So you may have noticed that the Top 40 is being split into 5 shows announced instead of 10. The reason is I’m going to ramble more about these all important TV Shows and why they made the list so high. So to make it all fit easier it’s being knocked down to 5. However I’ll be posting these a little faster at 5 a day from here on. So lets just get to number 40….
40. DEXTER (2006-???? Showtime)
DEXTER is different. It’s a police procedural show at heart, totally turned upside down. How did they manage that? Well the title character is a blood splatter expert for the Miami Metro Police Department. He uses really good detective work to find the bad guys. Oh yeah, once caught he kills them. You see, Dexter is a serial killer. A serial killer who only kills bad people.
DEXTER is mostly told from the POV of Dexter, complete with voice over work. Over the course of the series we’ve learned why Dex is the way he is. We’ve been given background looks into his childhood where when his father (a policeman himself) catches him killing neighborhood pets and how his father decided to deal with it. He realized that unchecked Dexter would become a killer. So he decided to teach Dexter a code: Kill bad people, but make sure they’re 100% guilty first.
The show is extremely complex because his father has since passed on. There is no one that knows Dexter’s secret, not even his sister a detective for Miami Metro herself. Dexter also does his best to fake being a normal guy. So he dates, and as the series progresses he gets involved with a woman with 2 kids. He becomes a family man. Like WEEDS the other popular Showtime series Dex has a baby on the way, however for this show it is far less jumping the shark and more where the show just seemed to need to be heading.
James Manos Jr. is an Emmy Award winning writer, and he chose to develop the project from a book entitled Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay. Manos would choose to ditch the series of books as influence after the first book (and rightly so, they get weird). Manos’ ability to lead us all down a path watching a horrendously bad person and root for them is spectacular and greatly different from anything else on TV.
One thing the series did better than any other is a Title Sequence. The DEXTER Title is even Emmy Award winning, it takes extremely mundane tasks of a day in Dexter’s life from flossing to making a meal and in doing so shows off his extremely dark side. You watch the title sequence, and you just get it. Which is in itself amazing.
The show is also significant for Showtime. It’s the first show they’ve ever had that flat out was better than what HBO was offering. For the longest time HBO was known for providing the best shows on cable, and Showtime was entirely incapable of making any kind of serious instep into changing their Brand to be recognized for high quality original TV programming. DEXTER changed that. It garnered their first “Best Drama,” emmy nom, and “Lead Actor in a Drama,” emmy nom. With Showtime already having WEEDS on the air, this cemented the idea that Showtime was finally providing quality original programming.
39. LA LAW (1986-1994 NBC)
One of the greatest Legal Dramas of all time. NBC got lucky when they convinced Stephen Bochco to develop a show for them. Bochco had been discussing an idea with ex entertainment lawyer Terry Louise Fisher about a show that dealt with the hot topics of the day. Thus the non-crime legal drama was born.
It all dealt with the law firm of McKenzie, Brackman, Chaney and Kuzak. The pilot dealt with the death of Chaney ( a tax lawyer and closeted homosexual) and used that incident to introduce us to the other members of the law firm. Probably the most famous was Arnie Becker an extremely promiscuos divorce lawyer played by Corbin Bernsen. Yes, Corbin used to be someone before he was on PSYCH.
The importance of this show was that Bochco needed writers with legal backgrounds so one of the writers he went out and hired was Boston Lawyer David E Kelley, who had just finished writing the movie FROM THE HIP (which in itself is a greatly under-rated movie that just about nobody has seen). With Kelley writing, and then running the show the series exploded into the mainstream with the move to NBC’s primier time slot: Thursday Nights 9/10 pm. Kelley would also end up creating DOOGIE HOWSER MD with Bochco for ABC. Bochco was so successful at this point in time in TV that he started getting offers to run Networks.
38. CHAPPELLE’S SHOW (2003-2006 Comedy Central)
Dave Chappelle was at the time a mostly unknown comic whose immense talents had yet to be fully taken advantage of by Hollwood. That all changed when Chappelle’s sketch comedy went on the air. The nation was introduced to one of the funniest shows ever created.
The show started with some Chappelle standup that would then segway into a skit. The skits covered everything from the entertainment industry, prostitution (ok maybe I’m getting a little redundant), drugs (ok I am), guns, music, etc. all with an edge that hadn’t been seen since LIVING COLOR aired on Fox. Unlike that show this show was handled with a no holds barred attitude. It pushed the limits of decency every chance it got and it did it in style.
They made fun of everything including PBS’ FRONTLINE. The early episode where the faux PBS segment follows the blind white supremist racist (portrayed by Chappelle) who had no idea he was black is infamous. Simply one of the best sketches since Eddie Murphy’s skit on SNL where he went into a bank and couldn’t get anything, then went in with white makeup and had money just given to him.
Chappelle would of course be remembered for going nuts and quitting on the extremely popular show that could have lead him to piles and piles of money. The show was replaced by Carlos Mencia a known stealer of jokes. That show pales in comparison to this original work.
37. HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREET (1993-1999 NBC)
David Simon wrote the book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets which would go on to inspire both this show, and Simon’s own show THE WIRE. However before HBO got a piece of the work, it was NBC that would make the most of it. The show was so popular when it appeared that it almost got the blessed Thursday 9/10 slot when LA LAW went off the air, but just lost it to ER.
The show follows around a group of detectives from Baltimore PD in cases that were often derived directly from Simon’s book which were in fact based on real events. The man most recognized for the success of the show was writer Tom Fantana and the work he helped produce kept the show extremely popular and airing on Friday Nights. So remember that when someone calls Friday a “death slot,” there have been numerous success stories for Fridays and HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREETS is definitely one of them.
What the show did that was different was it took a look into the lives of detectives and showed us a very non-glamorous life style. Repetition was the name of the game for the detectives and the show made sure we all knew it. It also was extremely no-nonsense which isn’t to say there weren’t amusing moments, but for the vast majority of the series any humor came from the situation and not the people despite stand up comedian Richard Belzer being one of the detectives.
The show also provided a unique look using 16MM hand held cameras, which gave it a very distinctive look that was different from the other police procedure shows on the air at the time. The gritty look of Baltimore shined in all its filth for the cameras. It had an amazing look.
Despite all this the show was almost canceled due to low ratings. However it was saved by the success of NYPD: BLUE on ABC. NBC was certain they had something, and not long after the decision it became apparent the critics agreed. The show would win 2 Emmy Awards including best written drama episode for the pilot, and best direction for film director Barry Levinson who directed the pilot. Still they only ordered four episodes for season 2. That gave it the lowest order of episodes in TV history tied with another NBC show at the time called SEINFELD.
Despite the hiccups the show would go on to win 3 Peabody awards for best drama and numerous Emmy noms, and wins. Easily one of the most authentic police dramas ever created for TV.
36. VERONICA MARS (2004-2006 UPN 2006-2007 The CW)
I wasn’t a fan of Veronica Mars. I’d been introduced to the show during the 3rd season and sat through multiple episodes and thought it to be the normal teen soap trash with the twist that she was a modern Nancy Drew. However a run in with Rob Thomas and a discussion lead me back to watch the first season on DVD. What I found was something very different from the 3rd season. I found a neo-noir murder mystery hidden inside a Teen Drama. It also beat BRICK to the screen with the idea. However if you haven’t seen the movie BRICK and you like Noir, I suggest you rent it, it’s worth it.
The first season of VERONICA MARS has everything you’d expect from a good neo-noir mystery and as the mystery unfolds you find yourself more attached to some extremely deep character in the Mars family. The second season while not as good as the first is another good example of neo-noir mixed with teen drama. However the show was light on the teen drama and it all basically had to do with relationship issues that the show wisely didn’t bog us down with. The murder and characters were what this show was all about, just like a good neo-noir should be.
The third season finds Mars in college and Dawn Ostroff playing the role of “hands in the pie,” and the series did see a turn downwards in quality, but it wasn’t bad. It just wasn’t nearly as good as the first 2 seasons, which from a quality stand point are some of the best whodunnits told on TV in the last 20 years. The nerve it took to make a “high school show,” that was really a neo-noir mystery is note worthy. Thus the show makes this list for pushing the envelope in the manner it did.
Interestingly the show was canceled due to bad ratings, ratings that right now would make it the 3rd most watched scripted show on The CW and 3rd highest demo ratings. Which isn’t to say at the time the ratings weren’t low, just that Ostroff has been entirely unsuccessful at finding anything that could do better.