All art is meant to affect us in some way. Even more than other mediums, however, television has perhaps the most power to impact audiences, simply because of how long it takes to produce and air the average television series. Viewers live with their favorite TV shows for years and years, and then even longer if they buy the DVD boxset or rewatch the series on Netflix, so they naturally affect us.
Many TV shows don’t particularly care about affecting viewers — most sitcoms and procedurals are just worried about basic entertainment value rather than any cohesive theme — but the greatest shows find unique ways to engage with viewers. These five are some of the latter — TV series that illustrate their characters and themes so thoughtfully and convincingly they might just force you to make life changes, big and small.
1. Silicon Valley: Give up on your dream of starting a small business
What began as a satire about the pretentious tech world in the San Francisco Bay Area is beginning to look more like a satire of the American dream itself. The protagonist of HBO’s nail-biter comedy series, Richard Hendricks (Thomas Middleditch), only wants to bring his revolutionary new compression platform to the hands of consumers for free, with the primary intent to make the world a better place and then to eventually make a profit in the long-term via advertising. But his legitimately noble dream is savaged by an American corporate world so filled with petty CEOs, fickle investors, incomprehensible legal troubles, and backstabbing that he is often forced to make crushing moral compromises or else give up on his small business and his dreams entirely.
For all the hilarious banter and blends of lowbrow and highbrow humor, Silicon Valley makes a pretty convincing case that, realistically, sometimes it’s not worth going through the trouble of starting a small business. Pretty bleak for a show whose most memorable moment was an elaborate dick joke.
2. Master of None: Travel the world while you still can
Master of None‘s premise is a cliche by this point — a popular comedian making a semi-autobiographical single-camera comedy. But like Louis CK before him, Aziz Ansari is after more than just comedy, instead using the series to present a comprehensive and often painfully relatable portrait of single life in the digital age. Drawing upon the same experiences he mined for his first book Modern Romance: An Investigation, Anzari’s onscreen alter ego Dev Shah wrestles with the familiar trappings of growing into adulthood, making old points in hilarious and newly resonant ways.
The second episode reminds you to ask your parents about their lives while you still can, especially if your parents immigrated from an impoverished part of the world. The season finale, meanwhile, destroys a compelling relationship to bring Dev, and by proxy the audience, to realize he ought to fulfill his star-crossed dreams of traveling the world while he still can, even if it means facing insecurity for the foreseeable future.
3. Six Feet Under: Face your mortality
Death is built into the very premise of Six Feet Under, HBO’s series about a family brought together by their father’s death and by struggling to manage the family mortuary. The characters around whom the series is built are by turns unlikable, deeply wounded, unpredictable, self-destructive, selfish, manipulative, mean — but mostly just afraid. Creator Alan Ball’s great feat is getting us to care about their well-being anyway. By setting the series in a funeral home and even beginning every episode with a new terrifyingly mundane death, creator Alan Ball made the show about the ways in which death affects the way we live. Most of us just ignore it, but in the famously devastating series finale, Six Feet Under forces its audience members to face their mortality once and for all.
4. The Office (UK): Quit your lousy office job — or at least ask that cute co-worker on a date
For as great as the American version of The Office was, it could never hope to touch the razor-sharp satire and comic focus of the 14-episode British original. Adopting the then-novel mockumentary approach to root its depiction of British office life in reality, The Office induces cringes and laughs alike from the mundane indignities and hypocrisies endured by suburban worker drones, hammering in a basic message: work is hell. Creator Ricky Gervais as David Brent is the series’ empty center, a buffoonish boss who’s most concerned about himself at all times, but the tragedy of it all comes from Martin Freeman’s everyman Tim Canterbury, a competent man whose potential and happiness is snuffed out by the miserable daily grind of white collar work.
The series original ended with Tim remaining at the horrible job and losing his chance with receptionist Dawn (Lucy Davis) — a bleak reminder that might motivate more than a few people to quit their job and find a life beyond their cubicle. The two-part special later gave Dawn and Tim their happy ending, but it doesn’t dull the shock of the original ending’s message.
5. Band of Brothers: Go read a book and actually learn something about history
Many prestige television series use history as inspiration, but few seem to capture their era with as much vivid beauty and horror as HBO’s now-classic miniseries Band of Brothers. World War II comes to life through the eyes of “Easy” Company, an American airborne division deployed at Normandy that participates in many other major events of the European theater. The production value ensures every set looks as true-to-life as possible, from the trenches to the quaint Belgian villages, and each character feels exceptionally real in their reactions — probably because they were real, highlighted by the talking heads from the soldiers of Easy Company themselves that begin each episode. Band of Brothers is riveting enough to make a history buff of just about anyone.
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