London-based former Goulburn Post journo Pete Oliver has spent many an hour on the lounge watching some of the finest shows to grace the television screen. He’s even half-written a television show with Goulburn playwright and mate David Cole (click here to read Dave Cole’s top ten books and plays), and promises he will one day finish it. When he and Dave happen to be in the same hemisphere again, that is.
Pete Oliver: My Top 10 TV shows
We're moving into an era where television shows are overtaking movies as the premier form of entertainment. As television production values and budgets increase exponentially, Hollywood stars are moving away from the big screen and taking roles on television. Compiling this list has made me realise just how much I tend to enjoy watching shows with utterly flawed characters.
Cleaver Greene, Tony Soprano, Gene Hunt, Hank Moody, the cast of Game of Thrones; all are deeply flawed, and most (but certainly not all) try their damnedest to somehow redeem themselves. I was raised watching some of the great British comedies of the 60s, 70s and 80s, many featuring some remarkably flawed characters that you still find yourself cheering on. This has obviously left its mark on me.
The criteria for making my list was pretty simple - what shows could I sit down and burn through an entire season or two in a day. This narrowed it down to about 20 shows, and the tough cull began. So, feeling like I've been forced to make a choice between my favourite children, in no particular order, here are 10 of my favourite television shows.
NOTE: We twisted Pete's arm and made him choose an order... but he emphasised it was not set in stone.
10. Fawlty Towers
If any actors out there want to see how to perform a comically manic role, look no further than Basil Fawlty, the perpetually inept and stressed manager/owner of Fawlty Towers. John Cleese's most iconic role outside of Monty Python, for 12 glorious episodes Basil insulted, confused and angered guests of his Tauquay hotel. Every episode is a gem, full of quotable moments - chances are even the most casual viewer will know of the Germans episode. The casting of Cleese's Basil, Andrew Sachs's Manuel, Connie Booth's Polly and Prunella Scales's "my little nest of vipers" Sybil is spot on. Some 40 years on and many viewings later, and it still hits the mark. A dynamo of British comedy.
9. The Office
The show that made Ricky Gervais a worldwide name, the antics of the loathsome David Brent at Slough-based stationary company Wernham Hogg set the trend for modern television "mockumentaries". While a few of the gags will have you laughing, most of the true comedy from this show comes from Brent's cringe-inducing attempts to be a popular boss, more often than not leaving the viewer groaning. David believes himself to be the embodiment of a politically correct modern man. Everyone else sees him as an insufferable berk. Two seasons of awkwardness culminated in one of the best and most pitch-perfect Christmas finales ever screened on TV. A modern classic.
It's every writer's worst nightmare - a serious case of writer's block. Hank Moody's life has fallen by the wayside. The love of his life has left him, his daughter treats him with contempt, and Hollywood has butchered the movie adaptation of his breakthrough novel. Welcome to Californication. Every character drags baggage with them - most of them border on plain unlikeable, to be honest. But the chemistry of the cast, led by a David Duchovny who you feel is just playing himself at times, working off the razor sharp script is a winning combination. For all his flaws, and they are many, Hank is a devout and passionate advocate for the written word, which holds him in high regard with me. His railing against the use of LOL is brilliant. While the quality of the show dipped significantly in the seventh and final season, the first few seasons are quite memorable.
The sole Australian entry on this list, Rake contains some of the sharpest dialogue committed to local TV in years. Richard Roxburgh IS Cleaver Green, the criminal barrister who is as murky as some of his clients. A drunken degenerate gambler, Cleaver knows most of his clients are guilty, but stoutly defends them nonetheless - not through a passion for justice, but because he actually believes in the legal system. While Cleaver probably sees himself as a soul whose intentions are good, outside the court room he staggers (literally, in many cases) from crisis to crisis, rarely coming out on top. A US remake of this show flopped and was cancelled after one season (I've read that before, somewhere...) - it's hard to imagine anyone else but Roxburgh donning Cleaver's barrister's wig.
6. House of Cards trilogy
While Kevin Spacey’s turn as Frank Underwood is forging a new generation of fans across the Atlantic, before him was Ian Richardson’s Francis Urquhart. The Chief Whip with eyes on the Prime Ministership, who "put a bit of stick about" and would stop at nothing to meet his aims. Richardson plays the Machiavellian Urquhart with all the gravitas of Richard III - his constant fourth wall breaking asides to the camera are a brilliant exposition technique - while his wife Elizabeth is a modern incarnation of Lady MacBeth, urging her husband to greatness at any cost. It's more than 20 years old, and is as politically relevant and biting as the day it was written.
5. Top Gear
The politically incorrect motoring show that appeals to everyone. It's rare that a show with such a narrow scope of focus could be watched by so many, so much so that it's considered one of the most viewed shows... in the world. If the three presenters were in their twenties, they’d just be a bunch of immature twits. Because Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May are all middle-aged, it's utterly hilarious - their banter and shenanigans are reminiscent of three mates who are out for a laugh. Especially notable are their specials and challenges through places such as America's Deep South, the Arctic, Vietnam and even war-torn Iraq. Australia and the US have both tried their own local versions of this show, but haven't been able to capture the chemistry of Jezza, Hamster and Captain Slow.
4. The Thick of It
A Yes, Minister for the 21st century, The Thick of It focuses on the completely inept Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship, led by a succession of equally inept ministers. DoSaC lurches from self inflicted cock up to cock up, and it's only through the presence of the Government's Communications spin doctor Malcolm Tucker (a superbly sweary Peter Capaldi) that they keep afloat. Anyone who has ever worked in Government communications would, at some stage, loved to unleash their inner Malcolm Tucker on an unsuspecting media or colleagues who don't toe the line. A frightening, Machiavellian Scot with the "physical demeanour and the political instincts of a velociraptor", he shouts, smears and swears his way through the show, which wonderfully lampoons both sides of politics. It's visceral, scathing and bang on the mark. WARNING: This clip contains some swearing, but was the cleanest we could find for this show.
3. Game of Thrones
Combine the political scheming of Shakespeare, the fantasy of Lord of the Rings and wrap it up in a blanket of sexposition and brutal violence, and you've got one of the biggest TV shows ever produced. George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series has been adapted by HBO in a series that is receiving universal acclaim. Every character in the enormous ensemble cast is scheming to stay alive in a world torn apart by war and politics. Beautifully shot across Ireland, Morocco, Croatia, Iceland and Malta, with unparalleled production values and big set pieces, the show's several story lines are expertly woven into a phenomenon that's become the most illegally downloaded show in the world. It may have strayed from the books somewhat, but the rules stay the same - if you play the game of thrones, you win, or you die.
2. Life on Mars/Ashes to Ashes
I had never watched Life on Mars until mum bought me the DVD for Christmas a few years ago (cheers, ma!), but it's become one of my favourite shows. An original take on the fish-out-of-water scenario, Life on Mars sees DI Sam Tyler hit by a car in 2005, and waking up in 1973 Manchester - the same Manchester of his childhood. Sam needs to work out how he got there, and more importantly for him, how to get back to 2005. Ashes to Ashes, the follow up series, moves to 1980s London, with DI Alex Drake finding herself in a very similar position after being shot on duty. However, the real star of both shows is "an overweight, over-the-hill, nicotine-stained, borderline-alcoholic homophobe with a superiority complex and and unhealthy obsession with male bonding" - Detective Chief Inspector Gene Hunt. Hunt regularly clashes with Sam and Alex, who don't agree with his methods of extracting information or securing convictions. A US remake of Life on Mars flopped and was cancelled after one season.
1. The Sopranos
Where do I begin. The show that took the mould, beat it up, drove it to a dam and threw it in with a pair of concrete shoes. Superbly acted and brilliantly written, HBO broke new ground with The Sopranos, combining traditional Mafia activities with modern issues and asking the question - how does a Mafia don balance life between his family and THE Family. The late, great James Gandolfini's Tony Soprano is a masterclass of acting. Simmering, volatile, emotionally fragile and morally bankrupt, Gandolfini's visceral performance laid the platform for the excellent ensemble cast to build upon. The show also featured a banging theme song, and possibly one of the most controversial and discussed endings to any TV series. My favourite show, hands down.