A reader named Natasha recently sent me an email asking about my favorite television programs. Because too many childhood hours spent watching The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show have rendered me absolutely defenseless before women named Natasha, here's my all-time TV top ten:
1. The Decalogue. Krzysztof Kieslowski's 10-part series made for Polish television in the 1980s is the greatest TV program I have ever seen. Each episode is a nearly perfect one-hour film, many of them as beautiful and impressive and poetically compressed as short stories by Chekhov or Joyce.
2. The Wire. Great novels kick my ass all the time, movies much less often, but no TV show has ever kicked my ass as definitively as The Wire. Over the five seasons of this program, David Simon and Ed Burns created a Balzacian panorama of contemporary American urban life that demonstrates exactly what most American literary fiction is missing, namely the world outside the white, suburban, corporate middle class.
3. The Twilight Zone. To Serve Man is a cookbook. Enough said... Watching the TZ marathon on the SF Channel around New Years is like overdosing on a volume of Borges's collected fictions, a great way to end/begin the infinite cycle of time.
4. Monty Python's Flying Circus. I've never wanted to be a lumberjack, never purchased a parrot, never been slapped with a fish, never applied for a grant at the Ministry of Silly Walks, and never barged into a doctor's office screaming "My brain hurts," but I have loved MPFC for many, many years. And now for something completely different...
5. Homicide: Life on the Street. The best drama in American TV history until David Simon's next one, this was an incomparable blend of tragedy and absurdity, great writing and great acting. NYPD Blue declined after the third season, but Homicide remained excellent and surprising for the duration of its run. Andre Braugher deserved a mantel full of Emmys for his work on this program.
6. The Simpsons. How can I not like a TV show that can convince Thomas Pynchon to do a cameo? I want to mosey down to Moe's and pop open a Duff.
7. Twin Peaks. An incredibly risky show that stretched a thin line between silliness and horror and then tried to walk it. Easy adjectives like 'surreal' and 'absurdist' don't quite fit Twin Peaks.
8. The X-Files. I'll admit it, I'm a sucker for sewer monsters...and Gillian Anderson. At its best, when it kept the mythology of alien invasion in suspension between reality and paranoia, this program was as close as TV has ever come to a Pynchon novel.
9. Police Squad. Painfully punny, this series made me laugh until fluids began to pour from every orifice. Watch out for the toe truck!
10. The Untouchables. The original 1959-63 series is a great, stylish, noir melodrama that deserves to be rediscovered. Whenever I think of this program, I can always hear Walter Winchell's distinctive narration: "Meanwhile, across town, Capone thug Frank Nitti is relaxing with his moll and a doomed duo of stool pigeons named Solly and Webb..."
As always with top ten lists, there are oodles of also-rans: Star Trek, Seinfeld, Frasier, The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, Six Feet Under, MASH, Night Gallery, The John Larroquette Show, St. Elsewhere... For some reason, The Sopranos never appealed to me (maybe the reason was 'mob fatigue' brought on by all the neo-noir movies of the 1990s). I also found Berlin Alexanderplatz less impressive than much of Fassbinder's cinematic work. Among current shows, I like Breaking Bad, Mad Men and Girls, but I've been an infrequent TV viewer for the past few years.