Friday, November 11, 2011

The Top 10 TV Series on Netflix Streaming

Over the past few months, Netflix has served as a paradigmatic case study in hapless corporate mismanagement. Between sudden price hikes, ill-conceived ideas (seriously, Qwikster?), and smarmy emails, no company has done more to alienate its customer base and squander an otherwise highly successful product. (You know, besides the NBA.) This is not, however, a post designed to excoriate Netflix. Rather, I'm extolling the service for its most valuable commodity: streaming TV series.

Look, streaming is the future. I confess that I maintain some elitist qualms regarding Netflix's streaming service – the selection is pitiful, the audio/video quality is weaker compared to DVD (and dramatically pales versus Blu-ray), certain features such as subtitles are unavailable, the in-movie interface is pathetic – but for the most part, streaming gets the job done. That's especially true in the Twitter-based Age of Instantania, where all we care about is doing whatever we want at the exact instant we want to do it. (That Twitter is gradually eroding the hallowed industry of journalism into a disgraceful, speed-obsessed circus is also a post for another day.) When people feel like watching something, whether it's the latest Twilight movie or a classic episode of "Seinfeld", they do not want to wait three days for the fucking disc to arrive in the mail – they want to watch it right away. Streaming is the future, and Netflix (and every other company of its ilk) knows it.

And no product is more ideally suited for streaming than the television series. Watching a movie on streaming saves you a trip to the theatre; watching a TV show on streaming can eliminate weeks, months, or literally (in cases of older shows with multiple seasons) years of waiting time. Streaming can yield a more enjoyable and cohesive viewing experience as well, as viewers are more likely to mentally connect plot threads and characters if they aren't required to wait a week between each episode.

Of course, the ability to demolish multiple seasons of a single show within a week is only valuable if the show is actually good, lest you waste hours of your time watching something like "Heroes". So when my friend Travis asked me to recommend "Netflix instant gems", I felt it my solemn duty to point him and the rest of my readers in the right direction. That's why the Manifesto is compiling a list of the Top 10 TV Shows Available on Netflix streaming. So sit back, fire up your PlayStation 3, and enjoy the following shows without ever having to venture even as far as your mailbox.

[Note: I'm not bothering to include "Arrested Development" or "The Office" because both shows have achieved such massive popularity that I have nothing to add. I'm also ignoring "Weeds" because the sixth season isn't available. Suffice it to say that all three shows are well worth watching.]

10. Party Down (2009-10; two seasons, 20 episodes). Workplace satire has become fairly rote since the one-two-punch success of Office Space and "The Office", but it rarely features the lacerating wit and sharply defined characters that conspire to make "Party Down" so appealing. Anchored by a splendidly simple premise – a catering group works a different gig for each episode, inevitably suffering the inherent humiliations therein – the series is indiscriminate in its comedic appetites, with moments ranging from low-key banter to slapstick to outright farce. The most enduring element is the contrast between the ultra-blasé Adam Scott and the superbly straitlaced Ken Marino, while supporting players Lizzy Caplan (the hot girl), Ryan Hansen (the airhead playboy), and Martin Starr (the nerd) receive ample opportunity to subvert their characters' apparent archetypes. "Party Down" also takes care not to be overly contemptuous of its guest stars (i.e., the party hosts), treating them with a curious combination of disgust and envy. Most of the caterers hate their jobs, and they hate their clients, but partly because they'd rather be enjoying the party from the other side. That's one of the nuanced observations that makes "Party Down" such a rewarding show.

(Favorite episodes: Calif. College Conservative Union Caucus; Stennheiser-Pong Wedding Reception; Steve Guttenberg's Birthday; Not on Your Wife Opening Night.)




9. Friday Night Lights (2006-11; five seasons, 76 episodes). The paradox of "Friday Night Lights" is that it's ostensibly a show entirely about football, and the football scenes are the weakest part of the show. That's partially an indictment of the constraints of the genre – the proportion of the show's games that come down to the final play is glaringly unrealistic – but it's more a testament to the extraordinary attention the shows pays to its characters off the gridiron. That's because "Friday Night Lights" isn't really about football the game but about the way that the obsession with that game infects an entire town. With football as its backdrop, the show marries soap-opera-sized themes (abortion, steroids, teenage sex, drug use, the works) with fully realized characters, resulting in a wholly convincing portrait of Dillon, Texas. Yet in spite of the show's overall bigness, the real strength of "Friday Night Lights" is its minor pleasures: the playful spousal bickering between Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton, the resolute assertions of sexuality of Aimee Teegarden and Adrianne Palicki, the hilarious needling between friends Zach Gilford and Jesse Plemons. It also features a star-making turn from Gilford as Matt Saracen, a historically well-written character of transcendent likability. In the end, "Friday Night Lights" will make you smile and cry, but it will also make you pump your fist and scream "SARACEN!" as a spiral sails through the air in the warm Texas night.

(Favorite episodes: I Think We Should Have Sex; Mud Bowl; Last Days of Summer; Underdogs; The Son; Always.)




8. Battlestar Galactica (2005-09; four seasons, 73 episodes, plus opening three-hour miniseries). That "Battlestar Galactica" ran for as long as it did is somewhat remarkable, given the stigmatized nature of science-fiction in contemporary pop culture. But the reason for the show's enduring popularity, as well as its excellence, is that it focuses not on the science but on the politics of humanity. The series follows a band of survivors of a nuclear-style holocaust – led by the oft-clashing, sometimes-allied duo of a rugged military leader (Edward James Olmos, supremely dignified) and a pragmatic politician (Mary McDonnell, game) – in their twin efforts to establish a new civilization and fend off a revolt from a race of machines called Cylons. That may sound preposterous, but the richness of the show's characters and the sympathetic nature of their plight makes it compelling stuff, and as the scope of the show continually expands, "Battlestar Galactica" proves to be a persuasive thesis on the role of governance in society. It's also phenomenally well-made, with first-rate production values and a "Deadwood"-sized cast of capable actors; my personal favorites are the scientist Baltar (James Callis, sublimely oily) and the tough-as-nails soldier Boomer (Grace Park, hot as hell), each of whom harbors a secret. The show occasionally becomes bogged down in philosophizing (though even a dissertation on the purpose of machinery's existence can be invigorating when it's delivered by Dean Stockwell), but for the most part, "Battlestar Galactica" is strong storytelling on a grand scale.

(Favorite episodes: Kobol's Last Gleaming; Home; Lay Down Your Burdens; Crossroads.)




7. 24 (2001-10; eight seasons, 192 episodes). Of all of the shows on this list, none is more perfectly tailored to Netflix streaming than "24". Watch the show from week to week and you'll inevitably grow weary of the ludicrous twists, the gaping plot holes, the nonsensical double crosses, and all the other absurdities that make "24" so fucking great. Plow through six straight episodes on streaming, however, and you have no time to ponder the show's patent irrationality; you're too caught up in the frenzied thrill-ride of Jack Bauer saving the world over and over again. People who nitpick "24" for occasionally not making sense miss the point. The show was never designed to make sense – it's designed to induce delirium. Watching "24" is a giddy experience, a jingoistic high celebrating a distinctly American brand of heroism. The show is pure kinetic energy, breathlessly racing from one preposterous plot point to the next with unstoppable momentum. Of course, it's impossible to sustain that level of verve over the course of 200 episodes, so it's unsurprising that "24" falters a bit in its latter seasons. (Then again, maybe that's because I watched those seasons as they aired, whereas I annihilated the first 96 episodes in a handful of weeks.) At its best, however, "24" is perhaps the most compelling action show ever made, eternally anchored by Kiefer Sutherland's intense, fiercely committed lead performance. It's a show that venerates the classical elements of pop entertainment: the crackling of gunfire, the sinister scent of suit-clad bureaucrats, the repellant charisma of pure villainy (Dennis Hopper!), and – most of all – the feverish anticipation of wondering what the hell will happen next.

(Favorite episodes: Day 1: 11:00 PM - 12:00 AM; Day 3: 11:00 AM - 12:00 PM; Day 4: 1:00 PM - 2:00 PM; Day 4: 6:00 AM - 7:00 AM; Day 5: 7:00 AM - 8:00 AM.)




6. Dollhouse (2009-10; two seasons, 26 episodes). Fox's tragic (if utterly predictable) mishandling of Joss Whedon's borderline brilliant third show – the studio interference, the wasteland Friday timeslot, the feeble promotion efforts – was unforgivable, but it may actually have worked in the series' favor. The most consistently innovative showrunner in the business (as well as one of the two best pure writers alongside Aaron Sorkin), Whedon knew relatively early that "Dollhouse" was ill-fated, and this foreknowledge allowed him to concoct a closed-end story that actually gave his monumentally ambitious show a proper ending. Regardless, "Dollhouse" stands as an extraordinary assemblage of television talent, with an astonishingly persuasive Eliza Dushku leading the way. The premise – Dushku plays one of a handful of "dolls" who can be imprinted with any set of characteristics and abilities (all according to a high-paying client's needs) – is rife with philosophic possibility, and Whedon mines it greedily, with episodes that touch on everything from sexual exploitation to military intelligence gathering to a wild metaphysical excursion on life after death. If that sounds heavy or dry, it's neither, thanks mostly to Whedon's nimble pen but also to his actors. Dushku, never the most versatile actress, disappears into her character (or rather characters) with aplomb, but the real highlights are Fran Kranz as the super-genius computer programmer and Olivia Williams as the dollhouse's icy, acidic overlord. Just like the characters who populate its title, "Dollhouse" is chameleonic, morphing from action extravaganza to comedic farce to apocalyptic war drama. It's alternately funny, suspenseful, and deeply moving. In essence, it's as if we're one of the dollhouse's customers, only instead of seeking a doll, we're demanding the perfect television show, and just as Whedon promised, "Dollhouse" is everything we want it to be.

(Favorite episodes: Man on the Street; Needs; Spy in the House of Love; Epitaph One; Belonging; A Love Supreme; The Attic; Epitaph Two: The Return.)




5. Sports Night (1998-2000; two seasons, 45 episodes). Aaron Sorkin is smarter than we are. This is his gift and curse. His challenge is not to write a television show involving hyper-intelligent characters engaging in banter so snappy that it borders on musical – he can do that with ease. His challenge is to write such a show without condescending to his audience or parading his intellectual superiority. The chief pleasure of "Sports Night" is that it grants us the opportunity to spend time with smart, articulate people without making us feel as though we're crashing a meeting of Gifted & Talented, Cool Version. Even for his debut show, Sorkin's dialogue is as sharp as ever – his actors don't converse as much as send volleys of silver-spun words back and forth like tennis players. Under a different tone, the dynamic could be alienating, but "Sports Night" bathes its characters with warm compassion, recognizing their foibles even while applauding their wit. As always, Sorkin's actors are remarkably game, most notably Josh Charles and Peter Krause as the two lead anchors, while Joshua Malina occasionally seizes the spotlight with his inimitable sincerity (he perfectly personifies the sports-nerd stereotype only to subsequently obliterate it). In spite of its title, "Sports Night" is even less about sports than Sorkin's "West Wing" was about politics. It's really about people: their passions, their flaws, their laudable desire to do a job and do it well. In that way, they're just like we are. Just much smarter.

(Favorite episodes: Shoe Money Tonight; Rebecca; Dana and the Deep Blue Sea; The Sword of Orion; Eli's Coming; The Cut Man Cometh; Draft Day.)




4. Firefly (2002; one season, 15 episodes, plus post-series movie Serenity). If Fox's mismanagement of "Dollhouse" was unfortunate, its bungling of Joss Whedon's equally magnificent "Firefly" was appalling. When presented with Whedon's stupendous two-hour pilot, the network rejected it as too slow and demanded that he create a more fan-friendly version. It then marketed the show as a jokey action comedy, then aired a number of episodes out of order, then ultimately canceled it before it could complete a full season run. Thankfully, the series can now be seen in its proper sequence, which is a blessing, because "Firefly" is a treasure. A glorious fusion of new-age sci-fi and classic Western, the show exploits Whedon's gift for combining archetypal storylines with richly original characters. As it follows a ragtag group of rebels scrounging for the next day's pay (and a little justice), "Firefly" succeeds as an homage to classic genre tales, but it's no mere imitator, carving out an identity all its own. Nowhere is this more evident than in Whedon's dialogue, in which he creates a lyrical cadence as distinctive as that of Mamet or Tarantino. The acting is also uniformly excellent, most notably Nathan Fillion (oozing Han Solo, only more nonchalant) in a transcendent turn as the crew's captain. (As a special treat, Christina Hendricks smolders in two guest appearances.) An exemplar of the show's guiding spirit is its main set, the spaceship "Serenity", a marvel of both ingenious innovation and rustic charm. Of course, the "Serenity", per the show's mythology, is deemed a Firefly-class. Quite.

(Favorite episodes: Serenity (pilot); Our Mrs. Reynolds; Out of Gas; Objects in Space.)




3. Mad Men (2007-present; four seasons, 52 episodes). "Mad Men" has become so universally praised that it's almost pointless to keep heaping accolades on it. But we've also reached the precarious point where some people are beginning to take the series for granted, and I think it's important to acknowledge the historic achievement the show represents, not just for AMC (now the second must-see network alongside HBO) but for the medium of television as a whole. That may sound hyperbolic, but remember that "Mad Men" is a dialogue-driven period piece set in an advertising agency featuring a morally clouded protagonist and not a single action scene. That's not exactly the formula for commercially successful TV. But what truly sets "Mad Men" apart, aside from its impeccable 1960s setting, is its unceasing devotion to character development. Pivoting on the now-legendary Don Draper (Jon Hamm, peerless) but consistently stretching outward to colorize all edges of its universe, the show adds dimensionality to all of its inhabitants, great and small. It introduces us to the affable executive (John Slattery, wonderfully acerbic), the slutty secretary (Christina Hendricks, dropping jaws left and right), and the timid new girl (Elisabeth Moss, eye-opening), only to expose those classifiers as perfunctory within its first few episodes. Characters morph and grow over time, and "Mad Men" exhibits a fearlessness that belies its status as a smash hit, constantly reinventing itself to stave off the merest possibility of ennui. From a literalist perspective, not all that much happens – the plot unfurls deliberately, and characters often take sojourns seemingly disconnected from the main narrative. But "Mad Men" is nevertheless teeming with activity, and it illustrates that, in conversations within sterile boardrooms and musty suburban houses, the stakes of human drama are high indeed.

(Favorite episodes: Red in the Face; Shoot; The Wheel; Meditations in an Emergency; Guy Walks into an Advertising Agency; The Grown-Ups; Shut the Door. Have a Seat; The Suitcase; Blowing Smoke; Tommorowland.)




2. Breaking Bad (2008-present; four seasons, 46 episodes). I never imagined that I could declare "Mad Men" anything less than the best show currently airing, much less the second-best show on its own network. But the excruciating suspense and formal rigor of "Breaking Bad" simply cannot be denied. This is technically a television series, but no TV show has ever been more abundantly cinematic. The premise is simple: Chemistry teacher Walter White (Bryan Cranston, forever unpredictable but always compelling) learns he's dying of cancer, so he resolves to bankroll his family by cooking meth, recruiting former student Jesse (Aaron Paul, as magnetic as he is sympathetic) as his business partner. From there, "Breaking Bad" spirals into a series of increasingly nightmarish scenarios, continuously ratcheting up the tension to unbearable heights but never losing its undercurrent of black humor (most memorably personified by Bob Odenkirk as sleazy lawyer "Better Call Saul"). In its implementation, the show pairs the depth of character of "Mad Men" itself with the ruthless craftsmanship of No Country for Old Men; the setpieces in "Breaking Bad" are so immaculately conceived and so breathtaking in execution that they frequently incite a "Rewind that, I need to see that again" response. This is entertainment at its grandest, most relentless level, sucking viewers into its vortex of desperation and feeding off of our energy. Scariest is that the first two seasons, although tremendous in their own right, essentially function as setup for the third and fourth – once the ferocious Giancarlo Esposito takes center stage, every single episode is enthralling. Tragic yet funny, bravura yet restrained, "Breaking Bad" stands as a towering monument to the power of the screen, big or small. It cannot be missed.

(Favorite episodes: Pilot; Crazy Handful of Nothin'; A No-Rough-Stuff-Type Deal; Grilled; Peekaboo; 4 Days Out; ABQ; No Más; Sunset; One Minute; Half Measures; Full Measure; Box Cutter; Crawl Space; End Times; Face Off.)




1. Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003; seven seasons, 144 episodes). The primary advantage of television is time. Movies will always be my favorite form of entertainment, but even the greatest films only keep us in our seats for 2-3 hours. A great television series, however, permits us to travel to its uniquely formed universe and spend time with its characters for literally dozens of hours. And I have never felt more gratified at the opportunity to explore a new world with new people than at the chance to journey to Sunnydale, CA and hang out with Buffy Summers and her friends and foes. And sure, one can expect from its title that "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" is a goofy, childish lark, but the simplistic notion that this is a show about a hot chick who kills vampires is so ludicrously shortsighted that it's barely worth repudiating. But it's also impossible to deconstruct the show to a single theme. It's about maturity. It's about sacrifice. It's about longing and romance, about love found and lost. It's about children and their parents, about rebellion and forgiveness, about grief and the strength it takes to overcome that grief. It's about friendship, family, heroism, pain, resistance, loss, happiness, and death.

"Buffy the Vampire Slayer" is a television show about all of these things, but most of all, it's about people. People generally, sure, but its people. No show I've ever watched has employed a more caring, empathetic hand when it comes to defining its characters. Joss Whedon's writing has always been sharp and witty, but in "Buffy" its fundamental characteristic is its humanity. He really cares about these people, and as a result, so do we.

For what it's worth, the show is tremendous fun. It strikes the perfect balance between zany imagination and grounded reality, it's fantastically funny, its plot arcs are gracefully envisioned and deftly implemented, its dialogue is consistently fresh and engaging, and its fight sequences have real energy and snap. It's also an extraordinarily rangy series, with specific episodes varying from musical to silent comedy to action thriller to somber drama. It's slam-bang entertainment at its finest.

But it's also so much more. The pleasure – and the brilliance – of the show is its unnerving, silent ability to draw you into its world, to make you feel as if you belong. And in that way, when I watch "Buffy the Vampire Slayer", I'm not just traveling to a marvelously imaginative universe of vampires and demons, of magic and witchcraft, of pathos and hilarity, of righteousness and truth. I'm also going home.

(Favorite episodes: Prophecy Girl; Innocence; Passion; Becoming; Amends; Doppelgangland; Graduation Day; Hush; The Body; The Gift; Once More, with Feeling; Tabula Rasa; Beneath You; Conversations with Dead People.)