I'm listing here four TV shows I've enjoyed in the past and highly recommend, so that I can point people here when I'm asked for procrastination material. I'm avoiding the obvious popular picks everyone has already seen (so no Firefly, Arrested Development, The Wire, Dexter, South Park, etc.) and focusing instead on shows that are older or haven't gotten as much attention.
Where to watch it: Tvlinks
Why you haven't watched it: It's a science fiction series set on a space station... that aired at the same time as Deep Space Nine.
What it's about and why it's awesome: I recommend Babylon 5 to people with the same trepidation as when setting up an eccentric friend on a blind date. The show has a lot of good qualities going for it that become evident if you stick with it -- I'll come right out and say that it's the best story I've ever seen told on TV, ever -- but first impressions matter, and your first impression of Babylon 5 won't be good.
There's no use beating around the bush: the first season is quite terrible. The acting is bad: only about half of the main cast can act, and this half does not include the captain, the main character.1 There are many filler episodes with bad writing: clichÃ©d, stock science fiction plots on the one hand, and painfully clumsy, thinly-veiled allegories about contemporary issues on the other. (A child will die without a life-saving surgical procedure; the parents refuse consent for religious reasons. What should the doctor do? An interesting ethical dilemma, to be sure, and one that cannot be satisfactorily treated on an episode of a science fiction show.) And the less said about the CG, the better: slapping a low-res texture on a rotating cylinder may have been state of the art in the early nineties, but it's certainly not today.
If you stick with the show through its first season, though, these problems largely go away,2 and your payoff is a brilliantly intricate and polished story told over three seasons with much-improved production values. The reason: J. Michael Straczynski, the show's creator, outlined all five seasons of the story (later condensed to four seasons) in advance, and moreover starting in season two wrote the vast majority of the episode scripts himself.3 A result of this planning is that almost all episodes of the first season, even the terrible ones, contain some background event or off-the-cuff remark that seems insignificant filler at first but sets up a payoff several seasons later. (Any time a character makes any kind of prediction or prophecy: pay attention!) The attention to detail, consistency of characterization, and ambition of the plot and themes is almost novel-like. If you value good storytelling, this show's for you.
Notes: Danger! Watch seasons 1-4 only. JMS thought the show was going to be canceled after season 4, so squeezed all of his original story into these first four seasons. Season 5 was thus written as an afterthought (and it shows); moreover this last season introduces several new, annoying characters. Avoid. Lastly, though Babylon Five is the closest a TV show has come to being a visual novel, that novel is a meandering epic that could benefit from tightening and editing (think late Neil Stephenson.) Mediocre B-plots still show up regularly once the show has hit its stride.4
Great Teacher Onizuka
Where to watch it: Youtube
Why you haven't watched it: It's an anime not called "Cowboy Bebop."
What it's about and why it's awesome: The titular Onizuka -- illiterate, perverted, and broke former leader of a bike gang -- applies for a job teaching high school, for the sole purpose of seducing high school girls. He gets assigned to a middle school class instead: a notoriously troubled one, whose students hate all teachers (for diverse reasons revealed throughout the show); he quickly discovers he has a conscience and a passion for teaching after all, and resolves to become the best teacher in Japan, solve all of his class's personal problems, and make school fun again.Â Thanks to his stubbornness, cunning, physical indestructibility, and unwavering faith in his students, he wins the class over one by one, despite being the target of constant plots to get him fired, discredited, and/or killed by the other students as well as by faculty / the vice principle / PTA members / education critics5 who are alarmed by his unconventional teaching methods and lack of refinement.
Great Teacher Onizuka is at its heart a comedy, and like Onizuka himself never takes itself too seriously. This light touch keeps the show's handling of the expected middle school themes and arcs -- bullying, broken homes, social drama -- on the right side of the line separating heartwarming from Aesoporiffic, and at its best succeeds in being truly inspiring. Any show that can wring a drop of such praise from this heart of solid jade is worth a look.
Notes: The pacing of the show decreases significantly about halfway through, after the Urumi Kanzaki arc: it picks up again for the last few episodes, but in between is quite a bit of lower-quality (but by no means aggressively bad) filler that can be safely skipped.
Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog
Where to watch it: Youtube
Why you haven't watched it: Dr. Horrible's... Sing Along... Blog. Three parts to the title, three good reasons to suspect the entitled work probably sucks.
What it's about and why it's awesome: Ok, so not really a TV show -- more a three-episode musical miniseries, published direct-to-web during the writer's strike three years ago (but since it's so short, all the more reason you should go watch it, if you haven't already.)
Neil Patrick Harris plays the adorably incompetent wannabe villain Dr. Horrible. He aspires to (forcible) change the world by joining the Evil League of Evil and becoming a card-carrying supervillain. To do so he must prove himself to the League by successfully committing a high-profile crime; this is a rather tall order since 1) his inventions don't work, 2) he's not really evil at heart, and 3) his nemesis, hero-in-name-only Captain Hammer, always disrupts his schemes. And then Captain Hammer starts dating Dr. Horrible's crush...
I'm by no means a Joss Whedon fanboy: Firefly was brilliant, but I found Buffy and Angel thoroughly mediocre, and will invoke the Golden Rule and say nothing at all regarding Dollhouse. This musical, though, is Joss at his best: campy and quirky, funny and clever, but with a serious theme underlying it all. The writing is crisp and tight and the pace frenetic -- blink and you'll miss a joke, in a way reminiscent of Arrested Development. The story -- well, I'm a total sucker for this type of story.6 I can't say much without spoiling the ending, but pay close attention to how Dr. Horrible transforms over the course of the show; it's artfully done.
Where to watch it: Tvlinks
Why you haven't watched it: Yet another teen high school show.
What it's about and why it's awesome: Veronica, teenage daughter of a private investigator, helps her dad solve her best friend's murder. That's the season-long framing story; each episode focuses on Veronica solving a more self-contained mystery (who rigged the school elections, who stole the money at a poker game, why did a student join a cult -- that kind of thing) while slowly advancing the main plot. Think Nancy Drew but snarky, cynical, and played by Kirsten Bell.
The show is notable for pulling no punches with the mature themes it explores, and for its morally ambiguous view of the main characters and the world. The first episode alone includes teenage drinking and sex, class warfare, racism, date rape, and of course murder; and it doesn't get much lighter from there. Very few of the characters are portrayed in a purely sympathetic light -- Veronica's dad and her sidekick Wallace are the two that come closest -- nor does the show have many true villains. Veronica herself (setting aside the ethical flexibility that comes with the job of being a PI) doesn't hesitate to exact elaborate revenge on those who embarrass or slight her. The random students she agrees to help are invariable somehow responsible for the trouble they're in, or have their own agenda. Logan, jerkass (and hilarious) entitled rich kid and Veronica's main enemy at school, is shown to have a dysfunctional, abusive family and occasionally has his moments of heroism. And so on.
The mystery itself is quite well-constructed; the clues come slowly enough and have enough red herrings to invite mass viewer speculation, and by the end of the season the whole web holds together consistently, the killer is plausible but by no means obvious (always a difficult balance on a TV show, since the killer must be someone the audience has been introduced to over the course of the show, but draw too much attention to a random minor character and you give up the game...) The individual episode plots are more variable,Â but even the lamer ones are worth watching for Veronica and Logan's snarky asides alone.
Notes: Danger! Watch the first season only. Individual second season episodes have their moments, but the season-long overarching mystery doesn't hang together nearly as well. I haven't watched the third season myself, but I have it on good authority that it's terrible.
Bonus section: Three shows everyone loves that actually suck
The Office: Dealing with these kinds of people in the real world is draining enough... I don't want to watch more of them on TV.
24: I don't have time to explain.
Lost: The anti-Babylon 5; an intellectual Ponzi scheme. It's not at all hard to write a mystery with a veneer of complexity and intricacy, after all: just keep making stuff up as you go along, with no clear idea of how the plot will eventually tie together consistently and resolve.7
- It does, fortunately, include the alien ambassadors Londo and G'kar, who across all four seasons have by far the most intricate and compelling character arcs. [↩]
- Well, except for the CG. [↩]
- Since it's never certain whether or not a TV series will be renewed each season, almost all other shows, even the better, arc-driven ones, are written season by season. And a single person writing all of the scripts is unheard of -- usually the creator is only personally involved in the most important episodes, with other scripts rotating between members of the writing staff and guest/freelance writers. [↩]
- JMS has some kind of obsession with plots involving old flames, for instance. None of these are good. [↩]
- Either these last two groups are waaaayyyy more powerful in Japan than in the United States, or there's heavy use of artistic license here... [↩]
- People usually can't articulate what they really want, and those who do are usually dead wrong. Incidentally, "what do you want?" plays a central role in Babylon 5... [↩]
- X-Files was an even more egregious example of this kind of writing, but doesn't have Lost's popularity. [↩]