Netflix Gems Part 2: Television

What, were you expecting movies?  Happy streaming, friends.

THE NETFLIX TOP 5s Part Two:  Television

Top 5 Modern TV

5.  Top Gear

Informative, funny, entertaining, British.  I’m always having a good time when I watch Top Gear.  I love the jokes, skits and reviews.  A good review show should make me care about the thing reviewed even if I didn’t care going into it.  Speaking as someone who has found it impossible to care about cars let alone comparisons between cars, I’d say you can trust my word that this show is a good time.

4.  Friday Night Lights

One of the few un-cynical shows out there, this re-imagining of the 2005 Peter Berg film is the best kind of soap opera.  It’s genuinely touching, exciting and it’s set in an interesting and rarely explored part of the country:  rural Texas.  It’s high-caliber melodrama.  (Note:  skip season 2.  It was scab-written during the writer’s strike and it’s very poor.  Go from season 1 to 3.  You’ll be glad you did.)

3.  Veronica Mars

Definitely one of the strangest premises for a TV series, but it proves to be a golden formula:  Encyclopedia Brown-style detective work updated for High School.  The show jumps from gumball teen show to melodrama to rich and complex noir with great ease.  What really makes the show work is that the lead Kristin Bell, is a really good actress.  The show is an overarching murder mystery with each episode containing little mini-mysteries along the way.  It’s very addicting, fun and smart.

2.  Sherlock

The BBC’s modern retelling of Sherlock Holmes is as riveting a thriller as any action movie.  It’s smart without being obtuse and properly updated without being cheesy.  Benedict Cumberpatch’s Sherlock takes the best bits of Jeremy Brett’s legendary performances (see below) and ratchets the anti-social tendencies up to 11.  Freeman succeeds in being both mousy and formidably loyal.  The deduction scenes are fantastic, the plots are inspired by the original stories but unafraid to divert and chart new paths.  It’ll keep you guessing and breathless.  The first series is three 90-minute episodes.  The next series should be coming sometime in the fall.  La La asks me weekly when it’s coming out.

1.  Avatar:  The Last Airbender

Surprised?  Seeing is believing, friends.  This is definitely the most surprising and delightful TV series I’ve ever been privileged enough to watch.  I’m an ardent hater of all things Anime (prejudiced, I know) and thus I wrote off all praise I heard for this show as the final death of all American kids’ cartoons supplanted with mindless, badly translated Japanese cartoons that dazzle the eyes but exhibit very little character or even logic.

Oh how wrong I was.

I started watching Avatar after hearing a reviewer I respect say that it “does Star Wars better than Star Wars”.  He was right.  Avatar is a rollicking, fantasy world-trotting adventure that makes you feel young at heart.  The action is intense but still manageable for kids.  As for the Anime, I found out that, though the animation is Asian, the writers are veterans from King of the Hill and Family Guy.  As I watched, I realized the Anime influence was intentional and that this show was in fact, a sensibly plotted, funny and above all cool series set in something like an Asian Middle-Earth.  The mythology is logical and the world is very deep without being overly complex.

It’s a simple premise:  Different cultures have people called ‘Benders’ that can psychically move one of the four elements air, earth, water and fire.  After the Fire Nation goes to war on the other cultures, only the Avatar, the fabled master of all four elements can save the day.  The only thing is, the Avatar is a 9-year-old kid who isn’t even close to ready for saving the world.

Really, every turn this show takes is a welcome one.  There’s some wild stuff, but it’s all so well designed and plotted that it feels as natural as Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader.  Avoid unfortunate live-action film, which is also available on Netflix; I hear it’s a dastardly imitation.

Bottom line:  This is grade A children’s entertainment with Pixar-quality story and characters.  To parents:  it is never crass or crude, it’s very imaginative and above all it’s logical.  Do you hurt when your kids get hooked on shows that defy all reason?  Avatar is different.  The storylines connect, characters evolve and grow.  It’s good for your kids’ brains.  As for adult appeal, I got sucked in, but not because there were any mature ‘winks’ written into the script.  The best children’s shows aren’t the kind that feel the need to shoehorn in veiled ‘for-adults’ references to court a broader audience.  The best children’s stories are the ones that are so good that adults can’t help but sit down and watch it with them.  Avatar:  The Last Airbender is wholly its own thing and it’s attractive to people of all ages because it’s just so solidly good.  Avatar:  The Last Airbender is an animated classic that’s as thrilling as any summer action film and long enough to explore the imaginative world it’s set in.

Honorable Mentions:

Battlestar Galactica – This remake of the ’70s ahem, uh ‘classic’ takes the cheesy premise of a fleet of humans on the run from robot Cylons in a very dark and serious direction.  The show is rich in social commentary, it’s thrilling and the fact that it takes place almost entirely within in the claustrophobia of the spaceship interiors makes it an engrossing world that’s hard to snap out of.
LOST – J.J. Abrams’ mystifying sci-fi epic deserves a shout-out for its originality, scope, consistency, emotion and re-watchability.
King of the Hill – Mike Judge’s masterpiece depicts the clash between tradition and suburbia in modern Texas.  Its intelligence and subtle wit put it at the top of the ‘adult animated comedy’ heap, and it’s its uncannily accurate anthropology of modern Texans that makes it one of the best shows of all time.  In America, it’s a sitcom.  In Texas, it’s a documentary.

Top 5 Classic TV

5.  Star Trek:  The Next Generation

“In many ways far superior, but will never be as recognized as the original.”  -Wayne Campbell.  The continuation of Gene Roddenberry’s campy space show takes philosophizing, metaphorizing and phasers to the next level.  The strong cast and episodic structure irons out the show’s wrinkles and makes it one of the most enjoyable television series of all time.

4.  The Dick Van Dyke Show

All ‘sitcom about sitcom’ shows (like 30 Rock) are indebted to this one.   Dick Van Dyke’s timing and Mary Tyler Moore’s stable acting (and stable hairdo) are eternal TV tropes.  This show is consistently funny and features some of the most storied TV moments of all time, including a legendary ‘guess-who’s-coming-to-dinner’-esque episode that brought racial snafoos cleverly to the fore.

3.  Sherlock Holmes

Starring the late, great Jeremy Brett who is known most to the world as the guy who sang “On The Street Where You Live” in “My Fair Lady”.  Turns out he was also the most brilliant interpreter of the world’s greatest detective and his performance of Holmes as a neurotic, bombastic egotist has affected every attempt at adapting the character since.  Brett still outshines them all with his charismatic portrayal of Holmes in some of the most exciting and genuinely affecting TV episodes ever made.  There are four ‘series’ that need to be looked up separately, including:  The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, The Return of Sherlock Holmes, The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes and The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.  There are also four or five TV movies starring Brett, but it’s the episodes that stand out.  Jeremy Brett is the best Holmes ever and he’s still fun to watch.

2.  Twin Peaks

David Lynch’s bizarre small-town murder epic.  It’s arguably one of the most influential TV shows of all time.  The oft used phrase “Who killed [insert female character]?” to market murder mysteries originated with Twin Peaks’ Laura Palmer.  Front and center is Lynch’s surreal style and heavy mood.  The show goes off the rails a bit in the 2nd season, but it never jumps the shark.

1.  The Twilight Zone

Rod Serling is the man.  That’s all there is to it.  This creator-driven passionate sci-fi/fantasy/horror show is hands-down the greatest television series of all time (sorry, ‘The Wire’).  There is no show as influential or imitated. The very idea of ‘high concept’ sprung from this show’s infinity of ideas.  Its and complete lack of fear and limits when dealing with difficult or controversial subject matter and its creativity, pathos and intelligence in crafting first-rate commentary was light-years ahead of its time (and ours, I think).  From the pilot onward, the show’s nightmares and speculations probed into the minds and hearts of mankind.  Loneliness, abstraction, yearning.  No TV show has since dared explore the spiritual and existential maladies of modern humanity so thoroughly.

Notable Episodes:

Season 1
Ep. 1 – Where is Everybody?
Ep. 5 – Walking Distance
Ep. 7 – Lonely
Ep. 8 – Time Enough at Last
Ep. 22 – The Monsters are Due on Maple Street
Ep. 34 – The After Hours

Season 2
Ep. 6 – Eye of the Beholder
Ep. 22 – Long Distance Call

Season 3
Ep. 1 –  Two Episode
Ep. 24 – To Serve Man
Ep. 33 – The Dummy

Season 5
Ep. 2 – Steel
Ep. 3 – Nightmare at 20,000 feet
Ep. 6 – Living Doll
Ep. 9 – Night Call

Honorable Mentions

Lonesome Dove – A 1989 Western miniseries that achieves the status of a true epic alongside Lord of the Rings and features excellent performances from a surprisingly large cast of the most veteran actors of all time.
Ken Burns’ The Civil War – I know I made a crack about him earlier, but The Civil War deserves mention as one of the greatest television events of all time.  Its retelling of history into narrative is intoxicating and though the ‘Ken Burns Effect’ of pan-and-scan photographs has been long since overexposed, it holds up well.  Lovers of narrative historical ‘true-novels’ like The Devil in the White City will immediately fall in love with Burns’ careful establishment of the era, cast of characters and ability to impart information in a memorable way.  If you haven’t watched it yet, do yourself a favor.


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About alexwilgus

Twentysomething from Texas. Living in Chicago. Working for a living. Writing for life.
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7 Responses to Netflix Gems Part 2: Television

  1. Beth Nielsen says:

    um, you forgot the original melrose place. killer 90’s guitar licks.

  2. The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street is my favorite Twilight Zone episode.

  3. alexwilgus says:

    Beth, I’m going to need to you guest-write a Top 5 reality show list. Not kidding.

  4. Holmes says:

    I have to give a shout out to my favorite TZ episode of all… The Bewitchin’ Pool… starring Mary Badham, who played Scout in the film adaptation of To Kill A Mockingbird. You did mention two of my other favorites: The After Hours and Living Doll.

  5. Jeff Linton says:

    Who was the reviewer that said Avatar “does Star Wars better than Star Wars”? I’d love to read a comparison of the two.

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