TV for a desert island

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BOOKS | DAVID THOMSON

In writing my new book, Television: A Biography, I revisited a lot of shows that were old favorites. Some stood the test of time; some did not. What follows is a list of 10 shows I’d like to have on a desert island — not my top 10, you must understand, just an assortment of good stuff. I hope the island has a sofa.

All in the Family — Norman Lear’s show was an inspired confrontation of liberalism and reaction couched as comedy, but steadily aiming at the issues that still haunt America. In the next few years, we will need more TV with this adroit mixture of courage and entertainment. Plus, Edith Bunker (Jean Stapleton) is the woman on TV I most admire.

Breaking Bad — I have been addicted to long-form shows in recent years and for me Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad is the pick of them all. It takes an ordinary failure in American life, puts him to the test and sees what he’ll make of it. The show is violent, nasty and beautiful — think of those New Mexico skies. It’s frightening, but it’s comic, too. And Bryan Cranston and Anna Gunn made a believable glum marriage.

Friends — I want a mainstream sit-com, and this is the one, chiefly because my wife Lucy and I watched it so many evenings at home on Washington Street with our sons Nicholas and Zachary — often with dinner on our laps. If we laughed enough, the food (and the boys) might end on the floor. I choose it for memories of family merriment.

The Gong Show — I must have one example of mindless, trash TV unworthy of a serious critic. This was a casual riot: untidy, tasteless, rowdy, insolent, mocking and very entertaining. Above all, I choose it for Chuck Barris, an offhand genius and an amiable dithering puppet of a man who realized his strings had been cut. He was on his own.

Laugh-In — Sure, it has become dated, but I loved that overlap from late ’60s to early ’70s and the cutting from one skit to another. So much TV comedy is settled on a single “real” set — it’s as reliable and dull as the sofa we’re sitting on. But Laugh-In was jazzy, done on a sound-stage and capable of going anywhere. It was its own remote system, flicking rapidly through its new stars — including Goldie Hawn, laughing too much to say her lines.

Marty — This is live TV drama. Forget the Oscar-winning movie with Ernest Borgnine. This was the original, done in 1953, written by the remarkable Paddy Chayefsky, and starring Rod Steiger and Nancy Marchand as the awkward no-hope couple who gradually come together. It’s decent, realistic and very touching. Remember that Chayefsky would go on to write Network, the best movie ever made about TV, and still coming true.

Monty Python’s Flying Circus — Silly walks, silly jokes (no cheese and a dead parrot) and a gang of sublimely silly fellows. Python got its chance on TV very casually. The BBC didn’t know what it was, or what it would do. But a gang of arrogant university comics made it the most original show going so that every other sensible show began to look foolish in its light.

OJ: Made in America — From 2016, Ezra Edelman’s seven and a half hour documentary taught us we didn’t know everything about O.J., who was born and raised in San Francisco and a young star at nearby Galileo High School. The best documentary I know about race, Los Angeles, sport, celebrity and its madness. It does nothing to redeem Simpson, but it surely helps explain the terrible blood-letting on Bundy Drive.

Rubicon — This 2010 show was cancelled after one season. I may have been the only person hooked on its weird, torturous story of espionage and intrigue. But I was devoted, so I followed the performances of James Badge Dale, Jessica Collins, Lauren Hodges, Arliss Howard, Miranda Richardson and Michael Cristofer as the devious “Truxton Spangler.” The  reason for having it is to dream about the ways the show might have gone if enough people had watched. It’s a mystery, waiting to be extended.

The Singing Detective — Dennis Potter wrote this and he is one of the finest writers television has had. It is so many things: the story of an ill man in the hospital; the memory of his childhood and sexual revelation; and a pastiche of the detective thrillers he writes. His name is Philip E. Marlow and this was when I realized that Michael Gambon was a great actor. Plus, it’s not just a multi-level drama — it keeps turning into a musical. Singing Detective was years ahead of its time and as profound as the new La La Land is merely pretty.

So, what are your 10?

Longtime neighborhood resident David Thomson — “the best writer on film in our time,” in the opinion of author Michael Ondaatje and many others — has written prolifically about the movies, including his masterful New Biographical Dictionary of Film, now in its sixth edition.

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