12:05pm PT by Tim Goodman
Critic's Notebook: In Praise of 10 Superbly Written TV Series
I had a week off, ostensibly to do something other than watch or think about TV — and yes, some of that actually happened — but there's always peripheral brain creep when it comes to television, with everything from highbrow conceptual ideas to lower-brow (but probably more fun) list-making clanging around in my head. A recent random thought that popped up concerned great writing on television. Quickly — in about a nanosecond — four examples came to mind.
The result was oddly troubling. But at least in that flash of a moment, it was clear that I don't have recency bias.
What's that? Well, our brains are basically set up for recency bias. Whatever we've experienced memorably in the very recent past is what sticks. The best food we've eaten or wine we've discovered, even the sex we've had. If you're older, nostalgia might be more upfront in the brain pan, or maybe thinking about things like "best vacation memories" takes you back to Paris because Paris is sublime and your last five holidays have been staycation; trip to in-laws in Boise, Idaho; staycation; ill-advised camping trip; much too nearby bed-and-breakfast (and no, thankfully, that's not my itinerary). But often what's newest is what comes back in our mental search results.
So why, when a fleeting idea about great writing on television flashed in my head, did I, without hesitation, reel off Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Wire and The Sopranos?
Probably because they are all Hall of Fame first-ballot series, yes.
But they are also, respectively, from 2007, 2008, 2002 and 1999. That's not recency bias. (And hell, there's not a comedy in there and I love comedies.) Rather than wonder about the why of it all, I wrote down a list of current, wonderfully written series.
That was harder than originally imagined. Because there are so many excellently written series that I was riffing faster than I could jot them down. The list grew, and grew, to ridiculous proportions. I guess that's a fine sign for the state of the industry, or the writers in the industry, in 2018.
In the end, I kept it simple: a list of currently produced series, each with more than one season under its belt (otherwise, with the likes of The Deuce, Counterpart and so many others, this list would have no end), whose writing has lingered with me in some way. Not just funny jokes for the comedies or standout emotional scenes for the dramas, but something cumulative where story construction, dramatic tension, intelligence, relentlessly creative humor, poignancy, thoughtfulness and believability, among other fine traits, left a mark. In no particular order, here are the 10 series I chose:
The Americans (FX): I have little doubt that when The Americans is considered for its place on the all-time list of great dramas, it'll be in the single-digit category. I've believed that from the start. But this final season is bringing so many strands together, revealing intriguing, nuanced and powerful elements through the central relationship between Elizabeth and Philip Jennings and their family ties. Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields deserve credit for making this one of television's best series, but now is also a good time to reiterate that a great series is the sum of its parts. So many writers contribute to the greatness of a series — including those Hall of Fame titles referred to earlier — that it would be impossible to list them all. Most of the mentions here will be the series creators or those who wrote the most episodes or shaped the vision.
As Americans concludes, this rich combination of spy game and marriage story has been artfully constructed and a joy to behold. It never was a ratings powerhouse. It's been, like many fine series before it, shamefully snubbed for what it deserved at the Emmys. But the overall work, the series as a whole, is a substantial, impressive achievement.
Better Call Saul (AMC): Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould have done the near impossible in extending the Breaking Bad legacy to a completely different series with its own separate, distinct vibe. Not content to be on the Mount Rushmore lineup, they beat the odds with this prequel. Taking the character of Saul Goodman, who often lightened up some of the darker and heavier aspects of Breaking Bad, they opted for poignancy rather than comedy. They saw that the flawed Saul Goodmans of the world might generate just as much material as the Walter Whites (and, for that matter, the other characters in their orbit). Despite the inescapable weight of being compared with one of the greatest dramas ever, Gould and Gilligan didn't shrink from the challenge. They made Saul its own distinctive, inventive, independent thing. It started with the writing, as it always does.
Fargo (FX): If you love language, and the ways that dialogue can be weird, bloody, funny, compelling and unexpected, then how could you not love Fargo? If Gilligan and Gould battled their previous successes, Noah Hawley might have had a more daunting task: taking on the Cohen brothers in general and an iconic film specifically. His spinoff of the 1996 feature had to be original yet recognizable in terms of the Cohens' canon, without being derivative or watered down. The task was, let's be honest, impossible and stupid. Three remarkable seasons later, Fargo the anthology series is its own kind of masterpiece. I take so much joy from watching these episodes — and, having taught this series in a visual studies class, I've watched all the episodes multiple times — that it's hard to describe. "That's a great choice," "Whoa," "Brilliant," "Jesus," "Rewatch!" and "!!!!" are some of the notes I've made, along with the terms "dying" and "dead" — my shorthand for laughing and shaking my head at the same time. Hawley is pretty exceptional, people.
Veep (HBO): Creator Armando Iannucci's brilliance kicked off this series, and there are not enough respectful bows to acknowledge the triumphs of his four seasons as showrunner. David Mandel, in yet another Herculean task, then took the helm of television's most searing, relentless comedy. Not only does Veep hold up on repeat viewing, but it gets better. The writing on this series is virtuoso level. It's like the writers are toying with the audience: Oh, you thought those nine connected riffs between multiple characters that ratcheted up the humor in each successive exchange were something to behold? How about we do it again and add a few more characters and toss in some visual jokes as well? Another character walks into the frame — Kevin Dunn's Ben Cafferty is a prime example — and I know that once he opens his mouth something devastatingly funny will come out of it. You put a legend like Julia Louis-Dreyfus at the center and, well, it's just not fair to every other comedy. This is a show you can just listen to — not even see a picture — and be slayed by it.
Game of Thrones (HBO): There's no greater ongoing story structure on television than Game of Thrones, and sometimes you just have to sit down, hold your head in your hands and marvel at it (in addition to all the moving parts). But David Benioff and D.B. Weiss also manage to combine the fantastical elements of dragons and White Walkers and the undead, etc., with what is essentially the royal British school of monarchy performances. Making arch pronouncements from kings, queens and advisers believable is no easy feat. But Benioff and Weiss mash it all up into this seamless gravitas machine, juggling what seem like hundreds of characters and thousands of plot points, and none of it becomes as ponderous as, ahem, certain BBC/PBS fare can sometimes be (I said sometimes, so save the anger). Game of Thrones is both prestige and popcorn, a mix that very few can pull off. People can quibble all they want (and I've done my share), but quibbles don't detract from the fact that this series is a monolith, a dominant and consistent force of high quality since episode one. The ambition here is staggering — and it's the writing that has realized that ambition.
You're the Worst (FX): Series creator and writer Stephen Falk publicly gave me a nice little lesson in being dead wrong after this series launched, and since my turnaround, my enthusiasm for the show has never flagged. Falk's ability to be blisteringly funny while being intelligent (or purposefully ridiculous) has served the show from the start, but so has a surprisingly effective sense of risk-taking, along with nuanced emotional lines. A lot of very funny, very good comedies can downshift into an acceptable level of performance (and many do), but You're the Worst has always felt like Falk has taken to heart the opportunity to make great television, and never mailed in a moment. A lot of people who haven't discovered this show will do so eventually, via streaming, and in the process they'll encounter one of TV's most surprising underdogs.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Fox): Switching from Fox to NBC next season, the briefly canceled Brooklyn Nine-Nine will still be going strong. There are precisely two network sitcoms on this list, but the two that are here are here for a reason: insane consistency. I've never watched an episode of Brooklyn Nine-Nine when I didn't laugh at least a handful of times. There have been 112 episodes since 2013. That's called killing it. Creators Dan Goor and Michael Schur are no strangers to TV comedy success, but their achievement here (and that of a very strong writing staff) is hard to overstate. Network television is a grind, for starters. Limitations abound. And outside that realm, the competition is fierce, and it's natural for people to gravitate to newer, shinier things. When you come back to an old standby and laugh your ass off, that's the sign of truly phenomenal writing.
The A Word (Sundance): There are two seasons of exceptional writing from Peter Bowker here, exploring not only the series' core issue of autism, but also the strains of marriage, nuances of extended families, love in a small village, boredom in a small village — some of the most closely examined minutia of life that you'll ever watch, all of it spot-on and relatable; you know it in your soul to be pure and true. The A Word is bursting with instances of what it means to try to live an ordinary life, and there aren't many series that start from that place. Elsewhere, characters want to be a queen or a hero or the funniest person on the planet or a great detective or some such thing. Bowker's slice of life in this series is a whole lot smaller than that, but arguably more important — and certainly more rewarding on an artistic level. Following young Joe, his family and the people in his community has been extraordinarily enriching in a very short period. I hope there's more to come.
Better Things (FX): Yes, I could have included Netflix's Master of None or FX's other gem, Atlanta, both with their own creatively ambling, rule-breaking ambition and artistic intent, but what creator and writer Pamela Adlon and co-creator and writer Louis C.K. have come up with in Better Things over the course of two seasons has a more direct approach to the storytelling, and as the series matures, the consistency of that strategy produces a real richness in the writing, character development and overall impact. Adlon's insight into what it means to be both mother and daughter while dealing with her desires has made for exceptional television. Brashly, ferociously funny, thoughtful, direct and intuitive, the writing on Better Things isn't just a necessary dose of feminism in the small-screen landscape — as a take on what life is like in modern Los Angeles, it's as real as Bowker's depiction of the remote Lake District in England on The A Word. When writers make the world a smaller, more understandable place, no matter where their stories unfold, that's talent.
Bob's Burgers (Fox): I could probably just say, "Read the Brooklyn Nine-Nine entry above, and all of what I said there applies here." But because it's animated, Bob's Burgers has certain storytelling advantages when it comes to humor. Shockingly, the series rarely relies on that gift. This is an animated series that's arguably more grounded than most real-life comedies, and that's because all the characters are lovingly (and yes, quirkily and hilariously) fleshed out, even while they live in a flat, primary-color world. Loren Bouchard and Jim Dauterive have created an eclectic and funny family that's less cartoony than what your eye is telling you. Trading in great gobs of ridiculous repartee with splashes of heart and sweetness (but never anything too sentimentally icky), they've built a world from impressively intelligent writing without going even slightly out of the way to show off that writing. Since 2011, there have been eight seasons and 149 episodes that, even upon multiple viewings, are always funny, clever and heartfelt.
Thanks to all the writers, named and unnamed, who have made this small list of exceptional series a joy to watch. I meant no disrespect when, conceiving the idea for this list, the first batch of series that popped into my head dated back a decade or more. After all, they're pretty great company.