5 television shows worth dying with
How do you live in a world without anyone else? The idea of being shipwrecked on a desert island is an existentially alarming one — involving makeshift flares and conversations with crustaceans and coconut-phones and natives named after weekdays — and, less romantically, the gradual ebbing of hope as more of it washes away with the tide every day. How do you live without family, without love, without conversation? How do you carry on a life without purpose? And how on earth do you live in a world without Basil Fawlty?
It is excruciating to deliberate what not to be stranded with. The single most comforting fact about literature and music and cinema is that there is so much more, so much you haven’t yet sought out or chanced upon, so much to argue over and to fall in love with. Yet, for those of us obsessive about lists, it is fascinating to draw finite limitations and forcibly introspect on what we actually hold dearest. There is a gigantic difference, you see, between the greatest show of all time and the one that you would like to watch a million times over.
It is, thus, with a thrilled but heavy heart that I must first list the television I will have to do without.
It feels treacherous to confess that Fawlty Towers doesn’t make the cut. The most perfect of television comedies, John Cleese’s twelve episode show has everything — except enough episodes. I remember the gags vividly enough to act them out without need for televised cribbing, and many a palm frond will be cautioned not to mention The War. This, by the way, is also the reason Seinfeld won’t be on my island. Despite many more seasons, dedicated rerun-worship has ensured too much is memorised verbatim. Also, how good is Seinfeld without anybody to quote it to?
The Simpsons nearly made it, thanks to its revolutionary magnificence, and obviously its unending run — 29 seasons and counting — not to mention the many flashes of genius that dot even the weaker decades. Also, their ultimate forgettability isn’t altogether a bad thing in this island scenario. Yet, for all its glorious tomfoolery, the satire eventually celebrates life with such affirmation that it would prove too melancholy in a world without friends. The Wire, a deserving and omnipresent participant in any greatest-of-all-time discussion, would prove emotionally devastating in such beached isolation, as would the masterful and heartbreaking Bojack Horseman. Having Cheers around would make me long for Frasier, which I’ve loved for longer, and there isn’t room for both — plus Sam Malone’s bad luck on boats is liable to touch a nerve. It isn’t fair to pick shows that haven’t completed their run, which excludes some gems — Better Call Saul, Silicon Valley,The Good Place, Flowers, Legion — while, ironically, Bryan Fuller’s charming Pushing Daisies is left out because, even on a desert island without a soul to hear me, I’d still fume about its premature cancellation. (Plus the lack of pie would kill me.)
Here, then, are the five television shows I could watch over and over till I’m senile enough to forget individual episodes, and thus, over and over till I die. Here are my desert island boxsets:
Every now and then, I listen to an episode of Blackadder, quite the same way as one does a memorable recording of a famed orchestra — albeit one playing something a bit rude. Rowan Atkinson’s incomparable power over comedic inflection renders his savage line-readings immortal — even when all he’s saying is the name ‘Bob!,’ popping the consonants like a hastily uncorked magnum of cut-rate bubbly — while the words by Richard Curtis and Ben Elton, brutal and literary and patronisingly smart words, lift the humble television sitcom into rarefied Jane Austen air. A show about history and sarcasm, Blackadder wisely and wickedly illustrates how the monarchs and those heralded by history are invariably the biggest idiots in the room, and that a genuinely cunning line goes an awfully long way.
A show about a war that lasted a few seasons more than the war itself, Larry Gelbart’s M*A*S*H would work in any world, in any context. It helps an island viewer, of course, to watch a meditation on the futility of battle, that features soldiers stranded far from home, donning dresses as they dream of life away from shelling and surreality. The show rekindles hope in camaraderie against all odds, and Alan Alda’s Hawkeye Pierce has the most infectious laugh in all of television. M*A*S*H features unforgettable characters even in passing roles, and writing that is both hilarious and humane. Also, the makeshift but elaborate gin-still in Hawkeye’s tent may inspire a shipwrecked fan to invent.
A mob boss goes to see a shrink. David Chase’s seminal and groundbreaking drama series is built on a flimsy premise, and yet, thanks to artful and intelligent writing and tremendous character work by one of the finest ever ensembles, The Sopranos became one of those rare works of art you could simultaneously applaud and embrace. With Tony Soprano, the late James Gandolfini created a “waste management consultant” who will always haunt us, and the show’s rich psychological complexity ensures that it opens up further with each viewing. And I’ll have all the time in the world to mull over that end.
Monty Python’s Flying Circus
One of my favourite Monty Python sketches is called Novel Writing, where cricket-like commentary is given as the novelist Thomas Hardy walks out to his desk, acknowledges the “very good natured Bank Holiday crowd” and starts off his new book with a “The”, sending the audience and commentators in raptures. That is, until he crosses it out. “Oh dear,” says Michael Palin, the first announcer, while Graham Chapman, the second announcer, is more fatalistic: “It looks like Tess Of The D’Urbervilles all over again.”
Monty Python’s Flying Circus, besides being one of the most inventively named shows of all time, is 45 episodes of sketches. Which is to say, intellectually top-heavy absurdism served up by six brilliant men often dressed in drag. It’s so marvellous that the sketch I mentioned doesn’t even make it in (that one is a radio sketch), and the world could do with a few hundred viewings of albatrosses on sale and lumberjacks on song. Plus, if ever I have a feathered companion who dies, something tells me I’ll be able to cope.
This Mitchell Hurwitz show is a magic trick. The phrase might bother resident magician Gob Bluth — “Illusion, Michael,” he memorably corrects. “A trick is something a whore does for money… or candy.” — but this is sitcom sleight-of-hand like no other, a multilayered comedy built from killer dialogue, a wild cast and in-jokes meant to be discovered many viewings deep. The plotting is unthinkably, often unnecessarily ambitious. In this story of a family who lost everything, the dysfunctional Bluths are taken on narrative rides too loopy even for cartoon families: limbs are lost, prisoners are freed, husbands are coloured blue, all while the audience learns the Spanish word for ‘brother’ and the Korean word for ‘hello.’ Also, leaving out Ron Howard’s omniscient narrator who could even put a wry spin on starvation? That would be a huge mistake.