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Well, we’re rapidly approaching the biggest and busiest week in television, certainly for media types, across the board. Before I get back to the multi-week lists and delve into the ten best comedies of the last 25 years on the small screen, I thought I’d take a week to focus on the big four networks and provide something a little different. We spend a ton of time talking about the basic cable channels, expanded cable channels, and the premium networks and their offerings, and for good reason: the stuff is incredible. But, there’s still plenty of great drama and action to be found on the big four. Your parents will love this article. Hopefully you will too.
We’ll mention some others, but the focus today is on the three best dramas currently running on network television. One of the three could stand up with anything on cable, another one is pretty close in that arena, and the third, entering its second season, needs extra growth but is on the right track. When we’re done, I hope you’ll tweet me @GuyNamedJason and tell me what your own top three on the big four is, agree with me, or simply call me tragically misguided (hashtag)BecauseInternet.
We’d wouldn’t have FX without FOX, but HBO, Showtime, AMC, Cinemax, USA, TNT, or anything else wouldn’t exist without the peacock, the eye, the flag, or the carnivorous animal paving the way. I tried right there, I really did. Many of my OKTC top ten list borrowed from the success or baseline concepts of their network predecessors, not to mention Lost, Friday Night Lights, and The West Wing being big four born and bred shows.
Sometimes as fans of the medium we overlook the networks because we expect certain things from their programming. We expect “case of the week” procedurals ripe for syndication. If you’re thinking CSI, expand that thinking. It doesn’t always have to be an investigative unit or a police-centric show. It also can take place at a hospital, for example House M.D. It certainly can take place at a law firm. It could also be tracking the paranormal, like Supernatural (CW Network but close enough). It can also be the quirky, sharp, eccentric lead with an odd skill that helps solve mysteries or crimes, think The Mentalist or Unforgettable. But yes, ratings-wise the NCIS’ of the world continue to dominate household Nielsen numbers along with reality programs. It’s a formula that works and cable entities like TNT or USA are ready and willing to grab up the top of the heap.
We also sometimes are made to think the acting talent isn’t of the same cloth, the writing talent not of the same level, and, if you can believe this, we kind of feel like watching network drama is passe in 2014 and there’s a non-hip factor to it. HBO means quality. NBC means garbage. That’s actually the way some people think about it. While it’s true the vast majority of the best stuff for your viewing eye is indeed on premium or cable, the networks have some shows not just worth your time, but more worth your time than those found on the this generation’s “it” channels. So with that in mind, here’s the Golden Three of 2014.
1. THE GOOD WIFE
Here’s the best show on network television, bar none. CBS picked up the Robert and Michelle King drama six years ago and, while the show has continually been on the low to moderate side of the ratings, it grew in year five and is coming off another Emmy win for Julianna Margulies. When you first see the trailer, you think it might well be a “chick show” and if you were to read the premise, it might not change that unfortunate opinion. The basic plot is a former litigator, 13 years away from the law, who left to raise her family, returning to that job in the wake of a scandal involving her husband. Peter Florrick (Chris Noth), former Cook County, Illinois, State’s Attorney, committed adultery with a prostitute and engaged in alleged political malfeasance and was subsequently caught and jailed. The pilot episode opens with Peter admitting his transgressions while his wife, Alicia, stands next to him at the podium. If the scandal sounds somewhat familiar, it’s by design. It’s not a recreation of any one actual American political scandal, though it did find inspiration in the Spitzer and Edwards situations.
Alicia Florrick, played by Margulies, is the protagonist of the show and is indeed the title character. Aided by an old friend from law school, now a named partner in Illinois, Will Gardner (Josh Charles), she returns to the legal profession as a junior litigator at Stern, Lockhart, and Gardner. We find out quickly she’s great at what she does, is opinionated but willing to do anything she’s asked, and her passion for the job is only trumped by her love for her children.
Through the course of five seasons, with the sixth set to premiere on CBS next week, Florrick navigates the world of being a member of a prestigious law firm. She deals with the cutthroat politics of that universe, the political bureaucracies that come along with high profile trials, and of course the complicated relationship with her husband, through potential reconciliation to separation to thoughts of divorce and fear of moving on in her personal life.
Yes, The Good Wife takes place at a law firm and yes, we have a new case to watch each week. Full disclosure, I enjoy procedurals when they’re executed with precision. Here, we don’t have a procedural. We do get “case of the week” but the show itself is really built on season long story arcs involving the lives and jobs of the lawyers and the politicians. For example, while we see 22-24 cases each year, we see Peter Florrick run for State’s Attorney again throughout Season 2. In Season 3, we see Will Gardner go through legal issues of his own, resulting in a six-month suspension from the Bar Association and the hardships that result for the firm.
While I don’t necessarily agree with the non-frequent but occasional comparison of The Good Wife to The Wire, I will freely agree that the ideas of bureaucracy, corruption, and the reality that politics and “going along to get along” are often the tenets of this show just as they were for David Simon’s HBO classic. Also, as you watch The Good Wife, you’ll notice dozens of former cast members of The Wire in episodic roles, for example Isiah Whitlock Jr. as a mediator in Season 2.
This is a show that’s consistently compelling and although at times the case resolutions seem to be a little too perfect, it’s about as addictive as television can get. It’s absolutely not a “chick show” but it is a chick show. Women love it. So do men. It isn’t about the cases but it’s about the cases. It isn’t about the Florrick kids but they play an important part in the story. It’s been called the most tech-savvy show on television, with an episode on Bitcoin being one of my favorites. It’s increasingly concerned with the politics, both literal and figurative, and about Alicia’s movement to the top and the problems she runs into along the way. You do have the “ripped from the headlines” effect, but it’s handled quite well.
The show is also about the rest of the cast and let me tell you, they are superb. Christine Baranski, who has been one of my favorites since the days of Cybill on CBS, plays Diane Lockhart as an idealistic, driven, talented, stern, astute woman. Josh Charles makes Will Gardner both cool and brilliant, leaving the audience eager to see Alicia and Will in a relationship and just as interested to see Will in his work environment. Charles has been a favorite since Knox Overstreet in Dead Poets Society, and of course, Dan Rydell in Sports Night. Those two alone, along with Marguilies and Noth, would have been enough for a great lineup, but Bob and Michelle weren’t done.
Archie Panjabi won an Emmy in 2010 for her portrayal of Kalinda Sharma, the lead in-house investigator of Stern, Lockhart, and Gardner. She’s not just good. She’s great. If there was a show based purely on Kalinda, it could work. Matt Czuchry plays young fresh-out-of-Harvard attorney Cary Agos, who finds himself in immediate competition with Alicia for one open permanent position with the firm. Once that story shakes out at the end of the first season, Cary and Alicia find themselves on opposite sides of a number of cases but Cary, more often than not, is a good hearted guy and someone who wants to do the right thing. And then there’s Alan Cumming, who plays Eli Gold, Peter Florrick’s campaign manager and also a master of crisis management. He’s often the humor of the show, but the character has plenty of depth.
The cases are compelling. The politics are all over the spectrum. The acting is top notch, from the main cast to the recurring roles for Michael J. Fox, Carrie Preston, Martha Plimpton, and many others. The award wins and nominations are adding up. The writing is outstanding. Then came Season 5, which was one of the best of 2013-14 on television and was the best the show has ever done. The Good Wife is arguably the most consistent hour you’ll find on your flat screen.
2. PERSON OF INTEREST
You may have overlooked it, thinking it’s just another network action show or another Abrams failure post-Lost. You were wrong. Person of Interest is another show that mixes an episodic format with season and even multi-season serialized story arcs and stands as the best show you’re probably not watching.
Inspired by post 9/11 reaction in America, eccentric billionaire Harold Finch (Michael Emerson) developed a machine that could watch everyone in the country, monitor their conversations, their electronic communications, and could actually predict when someone was either in danger of massive harm or when they were potentially the perpetrator of that harm against someone else. He recruits a troubled former CIA operative, John Reese (Jim Caviezel), hoping to prevent the most violent of crimes before they happen through a back door in the system that reveals a subject’s social security number. Think Minority Report that actually makes sense.
Initially, POI was more a week-to-week show and started somewhat slowly. The screenplay, written by the show’s creator, Jonathan Nolan, was simple, effective, but didn’t really take any risks. Fairly quickly, the story grew into something special. If the last name clicks for you, it should, as Jon is Chris’ brother.
Privately, years ago I wrote an article comparing Person of Interest to a modern-day take on the classic Batman story. I still believe that’s why I was so drawn to the show initially, though it’s expanded to take that nucleus and expand into its own identity. You can find similarities in the character of Reese and the damaged and brooding psyche of Bruce Wayne. Finch is an amalgam of Alfred, the Oracle, and Lucius Fox. Detective Joss Carter (Taraji P. Henson) rapidly becomes a Jim Gordonesque character that plays both sides but finds more and more common ground with the vigilante hero. The show gives us recurring villains that in many ways mimic non-comic versions of Gotham’s Rogue Gallery. POI even has its own friend-enemy in Root (Amy Acker), who down to her beauty could be mistaken for a cyber-Catwoman.
This is a show more about the struggle first to keep the machine a secret, then protect it from those who wish to exploit it, and finally what to do once the machine frees itself and starts thinking independently of its creator or servants. The larger arcs have been incredibly entertaining and both the Season 2 and 3 finale episodes were flat out awesome stories with excellent cliffhangers.
I grew up with Batman and it remains my favorite piece of pop culture along with Lost and just barely ahead of JK Rowling’s world of Harry Potter. Person of Interest, once I realized the connection with Gotham City, won me over for good. It isn’t a perfect comparison, but it’s undeniable if you watch POI, those eureka moments are there to be found. Here again a great cast with Emmy winner Emerson, who also won an Emmy for Ben Linus on Lost and a Jim Caviezel who even rivals Jack Bauer in his levels of bad-assery. Henson was great, though she left the show in Season 3 in one of the more emotional exits of the year on television, and both Acker and Sarah Shahi have become integral parts of the cast. The most interesting development is in the character of the formerly corrupt detective, Lionel Fusco (Kevin Chapman), and his relationship with Reese and Finch, but I’ll let you discover that for yourself.
3. THE BLACKLIST
There’s not as much to say here because we’re just entering the second season of the NBC crime drama. Jon Bokencamp created a show about a former government agent who rose to the top of the FBI’s Most Wanted list and became known for his skill in brokering deals between criminals. Raymond Reddington (James Spader) walks into FBI Headquarters in the extended open to the pilot and surrenders himself to authorities in order to assist the organization in apprehending a series of criminals deemed impossible to catch. That list, the Blacklist, features the most dangerous individuals on the planet. The one caveat for Reddington is that he work with a young profiler, Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone).
Again, with the exception of a few two-part episodes, each week The Blacklist reveals a new villain and the story centers on catching that person. Those standalone stories are usually very good, some better than others, but they’re almost always full of action and also extremely dark. This is a show that, contrary to the ACDC Season 2 trailer music and the quick wit of Reddington, is an extremely violent and ugly program. Quite frankly, it’s not what you’d expect on NBC.
The relationship of Red and Keen is the pull of the show. Keen is important to Reddington but he keeps the reasons why to himself, even when she asks him direct questions about their connection. Keen herself has a tragic past, losing her parents when she was a child in a mysterious accident, and she happened to marry Tom (Ryan Eggold), who isn’t who he appears.
At times the crimes and criminals lose credibility or feel overly complex, but the show works because James Spader is a damn national treasure. He introduced himself to much of the world as Alan Shore on The Practice and later Boston Legal, a role he won three Emmys for, and he plays Red with such perfection that it feels like we’ve been watching this character for fifteen years. The Blacklist features a pretty strong cast overall, but the reason The Blacklist makes this current list is because Spader is so good and so much fun to watch.
Season 2 needs to grow further. If the story of Reddington and Keen makes logical jumps and if Bokenkamp allows his program to tell multi-episode stories more often, we’re looking at the show everybody is talking about next May. If it stays the same, it’ll rate well, something very rare these days for NBC, but The Blacklist has a chance to go so much further and utilize Spader and his compadres in a much bigger and better way.
Hannibal is, along with certain moments in Banshee, the toughest watch on television. I almost placed it in the top three but the point here was to provide three shows I feel a wide variety of people would enjoy. Hannibal’s cast and its plot and its unabashed balls are superb, but many people just wouldn’t enjoy watching it. I highly advise everyone to try it, because it’s unique and it’s unbelievably good. To say the show is well done would be a massive understatement.
Scandal, last year, would be in the top three. Season 3 strained the story, solely for its slogan of being the biggest WTF show on TV, and lost a little bit in the process. I didn’t need to see Olivia Pope’s mother chew her own wrists apart to escape capture. I didn’t need so many sensationalized moments for the shock factor. Here’s a show with a terrific lead in Kerry Washington and a stellar supporting cast from top to bottom that seems to cater to an impulse to surprise rather than be believable in any fashion. The one exception was the storyline involving Lisa Kudrow as a potential Presidential candidate in need of assistance. Had that been a longer focus, Scandal would have been better. I’m hoping Season 4 pulls back the reigns of the ridiculous a bit and doesn’t continue in the over-the-top way that became tiresome this spring. That said, I watched every episode live.
My hopes are high but guarded for Gotham. If somehow it realized the potential of that idea of telling the Batman story in the years before the Caped Crusader and as a prequel, I would cry tears of joy. What I’m expecting is a good show, but I’m reasonably certain it won’t be a great, can’t miss show at first. The pilot was reviewed positively, unlike Agents of SHIELD, which started badly but got much better in the back half of its first year. I’d almost say it was bad for the first ten weeks. ABC’s show is about a familiar superhero world but not the heroes people wanted to see. Gotham is about the Batman world before the superhero was necessary and as the villains grew into themselves. I think it will start much stronger than Agents. Based on the pilot, that’s not a guess, that’s a promise. Also, I’m not sure these are similar products though they may be lumped together. Bruno Heller (Rome, The Mentalist) has a unique vision here, is saying all the right things about the future, and is very talented. Maybe my hopes aren’t that guarded. Gotham is without a doubt my most anticipated rookie show of the fall.
Shonda Rhimes now owns ABC on Thursday nights. Actually, as the creator of Private Practice, Grey’s Anatomy, and the aforementioned Scandal, she’s owned ABC for quite some time. This fall we get How to Get Away with Murder, starring Oscar nominee Viola Davis. I have no idea what to make of the program yet, but if I had to guess, the first season will be good and it might go off the rails, but it will likely be a fun watch at least for this season for those that enjoy Shondaland properties. I do love Davis, so I’m certainly curious.
There’s plenty more, including Madam Secretary, which looks promising, but we’ve got a lot of time. Next week I’ll tell you the three best comedies you should be watching this fall, touch on some of the rookie comedies, and then we’ll jump into our top ten comedies list that covers the last 25 years.
Again, I’d love to hear from you on your own Golden Three on the networks and why, so drop me a line @GuyNamedJason.
If you can only watch one, watch The Good Wife. Luckily, we can all watch more than just one, or three for that matter.
TV is great. All hail TV.