“This is the last story I’ll ever tell”

            Doctor Who is influential because it was both a genre show and an anthology show, before that combination was popular. With such a long lifespan and endless canvas for experimentation, it can ditch, retcon or reference any earlier canon that it wants, and it has utilized this freedom many times. After the advent of TV’s recent golden age and DW’s move away from multi-episode self-contained arcs, it adopted the popular format of seasonal arcs. These yearlong background stories are inconsistent, but follow a familiar pattern. Usually there are fitful threads through each mostly unrelated episode, until the endgame where the threat comes to the forefront. Davies’ season enders are unwieldy and sappy, but some have very affecting endings. Moffat’s are ambitious and superficially exciting, but sometimes implode from their own impersonal complications.

            Much of the season two finale, Doomsday, is your average hyper-campy world invasion story, which happens every so often on DW given its scope. It’s typical fanciful Davies stuff. The situation is stock enough that the first part of this two-parter is fine but not necessary (an online episode recap would suffice). Despite boundless freedom for shenanigans, the core villains tend to survive and repeat, and this is a good example, as Daleks once again threaten earth.

            Before I get ahead of myself, I should address the new actor. Here’s the thing: the early days of the show back in the 60s found an in-universe way to continue a creatively successful property even when lead actors left. That strategy is called regeneration. When a Time Lord is mortally wounded (or in other ambiguous circumstances) they respawn, so to speak, as a different-looking individual with some semblance of the same memories and personality. It would follow that the prolonged Doctor would find new humans to pal around with beyond the initial group, so new companions come and go periodically. Such traditions allow for flexibility with the character and his aesthetic without totally breaking continuity, while providing supporting players to bounce off him. These people bond in their own way with the aloof alien, facilitate important sci-fi exposition, and give an outsider perspective on events. Furthermore, such changings of the guard have built-in stakes and resonance, as change and loss are constant on a show with so many emotional attachments. The Doctor has thus far had twelve incarnations (excluding a false alarm mulligan and an interstitial one-off; don’t ask), typically referred to by their number.

            Anyway, back to the episode. I figured that this show would move in a certain way, and in Doomsday, it didn’t, making for one of the new series’ best finales. The ending is a beautiful climactic payoff, especially given how dashing and friendly Ten is most of the time. In fact, for most of the episode he’s his usual charming self, which the writers had already nailed down. More than anything, this hour cuts to the quick with the show’s emotional potency.

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The Girl In the Fireplace

The Girl In the Fireplace

“…take the slower path”

            After a tentative season one two-parter, Steven Moffat burst onto the Doctor Who scene with this instant classic which established his keen eye for sci-fi story concepts, demonstrated the excellent flashy execution he could give them, and calcified a new Doctor’s personality. It tackles a potent, but rarely examined angle of a Time Lord’s emotional attachments – something our hero’s tragic background, dangerous lifestyle and heightened intellect sometimes preclude.

            Ten (David Tennant, still the most agreeable and representative choice for best Doctor ever) is a complex incarnation of the character. His genial showmanship is on full display here, along with its function as a mask for deeper pain and a large ego. After Nine’s genteel selflessness, Ten feels guilt over his role in the Time War and overcompensates with compassion, avoidance and manic strategizing.

            More than anything, Moffat knows how to use the Doctor’s tenuous mastery over time and space as a tool for dramatic storytelling, to such an extent that the trick still hasn’t run out of mileage. In this case, the focus is on the unintentional damage the Doctor can wreak on a human life, which is another common theme with his long-suffering companions, even down to the most eager ones.

            Speaking of which, Rose (Billie Piper) is a perfectly charming audience surrogate who has a less-than-ambiguous romantic affection for the Doctor. Her affability and adventurous spirit is immediately evident after being plucked from her everyday life and shown the magic of the universe, but she isn’t without a pensive side.

            The Girl In the Fireplace is also an example of a certain category of DW episodes, wherein our heroes go to a particular era or setting in world history and goof around. Renaissance-era France is only glimpsed here, but in other stories the period piece premise would be front and center.

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            My leadoff choice is from the first season of the revamped series, where the show truly begins for most mainstream viewers. It functions as a reboot of sorts, while still continuing some mythology and in-jokes from before. Furthermore, Dalek is a great baseline for the structure and pacing of a Doctor Who episode. Temporary casts of characters that exist purely for the weekly plot, a generic sci-fi setting and an ethical dilemma solved with pure moxie and cleverness are all hallmarks of this show.

            Despite its compelling story hook and earned pathos, this entry has the gauche feel of the show’s first few seasons. It’s quite tacky because of BBC budgets and its now-dated mid-2000s stylization, and the plot is a tad belabored. But really, the homebrewed campy aesthetic is a proud part of the show’s adventure serial DNA at this point.

            Neither of the two showrunners thus far is consistently great at pacing out emotional and story beats, so expect a couple slow spots in the non-highlight hours. Davies tends to drag early on in some of his episodes, but is always dependable to deliver a meaningful, satisfying third act. Moffat overcorrects that problem, packing so many ideas in at the start that he only sometimes ties them together at the end. Davies is indebted to the mythology and family-friendly nature of the classic serials, giving old ideas a new coat of paint. Moffat, on the other hand, is original to a fault, bringing new ideas and stylization to the show even though they don’t always gel.

At any rate, this hour re-establishes the most important of the Doctor’s recurring villains: the Daleks, a merciless and destructive robotic race. Their cold depersonalization and boundless capacity for survival make them the yin to his yang. There’s also a bit of light backstory to get the viewer up to speed, and then we’re off to the races with a very good episode!

            Doctor Nine (Christopher Eccleston) does an acceptable job bridging the esoteric, whimsical nature of earlier Doctors and storylines with the realistic ambiguity of the modern era. The one issue with this incarnation (besides the iffy stories assigned to him) is the fact that he only stuck around for one season, giving little time for distinct traits and relationships to develop. But what’s there is admirable: having survived the decimation of his home planet and species in the program’s last canon adventures before a lengthy hiatus, this iteration of our hero is extremely warm and peaceful, determined to overcome his grief. Eccleston gives a jubilant and friendly performance, perhaps the most humble incarnation of the contemporary show.

            By the way, this should go without saying, but the mantle of “Doctor” is basically just a nickname for the main character. His race are actually called Time Lords, from the planet Gallifrey. It was caught in a treacherous war with Daleks, which was finally alluded to in a series-halting TV movie in the 90s, before this soft reboot kickstarted the property again. The Doctor’s character evolution would come later. For now, Dalek is a solid start to an epic journey.

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Doctor Who: Getting To Know An Impossible Astronaut


            I’ll keep this brief. Doctor Who is not always great, but it’s frequently very good. It’s certainly not the polished, auteur-driven prestige show that critics reward (at least not usually), and it is fair to say it’s inconsistent. But that’s why this guide exists, to inform newbies of the best it has to offer.

            With its science fiction setting, this show can be anything from week to week. In the modern era, there are almost always seasonal stories and a lot of accruing continuity, which this project will necessarily have to ignore. I’ll attempt to assess all the different qualities and structural components of the program, along with every incarnation of the Doctor and his companions over two showrunners and nine seasons. These entries go chronologically, and as much as I can I avoid recaps or spoilers.

            It’s okay to watch Doctor Who with gaps, because of its wavering nature and the fact that its plot and characters travel through time anyway, so going backwards with added context and foreknowledge isn’t the worst thing in the world. That said, I would suggest getting through my primary sixteen first before checking out the additional recommendations.

            DW has a very humanistic viewpoint, and a fluffy tone that masks some significant pathos. It’s sneakily smart about its characterization, and inadvertently reveals the values and aesthetics of each era. This project will only focus on the modern years, from 2005 to 2016. I had hoped to launch this feature before the current tenth season aired, but that didn’t pan out.

            Alongside the broad popularity of teen fantasy and video games, this show is perhaps the crux of esoteric nerd culture becoming marketable mainstream culture, and deserves recognition for that alone. Hopefully the strength of these standout hours will encourage you to seek out more. It’s superficially a silly premise and an often dismissed transatlantic cult, but Doctor Who is bigger on the inside. Allons-y!

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punk 101


1. Meaty Beaty Big And Bouncy – the Who (my rating: A+) year: ‘71
What it is: Entire template for punk set in adventurous, world-changing songs.
Listen: The whole thing

2. Fun House – the Stooges (A+) ‘70
Attitude/sound/production of garage rock and punk turned into groovy art.

3. Plastic Ono Band – John Lennon (A+) ‘70
A shatteringly intense, earnest, painful package of radical politics, quiet fury, and stark simplicity.
I Found Out

4. Ramones – the Ramones (A+) ‘76
So perfect and pure for lack of trying or talent that it’s zen. Inventing punk as retro no-frills raving turned up to eleven. Classic & immensely important.
Blitzkrieg Bop

5. Pink Flag – Wire (A+) ’77
Another perfect document of creativity through roughshod means. This time a brutally opaque thesis deconstruction of punk structures, tones, topics and rhythms using only the barest and simplest of components.
Ex Lion Tamer

6. Damned Damned Damned – the Damned (A-) ‘77
An interesting British speed-rock detour with solid songwriting.
Neat Neat Neat

7. Singles Going Steady – the Buzzcocks (A-) ‘79
Angsty pop-punk excellence, only their best tracks curated.
Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)”, “Lipstick

8. London Calling – the Clash (A+) ‘79
A punk band without rules explores roughly 15 different genres in a mind-blowing masterpiece.
The whole thing

9. Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables – Dead Kennedys (A-) ‘80
Satirical, brutal west coast protest art punk with a sick sense of humor.
Holiday In Cambodia

10. Adolescents – Adolescents (A-) ‘81
Epitome of what most people think of as punk: snotty, formulaic, simple bangers done well.
Kids of the Black Hole

11. Under the Big Black Sun – X (A) ‘82
Mature contrarian beatnik punkabilly pop.
The Hungry Wolf

12. Violent Femmes – Violent Femmes (B+) ‘83
Lo-fi neurotic folk-punk skiffle.
Kiss Off

13. Double Nickels On the Dime – Minutemen (B+) ‘84
Smart outcast punk with no boundaries. Abstract jazz funk art rock double-length sprawl that’s super listenable.
Viet Nam”, “Corona

14. Pleased To Meet Me – the Replacements (A) ‘87
Punk gains respectability, indie goes major label. Almost guitar rock/hair metal. After this band, the boundaries blurred.
The Ledge

15. Complete Discography – Minor Threat (B+) ‘89
Invention of hardcore, straight edge, established D.C. scene.
Straight Edge”, “Minor Threat

16. No Control – Bad Religion (B+) ‘89
Hyper-literate hardcore with a catchy sound.
Big Bang

17. Nevermind – Nirvana (A+) ‘91
Punk/metal/pop, AKA grunge, AKA the megaselling game-changer.

18. Dookie – Green Day (B+) ‘94
Punk as irreverent friendly stoner jamming. Took its bite, relevance, and development away, but left a fun hit album.
Pulling Teeth

19. The Woods – Sleater-Kinney (A-) ‘05
Riot grrl and punk cross-breeding with indie/hard rock. Still intense, great.

20. Majesty Shredding – Superchunk (A) ‘10
Punk pop lifers settling into seen-it-all midtempo middle age with beauty and grace – the defanged modern state of a once vital genre, although it still has its moments.
Crossed Wires

21. David Comes To Life – Fucked Up (B+) ‘11
A screamo mall punk rock opera epic, released two decades too late.
Queen Of Hearts”, “Under My Nose

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Smells Like Winslowisms: My Favorite Rock and Pop Songs of the 1990s

If I did this correctly, you shouldn’t recognize most of these songs. You’ll notice there is pointedly no hip-hop or R&B in this collection, and that’s not to say there weren’t some amazing singles in that sphere in the 90s – to the contrary, the scene blew up. Despite having moderately enjoyed most of the 90s rap classics, their (numerous) hits were pretty much the only tracks that impressed me or stick in my memory, in fact. The thing is, I think those are all pretty well known and many of you probably have more nostalgia for them than I do, so I’ll hold off on writing about them for now, imbalanced as it makes this list. I can always return to it with a curated list of dozens of tracks when I have more time to write.

For the time being, when possible, I avoided megahits by major bands that you have already heard, especially if I have an obscure personal favorite. But in some cases, I’m helpless to deny the power of a pop steamroller or a corny one-hit wonder. Even older acts had some good contributions to the decade! With one exception, I allowed one song per artist. I definitely love a lot of these bands and am surely missing tons of good stuff, so this is not meant to be definitive. It’s just an examination of tropes and trends in 90s rock, told through some tracks that will hopefully be new favorites for you. (Sidenote: I’m hyperlinking as many of these as I can in the titles, and it has to be noted that the 1990s were the golden age for music videos, so make sure to pay attention to the visuals too. Although some of them are hilariously lame, for sure.)

In no particular order, here goes:

Paranoid Android – Radiohead

The best possible thematic encapsulation of the decade, in rock terms at least. Aping the layouts of “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” and “Bohemian Rhapsody”, but with enough creativity, breadth and talent to equal them. A tense moody part, an outrageous noisy part, some weird electronic interstitials and the great slow ballad comedown, stretched to epic length.

The Universal – Blur

An underrated band that, like Radiohead, broke free of the Britpop label through sheer artistic daring. This self-conscious anthem of comfort and disaffection in the modern era walks a similarly ambiguous line between sincerity and irony. But anyway, it’s just super great.

Lazy Line Painter Jane – Belle and Sebastian

The decade’s best expression of pop rock as music for the heart (not the mind or body). A lively, melodic bluesy romp with perhaps my favorite female vocal performance ever, which detours into a stunning larger-than-life feel-good vamp at the end.

Metal Mickey – Suede

Another British pop rock band, this marvelous glam song sticks out to me for being convincingly retro in sound and attitude, rather than just following old patterns. That skill was deceptively difficult for many idol-worshipping 90s musicians to pull off.

Waitin’ For A Superman – the Flaming Lips

This standout track is from a quirky, happy-go-lucky opus that represented the peak of the 90s’ obsession with revitalizing 60s traditions (in this case, baroque pop).

This Is Hardcore – Pulp

Another terrific example of how the 90s took old musical rules and pulled at them like thread. This is essentially more Britpop, which was invented in the 60s despite its renaissance 30 years later. And yet no classic Britpop would be structured, produced or arranged in such a despairing, expansive, modernistic way as “This Is Hardcore”. But that makes all the difference.

Don’t Look Back In Anger – Oasis

One of the decade’s biggest blockbusters, and as usual with those, they’re pretty dumb and derivative. But there’s something undeniable about the songs off their best record, especially this peerless barroom singalong with pathos off the charts, despite throwaway lyrics.

Narcolepsy – Ben Folds Five

The greatest modern synthesis of classical/baroque motifs with postmodern angst and abstraction, complete with incredible dynamics, a unique heartbroken metaphor, and a barbershop quartet bridge.

My Name Is Jonas – Weezer

There were isolated songs in the 90s that conveyed total optimism and enthusiasm, but few had such a vintage, “instant classic” feel as those on the Blue Album. This is one of the highlights you’re less likely to hear these days.

Isobel – Bjork

A wonderful remedy for the notion that some artists are to be held at a distance and vaguely respected without any knowledge of their music, or even just the assumption that it’s all weird anyway. This is simply a fun, engaging song.

Sweetness Follows – R.E.M.

Unlike many artsy acts that unexpectedly broke through to mass appreciation, R.E.M.’s pop triumphs are pretty well known and appreciated. That leaves me the option of picking a minor yet gorgeous album track, when such unassuming mood sketches were a strong suit of theirs anyway.

Metronomic Underground – Stereolab

The embodiment of the 90s’ fondness for 60s exotica, kitsch, trippiness and inclusivity, this extra-long slow-building electronic art rock jam is outstanding.

The Day I Tried To Live – Soundgarden

The closest that the jaded and sarcastic new guard of rockers came to approaching classic rock levels of purity and chops, this band hitched a modern aesthetic to the lovingly traditional methods of flashy arena rock headbangers.

Bed For the Scraping – Fugazi

To contrast once again, this uncompromising post-hardcore guitar band reveled in the unpredictability that rock music once boasted and had lost by the late 80s. Their tracks could be meticulous grooves, patient mood-setters, unorthodox noise, repetitive refrains, or frequently all four at once. And above all, they were intense. Hopefully this, their most traditional and catchy song, will make a few more fans.

Where Did You Sleep Last Night – Nirvana

The conflicted grunge saviors create a definitive and self-evident argument in favor of shouting and pain in music, for the 90s at least.

This Is A Call – Foo Fighters

I am too attached to FF and a few other groups here to be entirely fair and critical, but this is just a fantastic rock song from when I was younger. Check it out.

Drag Days – Guided By Voices

The best proof that indie does not always equal too rough to listen to. This is a song so hooky, sparkling and comfortable it could have been used as the theme song to an NBC sitcom.

Grave Architecture – Pavement

In contrast, a great example of what boundless, apathetic, esoteric indie rock can musically accomplish within one song, and the idiosyncratic appeal that created its fanbase.

Nicotine & Gravy – Beck

The last word on irony, sprawl and cognitive dissonance in 90s alt-rock. Beck converts a tapestry of surrealism into a funky fresh, freaky smart, snarky sample-y classic.

You Were Right – Built To Spill

Taking the history of rock seriously and reverently for once, Built To Spill swipes the most memorable credos of years past to create a righteous message of hopelessness.

Velouria – Pixies

The champions of bridging high and low art, the esoteric and populist, the complex and simple, catharsis and subversion. The Pixies should be everyone’s gateway into “weird” non-mainstream music.

What You Wish For – Guster

Bubblegum pop still existed in the 90s, somewhere between manufactured boy bands and overbearing grunge dudes. Guster got lost in the shuffle, but this song is irrepressibly melodic, although a tad angry for their usually joyous mood.

Denise – Fountains Of Wayne

A flawless diamond of a pop composition that seems so easy, and yet there are so few of them these days. Chris Collingsworth has done his musical homework, and importantly, learned to apply it to things he cares about. Probably the catchiest song here, along with Guster.

Outtasite (Outta Mind) – Wilco

Country and roots rock were very subdued in their evolution with the rise of synthesized music on one hand, and gritty grunge on the other. But they weren’t down and out, as Wilco’s massive success has proven. Before they started deconstructing the genre that was their meat and potatoes, they proved they could play it straight and still kick ass.

Timber – Neko Case

Did I already call something my favorite female vocal performance? Well, I guess that makes Neko my favorite vocalist of any gender identity. Case in point: the things she does to vowels in this searing, giddy alt-country song are the stuff of legend.

One More Hour – Sleater-Kinney

90s rock amped up the noise and dissonance to shake off the slick 80s hair metal cobwebs, but for my money, there’s no guitar chug or screech more stunning than the interplay between Carrie’s searing last power chord and Corin’s final vibrato-heavy shout. (The rest of the song is also tremendous.)

Mysterons – Portishead

Kept the cool factor of their new toys, without being swallowed up by the self-indulgent factor, and the relatively straightforward songwriting helped tether it to reality as well. It’s still a trip, like a half-remembered echo of old jazz and soul standards mutated into dance music.

Only Shallow – My Bloody Valentine

Overdubs overdubs overdubs. That was the one trick they beat into the ground on their era-defining shoegaze album, but here the wall of shredded sound really does sound magical and infinite. Plus beautiful vocals, always good.

Pulling Teeth – Green Day

The last meaningful gasp of punk rock, this band’s debut made it friendly, slick and lazy, which was cool at the time but the final step in its life cycle.

Going Away To College – Blink-182

The first meaningless gasp of punk rock. But even these hacks’ sterilized sound, numbing lack of talent and problematic attitude could produce a strikingly sensitive and tuneful album cut by accident.

Cold Blows the Wind – Ween

Okay, so here’s my spiel on Ween. They were gleeful and sometimes crude deconstructionists of modern music, who exaggerated the tropes of numerous genres and artists to the point of surrealism. Yet their spirit and nuance was so palpable, these superficially silly tracks still have a lot of craft, charm and staying power. So, for a band who trafficked in the decade’s major dichotomy of irony vs. sincerity, I present this beautiful and devastating Chinese folk ballad cover played completely straight. Subverting subversion is a total Ween move.

Polka Your Eyes Out – Weird Al Yankovic

A more straightforwardly humorous presence in music, and one of its most deservedly iconic. I actually prefer these inspired postmodern polka cover medleys to his pop hit piss-takes.

Call And Answer – Barenaked Ladies

Plenty of self-proclaimed nerds and weirdos dominated 90s rock, but none were as lyrically clever, genial and sneakily emotional as these guys. Say what you will about their kitsch factor and flash-in-the-pan reputation or goofy hit songs (which I happen to love more often than not), they could sometimes knock out a tune with real pathos in it.

Lovefool – the Cardigans

The best 90s one-hit wonder. Sorry, that’s just how it is. Not dated, not shoddy, not by a disrespected artist, it surpasses all limitations of one-hit wonders while still being irresistible and bubbly. It also perfects the weird time-portal audio effect of mashing up 60s/70s ideas with 90s attitude and technology.

Don’t Speak – No Doubt

This is, oddly enough for a ska band, a really moody and charming song. Despite a handful of other great singles, “Don’t Speak” is still their calling card in my book.

I Saw the Sign – Ace of Base

This fully embodies the sort of dorky throwaway hit that everyone should have forgotten. Except it’s super fun, so nevermind.

Torn – Natalie Imbruglia

They don’t make ‘em like this anymore: trendy but folksy singer-songwriter crossover hits. This one is super sensitive and really good.

Steal My Sunshine – Len

This song leans heavily on a couple of gimmicks, you could argue, but they’re some of the greatest gimmicks of their time. It’s amazing how the musical backing never gets tiring, and the tune’s optimism is infectious.

Cannonball – the Breeders

For me, Kim Deal’s Pixies spinoff never rose beyond its most famous single. But it’s an amazing alternative tune.

Supernova – Liz Phair

Liz Phair was a thing that happened in the 90s. Semi-successfully straddling the burgeoning intersectionality of defiant women in pop music and the boys’ club of classic rock, this is still my favorite of her songs. Liz (and many 90s’ artists) knew that no matter how retro or tacky, a lame-on-paper three-note riff could become unforgettable with some attitude and wah-wah.

You Oughta Know – Alanis Morrisette

I prefer “Head Over Heels” because it’s actually pretty genuine, but what would Alanis be without her focus group-manufactured alt-songstress mask? I can’t deny the Big Hit.

Dreams – Cranberries

A rare feat for the 90s: despite having obvious forebears in the Cocteau Twins, this folk pop song sounds genuinely new, fresh and magical! And it was popular! If only their albums at large had lived up to this.

…Baby One More Time – Britney Spears

The banger that launched a thousand divas, many of them equally talented, successful and image-savvy. Try not to cringe at its gender politics or implications… we were all so innocent then.

Flagpole Sitta – Harvey Danger

The most bro-tastic, white dude-attitudey song that I will accept as listenable.

Bittersweet Symphony – The Verve Pipe

There were plenty of ways to distort and create using old samples and influences in the 90s, and then there were the shameless thieves pilfering wholesale to make money. But occasionally even those cheap tricks were… ugh… pretty great, like this. I can scarcely even tell that music comes from the Rolling Stones’ “Out Of Time”.

You Get What You Give – the New Radicals

Yeah, this was a one hit wonder. Yeah, it was good. What else is there to say here?

Closing Time – Semisonic

Again, no real comment on this one hit wonder either other than it’s better than the previous. Years of treating it as a weepy mantra have undermined its modest pathos.

Breaking the Girl – Red Hot Chili Peppers

Something we have to admit: white funk/rap/ska/metal existed, and it was terrible. But some of it was alright, I guess, and it caught on so here we are talking about it. This is one of the least obnoxious or dated, and most melodic songs RHCP made in the 90s that wasn’t an enormous hit, so it’s my pick.

I Don’t Wanna Grow Up – Tom Waits

This track is insanely normal and sweet for the maestro of rickety anachronistic shamanism to have written. It sounds like the dang Ramones!

Stay (Faraway, So Close!) – U2
I’m not as sold on U2’s career-reboot music as I am on its aesthetic and external qualities, but they could certainly still write a simple fist-pumping song. This is one of those.

Real Love – the Beatles

It’s a lost Beatles (okay, technically John Lennon) demo. Of course it rules.

Betterman and Corduroy – Pearl Jam

Two of the first hit songs I liked independent of their albums, success or artists’ reputation – that’s what I call standout singles. My list of such songs is now thousands of tracks long. Despite having many favored groups from the decade, these jam band outcasts are the only entry where I couldn’t pick just one song. “Corduroy” is a masterful and definitive ‘three different tunes patched together’ composition. “Betterman” is a soulful and note-perfect retro singalong. What better way to close out a playlist-ready gathering of great tunes than the two songs that started it all for me? Listen to both.

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Postcards From New Jersey, Albuquerque, North Dakota, Baltimore And New York


So, this is a superficial ranking post for my own amusement. It’s not too serious or definitive or anything. It also contains ****COMPLETE AND EXPLICIT SPOILERS FOR ALL OF THE SHOWS ADDRESSED HERE.****

The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad and Deadwood are considered the foundation of the prestige TV boom, and I figured I could add my voice to the internet’s din, since they’ve all been discussed to death already. They are all historically important for the art and commerce of modern TV, and the landscape right now is indebted to them. It’s true that they are favorites of the critical establishment, which has long been white and male, but the shows were far from catering to their needs and impulses.

Each one, in some sense, roughly falls under the umbrella term of ‘gritty’ or ‘antihero’ shows, even as they diverge wildly in how they handle those tropes. For instance, they all feature some of the most wonderful female characters to grace the medium, who are penned, directed and portrayed by immensely talented women. It may seem surprising, but upon inspection, they each have a chastising, guarded portrayal of violence and suffering, no matter how central it is. Furthermore, their formal and aesthetic experimentation blew the doors off of what seemed possible in their day, far beyond the prurient thrills of other white male power fantasy programs. If anything in their social context could be said to be a major drawback (for four of them at least), it’s the lack or tokenization of people of color.

Certainly, these five aren’t the only factors that contributed to the modern television climate, and it’s not as if quality TV didn’t exist before them. But all of them are definitely of a certain era, where possibility and creativity bloomed on cable, and which led to the explosion of remarkable content creators and diverse representation that we have today. So yeah, these may seem arbitrary to group together (although this quintet could easily stand as a symbolic stepwise history of modern America, but I’ll leave that to your imagination). They are limited in a sense, but they’re without a doubt the ‘Big Five’ of television’s golden age, so there you have it. Plus, I’ve seen all of them, finally, which seems like a form of fandom completionism worth bragging about.

Anyway, these color-coded rankings go from my most to least favorite, with three extra-long seasons among them split into discrete halves. I would only consider the last two overall mediocre seasons, and even those are more interesting than some shows, I’ll grudgingly admit. Things like influence, consistency, craft and ambition were all factored in here. After giving a brief summary of my feelings on each season, I list its most famous, worst, and weirdest episodes, as well as an underrated gem I enjoy. Almost all of them contain at least one Big Character Death, as I have termed it, which is a guiding principle of modern scripted TV. Most of these shows feature amazingly well-chosen music as well, so I pick a standout for every one. In addition, I note my favorite storylines and individual scenes, as well as one remarkable performance. Lastly, I threw in a famous line and a pertinent symbol from all 29 seasons. (Also, the majority of the promo art for these shows was terrific, so I’m including them all.)

As far as the shows themselves, I’d have to abstain from calling The Wire the best and instead put it into a superlative class all its own. Then my personal favorites, Mad Men and Breaking Bad, followed by the underrated Deadwood and hugely overrated Sopranos. Now here comes even more rambling!



It’s not perfect, but it’s like nothing else you’ve seen, and it contains multitudes. Also, it’s reasonably close to perfect.

The popular classic: The Other Woman

An underrated one: At the Codfish Ball

The worst one: The Phantom, I guess, since I would strongly defend episodes three, nine, and ten

Best storyline: Megan rises to prominence and changes the show drastically

Best scene: Every episode has at least one candidate. Ultimately I have to pick the ending sequence of The Phantom, but Roger and Jane’s sobering trip in Far Away Places is astonishing.

Song of note: “Tomorrow Never Knows”, Lady Lazarus

Big Character Death: Lane Pryce

Standout performance: Jessica Pare as Megan

Weirdest episode: Hard to define in a season that sprawls in all directions. Christmas Waltz is a side-character filler hangout episode, though. Pretty neat.

Potent symbol: The empty elevator shaft. No way out and a long way down.

Famous line: “Are you alone?”



The masterful culmination of a thousand carefully planned steps, leading to utter devastation.

The popular classic: Ozymandias

An underrated one: Granite State

The worst one: Buried, maybe? More like least amazing.

Best storyline: Walt’s, of course

Best scene: Walt returns home after Hank dies and is attacked by his family, Ozymandias (anything else from that episode would be a suitable tie)

Song of note: “Baby Blue”, Felina

Big Character Death: Hank Schrader, Walter White, Steven Gomez, Jack Welker, Andrea Cantillo, Lydia Rodarte-Quayle, Todd Alquist

Standout performance: Dean Norris as Hank

Weirdest episode: Rabid Dog, for some strange turns and focal points

Potent symbol: Walt’s digitally taped confession, using modern storytelling techniques to manipulate and destroy.

Famous line: “I did it for me.”



An intensely experimental, intimate sprawling epic that subtly ties together in a revelatory way.

The popular classic: In Care Of

An underrated one: For Immediate Release

The worst one: To Have And To Hold

Best storyline: Don’s hellacious year, which is very indulgent and meandering yet has an unbelievable payoff.

Best scene: The Hershey pitch, In Care Of

Song of note: “Both Sides Now”, In Care Of

Big Character Death: Ken Cosgrove and Abe could have both easily died, but both live. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy aren’t so lucky.

Standout performance: Vincent Kartheiser as Pete

Weirdest episode: The whole season is off-kilter and druggy, but this has gotta go to The Crash, which is especially so.

Potent symbol: Don in the pool, watching himself drown.

Famous line: “I don’t like change. I want everything to stay the way it was.”



The peak of the show’s serialization, climaxing a bunch of stuff that’s simmered for two seasons.

The popular classic: Middle Ground

An underrated one: Mission Accomplished

The worst one: Straight and True

Best storyline: Despite the magnificence and complexity of Stringer’s downfall, I would say Hamsterdam.

Best scene: Stringer and Avon reminiscing, Middle Ground. Also one of the greatest TV scenes in history.

Song of note: “Fast Train”, Mission Accomplished

Big Character Death: Stringer Bell

Standout performance: Idris Elba as Stringer Bell

Weirdest episode: Dead Soldiers, for being a kind of diversion/memorial

Potent symbol: Two men on opposite sides of the law, morally brushing shoulders with one another, both cut down before they can finish saying “Get on with it, motherfucker”.

Famous line: “It’s Baltimore, gentlemen. The Gods will not save you.”



The horrific rise of one of fiction’s greatest villains, leaving everyone around him to fend for themselves.

The popular classic: Gliding Over All

An underrated one: Live Free Or Die

The worst one: Fifty-One, which is merely the least great

Best storyline: The increased prominence, and tragic death, of Mike

Best scene: Ten guys in two minutes and the time-span montage, Gliding Over All

Song of note: “Crystal Blue Persuasion”, Gliding Over All

Big Character Death: Mike Ehrmantraut

Standout performance: Jonathan Banks as Mike

Weirdest episode: Fifty-One, I guess? But this is the most exemplary eight-episode stretch in probably the whole list.

Potent symbol: Every piece of imagery match-cut in the “Crystal Blue Persuasion” montage, as Walt finally has his empire, from blood to blue to green to clean.

Famous line: “Say my name.”



Has a reputation for being internal and discursive, but it’s likewise the most pulse-pounding narrative in the show, with a terrific villain and an accidentally incredible ending.

The popular classic: A Two-Headed Beast

An underrated one: The Catbird Seat

The worst one: Full Faith And Credit

Best storyline: William Hearst, one of TV’s great three-dimensional villains

Best scene: Johnny’s monologue about ants, Tell Him Something Pretty

Song of note: The show almost always used obscure or gritty traditional period songs to achieve a mood more than subtext, so I’ll try to pick whatever the most modern stuff is to be completely impartial. The show ends with “O Mary Don’t You Weep” by Bruce Springsteen, which is weird.

Big Character Death: Whitney Ellsworth

Standout performance: Molly Parker as Alma

Weirdest episode: Amateur Night

Potent symbol: Hearst is himself a symbol for industry, order, venality and corruption, all at once, and illustrates how America had to fall under the sway of each to become what it is.

Famous line: “Wants me to tell him something pretty.”



The show still at the height of its powers, experimenting with different tones, storylines and characterization and somehow keeping all that in flawless balance.

The popular classic: Full Measure

An underrated one: Caballo Sin Nombre

The worst one: Green Light

Best storyline: Everything involving Gale Boetticher, who became a well-rounded and likable character in the span of very little screen time, not to mention a pivotal figure in the plot.

Best scene: The parking lot massacre, One Minute

Song of note: “Horse With No Name”, Caballo Sin Nombre

Big Character Death: The Salamanca Cousins, Gale Boetticher

Standout performance: Anna Gunn as Skyler

Weirdest episode: The ever-controversial Fly

Potent symbol: The decay under everything – stains on shirts, flies in the lab, and rotting pizzas on a family home.

Famous line: “I will kill your wife. I will kill your son. I will kill your infant daughter.”



A searing and slow-building portrait of the countless small failings that keep disadvantaged citizens in stasis, propagate the war on drugs, and entrench local politics, told through the tragic perspective of four young boys in a toxic environment.

The popular classic: Final Grades

An underrated one: That’s Got His Own

The worst one: Alliances

Best storyline: The boys’ intertwining paths, if that just counts as one

Best scene: In a traditionally cathartic sense, the moment Lester figures out the case in Final Grades.

Song of note: “I Walk On Guilded Splinters”, Final Grades

Big Character Death: Bodie Broadus

Standout performance: Jermaine Crawford as Dukie

Weirdest episode: In a technical sense, Boys of Summer is one of the show’s most jarring season premiere revamps.

Potent symbol: Dozens of dead black humans in locked rooms ignored by the government and populace. Pretty overt, but also important.

Famous line: “The world goin’ one way, people another, yo.”



The show’s most traditional cops-and-crooks setup, but still quite revolutionary and uncompromising in its way.

The popular classic: Cleaning Up

An underrated one: Sentencing

The worst one: The Target

Best storyline: D’Angelo Barksdale

Best scene: It’s impossible to pick with this show, so I’m once again going for the obvious choice of the chess scene in The Buys. Or the all-“fuck” scene in Old Cases.

Song of note: “Step By Step”, Sentencing

Big Character Death: Wallace

Standout performance: Lawrence Gilliard Jr. as D’Angelo

Weirdest episode: I guess Game Day, for being centered around one peaceful event.

Potent symbol: The war on drugs as a game of chess. Obvious, but unforgettably written.

Famous line: “All the pieces matter.”



All of the restarts and dead ends led to this impeccably conceived endgame (besides one clunker).

The popular classic: Person To Person

An underrated one: Lost Horizon

The worst one: New Business

Best storyline: Don’s and Peggy’s are naturally extraordinary, but Joan really comes into her own by the end.

Best scene: The ending of the show, but honorable mentions go to the last partners meeting and Peggy and Roger having a heart-to-heart in the gutted remains of SC&P.

Song of note: “Space Oddity”, Lost Horizon

Big Character Death: Betty Draper Francis (implied), Rachel Menken (after the fact)

Standout performance: Christina Hendricks as Joan

Weirdest episode: Besides New Business, probably The Milk and Honey Route, which really forces some character beats, but to necessary effect.

Potent symbol: Pondering the life not led, and “You missed your flight”, Don sees a distant plane and finally changes things.

Famous line: “This is the beginning of something, not the end!”



The general favorite season of Mad Men, being that it lies at the center of the Venn diagram of everything people like about the show.

The popular classic: The Suitcase

An underrated one: Tomorrowland

The worst one: Christmas Comes But Once A Year

Best storyline: The Lucky Strike bust, even though the ending peters out

Best scene: The Letter, and the reactions to it

Song of note: “Tobacco Road”, Public Relations

Big Character Death: Anna Draper, Ida Blankenship

Standout performance: John Slattery as Roger

Weirdest episode: The Summer Man for its series-unique voiceover and weird optimism, or The Chrysanthemum And the Sword for having a strange tone and themes.

Potent symbol: Don tries to open up with a letter – “My life is very….” – and throws it away. He later completes another letter that blows everything up just as much as the first would have.

Famous line: “…it all comes down to what I want versus what’s expected of me.”



Turning growing pains and logistical snafus into exceptional TV that hardly seems as if it’s in a creative crisis. A good example of a second-season show in full flower.

The popular classic: ABQ

An underrated one: Better Call Saul

The worst one: Seven Thirty-Seven

Best storyline: Jesse and Jane’s doomed romance

Best scene: The plane crash cold opens and final scene, Seven Thirty-Seven, Down, Over, and ABQ

Song of note: “DLZ”, Over

Big Character Death: Jane Margolis, Tuco Salamanca

Standout performance: Aaron Paul as Jesse

Weirdest episode: Peekaboo, a Jesse-centric bottle episode

Potent symbol: Walt boasting about a secret wall of ill-gotten gains to an innocent pink infant.

Famous line: “Stay out of my territory.”



A very compelling slow burn chess match with a cataclysmic last four episodes. Worth the ride, every step.

The popular classic: Face Off

An underrated one: Bullet Points

The worst one: Open House

Best storyline: Walt vs. Gus, the spine of the season

Best scene: The ending of Crawl Space

Song of note: “Tidal Wave”, Salud

Big Character Death: Gustavo Fring, Hector Salamanca

Standout performance: Giancarlo Esposito as Gus

Weirdest episode: Open House or Cornered

Potent symbol: The wayward eye, reminder of the past and harbinger of a constant daily threat, lost in Walt’s lonely apartment.

Famous line: “It’s over. We’re safe. I won.”



The show finally finds some taste, unity and poetry that it had fitfully presented in seasons before, just in time for a suitably depressing and benign conclusion.

The popular classic: Made In America

An underrated one: The Second Coming

The worst one: Chasing It

Best storyline: Given that this is very segmented, there’s scant yet even coverage of everything. You could almost even make a case for A.J.’s gloominess, as corny and obnoxious as it is, because of its aching tragedy.

Best scene: So many incredible ones. A.J. attempts suicide, Tony ponders killing Paulie, the family fight, Tony doing peyote in the desert… But this one has to go to the final scene.

Song of note: “Don’t Stop Believing”, Made In America

Big Character Death: Christopher Moltisanti, John Sacrimoni, Bobby Baccalieri, Silvio Dante (essentially), Phil Leotardo, Anthony Soprano (that’s right, folks – Tony dies)

Standout performance: Steve Schirripa as Bobby – I’ve mentioned all the other biggies, why not? Plus he’s the only inarguably non-obnoxious character on the show.

Weirdest episode: Chasing It, but then again, the Sopranos was never afraid of anticlimactic tangents, so maybe this one isn’t so weird after all.

Potent symbol: The Blue Comet. No matter what you think of that ending, as Bobby could tell you, it’s coming for us all.

Famous line: “I GET IT!”



A beautifully structured season of narrowly averted disasters, as secrets are revealed and sorrowful damage follows.

The popular classic: The Mountain King

An underrated one: Maidenform

The worst one: Flight 1

Best storyline: Don and Pete’s trip to California

Best scene: Don and Anna’s conversation, The Mountain King

Song of note: “What’ll I Do”, The Jet Set

Big Character Death: Actually, not much! The closest one is Marilyn Monroe.

Standout performance: January Jones as Betty

Weirdest episode: The Jet Set and The Mountain King are purposefully meant to be stylistic curveballs that reveal a new setting, but Three Sundays and Six Month Leave are notable diversions for their respective timeframe and focal characters.

Potent symbol: It’s very contextual, but I always loved the montage of the show’s women putting on their brassieres for the day and restraining/beautifying themselves for a man’s world.

Famous line: “That crash happened to somebody else. It’s not about apologies for what happened…. Let’s pretend we know what 1963 looks like.”



Cramming a lot of narrative piece-moving into a surprisingly elegant short episode order, this is a great example of how a season can be functional and yet enjoyable on its own terms.

The popular classic: Waterloo

An underrated one: Time Zones

The worst one: Field Trip

Best storyline: Bringing the agency back together

Best scene: Don and Peggy dancing to “My Way”, The Strategy

Song of note: “Keep Me Hanging On”, Time Zones

Big Character Death: Bertram Cooper

Standout performance: Kiernan Shipka as Sally – why not?

Weirdest episode: Without a doubt, The Runaways, which is commonly thought to be flawed. It’s not, it’s just super duper weird.

Potent symbol: Anything Kubrickian (the black door, the moon landing), as individualistic futurism was narrowly beaten out by old-fashioned collectivism.

Famous line: “Do the work.”



An expansive middle chapter, with plenty of menace, tragedy, and an unforgettable ending.

The popular classic: Boy-the-Earth-Talks-To

An underrated one: Something Very Expensive

The worst one: Advances, None Miraculous

Best storyline: Wolcott’s chaotic machinations

Best scene: Pretty much anything in Boy-the-Earth-Talks-To

Song of note: “Not Dark Yet” by Bob Dylan is the anachronism of the season.

Big Character Death: Francis Wolcott

Standout performance: Kim Dickens as Joanie

Weirdest episode: The Whores Can Come

Potent symbol: The tricycle. Something so unifying can also bring calamity and sadness.

Famous line: “Pain or damage don’t end the world. Or despair or fuckin’ beatings. The world ends when you’re dead. Until then, you got more punishment in store. Stand it like a man… and give some back.”



The beginnings of community, government, and by proxy, the United States. It’s a dense portrait rich with inimitable dialogue and great characters.

The popular classic: Sold Under Sin

An underrated one: The Trial Of Jack McCall

The worst one: No Other Sons Or Daughters

Best storyline: Reverend Smith’s increasing illness

Best scene: It’s easy to see where it’s going, but the Reverend’s storyline really is moving, with a brutal grace note from Swearengen.

Song of note: “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” by June Carter Cash, I suppose. Again, the music of this show is all of a piece, and never individually striking or especially poignant.

Big Character Death: Reverend Henry Smith

Standout performance: Ian McShane as Al

Weirdest episode: Bullock Returns To the Camp

Potent symbol: Wild Bill‘s grave. This won’t be your typical Western, for sure.

Famous line: “You can’t cut the throat of every cocksucker whose character it would improve.”



The best example of this show, with all its shortcomings, impressive risks, bizarre subversions, impenetrable mood and genuinely poetic moments.

The popular classic: Long Term Parking

An underrated one: The Test Dream

The worst one: Rat Pack, although this season is very consistent.

Best storyline: The slow disasters of Carmela and Tony B. getting back into Tony’s life, since I don’t want to just pick Adriana for everything

Best scene: Adriana’s “getaway”, Long Term Parking

Song of note: “Glad Tidings”, All Due Respect (even though they use it like a million times)

Big Character Death: Adriana La Cerva, Tony Blundetto

Standout performance: Drea de Matteo as Adriana

Weirdest episode: Nominally The Test Dream, but in a more critical vein, In Camelot maybe? It’s hard to tell, this season is all over the place in a good way.

Potent symbol: It’s cheating to count The Test Dream, so the threatening bear for sure. The patriarch is back, and as threatening as ever. Plus the echo in the season finale of the animal returning home.

Famous line: “Fuck family! Fuck loyalty.”



An unusually focused and traditional storyline, with great serialization, a doomed undercurrent that would dominate the show, and a few nonsensical missteps.

The popular classic: Funhouse

An underrated one: Bust Out

The worst one: D-Girl

Best storyline: The remarkable pathos of Pussy’s betrayal, and subsequent guilt

Best scene: Either Tony’s fever dream or Pussy’s death, Funhouse

Song of note: “Thru And Thru”, Funhouse

Big Character Death: Salvatore “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero, Richie Aprile

Standout performance: Vincent Pastore as Big Pussy

Weirdest episode: D-Girl (which is unfortunately, not a one-shot examination of Hollywood) or Commendatori

Potent symbol: The shady shell of a bust-out business and the empty, tragic man the crew takes with it.

Famous line: “You were like a brother to me.”



The show’s pattern of slow evolution and cyclical behavior led to some stasis that the writers immediately broke out of with an amazing 1-2-3 punch at the end.

The popular classic: Shut the Door. Have A Seat.

An underrated one: The Gypsy And the Hobo

The worst one: The Color Blue, a redundant and uneventful story

Best storyline: To pick an underrated one, I always liked the spotlight Sal Romano gets this season.

Best scene: This one is definitely cheating, but, um, all of Shut the Door. Have A Seat. The caper segments. Winning everyone over. The divorce subplot. Making a new agency at the end. All of it.

Song of note: “Shahdaroba”, Shut the Door. Have A Seat.

Big Character Death: John F. Kennedy

Standout performance: Elisabeth Moss as Peggy

Weirdest episode: The Fog or Souvenir

Potent symbol: You’ve got your 1960s and it’s going swell and then Guy gets mauled by a lawnmower. Oh, also JFK dies.

Famous line: “Gentlemen, you’re fired.”



Though the newspaper setting is weak by the discerning standards of this classic and the shorter length keeps the episodic stuff from feeling epic, the show’s continuing concerns bow out astonishingly well.

The popular classic: -30-

An underrated one: Late Editions

The worst one: The Dickensian Aspect

Best storyline: So many climaxes, covered elsewhere, are tremendous, but I’ll mention here the tragic endgames for Michael and Dukie.

Best scene: The entire last half-hour; not cheating because it’s the payoff for the show as a whole. Special mention to Bubbles’ last AA speech, which is the most beautiful and devastating single-scene piece of acting I’ve seen in my life.

Song of note: “Way Down In the Hole”, -30-

Big Character Death: Omar Little, Proposition Joe

Standout performance: Michael Kenneth Williams as Omar

Weirdest episode: Also the Dickensian Aspect. Consolidates every kooky thing about season five that fans sometimes dislike.

Potent symbol: The red ribbon – between a fake serial killer and a lying reporter, a fabricated signifier is enough to enact real change.

Famous line: “The bigger the lie, the more they believe.”



This season is very underrated and misunderstood, perhaps because it was the first of several tectonic shifts in the show’s makeup. But it does have a couple iffy characters and a strange structure.

The popular classic: Bad Dreams

An underrated one: Port In A Storm

The worst one: Hot Shots, but it’s frequently impossible to untangle the threads of this show into solitary episodes. This is just the calm before the storm of the rest of the season.

Best storyline: The remnants of the Barksdale operation

Best scene: The bookended pairing of Nick’s weird, probably real, nightmare and the montage of Frank’s walk of doom, Bad Dreams

Song of note: “I Feel Alright”, Port In A Storm

Big Character Death: Frank Sobotka, D’Angelo Barksdale

Standout performance: Chris Bauer as Frank

Weirdest episode: All Prologue, an unusually literary and focused hour

Potent symbol: Bodies in a harbor. Hard to figure out or empathize with its devastation and broad implications, until it’s someone you care about.

Famous line: “We used to make shit in this country, build shit. Now we just put our hand in the next guy’s pocket.”



When the Sopranos had to delay gratification and spin its wheels because of additional episode production, the writers turned out two massively irritating and ill-fitting storylines to fill time (though Vito’s sojourn had its moments), along with some of the most affecting and lyrical TV filmmaking I’ve ever seen during Tony’s time in Purgatory and afterwards.

The popular classic: Members Only

An underrated one: Join the Club

The worst one: Luxury Lounge

Best storyline: Tony in a coma, and recovering

Best scene: Either the Inn At the Oaks (Mayham), or the ending of Join the Club

Song of note: “When It’s Cold I’d Like To Die”, Join the Club

Big Character Death: Vito Spatafore

Standout performance: Michael Imperioli as Chris

Weirdest episode: This season is entirely composed of senseless and bizarre choices, some magnificent and some extremely out of place. But the only one that mostly stands on its own is The Ride, which I quite like.

Potent symbol: The haunting afterlife beacon, which is so memorable it returned in season seven.

Famous line: “Every day’s a gift. It’s just… does it have to be a pair of socks?”

Mad Men 1.jpg


A relatively confident and cohesive debut season, although it’s not without its doldrums. Still quite enjoyable, with at least two absolute classics.

The popular classic: The Wheel

An underrated one: Nixon Vs. Kennedy

The worst one: New Amsterdam

Best storyline: Don’s secret past

Best scene: The Carousel pitch, The Wheel

Song of note: “Don’t Think Twice (It’s Alright)”, The Wheel

Big Character Death: Sgt. Donald Draper, Adam Whitman

Standout performance: Jon Hamm as Don

Weirdest episode: Long Weekend or Indian Summer, for some odd character/story choices that they do a good job of rationalizing.

Potent symbol: What else but the Carousel? Glamorizing the past, capitalizing on human emotion, tying together several characters at work, and channeling pain into prose.

Famous line: “Advertising is based on one thing: Happiness.”



A season that legitimately changed television. Sure, there are some lame episodes and thin characterization and it’s dated in some ways, but the story is comfortably together.

The popular classic: I Dream Of Jeannie Cusamano

An underrated one: Isabella

The worst one: A Hit Is A Hit

Best storyline: Establishing Tony’s family/Family divide, and emotional problems.

Best scene: Tony trying to asphyxiate his mother, I Dream Of Jeannie Cusamano

Song of note: “I Feel Free”, Isabella

Big Character Death: Mikey Palmice, if he’s important enough to count

Standout performance: James Gandolfini as Tony

Weirdest episode: A Hit Is A Hit, Boca, Down Neck, and parts of others. Plenty of evidence of how off-kilter and crappy the show would get later.

Potent symbol: This show vastly underutilizes visual storytelling, so all I can think of off the top of my head is the ducks from the pilot. Tony only cares about animals, and they fly away right at the beginning.

Famous line: “I’m in the waste management business.”



A malformed debut season plagued and shortened by union problems, which is nevertheless a stunning stylistic TV revolution as well as an amazing narrative hook. Not too shabby to hold up to later installments.

The popular classic: Crazy Handful Of Nothin’

An underrated one: …And the Bag’s In the River

The worst one: Cancer Man

Best storyline: Walt is rock solid as a character from the start, but I appreciate how the show keys in on Jesse by episode seven.

Best scene: I don’t want to champion the show’s bluster over its moral depth, but you can’t beat “This is not meth”, from “Crazy Handful Of Nothin’”.

Song of note: “Tamacun”, Rodrigo Y Gabriela

Big Character Death: Krazy-8

Standout performance: Bryan Cranston as Walt

Weirdest episode: Cancer Man or Gray Matter

Potent symbol: The black hat. Heisenberg rears his ugly head, as Walt perpetually makes cruel decisions over kind ones.

Famous line: “All I have left now is how I choose to approach this.”



A total disaster, with behind-the-scenes deaths, production issues, way too many writing risks that didn’t pay off, uninteresting focal characters, the show’s most discursive plotlines, major tonal issues, and no real momentum. But such free-range madness did result in a handful of legitimately good hours.

The popular classic: Pine Barrens

An underrated one: Another Toothpick

The worst one: He Is Risen

Best storyline: There aren’t really any storyLINES in the Sopranos, more like ugly incoherent pointillism, but Paulie and Chris’ interesting animosity heats up here.

Best scene: The musical montage in Mr. Ruggerio’s Neighborhood or Big Pussy in the mirror in Proshai, Livushka

Song of note: “Living On A Thin Line”, University

Big Character Death: Gloria Trillo, Livia Soprano

Standout performance: Lorraine Bracco as Dr. Melfi

Weirdest episode: Another Toothpick, in that it has narrative motion, continuity, character development and intrigue. What an outlier for this show.

Potent symbol: Ralph killing Tracey. Grotesque, unnecessary, uncompelling, irrelevant, enervating, and incompetently handled. Hooray for season three of the Sopranos.

Famous line: It’s really hard to find good quotes for The Sopranos because its dialogue was so tedious and unremarkable. After painstaking research, I couldn’t find anything suitable for these bottom two.



Blandly, infuriatingly boring, with one of the worst episodes I’ve ever seen of a supposedly good show. Two high-quality episodes with a lot of dross, which is sometimes acceptable at best.

The popular classic: Whitecaps

An underrated one: No Show

The worst one: Christopher

Best storyline: Ralph’s impulsiveness and long-overdue death

Best scene: Tony and Carmela’s fights, Whitecaps (with special mention of Tony’s immigrant dream from Calling All Cars)

Song of note: “Kid A”, No Show

Big Character Death: Ralph Cifaretto

Standout performance: Edie Falco as Carmela

Weirdest episode: I try to not double up, but Christopher. What a pile of crap.

Potent symbol: Pie-O-My, although I like the painting of Tony too.

Famous line: Meh. This show is annoying.

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