13. “Ash vs. Evil Dead”
The entire “Evil Dead” franchise has been a marvelous example of how comedy and horror can marry, in a dysfunctionally glorious way, thanks to a strong visual style and irreverent humor. More than 30 years after we first met Ash (Bruce Campbell), he returned to our screens — on pay cable, no less — to wreak groovy chainsaw havoc with the Deadites again. Storytelling got even sicker, fun and kooky sidekicks were added, and Costco-sized vats of fake blood were spilled. Even better, Ash in his 50s has transitioned from wise-cracking leading man to one whose sardonicism is well-earned. Ash has seen some shit in his day, which makes his impatience with every creature threatening to swallow his soul that much more ridiculous.
After the 1980 film of the same name became a hit, the series set in a high school for the performing arts revitalized the teen musical genre. Young adult angst was balanced with elaborate song and dance numbers created in music video style. Debbie Allen, who only had a small role in the film, had her role increased for the series, including essential behind-the-scenes duties such as choreography and even directing.
While none of the young stars really became household names afterwards, one of the biggest names it did lure in was Janet Jackson, who joined as student Cleo Hewitt. With its episodic structure, the multiple-Emmy-winning series was able to spread its storytelling out among its many students, while also saving plenty of time for spectacle. Each episode of the series was a celebration of artistry, expression and physical fitness that also tapped into the pop culture of the day. Its iconic theme song and its refrain, ‘I’m gonna live forever” could very well have been referring to the series’ legacy.
Based on Martin Scorsese’s film “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” the series was a workplace comedy set in in Arizona, where recent widow, single mom, and aspiring singer Alice Hyatt (Linda Lavin) works at Mel’s Diner as a stop on her way to eventual stardom in Hollywood. As a sitcom, “Alice” was far sillier and more formulaic than the original, but its warm-hearted premise was an affirmation for how life goes on and how families can be made, despite the problems and tragedies that come. Vic Tayback, Polly Holiday, and Beth Howland rounded out the diner family, while an array of guest stars such as Adam West, George Burns, and Robert Goulet stopped by for some of Mel’s famous chili. “Kiss my grits!” became Holiday’s best-known catchphrase that haunted her even when she left the show. While the series wasn’t much of an awards draw, it was a consistent ratings winner and lasted nine seasons before it finally displayed the “Closed” sign for the last time.
Writer/director Michael Crichton’s 1973 science-fiction film starring Yul Brynner became a classic partly because its story about androids run amok in an adult theme park tapped into society’s fears about increased automation and decreased control. HBO’s ballsy adaptation pushes the premise even further and eliminates the simple duality of good human vs. bad robot.
Black and white are merely the hat choices given when entering “Westworld,” but every step of the way, the players are challenged to make choices that will slide them along the moral and ethical continuum. The question of humanity is two-fold: Is a person’s humanity based upon sentience and autonomy? Or is one considered human based upon empathy and mercy?
“Westworld’s” world-building is impressive, from its deep mythology and vast sets to its meticulous details (such a the songs on the player piano) and complex characterizations. Stellar turns by Evan Rachel Wood, Thandie Newton, and Ed Harris are standouts among many strong performances, all of which ground the fantastical series that is full of revelations and chilling violence. “Westworld” is a wild ride that banks on you holding onto the reins, and if it sometimes bucks you off, that’s part of the fun, too.
9. “Blake Edwards’ Pink Panther” (1969-1970)
Though there have been many iterations of the character, the best stretch for the Pink Panther on television came during the best stretch for the films: the ’60s. Shortly after Peter Sellers introduced the world to Inspector Clouseau in “The Pink Panther” and “A Shot in the Dark,” the cartoons that played during the film’s opening and closing credits delighted audiences at home via short, six-minute stories piled into half-hour episodes. Silent sans for a score, sound effects, and a period appropriate laugh track, the format only served to emphasize Henry Mancini’s iconic score (and the Panther’s perilous adventures).
The titular panther poked fun at a hand-drawn Clouseau character much like Bugs Bunny pestered Daffy Duck, but the protagonist shifted from cat to detective and back again between segments. The Pink Panther became the butt of the jokes when taking the lead, but would later one-up the Inspector when the two shared the screen. Someone had to be the clown, and the Panther was only exempt when a proxy could take his place. Reliably funny and infinitely charming, the cartoon remains the franchise’s best continuation (and you can even watch a few segments on Hulu).
8. “Bates Motel”
Not adherent to Alfred Hitchcock’s film but never disrespectful to it, this “Psycho” prequel stood on its own while deepening our appreciation of the characters we thought we knew. OK, so maybe we never knew Norma Bates (Vera Farmiga) that well. She was just a skeleton, after all. But boy did we ever come to understand Norman (Freddie Highmore) and his mom once they moved into the fateful Bates Motel.
Thanks to committed performances from Farmiga and Highmore, the evil inherent in this family was more fascinating than vile. Even when they repeatedly crossed a moral line, with bloodier and bloodier results, watching them never felt gross. This was horror handled with great humanity. Creators Kerry Ehrin and Carlton Cuse built their own terrifying tale Hitchcock would be proud of (and modern audiences adored).
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