Well that was real mature...

Well that was real mature...

Monday, March 7, 2022

10 Television Shows to Know Me

Recently on Twitter the topic of “Ten Shows to Know Me” trended. Rather than make a list I wanted to expand on it as a recommendation for some excellent tv viewing. It is sci-fi heavy but it also has some classic and obscure gems worth checking out.

Honorable Mention: Homicide: Life on the Streets (1993-2000) Hands down the best police procedural of all time. Based on Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon’s non-fiction book and a creative staff that led St. Elsewhere’s Tom Fontana, the writing was some of the sharpest on broadcast television when it aired for seven seasons on NBC from 1993-1999. The 122 episodes and a TV movie in 2000 and laid the creative groundwork for HBO’s Oz (1997-2003) and The Wire (2002-2008) and was a showcase for some of the best actors and directors working in film and theatre. As of this writing it is not streaming on any service. 

Before moving on to the list of 10, I want to point out nine other shows considered for the Honorable Mention slot and would make an expanded top 20 list include (in no particular order): The West Wing (1999-2006), which was really really neck and neck with Homicide. Hands down the smartest show ever made. Picket Fences (1992-1996), Boston Legal (2004-2008), L.A. Law (1986-1994, 2002), Moonlighting (1985-1989), The Andy Griffith Show (1960-1968), The Twilight Zone (1959-64), Battlestar Galactica (1979-1980), and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (2008-2009). 

Now on to the top ten...

Tales of the Gold Monkey (1982-1983) This ABC series created by Donald Bellisario (Magnum, P.I.JAG, NCIS) was axed after a single season after being unfairly deemed a rip-off of Raiders of the Lost Ark (it was really inspired by a 1939 Howard Hawks film starring Cary Grant called Only Angels Have Wings). Set in 1938 in the South Pacific, it starred Stephen Collins as an ex-volunteer fighter pilot, his one eye dog and alcoholic mechanic as they team up with a U.S. spy and a bar owner with a murky past for adventures. Sometimes they come into conflict with (or even, to their surprise, get aid from) a Nazi posing as a priest, a Japanese princess and her Bushido bodyguard but most of the time it was just rip-roaring fun and adventure with a fantastic cast, rich characters, and a great sense of humor. 21 episodes were made (a two-hour pilot movie followed by 20 one-hour episodes). As of this writing it is not streaming on any service. In the late 80s two of the episodes (“Shanghaied!” And “Trunk from the Past”) were reedited into a tv movie and sold in syndication under the title Curse at the Gold Monkey

9. Quantum Leap
(1989-1993) Another series by Don Bellisario. At first glance the premise about a time traveler leaping into the bodies of others to fix recent history with the aid of a hologram seems complicated but it works well. As the NBC show first described itself in the original narration: “Theorizing that one could time-travel within his own lifetime, Dr. Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula) led an elite group of scientists into the desert to develop a top-secret project known as Quantum Leap. Pressured to prove his theories or lose funding, Dr. Beckett prematurely stepped into the project accelerator, and vanished... He awoke to find himself in the past, suffering from partial amnesia and facing a mirror image that was not his own. Fortunately, contact with his own time was maintained through brain-wave transmissions with Al (Dean Stockwell), the project observer, who appeared in the form of a hologram that only Dr. Beckett can see and hear. Trapped in the past, Dr. Beckett finds himself leaping from life to life, put things right that once went wrong, and hoping each time that his next Leap will be the Leap home.” The premise was flexible enough to give a great range of shows, each week you could tune in and either get a drama, a comedy, an action-adventure episode or straight sci-fi. The charm, chemistry and likeability of the starring duo was the heart of the show while its diverse storytelling was what kept it sustainable for five seasons and 95 episodes (a two-hour pilot followed by 93 one-hour episodes and a two-hour episode). As of this writing it is currently streaming on the Roku Channel and being broadcast on Comet TV and Peacock has commissioned a pilot movie for a reboot/sequel with Bellisario’s input. 

8. St. Elsewhere (1982-1988) This brilliant NBC medical series did for drama what M*A*S*H* did for sit-coms: It tore down walls between genres. Not only was the drama expertly written and performed it could also be equally comical. The plots, the characterizations, themes, and jokes are all pitch perfect. It was a critical darling that never did well in the ratings but still managed to run six seasons and 137 episodes and racked up 106 award nominations in the areas of writing, direction and acting. It launched the careers of Howie Mandel, David Morse, Mark Harmon, Bruce Greenwood, Ed Begley, Jr., and Denzel Washington and garnered awards for veteran actors like William Daniels, Bonnie Bartlett and Ed Flanders. As of this writing it is currently streaming on Hulu. 

7. Due South
(1994-1999) This Canadian series that aired for three seasons in America (two on CBS and one in first run syndication) is hard to define. Is it a crime drama or a fish out of water comedy? Is it an odd couple satire or family adventure? Is all the above? The series was created by Paul Haggis (writer/director of the Academy Award winner Crash) and ran for 66 episodes (a two-hour pilot followed by 64 one-hour episodes and a two-hour episode). The show follows a Canadian Mounty (Paul Gross) and his deaf wolf as they go to Chicago on the trail of the killers of the Mountie’s father and, after the pilot, remained, attached as liaison with the Canadian Consulate to help the Chicago police department on cases. The comedy can range from slapstick to word play and the drama can hit hard and regardless of the tone, the cast hits it out of the park every time. Wildly popular in its native Canada it was thrice canceled in the U.S which is almost enough to make me want to renounce my citizenship and take up curling. 

6. Firefly (2002) The short-lived sci-fi western was killed by Fox after only a two-hour pilot and 13 one-hour episodes were filmed (some not even aired) but the show exploded on home video and frequently makes many people’s wish list of shows that need to be brought back. Series creator Joss Whedon (Marvel’s The Avengers) did manage to give some closure to fans by making a motion picture follow-up, Serenity, in 2005. The show followed a defeated war veteran (Nathan Fillion, who was frequently compared to Harrison Ford) who commands a small ship and crew trying to eke out an existence on the edge of known space. Sometimes taking legitimate jobs and sometimes resorting to crime, the crew is constantly trying to evade the totalitarian Alliance who are searching for two fugitive members of the crew. As of this writing the show is streaming on Hulu and Disney+ is reportedly developing a reboot without Whedon. 

5. Alien Nation (1989-1990, 1994-1997) This science fiction allegory for race relations was based on the 1988 feature film. The series, developed by Kenneth Johnson (V, The Incredible Hulk, The Bionic Woman), focused on a quarter of a million aliens trying to integrate to our society five years after their ship crashed on Earth. Over the course of the show. a human police detective (Gary Graham) must deal with his feelings of bigotry when he is paired with the first alien promoted to detective (Eric Pierpoint) and his new alien neighbor (Teri Treas) moves in next door. The racial tensions flare as they investigate cases (some taking odd twists due to alien involvement) leading to drama and action, but the heart of the show is the often-comical way we see the clash of cultures. Johnson’s writing staff lay plenty of the comically absurd tropes on the audience revealing that once we strip away the silly differences, we are more alike than not. The cast is wonderful managing the comedy and the drama with equal aplome. The show ran for 27 total episodes. The show was initially canceled after one season on a cliffhanger after 22 episodes (a two-hour pilot and 21 one-hour episodes) but returned half a decade later for five more two-hour episodes/made for tv movies parceled out over three more seasons. It made TV Guide’s list of shows cancelled too soon. As of this writing the first season is streaming on Tubi. 

4. Farscape
(1999-2004) The sci-fi adventure series was Brian Henson’s attempt to expand his father’s legacy by showing they can do something more complex and mature than just Muppets. He succeeded in spades. Conceived with Rockne S. O’Bannon (Alien Nation feature film) and with a writer’s room led by David Kemper the show mixed drama and the wackiest elements of sci-fi for a show that was both visually and thematically unique despite its pedestrian premise. The series follows an astronaut (Ben Browder) who is shot though a wormhole and lost in space. He takes up with a group of escaped alien prisoners who are evading the brutal “Peacekeeper” regime. While show starts out as stand-alone episodes it becomes more serialized as it progressed. Admittedly, it was hit and miss at first, but partway through season two the main character invokes the name of “Buffy, the Vampire Salyer” and like Billy Batson yelling “Shazam!” the show was transformed. They knew what they needed to be tonally: A sci-fi Buffy that blends humor and pathos, at that point the show took off and never looked back. The puppet characters are every bit as three dimensional as the real-life actors and while Ben Browder plays a more intellectual hero, he still shines with charm and charisma. Farscape ran for four seasons (88 one-hour episodes) and ended on a cliffhanger in 2003 when Sci-Fi Channel canceled it after reneging on a fifth and final season. A year later a mini-series consisting of 2 two-hour episodes were made to wrap up the story. As of this writing it is being broadcast on Comet TV (unfortunately season 1-3 are cropped to widescreen and season one is heavily edited since the show was a joint venture with Australian television which has less commercials and ran 5 minutes longer than US shows) and as of this writing it is streaming on Amazon Prime. 

3. Buffy, The Vampire Salyer
(1997-2003) and Angel (1999-2004) Yes, I’m cheating by combining shows with their spin offs, get over it, I’m going it in the next two entries as well. Unhappy with the interpretation of his 1992 feature film script by Fran Rubel Kuzui, Joss Whedon adapted his creation to television. It ran for seven seasons and 143 episodes (142 one-hour episodes and 1 two-hour episode) across two networks (The WB and UPN) and developed a cult following. Whedon blends comedy, horror and drama seamlessly from the idea that hell and monsters are a great allegory for high school and teenagers as it follows high school girl Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Geller), the chosen one with a destiny to save the world by ridding it of demons and vampires. Strong characters highlight this series that not afraid to embrace the silly or darkest of the dark. The same can be said for the spin-off, Angel, which follows the title character (David Boreanaz), a vampire with a soul, as he searches for redemption by fighting the forces of evil. Angel ran five seasons (110 one-hour episodes) on The WB. Both shows made use of the season long story arcs which was less risky than J. Michael Straczynski’s five-year arc and become a stable of many series with the advent of streaming. As of this writing both shows are available on Hulu. 

2. The Star Trek franchise
(1966 to present) When Star Trek first premiered on NBC in 1966 it was mostly a failure. Not until man walked on the moon did the show find its cult audience while it was in syndicated reruns in the 70’s. Gene Roddenberry’s stories about a multi-ethnic crew exploring space in the far future gave him room to tell great stories that were allegorical to our society. With just 80 episodes, the characters of the original series have become so woven into our popular culture that would be hard pressed to find some who did not know Kirk, Spock, Scotty, Uhura or Sulu even if they never watched the show. The cult status of the original series allowed for an animated revival in 1973-1974 (consisting of 22 episodes that are far and away better than most cartoons of the era) six movies (1979-1991) and a trilogy of reboot films (2009-2016) but it was the sequel series Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994) that broke out and made Trek mainstream. It took
 place on a new starship almost century later the new crew became the top show in first run syndication and ran for seven seasons consisting of 176 episodes (174 one-hour episodes and 2 two-hour episodes) and four feature films (1994-2002). 

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-1999) was panned by critics as too dark but it’s possibly my favorite as it combines the best elements of the two predecessors and disregards the worst. It ran for seven seasons and 173 episodes (170 one-hour and 3 two-hour) in first run syndication and was based on a space station near a wormhole leading to the other side of the galaxy. I suspect the attitude toward the show had more to do with the fact it was never on by itself. It ran concurrently with the last two seasons of Next Generation and the first five season of its successor, speaking of which… 

Star Trek: Voyager (1995-2001) launched the UPN network and was always entertaining but lacked some of the punch of its predecessors. It had a solid cast and great production values. It ran seven seasons of 168 episodes (164 one-hour and 4 two-hour) and focused on a spaceship accidently transported across the galaxy trying to make its way home. 

The next in the franchise was Star Trek: Enterprise (2001-2005). A prequel set about a century before the original series. It ran for four seasons and 97 episodes (a two-hour primer followed by 96 one-hour episodes) on UPN. An excellent cast highlighted a show that frequently suffered from recycled Trek concepts its first two seasons but finally broke the mold with the franchise's first season long story arc in season three. The show would again change formats is final year with a series of multi episode arcs. Both of the latter seasons were great, but the franchise had lost too many viewers and Trek would take 12-year hiatus from the small screen. 

Trek returned to tv on the streaming platform CBS All Access (recently rebranded Paramount+) with Star Trek: Discovery in 2017. Set just before the original series, the show suffered from horrid continuity and inconsistent and unlikeable characters, but it did boast stunning feature quality production values. Attempts were made to adjust course in season two but continued to suffer from not having the “feel” of Trek. Finally, in season three it started clicking when the ship and crew were transported one thousand years into the future after the fall off the Federation. The moral core of the characters were nudged to the more optimistic side. Even when it was flailing in the early seasons, Discovery did excel at what Trek has traditionally done right. Representation of minorities. Just has the original series had an Asian man and black woman in the cast at the same time the country was enduring a war in Viet Nam and Civil Rights marches in our streets, Discovery has a gay couple and a non-binary character. Season four is currently airing and continues the trend of improvement from the third season. At the end of the season they will have completed 55 episodes and it has already been renewed for a ten-episode fifth season next year. 

Delays in production lead to two short seasons of Short Treks (2018-2020), an anthology consisting of ten mini-episodes with a run time of 8-18 minutes. These are fantastic little gems. Ranging from dramatic to comedic they are not constrained by any single style or genre, one episode was even used as backstory and set up for Paramount+'s next series, speaking of which... 

Star Trek: Picard, (2020 to present) is a follow up to Star Trek: The Next Generation focusing on the retired captain from that series and his quest to solve a mystery left in the wake of a long dead comrade. It was fun to see new stories starring the brilliant Patrick Stewart, but some of the characterizations seemed inconsistent with what was established twenty years earlier. Again, the cast and production values are superb, but there are too many moments where I can’t help but scratch my head and think “I don’t think that character would do that.” The first season of 10 episodes aired in 2020 and the ten-episode season two began March 3 and a 10 episode third season has recently wrapped production. 

Paramount+ continues to try to broaden the appeal of Star Trek with two new animated series. First with Star Trek: Lower Decks (2020 to present) an adult comedy focused on four junior officers on a mid-level ship. Set shortly after the Next Generation/DS9/Voyager era, the series is fun and funny but frequently suffers from being too self-aware. The lines the characters speak seem like something someone watching the show would say as opposed to someone living in the universe would say, although season two improved on that. Two seasons have aired a total of 20 episodes with season three scheduled to air late in 2022 and season four already in production for 2023.  The other animated series, Star Trek: Prodigy, is an action series aimed at kids and made in coordination with Nickelodeon. The first season premiered in October and will continue later in 2022 with a total of 20 episodes and season two is already in production. While aimed at kids, this really is a wonderful little series that adult fans can enjoy as well. A group of young aliens escape enslavement from a mining colony when they discover an abandoned starship. Mentored by a holographic tutor who mistakes the escapees for cadets in training, they are learning the values of the Star Trek society as they try to reach freedom. This show does the most important thing a kid’s show can do: It never writes down to the kids. Prodigy is also set after the Next Generation/DS9/Voyager era. The two shows have very different animation styles. Lower Decks is more of a Rick and Morty style while Prodigy is like the computer animation Star Wars: The Clone Wars

The next new series, Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, spins out of the second season of Discovery which featured re-cast characters from the original 1964 Star Trek pilot (“The Cage” and later the footage was recycled into the two-part 1966 episode “The Menagerie” and used as a flash back to approximately a decade prior to the beginning of the original series). The ten episode first season is set to debut on May 5th. Filming on season two is scheduled start before it even airs. It’s another prequel that is supposed to explore the time and crew of the Enterprise between the events of the original pilot and the first season of the original series. My hopes are high, but yet another recasting of the classic characters after the reboot films and painful continuity issues from the first two seasons of Discovery have me nervous, but Anson Mount’s likable and earnest performance as Christopher Pike (originally played by Jeffrey Hunter) will certainly be a draw. All the Star Trek series are streaming on Paramount+ and the original series is airing on ME-TV and Heroes & Icons. 

1. Babylon 5
(1993-1999, 2002 and 2007)) Frequently dismissed as a low budget Star Trek rip-off, Babylon 5 did what no other American show had ever attempted: Execute a series with a preplanned five-year arc. Most shows, up until then, were a series of stand-alone episodes or they were serialized but the writers were making it up as they went along. Creator J. Michael Straczynski decided that he would outline the show like a novel. Amazingly, not only did he get it made but recently he was asked to do it again when The CW approached him about re-booting his sci-fi epic about a diplomatic space station deep in neutral space. The original pilot movie debuted in 1993 in the Warner Bros. first run syndication package called the “Prime Time Entertainment Network,” the following year the run started in earnest. It was a low budget show, the sets were cheap, the guest actors uneven and the SFX were the first time any series had been done completely computer generated. However, the main cast was strong and getting stronger, the make-up was amazing, and the stories kept building, going from appearing to be stand alone to very interconnected. Plot points were set up and sometimes paid off months or even years later. Regular viewers were rewarded with foreshadowing and repeat viewings rewarded with events or dialogue that seemed like texture but then turned out to crucial later. It was a unique television experience that has not yet been duplicated. The ax seemed to be looming during year four. Not because of quality. Each season improved over the previous and it had hit an intensity in seasons three and four that were amazing, but PTEN was going away and all its shows with it. TNT network stepped in and picked up the show for its final season and commissioned a spin-off called Crusade, with a new five-year story set in the same universe. 

Straczynski and the TNT clashed over the direction of the show and TNT cancelled the series before it was aired during the summer of 1999. Despite the network interference, Crusade was still a very good show (in fact I would say the episodes are better than the first 13 episodes of Babylon 5) and the essential premise was that a crew of an experimental spaceship were searching for a manufactured plague that was visited on Earth by its enemies was a great way into a new story arc. 

Sci-Fi Channel commissioned pilot for another spin off for 2001 and Straczynski created Babylon 5: Legends of the Rangers. Set to air in September it was delayed because of 9-11 and in 2002 the pilot aired to disappointing ratings, so the show about a small beat-up ship manned by human and alien Rangers tasked with keeping the interstellar peace, was never produced. Again, the pilot, while not perfect, was stronger than the original Babylon 5 pilot and would have made a good show. 

Finally, in 2007 Warner Bros. Home Video wanted Straczynski to make a direct to video Babylon 5 follow-up series. The result of Babylon 5: The Lost Tales. It was extremely low budget, but very well acted and written. Warner Bros. wanted more but Straczysnki was disappointed, so it was the last Babylon 5 universe projects leaving fans with a total of 130 installments (a two-hour pilot followed by 110 one-hour episodes and 4 two-hour episodes, 13 one-hour episodes of Crusade, The Legend of the Rangers pilot movie, and The Lost Tales movie). Now there is a possibility of a re-boot by the original creator. As of this writing 111 episodes (the pilot movie and 110 one-hour episodes) are streaming on HBOMax.


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