We live in an age of great television.
Not all television is great, of course—not even a small percentage of it is worth a single minute of your time on Earth. From what I've heard (and yes, I'm condemning reality TV sight-unseen), watching shows like The Real Housewives of New Jersey is the entertainment equivalent of consuming trans fats: Even now, millions of Americans are accruing irreversible spiritual damage from the intake of those sounds and images.
But still. There are some beautiful, absorbing series on these days, and what more could you ask from popular culture than a few hours of genuine art each week? I've said it before: TV series offer a space as wide as that of novels, and for story-telling, they have movies beat all to hell.
This year, my husband and I love Treme and Hung (both on HBO), Friday Night Lights (DirecTV/NBC) and Rescue Me (FX). I bet you'd love them, too. And with Netflix or a DVR—or, if you're clever and cheap, various sources online—it's all at your command. (I'm contemplating breaking down and getting TiVo at last. I've just had it fighting with the menus in the presence of that weird graphic on the Cox On Demand screen. I want my shows, and I want them now—and without the blue-penis-thing in the lower right-hand corner.)
But back to our favorites. Interestingly, what unites them, different as they are, is not just their quality, but a theme: broken hearts in broken places.
Treme is set in New Orleans just a few months after Katrina. Everybody, as you might expect, has got trouble. Some of their difficulties resolve as the music-drenched first season rolls on; others get worse, but you can't tell how any of it'll go. The spectacular ensemble cast was partly assembled from creator David Simon's last series, The Wire—the best show ever to have been and likely ever to be on television. Clarke Peters and Wendell Pierce (Lester and Bunk, respectively, on The Wire) and the incandescent Khandi Alexander are among the standouts. (Kim Dickens is excellent on both Treme and Friday Night Lights, bless her.)
Like its predecessor, Treme is densely populated and textured, so it takes a while to get into, but don't give up. You can find out anything you want to know about the many real musicians who walk in and out, and about New Orleans itself, on the official website and on a terrifically detailed blog, "Treme Explained," by Times-Picayune reporter Dave Walker.
Hung, too, is set in a tormented city—in this case, Detroit. Thomas Jane plays a wistful, half-dumb high school coach whose decrepit family house on the lake has burned down and who is trying to leverage his only remaining asset—yes, he's hung—with the encouragement of a dowdy bookworm who aspires to be his pimp (Jane Adams). It sounds tawdry, and people get funny looks on their faces when I try to sell them on watching it, but it's pretty wonderful. Ray is driven not by greed or lust, but by pure economic necessity: His job may vanish at any moment, and he needs money to fix his house so his kids can live with him again. And it's becoming increasingly apparent that he's still in love with his ex-wife (lovely, game Anne Heche). Much of life begins in the genitals and migrates to the heart. Hung does the same.
About Friday Night Lights, I cannot possibly say enough. From the shimmering title theme to the loving re-creation of life in a football-mad, fatherless Texas town to the sheer beauty of actors like Kyle Chandler, Aimee Teegarden and Taylor Kitsch (ladies, his character, Tim Riggins, belongs in your living room), it's all soul, all the time.
Finally, we love a show that doesn't sit quietly in any possible category—Rescue Me, Denis Leary's noisy, bawdy, ridiculously funny cannonball dive into the lives of New York firefighters post-Sept. 11. The plotting and casting are over the top—Tatum O'Neal as the worst date ever? Ghosts as regular characters?—while the comedy's howlingly profane, and the fires are terrifying. Somehow, it all works, maybe because it's all true.
So you could go out in the heat and traffic and pay $9 at the cineplex. Or you could stay home and witness American ruefulness becoming art.