Thursday, January 27, 2011

Countdown: The 10 Greatest TV Seasons of All Time - #5

The X-Files - Season 2 - After quietly debuting on Friday nights (the least-watched TV night of the week) in 1993, The X-Files grew into an unlikely smash hit.  Here was a show starring two relatively unknown actors that was filmed in Canada on a low budget, using a guest cast culled from the local pool of talent, and it focused on the adventures of two FBI agents who travel around the United States chasing after aliens and monsters.  It sounds pretty terrible on paper, but creator Chris Carter and his small writing staff turned the potential weaknesses into strengths.  David Duchovny occasionally underplayed the role of Fox Mulder to the point of near-catatonia, but this is exactly what the role called for: dry humor and the ability to rattle off details about supernatural phenomena ad nauseum with a straight face.  And Gillian Anderson, who was only 26 when the pilot was shot, came out of nowhere to deliver a remarkably assured performance as Mulder's skeptical partner Dana Scully.  She was intelligent and strong, but occasionally displayed a tender vulnerability that gave the show its heart.  The Vancouver locations that doubled as anywhere from Florida to Montana were fantastic because it meant that every episode was cast in a perpetual gray dampness, enhancing the atmosphere of the show, as though a cloud of danger was constantly following our heroes.  Even the Friday night time slot (where The X-Files was relegated until the fourth season when the series moved to Sunday nights and became the the first series on the Fox network to ever crack the top 20 in the Nielsen ratings) was a perfect fit for a science-fiction show about two socially inept people working outside the mainstream and under the radar.  Like most quality shows that gain a following, The X-Files lasted about four or five seasons too long, but the three Friday-night seasons were were like a dark and original hidden gem well worth staying home for.  Season 2 especially found the pistons firing on all cylinders, prompted by the writers being forced to work around the surprise pregnancy of Gillian Anderson.  Agent Scully is abducted and our protagonists are separated, giving the season a continuity that deepened the characters and the mythology while solidifying the series as one of the best ever to air on TV.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Countdown: The 10 Greatest TV Seasons of All Time - #6

6. The Office (U.K.) Season 2 - When I first heard reports about a British comedy show that was supposedly funnier than anything on television at the time in the U.S., I assumed that it was just another sitcom that wouldn't be worth my time.  I enjoy the likes of Monty Python, Black Adder, and Mr. Bean, but I never found them as funny as similar shows on this side of the Atlantic.  Yet, the early 2000s was a dry period for American comedies so I caught up with The Office on DVD and my mind was thereafter blown.  This was not a sitcom - not in the traditional sense anyway.  It is shot in the style of a documentary, but I am hesitant to call it a "mockumentary."  The Office attains a level of realism that Christopher Guest would kill for and that makes it ten times more brilliant.  This is not embarrassment humor.  This is can't-watch-because-it's-so-fucking-awful humor.  There is no winking to the audience.  There is nothing to let us know that they can relax, that everything will be OK for the characters.  It won't be OK.  The employees of Wernham-Hogg paper company are doomed to suffer just like the rest of us.  But the writing and acting on display here milks as many laughs and, surprisingly, as much pathos from the material as humanly possible.  Choosing a favorite season of The Office is a bit silly because there were only twelve (amazingly consistent) half-hour episodes in the entire run of the series, capped off by an outstanding two-part Christmas special.  Yet, with my back against the wall, I chose the second season because of the dynamic between ineffectual manager David Brent (Ricky Gervais) and the new members of his sales team.