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Ratings and criticism are always subjective, at least to some extent. Being transparent about one's criteria does not necessarily make them (more) objective, but may help to be a bit more consistent.
I consider everything from 8-10 as top-tier, with 10 being reserved for very influential titles that have shaped their genre. Titles with 6-7 are still recommended, but (especially with regard to 6) only if a person enjoys the genre. All titles rated 6-10 are titles I would potentially watch again after a decent intervall, albeit with varying levels of enthusiasm.
Everything rated 5 and below is an overall negative judgement. Translated into the Netflix rating system, these titles would get a "thumbs down". I would not recommend these titles, although a 5 may still be enjoyable for genre fans. I use the ratings of 4-3 to qualify what I consider genuinely "bad" titles, with true disgust beginning below 3.
For fine-tuning, I mostly use titles within the same genre for reference. I.e. to determine whether a Western movie gets an 8 or a 7, I would compare it with other Westerns, not with other SciFi movies (don't mention "Cowboys and Aliens" at this point).
This is my rating key:
10: Outstanding. Seminal work, has shaped the genre; highly original and innovative; practically no flaws in narrative or execution; highly immersive with almost complete "suspension of disbelief"; compelling acting and/or stunning visuals; essentially a must-see.
9: Excellent. Still original and innovative, but not necessarily pioneering; hardly any flaws in narrative or execution (e.g. unnecessary lengths or minor deviations in quality between seasons), very immersive and intrinsically plausible.
8: Very good. Premise is fresh, but there is some overlap and/or competition in the same genre; while not necessarily flawless, the narrative is clever and/or moving and the execution very professional; acting ist convincing and visuals are atmospherically consistent; the storyline is plausible, but not everything has been thought through to the last detail.
7: Good. Premise ist interesting, but not overly originial and there are many competitors within the genre; there are some minor flaws in narrative and execution, but they do not dominate; overall still plausible and immersive, but occasionally background research (or world design) may be shoddy. I would generally recommend this movie, but I would not describe it as a must-see.
6: High average. Solid genre movie or series, but somewhat stereotypical; narrative may not be silly, but lacks intellectual appeal or originality; characters often act stereotypically and their psychology seems somewhat shallow; execution feels routine. This is the baseline for everything I still consider "generally enjoyable and worth the time", but individual enjoyment may strongly depend on genre preferences.
5: Low average. Possibly still appealing to genre fans, but only to those. Most elements are stereotypical or even hackneyed; storyline is in many places too silly or dull to appeal to a mature audience; lacks background research and eye for details. I have not really enjoyed this movie or show and I will most likely never watch it again. Generally not recommended.
4: Bad. Not even genre fans will enjoy this; massive plotholes and deficient execution; too shallow or clumsy to feel immersive at all; scenario is not plausible, acting is wooden or schematic. Typical B-movie!
3: Very bad. Has a level of trashiness or sillyness that may potentially make this enjoyable if - and only if - this is consciously watched as a "trash movie". Narrative is full of holes or disconnected, execution screams "low budget" or feels completely amateurish. Typical C-movie.
2: Preposterous. Violates the laws of film-making - and not in a good way; narrative barely coherent, execution essentially a failure; dubious political (or other) messages may be crudely "hidden"; acting is laughable; storyline is not only implausible, but approaches the ridiculous. Stay away!
1: Abysmal. Completely ignorant of the laws film-making; narrative incoherent or infantile, execution a failure; dubious political (or other) messages may exacerbate this; acting is hardly existent; storyline or scenario are intellectually disgusting. This is so bad, you should probably see it!
The Show that Stopped too Soon
If I recall correctly, this was one of the most expensive TV series ever produced - and it could have continued for much longer if the set had not burned down.
I like ancient history as a setting, but all too often, this comes down to 20th/21st century people imagining that ancient Romans or Greeks are "just like them". While I refuse to engage any of those tedious debates about realism and historical accuracy (it's fiction, folks!), I also could not help but feel that the creators of Rome really tried to emphasize the different mindset and customs of people who lived two millennia ago. There is a strange "feeling of authenticity" that runs through this show, which could simply stem from the fact that the characters don't just behave like modern people would. Similarly, it does away with the sterile feeling of cleanly, classic civilization that you would often see in older epic sword-and-sandal films. Rome is very filthy - in various respects!
Many of the details I would personally commend have already been praised by the other reviewers here, so I will not repeat them. Even twelve years later, Rome is still a very special show for me.
Don't Worry, You Don't Have to Like Westerns
Deadwood may look like a Western and - if you had visited the set - it would probably smell like a Western, but it is no Western. It's a story about what it means to become civilized. The frontier town of Deadwood - in the beginning essentially a glorified mining camp - and its denizens gradually experience this process. Some of them embrace it and push towards more civility, order and commerce. Others fear the loss of freedom and unfettered opportunity, some of them even try to forestall it.
Throughout this overarching conflict, you have a broad variety of quirky, likeable, touching or downright detestable characters. Some of them swear a lot, some of them really need to brighten up, some of them should go slow on the booze, and some of them I would never buy pork from.
Suffice it to say, this is a completely different take on 19th century frontier life - and if you like to take historical settings seriously, this will be a great show for you!
Six Feet Under (2001)
This was one of the first so-called "quality TV" shows I have ever watched. While it may have technologically aged, the storyline is one of the richest and most fascinating ones I have ever seen on TV. In many ways, it feels more like a brilliant novel that has been cleverly adopted for the TV screen. (Side note: There is a very famous German novel from the late 19th centrury, Thomas Mann's "The Buddenbrooks" - in many ways, it tells a similar tale of how changing times and the strive for individualism and self-actualization affect - and break apart - a family business).
You could describe Six Feet Under as a family history, which would not necessary be my favorite genre. However, the show is so much more than that. The psychology of the characters is brilliant and utterly plausible. Occasionally, there are metaphysical undertones (and I don't really mean the appearance of "ghosts" - or rather "imaginary family members", which I always felt was more of a nuisance).
It has been quite some time since I watched Six Feet Under, but what really sticks to my mind is the intensity of feelings (empathy, dislike, frustration, etc.) the viewer develops towards the characters. I hardly ever experienced this to the same extent in any other show I watched, no matter how brilliant it was.
Just watch it - it's TV history.
The Wire (2002)
The Favorite of Urban Sociologists
"The Wire" has often be referred to as "the best", "the deepest" or "the most intelligent" TV series ever produced. Considering the harsh competition for such superlatives, I would be a bit more careful. However, "The Wire" is certainly "the most sociological" TV series I know - and I don't mean this in a derogatory way. (Side note: David Simon would probably disagree with Dirty Harry's movie quote that "in the streets, sociology gets you killed", although - admittedly - the one sociological researcher that appears in the show does not do very well on his ride-along with the police).
The Wire is also a very courageous show, considering that it consciously broke with many of the golden rules of earlier forms of serial television. Some scenes plainly express their disdain for TV conventions, such as the legendary "invective-centric" crime scene investigation by Bunk and McNulty.
Overall, The Wire is also to be commended for its blatant refusal to dumb anything down for a more palatable narrative. Wicked problems remain wicked problems and the connection between poverty, crime, politics, the media, education, law enforcement, and economics remains complex and multi-layered throughout the show. It's also interesting to note that The Wire is not a character-centric show (although virtually all characters are interesting and many appear recurrently). If there is a real protagonist, it would probably be the city of Baltimore, Maryland ("Bodymore, Murdahland") itself.
In any case, this show is one of the most original, innovative, and intellectually challenging pieces of serial television I have ever seen. Strongly recommended!
Breaking Bad (2008)
If I had to characterize Breaking Bad in comparison to other high-quality TV shows, I would call it "the show that never did anything wrong". BrBa has a flawless storyarc, which neatly connects the first episode of season 1 with the final episode of season 5. The ending of the series, which has often been the weak point of many other great shows, feels almost inevitable - as many great endings in literature also do.
There is so much to be praised about this show. What impressed me most was perhaps the attention to detail. This is also the show where no loose end was ever forgotten - and, if not tied up, it would usually come back to haunt Walter White or some other character. There is also a strong sense of fate or even karma in this show - at one point literally hitting the protagonist out of the blue sky (if you have seen the show, you understand the reference). Walter White's cancer in the end becomes a metaphor for his own malice, that is slowly metastasizing in his soul. In the end, the philosophical question is whether one becomes bad because of one's deeds (while continuously rationalizing them as necessary and inevitable) or whether one does bad things because it is already part of one's character. The title, "Breaking Bad", seems to point towards the latter, whereas the ending of the show rather points towards the former.
The show often uses metaphor and allusion - sometimes in a way that will only be noticed by the most attentive of observers. For example, the curious model of a car Walter drives has been known to be a "underachiever" with unrealized potential, much like his owner. Minor details like an unrepaired crack in a windshield or a rotting pizza on a roof are constant reminders of the sinister events that have seeped into the suburban lifestyle - and they are milestones of Walter's moral journey into darkness, until things are beyond repair. Keep in mind that this is the man who feels compelled to "fix things" like a random shaky table with a napkin, but who becomes so power-hungry that he eventually declares: "I'm not in the money business. I'm not in the drug business. I'm in the empire business."
The psychology of Walter White would lend itself to filling pages, but the same could be said for many other characters. I will never look at harmless hobbies like rock-collecting in the same way again - and the color purple has also gained some unpleasant connotations. I have also learned that a Roomba cannot fix a broken home and childhood.
Perhaps the last piece of praise: the whacky humor of the show. There were moments when I simply did not know whether I should laugh or cry (I will never be able to use an ATM without thinking of this show). BrBa also has it's very unique take on American consumer culture and middle class suburban lifestyle - there is a lot of brilliant social and political commentary in this show (which, by the way, has been further developed in "Better Call Saul").
Altogther, this show is a nearly perfect package and incredibly well-crafted. Do not miss out!
Battlestar Galactica (2004)
Still the King of the Genre
Before "The Expanse" appeared on my radar, I would have called BSG the best SciFi series without competition. Now it's just the best SciFi series with competition.
This show is also referred to as the "reimagined" version of Battlestar Galactica, and I think this is an accurate description considering that one cannot really call it a remake. I have to admit that I never watched the original BSG series from the late 1970s. If I'm being honest, I don't think I ever will. However, it's interesting to see how both shows managed to address the geopolitical context of their time in their own, unique way. The original BSG was known to be a parable of the Cold War (with the robotic, swarm-intelligent Cylons clearly representing the Soviets). In contrast, the reimagined BSG has tackled its post 9/11 context and explores themes like religious fanaticism (the monotheistic Cylons), which is juxtaposed with the more liberal, polytheistic society of the human colonies. It speaks volumes that the main threat to the human colonial society is not just the incessant pursuit of the cylons, but the militarization, securitization, and decay of democratic institutions amongst the human survivors. One of the most interesting parts of the show looks at the problem of occupation from the perspective of the occuppied and the collaborators in their midst - some scenes are characteristically filmed with the greenish tint of night-vision cameras that could as well show CNN footage of raiding houses in Fallujah, Iraq.
It is much to the credit of the show that none of these political allusions are entirely obvious or unequivocal. BSG is not a show that aims to make political statements, it's rather a show that draws attention to the fact that things are never as easy or clear-cut as we would like them to be - and that in political and military affairs, the road to hell is often paved with the best of intentions.
On this note, the genre of BSG is not just science fictions, it's (more specifically) military science fiction. The creators of the show seem to have developed an entire body of theory and doctrine on ship-to-ship combat in space. While I don't want to enter any endless discussion of "realism", I personally found the way BSG portrays combat in outer space very fascinating and (within the confines of the show) consistent. Suffice it to say, it is heavily influenced by a meticulous study World War II naval battles. While CGI technology was not what it is today, most of the scenes in space are aesthetically very pleasing and the space battles are amongst the most engaging I have ever seen in this genre.
On a more general level, the looks and visual atmosphere of BSG are just as impressive as the complex and well-crafted storyline. Ships feel appropriately claustrophobic, they are heavily armored hulks of steel with wires, metallic bulkheads, and flickering neon lights - in many ways the exact opposite of what you might find in "Star Trek". The few planetary surfaces of the show are equally unique, from the over-saturated green of the fallen Garden Eden of Cobol and the sickly yellow tint of irradiated Caprica to the barren planes of New Caprica and the bubbling miasma of the "Algae Planet".
The entire storyline of the show is truly remarkable. After the existential shock of the opening episodes, which depicted nothing less than the nuclear holocaust of an interplanetary human civilization, the show remained thrilling and very tense - almost as if there was a dark, constant undercurrent running through every single episode. At the same time, the introduction of both mystical and mysterious elements - BSG later became famous for it's "circular view of history" - captured my imagination. I still shudder thinking about the strangely meaningful, yet utterly senseless, dadaistic poetry of the human-cylon hybrids who have gone mad from what was never meant to be fused ("End of line"). The different models of the "skin jobs" are equally fascinating, especially after it dawns upon the viewer that each of these (slightly different) non-individuals follows the same patterns and maximes of behaviour (e.g. Lioben always lies).
The same fascination extends to the human characters: One of my all-time favorites was William Adama, the intransigant patriarch, sometimes a fatherly caretaker, sometimes a ruthless military commander with tyrannic tendencies. (Take note of some of the later scenes where Adama and his XO Tigh engage into serious orgies of boozing that usually degerate into the spiteful ramblings of disappointed old men). The brilliantly acted Kara Thrace, whose inner struggles and desparation were almost palpable, is another great example of this show's memorable spectrum of characters.
Bottom line: This show is a must-see for every fan of intelligent science fiction. It is also warmy recommended to anybody who does not fit this description.
Game of Thrones (2011)
Top of the Crop
Before GoT, it would have been very hard to name an example of a good medieval fantasy show. GoT has shown how this can be done - perhaps there is some hope for the future in this genre.
I find it interesting to see how much political controversy GoT has generated between 2011-2019. It's a good example of what happens when a fantasy show leaves the confines of a pleasantly nerdy core audience and matures into a global phenomenon. Think about, for example, the various gender battles or the curious debate about dragons as an analogy to nuclear weapons. Much to the joy of languishing medieval history departments, GoT has also revitalized interest in heraldry and genealogy as auxialliary sciences.
Overall, it's just a very remarkable show: The storyline is complex, but strangely easy to follow. The visuals are stunning, the music compelling (think about the Lannister and Greyjoy themes!), and the dialogues are often approaching the philosophical. Probably no other TV show has generated as many memorable pop culture quotes and memes as GoT. Over the course of time, viewers got strongly attached to individual characters - just think about all of those Facebook quizzes aiming to determine: "Which GoT character would you be?"
Interestingly, it's not just the key protagonists of the show that are captivating characters. It's true that Tyrion Lannister, Jon Snow and Arya Stark have remained all-time favorites of the audience. However, I have always found many of the secondary characters to be particularly memorable. Some of them are archetypes, but they always have some twist. The caleidoscope encompasses Machiavellian princes with family issues (Tywin Lannister), cheerfully corrupt mercenaries (Bronn), valiant geriatric knights (Barristan Selmy), redeemed star-crossed slave-traders (Jorah Mormont), altruistically scheming eunuchs (Lord Varys), romantic barbarians (Khal Drogo), and many others.
Imagine this vast array of characters pursuing their respective agenda against the backdrop of some of the most visually stunning sets and sceneries the history of TV has ever seen, ranging from the wind-swept and salt-encrusted Iron Islands to the scorching heat of the Dothraki steppes and the snow-covered mountains beyond the Wall. There is a real sense of epic story-telling here.
On a meta-level, this show has become an essential reference if you are interested in modern pop culture and contemporary quality TV. Has it deteriorated since its inception? If you look at the typical life cycle of serial TV criticism, reviewers will always gravitate towards more negative reviews as a series progresses through its seasons. This is partially due to genuine saturation of the audience, but partially also due to a somewhat lass genuine desire of reviewers to appear original. More often than not, it's the perception of the viewer that changes and not the style of the show (it's a typical cognitive bias). Nonetheless, I believe the accusation is somewhat true with regard to GoT. After the departure from G.R.R. Martin's original work, the show often felt more fast-paced, but also less plausible and (as far as this word should be used for a medieval fantasy show) less authentic. Attention to details and "historical mechanics" were often exchanged against what was believed to be a more palatable dramaturgy.
Having said all this, in the end this remains one of the most enjoyable and compelling shows I have ever watched.