There are great television shows. Not many – there aren’t many great anythings, and television is still relatively new – but you can find them. There are great episodes of television; perfect short pieces of fiction that prove how flexible the medium can be. But what doesn’t get the attention they deserve are the truly perfect seasons of television.
A season of television is like a novel. They’re not always self contained, but the good ones are all able to be judged on their own. With television episodes, there are some amazing hours that only work in context of their surrounding chapters. That makes lists of the best episodes a bit wonky. How do you compare a stand alone, nearly detached horror piece like Doctor Who‘s “Blink” to an amazing plot payoff like Angel‘s “Not Fade Away” and judge them against each other? But seasons, seasons can be compared fairly. A good season of television, regardless of genre, stands equal with its peers, even if the show around it never really paid off.
So, here we are, my top 5 favorite seasons of American television:
5. Babylon 5, Season 3
There are lots of reasons you might try to watch Babylon 5 and bounce off of it. The first season is almost entirely awful. The production values suck, the acting is more miss than hit and the attempts at humor are often embarrassing. Stick it out, though, and you’ll get the kind of payoff plot fetishists like me only dream of. There are moments in the following seasons that are brilliant, but there has never been a season of television so carefully constructed to pay off viewers as the third season of Babylon 5.
Whatever you thought the show as to that point, wherever you thought it was going, you were wrong. I’m not sure a show ever, to that point, had so purposefully yet completely upended its status quo. American television has always been adverse to change. Shows had done their best to buck that, but it was Babylon 5 that first showed that a show could made radical changes to what it was about yet do so as part of a carefully planned plot arc. This is a season that has its main characters rebel against their own government midway, and it was written at a time when Star Trek was so afraid of plot progression that writers were forbidden to create any lasting change in their episodes. It’s a relentless season of television, and it finishes with one of the greatest cliffhanger buildups of all time.
And to top it off? Every single episode was scripted by one writer.
4. Millennium, Season 2
As shows go, there few whose bags are quite as mixed as Millennium. The first post X-Files show by Chris Carter, Millennium had an intriguing premise but little idea of how to execute it. Its first season was promising, but often empty and directionless. Its third was a sad attempt to mutate it into something more closely resembling its more popular cousin. But for one season, it became one of the most unique and incredible pieces of television you’re likely to find.
Glen Morgan and James Wong, creators of the most underrated science fiction show of the 90’s – Space: Above and Beyond – took over after that show was cancelled. Before season 2, Millenium seemed unsure how much of Frank Black’s profiling gift was supernatural and how much was just brain power. Season 2 dove headlong into a strange and mythical world, and in doing so created something unlike anything else I’ve seen. Everything about the construction of the second season works, from Frank’s separation from his family to his new partner and her visions of angels to Frank’s concern that his daughter is plagued with the same visions that’ve been his gift and curse.
This is a brand of fantasy you rarely find done well in any medium, a subtly spiritual fantasy, as influenced by the religious as the arcane. And it has a dark and tragic ending that the third season basically had to handwave away, which means you can watch this and only this season and imagine you’ve seen the true and proper ending for Frank Black and the Millennium Group.
3. Angel, Season 5
Of everything Joss Whedon has produced, I love nothing more than Angel. And I love nothing more in Angel than its stupendous 5th season. I was worried when this season began. After the very serialized and very dark 4th season, there were reports of a more episodic direction for its future. But the thing I liked about the previous seasons of Angel were how much plottier they were than Buffy.
And when the season opener hit, those concerns rose. There was something weird about the show, and not just because they’d flipped the show on its head at the end of its 4th season. The heroes had joined their archenemy, the demonic law firm Wolfram & Hart and taken over its L.A. branch. That was change I could believe in. But stylistically something seemed funky, and I was worried the things that had show great had been abandoned to buy renewal.
That worry evaporated quickly. In fact, I think the early episodes of season 5 were made to throw the network off their scent, because it wasn’t long before they were in the middle of the most compelling plot of their run. Every season dealt with Angel’s struggle to balance the monster within him against the hero he desperately wanted to be. Season 5 took that to its extreme, with the heroes struggling to remain uncorrupted by the power they’d been given and the growing price of maintaining it. Many of the show’s best individual episodes came in its 5th season, including the hilarious “Smile Time” and the show’s brilliant series finale “Not Fade Away.” What’s incredible about the show’s final season is that, though it was never intended to close the show, it does it so well that I’m a little glad the show didn’t continue. Had Buffy ended with its 5th season, my feelings about that show as a whole might be very different.
Angel was always an example of a sub-genre I love but is always poorly done: the dark, urban detective fantasy. Angel is the best filmed example you can find, and season 5 is its brightest moment. It’s the best season of television Joss Whedon produced, by far.
2. Battlestar Galactica, Season 1
It starts with the most intense episode of television I’ve ever seen, 33, and never lets up from there. The show was strong for its entire run, but it was never as perfectly tight as it was in its first season. A remake of a crappy science fiction show that started with a good but not amazing miniseries, I never guessed the show had a season like this in it.
This is a season that not only gets everything right with its characters and plot, but perfected a realistic and immediate style that science fiction spent most of its filmed existence avoiding. It’s so good that people spend a lot of time saying that the show lost something after it. I don’t think that’s true, but I do think that the show never got it right as often as they did through its first 13 episodes. It even manages to weave in a completely separate plot with two characters on the run without feeling schizophrenic or forced.
It’s relentless, and it builds to one of the all time great season finales, juggling both religious revelations and sudden betrayals and kicking the audience so hard it made the year wait between the first and second seasons excruciating. I always suspected Ron Moore had something great in him after his work on Deep Space Nine, but I never believed he’d get it so right so soon.
1. The Wire, Season 4
In The Wire, the penultimate episode was always the barnburner, the one where people died and plots came to a head, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that the penultimate season feels like the real climax of the show. A lot of people criticize season 5, but I think that’s unfair, and based largely on what season 4 does for the show as a whole. Season 5 is denouement. Season 4 is the climax. (You could argue, I suppose, that in Shakespearean fashion, it’s season 3 that’s the climax, but that’s an argument for another day). Yet, amazingly, with the focus on the students of Edward Tilghman Middle School,season 4 stands almost entirely on its own.
Everything that makes The Wire great is even greater here. The show was always about the inexorable destructiveness of our institutions, but it took most of the show to get to the point when we could see how every piece of that system grinds people between them. The students of Tilghman Middle School – Namond, Michael, Randy and Dukie – are the purest victims of that system that the show could give us. The brilliance of the season is the way every other piece of the show crushes down on those four kids, and how in the end the only an individual act of altruism saves one of them. The rest, well, even that’s not enough.
The greatest season of possibly the greatest show television has produced.