It’s pure coincidence that Patrick McGoohan’s spy-fi series Danger Man, which evolved into the sci-fi classic The Prisoner, premiered 50 years ago on the now-momentous date of Sept. 11. McGoohan’s paranoid television shows ruled the ’60s and still lords it over our list of continually relevant cult-TV classics.
The shows on this short list function on multiple levels in our post-millennial cultural and political discourse dominated by ascendant freaks and geeks. Despite the fact that some of them sadly remain beneath the radar, the shows have either influenced the entertainment universe that evolved after their unfortunate passing or doubtless will as time hyperspeeds onward. Our picks represent merely a fraction of the rewarding cult television available for watching and re-watching in an era of rampant DVD reissues and unstoppable torrents.
Danger Man + The Prisoner
Stuffed with surveillance, gadgetry and resource wars, Danger Man’s Cold War technophilia is practically a template for the recession-proof militarism that went supernova after the 9/11 attacks shocked and awed us all. As John Drake, the spook fixer with mysterious origins and affiliations, the late, great Patrick McGoohan knit banana republics and other geopolitical pawns together with cut-throat power players like NATO and the International Monetary Fund — usually using nothing but his wits and spy devices, which ranged from miniature cameras, recorders and other surveillance standbys.
Along with Danger Man’s timelessly surreal sequel The Prisoner, McGoohan’s spy-fi hydra anticipated the mediated, metafictional madness we now find ourselves in, where we’re not humans but numbers in a suspiciously engineered society and economy.
“Patrick McGoohan was one of the great heroes of my childhood and adolescence, as well as a continuing influence, via The Prisoner, on all of my thinking,” comics brainiac Grant Morrison told Wired.com after sci-fi visionary McGoohan passed in 2009. “I only knew him from the TV screen, where Number Six can never die.”
David Lynch and Mark Frost’s indispensably surreal soap opera ripped apart television tradition as it riveted viewers with a ceaseless mix of dream-noir intrigue and persistent humor. Led by zen detective Dale Cooper (played by Kyle MacLachlan, above right) and the amiable Sheriff Harry Truman (Michael Ontkean), Twin Peaks was an overnight sensation that has since been aped by shows like The X-Files, House, Warehouse 13, Eureka and way too many more to count.
But that wasn’t enough to keep it alive as fickle, often lame, expectations doomed its underrated second season in the early ’90s, shutting down Twin Peaks’ daring exploration of traditional television’s restrictive limits. Decades later, it remains better than anything on ABC’s roster.
Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law
Cartoon Network’s late-night animation block Adult Swim was a strictly geeks-only affair before the hyperspeeding satire of Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law arrived. Unlike its less-subversive predecessor Space Ghost Coast to Coast, Erik Richter and Michael Ouweleen’s show repurposed animated television’s spent first-teamers and bench-warmers and turned them into postmodern powerhouses.
“It’s weird how lightning-quick you see something on TV and have an immediate understanding of where it is going to go,” Richter told me in 2003, when the subversive cartoon was stealthily beginning to change television. “You know what’s going to happen. People who are watching immediately can fill in the blanks, and you don’t have to take the time to actually show what happens. That formula allows us to take an off-ramp. Is that postmodernism? Probably.”
Whatever you want to call it, Harvey Birdman’s mash of resuscitated superheroes and procedural legal drama was a winning formula that packed plenty of hilarious stabs at pop culture, lampooning everything from ’60s films like Alfie to new-millennium mobster soaps like The Sopranos (with Fred Flintstone in the hot seat below). Secondary heroes like Black Lightning, Apache Chief and Birdman himself had their cultural cachet upgraded for good. After four riotous seasons, the show was history. Although it has since been replaced by a steady stream of lessers — save Aaron McGruder’s criminally underrated American anime satire The Boondocks, also included on this list — it remains the king of Adult Swim until a better toon comes along to take the case.
Equal parts sci-fi, teen soap and unrepentant satire, Javier Grillo-Marxuach’s perversely underrated comic and television series The Middleman was all brains and heart. And its far-out speculative concepts and unrelenting nerdspeak deserved better than to disappear after a scant 12 episodes.
“The Middleman was a show made by geeks for geeks,” Grillo-Marxuach told Wired.com in an e-mail. “In every episode, we challenged ourselves not just to cram in as many references to science fiction, videogame and popular culture as possible, but to wrap our homages in rigorously plotted stories with real characters who just happened to live in an absurd world. The result was a heartfelt series, 12 individually hand-crafted outings in which the fun of reveling in our influences was balanced by maturing characters, plots of increasing complexity and earnestly described relationships with relatable emotional stakes.”
Someday, some geek will craft a literary or digital companion to chart the mind-wiping cultural references packed into each hilarious but accessible Middleman episode. And they can start with standout actor Matt Keeslar who, as the show’s eponymous sci-fi detective, played one of cult television’s coolest characters since Twin Peaks’ Dale Cooper and Firefly’s Malcolm Reynolds. Neither the show nor Keeslar deserved to be buried beneath ABC Family’s comparatively weak roster, and neither deserve the insult of only being available on DVD.
But according to Grillo-Marxuach, the show was probably lucky to last as long as it did.
“To this day, all of us who worked on The Middleman are not only proud of what we accomplished, but also a little confused that we were allowed to get away with it at all!” Images courtesy Javier Grillo-Marxuach