Generally, I don't watch network TV. I watch sports, and that is about it. I've never been able to sit all the way through American Idol, or Survivor, or any reality show for that matter. The closest thing I can watch is reruns of Parole Board on A&E. For some reason watching career criminals sharpen their skills as career liars in order to get out among the decent people is more engaging than the real reality shows.

Not that A&E is all that great. Remember, these are the geniuses who gave us shows like Growing Up Gotti, and Dog the Bounty Hunter. I couldn't stand that show even before the the racist rants (Michael Richards, call your office, Dog's stealing your act). Couple that with Parking Wars, and I change the channel, at least until something relaxing about serial killers comes on.

Funny thing, I used to like A&E. Now it's gone from Arts & Entertainment to Dreck & Trash.

For entertainment, there are still two shows on TV worth watching, and they're not on A&E, or History (the channel formerly known as The History Channel), or Discovery. They're on F/X Networks.

The first is in its last season. I've been a fan of The Shield since it first went on the air. It is one of the grittiest, most uncompromising but morally compromised cop shows ever. Like Tony Soprano, Vick Mackey gets your sympathy even as he racks up an impressive resume of high crimes and misdemeanors, along with enough moral failings to impress a real hard-core gangster.

Yet more than Tony Soprano, Vick Mackey has his own code, and is definitely not the most ethically-challenged character on the show. David Acevedo, his old captain, went from being a self-serving police careerist to a self-serving politician, hoisted on his ambition. While he calls Mackey "Al Capone with a badge" early in the series, he associates with people just as bad if not worse than Big Al, starting with Mexican drug cartels. Vick's former friend and partner in crime, Shane Vandrell, once killed a beloved colleague by dropping a hand grenade into his car.

Meanwhile, Vick tries to redeem himself. The most important trend in the show is Vick's consistent effort to be a better man than he was, and sometimes fails. He might not be the detective who shot another cop in cold blood in the first episode, or orchestrated the robbery of an Armenian crime syndicate, but he remains a foe to be feared.

Yet he is also dedicated to the wreckage he's made of his family, including two autistic children and a baby resultant from an extra-marital affair, determined to do right by all of his children even though their mothers might want him gone.

The Shield is in its final season. Considering the readiness of the writers and directors to eliminate vital characters, and not just by grenade, it is no surprise. One can see that this is the final act for both the show and for Detective Mackey.

The other show worth watching is my current favorite. I will not miss Sons of Anarchy.

Like The Shield, this is a drama about antiheroes. The stories revolve around an outlaw motorcycle club, at least partially modeled on the Hell's Angels. The club dominates a small California town called Charming, keeping it safe from white supremacist gangs, child-raping carnival workers, methamphetamine, economic development and any sort of change that does not benefit the club.

The show's view of the club is somewhat idealized. They are the protectors as well as the sometimes exploiters of women, and they have a very strong aversion to meth use. The anti-hard drug orientation of the club can be a little jarring sometimes, but it is a small flaw in a great show.

The story lines are at once dark, complex, and sometimes funny, in a sick kind of way. Once episode involving dead prostitutes and the club's efforts to distract the police with another crime, this one involving bodies taken from the local mortuary, is one of TV's best recent excursions into black humor.

Overhanging everything, and underpinning it, are themes drawn from Hamlet. Jax Teller, the club's young vice president, is the Hamlet figure, especially after discovering that his late father returned from Vietnam with an entirely different vision for the Sons than the gun-running "Harley Mafia" that they became. The elder Teller was killed in a bike accident years before the start of the show, and now Jax's mother, played as a outlaw biker dragon lady by Katey Segal, is married to club president Clay Morrow, played by Ron Perlman. They allude to secrets, terrible to contemplate and harder to keep, about which Jax knows nothing.

Like Vick Mackey, Jax Teller has good points. He is a loving father, devoted to the premature son born to his meth-addicted ex-wife. He contemplates his future, and has a tendency to question everything. But retains the violent, even murderous streak that makes him completely worthy of his club brothers.

The main conflict in the show is not between the Sons of Anarchy and the police; most of them are on their payroll, or even the ATF, who are burdened with an abusive, compulsive stalker of an agent whom even they are ready to disown. Nor is it with the Mayans, a rival Mexican-American club apparently based on the real-life Mongols. It is strictly within the family, literally and figuratively, between Jax and Clay.

Sons of Anarchy
became my favorite show in a hurry. Hopefully like other favorites, including The Shield, it will continue for years to come.

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Comment by John Bobek on November 28, 2008 at 2:31pm
It was Richard Boone. He broke tradition in Westerns by wearing an all black outfit, but he was uncompromising in standing up for what was right. Have Gun... Will Travel.
Comment by Jim Werbaneth on November 28, 2008 at 2:14pm
He certainly was, and his type will probably never pass our TV screens again.
Comment by John Bobek on November 28, 2008 at 2:13pm
Have you ever seen any episodes of Paladin? That was a hero!
Comment by Jim Werbaneth on November 28, 2008 at 1:45pm
I have to agree that sometimes shock is a cover-up for want of talent, but The Shield and Sons of Anarchy don't fit that criteria, in my opinion at least. They have some of the best talent, taut scripts, and plot lines that demand your attention; they're not noise in the background.

The History Channel has definitely declined though. There's too much Modern Marvels, and I'm sick of seeing that cover exciting historical subjects like paint, glue, boogers and snot. The "American Original" lineup too bores the crap out of me, except for Ice Road Truckers, and even that is a show about people driving to work. I guess I have short patience for reality TV in any form.
Comment by John Bobek on November 28, 2008 at 1:21pm
I guess I'm the odd one here. The only network show that I see with any regularity is Law and Order, and that only on TNT. Otherwise, I watch ToonDisney, Cartoon Network, NickToons, and the WeatherChannel. My all time favorite show is The Avatar. I used to watch the History Channel but I hardly ever have a reason to since it's become the TV equivalent of The National Enquirer. Nostradamus, future comets, aliens from space, etc, etc. The network shows seem to have left their moral fiber out of their diet. Compare a current TV hero to say, Paladin. They don't hold a candle to him. Gritty isn't necessarily an improvement. Most of the time, it's an excuse to cover a lack of writing talent.
Comment by Jim Werbaneth on November 27, 2008 at 9:46pm
Be happy to hear the good news: It is my understanding that FX committed to a second year of Sons of Anarchy before the first year was halfway done. I suspect we may enjoy years and years of SAMCRO.
Comment by Jerry Smith on November 27, 2008 at 6:09pm
I've watched every episode of SoA and loved it, but I missed the last one! Waiting for the encore...
Comment by Jim Werbaneth on November 27, 2008 at 12:25pm
The season finale of Sons of Anarchy was on last night, and damn I am going to miss that show. At least until season two starts.
Comment by Jim Werbaneth on November 26, 2008 at 2:51pm
I watched the final episode of The Shield last night, and it was a good one. It would have been too obvious perhaps to give Mackey the kind of fate that he earned, such as life in prison without parole, a needle in the arm, or a bullet in the brain. But this was good enough and very inventive: He lost his family, had his last friend arrested due to his treachery, and then was sentenced to three years in cubicle hell, turning this quintessential rule-smasher and abuser of everything into what he probably dreaded most: A drone like the rest of us.

Very effective.
Comment by Jim Werbaneth on October 29, 2008 at 8:47pm
Life shall be provided. :-)

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