Why you should care
Because all those hours you’re logging in front of the boob tube might actually make you a better human being.
If you asked my husband the one thing he didn’t realize about me before we got married, he wouldn’t say my habit of not rinsing dishes before putting them in the dishwasher. He’d say “that Anna is a TV junkie.”
It could be, because I wasn’t allowed to watch TV until I was 8. No Sesame. No Disney Afternoon. My mom eventually broke down and let me watch MacGyver. But as an adult, I’d much rather blame my ability to binge on our golden age of television.
TV is character-focused, and at its best, it makes you think hard about the human condition — why people do the things they do, even if they’re wrong.
As the New Yorker’s brilliant Emily Nussbaum has pointed out, today’s shows are so good, with such elegant cliff-hangers, that they’re the natural heirs to the Dickens serial. That should make us all feel better about curling up on the couch with the remote.
Because stories matter. Last fall, a study was published that linked reading novels to increases in empathy. Biographies and nonfiction accounts of the Iraq War didn’t cut it — it was fiction alone, with its complicated, messy relationships and flawed characters that made people better at putting themselves in another person’s shoes. (Perhaps we should suggest a regimen of Chekov and Dostoevsky for Putin.)
The same has to be true of good TV. The Times’ David Carr recently made a similar point, saying that prestige TV shows have edged out the stack of books and magazines on his nightstand. Even more so than film, TV is character-focused, and at its best, it makes you think hard about the human condition — why people do the things they do, even if they’re wrong.
And while I may be sent to hell for this as a former English major: TV criticism is now better than literary criticism and, dare I say it, more fun. Emily Nussbaum wrote a piece on the Sex and the City legacy that remains the best piece on modern feminism I’ve read. Darren Franich’s EW reviews are equal parts hilarity and scarily good analysis. And all the Ph.D.-level philosophizing about True Detective has lit up the Internet like one of Cohle’s crazy acid-trip visions.
So if you’ve been nose-deep in The Goldfinch and not up on your marquee shows, here are the Top 5 TV Shows that, in my totally subjective, TV-junkie opinion, make you a more thoughtful, nuanced and, yes, fascinating person.
5. Mad Men
What you learn: Reinvention has its price.
In Matthew Weiner’s dark take on the American dream, the hero’s personal reinvention is also his original sin. Don Draper steals another man’s identity and rebrands himself as an unflappable Madison Avenue advertising exec, but over six seasons set in the turbulent ’60s (the seventh and final season kicks off April 13), Don’s ability to lie to everyone, including himself, wears thin. His crisis of the soul brilliantly mirrors the country’s.
4. Friday Night Lights
What you learn: The same thing you would from reading Middlemarch.
A lot of shows misstep when they depict working-class struggles with a heaping side of Lifetime sentimentality. Not FNL. Every facet of the human condition is exposed through the lives of high school football players and their families in the fictional town of Dylan, Texas, but it never gets maudlin. And the relationship at the center of it, between Dylan Panthers coach Eric Taylor and his wife, Tammy, is the most realistic portrait of marriage on TV, period.
3. The Wire
What you learn: Good and evil aren’t as simple as they sound.
Winner of the New York bracket poll for best TV show ever, this series about Baltimore’s drug trade and the flawed cops fighting it was criminally underrated when it was on the air, never even nominated for a Best Drama Emmy. The passion project of Baltimore Sun police reporter David Simon, this is really a show about the American City, and its seasons each reveal a different layer of urban life (the docks, city hall, the schools, the newspaper). Throughout, the notion of what makes someone good or bad is totally turned on its head. In The Wire’s best season, about the schools, only the least deserving teenaged character escapes the cycle of poverty, drugs and violence, in a finale so devastating it left me curled up in a ball, searching the Web for social-work programs.
2. Buffy the Vampire Slayer
What you learn: The agonies of adolescence, even if you’re a superhero.
Creator Joss Whedon (The Avengers) may be the toast of Hollywood now, but this stands as his greatest work, a feminist story about a teenage girl with vampire-fighting superpowers that serves as a brilliant extended metaphor for the struggle to feel normal in high school. While it was a supernatural show, the most crushing episodes dealt with the things we all deal with at one time or another: heartbreak, losing a parent, struggling with self-esteem (yes, heroes have this problem, too). And in the age of the antihero, it feels refreshingly subversive to watch a show that is unabashedly about heroism.
1. Breaking Bad
What you learn: That ”the ends justify the means” is never a good philosophy.
The word Shakespearean gets thrown around a lot to describe dark, artsy films; Vince Gilligan’s masterpiece actually deserves it. It’s the story of a chemistry teacher, Walter White, who is diagnosed with terminal cancer and starts cooking meth to provide for his family. While it starts out as the tale of a good man who does bad things for a good reason, it turns into the story of an evil man who does bad things but still lies to himself that it’s for a good reason. As a liar, Walt puts even Tony Soprano and Don Draper to shame, and his fall deserves to be described with another overused literary word: tragic.