by Glenn Matchett
A couple of articles ago I talked about my love for cinema, the big screen epics that can capture your imagination and inspire many to craft their own tales. Another media passion of mine is also the small screen in the form of television shows. I find it very easy to let a TV show grip me and for me to be really disappointed when it comes to an end. Of course there are rare TV shows that seem to have endless potential but they are few and far between. Over the years I’ve seen many shows get cancelled before their time….but I’m getting ahead of myself. Apart from comics I think television shows are probably my biggest influence as a writer. A lot of TV shows over the years have shown me how to portray strong characters, build a long term story and also make people care.
The first television show I really think caught my interest was Twin Peaks. An odd show that focused around the death of High School student Laura Palmer but in this town nothing was ever as it seemed. In this small town everyone had a dark secret and there were things beyond human understanding that came into play. The show is brilliantly plotted with really interesting characters and many twists and turns that will leave you only wanting more. To me it was the first television show to have a really ongoing long term story and did it well. Prior to this with the exception of what we call in Britain ‘soap operas’ many episodes were doing done in one stories. Twin Peaks dared to be a serious drama that took you on a long term story and built up its characters along the way. Visually stunning and at times disturbing it really deserved more credit at the time that it did. I was very young when Twin Peaks first aired and it was always on quite late. So I missed a lot of the episodes and some of the stuff terrified the life out of me. However I did get the pleasure of watching them all over again over a year ago and I came to have an all new appreciation of the show.
Like many shows I’ve enjoyed over the years it got cancelled before its time and as a result had the first case of what I personally refer to as ‘The Red Room Ending’. Essentially up to its last episode Twin Peaks was brilliant television but the final instalment is a mess. Clearly slapped together in a rush it features characters running around a red room for the majority of the time and features many more characters getting killed off for no reason. It was unsatisfactory to say the least but up to then the show is solid gold. Why didn’t it work? I would say that Twin Peaks was doing in the early 90’s what many shows do today. Focusing on a long term plot and character development and doing what I refer as ‘the ongoing movie’ was things Twin Peaks was doing well before anyone else. I think it came 20 years before people were ready for it and I’ve seen a lot of shows afterwards borrow from it quite heavily. Nowadays reboots and relaunches seem to be very popular and yet the vast amount of potential Twin Peaks offers remains untouched. Could lightning strike twice? I’m not sure but I wouldn’t mind seeing someone try.
Growing up the next show I watched on a very regular basis were the various Star Trek series. I had seen the original series and not cared much for it beyond the movies but I watched ‘Next Generation’, ‘Deep Space Nine’ and ‘Voyager’. Although it had a slow first few seasons when Next Gen hit its stride it was a really awesome show. The cliff hanger at the end of the brilliant ‘Best Of Both Worlds’ remained my favourite television cliff hanger of all time for quite a bit. They didn’t hit it out of the park all the time and yes there is some trade mark Trek cheesiness but overall they are 3 really great shows. In particular I really loved Deep Space Nine and find myself thinking it is the best Trek television show ever. Although it kind of set aside Trek’s ‘exploration’ roots it gave the characters a fixed location allowing for longer stories and better character development than any other show. It had a compelling and gripping ongoing story in the Dominion war and would handle quite blatantly issues such as Racism and slavery better than most shows. This is best provided by my favourite episode of Star Trek ever in episode 13 of the 6th season entitled ‘Far Beyond The Stars.’ Although Next Gen and Voyager have their strengths (especially when the latter dealt with time travel which was often) DS9 remains a solid favourite and took the franchise to a really interesting place.
Over the years I have enjoyed many enjoyable comedies over the years from both Britain and the US. I think more than any other genre comedy is the most diverse as what I find to be funny may differ from many other people’s taste in humour. Apart from fictional television shows I am a big fan of panel comedy shows in the UK like ‘Have I Got News For You’ which deals with the news in a humorous way or ‘Never Mind The Buzzcocks’ which is a show that is focused on the music industry. I greatly enjoy both of these shows and ‘News’ in particular has had me in tears from laughing at times. It does seem in Britain we have a long and proud tradition of comedy of which I have enjoyed many. From ‘Only Fools and Horses’ and ‘Father Ted’ there are many brilliant pieces of British comedy I’ve enjoyed over the years. From state side I find it very hit and miss as I find some of their sitcoms very forced due to what is known as ‘canned laughter.’ They do it on UK comedy shows too but for some reason on American shows I find it a lot more forced. The only show I really enjoyed that featured it is ‘Frasier’ which I watched avidly and just loved to bits for many years. Other US comedy shows I’ve greatly enjoyed did not feature laugh tracks thankfully, two of which I have specifically enjoyed are ‘Scrubs’ and ’30 Rock.’ While I still have to see the closing season of ‘Scrubs’ (personally I’m not bothering with the ‘real’ final season featuring the new cast) I’ve greatly enjoyed its random humour over the years. On the other hand I feel ’30 Rock’ is at times written just for me. It is right up my street and I feel that the entire show is being put together for my personal enjoyment. Due to its infrequent and at times random assortment of episodes they put on television here (episodes airing out of order is a big pet hate of mine) I wait for the DVD’s to watch it as it should be and greatly enjoy each season. I haven’t written much comedy in the past outside of playful dialogue but I would like to tackle the genre head on some day.
When speaking of TV shows I’ve enjoyed and those that have greatly influenced me I can’t forget to mention Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Picking up the ball that Twin Peaks dropped I felt that Buffy and its spin off show Angel brought television to a new level. As well as dealing with stand alone episodes (of which many are brilliant) each show also featured an overall larger story to keep you tuning in to see what happened. I came to Buffy quite late and had always intended to watch it and took the opportunity when it was repeated following the fifth season to start with season 2 (I would come to watch Season 1 a few years later on DVD). I quickly caught up and got really engrossed in it but soon Season 6 of Buffy was starting and I was only halfway through 5 and had yet to see any of Angel. I managed to borrow the videos from a friend and burned through them like there was no tomorrow. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the two days I spent watching the latter half of Angel season one and season two all at once. I was off school at the time and I was thankful for that because by the end of it my brain had nearly turned to mush. I would watch Buffy avidly for 2 more years and Angel for 3 before both came to their conclusions. Both shows featured brilliant stories, plots and kept me on the edge of my seat every week expecting the next one. While Buffy would have a season to season story the spin of Angel had one really compelling 5 year story and I still today have a hard time picking a favourite between the two fantastic shows. For many years Buffy had offered me my favourite 45 minutes of television in the form of the infamous silent episode ‘Hush’. ‘Hush’ was just one of many examples of both shows experimenting with the format of television and since I am currently rewatching both I can safely say they hold up very well.
In the UK we have many great shows produced by our oldest channel the ‘BBC’. Although American shows do have their charm there is some things that only the BBC can do that seems to have at times captured the imagination of fans around the world. In recent years I have really enjoyed shows that the BBC have produced such as ‘Jekyll’, ‘Sherlock’, ‘Life On Mars’ and its spin off ‘Ashes To Ashes’. In particular I really enjoyed the cop drama with a sci-fi twist in ‘Life On Mars.’ Following being hit by a car police man Sam Tyler wakes up in the 70’s with his memories of the present intact. Is he dead? In a coma? Or back in time? The show not only portrayed that era brilliantly but along with its spin off created memorable characters and one of the best ongoing mysteries I’ve seen in a television show ever. Recently America tried to do their own version but lacking the charm and daring of the British version managed to fall flat on its face. Recently they have also done a modern day update of the detective Sherlock Holmes. A few articles ago I mentioned my love for Homes and this show brilliantly brings it up to date. At first I was dubious about the premise but the writing and performances soon put my fears to rest. Although it only airs 3 times a year the show is really compelling and I can’t wait to see it again next year following how this recent season concluded.
When talking about BBC shows I do of course to mention a favourite of mine in the form of long running sci-fi show ‘Doctor Who’. Although it started way back in 1963 my first exposure to the Time Lord known as ‘The Doctor’ came in 1996 in the form of the Doctor Who television movie. Having ceased production due to production issues Doctor Who had spent many years in limbo and this was an attempt for an American channel to revive the series. Being a very British show the transition did not work and outside of a brilliant if not brief performance by Paul McGann in the form of the 8th incarnation of the Time Lord the TV movie is largely forgettable. It seemed that Doctor Who was gone for good and the BBC even gave it a send off written by current head writer Steven Moffat in the form of comedy special ‘Curse Of The Fatal Death’. However in 2005 the show returned with a new Doctor, a new look and a change in format from the previous 6 or 7 part episodes to 45 minute done in one episodes that would sometimes feature a two-parter (usually 3 per year). I had intended to watch it but at the time I was visiting my girlfriend in England for the first time and on my way back while waiting for the boat I saw a bit of it. I watched the current Doctor and his companion run away from less than threatening looking shop window mannequins and thinking ‘maybe I’ll give this one a miss.’ So for many years Doctor Who and myself kept our distance. Nearly 2 years later in Germany I was stuck for a channel in English and found a later episode of Doctor Who that I would later learn would be called ‘The Empty Child.’ Although I only caught the last 20 minutes the episode certainly got my intention with its creepy undertone and genuinely disturbing visuals of an army of gas mask zombies asking ‘Are You My Mommy?’ So when I returned home I decided to give the show a shot from the first episode of the 2005 series and the rest as they say it is history. I discovered a brilliant show that can play against many different genres like horror, romance, comedy or plain old adventure. I discovered a compelling show that not only featured brilliant stand alone plots but much like Buffy also had an ongoing story from season to season. I became addicted and the show for me has gone from strength to strength. Each season seems to surpass the previous one in some way and the most recent season featured some of the best television I’ve ever seen. Previously I mentioned how ‘Hush’ had been my favourite 45 minutes of television ever and how ‘Best Of Both Worlds’ had featured my favourite cliff hanger it turns out Doctor Who has been selfish and taken both of those spots. In season 3 of the new revived show the 10th episode ‘Blink’ quickly overtook Hush with a genuinely terrifying piece of television that ironically didn’t feature the main characters that much. In 2010 the 12th episode ‘The Pandorica Opens’ featured my new favourite cliff hanger ever and the best piece of music I’ve heard on a television show ever and where Doctor Who’s music is concerned that is saying something. From Bad Wolf to the death of the Doctor each year offers a compelling ongoing story and as we build to the show’s 50th anniversary in 2013 it may even answer the first question, the one hiding in plain sight ‘Doctor Who?’
There have been many other shows I’ve enjoyed over the years. Recently I’ve discovered and burned through brilliant shows like Battlestar Gallactica and Mad Men. Both of which are great shows that I have loved every minute of watching. There are of course shows I’ve enjoyed in recent years that sadly got cancelled before they could even really start such as ‘Caprica’ and ‘Dollhouse’ but managed to tell a great story anyway. Recently I’ve also began watching ‘Dexter’ and am greatly enjoying many of the great shows HBO has on offer such as ‘Boardwalk Empire’ and ‘Game Of Thrones.’ I also really enjoy cop drama ‘The Mentalist’ which features again many elements of Sherlock Holmes and does in an interesting way.
None of these shows however that I’ve mentioned so far really holds a candle to my favourite show of all time in House M.D. I can hear people literally scoff or open their eyes in surprise to this comment. I’ve heard it all ‘it’s just a medical show!’ or ‘every episode is the same!’ are things I often hear attached to the show. True it is a medical show and I would be lying if I said it doesn’t follow a certain formula. What House offers however to me is brilliant character development of its core cast, brilliant acting and compelling mysteries. They are medical mysteries yes but they are still interesting. The show will also really offer something different on a regular basis having a change in perspective or format more regularly than casual fans give it credit for. I could list many episodes off the top of my head but I would say that those that say that House is always the same don’t pay close attention or haven’t seen enough episodes. It’s a brilliant show to me and no show even on its best day could match it for quality on its best day.
Now that I’ve lost all credibility let us look onto next week!
Next Week: How my favourite cartoon of all time created a comic fanboy