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TV Vs. Film: Ten Shows Worth Skipping The Multiplex For

by The Playlist Staff
May 26, 2011 9:58 AM
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Todd Haynes' "Mildred Pierce" was also an amazing piece of work (arguably Haynes' best work to date), but it almost feels like a movie more than it does a TV series, with a limited five-episode run, so we left it out: but rest assured, this won't be the last time you'll hear about it on The Playlist. In terms of recent drama, two other shows on AMC, "The Killing" and "Rubicon" just missed out, the former a supremely detailed police procedural, the latter a tortuously complex homage to a '70s conspiracy thriller, sadly canceled just as it started to hit its groove at the end of the first season. Both are worth catching up on, though (although not to be that guy, but the Danish original of "The Killing" is far superior to the remake, particularly if "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" has given you the taste for Scandinavian murder). The channel also hosts "The Walking Dead," from "Shawshank Redemption" writer-director Frank Darabont, and, while occasionally over-laden with the tropes of the zombie genre, gives it a freshness by using longer-form TV storytelling to flesh out its characters and its situations.

Cable also hosts some bigger-name shows that, while incredibly strong, didn't quite live up to the hype. There's a lot to love about Martin Scorsese's "Boardwalk Empire," but it hasn't quite nestled in the memory like some other dramas, despite a storming central performance from Steve Buscemi -- we'll see if the second season raises things up. Similarly, David Simon's "The Wire" follow-up, New Orleans ensemble-drama "Treme" had sky-high expectations and didn't quite meet them -- it's even less accessible than its predecessor, and occasionally feels a little aimless. But at its best, it packs just as much of a punch as the best shows here, and the second season has been a marked improvement. Finally, we're yet to watch it ourselves, but FX's boxing drama "Lights Out" gained more and more advocates as it went along, although it wasn't enough to keep the show from being canceled.

The BBC's "Sherlock" was inconsistent -- one great episode, one good episode and one bad -- but it has a great central pairing in Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, it's truer to the spirit of Arthur Conan Doyle than Guy Ritchie's big-screen take, and when it works, it really, really works. A second three-episode run is on the way in the fall. The British Idris Elba vehicle "Luther" is also ballsier than most police dramas, even if it descends into silliness in places, while the currently-airing Chiwetel Ejiofor starrer "The Shadow Line" has divided critics, but it's intrigued us enough to make sure we'll tune in for the whole run.

The networks have just as much quality drama as well, with "Friday Night Lights," "Parenthood" and "The Chicago Code" all having their fans, although perhaps the best, and a show that only just missed our list, is "The Good Wife" -- a twisty, morally ambiguous legal drama with a tremendous depiction of Chicago politics and a raft of fine performances from the likes of Julianna Margulies, Chris Noth, Alan Cumming and Archie Panjabi.

If anything, comedy is in a stronger place than drama. "30 Rock," for instance, came off a dip in its fourth season to return to its best in its fifth, frequently packing more laughs into its half-hour than any other show around. "Modern Family" is the rare show that's both a ratings monster and a critical hit, and pulled off a strong second season, even if it didn't quite match the first. FX's "Archer" is something of a favorite in these parts too. It might be an R-rated cartoon, but who knew R-rated cartoons would be so good? Where else could you laugh so hard at phrases like “Relax. It was just cancer sex.”? Only a hypersexual international spy star could get away with such a line -- and only a show as consistently darkly funny as "Archer," would it not be out of place. "Archer" also manages to not just be all over the top plotwise, though they have an utter disregard for time with the 1950s fashion, 1980s gadgetry and the continuation of the Cold War. At its best it's the "Arrested Development" reunion everyone's wanted, with Jessica Walter, Jeffrey Tambor and Judy Greer all voicing characters.

"Portlandia" is another fantastic cable comedy, righteously mauling the hipster-archetype: Fixie bike riding, organic tea drinking, kale eating, feminist book-reading people rejoice (or tremble in fear of being mocked further)! The show gives SNL a good kick up the sketch writing backside -- consistently funny and culturally spot-on. Featuring Fred Armisen and indie rock legend Carrie Brownstein, as well as a bunch of indie musicians and actors including Steve Buscemi, Colin Meloy and Aimee Mann. "Bob's Burgers" has also had a strong debut season, standing head and shoulders above "The Simpsons" and the Seth MacFarlane pack in Fox's animation line-up. The show features the voice talent of no less than H. Jon Benjamin, Kristen Schaal, Eugene Mirman, Jon Roberts and Dan Mintz as the family behind family-owned Bob's Burgers. Bob, the auteur of burgers, and his offbeat family spend most of their time wrestling with local competition, keeping above the red and of course, enduring annoying relatives. But the cast alone -- particularly Schaal as the hilariously evil minded youngest member of Bob's brood -- is plenty reason to check this one out.

Rob Corddry's "Children's Hospital" is darkly funny and cameo-packed, "Cougar Town" has overcome its unpromising premise to become one of the weirder, most character-driven shows around, and HBO's "How To Make It In America" isn't too ambitious, but it's far more than the hipster "Entourage" than it seemed to be at first. Finally, the newest comedy worth looking at is yet another "Friends" rip-off, but one that's only gotten better as the weeks go on. Breaking from the pack, it seems, is “Happy Endings” which just premiered in April and has already been picked up for a season 2. From somewhat shaky beginnings, the show has only gotten stronger, as we get to know this charming group of characters, brought to life by some solid comedic talent (we’re looking at you Adam Pally!).

-- Oliver Lyttelton, Sam Chater, Cat Scott, Leah Zak, Kevin Jagernauth, Chris Bell

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  • Christopher Bell | August 21, 2011 8:27 AMReply

    The Time Capsule episode is season 3, I believe. Honestly though, you have to give it a few episodes before things really kick in. It's a show very dependent on your affection for the characters.

  • The Playlist | July 11, 2011 8:18 AMReply

    This piece partly inspired me watching "Louie.” Or rather, my gf wanted to watch, i remember it was on this list and therefore I acquiesced. Great show.

    However, I started watching some "Parks & Recreations" -- a time capsule episode -- and it was pretty unfunny. Was that from season 1? I hope so.

  • George Otwori | June 5, 2011 6:51 AMReply

    TERRIERS is one the most ground breaking shows ever made. I know other shows are given credit to having novelistic quailties. Once you watch Terriers it gives whole new meaning to blending the TV and Novel mediums. I remember watching this show and missing the numerous of payoffs. I just couldn't place the familiarity with Novel medium until the last two episodes. This show literally shattered my perception on what is quality.

    So I only hope that in the near future someone revisits compelling organic world just as intriguing as TERRIERS was.

  • PT | May 28, 2011 11:11 AMReply

    Can anyone tell me what the soundtrack is playing in the background of Doctor Who episode 6 in the first few minutes while still in the Tardis ?
    Driving me crazy !!!!

  • The Playlist | May 28, 2011 9:35 AMReply

    Having just watched the first episode of Showtime's "Shameless" for some reason and mostly hating it, i'm really glad to see it's nowhere on this list.

  • Oliver Lyttelton | May 27, 2011 9:52 AMReply

    "Is this a joke? I haven’t seen anything except Game of Thrones..."

    Well, then how do you fucking know enough to weigh in?

  • Melwyn | May 27, 2011 9:11 AMReply

    Is this a joke? I haven't seen anything except Game of Thrones, and even in the pilot, it seemed so hollow. How could you mention an epic show like 'The Wire' in the same paragraph as GoT. Stick with films guys, this list honestly is embarrassing. "You fail me."

  • TheoC | May 27, 2011 6:46 AMReply

    But wasn't Parks and Recs mid season replacement due to Pohler's pregnancy and not how good or bad the show was doing?

    Anyway great list well written, I must check out terriers(I like me some Logue) and of course Game of Thrones.

    Well done a great read and great alternative to reading how well the Hangover part 2 is doing.

  • Christopher Bell | May 27, 2011 5:54 AMReply

    An honestly embarrassing list.


    Anyway, I'm now paying attention to TV more than I have in years... but still playing catch-up. I"m working through season 2 of "Breaking Bad" and its fantastic, but yeah, it's got plenty of acclaim. It's more that than it airing in summer that lead us to relegating it to the honorable mentions.

    I love "Parks and Rec." I watched the pilot and hated it, but I gave the first season a shot and while I didn't like it too much, Season 2 is where it's at. It's also surprising how great Rob Lowe is.

  • Sid | May 27, 2011 4:48 AMReply

    Venture Bros. is better than everything here. And Game of Thrones (the books) are the best pieces of fiction since Shakespeare in his prime.

  • scribe | May 27, 2011 4:10 AMReply

    Nice article guys- Loved the piece on Louie and Parks and Rec.

  • sp | May 27, 2011 3:04 AMReply

    Thanks Playlist for giving props to FX’s “Archer". It is easily the best comedy on tv , hands down !

  • Kathleen Walsh | May 27, 2011 2:52 AMReply

    Weeds fucking sucks. The first season was brilliant, this past season is nigh unwatchable. I love me some Dexter, but that show has definitely not suffered for praise and acclaim, and when was the last season on? I'm only just beginning the third season. I love this list for alerting me to the fact that I should be watching Fringe, of all things. Need to check out Game of Thrones and Archer too. Parks and Rec is my religion, and its upsetting it got slotted to a midseason replacement, but I'm just glad it's back and so consistently amazing.

  • jonathan | May 27, 2011 2:51 AMReply

    30 Rock is the most unfunny piece of crap on television. Maybe people would realize this if Alec Baldwin's voice wasn't calming down their frustration at every other ridiculously annoying character on the show. Can not stand it.

  • Jax | May 27, 2011 2:45 AMReply


  • Misanthrope | May 27, 2011 2:35 AMReply

    Let's not forget that Curb Your Enthusiasm comes back soon!

  • Mike_M | May 27, 2011 2:10 AMReply

    I know you mentioned Breaking Bad, but that should be on the list and not a honorable mention. You cite that it hasnt been on the air since last summer is a bad reason especially since Terriers is canceled so you cant even watch it anymore.

    Also Sons of Anarchy is a great so as well.

  • samir | May 27, 2011 1:51 AMReply

    You guys are too harsh on Boardwalk Empire. It's one of those shows that youll like a lot more if you watch in a short period of time. After I finished the season and got the full picture is when I really started appreciate the characters and politics of the show. It's not the best show, and it can be better, but that's the best thing about it, it can be even better.

  • wray | May 27, 2011 1:40 AMReply


  • Brendan | May 27, 2011 1:31 AMReply

    I second the "Fuck Dexter!" sentiment, and as someone who is almost finished with a Parks & Rec marathon, I'm really glad to see it at #1 here (so much so I forgive you for that fucking spoiler...). Breaking Bad is definitely the best show on television, though. No contest.

  • Sheed | May 26, 2011 12:49 PMReply

    Sons of Anarchy and Archer, FX takes care of its business.

  • HD | May 26, 2011 12:39 PMReply

    Sons of Anarchy!

  • The Gang | May 26, 2011 12:36 PMReply

    Uh, how about some love for "Always Sunny in Philadelphia"? Last season was uneven, not surprising considering the horde of mercenaries hired to write episodes, but it's The Gang!

    Who doesn't love The Gang?

  • poagwn | May 26, 2011 10:49 AMReply

    "american dad," despite it's lackluster first season, has grown into a wonderful, wonderful show. unlike most of macfarlane's trash, a.d. feels like it actually has direction, and it's paced wonderfully - a single episode will sometimes take place over the course of months or years, which gives it an almost filmic quality few other shows have. it also has a heart. the relationships between the central characters are well defined and fully drawn, and roger the alien has grown into a tool of comedic greatness.

    american dad's major flaw is its inconsistencies. not every episode is as good as it could be, but when it hits, it's the best animated show on network television. being a seth macfarlane show, it can also be a little mean spirited. still, there are some essential episodes. "rapture's delight" is one of the most absurdly ambitious animated half hours i can think of. it really is worth checking out.

  • Michael Bay Evil Twin Brother | May 26, 2011 10:15 AMReply

    Fuck "Dexter".

    Bravo! for mentioning "Louie" !

  • Michael Bay | May 26, 2011 10:04 AMReply

    At least you gave "Breaking Bad" a mention, but what about "Dexter"?

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