Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Dean's List: My 100 Favorite TV Shows (#90 - 81)

Ahhh, why do an intro? Self-explanatory, right? Here we go...

90) Spongebob Squarepants (1999-present) Nickelodeon’s ratings cash cow is something I long avoided because I was sure I’d hate it. WRONG. Spongebob has energetic animation, with a lead character that is both infuriatingly silly and unfailingly huggable. That yellow face serves as the perfect canvas for some of the most varied and extreme expressions seen on a real or inagined creature. I especially like it when Spongebob looks drunk or unshaven, cuz
it's so absurd. Add a terrific score, perfect vocal work, clever direction and writing, and a winning cast of supporting characters (Plankton and Patrick are the funniest of the lot) and we end up with an animation juggernaut that, for once, is worthy of its incessant marketing.

89) Laguna Beach (2004-present) Potentially the most controversial inclusion in my list is one that must be seen in a post-modern light to be appreciated. At least, that’s how my great friend and favorite photographer Patrick Flynn and I prefer to look at it; Patrick’s the one who clued me into this show and we watched and downed some beers and giggled like goofy first-year students. Ostensibly a reality show produced by MTV, it has the most luscious direction and camerawork ever seen in the genre—--truly movie-quality, which requires planning and set-ups and all sorts of technical considerations that seem impossible to achieve on a reality show. However, on the other end of the spectrum, it follows the most sickeningly vapid set of rich kids through their languid days of high-style partying and hooking up. The dialogue is so unbelievable in its stupidity, but because this is how denegrated we know modern talk truly has
become, what we hear here--the lazy phrasing, the pure lack of new ideas in conversation--this talk graduates into a strange ultra-believability, an Altmanesque OC, as Patrick is fond of saying. If someone had written dialogue like this, it would be memorable screenwriting, expressing an essential type of emptiness with which some people grow up. Look, you just have to view at Laguna Beach in a sideways kinda way to enjoy it. Otherwise, you’re going to think I’m the most idiotic dude on the web.

88) The Paper Chase (1978-86) Lawyerin’ shows usually bore me. I get tired of the brown courtrooms and the stern judges and all that hullabaloo. That’s why this CBS- and later Showtime-produced adaptation of James Bridges 1973 movie is the only lawyer show on the list. But here we get law students, rather than fully bonded counselors. Thus, we end up truly learning—along with the characters--the details of and behind the law, rather than just the dramatic highlights. Plus The Paper Chase is surely the best show about attending college ever produced, filled with hot (but real) romance, sweaty grade anxiety and gung-ho competitive spirit. James Stephens, as lead student James T. Hart, and John Houseman, reprising his blustery Oscar-winning role as the strict Professor Kingsfield, were excellent foils for one another. An unjustly forgotten drama!

87) Dave Allen at Large (1971-76) I spent an entire summer over at my grandmother’s wonderful 50s-flavored house back in the late 70s. She was very with-it (we called her the “Groovy Granny”), and she loved to laugh. That’s why she and I, along with my uncle, would always get together at the end of the night to watch three shows. All three are on the list and this is the first—a comedy showcase for an acerbic Irishman named Dave Allen. In between short skits, he’d sit on his high director’s chair, all suited up, drink and smoke in hand, and tell witty stories and smutty jokes (often with the clergy figuring prominantly). Even then, in my innocence, I thought “I’d love to go and have a couple of scotches with this guy!”

86) James at 15/16 (1978-79) This NBC show was short-lived and is all but abandoned now to the slagheap of failed TV efforts. But when I caught it on cable around the age of 17 or 18, I thought, “My god, they’ve really got this down! These
guys are spying on me! WHERE ARE YOU?!” Lance Kerwin played James Hunter, a kid whose family is uprooted from Oregon to Boston, MA, and the episodes charted how he and the Hunter brood dealt with the upheaval of new experiences and encroaching teenage uneasiness. Though it lapsed regularly into daydream segments where a shy James—an avid photographer, incidentally--imagined himself as the person he truly wanted to be, the show cleaved close to reality all the way through. Controversiallly, in 1978, the second year opener now titled James at 16) marked the first time TV dramatized its lead character losing his virginity (to a Swedish exchange student, no less). This finely-penned series, obviously influential to another show on this list (you’ll know it when you see it) would be a top pick for me as one I’d like to see get an official DVD release. I haven’t seen hide nor hair of it since the mid-80s.

85) Police Squad (1982) How this legendary series lasted only six episodes is unanswerable--it's the shortest-running series on the list, actually. Penned and sometimes directed by the Airplane/Top Secret team of Jim Abrahams and David & Jerry Zucker, it sealed the popularization of Leslie Nielsen—here playing goofball L.A. detective Frank Durbin--as a comedy presence (and, of course, it went on to be expanded into the Naked Gun movie series). Another fine movie director, Joe Dante (Gremlins) helmed two episodes of this chaotic parade of expert spoofery. Love those fake freeze-frames at the end of each episode!!

84) Trailer Park Boys (2001-present) Lisa first introduced me to this fantastic Canadian “reality” show following the inhabitants of a Nova Scotia trailer park
as they break laws, bond friendships, and try and fix the lives they’ve effed up royally. Outside of maybe David Mamet, no work in any medium has used curse words to such a poetic degree. The performances of its three leads (and sometimes writers) are remarkable: John Paul Tremblay (as the semi-sensible, perpetually rum-and-coke-holding Julian), Robb Wells (as the always down-and-out, yet-always-perfectly-pompadoured Ricky) and Mike Smith (as the endearing Bubbles, a kitty-lovin’ shopping cart collector with an alter-ego named Conky and impossibly thick bottle-bottom glasses). Actually, the performances of absolutely everybody on the show reach the mega-meta-state of comedy. Though often harsh, there’s a sweetness that also runs through Trailer Park Boys that’s best reflected by its sepia-toned opening credits sequence, one of my favorite ever for any TV show. Just see it, and on DVD—watching it on TV, you’ll just get a mess of bleeps!!!

83) Metalocalypse (2006-present) The newest show on my list, and certainly the best thing to come out of the largely dumb stoner morass known as Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim series of shorts, was at first a hard sell for me. My metal fan friend Ton Georganakis got me into it. It follows the five ultra-misanthropic members of Dethklok, a smash-hit, worldwide phenomenon metal band as they travel on tours using up the mounds of cash that have made the band “the fourth largest economy in the world;” meanwhile, they’re being pursued and spied upon by a shadowy sub-sub-CIA enclave who’re out to destroy them. I was suspicious of all this at first—the drawings looked too much like a superhero comic to me—but after a couple of episodes, I grew to love the joyfully blood-spattered goings-on spawned by these four nutjobs, and I even began—horrors—to get into co-creator Brandon Small’s catchy death metal songs that close each show. The Metalocalypse first season finale is textbook “epic quality,” with one of the greatest slow zoom-in shots in the history of animated or live-action images.

82) Fernwood 2-Nite (1977) A syndicated, late-night spin-off of Norman Lear’s overrated but unique Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, Fernwood 2-Nite starred Martin Mull as Barth Gimble, the exasperated host of a small-town talk show saddled with a goony sidekick (Fred Willard as Jerry Hubbard) and a downcast bandleader (Happy Kyne, played with wicked sourness by real-life, Oscar and Emmy-nominated composer Frank DeVol). The guest list was made up entirely of Fernwood’s local “celebrities,” and the thing just had this cheap, cobbled-together feel to it that was the antithesis of glitzy 1970s variety shows like The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour (for which I also have a certain illicit fondness). I haven’t seen it since I was a kid, but I bet it shaped my sense of humor just as much as Mad Magazine did. It’s another show I’d like to see get a DVD release, pronto!

81) Little House on the Prairie (1974-83) “But why?” you may ask. “Soooo corny.” Simple, my little ones. No other series has ever explored this historical place (Minnesota) and time (the 1870). It was a noble sort of effort, filled with good feelings, familial spirit, neighborliness, crushing drama, and a touching huggy-feely moment each episode that, no matter how many times you told yourself “I’m not gonna cry, not gonna do it this time,” well, dang it, ya cried anyway. Producer/star Michael Landon played Charles Ingalls, the patriarch of one of Walnut Grove’s most beloved families, whose friendliness, bravery and generosity always shone through when required. Karen Grassle was his devoted wife and touchstone, Melissa Gilbert was the precocious Laura (or “Half-Pint” to the initiated) and the pretty, blue-eyed Melissa Sue Anderson was her older sister Mary. Lots of regulars on the show wormed their way into my heart (love the bratty Nellie and her overbearing mother), and though it jumped the shark way before it was cancelled (after nine years, not including all the movies that were made after it was axed; the final one had Charles blowing up the abandoned Walnut Grove!), it left behind enough fine episodes to fill a small stream with tears. This below, however, will make you laugh: a Sims version of the famous show opening:

Isn't that the funniest thing ever? I love the last two shots with the futuristic talking bubbles floating over this frontier family! Thanks to AeroGirl88 for that!


Lisa said...

I'm especially happy to see "Little House on the Prairie" given the respect it's due. Landon made a marvelous show which completely captures an idealistic but not sugary-sweet historical time in America. Charmingly moral -- in the very best way, not the obnoxious mutation of the word that is thrown about today by various pressure groups -- and always entertaining, I love the show, especially the early years. Those episodes are perfect television and Landon was a television genius who really hasn't been given his proper due.
Another marvelous list, Dean!

Hepcat B said...

Martin Mull and Fernwood were so ahead of their time. The show felt so real, what with the genuine small-time variety acts (SO Broadway Danny Rose) and the host/co-host banter that was so intricately detailed yet delivered with absolute spontenaity.

Also I have to point out how multi-dimensional Mull's smarmy 70's guy is compared to the one-note smug delusion of Will Ferrell comparatively flat and dumbed-way-down take on same. Comedy of that subtlety and detail is such a rare thing, especially these days.

Jane said...

Wonderful list, Dean! This is The Flaming Nose on Steroids! Your posts are so intricate, I am spending more time reading the Nose than writing on it! I agree with Spongebob, James at 15 and (like Lisa) Little House. If they could bottle the latter and spray it over America, there would be peace in the USA at last. It is the most calming, soothing TV drama ever.

OK, trivia question gang: Where did the name "Fernwood Tonight" come from? Lisa, if anyone is going to get this, it will be you!

Lisa said...

I think it's from "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" -- I didn't look it up, but I think that's it! Even with all the TV choices available now, we don't have anything as weird as "Fernwood Tonight" or "MH, MH" -- something's wrong here! :-)

And I'd like to buy a bottle of that "Eau du Little House" -- I'd love to smell like Walnut Grove!

Hepcat B said...

Fernwood indeed was the setting for Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. Strangely I think Barth Gimble was not a running character on MHMH, but instead the twin brother of a role also played by Mull for some reason.

Jane said...

Nice guesses on Fernwood everybody. But the answer is, Fernwood was the little side street in Hollywood next to the KTTV building where this show was taped! Now that building is gone and they are putting in a high school there. But KTLA (Lisa and Jane's work Alma Mater)is still there. A little spot of Hollywood history to make your day.