day lives and mundane details in order to get a firm grasp of the big picture. Every season takes a few episodes to gather momentum and all of this will leave some viewers behind. But the payoff is worth it.

The first superb season focuses on a local drug-circle and the attempts by law enforcement to bring it down, both sides weighed down by complexities and politics. The second season is less focused and covers an even larger scope, adding the seaport, stevedores and the blue-collar workers who find themselves involved in the drug-trade. It takes its time to set things up, but the payoff is still great. The third season explores more politics and reform scenarios. It adds another challenge to the wiretap people in the form of disposable cellular phones, tells the story of political in-fighting and games, the politicians manipulating or using everything that happens at the law- enforcement level. But these aren't as compelling as the what-if scenario of a police chief who takes it on himself to 'legalize' drugs by forcing all drug activity in the city into designated free-zones. As always, the season closer ties everything together wonderfully and leaves you thinking.

The fourth focuses on mid-schoolers and the borderline kids who are about to dive into hard-core crime. It also extends previous plot-lines involving police-work, drug-dealers and politics. But, although these are well written, realistic and pretty interesting, none of these are compelling this time, and it takes about 10 episodes to get involving. In addition, the topic of reaching out to bad school-kids has been done before, perhaps not as realistically, but between the animalistic, loser kids and lost causes, terrible parenting and broken school system, the fruitless super-human efforts and final message are just too depressing and hopeless, and reminded me of The Corner. The fifth season expands to the circle Simon knows best: the media. But although it feels realistic, there isn't anything compelling or interesting here for most of the season except a reporter who makes stuff up. There is also a story about a senator who spins his own corruption for his own benefit, and two police-men that invent a fake serial killer, making this season all about the efficiency of fabrication and lies. Altogether a relatively weaker season with some improbable details, unsound character development, and slightly incredulous criminal showdowns, and it takes most of its running time to get off the ground, but eventually it gets moderately interesting as well.



Olive Kitteridge  

Although the description for this one may sound like something one wouldn't want to watch, it is surprisingly deep and rewarding for connoisseurs that enjoy a superb character study. The protagonist is a brusque, unhappy, sarcastic and rude woman, and watching her socially interact, especially with her gentle husband who loves her for mysterious reasons, can be repelling. In addition, the show is littered with several mentally unstable and depressed people and dysfunctional character development. But one can instantly see that there is much more under the surface, and this mini-series uncovers the layers indirectly and subtly, so much so that after a while one may be surprised to realize the amount of good in her that sneaks up on you, despite her behaviour. There are dozens of delicately observed moments in this series, about people's behaviour, human complexity, the importance of compatibility, the superficiality of things that seem important at first, and the elusive importance of depth of character. It pits together a kind man drawn to happiness, with a hard woman who finds kinship in depression and who has buried her happiness under a pragmatic & sarcastic drive, and then observes the fascinating combination that emerges. A very human and rewarding series.



Mayor of Casterbridge, The  

Superb adaptation by Dennis Potter of Thomas Hardy's classic novel. The story spans several decades and deeply explores the life of an angry, bitter and proud man who starts ruining his life by drinking and selling his wife at an auction (with her exasperated agreement), only to have it come back to bite him in several ways years later when he has already become a successful mayor and businessman. This adaptation is simply incredible and I can't imagine a more definitive version. The writing, characterizations and acting all show a deep understanding of and sympathy with the characters, building every scene slowly while paying attention with meticulous detail to the theme, emotion, language, plausibility and character development involved. This, combined with the superb, albeit typically gloomy story for Hardy, results in a fascinating character study, drama, story, and morality tale.



Coupling  
Based on all four seasons.

A very funny British comedy that is somewhere between Friends and Sex and the City, with colorful characters constantly talking about sex and relationships, trying to get laid and hanging out together. There's the cocky but slow-witted playboy Patrick, the confident, controlling Susan and her weak-willed boyfriend Steve, the sexually aggressive but mentally-challenged Jane, a neurotic Sally, and the porn-addict Jeff who always puts his foot in his mouth and is the funniest character of the show. Although some characters deteriorate into cartoonishly stupid personalities in later seasons, the writing by Moffat is always the star of the show: Clever, with constant inventiveness, creative narrative structures, sharp edges, and very witty gender and sex comedy. The fourth season replaces the funniest character Jeff with an annoying one, and then runs out steam, but it is always funny.



Terriers  
Based on the single season.

Looks like Shawn Ryan has become the man to watch out for in TV after his perfect and awe-inspiring The Shield and this show, another quality series produced and partially written by Ryan. This time he tackles the private investigator show, another overpopulated genre, and, once again, he outdoes everything that came before, taking cliches and spinning something new, compelling and realistic with them. It's a blue-collar PI show, with that old cliche: the ex-detective, ex-alcoholic man with a messy life that lost his job and family and is trying to make a living. His partner is an ex-thief with shady morals but a good heart. They formed a solid friendship and partnership with superb chemistry, working very well together as cases just seem to appear one after another, some becoming increasingly complex, usually via a 'friend who knows a friend with a problem'. As expected, the developments twist and turn, but the writers keep it real instead of twisting and turning just for the sake of being complex. But one of this show's strengths is its unpredictability. More strengths include its intelligence, humor and fast-pace, all somehow coupled with a laid-back attitude. Yet another strength is the rich blend of short cases and multiple longer story arcs involving both complex cases and personal dramas, all developing naturally with realistic motivations and character-development, much like with The Shield. One can see how this could have become as big as The Shield with every season building on past developments, but, unfortunately, this is one of those series brutally cancelled after only a single season. Fortunately, the season ending provides closure as well as an amusing open-ended question. Another good one from FX.



M*A*S*H  
Based on the first four seasons and some scattered episodes.

Old & classic TV shows usually survive on their reputation and the fans that grew up with it, but M*A*S*H just happens to be brilliant by any standard. It boasts a large cast, each one a great character, and a good balance of medical drama, clever comedy, and intelligent writing. The episodes revolve around a medical army unit in Korea during the war where most of the members find a unique, eccentric, cynical or sometimes mean way to stay sane and have some kind of life while trying to cope with the war and the waves of wounded soldiers. Hawkeye, obviously inspired by Groucho Marx, teases the stiff Frank Burns, cons everyone and plays pranks, and constantly throws witty, cynical quips and cheeky retorts around but he gets away with it because he's a great surgeon. Trapper is his tricky sidekick, Hot Lips is Frank's not-so-secret affair, Klinger dresses in women's clothes in order to get sent home, and Radar psychically predicts his Colonel's every request much to his frustration. Classic comedy.

The seasons went through a slow, gradual decline with the first three being the best. The episodic nature of the show started showing its limitations already in the third, the same story lines were repeated over and over, main characters started dropping out in the fourth season and were replaced with weaker actors, and more emphasis was placed on the drama and war issues, with Alda starting to moralize and preach. Also some characters like Radar were gradually turned into overly childish and dumb caricatures. The movie it was based on is a very different animal with a unique atmosphere, meaner characters and less colorful cast.



Sherlock Holmes Series        
Based on the first five seasons.

The definitive adaptations of Sherlock Holmes, each short story developed into an hour-long episode, and some of the longer novellas into TV movies. And, by definitive, I mean that all other performances pale and seem unnecessary after this one. Jeremy Brett is Sherlock, in an intense, gripping, fascinating and flawless characterisation. Even Watson is superb in a well-balanced performance instead of being the usual buffoon sidekick. Sherlock is portrayed as the brilliant, unpredictable but sometimes short-tempered and anti-social detective that one expects and the production values are good. The only slight flaw is that the short stories feel stretched, and more thrilling dramatisation is added instead of sticking to compact, concise logical mysteries like the stories. Also, some of the supporting actors go over-the-top. Regarding the adaptations of the mysteries: some episodes don't give enough information, but others play the delicate balance wonderfully, giving very difficult hints to an audience willing to break their heads and come up with a solution, without making all the details too easy. And finally, a special mention must go to the beautiful and unforgettable theme music played on violin.

The first season contains a selection of stories that are not always the best, and Brett sometimes feels relatively too abrupt and a touch uncomfortable, but all this is very minor. Seasons 2-4 are all superb but after that there is a slight decline as the show and Brett lose some of their harder edges.



Anne Frank: The Whole Story  

Most other movies and series based on Anne Frank generally focus on her famous diary and the period when she wrote it, hidden away in the annex until she was grabbed by the Gestapo. But this 3-hour mini-series, as the title indicates, tells her story from before the war until after her death. It is very faithful to historical research and details, but, even more importantly, it does a superb job of bringing her to life with all her flaws, only to make her infamous end all the more devastating. The casting and production values are superb, and the time flies while watching this absorbing story, and then it ends with an extremely apt statement that this was only one out of 1,500,000 other stories of children who died in the Holocaust. This tells the story of the war and how its horrors descended gradually stage by stage onto a few Dutch families, it tells how they managed to hide from the Nazis for a long time with the help of some saintly Dutch people, only to be betrayed by one, and then her family's extreme abuse in concentration camps in scenes that are as graphic as they need to be. Superb, as long as you aren't expecting the actual words from the famous diary to be used in this one. Generally regarded as the best of the lot.



Hustle  
Based on all eight seasons.

Absolutely superb British series about con-men with hour-long episodes that are so well written, the lack of story arcs is never an issue. This show has thrills, very clever and complex cons, a great sense of humor, good, colorful and classy actors, and best of all, style and panache, with almost every episode giving a con game that one extra push into brilliance or irony, adding at least one touch that makes the difference between ordinary thievery and stylish crime. The cons correctly emphasize the psychological aspects rather than the Mission-Impossible gadget-heavy type of thefts and tricks, although they do employ these as well at a minimal and realistic level. Some episodes let the audience in on the game, others manage to trick the audience well, or at the very least, hold on to one or two surprises and hidden backup plans. To make the moral issues a little easier to swallow, the con-men have a code and only go after dishonest and nasty people, sometimes for revenge or to help a friend, believing it impossible to trick an honest man, and they do it more for the fun, art and pride than the money, but they are not portrayed as do-gooders. Very enjoyable.

The first three seasons feature one superb episode after another with constant re-invention and creativity. The weak, skippable fourth is moderately fun but it replaces a classy lead with another that has no chemistry or charm, and the writing starts featuring more obvious flaws and becomes a tad implausible in a few episodes. The fifth recovers only partially, returning Mickey as the confident, classy leader, but replacing two colorful team members with bland and forgettable ones, both obviously hired for their looks or willingness to dress skimpily. Also, only two or three of the six episodes feature solid cons, the rest depend on contrivances or the mark doing something stupid. Season six is the best since season three, with solid cons, some complex, some brilliantly simple, requiring improvisation when things go wrong instead of everything clicking into place neatly. The seventh shows signs of repetition and predictability at first, but it's still so well written and acted, that it is irresistible. It also features some superb character development. The last eighth season ends on a good, albeit non-risky and by-now predictable note, with solid cons and a climactic, thrillingly dangerous final episode.



Breaking Bad  
Based on all five seasons.

An over-hyped show deserving of praise, but its flaws keep it from being the ultimate TV series its millions of fans think it is. There have been a few recent films and one show involving parents making drugs, but this one doesn't opt for cute comedy. Instead, it goes for a fairly realistic story of a desperate family-man who finds himself in over his head when he uses his chemistry skills to try to make some quick money for his family. His desperation comes from the fact that he has cancer, as well as the shaky financial state of his family combined with medical bills. His brother-in-law, who works for the DEA, unwittingly injects the idea in his head. The project hits endless snags, unavoidable violence, moral issues, and increasingly complicated lies with his family, as he partners with a local ex-student to 'cook' some methamphetamine and sell it. Trouble is, the product is so good, they keep getting unwanted attention by rivals and criminals, as well as his own brother-in-law, and he has to use all his wits to try to survive. His dunderhead partner doesn't make things easier either but they need each other, and they slowly develop a shaky friendship.

The first two seasons are superb and feature one long continuous story arc, with realistic consequences and developments. Characters develop, and the ensemble keeps things colorful and dynamic, with writing that is often unpredictable. But then, the writing starts making compromises to pad out the show and things start to unravel, like a juggler that throws too many balls in the air until they inevitably start dropping and scattering all over the floor. Starting from the end of season two, Walter starts ignoring moral issues and goes from bad to evil, becoming a hardened criminal. Which is realistic, I suppose, and the series title broadcasts this character trajectory, but it also transforms the show into a commonplace crime-show featuring criminals outsmarting and fighting criminals, rather than the more tragic and human angle of the first two seasons. In some ways, it becomes like Sopranos, and feels like you're watching animals in a zoo, which is entertaining but limited. In addition, this character arc, as well as his wife's, doesn't feel realistic in its speed and extremism. But that is not the only problem. Plot lines are forgotten, like the kleptomania thread disappearing, as well as Skyler's shrink and several other elements. The writers decide some characters are falling apart so they give them wildly inconsistent behaviour, being suicidal or OCD in one episode, and suddenly, in the next episode, they are back to stability again. Logic and motivations go out the window. For example, why does Gus suddenly need to kill Walter? The endless difficulties in repeating a known chemical formula, training replacements, and creating a factory line, start feeling contrived. The idea of donations via a web site is forgotten, then they jump through stupidly complicated hoops to launder their own money even though they had a good idea already in place, and then they use a convenient inheritance scheme to quickly solve somebody else's money laundering problem. Skyler hates him and what he does, then, suddenly, she joins him. And so on and on, until it doesn't make sense anymore.

Season five, however, brings it all together in a season-long climax and breakdown, and features some of the best writing of any show I've seen. This season raises the whole show in its wake and provides a very satisfying and realistic outcome for all the plot-lines and character arcs. In short, this is a very good show that sags in the middle during seasons three and four, but which redeems itself very impressively and wraps it all up to create a compelling character arc, and five seasons of colorful crime, entertainment, drama and characters.



South Park  
Based on the first eighteen seasons.

A landmark. Hilarious but uneven adult animation that constantly pushes the envelope of bad taste, uniquely wrapping toilet humor inside witty satire and spoofs. The satire improved over time and attacks anyone and anything, and together with the scatological humor is guaranteed to offend almost anyone eventually. But most of the humor during the middle seasons is sharp and spot-on, calling out pretensions, celebrities, society, religions and organizations and calling it for what it is, usually avoiding getting overly preachy. That together with a wild imagination, outrageous story-lines and gleeful shock value makes this show what it is. The show, quality and type of comedy gradually changed and can be split roughly into three periods. Episodes within each season were always uneven, but no season can be said to be completely worthless.

The lead characters are four kids: Cartman is the funniest as a fat, selfish, racist kid who is always causing trouble or getting himself in outrageous situations but he slowly evolved over the years from a funny spoiled, dumb brat to an amusing mastermind, unrealistically manipulative with psychotic tendencies. Kyle is the clever one, Stan is the moralizing Jew who always gives a speech about the lessons learned, and Kenny is the filthy-minded, horny kid from a poor family who always wears a parka that hides his face and constantly gets killed in gory or nasty ways. There are plenty of other colorful characters including Mr Garrison who changed from a man afraid of his own homosexuality who speaks to his gay hand-puppet to an angry transsexual, and Butters, the lovable naive nerd.

The first three seasons were immature and revelled in toilet humor and outrageous comedy: The first entertaining season was creative, varied and funny but still immature with a few great and classic episodes. The second was a sophomore slump, containing mostly filler episodes or going out of its way to shock and surprise. Too wild and unfocused, albeit somewhat entertaining. The third started getting more satirical instead of only presenting silly stories, attacking issues like rain-forests and sexual harassment in a crude and childish way, or making fun of popular movies and fads. A mixed bag with too many lame episodes, but a much better last half with a couple of classics.

Seasons 4-8 presents South Park at its best, perfectly balancing the satire, wit, shock, and irreverent humor. The fourth superb season is where it all comes together with satire and hilarious comedy with an edge. The fifth is still very good but tries too hard to shock and be outrageous, and has a weaker second half. The sixth's first handful of episodes are weak, then gets back on track with one superb episode after another. The seventh completely drops the ball, trying to be too clever or creative but isn't funny, gets preachy, and takes weak points to ridiculous extremes, with a slightly better second half. The great eighth makes a comeback, offering a mixture of very entertaining episodes and satirical ideas taken to extremes but this time with a sharp wit.

After season 8, shocks and crazy spoofs became the focus and the laughs aren't as hard or witty anymore. It became all about finding the next outrageous or extreme way to make fun of something with a repetitive satirical formula of spoofing a movie, using silly metaphors and gross-outs. Although South Park was never too big on reality, the extreme lack of realism and consistent character sacrificed in favor of outrageous entertainment makes the comedy suffer. These seasons are entertaining for fans that need more but are not a good starting point. Nine and ten are yet more seasons with weak first halves (what's with the beginning of South Park seasons?) with ten being slightly better. The eleventh season is another slight improvement and features a three part fantasy extravaganza. The very weak and not funny twelfth is obviously a show way past its prime, and the thirteenth is not much of an improvement. The fourteenth, however, has a very good first half that promises a comeback, then more weak episodes in the second half, including another overrated three-part fantasy. The fourteenth looks like a last spurt of inspiration next to the fifteenth however, which is the worst season yet. It looks like they aren't even trying anymore. The satire and wit has disappeared and has been replaced with repetitive and juvenile silliness, pointless spoofs and toilet humor. The sixteenth is also shockingly weak overall with only a handful of better episodes in the second half. The seventeenth season, on the other hand, lowers the amount of episodes per season to ten, perhaps emphasizing quality over quantity, and it actually turns out to be the best season in years, making a surprising comeback, or, more probably, a final effort for a good finale. It's not the show at its peak, but the satire, social commentary and laughs are still there in above-average quantities.

For the 18th season, they started experimenting with new things: Season-long story elements (that feel forced and silly), and more unpredictably and wackier than usual writing as if they were trying to disrupt their creative slump and see what emerges. Unfortunately it doesn't work at all resulting in only one good episode in the whole season.



Cracker  
Based on all three seasons.

Intense, ground-breaking, superbly written and acted show about a criminal psychologist. This show predates the HBO TV revolution that made complex character and story arcs popular, and it stands out amongst the many other shows of its type about cops or profilers chasing killers, all due to its intense and realistic writing and acting. Fitz (Robbie Coltrane) is as fleshy as a flawed character can get: A brilliant psychologist that sees into people's hearts and basest impulses, with a knack for bringing out their innermost fears or drives out in the open and getting them talking about anything and everything. But he is far from perfect, and his abrasive and fearless personality can also get in the way of interrogations as he fights his way to the truth. In his personal life, he is a mess, living intensely but impulsively, addicted to gambling and booze, and bursting with passion or anger for everything, including his academic speeches that are a mix of disarming honesty, humor, anger and clobbering passion. All of which makes for a very fascinating, endlessly rocky relationship with his wife, who still loves his overflowing passion but is suffering from his self-destructive behaviour. The structure of the show is 2-3 episodes per case, but with continuous character-driven development involving him, his family, his off and on relationship with his partner-lover at the police, and the various efficient or incompetent police officers that work with him, every one of them coming across as very three-dimensional characters. The crimes and motives are very varied, keeping things interesting from start to finish. In short, an underrated and superb crime series.



Boss  
Based on both seasons.

A surprisingly quality show from Starz and a far cry from their usual pulp. The first season is electrifying and gripping from beginning to end, even though I'm usually not a fan of political shows. Grammer is ferocious in the role of a Machiavellian and ruthless mayor of Chicago who maintains his grip on the city, his family, and the many unruly business-men and politicians with any means necessary. The politics mix with mob tactics, except it's controlled by one man who uses anything from manipulation to bargaining, hard work, corrupt deals, bullying, blackmail or worse. The writing is sharp and the power games manage to be surprising, with constant interesting developments keeping a rapid pace. At the core is the clash between a man who is in control, and his newly discovered disease that threatens to remove that control from within, and his desperate measures to keep going despite deterioration and constant crises. His power to control reaches new levels even while his mind, and others, betray him. The only flaw is the constant injection of softcore sex scenes that go on too long for this kind of show. The second season is not as outstanding as the first, and is more conventional as well as uneven, with constant new crises and developments, providing for solid entertainment, except that it's flawed by a weak final episode where they dropped the ball with several bad twists that negate everything that came before. It also doesn't provide closure, since the show was supposed to continue beyond the second season, except that the bad twists are the real problem. Still, a superb first season that is definitely worth watching. And it even offers something that the American House of Cards lacked: Originality.



Practice, The  
Based on all eight seasons.

David Kelley's masterpiece in the genre he knows best: Law and legal drama. There is none of the character comedy and silly court cases from Ally McBeal here; It's all quite realistic and fascinatingly intense as a small blue-collar law firm finds itself defending harsh crimes (mostly murder) or fighting big issues in court. Being written by Kelley, the cases and plot lines do tend to get sensational, offering gradually more outrageous drama and tackling every controversial issue on the planet including racism, forced abortions, tobacco, criminal minors, serial killers, duty vs. ethics, etc. The courtroom stories get away with it, and the show is strongest when it focuses on this rather than on the personal dramas. The show's main strength is not in the verdicts, characters or dramas, but in the way every issue is presented from both sides with equal deliberation and persuasive power, provoking thought and educating us in the process. The outcomes are secondary and some episodes are not afraid to let the protagonists lose, or leave the viewers hanging with questions and unknowns. The many personal conflicts defense lawyers go through share the spotlight as well. The characters are good, but they are not as colorful as I would have liked. This show consistently offers a much more interesting and warmly human alternative to the Law and Orders and not only offers a technical and legal interest, but also human dilemmas as well as arguments on interesting issues. On the other hand, it's somewhat hypocritical to explore morals while glamorizing a litigious society that can somehow attach a price tag to a death and attack the first scapegoat in sight.

The first two seasons are brilliantly written and very interesting, the in-depth exploration of a defense lawyer's job and his existential dilemmas pushing a merely interesting legal show into greatness. With the weak third season, the feeling is that the show said what it had to say, settling for a more ordinary, somewhat repetitive, albeit well written legal drama with some welcome new sprinklings of comedy. However, this season is plagued by an over-emphasis on personal dramas with a ridiculous amount of crimes involving the lawyers or their friends, a secretary turning into a lawyer and an overly perky replacement, and a story arc involving the character Vogleman that is manipulative and undermined by the 'twist' ending. The superb fourth season recovers, focusing mostly on one fascinating and intense case after another with superbly balanced arguments and good supporting actors. The good fifth starts with a lackluster multi-episode case that slowly builds complexity, writes two real-life pregnancies into the show without letting them grab the headlines, then introduces the most brilliant and scary killer in the show: Mr Hinks, all these stories involving their personal lives, only this time, it works.

Season six is poor, outstaying its welcome with weaker stories, repetitive plot devices, desperately sensational cases instead of interesting topics, some soapy drama, and some unforgivable character infidelity. The seventh tries to recover with a handful of good episodes and arguments, but it's now mostly formulaic, repetitive and tired, and it adds some bad drama and annoyingly bland new members hired only for looks. The final season is a completely different show and a brutal hostile takeover of The Practice by Kelley's upcoming new show Boston Legal. Four main characters disappear with almost no explanation, Spader is brought on board along with lots of character, comedy and a refreshingly direct approach to corruption and court tricks, he is given several episodes to shine, entertain and hook the audience while the other actors are forced into the background, then a court battle is set up that humiliates The Practice just in order to shoehorn the new actors into the audience's hearts. I've never seen anything like it, and this, along with the ridiculously over-the-top cases, the wacky comedy, and the weaker writing turns the show into a chaotic circus.



Drew Carey Show, The  
Based on the first four and a half seasons and many scattered episodes.

Amidst the slew of comedian sitcoms that came out in the 90s, Drew Carey and friends stood out for their charm, great sense of humor and sharp wit during the show's first seasons. It's laugh-out-loud fun from an ensemble of natural comedians delivered in a fat-free, tight, energetic and creative package. The setup is simple: Some of the comedy revolves around a fat loser and his loser friends hanging out together and getting by on their great sense of humor and sharp teases and insults, the rest on Drew's job working at a department store where the boss is cruel and he is hounded by a monstrous female receptionist. The foreign boss and colorfully loud receptionist seems to have been stolen from Dream On, only made much more cartoonish and silly, and part of the reason the comedy deteriorated is the increasing emphasis on these characters. The episodic story-lines slowly get more creative and outlandish (e.g. Drew Carey wakes up on the real Great Wall of China) but the comedy (at first) revolves around wit, razor-sharp barbs and ad-libs, and practical jokes, and the good-natured charm with which they take it all. After that, they focused more and more on gimmicks and crazy creative ideas and silly characters, often taken it all so over-the-top the show becomes a cartoon. It's as if they embraced things that would normally make a show jump the shark, except they have fun with it.

The first season starts off the strongest with instant belly-laughs. The show starts a gradual decline starting with season 2 onwards, at first using outrageous dance numbers, gimmicks, celebrity cameos and crazy plot-lines well, but ending up only with gimmicks. The comedy loses its razor-sharpness in season 3 and resorts to over-the-top silliness, raunch, spoofs, cartoonish behaviour, wacky creative energy and simpler laughs. The fourth season is a slight improvement with varying episodes, some with more emphasis on wit, others with emphasis on outrageous situations like the multi-episode romance with a 60 year old woman, or pairing his cross-dressing brother with Mimi, but it seems to have settled mostly for moderately funny & wacky comedy. Then the show becomes weaker over the years. It basically becomes a loose place for Drew & Co. to let out some creative energy and have silly fun stretching out the sitcom format to new areas while having a ball, and although this is often fun, the characters get too silly and the wit suffers. In other words: Starts great, becomes mediocre fast, then dies, and only the first two seasons are strongly recommended.



Rules of Engagement  
Based on all seven seasons.

Just when I thought married couple sitcoms had long outstayed their welcome, along comes the best one yet. This hilarious show presents relationships as both a battle between genders as well as a loving force of nature, as exemplified by the witty title. There's the experienced older couple that has already been through it all, the younger couple that is about to go through it all, and the horny single man-child who is trying to avoid it all. Warburton has never been better, his laid-back personality and impeccable comedic timing making the show great, but all of the actors here are superbly funny, and the writing consistently backs them up with sharp dialogue, raunchy fun, zingers, and insightful, familiar tackling of gender issues. This show offers the cynicism and hard-edges of Married with Children without the silliness, it has the familiarity of Raymond without the annoyance, and best of all, it avoids the easy cliche of producing humor via a dumb husband, giving both sides equal flaws, intelligence and advantages, without leaving gender-reality behind. Kudos. The addition of the sharp Adhir Kalyan as Timmy only makes the show even better. Unfortunately, great things don't last, and the male characters deteriorate after a few seasons.

The first two seasons are superb from start to finish. The third season is still great but starts showing signs of veering into ordinarily-amusing sitcom land. Adhir Kalyan (the best thing from Aliens in America) joins the team as the hilarious South African assistant for Russell, serving as the upright gentlemanly foil for Russell's childish and demeaning demands. The weak fourth season is still funny but it completes this deterioration to merely moderately amusing comedy, the writing is not as sharp anymore, and, as with most sitcoms, some of the characters become caricatures and shadows of their former selves, with the resulting comedy becoming more Friends-lite. Worst of all, two of the men become cartoonishly stupider in season four while the women complain. The fifth season seems to recover for the first few episodes with a sharp wit, but the humor becomes weaker during the second half and now all three men have been turned into idiots. What a pity. Timmy's character makes the season great though, it's better than the fourth, and there is plenty of fun to be had. Season six is similar: Sharp and superb first half, weaker second, Kalyan is so good he almost steals the show from Warburton, but whenever they focus the comedy on Adam or the guys being cartoonishly stupid, the humor falls flat. Unfortunately, they went for seven, the last being the weakest season with an obvious lack of inspiration and with most of the focus on dumb-men humor. But five out of seven seasons with a majority of good episodes is extremely good for a sitcom.



Dream On  
Based on all six seasons.

This ground-breaking show did outrageous sex and relationship issues before Sex and the City, and the hilarious mental fantasy world thing before Ally Mcbeal (and much better), and it's even male-oriented for a change. Martin is a book-editor who keeps tense relationships with his ex-wife (who married an aggravatingly perfect new husband) and secretary (a hilariously headstrong woman who contributes a big portion of the laughs) while trying to find dates and get laid. He encounters one relationship and sexual challenge after another, dealing with endless strange and neurotic women as well as his own hangups and problems with his family and job. Having grown up with old black and white movies, his thoughts, psychology and inner reactions are shown as short clips from old flicks, resulting in hilarious surprises. A funny, sexy, adult, cult comedy show.

The first two seasons are good with only a few weak spots. The third is the show at its hilarious peak, taking risks and delivering much more outrageous writing and naughtiness, like a male Sex and the City only funnier. The weak fourth is all over the place, with classic signs of shark-jumping like gay parents, the kid reaching puberty and becoming annoying, silly stories like a secretary wanting to be a nun, and weak or no punchlines. The fifth recovers with quite a few very good episodes but still going mostly for outrageous or silly story-lines. By the sixth season, it's all on a very weak and repetitive automatic pilot, with too much of the writing relying on Martin doing something annoyingly stupid, or some shark-jumping silliness.



Fanny and Alexander  

A 5-hour Ingmar Bergman movie shown as a TV series as well as a much shorter theatrical release. Bergman called it a summation of his life's work and said there was a part of him in all the characters. The Ekdahl family is well-off, descendants of a famous artist, managing a local theatre, and watched over by a warm grandmother. Her lover is an old Jewish antique dealer with links to the supernatural, there's a passionate, emotional, philandering son and his good-natured wife, a bitter, self-loathing man who is very cruel to his wife out of sad desperation, and Emilie, her loving husband who is an actor, and their children Fanny and Alexander. When Emilie's husband dies, she is courted by a stern bishop and convinced to marry him and join him in his austere, disciplined but supposedly better and moral lifestyle. When things turn violent and very bad for her and the children, the Ekdahl family and friends intervene. The first overlong and slow part introduces the family, the second deals with death in the family with typical Bergman solemnity and heaviness, the third is a gripping dramatical conflict with the bishop, and the last part wanders into metaphysics and the supernatural with God appearing as a puppet, ghosts, psychic hermaphrodites and breathing mummies. Some themes underlying all of this are magic, imagination and different viewpoints of religion and the supernatural vs. a simple, understandable, grounded life, most of which were explored in previous Bergman movies only this time through the eyes of a child. Altogether, this is a sweeping, grand epic with some unforgettable moments and beautiful sets and colors that leap out at you through the screen, but flawed by a slow beginning and a general experimental feel as if Bergman were exploring many stories at once and still fumbling with the issues while he was filming it. I've seen it four times and still find it both gripping and fascinating, as well as unsatisfying for some subtle reason that eludes me. Perhaps it's a combination of the fractured story, Fanny being more of a spectator than a fleshed out character, some over-the-top characters, and the clash between the realism and supernatural solutions. And yet it's still an unforgettable and must-see experience.



Idiot  

Although this is not my favorite novel by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, it's impossible to find fault in this amazing 500 minute adaptation. The writing is about a truly good, candid and innocent man thrown into the lion's den of a society ruled by various human weaknesses. The Idiot is a man just back from Switzerland from his epilepsy treatments, whom the society sees as a simple-minded fool due to his straightforward and kindly emotional way of looking at things. He finds himself entangled in complicated family matters, scandals, greed, and a love quadrangle. His behaviour causes all kinds of reactions in his peers and acquaintances, from shame, or love to anger and guilt, causing two extremely neurotic women to fall for him without being able to handle their mixed emotions and baggage. Rogozhin is his opposite, a man driven by dark passions who is also in love with one of the women. Social standards, customs, greed and liars clash with his ample sincerity, kindness and forgiveness, until the inevitable tragedy. This has strong themes and many colorful characters with the psychological depth you would expect from Dostoyevsky, but the story and movie often flirts with a line between literary melodramatic soap, and intense social critique and philosophy by way of an extreme character study. Numerous plot-lines wander into petty details and histrionic people who are severely flawed by design, making mountains out of molehills, with only some of the novel's many thoughts coming through into the series for obvious reasons. The acting is simply amazing across the board, with an especially convincing Myshkin. A model adaptation of a flawed classic that needs to be seen if only for the acting, but with horrible subtitles.



Tyrant  
Based on the first two seasons.

FX may not be strong with comedies, but they continue to produce a high ratio of quality thrillers/dramas. This one is about a fictitious Arab Middle-Eastern country led by a dictator, its details very closely reflecting reality and several elements from real countries. Thus, they neatly avoid politics, while giving the show a compelling factor. This is greatly helped by good and solid writing. The only realistic things missing are references to Israel and neighbouring countries, which were avoided for obvious reasons, but the show does have an ISIS-like organization fighting from within and without. This country is explored primarily through the morally corrupt, non-religious presidential family and its many relatives with different agendas and viewpoints, all led forcefully by the dictator, a very broken man who alternates between moments of clarity, paranoia and psychotic expressions of rage. Other story-lines explore some factions that resist or fight the dictator on various levels, most of them religious. The extra factor that makes it even more interesting, is the dictator's brother and his American family, who have come back from the US after 20 years for a wedding. They are quickly sucked into the malignant environment thanks to a guilt-ridden sense of responsibility by the father. Political games, revolutions, wars, back-stabbing maneuvers, murders, attempted coups ensue, while the American family watch this brutal alien world in shock and try to survive. As said, the writing is solid and quite good, the structure is a continuous storyline with overlapping plot-elements, and the pacing is superb. The only real hurdle is the casting that somehow put together a cast from 20 different countries with 20 obviously different looks and accents, most of them obviously not Middle-Eastern or Arab (a scruffy beard does not an Arab make), and all speak 'accented' English instead of Arabic. Another flaw is the injection of a useless plot-line concerning a gay son, which is obviously only there for trendy and PC reasons. But it's still possible to put this aside and get immersed in the show, especially thanks to the good writing and acting, and Ashraf Barhom (an Arab-Israeli) as the dictator adds a lot of sociopathic, arrogant swagger and color to the show.



Last Resort  
Based on the single season.

Shawn Ryan's idea of a 24-esque action thriller with political intrigue. Although the comparison to 24 may seem strange at first since this does not have agencies fighting terrorists and internal moles, remember that Shawn Ryan specialized in grey morality and policemen going rogue in The Shield, and he does something similar here to the US Navy, except with outrageous intensity and thrilling action. Andre Braugher acts in yet another intense role as a submarine captain who has been given questionable orders to fire nuclear bombs on Pakistan. When he refuses and goes rogue on a small island, it all gets intense and nihilistic and stays there throughout the series, as they have to fight off and survive no less than the US military and some political heads, by using nuclear bombs and controlled insanity. It doesn't get more ballsy than this, and the tensions are raised even higher by a local criminal gang that controls the island, some Navy SEALs with mysterious goals that they picked up, and internal dissent with their own people, including an intense by-the-book Master Chief (Robert Patrick). Political struggles back home with the XO's wife and a weapon's dealer that learned what is really going on, provide parallel momentum. Similar to 24, the events are so wild as to feel implausible at times, but the writing is much better than 24 and allows suspension of disbelief without much problem, and it is just crazy enough to be true to life (would anybody have believed 9/11 if it were a fictional movie?). Of course, as with any military movie, the 'experts' always come out of the woodwork to attack little technical details and tell us what they think the military is really like even though this show covers an extreme scenario where the rules have changed. One flaw is in some casting choices, especially the casting of a 20-year-old who looks like a little girl just graduated from high school who spends hours doing her hair, yet we are supposed to believe she is a weapons expert and tech-geek with political clout and a sexpot to boot. Seriously? Also, the show was cancelled after only one season, but, thankfully, they were given time to tie up the story for an extremely rushed season ending, but this is better than leaving us with a cliffhanger. Recommended intense entertainment, even if it is not up to Ryan's typical high standards.



Nip/Tuck  
Based on the first four and a half seasons.

Two plastic surgeons, their friends, family and foes interact in this cutting-edge dramatic and gory look at superficial humanity. One surgeon is a playboy with slight and deeply hidden traces of humanity, the other an uptight but moral family man. The way I see it, this show's success comes from balancing a three-pronged approach to keeping things interesting: There's melodramatic soap which is well known to be addictive, there's cutting-edge shocking violence, sex, gore and outrageous story-lines, and there's good writing that satirizes humanity and its superficiality, exploring the depths to which it can sink and the ironies of life. The writing balances out the silliness of the soap, and the soap and gore keep you entertained in case the writing isn't as compelling. The disgusting gore feels over-the-top but greatly contributes to the satire of what people are willing to do to themselves. Intense, over-the-top, entertaining, interesting soap. If you liked the pulp factor of HBO shows like Oz and Sopranos but not the content, and would like to see a TV show with a similar feel to American Psycho, look no further. More entertaining trash from FX.

The first season boasts a superb balance and some interesting writing. The second season emphasizes the soap and gore to its own detriment, featuring too much personal drama and soapy scandals involving affairs, back-stabbings, blackmails, pregnancies and whatnot, but thankfully, the episodic patients keep the show above water, albeit via heavy-handed parallels with the doctors' personal crises. The gore gets a little bit too nasty and explicit and the show revels in outrageous sleaze, but it's still pulp, addictive, fun entertainment despite the step down in writing. By the third season I gave up on looking for interesting writing or depth and just enjoyed the pulpy excess for what it is. This last good season maintains a momentum with multiple story-lines and constantly interesting surprises, but ends on a shark-jumping twist straight out of a bad slasher.

By season four, it's still entertaining, but it has worn out its welcome and now feels formulaic: Think up at least one or two outrageous, scandalous, gory, sleazy, nasty, cruel or controversial crises per episode, pick a character to drop it on, film it. The protagonists lose most semblances of humanity and become soap queens, making bad choices just to create drama, and the writing loses touch with reality, replacing the satirical edge with stunt casting, and turning this show into an unsympathetic, empty, but entertaining soap opera of excess. Even the writing becomes sloppy, it overuses the gimmick of imaginary conversation partners, repeats some plot-lines and forgets others. Season five moves to Hollywood without improving the writing, and with that, this show's trip to trashy banality is complete



Jeeves and Wooster  
Based on the first three seasons.

Based on Wodehouse's comedic and satirical writings, this superb British series features the social adventures of a dim-witted gentleman and his wise and manipulative valet Jeeves. The plots tend to get somewhat repetitive with the dim-witted gentry bullied by strong female characters and getting themselves in situations where they are disallowed engagements to passing fancies, or find themselves engaged to women they dislike. These situations as well as some pranks, cons, bets and social misadventures allow Jeeves to show off his manipulative problem-solving skills. Clever gentle comedy acted to perfection but deteriorates to decreasingly subtle silliness and repetition with every season.

The first season is superb, the second is still enjoyable but inferior and less clever, the third takes a nosedive into silliness, replaces some of the cast, and features Jeeves and Wooster in America with a slew of bad American accents and overacting.



Taxi  
Based on the first three and a half seasons.

Probably the best of the classic 70s sitcoms along with M*A*S*H and Jeffersons. The setting is a taxi station with an ensemble of characters: Although Alex (Hirsch) is the fleshiest (and wittiest) character that provides the sensible center, it's DeVito's mean, money-loving Louie that provides the most belly-laughs, and can always be counted on to provide a surprisingly insensitive but hilarious remark that usually flips situations around. Andy Kaufman's irredeemably foreign character Latka is a little too silly and limited, with jokes based on his fake foreign language becoming repetitive, but the writers give him more dimensions as the show progresses. The rest of the cast are merely acceptably good, providing more characters and color, and the writers make a point of exploring each one of them in turn per episode. In addition to the actors, the writers make this show great, providing a wide variety of great stories and little heartfelt dramas mixed with the humor. As the show progresses, the writing becomes more lazy and silly, but the ensemble maintains its charm and sense of fun.

The first season features one great little story after another, balancing comedy, silliness, wit and human drama superbly. The second season starts out great, and even adds another superbly hilarious character in the form of the permanently confused and stoned Reverend Jim (Christopher Lloyd), but the writing takes a gradual decline mid-season as the stories become too silly and lose the delicate balance. The third season gets back on track; it's good and still fun with a mixed bag of episodes especially the first and last few of the season, but, in general, it is not as inspired and witty anymore, running at an entertaining auto-pilot level, and having more fun with the characters. The fourth features even lazier writing unfortunately, and all reality is thrown out the window just to keep Andy Kaufman on the show by giving him 'multiple personality disorder' just so that he will have more to do.



North & South  

One of the undeniably better classic novel mini-series adaptations that has it all: a rich story expertly adapted, superb production values, and good acting and casting. Although a substantial portion of this story is a classy 'chick-flick' with deep passions and characterizations a la Jane Austen, there is also the rich backdrop of the young industrial revolution, the tension and instability between newly emerging classes of people, the factories and the new, power-drunk arrogant bosses, the workers and their first attempts at unions. Amidst this tension that threatens to become a small war unless stability and respect is found, a man and a woman from different backgrounds find both attractions and repellents in each other. Thornton is a stern factory master with a more humble past, who is on the border of losing his humanity and kindness, but Margaret may yet save him. The ending is too neat and contrived suitable for the romantically inclined as well as the budding feminist, but this a minor matter in this rich humanistic experience.



From the Earth to the Moon  

Like Band of Brothers, this grand mini-series takes a successful and popular movie like Apollo 13, and extends it to cover the complete American space program with the same rich production values as the movie combined with documentary-like accuracy and details. Tom Hanks, obviously an enthusiast, makes this show a careful and accurate labor of love, balancing the aspects of this story perfectly. The careful writing always keeps the space program itself as one of the main protagonists, as well as the engineering feats, the dedicated workers, the science of it all, the technical details and challenges, the discoveries, the tension and pressure, and the politics. The characters and dedication of the astronauts and engineers are explored but their dramas are never allowed to take over the show, their wonder and character coming through but in the context of grand achievements and discoveries of humanity. Each episode varies its tone and approach to cover the exploration of the moon from the time Russia beat the USA in space travel, thus pushing them frantically into the space race, up until the last and unpopular moon exploration of 1972. Special episodes cover the engineering of the lunar module, Apollo 13 from a reporter's angle, the geological training and inspiration the astronauts went through, the lives of their wives, the life of Alan Shepard, and each of the Apollo missions from different perspectives and objectives to avoid repetition. The last inspired episode cuts together Méliès's 1902 movie about travelling to the moon, with Apollo 17's mission. Flaws include the complete lack of coverage of the Russian side, making this feel like slight jingoism at times, and it may be too long for some. A must-see at least once, especially for space nuts, even if I don't find myself fascinated enough to come back to it.



Whose Line Is It Anyway?    
Based on several seasons and scattered episodes.

Normally I wouldn't bother with a game-show but this one is a hilarious improvisational comedy which just happens to be delivered in game format (where the points don't really matter). Improvisational comedians and guests get to play fast-moving games like film dubbing, acting out quirky characters that have to be guessed by another contestant, treating contestants as mannequins acting out a scene, a variety of musical snippets improvised on the spot, and many more. The comedians and the show kept getting better and better until they reached a wondrously talented peak with some scenes that make you literally scream with laughter until your face hurts.

The show ran in the UK for a decade before it moved to the US, each version having its own pros and cons. The UK show took about 4-5 seasons to become consistently good, with weaker performers being weeded out, comedians gradually improving their skills, and better games being introduced. The UK boasted a funny host, a wide variety of performers and games (which also meant some weaker actors/games), some British wit, a touch too many musical games, and uncensored raunch. The US show continued with most of the best performers from the British version, polished up the act but also simplified it a bit, and brought in Drew Carey as the host, who, although great in his sitcom, is passably amusing at best as a host. The US suffered a bit from lack of variety, but delivers more consistently strong laughs and musical performances, the actors now looser veterans and getting more playful with each season, toying with the rules of the games, teasing and challenging each other, and involving the audience (not always with good results). They do seem to be getting a little bored after two decades however.



Titus  
Based on all three seasons.

The ultimate dysfunctional family sitcom. Christopher Titus acts as himself, featuring true events from his own life, such as his abusive father who married five times, a psychotic murderer for a mother, and other similar messed up things. He rants, discusses and reveals with refreshing honesty his inner psyche by performing a stand-up routine in a black & white room, gleefully sharing his dysfunctional drives and ghoulish, warped thoughts, doing his energetic best to make it all funny as hell while still allowing some real drama to peek through once in a while. This is very, very edgy stuff and utterly unique, and the only way to make all of this warped and disturbing stuff funny, is by taking it over-the-top into cartoonish territory. And this is both the show's strength and weakness: The over-the-top silliness can come off as incredibly edgy humor one second, then turn into some silly slapstick the next. Also, the show isn't the most insightful or sharp, and often chooses to have comical fun with humanity's warped side rather than to explore it, but the honest edginess and the sheer energy make up for this, and I imagine it wouldn't be funny otherwise. As far as the acting goes, there are great energetic and hilarious performances from everyone, and there's always Cynthia Watros...

The first season is strong. The second season gradually loses its balance and becomes too silly during the second half. The third season ups the ante and features episodes that are cartoonishly silly, as well as episodes with darker issues that deal with racism, violent thoughts, real death, child abuse and genetic insanity. Whatever the reason for its cancellation, I think it stopped exactly when it should have.



Dexter  
Based on all eight seasons.

Dexter is "America's favorite serial killer". This line just about sums up this show. The cutting-edge, dark subject matter with hints of pitch-black humor, the appeal this show has to the dark side of the entertainment-hungry masses (especially to the killer-obsessed US audiences), and the way everyone on this show, including the police, seems to revel in gruesome killings and serial killers, makes me want to categorize this together with Nip Tuck. But whereas Nip Tuck was honest in its pulp, superficiality and viciousness, this show goes out of its way to present a serial killer as a likeable hero, losing its moral compass and honesty in the process. Let me explain: Dexter is a sociopath forensic expert that lacks emotions, social skills and an interest in sex and dating. He was raised by a foster father with a strangely pragmatic approach to training the morally-damaged kid, channeling his blood-thirstiness into the only remotely acceptable outlet imaginable: killing other serial killers. Although these obviously objectionable training methods are there to make the protagonist more palatable to audiences, the writers pull this off with very plausible and interesting developments throughout the first two seasons. But the show unfortunately decided this isn't enough, made him good with his girlfriend's kids, add a pointless narration that only serves to allow the killer to make a rapport with the audiences, and then cuts away the camera when it comes to the actual torture and killing of his victims. All this is just dishonest. Nip Tuck proved that audiences can handle despicable protagonists and gore. By trying to shoehorn morality into the show by way of the killer instead of the rest of the cast, it undoes morality. It's not only Dexter that is pretending to be a real human...

Despite this, the first season is a very interesting ride, exploring his fascinating relationship with an emotionally-damaged girl, a much less interesting relationship with his unhealthily dependent, annoyingly incompetent and desperately cheap cop sister, and his cat-and-mouse games with another professional, elusive serial killer. The ending is particularly powerful, but the show could have been so much better by simply removing the distracting narration. Although the second season managed to turn me into an addict and features superb, entertaining and interesting writing, it radically alters their personalities, the stupid drive to make everyone more likeable forcing them to sacrifice consistency. Dexter, despite the fact that he went through a process of uncovering repressed traumatic memories, has changed too much with his many emotional and human reactions and healthy attitudes towards sex, friends and his girlfriend. His girlfriend also suddenly turned from emotionally damaged passive plaything to super-confident woman. But, despite this, the season is criminally addictive and well written, moving the plot forward with many twists and turns, as Dexter's life keeps getting more and more complicated, using a lot of careful creativity and luck to avoid getting caught.

The third season drops the ball. Now the writers want it both ways: To have Dexter domesticated and emotional over friends, girlfriend, her kids and a pregnancy (a classic shark jumper), and yet they still think they can maintain his character as a dissociative sociopath and cold serial killer while turning him into a family man. You don't have to be a psychologist to see the contradiction. On the one hand you have an extreme dissociative state of mind and even identity issues due to the trauma, he somehow manages to channel his warped energy into a specific outlet, to be neat and focus on everything he is doing without falling apart, and yet at the same time, he now has desperate emotional needs that make him cling and be kind, protective, loyal and giving to his family despite their never-ending demands without even losing his mental clarity and focus? You can't help but wonder why he doesn't simply get rid of his girlfriend and get a much less bothersome replacement for his 'human mask'. In addition, the first half of the season focuses too much on relationships, feelings, secrets and drama, feeling more like an emo soap about a house-broken killer rather than the unusual and calculated crime drama of season one. Dexter has more emotional needs and attachments than the rest of the cast now for crying out loud. To make matters worse, as if the narrative wasn't enough, they now overuse internal conversations with his dead father in order to explicate his thoughts even more for us dummies. The second half is better and the roller-coaster relationship with a kindred dark killer soul is interesting, but the ending seems rushed, and overall, it just doesn't work. Ironically, this season is more explicit in its violence, perhaps because they think they can get away with it by making him a family man. All this continues in season four and deteriorates further into a show about a serial killer with a conscience and a baby. It's still addictively entertaining and the rival serial killer (a superb Lithgow) is, again, uniquely interesting (and his instability makes a lot more sense than Dexter), but the endless scenes of Dexter being emotionally manipulated into petty drama by his now extremely annoying, control-freak, passive-aggressive wife who treats him like a kid, keeps undermining the season. Dexter has not only lost its writing edge now, it just doesn't make sense psychologically.

It's impossible to talk about the fifth season without spoilers: The death of his wife in season four achieved several things: For the first time, it finally injects a semblance of morality by showing dark consequences of his choices. It also gets rid of her truly annoying character, and allows the writers to go back to their roots without too much of the family soap. The fifth is a very mixed bag: Dexter now makes more sense, with Michael Hall balancing cold and very brokenly emotional sides very well, even killing innocent people now. Yet again, his new partner in crime makes the season, with Julia Stiles as a victim that wants revenge. But the writers are really getting sloppy now and over-using luck as a plot device. Events become too contrived thanks to many coincidences and characters that turn away to do something inconsistent every time the writers become lazy, and some plot threads go nowhere or get swept under the carpet, all leading to yet another all-too-neat season ending. This has become a very frustrating show, weaving together writing both great and terrible. The sixth season just feels routine and uninspired. Although the new element of the season is religion, and how Dexter copes with an ex-killer turned inspiring religious man, as well as killers that use God as an excuse to kill, the handling of this by the writers is simplistic and boring. The killer of the season is lackluster, with a predictable twist, the psychology is weak, and the overuse of dead people and a narration to explain everything only gets more annoying. How stupid do they think we are?

The seventh season is not only an astounding recovery, but perhaps the best season of the show. The writers suddenly become impressively clear-headed, giving up the the endless contrivances and letting the consequences of Dexter's overly-complicated secret life take their natural course, with leaks and suspicions getting out of hand, and Dexter coming to realizations about himself that were a long time coming, all handled superbly via yet another gripping relationship with another killer. They even reduced the annoying commentary and narrative by Dexter. The fake morality and excuses fall apart, and Dexter is finally revealed to everyone that didn't get it until now, including himself, leading to startling developments. His social awkwardness and schizoid behaviour from the first two seasons seem to have magically improved over the seasons, but the instability now makes up for it. The seventh should have wrapped things up however, as the eighth and final season is atrocious. The writers decided to stupidly end the show with 'domesticated Dexter', except this time he is in love with another psychopath and decides to build a family with her. This is as stupid as it sounds, except it gets worse: There's a shrink for psychopaths with a psychopath son as well as a psychopath teenager in training and Dexter is now chasing down ten psychopaths who are being hunted by one bigger psychopath. Eventually I just started laughing and groaning at the show. And then there are the many endings, none of them satisfying on any level, with undeserved melodrama, bad psychology, nonsensical behaviour and wrongheaded morality. But we should have seen this coming from previous bad seasons. To sum up: I recommend watching only seasons one, two, five and seven and stopping there.



Picket Fences  
Based on all four seasons.

David Kelley's first show completely created and written by him, where you can see his themes and style being developed. This is Kelley's Northern Exposure and Twin Peaks. The setting is a smallish town, with the focus shared between a family, the sheriff's office and medical examiner, a hospital, local politics, many various crimes and murders, quirky characters and happenings, and of course, the courtroom. This too-wide scope allows Kelley to explore anything and everything that catches his whim, but also makes the show feel out of focus with only the colorful and superb ensemble of characters holding things together. The show takes a while to settle but even then, the sheer variety of episodes is both its strength and weakness. The family dramas and tensions revolve around the sheriff, his doctor wife, a smart teenage daughter, and two great young boys: a wild but smart, creative and protective brother, and a young gentler introspective boy who plays the trombone. The legal issues feature a superbly funny and sharp Fyvush Finkel as the opportunistic and talented lawyer, and his funny interactions with the noble, fair but stern judge. The law enforcement features the sheriff and his two eager deputies who frequently clash with each other but are close friends, and an entertaining, intelligent but difficult medical examiner with a ghoulish eagerness for dead bodies. Several of the quirky court-cases were repeated later in Ally Mcbeal.

The quirk and stories are over-the-top. In the first three episodes alone we get a double-murder mystery, death by dishwasher, a serial killer who chops off hands, a prostitute celebrity, an angry, naughty midget, an elephant enema, and cancer. This approach forces you to leave realism behind and sometimes clashes with the serious and complex handling of difficult issues, yet they provide for very colorful entertainment. During most of the first season, the emotional manipulation and liberal preaching gets crude at times with painfully obvious musical cues accompanying emotional scenes, and a relatively less mature and balanced handling of issues by Kelley as he frequently shoehorns liberal life-lessons for the ignorant townsfolk to learn. Subsequent seasons improve, subtly shifting the balance, focusing more on the court-room, presenting more balanced arguments, and developing more of the characters so that we feel like part of the big town-family even though they seem to live in a wacky fantasy world. Highest marks goes to the casting and characters, Kelley keeping the personalities consistently strong in this show, with the ensemble of actors often stealing the show from Kelley's soapbox issues. The third season is the best, handling many huge and basic issues and presenting both sides nicely, and developing great depth in its characters. The fourth season changes management, the new direction riskily exploring less likeable aspects in the characters, focusing less on court cases and toning down the quirk, resulting in a few interesting episodes, but generally becoming a much more ordinary TV drama with a too-heavy liberal bent.

In summary: A show with qualities that are both flaws and strengths: The wide scope is entertaining but erratic, the over-the-top quirk and unreal events are both entertaining and undermining, the drama is at times involving or too sentimental, Kelley's developing style is both fresh and immature, the townspeople are annoyingly arrogant, fearful of everything and closed-minded, overreacting to everything, but this is realistic in America and the wise Judge Bone serves as the reasonable counter-balance to the madness. The show is also too liberal and preachy in its first and last seasons but quite thought-provoking otherwise. Despite the flaws however, the actors will keep you watching once they draw you in to their family. This is Kelley's best character work.



Better Off Ted  
Based on both seasons.

Victor Fresco seems to be quite good at cute workplace comedies, though his titles need work. This followup to the underrated 'Andy Richter Controls the Universe' is sharper and wittier, at least in the first season, with a similar large dose of cute. It's got Slavin repeating a similar nerdy-puppy role from that show, and Portia de Rossi repeating her fun-scary power-businesswoman role from Ally McBeal, but hey, if it works it works. The company, in this case, is a powerful corporation that invents scary inventions like weaponized pumpkins or beef grown in a lab, that are almost always abused in various ways or cause unexpected results. Linda pines for Ted, who is middle-management, but he used up his workplace-fling of the year, and rules must be followed. The show has fun with the various ways corporations abuse employees, contrasting the immorality of executive life, with Ted's 8-year old daughter's viewpoint, as well as with the more weak, innocent and creative nerdy guys in the lab. There's a good blend of sharp satire and wit with silly and cutesy humor at first, but the cutesy stuff soon takes over for a weak second season.



Ally McBeal  
Based on all five seasons.

Unfairly derided for being merely a quirky chick-flick about a neurotic, anorexic woman, the show actually started as a hilarious ensemble comedy with a delicate balance of addictive characters, comedy and drama. It only got its bad reputation due to the decline in later seasons and people overdosing on its syrupy quirk after too many episodes. Although Ally herself does become annoyingly neurotic, selfish or whiny, it's made funny by her interaction with other characters, and the outrageous consequences and situations she finds herself in. Ally is a petite, neurotic lawyer who has hallucinations, hopeless romantic dreams (while hitting superficially on every hunk that appears on screen) and who finds herself working with her ex-boyfriend who is married to a barbie-doll lookalike. One of her bosses is Richard Fish, a hilarious male chauvinist who likes money, fondling old women's wattle, and delivering terrible, aphoristic 'Fishisms'. The other is the eccentric and brilliant John Cage, who alone makes this show worthwhile and balances out the more annoying elements. Elaine is the entertaining office slut who loves scandals and gossip. Renee is the only truly unbearable character. Mixed with the comedy, drama, singing performances and outrageous relationships are the legal cases they fight for, which usually involve sexual harassment, marriage, divorce, or various over-the-top oddities or controversial social issues.

The first season is very good. The second starts even stronger with two new hard-edged characters that add superb comedy to the ensemble, then it suddenly deteriorates mid-season. By the third season, although there are still some laughs and good episodes, the characters have become caricatures with increasingly annoying or silly quirks, swaying back and forth under inconsistent writing, there is way too much singing and musical numbers, creativity loses steam, plot-lines involving love become repetitive, court cases become intolerably ridiculous and are always based on emotion, and worst of all: John Cage becomes just another whiny, neurotic weak shadow of himself. Season four sees the introduction of the always dependable Robert Downey Jr. who fills in the much needed gap of a real, three-dimensional character, as well as a parade of other odd newcomers, some boring, some silly, some entertaining, but the rest of the cast still suffer as caricatures. The show made the big mistake of shifting all of its characters into syrup and quirk, assuming this is what made the show successful, thus losing its critical balance. Season five is all over the place, like the management went on vacation. One episode can be ridiculously silly, and the next will rein in the quirk and go back to the show's roots. Characters disappear or aren't given anything to do, and the writing is weak, even bringing in an Ally clone just so they can rehash the same old stories again, as well as a surprise annoying daughter and a ridiculously Mr. Sensitive Bon Jovi.



Andy Richter Controls the Universe  
Based on both seasons.

A short-lived hilarious show with an energetic and wacky feel about an imaginative writer who makes a living writing technical manuals. He speaks to the audience with self-deprecating or witty remarks, has fantasy interludes in his mind, speaks to a chauvinistic, racist ghost, has a crush on the beautiful receptionist who is going out with the sickeningly handsome but likeable executive (who gets everything handed to him because he's attractive), and spars with his sexy but sharp-tongued female boss. Sometimes brings to mind a blend of Drew Carey and Ally McBeal. Good fun.



Muppet Show, The  
Based on the first season and many scattered episodes.

A classic show that offers something both for adults and children. Kermit runs a variety show with scores of other muppets, each one a different, funny character. The dynamics between the muppets are so well known it seems pretty useless to describe them. Ms. Piggy is a drama queen and is in love with Kermit whom she beats up regularly, Animal is a wild, insane drummer, Waldorf and Statler are old hecklers that constantly hound the performers with cruel, sharp wit, Fozzie is a not-so-successful comedian bear etc. Comedy sketches are mixed with backstage humor and (too many) musical numbers, the silliness and insanity of the show sometimes reaching Pythonesque proportions. There is humor for children as well as sneaky jokes for adults. Great fun.



Jeffersons, The  
Based on the first three seasons.

A solid and funny, classic spin-off based on some characters from All In The Family that is actually a big improvement over that show. The Jeffersons are members of a black family on the way up thanks to a booming business. They have moved in to a white apartment complex and out of the Harlem ghetto. George Jefferson is the father, an unapologetic, loudmouthed, opinionated bigot who is proud of his achievements to the point of arrogance. Louise tries to stay loyal to her simple roots and morals while tolerating her husband, but gradually shows signs of mentally becoming a rich woman. They're trying to parent their son using their newfound lifestyle, George's mother is the ultimate passive-aggressive grandmother who resents Louise for everything, the neighbours are a married interracial couple that George constantly attacks and insults, an English neighbour provides culture clash and dry humor, and their sassy maid keeps making the Jeffersons do all her work. Provides hard-edged characters all acted with a great sense of timing, color and comedy, interesting dialogue and plots that don't shy away from racial issues, and writing with a sharp wit that gradually softens over time. George is a great character that avoids the typical subservient, stupid husband cliches and is sometimes reminiscent of Basil from Fawlty Towers. The first season is sharp, hilariously edgy and issue-heavy, the second season is still very funny but relatively weaker, the third loses more of its sharp edge and the humor starts feeling repetitive, mild and less fresh, and, like all long-running sitcoms, the characters slowly deteriorate into more broadly drawn versions of themselves.



Men of a Certain Age  
Based on both seasons.

Dramedy about three ordinary men in their late 40s and their circle of wives, ex-wives, girlfriends, friends and co-workers. Ray Romano and some of the team behind Everybody Loves Raymond roll up their sleeves and deliver more of their true-to-life observations and comedy, only in a much more realistic, mature and three-dimensional package. Joe is still getting over a divorce, has a gambling addiction, various issues with his children, and a quirky relationship with his bookie. Terry is a womanizing actor who drifts between jobs, and Owen (a superb Braugher once again) has a great marriage but a horrible job working as a car salesman for his overbearing father. The characters, writing and acting are all superbly rich and very real, there is light natural comedy, and the first season peaks in the middle but remains very watchable throughout. Although there is character development and ongoing drama, it could use a bit more story arc instead of neatly wrapping up most issues per episode, and it could add some harder edges, but then it may lose its firm base in reality. In any case, this is finally a show about men that gets it right and doesn't resort to cartoonishly idiotic men to make comedy. I'm going to classify this one together with shows like Northern Exposure and As Time Goes By in the sense that it is relatively light, and may not feel like a great show at first, but it creeps up on you with warm, fleshy, addictive characters and writing. Perhaps its only flaw is that it is too real and familiar, thus not providing any escapism, but this will only be a flaw for some. Recommended.

The second good season doesn't drop the ball. The writing remains top-notch and the writers are obviously carefully resisting adding new outlandish or soapy elements that will undo the superb realism and down-to-earth lovable characters. This is a very good thing, and the show shines because of it. They also allow more of the plot elements to extend over the whole season, and introduce enough new developments to keep it interesting. The focus, once again, is on the men and what men do. It doesn't resort to making relationship soap, but devotes, correctly, a lot of screen time to the men's jobs, the difficulties therein, and how it affects them personally on so many levels. Kudos. Of course, because this didn't have a million ridiculous twists with sex and violence to grab today's audiences, the show was cancelled after only two seasons.



Around the World in 80 Days  

Four and a half hour mini-series of this classic Jules Verne story, and definitely the better version when compared to Niven's and Jackie Chan's versions, but not without its flaws. Phileas Fogg is a pedantic, punctual and stiff English gentleman who takes on a wager that he can travel the globe in 80 days. He hires Passepartout, a French butler with previous employment in a circus, one day before he leaves. There is suspicion that Fogg may have robbed a bank before leaving, using the trip as a ruse, and, of course, everything goes wrong throughout the journey, forcing them to improvise and spend a lot of money to find alternate transportation, while surviving the Alps, Indian kidnappers, a Chinese emperor, a Jesse James shootout, and so on. A princess saved from death in India provides the romantic interest. Pierce Brosnan as Fogg is quite good, but a bit distracting, Eric Idle as Passepartout sports a silly Pythonesque accent and seems miscast but at least makes the role entertaining, Ustinov as the detective is also a bit too silly and bumbling, but the romantic angle is boosted and handled very well as Fogg has to handle intruding emotions. Another flaw is that the writers added extra adventures and meetings with historical celebrities, some of which are entertaining but many of which detract from the realism (a gun showdown with Jesse James? c'mon!). They also made Passepartout too much of a womanizer. The first episode is slow and very flawed, but the third episode is exciting even if you know the ending. In short, most certainly not the definitive version, but quite good nevertheless despite its flaws.



Jane Eyre (1983)  

I watched this one after the 2006 version, and this was a breath of fresh air. All of the flaws of that adaptation were corrected by this one, replacing it with only minor flaws of its own. The story flows in this one without obvious gaps and strange behaviour. The childhood drama isn't cartoonish and is balanced by humanity and personality. And even the dialogue is much more rich, eloquent and elegant than the 2006 adaptation. Timothy Dalton is Rochester, in a performance that brought some mixed reviews. His stage presence and acting talents are beyond reproach, and he only falters a bit with his gentler side, chemistry and emotional attachment to Jane. His good looks are also at odds with the book that describes an ugly man. Zelah Clarke as Jane is passable to good, but the chemistry problem affects her as well. The production is above-average for an 80s BBC production. In short, a very good adaptation and this is the preferable one to get if you love the book, but it is not without its minor flaws.



Black Books  
Based on all three seasons.

Wacky British comedy with impeccable comic timing and acting. The writing isn't too shabby either, with cleverness, a near-surreal inventiveness, and a good sense of humor. Some have called it the British Seinfeld, in that it features three miserable, selfish people attached to each other making comedy over anything and everything. But this has its own brand of humor, and three unusual actors and actresses with a talent for hilarious delivery, timing and facial expressions that make even the silliest things funny. Black is the permanently drunk Irish owner of a bookshop who finds new ways to abuse customers every day. Manny is his very odd and dumb new assistant with a natural talent at many things, including running the store and selling to customers, which upsets Black to no end. And Fran is the platonic female friend, drinking buddy and neighbour. The comedy involves endlessly surprising things like the absorbing of a 'Little Calm' book, drinking a 7000 pound wine bottle by mistake, being mistaken for a policeman, a high-school ex-acquaintance with a voice that induces orgasms, creatures that live in the store, a mysterious medical condition that erupts when the temperature reaches 88, and so on. The little things like the abuse of customers or Black's hygiene-challenged lifestyle tend to be the funniest though. The first two seasons are great, the third season is weak and skippable.



Freaks and Geeks  
Based on the single season.

Normally, teen dramas are silly, petty and soapy affairs consisting of hunks, prom queens, bubblegum bitches and stereotypes in some kind of implausible melodrama, but this show is the cure for this image. Not a single minute is wasted on jocks or rich-kid melodrama; this is about real people in high-school. You know the scene in Revenge of the Nerds where he calls down everyone that has been left out or picked on, and it turns out to be the vast majority of human beings? Well this is the show for that majority. The show is filled with non-stereotyped, instantly recognizable, sympathetic, lovable and fully fleshed out characters of smart but socially awkward geeks, clueless parents, pothead losers or freaks, hippies, kids from broken families, straight-A prudes, punks, and the rest, none of them ever reduced to flat stereotypes. Lindsay is the pretty glue that ties all these social circles together, her intelligence and ability to think straight making her feel uneasy or unwelcome in several circles, so she experiments with a few of them in an identity crisis. The show gets more points by not over-emphasizing obsessive behaviour over the opposite sex, there is light and natural comedy that becomes funnier fast as you start to like the characters, the writing never strikes a false note and is always sensitive to the little things that makes a teenager's life tricky, it doesn't preach but lets its morality emerge from their behaviour, and the characters are all very well cast and acted. This show has the ability to take you back to your teenage state of mind, and, as is evident by other reviews, is very easy to adore. Justifiably praised and a recommended must-see-once, and this is from someone who doesn't give teenage shows a second glance.



Happy Valley  
Based on the first two seasons.

Surprisingly good and taut British thriller. Although it feature a cop and crime, it is not the usual detective series, but a continuous story of crime that develops into something quite intense and realistic. There's a Fargo-esque plot in the first season, except that this explores it for its dramatic and thrilling aspects in a down-to-earth and superbly realistic fashion, rather than for comedy and quirk. It also respects its characters and gives everyone grey areas and complexity, rather than making fun of them like Fargo did. In addition, it is character-driven, and it extends the story beyond where usual thrillers end in order to explore the aftermath and take each character to its limits. The result is a very good, compelling and gripping story about an amateur-kidnapping in a small town, good people gone bad, a strong and determined female cop, and what happens when you throw one evil character into the mix that constantly ups the ante. And, although this show was made by women, surprisingly, it does not resort to male-bashing. Its only very minor flaw is that it piles on a bit too many supporting characters with problems for melodramatic effect. The second season is still quite good, but not as compelling as the first, suffering somewhat from trying to extend the story from the first season into unnatural territory rather than just starting a new story, and it takes a while to get going, ending with a strong finale.



Engrenages (Spiral)  
Based on the first five seasons.

French/BBC crime series sometimes compared to The Wire but it doesn't have that show's big themes and gritty, educational realism. This one steers itself more towards constant thrills, tension, action and some sensationalism with ongoing complex plot-lines, and a much more obvious influence is The Shield. The concept of the show is a view of crime and crime-fighting from multiple angles, including the policemen, politicians, judges and lawyers. But this is hardly original and has been done by The Wire, The Shield, Law and Order, and others. And that's one of the weaknesses of this show: A general lack of inspiration. But the writing is still quite good, and the actors and characters grow gradually into very complex and flawed personalities, with complications from their personal lives adding tension to their dedicated work. It is this that makes the show above-average and very watchable (and even addictive during some seasons). Although the writing is generally better than 24 and not as sensationalist, it doesn't deliver the solid and disciplined brilliance of The Shield, and therefore rates somewhere in between, and the quality varies with each season. Characters include the passionate and hard-working Laure whose very messy personal love-life constantly gets in the way, and the weak-willed Gilou who keeps getting himself in legal trouble, forming an alliance with Laure to cover up each other's mistakes. There is also the amoral lawyer Joséphine with a killer instinct for her profession with an interest only in money and an upright and naive prosecutor. And there's Judge Roban, a fascinating character who has the unique power of both a judge and a detective, allowing him to uncover anything he needs in his investigations, coupled with a headstrong, persistent and almost cold sense of justice and morality, somehow developing minor infractions into large corruption cases. Criminals vary from drug-dealers to terrorists to serial killers, and the show often revels in gratuitous graphic imagery especially concerning dead bodies and autopsies.

The first skippable season is like a different show and is very weak, dealing with a dead prostitute, corruption and an undisciplined group of police-men, but is never compelling in any way. The BBC joins the production in series two and suddenly the show becomes very watchable, interesting and addictive, dealing with a vicious gang of drug-dealers and the difficult police-work infiltrating this gang. The third season is also very good, featuring a combination of serial killer and abusive pimp controlling a desperate gang of forced prostitutes. The fourth season drops the ball, dealing with a completely implausible 24-esque collaboration between various terrorist groups, ranging from student anti-capitalist revolutionaries to common criminals as well as Arab terrorists. The badly defined criminal element and their motivations, as well as the over-the-top twists and turns in the policemen's personal lives make for a poor season. The fifth is slightly better but the writers still try too hard to constantly add twists and tie too many criminal elements together until it all falls apart as in a bad season of 24. Developing around a single murder, we get a custody battle, a secret porn business, a gang of teenage ATM raiders, a professional circle of international thieves, political and terrorist ties, another gang of vicious street-girls, incest, schizophrenia, random rape, accidental murder, drug-dealers, and so on and on, until you just give up due to a lack of focus and plausibility. The characters still keep you watching however, hoping for a better season.



Married With Children  
Based on the first seven seasons.

A cartoonishly cynical and entertainingly cruel sitcom that stands head and shoulders above many others simply because, at least for the first few years, behind the silly comedic facade lies a scathing sense of humor, a refreshingly cynical and anti-Cosby view at families, and surprisingly entertaining and creative writing. The show is a curious mix of silly, broad strokes backed by sharp insults and very funny writing, and the actors are all fun. In other words, this is a guilty pleasure, and you may just find yourself laughing endlessly at this anti-sitcom despite the trashy and over-the-top treatment. The Bundy family is a stereotypical family with a big resigned lug of a father who sells shoes and wishes for the day when his wife will stop asking him for sex and cook him some food. His wife Peg prides herself on doing nothing all day, Kelly is the dumb blonde teenage slut of a daughter and Bud is the smarter, teenage, horny, loser son who constantly tries to get laid. Their neighbours consist of a horny feminist and her whipped husband. These colorful characters insult and make fun of each other every other minute in unbelievably cruel ways, and the hilarity (for the first few years) derives from this cynicism and verbal sadism, the drudgeries of married life made funny through exaggeration and silliness. It also helps that it doesn't resort to the cliche of dumb husband and bossy wife, making them all lovably dumb instead. This show is just simple good fun for people who revel in taking jabs at marriage, happy families and ideal kids, promises of a good life, political correctness, and so on, with the lovable Bundys managing to be both nasty and loyal to each other, taking all of the jabs as good sports.

The first season starts shakily, building up the characters and patterns for the show with some weaker moments, but overall it's a wickedly fun start. Seasons 2 and 3 are by far the best, the characters still having some semblance to reality and the humor even showing some wit. Season four is still pretty funny but the strokes get broader and the show now enjoys too much over-the-top cartoonish behaviour. The fifth season doesn't just step over the border, it leaps, what with aliens, nuclear bombs, godfathers, gold mines, talking dogs and whatnot. A main character is replaced by a dull one and subsequent seasons continue this trend of cartoonish episodes. Some are entertaining in a goofy way but the comedy has now lost its sharper edge. Season seven sees a new annoying kid character come and go but has a handful of funny episodes. In other words, during and after season four it just becomes too silly, and the audience is now just hooked on Applegate's physical assets and slutty behaviour, making constant wolf calls like trailer-trash.



Scrubs  
Based on the first three and a half seasons.

A very polished silly comedy that takes the youthful interaction of Friends, places fun, colorful characters in a hospital, mixes in slapstick as well as daydreaming fantasies a la Ally Mcbeal, and wraps it up in a fast-moving 25 minute show. Young, neurotic and inexperienced interns learn how to become doctors, surgeons and nurses, dealing with hospital dramas, each other's problems and romances, and some aggressive characters: John McGinley is the hilarious Dr Cox, who single-handedly raises the show a few points with his vicious sarcastic humor, over-the-top rants, and caustic communicative skills. The upper management features a deliciously evil Dr Kelso and an ice queen, and the Janitor is a stalker who enjoys teasing and getting under people's skin with new tricks up his sleeve every week. The drama, witty humor and silly slapstick strike a delicate balance, but the show often plays it too safe and delights in closing each episode with a neat little life lesson. Slightly above average and very colorful entertaining comedy, but nothing ground-breaking.

The first three seasons and episodes are all very similar in tone and quality but the second season is probably the best and the third already starts to lose the freshness and hard-edges. By season four, the show loses its balance and tries too hard to be cute, silly and quirky with spurious results. It also doesn't help that it started sharing writers with the unfunny Family Guy, king of pointless non-sequitur tiresome daydreams.



Sex and the City  
Based on all six seasons.

A guilty pleasure, but only partially. Four thirty-year-old New York women prance around buying shoes, wearing thousands of outfits, dealing with a materialistic city life, having lots of sex and superficial relationships. Samantha is the honest, practical-minded slut and PR woman, Miranda is the cynical lawyer who tries to stay away from any emotions, Charlotte is the hopelessly romantic Waspy spoiled princess, and superficial Carrie is supposedly the more grounded thread who ties these three opposites together and who thinks she's deep by searching for meaningful relationships and writing her newspaper column on sex and the city. The attitude of the show is a mixture of bubble-brained superficiality and witty comedy, with a blend of female and gay writers who write from a woman's as well as a gay point of view with exaggerated or outrageous sexual antics and comedy and occasional gay behaviour from the women. Obviously, this show has been hailed by some as empowering for women and has been a role model for many a budding teenage slut or glamor-girl. Personally, there are two reasons I find this enjoyable besides the occasional hilarity: One is that even exaggerations can be educational and get you thinking about modern women and their problems. But more importantly, it's sadistic fun to see these women go through their wild and hilarious trials and tribulations as they step on one relationship and sexual mine after another.

These reasons only get you going through the funny first two seasons however. These first two still focus mostly on ideas, fast-moving stories and relationship issues and are more episodic. After that, the characters' superficial dramas get increasingly more focus and the show starts caring about these characters too much, even though we don't. Seasons tend to start with some good comedy but then Carrie's latest selfish, empty, relationship drama starts taking over the show. There is only so much you can watch and care about superficial women in search of relationships. Even the outfits become uglier as they dress up Carrie in the latest brand-names that make her look like a cheap prostitute. In other words, season three onwards is occasionally fun but also annoying and empty.



Aftershock: Earthquake in New York  

A pretty good disaster 3-hour mini-series for fans of 70s disaster movies with an emphasis on human drama, a mediocre and weak movie for the rest of you. Being a fan of these movies myself, I enjoyed the systematic and predictable but solid setup and aftermath, with the rich variety of human survival stories being the strong point. Amongst the many stories are: Political rivals that have to work together to save the city, a ballerina and Russian taxi driver that somehow come together in the chaos, a slightly cheesy family drama with a mom trying to save her disabled son, the deterioration of morals in a subway with a group of strangers and one criminal, etc.



Are You Being Served  
Based on the first five seasons.

A guilty pleasure. It's silly, features juvenile smutty double-entendre humor and cartoonish immature behaviour but what with the crisp writing, impeccable comedic timing and an ensemble of eight actors, every single one fleshy and extremely likeable, it's hard to stop laughing with this one. The ladies' and gentlemen's clothing departments share the same floor and the sales staff find themselves having to deal with military-like rules, ridiculous social and managerial hierarchies, silly sales campaigns and each other. Characters include a horny, young inept salesman, a screamingly gay colleague, a pompous ex-army overseer, an overly worried and absent minded manager, and a sexy imp at the lingerie counter. Fun, but this limited style of broad comedy is only entertaining for the first two fresher seasons. After that, the humor deteriorates and becomes increasingly childish, silly and repetitive and the show resorts to numerous musical numbers or weak plots.



Spartacus    
Based on all three seasons and the prequel season.

Definitely a guilty pleasure, for this is undoubtedly a celebration of pulp, trash, excess, gore, and sex and not much more. Forget about authentic history or comparisons to Rome, as this is better classified with the likes of Nip/Tuck, Oz, True Blood, Desperate Housewives and so on. This series tells the story of Spartacus, the slave-cum-gladiator that started a rebellion against Rome, a story riddled with historical confusion and unknowns, but, as mentioned, this show is merely about excess, the sword & sandal genre paired with splatter and soap opera. The visual style is like the movie '300': Cartoonish, full of CGI effects, some of which are quite poor actually, with each kill or wound resulting in buckets of fake blood, and some featuring shocking gruesome gore. And yet, most of the gladiators bear no scars and usually heal like supermen. But it remains watchable and entertaining, as long as you embrace the excess for what it is. The writers maintain a fast pace, each episode developing with dizzying multiple twists, some crossing the border of plausibility, but their uncompromising brutality and energy propel the narrative without leaving the audience dangling on stupidities. Thus, the storytelling is the best aspect of the show, coupled with actors that have a pretty good presence beyond their beef, brawn and boobs. We constantly hear of the decadence and depravity of Rome, but this show will make you wonder how our society compares, with constant graphic nudity and sex scenes that seem to want to outdo each other in their depraved twists. Other flaws include the occasionally howlingly cheesy dialogue in the first season, and the mysterious lack of large numbers or bow & arrow on the Roman side, forcing the fights to be always hand-to-hand for obvious commercial reasons. But this is not a show with flaws; The flaws ARE the show. Only watch it if you can embrace excessive pulp & trashy entertainment, otherwise stay away. Produced by Sam Raimi, which explains the gore and entertainment value.

The first season is bad for the first two or three episodes, then finds its footing with its storytelling and never looks back. Andy Whitfield as Spartacus is good, but his real-life battle with cancer (and unexpected death) caused understandable havoc with subsequent seasons. The prequel season 'Gods of the Arena' is weaker and feels more like the time filler it is, but it is still quite watchable. The second season replaces Whitfield with an actor who is acceptable but has less depth and charisma, and the writing seems to constantly attempt to outdo itself in excess, and the characters (including the men) are unbelievably catty, conniving, malicious and selfish, causing more groaning and unintended laughter, but the show is still addictively entertaining. Like a soap opera or campy horror show such as Tales of the Crypt, you wait for the wicked characters to meet their nasty fates, even if good people, and your intelligence, have to die on the way.

The third season deals with the full blown war and historical end of Spartacus, and pushed my patience past its limits. Although the special effects and action scenes are now quite good, there are several annoying flaws that break the season: The biggest hurdle for me is the dialogue, which was previously terrible in its cheesiness, but which now is written with pretensions of poetic classicism despite its limitations. The intelligence of the dialogue is low, and the vocabulary obviously limited to a few stock tricks and flowery words mixed with juvenile cursing and filth, and they inconsistently drop pronouns and articles like 'the', 'a', 'my', 'you', and 'your', all resulting in awkward dialogue that sounds more like an x-rated Tarzan with an increased vocabulary than Shakespeare. Few dropped pronouns in butchered sentences do not impress fucking ears. Another problem is the overuse of slow-motion fight scenes, with the action speeding up and slowing down so often, that it is not only repetitive but also breaks the momentum. Even the Romans didn't get to see over-the-top splatter in full zoom and slow motion. Some episodes seem to move from sex scene to gory fight scene and back to nudity and depraved sex in a loop, and it now also includes graphic homosexuality. ...which may have been a common part of Roman society, but do the producers really think they will please everyone by including sex scenes of every type? Of course, the women suddenly become super-fighters in no time at all, besting seasoned male soldiers four times their size and fighting wars in perfect makeup, making this feel like a silly Xena fanboy throwback at times. For the first part of the season, the rebels turn into simple bloodthirsty oversexed animals that behave worse than the Romans. A young Caesar makes an appearance only to be turned into a masochist, and then sodomized by the writers in a ridiculous rape scene. And so on, until the last few episodes that manage to end on a pretty good, epic, rousing but depressing finale, since we already know how it must end. At least the writers didn't change history for a Hollywood ending, but this last season is too flawed to be saved by its finale and by a glamorized, unrealistic, but epic battle.



24  
Based on the first six seasons and parts of the last two seasons.

An immensely popular but overrated show that serves addictive hi-tech action-thriller espionage but in a severely flawed package. The gimmick is that the show is shown in real-time, with every episode covering one hour of a very long day during a national security crisis. But the amount of things that happen every hour constantly crosses the boundary of credibility, plots are often full of holes, and overly complex conspiracies and solutions are used when simple ones would have worked better with fewer chances of failures. The plots usually involve hi-tech terrorists, espionage, double and triple agents, assassination plots, bombs, super-weapons, kidnapping, etc. and Jack Bauer is always in the thick of things, sometimes backed by co-workers at the Counter Terrorist Unit, but often having to fight them as well. The writers seem pressured to cram as many action scenes as possible in this tight format, with well-placed cliff-hangers, constantly raising the tension by inventing new surprises and plot-twists. Obviously, it reaches many points where everything falls apart into utter ridiculousness and yet the show remains very addictively entertaining using constant momentum. Other flaws include some casting choices of young or weak people that seem better suited to work in fast-food joints than intelligence units, Kim Bauer, the laughable security of the CTU where, among other things, passwords are shared, nonsensical computer jargon, the feeling that the security of the nation depends only on 3 irreplaceable people, and characters that behave irrationally and inconsistently just so the writers can make things more sensational.

The first season starts off as a great terrorist tech-thriller but falls apart at the 13th hour where it seems the writers had to expand the original plot-line by 12 more hours so they wrote ridiculous plot devices like amnesia into the story. It's best to watch this season until then and stop. The second features a more coherent main terrorist plot-line with a nuclear bomb and pretty good thrilling action, but is constantly undermined by the mind-bogglingly dumb parallel plot of Bauer's daughter and her adventures with multiple kidnappers and a mountain lion! This, together with a very annoyingly bitchy first-lady and many overly complex double-crosses where weak people turn out to be dangerous, clever terrorists, sink the second season. The third season sees the idiotic character of Kim Bauer made into a CTU agent for an illogical reason but at least she isn't given much to do. The first half provides more messy, unfocused and entertainment-oriented writing, but the second superb half drops all the silly twists and runs single-mindedly and brilliantly to the finish line, including some extremely intense and dark episodes that deal with a virus outbreak.

From the best season to the worst: The fourth is absolutely terrible with stupid drama, horribly unfocused and sloppy writing, and ridiculous multiple crises in almost every episode from nuclear meltdowns, to kidnapping, to missiles, to an EMP bomb, to an attack on the president, and much more, all on the same day. The fifth season is slightly better and even kills off many lead characters, but is still brought down by sloppy writing. Individual episodes in the first half are thrilling, but when taken as a whole, the endless twists and crises makes the show tiresome, contradictory, sloppy, too unrealistic and even stupid. During season six I realized that the writers have left reality behind long ago and are now just writing '24', the TV show. Most of the plot twists are by now insultingly implausible or formulaic, the split-second timing and coincidences are repetitive, the tech-jargon wouldn't convince a child, the show spends hours over arguments whether CTU employees are fit to resume duties over trivialities, there's a cartoonishly hawkish vice-president, another annoying presidential family member, etc. I've had enough of getting hooked on yet another season only to be constantly let down. The writing manages to deliver several stupid and insulting howlers within the first episode of season seven, and manages to copy-paste everything that happened at the CTU into the FBI and into yet another president's family, just so that they can rehash material. Yet again we get small terrorist groups somehow having double-agents everywhere and anywhere and performing one complex attack every other hour, while they uncover a conspiracy that becomes impossibly convoluted after a few episodes, and then the writers ridiculously pile more and more onto that. Basically, this show has only been really good for two half-seasons, and the rest of the time it was just addictive badly-written garbage whose only goal was to draw in an audience.



Class, The  
Based on the single season.

Obviously David Crane's attempt at reproducing the success of Friends. The ironic thing is, this show was better than Friends except it got cancelled after only one season. Go figure. It's not a masterpiece, but as far as sitcoms go, this is very funny and it finds its footing after only a handful of episodes. Not only that, but it features a continuous storyline, technically making this not-quite a sitcom, even though it looks, sounds and laughs like one. Eight ex-friends from third grade now in their late 20s, and their assorted spouses and friends, are brought together by a guy trying to throw a reunion party for his girlfriend. The various characters include Kat, a cynic who gets most of the best lines, her twin sister who is her opposite in character, a reporter who keeps making trouble for herself with her ambitions, and her husband who is possibly the gayest character who still thinks he is not gay. There's a love triangle, a suicidal guy who falls for a girl that he accidentally runs over with his car, and lots of other events and twists that Crane makes hilarious with his rich assortment of characters, all with great timing and charm. It takes a few episodes to iron out the weaker aspects of the show and some weaker characters get pushed to the sidelines, and the character development even finds time for some touching drama, and then it gets cancelled. Not as silly and childish as Friends, therefore I found myself enjoying this one more.



Two and a Half Men  
Based on the first five and a half seasons.

In an age when sitcoms were almost out of style, this unabashed sitcom somehow managed to be surprisingly funny for a while. It feels like a throwback to the 80s, the various elements of its setup have all been done before, it reeks of sitcom, and yet, at least in the very beginning, it was damn fun. This is thanks to both the sharp writing as well as the fun characters and their superb chemistry. Charlie Harper (Charlie Sheen) lives the life of a playboy, working by writing jingles, when his uptight brother gets divorced and moves in with him, bringing with him a ten year old boy. Think The Odd Couple, mixed with a little 'Three Men and a Little Lady', and a sprinkling of Dream On with its parade of hot, neurotic girls and flings. The relationship between ex-wife and whipped brother sometimes veers dangerously close to the painful stupid-man sitcom cliche, but he does fight back at times and Charlie is always there to balance this out. The characters and actors are all fun, even if we've seen most of them before, including Berta the headstrong, no-nonsense white trash maid with her hilarious commentary, the overbearing & deliciously evil mother/grandmother, and a stalker ex-girlfriend who has developed a funny, resigned relationship with the Harpers out of sheer habit and persistence. A lot of the comedy revolves around Charlie's lifestyle affecting the not-so-innocent young boy as well as his brother who is fresh out of a bad sexless marriage, but the dynamics and constantly new relationships keep the writers busy.

The first season takes a little while to warm up but it's a good one. The second season is quite good with only a few filler episodes. The third starts off superbly funny for the first half with some classic episodes, but then drops the ball completely in the second half with two silly and weak story arcs that take up most of the last 12 episodes: A too-silly character in the form of a 22-year old sexpot girl with a single-digit IQ and a perfect body, and Charlie grappling with being whipped by a girl who doesn't give him any sex. The fourth season recovers somewhat with quite a few good episodes, Berta is at her funniest and there's the classic episodes with Lydia, Charlie's new girl that is a copy of his mother, but the episodes vary in quality with several fillers, and the season is relatively weaker. The fifth jumps the shark with repetitive, uninspired writing and messy characterization changes, and the kid becomes an annoying teenager rather than an impressionable kid. The sixth doesn't recover and is only mildly amusing at times.



Big Bang Theory, The  
Based on the first three seasons.

Chuck Lorre seems to be one of the last champions of old-school sitcoms. After the success of Two and a Half Men, he makes this even more popular throwback, this time about nerds. Four intelligent but socially awkward nerd friends and their airhead-cheerleader-type blonde neighbour make comedy in a sitcom featuring yet another group of silly 30-somethings doing immature things. The writing, especially in the first season, is a bit more than that however, offering wit, and lots of 'nerd humor' involving science, sci-fi, superheroes, movie-references, online gaming, and intense discussions about the logic of superman's abilities, Klingon boggle, and puzzling social conventions. Leonard pines for the neighbour-girl, Howard is the horny Jewish boy with his confidence exceeding his social skills by miles, Raj is the foreign foil who can't speak to girls, and Sheldon, the primary character that rapidly stole the show, is the arrogant, neurotic, literal-minded, socially-challenged scientist with symptoms very similar to Asperger. The first season is funny and the wit and nerd humor makes it slightly above-average. But, subsequent seasons turn most of the focus on Sheldon, and make him more arrogant, more OCD, more garrulous, and everyone becomes scared of him for some reason, causing him to cross the border into annoying at times. It also doesn't help at all that his characterization becomes increasingly & flamingly gay even though he is supposed to be asexual. The rest of the characters also become less realistic and more silly, as movies often tend to do when dealing with a caricature of 'funny nerds'. In short, a pretty good first season, but rapidly turns into yet another very average sitcom with silly characters and only the occasional really good episode. Amusing fun, good at first, then overrated.




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