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The Best TV Shows That Represent the American Spirit — IndieWire Critics Survey

"Happy birthday, America. Let's try our best to not suffer an untimely cancellation."

“Parks and Recreation,” “The Wire,” “The West Wing”

Paul Drinkwater/NBC-TV/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock, HBO,Warner Bros TV/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

IWCriticsPick

Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Tuesday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best show currently on TV?” can be found at the end of this post.)

This week’s question: Which show is the best representation of America or the American spirit/values? To clarify, this is not a show that reflects the current political climate but the country’s ideals and freedoms.

Allison Keene (@KeeneTV), Collider

I could probably sit and overthink this and maybe come up with a cleverer answer, but the first show that popped into my head was “The Wire.” It’s uniquely American in both setting and sensibility, and shows one mid-sized city battling the same institutional problems of other cities across the country, regardless of location. It’s a specific exploration of how, in an American city, the schools, police, local government, and industry work (or fail to work) through the lens of characters who are diverse, genuine, and compelling.

A focus on The War on Drugs, and what it has meant for America over the last few decades, is the show’s catalyst, but there are so many layers to what it offers in its representation of the characters that dwell in these often forgotten urban areas. It’s not our country at its best or its worse, but its truth. Or at least, one important part of it.

It’s not all bleak, of course; the show and most of its lead characters have a palpable resilience, if not optimism, that is reflected by the city in which they live. There is always a throughline of striving for change, and the freedom to pursue it, even if the results don’t always allow it to play out as hoped. But even through its darkest moments “The Wire” provides heart and humor as its characters fight for their own American ideals — even when they admit the game might be rigged.

Ian McShane, "Deadwood"

Ian McShane, “Deadwood”

HBO

Sonia Saraiya (@soniasaraiya), Variety

I’m gonna go with “Deadwood.” Maybe that sounds like a strange choice, because it takes place on the frontier before America even reached what’s now present-day South Dakota. But the Western is a quintessentially American genre, and “Deadwood,” a deconstructed and deromanticized Western, is like looking into a mirror. There is no show that exposes more clearly the cruelty, diversity, fortune-hunting and fellowship that is so central to the American identity. The boomtown of Deadwood has every building block that goes into making the peculiar, stubborn American spirit, and one of the reasons I love the show so much is because it’s not blindly patriotic or foolishly proud of what that entails. This is a country that has always been makeshift, grasping, fervent, and headstrong, and you can see it in every character.

Alan Sepinwall (@sepinwall), Uproxx

I’ve been introducing my daughter to “Parks and Recreation” lately. The show’s can-do spirit, its empathy, its faith in government to do as much as it can for its citizenry, and its belief that ideological opposites like Leslie Knope and Ron effing Swanson could not only become complementary co-workers, but great friends, all feel like artifacts of an America that last existed 50 years ago, rather than two. But it’s an America I would very much prefer waking up in rather than this angry, ugly, intensely polarized one we’re all living in right now.

Amy Poehler, "Parks and Recreation"

Amy Poehler, “Parks and Recreation”

Beverly News/REX/Shutterstock

Eric Deggans (@deggans), NPR

I’ve always felt the TV show which best depicts America is “The Wire.” Not the aspirational vision of what America wants to be, but the challenged, fitful place it really is. And not just because its major theme is the way in which every major institution in civic life is failing citizens, especially those who live in big cities. The Wire talks about how poverty and social isolation forces people into living lives that many of their fellow Americans wouldn’t recognize. The show illustrated how illicit economies have sprung up to provide jobs, money and status to people in cities where traditional economies don’t exist anymore. We see the futile struggle of police to fight a war on drugs that isn’t working – a frustration that grows to the point where an officer tries, on his own, to create a space in one neighborhood where no drug laws are enforced. We see kids stuck in an education system that just warehouses them, workers stuck in a city where job with decent wages are vanishing and powerful, wealthy leaders who remain on top, no matter how bad the situation gets. But in the middle of all this systemic dysfunction, there are still people with a strong sense of right and wrong who are trying to make things work, despite the evidence of how futile such efforts can be. And occasionally – sometimes for the wrong reasons – they succeed. It’s the measure of how well-crafted and closely-observed “The Wire’s” stories are, that all the issues it explores feel just as relevant today as they did back when the show wrapped its original run in 2008. And I can’t think of a more American struggle than the fight to rescue a bunch of civic institutions challenged by poverty, racism, corruption, apathy and worse.

"The Wire"

Damian Holbrook (@damianholbrook), TV Guide Magazine

Even though it’s based on a UK show, I would say that “Shark Tank” is pretty damn American. Not exactly the deals, because let’s face it, Kevin O’Leary LIVES for predatory deals that take way too much away from the contestants and the other Sharks fighting all the time is a bit too much like Thanksgiving dinner on drugs (which is, btw, also quintessentially American). But the spirit of discovery among the entrepreneurs, their willingness to sacrifice so much for a chance at a better life for their families, the stories of inspiration mothering their inventions, those all feel so “American Dream” to me. At least once an episode, we see someone who chased that dream all the way into ABC’s boardroom and hitched their hopes to that one idea they risked everything to create. I salute that.

Todd VanDerWerff (@tvoti), Vox

I feel like I probably answer this every time the word “best” is within spitting distance of the question of the week, but “Deadwood” is my answer, now and forever. Sight unseen, you might think of it as a dark and gritty tale about the parts of America’s founding we don’t like to talk about (like, say, the genocide of millions of the continent’s native inhabitants, or the endless pursuit of money at cost of humanity, or etc., etc., etc.). But what’s remarkable about “Deadwood” is that it’s both about that and it’s about what’s good about America, too, what’s worth preserving about both its ethos and its big, dumb, labrador retriever optimism. In particular, the arc of Al Swearengen strikes me as some sort of American ideal, as he goes from ruthless self-interest to realizing his self-interest is that of his fellow townspeople. By the last season, he’s even singing a little bit, the old softie!

Anything you can think of about America — from the pitfalls of unchecked capitalism to our attitudes about race and gender to our ability to throw some really great parties — it’s present in “Deadwood.” Happy birthday, America. Let’s try our best to not suffer an untimely cancellation.

"The Simpsons"

“The Simpsons”

FOX

Daniel Fienberg (@TheFienPrint), The Hollywood Reporter

Tough one! And the question is tricky, because at least as it was originally sent to us, it’s “best represents America” and not “represents America at its best,” but “best represents America” meaning as an ephemeral and patriotic concept more than “Ugh, look what’s happening on my Twitter feed this week.” “Parks and Recreation” is a very good answer, because it’s hard to think of any character more devoted to the potential of our American experiment than Leslie Knope, but I know at least one person is using it, so I’ll hang back and think of alternatives. “The West Wing” is a reasonable answer, but because of Aaron Sorkin’s love of straw man opponents, I fear that it perhaps only showcases one side of American ideology and even if it’s my side, I don’t know if that’s ideal.

The show that “best represents America” is going to be one in which people of different beliefs can have a place at the table if they’re not dicks about it. Most of my favorite answers come with caveats. “Deadwood” showcases American ingenuity and spirit, the ability to pull something from nothing, but maybe we’re not represented best by a show with *quite* so much murder and swearing? “Orange Is The New Black” remains TV’s most diverse show and very much is about the way commonalities can sometimes outweigh differences, but I feel like the question is asking for something more idealistic and less purely representative.

I love the compassion and spirituality highlighted in “Rectify,” but the backdrop of injustice is often too pungent, even if forgiveness is more prevalent. “Friday Night Lights” would be a great example and, like most good examples, it’s about individuals working for a greater goal and yet still retaining individuality, always urging understanding and inclusion. But do we really want America represented as a land in which Landry can commit wanton murder and get away with it? No. We do not.

Finally, though, if we take “best represents America” to be a stand-in for “would best tell our alien overlords about America if they enslave humanity 200 years from now and find a time capsule showing how things used to be,” the answer is CLEARLY “The Simpsons,” because its cynical and sarcastic surface is always just masking a heart that embraces the nuclear family and the spirit of community, a heart in which all people, lead characters and supporting characters alike, are sometimes entitled to their place in the spotlight and where, if we make a mistake or screw things up seemingly irreparably, the possibility of a second chance is just 22 minutes away. “The Simpsons” mocks religion, but believes deeply. It skewers politics, but remains fully engaged in our national dialogue. It strips bare the machinery of capitalism, but never gives up hope in the American Dream. And no matter what happens in our great nation as long as the flag continues to fly, I think we can safely guarantee that whatever ridiculous things happen, “The Simpsons” probably predicted it. Springfield is in no state because Springfield is in all states. God bless the United Simpsons of America!

Liz Shannon Miller (@lizlet), IndieWire

“The West Wing” — now, forever, always. As complicated as my feelings regarding Aaron Sorkin might be, “The West Wing” has always been a show that captured the qualities, the emotions, I associate with the best that America can be. Since the show began, I’ve cried so many times over those stirring speeches, those epic decisions, those subtle moments that made me believe this country can do great things, that smart people who want to enable the greater good have the ability to do so.

“Roseanne”

April Neale (@aprilmac), Monsters & Critics

“Roseanne.” Using the Trojan Horse of Barr’s white-trash hausfrau persona, the series revealed her flawed family life to still be a loving and supportive one. They kept it together with wit and spit while financially struggling.

That seems very All-American to me. Despite the odds, the setbacks, and trying to make it, tough love and wicked humor kept Roseanne’s family together.

We Americans are a huge and dissimilar tribe. Daily more and more people live with financial instability. Barr’s wonderful TV show reinforced that whoever you are, laughter and loyalty to core values will keep us all. The show underscored that we can weather the worst of it if we respect each other and find the humor in every situation a little easier. #USAUSAUSA

Joyce Eng (@joyceeng61), TVGuide.com

I’ll be completely obvious and say “The West Wing.” It’s far from realistic, but its idealism is aspirational and inspirational. If you don’t agree, stand there in your wrongness and be wrong and get used to it.

"The West Wing"

Ben Travers (@BenTTravers), IndieWire

Whether you want to apply a modern twist to it or not, “Friday Night Lights” is the series that best represents America. Ideals and freedoms will always be challenged; they’ll always be at risk, and someone — hopefully someone like Tami Taylor — will be there to illustrate their inherent values, even if an institution (West Dillon High School and their precious Jumbotron) or individuals (the McCoy family and Mama Cafferty) put the purest of principles (and principals) under attack.

But an integral part of our past, part our American soul, and hopefully part of our future, is the merit of unity behind a common goal. Mr. Feinberg said it best above (except for the part about Lance — I’m fine with that): Jason Katims’ drama is about individuals working together without sacrificing their individuality, and there are few things as American as that, football, and Tami Freaking Taylor.

Q: What is the best show currently on TV?*

A: “GLOW” (six votes)

Other contenders: “Twin Peaks” (three votes), “The Carmichael Show,” and “Last Week Tonight” (one vote each)

*In the case of streaming services that release full seasons at once, only include shows that have premiered in the last month.

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