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Criticwire Survey: What Was Your First 'Serious' TV Show?

Television
by Sam Adams
July 29, 2013 9:10 AM
1 Comment
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Alyssa Rosenberg, Women and Hollywood, ThinkProgress

As someone who grew up largely without access to television, I marathoned Sex and the City on DVD the summer after I graduated from college and went through a bad breakup, when I moved to a city where I knew very few people. Initially, the show basically functioned as a promise that I would make new friends. But ultimately Sex and the City was the show that taught me about the diamond-precise way a comedy could capture emotional pain, that showed me how you could use rough, fast language and still keep your characters entirely distinct (Aaron Sorkin, take note), and that good relationships could not only survive fights, they sometimes needed those altercations to move forward. Is my love for the show sentimental? Sure, but it's also one of the things that made me a critic.

Peter Labuza, The Cinephiliacs

I think for me the show -- Mad Men -- was less important than how I watched it. I had wisdom teeth taken out early one day during a summer and had nothing to do the rest of the day. I flipped on Video On Demand and not feeling like I had the mental energy to watch any feature film, I decided to try out a couple episodes. I think I finished the entire first season that day, and had I not been able to take it in as a whole, I doubt I would have had the same reaction. I think that ability that's come with the DVD and now On Demand Market is probably one of the reason more television has been taken "seriously." I didn't have to spend useless amounts of energy about thinking what happens next and could spend it on reflecting what I had just seen. Of course, HBO still needs to give people like Nuri Bilge Ceylan or Apichatpong Weerasethakul their own miniseries if they want to produce something better than any of my favorite contemporary films.

David Ehrlich, Film.com

If I can let my nerd flag fly for a moment... to the best of my knowledge, the first television show that demanded me to take it seriously was Yoshitoshi ABe's (he insists upon that capitalization) Serial Experiments: Lain, a 13-episode anime series I bought on DVD in 1998 (despite producing several of the longest-running film series ever produced -- Tora-san and Zatoichi being the foremost examples -- the Japanese were way ahead of the curve in recognizing how brief seasons and finite runs would result in superior television). A warped and somnambulant drama about a 14-year-old girl named Lain who becomes obsessed with "The Wired" (to be super reductive about it, it's kind of like the internet but without any boundaries), the show begins when a grinning schoolgirl throws herself off the roof of a building... only to somehow text all of her classmates from beyond the grave the next day. Like an animated Kobo Abe novel that was deeply tapped in to the technophoria of its time, Lain completely denies casual viewing – you're still kind of chasing the rabbit even if you give it every ounce of your attention, but its imposing ideas about networks and the future of human consciousness are impenetrable unless you're willing to take them seriously and consider every color and composition. It was the first "TV show" (it aired on Japanese television) I'd ever seen that seemed to exist beyond the casual functionality inherent to the production schedule of most TV shows, and it definitely opened the door for me to reach back for things like Twin Peaks and The Prisoner

Adam Batty, Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second, Periodical

I'm a bit of a latecomer to the joys of television. I've often enjoyed the episodes of French television show on film Cineastes du notre temps that have appeared on Criterion DVDs, and I consider some cinema/television hybrid mutations such as Berlin Alexanderplatz to be amongst my favorite films, but the "Golden Age of Television" passed me by for the most part. So dismayed was one close friend upon discovering that I hadn't seen The Sopranos that he bought me the complete series on DVD for Christmas last year, but I'm ashamed to say that it's thus far sat unwatched under my television ever since. One day I'll get around to it, but truth be told the level of commitment required to a TV show of that ilk terrifies me. Alas, the one show that has turned me on to television very recently is Girls. It's become an unexpected success in my household, and has even inspired me to rethink my approach towards the medium. 

Katey Rich, Cinema Blend

I promise I'm not just jumping on Emily Nussbaum's coattails when I say Sex and the City. I was squarely in the demographic that adopted the show and modeled their lives after it, but instead of buying Manolos and Cosmos, I admired the way the show layered stories across seasons, changed up its style in several episodes to reflect its themes (the episode "One," with the music linking each story, is especially striking) and willingly let its characters stumble in a way I'd never seen on TV before. I watched the show with my friends for the same reasons everybody else did, but I think it sneakily made me a better TV viewer even when I didn't notice. 

Stephen Saito, The Moveable Fest

It's odd how my mind went directly to the business side of television in considering the art of it, but my first memory of taking a show seriously was when I was an avid viewer of Gary David Goldberg's Brooklyn Bridge, a warm, deeply personal look back at his adolescence as a Jewish teen during the 1950s that aired two seasons on CBS from 1991-1993. Looking back, it has many of the hallmarks of the type of television that's celebrated today -- single camera, not easily classified as either comedy or drama (complicated further by being a half-hour) and of course, being on the ratings bubble for nearly the entirety of its run. Although there were other shows that I loved before, Brooklyn Bridge was the moment when I became more than a passive viewer, feeling genuinely invested in the continuation of the show and the rich world Goldberg had created.

Kevin Lee, Fandor, Sight & Sound

I didn't take it seriously in the "art form a la Sopranos" sense implied by the question, but he first TV show I regarded with analytical fervor was G.I. Joe, the after-school animated series. I watched the show dutifully from 5th to 6th grade, around the same time that I became obsessed with pop culture statistics of all kinds, from sports records to Billboard charts to Nielsen ratings to movie box office returns. How did this datahead mindset play out with G.I. Joe?  I took the show's 50-plus ensemble of characters and counted how many episodes each one appeared over two seasons. This was a key insight for me given that the show was basically a marketing tool for Hasbro's toy line, and so in theory they would want to promote and sell all the characters equally. But the Randian laws of television required central characters to emerge and dominate the social order of the show. (Quick, how many truly egalitarian TV ensembles can you name?) Screentime didn't even necessarily correlate with military rank, as one might expect: the most frequent character was the most anti-authoritarian, Shipwreck (could his absence from the recent live action films be one reason why they suck so bad?) In real life terms: some personality types are more sellable than others. Of course I couldn't articulate any of this at age eleven, but it was still something I could know on a gut level. And knowing is half the battle.

Luke Y. Thompson, Topless Robot

I don't think I ever disrespected TV quite as much as the question implies -- growing up overseas, I found it my source for many great and classic movies -- but I think the show that taught me it could be every bit as mind-blowingly brilliant as any arthouse thing you could see in a cinema was MTV's The Maxx, one of those things you cannot believe you're seeing at all, let alone on a network dedicated to music fandom (which it still was at the time). It did the comic-book panels thing better than Ang Lee's Hulk would try to do years later, it never "held your hand" narratively, and at the end implied that the whole thing had been imagined by an insane homeless man in a dumpster. Even though it was based on a popular-but-weird comic book, it was by no means a safe bet on any level. To use a musical analogy, it was like Elektra records signing Ween because somebody heard that "alternative" was popular.

Nick Pinkerton, Sight & Sound, ArtForum

John Kerr has a great line in Vincente Minnelli's The Cobweb: "They said Van Gogh was crazy because he killed himself. He couldn't sell a painting while he was alive and now they're worth thirty million dollars. They weren't that bad then and they're not that good now, so who's crazy?" I feel the same way about the rarely well-done medium (har har) of television; Newton Minow's "vast wasteland" wasn't a reality in 1961, nor is the much-touted Golden Age a reality today. (Both convictions are buttressed with a combination of willful ignorance and just plain lack of time.)

I'm not sure how to approach the question of TV as a "serious" art form, for I tend to favor it as a comic medium -- though I take comedy very seriously. Of the HBO/Showtime/AMC/Netflix/whatever crop, Eastbound & Down is my favorite by a nautical mile, but my personal Golden Age was the pioneer years of the Fox Broadcasting Company. I'm including In Living Color, Married… with Children (working title: Not the Cosby Show, a definite spur to the superlative Roseanne the following year), the Brechtian It's Garry Shandling's Show and The Tracey Ullman Show, from whence sprang The Simpsons. Above all of these, the two seasons of Chris Elliott's Get a Life left a permanent indentation in my 10-year-old brainpan. With its total disregard for the tenets of realism, essentially absurdist worldview, and unrelenting fixation on grating aberrant behavior, Get a Life's influence on my future tastes and sense of humor are inestimable. And if that isn't serious, brother, I don't know what is. 

That being said, I've lately been finding something akin to the all-consuming madness that Get a Life supplies in watching The Abbott & Costello Show on Hulu, so maybe I'm the wrong person to ask about anything serious.

Mike Ryan, Huffington Post Entertainment

I was that idiot who always took television way too seriously. I remember going to school depressed when Bo and Luke Duke were replaced on The Dukes of Hazzard by their lookalike cousins Coy and Vance. I honestly felt betrayed.  I'm certain the reasons that NYPD Blue is rarely mentioned in the first round of "great TV" is that a) it lasted four or five seasons too long and b) it went through too many cast changes. But its first season was the first time I thought, OK, yes, this is something different. David Caruso's only full season on NYPD Blue was that first season (he left after the fourth episode of the second season) -- it's kind of weird to say now, but he was electric as Det. John Kelly. Caruso made the dumb choice of leaving the show to be a movie star -- and, yes, he became a punchline for many years after starring in dreck like Jade and Kiss of Death. But it was because of that first season of NYPD Blue that Hollywood called him to be a leading man in the first place. 

NYPD Blue would last 12 seasons, but after the first, it was never the same for me. I looked at poor Jimmy Smits' Bobby Simone with the same scorn that I gave Coy and Vance Duke. (Obviously Jimmy Smits is a much better actor than Byron Cherry and Christopher Mayer, but, irrationally, I still felt the same betrayal.) I do believe that If Caruso had stayed for five or six seasons, NYPD Blue would at least be mentioned in the same breath as The Sopranos. I was too young to watch and appreciate something like Hill Street Blues, but that terrific first season of NYPD Blue was the first time I realized that television could be more important than something like The Dukes of Hazzard.

Josh Spiegel, Mousterpiece Cinema, Sound on Sight

I'm going to cheat slightly and name two shows, both from the 1999-2000 network TV season: The West Wing and Now and Again. For a long time, my parents steadfastly refused to let me watch anything that wasn't child-oriented, and I had to fight tooth and nail to convince them to let me watch the former show despite having just turned 15. (Yes, these were the fights I had as a teenager. Exciting, I know.) Despite my mother being wary at how The West Wing's early ads emphasized Rob Lowe's dalliances with a hooker in the pilot, she relented and I was delighted by Aaron Sorkin's rat-a-tat dialogue as well as the shocking -- to a kid who'd never watched serialized TV before -- revelation that storylines didn't automatically conclude at the end of each episode. Now and Again was equally serialized, though a far different flight of fancy, about a schlub played by John Goodman who dies in a freak subway accident, and then has his brain implanted into the body of a surgically enhanced young man as part of a government experiment. The show's sci-fi flourishes were just creepy enough, such as an elderly Asian terrorist who unleashes nerve gas on a subway, and the banter just light enough to keep me hooked all season, and heartbroken when CBS subsequently canceled it. It was both of these shows that made me realize what TV could offer, though the medium continues to progress exponentially from where it was at the end of the 20th century.

R. Emmet Sweeney, Movie Morlocks

The first show I chose to proselytize for was Homicide: Life on the Street (1993-1999). Tom Fontana adapted David Simon's book about the Baltimore P.D., and it plays as a non-serialized version of The Wire. It uses the case-a-week network cop show paradigm, but is more focused on eccentric character detail than the purely procedural Law & Order. The cast is populated by gruff sad-sacks, sweating alcohol through their pores: Daniel Baldwin, Melissa Leo, Jon Polito, Ned Beatty and Richard Belzer. The show revolves around the prim and proper Frank Pembleton, played with controlled volatility by Andre Braugher (his talents have been  wasted since). My come-to-Homicide moment was the S1 episode "Three Men and Adena", directed by Martin Campbell. Boldly theatrical, it takes place entirely in the interrogation room, as Pembleton and his partner interrogate the suspected killer (Moses Gunn, in his final performance) of a young girl. In its claustrophobic intensity and refusal of closure, it was unlike anything I had seen on TV before.

Adam Nayman, Reverse Shot, Cinema Scope

When I was in high school, my friend and I used to spend our lunch hours watching VHS-recorded episodes of Homicide: Life on the Street. The series was still in its original run on NBC, but the Canadian arts channel was showing it from beginning to end so we were able to tape older seasons and binge-watch it in big chunks; by the time I started doing the same thing with other shows on DVD or On Demand, the practice felt nostalgically old-hat. I've always stuck up for Homicide as being, if not "better" than  The Wire, then in some ways a more impressive feat of prime-time engineering by David Simon et al, since it managed to address many of the same issues and themes despite the restrictions that come with a network time-slot. Homicide's cast wasn't Entertainment Weekly beautiful (even if my 16-year old self kept citing the "A" grades it got from Ken Tucker to friends as evidence of its greatness) and its stories didn't wrap themselves up neatly: the open-ended quality of an episode like "Three Men and Adena," which spent an entire hour on the intense interrogation of a murder suspect only to conclude on a note of poetic ambiguity. The fact that the series let certain plot threads unravel over the course of multiple episodes and even multiple seasons placed it well ahead of its time: ironically, the only thing that's really dated is the jump-cut/handheld visual aesthetic, which got a lot of attention at the time for being cutting-edge. What grabbed me then -- and what holds up now -- was the mixture of seen-it-all familiarity and horrified agape that defined the detectives and their superiors. That's also the tone of Simon's source text, which remains the best true-crime book I've ever read, and it's amazing how many of its anecdotes and asides found their way onscreen over the years.

Jordan Hoffman, Film.com, ScreenCrush

All roads lead to Rome. Certainly the current age of quality television can thank The Sopranos for the boost and the Paley Center(s) love to remind us about Playhouse 90 but for me the show that that really turned me on to multi-episode storytelling was I, Claudius. Everything that drives today's celebrated shows can be found in the BBC adaptation of Robert Graves' historical novels: extremely sharp writing, high stakes situations, rich characters and, not unimportantly, sex and violence. It's a big juicy soap opera, but, you know, classy. I was too young for its initial PBS broadcast, but my parents had a "Best of Masterpiece Theater" coffee book that had images that captured my young mind. (And, no, it wasn't just seeing Calpurnia in a mini-toga.) When I started turning into a history nerd thanks a great 9th grade teacher and the Iron Man vs Doctor Doom time travel arc, I rented the 12 episode series on VHS and have revisited it three times since. It is smart, funny and engaging and every single British actor ever pops up at least once. (If you want origins for your Star Trek/Lord of the Rings fan fiction, know that Captain Picard and Gimli are both in it.) It's also no coincidence that Tony Soprano's mother was named Livia.

A.A. Dowd, A.V. Club

Even as an adolescent, I knew that The Simpsons was more than just good TV -- that there was something rare and sophisticated about its brand of comedy. Long before HBO made it cool to think of television as an art form, the team of auteurs working under Matt Groening were making the case week in and week out. My tenure as a Simpsons aficionado predated my embrace of cinephilia; thanks to clever references to Citizen Kane and The Godfather, one obsession fed organically into the other. And it's only because I took The Simpsons so seriously -- as satire, as artist-driven entertainment, as a gateway to other interests--that I also took its steep plummet into mediocrity so hard. (By the time The Sopranos came along to legitimize TV in many critics' eyes, I had already experienced -- and bemoaned the decline of -- a great series.) When a sitcom stops making you laugh, you stop watching. When geniuses lose their touch, you mourn.

Kenji Fujishima, In Review Online

The X-Files. At the very least, it was the first show I watched obsessively on television. I do consider it a legitimate work of "serious TV" now -- not just because of the way it pushed the boundaries of the possibilities of long-form TV narrative at the time, but because of its handling of such deeper themes as belief and spirituality -- but I think that deeper appreciation came after the show had ended in 2002, and as I revisited the whole thing on reruns/DVD. I still think The Wire is possibly the best television series I have yet seen (though I'm generally not much of a TV person, so I haven't seen much of The Sopranos or any of Deadwood, two other highly celebrated works of the television medium), but for me, that came long after The X-Files. So I'll consider Chris Carter's series my first.

Television
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More: Criticwire Survey, Criticwire TV

1 Comment

  • Edward Copeland | July 30, 2013 3:15 PMReply

    There were plenty of quality shows that I obsessed about growing up, but the first TV show that actually fit what your question is asking would have to be Hill Street Blues. Even know, I'd keep it on the list of the best TV series of all times.

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