There was a time when movies ruled my world, but now it seems, American TV shows are taking over my life. My Sky+ box doesn't know whether it's coming or going half of the time, and let's face it, we've all experienced that agonizing moment when you have to decide whether to delete the latest episodes of True Blood or The Walking Dead, in order to record the season finale of Boardwalk Empire. It's a horrible position to find yourself in, but things aren't about to get any easier. American TV shows are taking over the world, and A-list movie stars are jumping on the bandwagon in favour of meaty character arcs, a chance to explore new mediums, and of course, the comfort and security of a regular pay check.
In Part One we'll be exploring the ten shows that helped shape my love of American TV, before moving on - in part 2 - to the programmes that are currently rocking my world. We'll also take a look at the TV that could shape our small screen future, not to mention some of the unsung heroes of American drama. A lot of shows are missing of course, I have yet to sample the delights of Deadwood, The Wire and even The X-Files. That particular series came to an unsatisfactory conclusion long before I got around to watching it. Besides, television is viewed in so many ways now, the need to tune in every week has become a thing of the past. It may have resulted in us having to add spoiler alerts to our lunchtime discussions, but at least we're free to discover shows at our own pace now. Talking of which...
Top 10 Shows: The Past
10/ Prison Break
Prison Break is an action packed television drama created by Paul Scheuring, which aired on Fox between 2005 until 2009. The series revolves around two brothers; one has been sentenced to death for a crime he did not commit, and the other devises an elaborate plan to help his brother escape prison. It's a simple premise, one that the original season makes the most of at all turns. The success of the first run meant that a second season was inevitable, but changes were made so that the series could remain fresh. The writers succeeded for the most part but cracks started to show as it entered its third season.
The Writers Guild Strike meant that season 3 was shorter than the others, but it also marked a return to prison life for many of its popular characters. Season 4 consisted of 24 episodes, 16 of which were aired from September to December 2008. After a hiatus, it resumed on April 17, 2009 and concluded on May 15, 2009 with a two episode finale. The final season of Prison Break must've been a testing time for the writers, as they struggled to hold onto an ever decreasing audience. Thankfully, the final two episodes tied up most of the loose ends and the series - despite reaching its peak in season 2 - ended on a delirious high note. Prison Break was a tense, exciting adrenaline-fuelled ride for the most part, complete with memorable characters and loopy plot twists. A guilty pleasure but a pleasure none the less.
J.J. Abrams really can do no wrong. Back in 2001 however, little was known of the future saviour of Star Trek and (cough) Star Wars. He can't mess it up now, surely? Alias was the action series that thrust Jennifer Garner's feisty American spy, Sydney Bristow, into the limelight. Providing mainstream television with a weekly fix of espionage, drama and extensive wardrobes. Alias lasted five seasons, and in all honesty, I haven't got a clue what was happening most of the time; a single episode of Alias was as densely plotted as an entire season of Lost. Themes of family, betrayal, lost artefacts and (cough) zombies were explored over the period of five years, before concluding in lightweight fashion after viewing figures dipped.
To be fair to the show, part of the problem was with the television network, ABC, which failed to find a decent timeslot for the show. Alias was thrust from Sundays to Thursdays to Wednesdays and back again before limping towards an anti-climatic finale in 2006. It did introduce the world to Bradley Cooper though, and at its best, Alias was an action-packed, rollercoaster ride of high drama and suspense. It was also a lot of fun. If only to see what Garner was (not) going to wear next. If only I knew what the hell they were banging on about half of the time. Still, Jennifer Garner + extensive wardrobe = lightweight escapism of the purest kind.
A Thracian gladiator who led a major slave uprising against the Roman republic. Boy, what a life he led. When it comes to the life and times of Spartacus, historical evidence is a little bit sketchy. Which suited Starz - the American satellite television channel - just fine. Between them, Stephen S. DeKnight (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel) and Robert Tapert created the guiltiest of guilty pleasures. Sex, violence, nudity, bloodshed and a little more nudity combined to exhilarating effect. Welsh Australian actor Andy Whitfield was cast as Spartacus in the original series, and it's a role he'll be long remembered for. Sadly, Andy was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin Lymphoma after the first series and the second season was put on hold as a result.
A prequel series was filmed instead, but Andy succumbed to his illness soon after and Liam McIntyre was brought in to take his place. Spartacus continued for two more seasons, and unlike most popular TV shows, Stephen S. DeKnight insisted on ending the show on a high. Things didn't end well for Spartacus, that's hardly a spoiler, but over the course of four seasons he rocked the world with epic battles, Jupiter's cock, femme fatales and heroic bloodshed. It was an absolute blast from start to finish. No more, no less. McIntyre proved to be a strong replacement but Andy Whitfield was Spartacus. It also provided John Hannah and Lucy Lawless with their meatiest roles, not to mention IIithyia (Viva Bianca), arguably the most devious TV screen villain of all time. Not to mention the sexiest.
Angel is the TV spin-off from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Joss Whedon's first smash hit television series. It takes the brooding vampire, Angel (David Boreanaz), away from Sunnydale and into the heart of L.A. where he sets up Angel Investigations in order to 'help the helpless'. Angel, along with Buffy regulars Cordelia Chase (Charisma Carpenter) and Wesley Wyndam-Pryce (Alexis Denisof), fight the good fight against evil law firm Wolfram & Hart, in an epic action drama that is darker in tone than its bright and breezy sibling. Not that Buffy was afraid of walking home alone in the dark, you understand.
Fans of the original show never had it so good, with cross-over episodes and guest appearances galore, and the story arcs were just as inventive as they had been in Buffy. Angel lasted five seasons and was cancelled in its prime. In fact, Joss Whedon compared the cancellation to 'a healthy guy falling dead from a heart attack'. Rumours persist that it was Joss' insistence of an early renewal that prompted the cancellation. Whatever the reason, both Angel and its fans deserved a whole lot more than season five's ambiguous ending. Still, where there's life there's hope. Even if it is of the undead variety.
Who doesn't have a 24 ringtone on their mobile device? Shame on you. 24 tells the story of Counter Terrorist Unit (CTY) agent Jack Bauer (Kiether Sutherland). Each series consists of 24 hours of Jack Bauer's life, as he attempts to save the world from terrorists, nuclear strikes and his calamitous - yet stunningly beautiful - daughter. Jack's race against time was one of the most gripping TV shows ever created; action packed, explosive and thrilling throughout. It wasn't afraid to kill off main characters either, with Day 5 providing a series cull like few ever witnessed.
The show runners weren't afraid to bring characters back either, and whatever your take on Season Seven's opening episode, I for one was raving with a gravelly drawl. Kiether Sutherland has described Jack Bauer as 'the role of a lifetime', which is probably why we'll be seeing more of him in coming months. That and the fact Touch - his next big thing - was rubbish. 24: Live Another Day will take place in and around London, a series of twelve episodes that reunites us with TV's greatest action hero. Jack is about to have the longest day of his life all over again. Beep. Beep. Beep. Beeeeep.
The final season sucked. There, I said it. I had to get that off my chest. As a result, I kind of liked the final episode. Especially the final moments between Dexter (Michael C. Hall) and Debra (Jennifer Carpenter), but that's probably because the writing had become so lazy at this point, even lukewarm creative juices were welcome. The previous seven seasons had kept me hooked however, line and sinker, providing Sunday night television with arguably my favourite fix. Dexter worked as a blood splatter analyst for the Miami Metro Police Department, while simultaneously leading a double life as a serial killer.
Season Four is where the series reached its peak, but Dexter's (and mostly Debra's) journey remained compulsive viewing throughout its seven year run. The most intriguing issues, not to mention the show's opening gambit, were never truly resolved, as the writing team lost their nerve and the studio - for which Dexter had become a major cash cow - put pay to the obvious outcome. Dexter was still a captivating endeavour though, and at its peak few could rival it. Dark, delirious and occasionally devious, Dexter Morgan deserved a much better send off than the storm that followed. Maybe he'll get one someday. I wouldn't bet against it.
Midway through the second season it was evident that the writers of Lost hadn't quite anticipated the phenomenon they had created. They were digging themselves into a hole of hatch like proportions, and sooner or later, their numbers would be up. The fact that they turned it around is testament to the writing talent of creators Jeffrey Lieber, J.J. Abrahams and Damon Lindelof. The ending was always going to disappoint some viewers, the anticipation had been building for six years, over the course of six seasons and 121 episodes. The story of Jack, Kate and the survivors of Oceanic Airways Flight 815 is one of the most genre-defying mysteries ever committed to television.
Of course there are plot holes, of course there are talking points that still cause controversy to this day, but there's no denying that, at its peak, Lost was one of the most creative, compulsive television experiences of all time. As for the twist at the end of Season 3, surely it goes down in history as one the most jaw-dropping moments in television history? Entertainment Weekly summed it up beautifully by saying, "Plane crash. Smoke monster. Polar bear. Crazy French lady. The Others. The hatch. The Dharma Initiative. Time-travel flashes. Name another network drama that can so wondrously turn a ? into a !" Couldn't have put it better myself.
3/ Breaking Bad
It took me a while to get into Breaking Bad but it soon became apparent why - like The Sopranos before it - Vince Gilligan's 'contemporary western' is considered to be one of the greatest television shows of all time. Breaking Bad is the two-year long story of Walter White (Bryan Cranston), a high school chemistry teacher diagnosed with lung cancer. Over the course of five seasons, Walter lurches from protagonist to antagonist as he turns to a life of crime in order to support his family. An unruly ex-student, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), joins him on his offbeat, drug-fuelled journey.
Breaking Bad is surreal and intoxicating, beating down the boundaries of television drama at every turn. Widespread critical acclaim has led to a spin-off series being commissioned, apply titled 'Better Call Saul'. Whatever the outcome of that diversion, Breaking Bad will forever stand the test of time. So I guess I'll leave you with the words of Walter White, because "I've still got things left to do".
2/ The Sopranos
The Sopranos is an American drama series created by David Chase, regarded by many as the greatest television series ever made. It follows the New Jersey based Italian-American mobster Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), and the trials and tribulations of mixing family life with the world of organised crime. Six seasons and 86 episodes later, The Sopranos was still causing controversy, with an ending that divided audiences the world over.
Sadly, with the late great James Gandolfini no longer with us, we will never get to know what really happened in those final moments, but that's part of the beauty of shows like The Sopranos. The writing was sublime, as was the diversity of character and performance. Chase and his regular writing team weren't afraid of taking chances either, and the end result was truly mesmerising. Earlier this year, the Writers Guild of America named it the best written TV series of all time. You won't find any arguments here. Just when you think you're out, they pull you back in.
1/Buffy the Vampire Slayer
"You're just a girl". "That's what I keep saying." That one exchange, in the 100th episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, encapsulated Joss Whedon's original concept for the series. Buffy is one of the most groundbreaking TV shows ever created, and it opened the door to much of what we view today. In 1997, with the help of the WB Television Network, Joss Whedon introduced the world to the real Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar), the latest in a long line of young women known as 'Vampire Slayers'.
As the series progressed of course, Buffy and the rest of the Scooby Gang went on to battle all matter of demons, both inside and out, but with Whedon in the driver's seat, Buffy the Vampire Slayer took on the world and won. Intelligence, wit, great characters and brilliant story arcs combined to create one of the most original TV shows ever made.
Not bad for the spin-off of a misguided and unloved horror comedy starring Kristy Swanson. Standout episodes like 'Hush', 'Once More with Feeling' and 'The Body' will forever stand the test of time. Buffy still exists today of course, in the form of novels, comic books and video games, but the original TV series remains one of the most influential shows of all time. AW