Hey folks! Its me, Sax Carr, that loud and boisterous co-host of Crave Online’s television podcast The Idiot Box. Now I’ve got a list for you of some of the smartest shows on air today and boy is it a great collection of series for your viewing pleasure.
But what is “smart TV" you may ask?
Well, it's not just “book learning” that’s for sure. Smart TV is not just about facts and figures, but instead about something more. The smartest shows combine original concepts, with perfect execution and they teach lessons in all disciplines from math to humanity. Don’t confuse these shows for drippy documentaries either. Even comedies can be smart.
Hear that comedy? One day you could grow up to be a Dramedy! Of course, we are also look for examples of good television. You can’t be smart if you don’t take television to a new and better place. It’s a combination of a lot of things!
So the formula is as follows:
Innovation + Implementation (casting, shooting, writing) x the number of consistent seasons + bonuses for heady content and depth.
Make sense? Probably not. But lets dive into the list and see if you can’t follow me:
I’m starting off the list with what is probably going to be one of the more hotly contested entries. "House" has been much maligned of late for being formulaic, and that’s a serious charge. I would say that the "House" detractors are missing the point. "House’s" big claim of innovation was that it created a “medical detective” show. They blended 1 part "ER" and 2 parts Sherlock Holmes. (House, Holmes… OH!) But that’s not where it stops. The character dynamics on "House" represent a push forward in how we look at interactions, status and growth over time. That’s where people get this show wrong.
Sure, every episode appears the same on the surface. Somebody gets sick, then the team thinks that they cured them, but they don’t, and this goes on until the very end when somebody figures it out just at the last second (or after it). But those are just the mechanics of how the show works. You don’t begrudge a crime drama because every episode focuses on a crime. Nor would you begrudge all of your family car trips for all involving your car.
"House" uses the comfortable trappings of the medical mystery to investigate not only medicine (an area where it pulls no punches), but also the doctors themselves. In a world of life and death and one big titular jerk, it shows us how they grow and change.
Speaking of change, this show consistently changes the game to reflect the passage of time. New team members and new dynamics. House evolves with his show, from drug user to recovery and back again. His understanding of himself and his teammates (as well as everyone else in his life) has changed too.
Keeping it fresh is the key to "House’s" smart side just as much as medical jargon or challenging cases. "House" is a show about solving the tough cases by making tough choices, and it makes the show smart. Very smart.
Almost as smart as House himself.
9: THE CHICAGO CODE
As "House" has changed the game for shows that take place in hospitals, so too has "The Chicago Code" raised the bar for the much venerated cop show. In just under a season, we’ve seen "The Chicago Code" cover a lot of ground. And all of it's innovations have been subtle so as not to disenfranchise the cop show hardliners. Where does "The Chicago Code" take the real turn for the best?
It raises the stakes. Alderman Ronin Gibbons, the show’s conflicted antagonist is clearly corrupt. But he may also be a beneficial force for the community. This creates a constant question of whether the cops should or shouldn't try to remove him from power. The cops are fighting a battle not only with a city that supports corruption over civics, but within themselves against the constant temptation to play the game the way that Chicago plays it. Much like "Law and Order" before it, this show points out another rarely seen aspect of the police procedurals, the politics.
On this show, there's not just a struggle between good and evil, but between good and the bottom line, public opinion, social pressure and a whole lot more. This creates a world seething with emotion and purpose. There is a gritty reality to the show's characters who each have a humanity seldom seen in the cookie cutter cop shows that proliferated the 80’s and 90’s. While "The Chicago Code" is not the first show up the ante, it’s found a unique balance that preserves the fun of the mystery and the thrill of the chase. "The Chicago Code' is what a cop show was always meant to be.
Of course, there are other aspects that help. The idea that the Detective Jarek Wysocki can take any case from any cop all around the city just so he can do it right is another great innovation. It allows the action to explore the city without needless exposition to drag our detective into the story. The character narration, which moves around from character to character, also helps to paint a vivid picture of the city, its history and the life of a politician and several cops. Resisting the temptation to over use this is another reason this show is so smart.
Wait, stop, don’t panic. Yes, I know this is a comedy. It's even a silly comedy. But as I mentioned in the introduction to this list, you don’t have to be serious to be smart. Just ask Steven Hawking, that guy is hilarious! My point here is that shows like "Community" have taken the sitcom format and improved it so much that it may be something entirely new.
Where "Community" excels the most is in its clever mimicry of other shows and formats. These parody episodes show such love for the subject and so effortlessly blend in their own characters that they really are the stuff of genius. Doing a show that almost openly acknowledges that it is an exploration of television tropes and memes presents a plethora of options you can’t find anywhere else. It’s a show with endless possibilities, where every outlandish idea (or almost every one) can be introduced in a safe way that the audience is down to party with. College PARTY!
But a casual ability to explore every aspect of the medium is not all that makes "Community" smart. It's also the casting. Joel Mccale and Donald Glover are easily two of the best casting choices in history. But every actor chosen for this series was a masterfully cast. Not the least of which is Chevy Chase, in a role that resurrected his comedy career. Bringing back a legand and making it work?
That’s SMART TV.
7: GOOD EATS
Scripted television is not the only bastion of smart. Some “non fiction” shows have really done a lot to take their format and take it to the next level. With "Good Eats," Alton Brown has created something nobody ever really thought was possible: the next generation of cooking show. Combining science, entertainment, great recipes and a gift for making the complex understandable; Brown made watching a cooking show more fun then it ever was before and a hell of a lot more informative.
This show shines with creative guests, bizarre characters and special effects. It's nothing like any cooking show before it. Plus, Brown seems to have adopted the mission to inform people of WHY their food is good when its good, and not just how to get there. Watching "Good Eats" doesn’t just show you a great recipe, it teaches you how to cook.
Brown hand-crafted the show, as he did his own career (He graduated with a degree in theater, only to go back to the prestigious Culinary Institute of America to get a cooking degree so he could star in his own dream show). One of its other innovations is that the episodes are themed based on one cooking concept or ingredient. Now that’s a smart recipe for longevity.
6: NO RESERVATIONS
Anthony Bourdain is to travel shows what Alton Brown is to cooking shows. It seems kind of ironic considering that Bourdain is primarily famous as a chef, but he’s really come into his own in this Travel Channel produced show. However, its not actually all that surprising. Bourdain has always had many gifts, not the least of which is his way of words. But he also has a daring soul and a desire to push boundaries, even in something as simple as a travel show. The show centers around Bourdain and it lives and breathes with him. And as he is brilliant, so its no surprise the show is so smart.
It's real brilliance is in the way it very subtly converts suburban housewives into would-be explorers. It’s a show that has accidentally perfected a sales pitch for any country, cuisine, or daring do overseas. Why is it so effective? Because it never dumbs it down. Bourdain addresses the good and bad of every situation, and treats his audience like adults. You really get a feeling for where he’s taking you and for all the right reasons.
To digress a second here, if you want some smart reading, check out any and all of Bourdain’s books. I have a thing for “The Nasty Bits,” but its all good. From Kitchen Confidential to whatever comes next.
5: THE VENTURE BROS.
If I thought that I’d have a hard time selling you a comedy show, it may be twice as hard with a cartoon. But this Cartoon Network/Adult Swim mainstay is easily one of the smarter shows ever made, animated or not. The smartest aspect of this show is how long its memory is. No character, no matter how small, is left out of future plots. If you meet someone once, you’ll almost certainly see them again and their stories will continue. While like any cartoon, "The Venture Bros." still has some scenes better suited for a young audience; its plot, and the depth of the writing is very adult. This show is for a thinking audience, no matter how zany.
Beyond that the show gets extra points for committing to its actions. Characters that get fired or killed say fired or dead (more often then not) and that kind of stakes is never found in other cartoons of this ilk. I can’t stress enough the importance of that kind of stakes in any type of show, and its such a rare gem in an animated series its almost anachronistic. Cartoons like Comic Books do have a reputation for lacking a tangible mortality.
Smart as the show already is, it also points a finger at the other shows that came before it. It explores ideas in the adventure, science fiction and fantasy cartoon universe with a scalpel and a clear love of the art. Even if it pokes a lot of fun at "Jonny Quest," and so many other sources from which it draws its inspiration, it does so with real reverence. Loving what you do is a good way to be smart.
4: STARGATE: UNIVERSE
If there was EVER a show that was too smart for its own good, it's "Stargate Universe." This show may have smarted itself right off the airwaves. While it lasts, it’s easily one of the most thrilling contenders for the smartness crown. Its effective narrative structure in the face of complex science reminds me of another great smart-show heavyweight: "Star Trek The Next Generation." The show just does not pull its punches, be it with hard science or long, long, LONG LONG LONG pregnant pauses. Talk about capturing the feel of being lost in space. Most of the characters here spend a lot of their time just standing in empty alien ship compartments and well… emoting. What a coup! Emotions in space.
But that’s not all. This show is smart because it re-imagined an established property and while maintaining all of the tropes (and a few guest appearances from the cast of previous shows) it still made itself unique. This is not your father's "Stargate." The casting here too, was a master stroke; as the show is not about plucky sarcasm but deep emotional moments. We have a cast of serious players and not one-liner spewing ex-comedians.
Of course, there is a downside to taking your audience seriously. Some of the people who watch television are also “the people of Wal-Mart” to put it bluntly. And a show like this is going to fly light-years over the heads of those viewers. It’s a smart show, but too smart for its own good. I think it was a full season and a half before the first laser fight. That’s a BAD idea. Still for one last month, this is a very smart show and it should be recognized while it's currently on TV.
"Mythbusters" is a perfect mix of concept and casting. Not only did someone set on an idea that resonates with nearly everyone, but they found the perfect cast to do it. Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman are about the most charming two guys you can find who happen to have the requisite decades of special effects and science experience. Just think of how many “experts” in these discovery shows have been flat boring, and somehow they found these two guys!
Savage and Hyneman aren’t the only successful castings here. When the show expanded into two teams, the second team was staffed with another great class of nerd heroes. Kari Byron alone means a million nerd boys are staying up to watch more episodes. Of course the show’s appeal goes past just nerds. The myths debunked idea, implemented well, has mass appeal.
Seen here: things men want
The show itself has so many successful elements (including the hand drawn style interstitial sequences) that it seems like a full on master stroke. One more great move that has come from he show's longevity has been an investment in the characters branching from episode to episode. In a very wholesome way, the audience has come to care about the cast, with no specific overarching narrative from episode to episode they are still growing with us. That’s hard to do. But it all makes sense that is disproving the myth that soft-reality shows like this can’t be smart TV.
2: THE KILLING
Newcomer (at least to the states) "The Killing" is another benchmark in smart TV. Well paced and well written, it challenges its audience by not reveling too much too fast. The show (which is also expertly cast) does something few shows really can nowadays. It makes you care about the death of a character on screen, and I mean really care, like what if somebody killed your favorite "Lost" character level caring. But the twist is that you’ve never seen this girl, you just know shes dead. And the writing, acting and all of the rest come together to make her life matter. Very well played indeed.
The setting too is very well chosen. The rainy city of Seattle and the blue collar nature of the show's setting have transformed this import into a hybrid of "Twin Peaks," "Fargo" and "The Wire." It's not an easy task, but all of the pieces are set up perfectly. The characters are all expertly shaped too, with two great contrasting detectives and a series of extended families that really share the emotional roller coaster that the dead girl's parents are going through.
The real reason this is smart TV however is something else entirely. This show knows how to raise the stakes without all of the bells and whistles. No crazy crime fighting equipment or complicated side plots. It features people in the woods looking at a map and you find it more compelling then any "CSI" episode regardless of city. The show makes the little things matter. That makes for good viewing and smart watching.
Anyone who has listened to The Idiot Box knows that Blair Marnell and I love this show. But its claim to the title of the smartest show on TV has nothing to do with the depth of my fandom. Instead, "Fringe" warrants this title due to the depth of its writing. This show does what so many supernatural procedurals wish they could and it respects the intelligence of its audience. Three seasons of not pulling their writing punches has given us extremely amazing episodes fully loaded with back-story and importance.
The show is also smart because it doesn’t find it necessary to hold back all of the information forever. They introduce a plot and after a number of episodes (sometimes a whole season) they wrap it up. The writers have faith that you’ll move onto the next plot with them, and they don’t feel like they have to push every popular show idea forever because they fear change. They talked about the pattern, and we know what it is now. They talked about another universe… and now we’ve been there. "Fringe" wraps up its plots so well that its like getting a Christmas gift every episode.
The two universes plot like is another reason why the show is so smart. Giving the cast the ability to play alternate versions of themselves allows them to characterize both sides of the conflict without either side being fully good or evil.
It's just another smart narrative choice from the smartest show on TV.