In the present days of DVR and TiVo, television has reigned supreme for me. All of the old jokes about television remain. "Over 900 channels, and I can't find a damn thing to watch." Horse pucky. There is always something fascinating to watch on the tube, and I don't have 900 channels.
Television is a much more reliable means of entertainment. Great movies are hard to come by, for various reasons. Even "genre films" known for a large number of masterpieces have plenty of clunkers in their midst, and no director or actor that I'm aware of has had a perfect score. But with television, there is much more consistency in the end product. Great television series typically score home runs week after week, with only the occasional drag-you-down. And it is usually very obvious when a series begins to run out of steam. (Think of Lost during Season 3, or maybe even this last season. Think of Grey's Anatomy now. And so on.)
Because of television's reliability, accessibility, and technological advances, it's a no-brainer to me to follow what's on it rather than on the big screen. And as a new season of television begins, now fully removed from the woeful writer's strike nearly two years ago, there is much to look forward to. However, I'm sticking with the old favorites in this post and will assess the newbies when the pilots come out in late September.
There are eight must-see shows, in my opinion, on television right now. This is not a completely exhaustive list, since I do not get HBO or Showtime and because I don't have 24 hours a day to watch television. But, as for DVR-appointment-television
Mad Men -- The new season starts today, and I couldn't be more excited. I actually liked Season 2 far less than most viewers, as I thought it suffered from a little too much self-importance and convenient symbolism. But...even on the worst days, this show is better than basically anything else out there. An exceptional look at how the 1960s was a decade of the contradiction of appearances to reality, what better way to express this duality than from the advertising market? The show is slow...very slow...in pace, but the dialogue is tinged with an edge and suspense better than anything 24 could cook up. And the ensemble is simply superb. Jon Hamm is a master of his craft, and Elisabeth Moss has grown so much as an actress since her early days on The West Wing.
Breaking Bad -- Season 2 concluded early this summer with a blistering finale centered, literally, on the sky falling on the main character. A premise so bizarrely inaccessible that it could only turn into the best show on television. A middle-aged brilliant loser diagnosed with terminal cancer uses his "prognosis negative" as a wake-up call to leave his family all the money in the world by utilizing his knowledge of chemistry to make the best methamphetamine on the market. His downward spiral into criminal madness has been a harrowing thrill-ride into human oblivion. Meanwhile, his partner, a former student who has lived in the drug world all his life, is the actual show's hero. Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul have done the best work of anyone on television (besides Mary McDonnell from BSG) in the past year and have deservedly earned Emmy nominations for their work. The show is a visual and storytelling masterpiece, and is easily the most intense and the most provocative show on television. This is the best show you are not watching.
Burn Notice -- I love Chuck, as will be mentioned below, but this is the best spy show on television. For me, there is nothing funnier and more rewarding than watching Michael Westen, Sam Axe, and Fionna Glenanne clean the streets of Miami week after week. This is popcorn television at its finest, and the latest season only confirms that. Gabrielle Anwar is doing particularly good work this season, and Bruce Campbell is a comedic rock star. The summer finale, which just aired two weeks ago, was stunningly good.
Supernatural -- Here's the show that knows how The X-Files worked. Focus on the story, and the characters will become important. From the show's lowly beginnings, this has become a sci-fi winner in every respect. Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki play brothers Sam and Dean effortlessly well in a premise that can easily be viewed as "been there, done that". Maybe, but not this well. In particular, look for the episodes written by Ben Edlund, which are always a step above the rest.
Chuck -- I think this is the best comedy on television. Period. Adam Baldwin can do more with a grunt than anything any actor on The Office can do. And the glee with which this show is presented week after week. Things are funnier when you know the cast and crew are having a blast. No one has more fun than those involved with this show, including its viewers. A spy comedy, a nerd herd, and a complete romantic pair mismatch made in heaven? Yes, I'll be watching.
30 Rock -- Yes, this season showed a slump in quality. But I don't laugh harder during any other show. The outrageous satire continues to shine when it parodies reality in the most ridiculous of ways. And who better than to pair Alec Baldwin, master of deadpan, with Tina Fey, master of clumsy comedy. The show has lost a little focus since its uproarious first two seasons, but I'm hoping for a resurgence this fall. Less famous names, more focus on parodying the craft.
Lost -- I hated the time travel season. I think the show has lost itself in its mythology hopelessly now. But when the show focuses on the characters, nothing comes close to engaging me as much as this sci-fi thriller. Going into its last season, there are many unanswered questions, some of which, I imagine, will be unanswerable. But I can't wait to see them try anyway. If only to see the great cast work its magic one more time.
Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations -- Every time I watch this show, I learn a lot about food and a great deal more about the crazy, beautiful world this is. Bourdain approaches his travels with a humorous combination of zeal and cynicism. And almost always, he ends up loving a country he never expected to care about. He learns about culture through his knowledge and love for food. There's no better way. And Bourdain's clever wit; nearly infinite knowledge of anything in literature, art, music, movies, and television; and refusal to become snobbish about food make this show a winner week after week. Currently in Season 5, Bourdain has already begun traveling the world for Season 6. I couldn't be happier.