Because of the unexpected excitement I’m feeling re: this weekend’s impending Sex and the City movie (and the fact that I am one episode away from finishing The Wire, which I’m saving for a Wire themed Friday night gathering, where were all drinking raw eggs in beer), I couldn’t help but wonder: How much has television shaped my existence? Mostly because I need a break from editing ye ol’ thesis, I did the following as a fun exercise in television nostalgia and reflection: Ranking series in terms of how influential they were at the time, or even now. Don’t take it too seriously, and maybe just watch the clips, after the jump.
Even if I don’t ignore the last two seasons of this underrated, at times brilliant series, the personal influence of Roseanne is too undeniable to not place at the top. And I suppose I could even say that the mediocre season eight and painfully horrific season nine taught me to understand how to cope with being disappointed by someone or something.
I started watching Roseanne in 1990, in its third season. I’ve since rewatched the entire series dozens of times on reruns and then on DVD, and am not quite sure whether I actually got it way back then. Maybe I was just trying to make my mother think I understood something she enjoyed so much and laughed along with the jokes even when I didn’t know what they meant. But I do remember just simply enjoying watching Roseanne, and the rest of the cast, and feeling at ease watching people that probably resembled my own family more than anything else on television at the time. I also know that by its fourth season, I can vividly remember that it wasn’t so much about whether I understood Roseanne but about how Roseanne was making me understand other things. It let me to ask questions, and to see outside the box that most of other popular culture expressed. And when you’re 7, 8 years old, that’s a powerful, and imperative, thing.
I can say with complete honesty that Roseanne taught me partially, or in some cases entirely, about homosexuality, masturbation, birth control, erections, what it means to be working class, what it means to be a woman and probably in the sense that holds the most to this day, what it means to be a sibling. From a creative perspective, it also showed me what it means to blend comedy and drama in a manner as close to perfect as it can get. And thats how Roseanne was so powerful. It wasn’t just that it talked about all these things no one else talked about, but it was how it talked about it: Poignantly, unforgivingly, and with a lot of well-written jokes. Specifically from 1991-1994, Roseanne churned out three seasons (4-6) that I promise you if you (re)watch them, you’ll at least reasonably agree with me.
Best Character: Darlene Conner
Best Season: Five
Best Episodes: “Wait Till Your Father Gets Home”, “It’s a Boy”, “A Stash From The Past”
2. Six Feet Under
The scope of its effects are less, because by the time I watched it I was well aware of what it was depicting, but in a sense, Six Feet Under and Roseanne have a lot in common in terms of what I got out of them. Like Roseanne, Six Feet Under was one of the realest things I’d ever seen on television, as it depicted a family, or maybe just people, that I related to intensely. Though thankfully my father is still alive, the show mirrors the number, sexes, age range and, in some cases, personalities of my family to a near tee (as did, to a lesser extent, Roseanne if you switch the sexes of all the children). It also came at a climax of my own immediate family’s early 2000s crisis, and I can remember at one point the only thing we all did together was watch 6FU on Sunday nights, with awkward tension building as it referenced themes in our own lives that were slowly unfolding into the open. As depressing as it is to reflect on, Six Feet Under was probably a very therapeutic experience for all of us.
I watched the final season of Six Feet Under in three days. By that point, I had moved out of my parents house, and was sick of waiting for the one-week Canadian delay in episodes. My third year undergrad roommate Shaun and I became obsessed. We rewatched the entire show together leading up to the fifth season, chain smoking away while he drank his iced tea and me my diet coke. When it finally came to the last episode, I can still remember the two of us, huddled under a blanket on this falling apart hand me down coach with his laptop on the coffee table. My other roommates ran into the room to see if we were okay because we were both crying so loud during the final sequence (we shushed them rudely despite the fact that they were just being concerned). We watched the episode again the next day, and it was the hardest parting-of-a-television-show I’ve ever felt. As corny as this sounds, letting go of Six Feet Under was simultaneous with letting go of a whole (horrible) chapter of my very young adulthood, and its now hard to even watch an episode because it reminds me so much of stuff I’ve let go of and forgotten.
Best Character: Ruth Fisher and/or Brenda Chenowith
Best Season: Two
Best Episodes: “A Private Life”, “In The Game”, “Everybody’s Waiting”
3. Buffy The Vampire Slayer
Thankfully, my relationship to Buffy The Vampire Slayer is far less literal than the first two on this list. And much less intense. I just really loved the show, and it introduced me to my interest in mythology-based narratives that would be exemplified in many shows to come (Alias, Lost, both of which I’m not including here simply because Buffy is so much more). I got engulfed in Joss Whedon’s complex world of vampires, demons and their slayer.
On a personal level, I watched the entire series three times over with a wide range of social groups, roommates and significant others, each time creating some initial bonding opportunities. I also underplayed it when I said “really loved” the show, because whatever word I should use to describe that should be enough to suggest I was so vocal in this love that many people associated the show quite predominantly with my interests, even to this day. Buffy wasn’t just a mythology series, it was a metaphor for taking responsibility, finding yourself, and accepting others. Typical themes, yes, but done in such a extremely creative and insightful manner here that its hard not to be drawn in, that is if you could look past the vampire stuff (a pet peeve of mine was when people wrote this show off because of its “silly” content). And considering that the characters on Buffy were the same age as myself as they aged over 7 seasons, maybe I was wrong to suggest my relation to it was less so that the others, vampires and all.
Best Character: Willow Rosenberg
Best Season: Five
Best Episodes: “Becoming”, “The Body”, “Once More, With Feeling”
4. The Wire
The most recent entry to this list is still an episode away from being complete (for me), as I noted. But The Wire, which I started watching on March 1st, the same day I started writing my thesis, was already well on it way a few weeks into its personal run on my laptop. An unexpected comfort food during a time where a lot of pressure and stress filled pretty much all of my everyday, if this list was based solely on the merit of the shows, I’d have to put this at the top. Basically flawless its execution and ability to blend an interesting narrative with a brilliant analysis of the underrepresented socio-economics of inner-city America, I had delayed watching the show for years.
After three failed attempts at getting past the first episode, for reasons I feel lazy copping to the fact that I thought it seemed boring, but its sort of true, The Wire was pretty much the only television I watched from March to May of this year, with the exception of a stray 30 Rock or South Park. This trend passed over to some of my fellow thesis-writers, and our weekly meetings to discuss academic progress usually ended up playing like a Wire discussion board, complete with constant catch phrase use (“Shheeeeeeeeet”) that must have severely annoyed the half of us out of the loop (though they never expressed this, bless them).
The content and themes have nothing to do with my thesis or my personal life or pretty much anything in my universe, but I guess you could say its brilliance was so inspiring that I thought, “what’s a 125 page thesis on gay film distribution compared to what these people have created?”
Best Character: Omar Little
Best Season: Four
Best Episodes: “Port in a Storm”, “Middle Ground”, “Late Editions”
5. Queer As Folk (UK)
I can still remember the promos when they started running on Canada’s Showtime network sometime in 1999. I knew it was coming, and I sorta knew what it was bringing. But that 30 second ad, to the tune of a song called “I Feel Good Things For You” by an artist whose name escapes me and I’m too lazy to look up, left my jaw wide-open. Naked, hot boys! An actual narrative surrounding them featuring actual writers! There was only one VCR in our house, and I planned for weeks a way to ensure that my parents would not be using it and that I could tape it while watching something else I had to pretend to be so enthusiastic about that I needed to watch it on “the big family TV”. I settled on CBS’ Monday Night comedies because there wasn’t anything else, and I remember my father watched it with me, and it was very incredibly nerve-racking. I kept checking the tape and looking all shifty. But either way, it was a success. And became a weekly ritual, and I wondered if the fact that my parents saw me obsessively watch Murphy Brown every week when I was 15 was any less gay than if I had explicitly watch QAF.
Either way, I must have watched all of the 10 episodes a dozen times over that fall, when only one soul knew that I shared some commonalities with the people on the show. I think it terrified me as much as it entertained and, let’s face it, tantalized me (most notably Aiden Gillen as Stuart Alan Jones, who recently popped back into my head when Gillen popped into the world of The Wire). But it definitely introduced me to a whole new arena of gay, the stuff Ellen and Roseanne certainly didn’t talk about. And it was also a fantastic show. Unlike the American remake (which I despised throughout its run in pretentious protest of people’s ignorance toward the far superior original), it was so well-written and acted, and didn’t push itself into campville by overindulging in its soap-opera elements.
Best Character: Stuart Alan Jones
Best Season/Episode: N/A (They all blur into one for me)
6. Sex and the City
7. My So-Called Life
8. Arrested Development
9. Gilmore Girls
10. The Simpsons/Seinfeld
So I’m shifting all these into one blurb, and not just because I’m lazy, but because a) it would get a little repetitive, one only has so many “themes” that can relate to television and b) it would get a lot self-indulgent, if it hasn’t already. But, briefly, and in order: Sex and the City was to me as it was for any 18 year old homo who lived in a dorm in 2002, a shallow obsession that bonded me with half the girls on my floor (I had all the DVDs); My So-Called Life could have been at the top of this list if it had stayed on a bit longer, and remains the most stunning portrayal of teenagehood ever created. Ive bought the complete series TWICE on DVD (they made a better set), and have seen each episode about 20 times, AND bought a “Save MSCL” t-shirt when I was 11 years old; Arrested Development will always remind me of undergrad, and my 3 male roommates from when I lived in a dorm. I can recite the episodes and would argue its the fastest, funniest half hour series in the past ten years, and I swear it broke some serious ice between 4 very different people living in a very small space; I watched Gilmore Girls in its entirety one summer when I was basically living on a strangers couch in Halifax. Lorelai and Rory were my best friends that summer, and it was also a unique experiment in that I watched all seven seasons in reverse order; Seinfeld and The Simpsons didn’t really do anything specifically, but Ive seen every episode so many fucking times I’m sure its deeply engrained in my brain, and together they are probably the two most iconic television series of my childhood and teenage years.
Also of note? Will & Grace, for obvious reasons, but honestly by the time this came around, Roseanne and the UK Queer as Folk had it covered and I found it sort of annoying; The Larry Sanders Show, which I watched over three weeks so really did nothing but put me in an isolated den of laughter during a really horribly cold January, Absolutely Fabulous, for making me take up drinking, Friends, which should have been higher on this list if I was being totally truthful of a series’ influence.. I got beat up in grade six for wearing Friends t-shirts, that I bought on ebay nonetheless in its earliest formation, on a way too regular basis.