In the last decade and a half, television has been taken to another level as an artform. With the help of freer creative reigns on cable with a greater ability for audiences to seek out niche shows, extended storytelling has led to some true masterpieces of the genre. Many people now agree that television in the 2000-2010 decade surpassed film for overall quality and memorability of its products.
In my opinion two of the best shows of this era and thus of all time are The Wire and “Farscape. Comparing them is interesting to me because they work on alternate levels.
The Wire is likely the greatest example of “macro” storytelling in television history. No show seems more as if it was totally planned out before airing a single episode. Its plots and characters are a tapestry unfolding over 5 seasons as a complex, connected web of people, motivations and themes. It operates both as an entertaining cops and robbers show with awesome characters and as a socio-political statement symbolizing America and capitalism. Emerging as the trendy choice of “greatest show of all time” is neither surprising or undeserved. The Wire is one of the great examples of what the extended medium of television is capable of with enough vision behind it.
For some comparing Farscape to the Wire may seem like an absurd reach, for this reason. In regards to the “macro” storytelling mentioned in the above paragraph, there is no comparison. Farscape’s overall story arcs are standard material for the genre and without the complexity and form of a show like the Wire or Breaking Bad’s. However what makes Farscape great and what makes me more and more convinced it’s one of the best shows of all time, is how it works on a “micro” level. Its characters are exceptionally memorable and colorful. In particular it eventually introduces the best villain I’ve seen on television (and one that can go against any film villain, perhaps) and my personal favorite on screen coupling/romantic subplot between its lead characters. Almost every episode has funny lines and quips and personality. Furthermore when answering a question on a forum about the best television show episodes, I realized that the two shows with countless episodes that I remembered and that stood out as candidates, were Community and Farscape. One reason my fanship of Farscape surprises me is that I usually overwhelmingly favor shows with over-arching arcs instead of the dreaded “standalone” episodes. Farscape does the latter as well as any show due to its characters and personality.
A question in regards to shows like this, is how much to value ambition. Part of what makes The Wire amazing is that it's as if David Simon and his writers, approached it fully attempting to make the greatest show of all time. Farscape feels like it wants to have fun more than it does make a transcendent show. An analogy to this perhaps would be comparing a film like 2001: A Space Odyssey to Star Wars. Stanley Kubrick intended to make a masterpiece of film when creating 2001. Its artistic ambition, layers and craftsmanship is insane. He may have even sold his soul just to make it. Star Wars felt like George Lucas wanting to make the coolest sci-fi/fantasy film ever and in that he may have succeeded. The approach to the Wire seems more 2001 and the approach to Farscape seems more Star Wars. The reality is that because they are light and fun films, the filmmaking accomplishment that is the Star Wars films may be understated. The amount of genius in that film's characters (good and bad), lines and scenes, settings and so forth is immense. Darth Vader is as impressive a creation as HAL 3000. I do not know which is the better film between the Star Wars trilogy (counting it as one "film") and 2001 despite Kubrick going for the artistic jugular, just as I do not know which is the better series between The Wire and Farscape. The former succeeds because of its massively intricate plotting, writing and themes along with great characters, while the latter is more interested in having fun and creating uber memorable villainy, romances, etc., but does it extremely well.