Ranking the TV shows of JJ Abrams

Feature Rob Kemp 15 Nov 2013 - 07:00

With Almost Human arriving soon, Rob compares the merits of ten JJ Abrams-produced TV shows, from Lost, to Alias, Revolution, and more...

Warning: contains spoilers for Revolution, and Lost.

Most would agree, JJ Abrams has had a successful career which has gone from strength to strength. Undoubtedly, Star Wars now offers an opportunity for him to reach a creative zenith, but represents also his largest risk. His stylistic choices may not be to everyone’s tastes and he himself admits that there are elements over which he has an obsession (lens flares & secrecy) but these are still a matter of personal taste (I’m ambivalent over the former, and truly appreciate the latter). All that aside, outside his burgeoning film directing career, as an executive producer Abrams has been responsible for an incredible amount of television in a very small space of time. To place him into context, other great TV execs like David E Kelly, (L.A Law, Ally McBeal, The Practice, Boston Legal), Donald P. Bellisario, (Airwolf, Magnum P.I, Quantum Leap, JAG and NCIS), Stephen J Cannell, (Rockford Files, The Greatest American Hero, The A-Team, 21 Jump Street) have all had significant hits – but arguably not as many in the relatively short time that Abrams has been going. To be clear, I’m not saying that he’s already the most prolific nor I am saying he’s become the most significant - an honour that surely must go to great Aaron Spelling (Mod Squad, S.W.A.T, Starksy and Hutch, Charlie’s Angels, Fantasy Island, Hart to Hart, T.J Hooker, The Love Boat, Dynasty, Melrose Place, Beverley Hills, 90120 and Charmed).  However, in the relatively short time that Abrams has been producing, he has built an impressive legacy.

With that in mind, let's take a look back at ‘his’ (Abrams-produced) series and - why not? - rank them from one to ten. Why? Because we all like lists, and we all like to be opinionated - but also he has a new series starting shortly, Almost Human, and it’s an appropriate time as any to look back over his past achievements. Criteria for separating the best from the worst comes down to many factors – writing, story, cultural impact, legacy, acting. It certainly won’t be to everybody’s tastes but hopefully the arguments will be compelling, otherwise I’m sure I’ll hear from you on the feedback below! One thing I will point out is that just because a show gets cancelled doesn’t mean that it is of lesser quality than those that get a full run, it’s just because it might be ahead of its time…

10. What About Brian (2006-2007)

Let’s get one thing straight, JJ Abrams has never produced a terrible show. Each of the shows on this list has something, maybe it’s the writing or the acting or even just the concept. None of them are downright unwatchable. That’s important because although What About Brian had a limited run (only two seasons) it still managed to attract a fan following. The story is untypically Abrams in that it focuses on the ordeal of a man who sees his friends find love and move on with their lives. There were no fantastical or unexplained elements, no secret societies and no polar bears. It’s likely that despite his executive producer credit, it was actually Dana Stevens (writer of City of Angels and wife of Michael Apted) who was the primary creative control.  Regardless, the show’s mixed reviews suggested that it was marmite viewing, which also stretched to the criticisms of the actors themselves with some describing the cast as charmless whilst others praised their ability to askew sterotypes. However, the chief reason why it’s rooted at the bottom of this list, is that it’s nothing special. That’s not to say it didn’t receive some critical praise, but its ambition was limited, and despite Abrams' involvement, it is the one on this list that could have been made by anyone - it doesn’t feel like an Abrams production and in many ways is much the poorer for it.

9. Six Degrees (2006-2007)

On the face of it, Six Degrees does at least sound like a JJ Abrams high concept show in that the title refers to the six degrees of separation that supposedly link everyone to everybody else. But when hearing this concept connected with the Abrams we all know and love now – your first assumptions are likely to be along the lines of a government genetic experiment gone wrong, a historical mystery with Indiana Jones overtones or maybe a bodysnatchers-style story that examines the human condition whilst exploiting every bit of tension from the resulting paranoia. No, no and unfortunately no. What we do get is a story that focuses on a bunch of individuals whose immediate connection is not apparent and in a Crash / Magnolia like structure we get to understand the links and chance encounters that impact all of us. Okay – so it's maybe not a ‘popular’ audience-winning concept as some of those mentioned above, but unlike What About Brian, I could see the potential this would have for Abrams to push numerous twists and turns with unexpected reveals and interesting characters.

Unfortunately for Six Degrees, it was played straight, and suffered for it. It received mostly negative reviews and didn’t survive the first season. In fact, so bad was the critical response and the viewing figures, although 13 episodes were made, only 8 were actually aired. Again, JJ Abrams can’t possibly take all the flak for the show, as it wasn’t created by him, that honour went to Raven Metzner and Stuart Zicherman (both of whom were consulting producers on What About Brian although their creative relationship with JJ Abrams seemingly ended there). Why then, does this not come bottom of the list when considering it’s critical mauling? Simple – when you watch the show, you can see the ambition that it had, it just didn’t have a chance to accomplish it. It importantly also portends a reoccurring element in other Abrams shows – most famously in Lost, where the drama brings together a disparate group of strangers through fate/luck. I’m not saying that this was Abrams' intent when he produced Six Degrees, but there was something in that concept, the ambition in narration and character development that stayed with him. And for that, Six Degrees deserves a smidgeon of credit and recognition.

8. Undercovers (2010-2011)

Or the one that isn’t Alias. You can’t deny the resemblances. Over and above its ‘spy’ trapping there’s its central concept of a ‘family’ involvement set against a covert environment that would expectedly have reveals, twists and issues with identity. Maybe it was going for familiarity before branching out into something different - but we’ll never know as it didn’t get beyond its first few episodes (13 episodes were filmed, 11 were aired). Although it met with a mixed critical response the ratings were poor, perhaps due to people expecting and then being disappointed that despite the resemblance this was not Alias. However, unlike Brian and Six Degrees, this was not only executively produced by Abrams but created by him as well, it was also the first TV series since Lost in which he directed the pilot. The two leads, Boris Kodjoe (Resident Evil) and Gugu Mbatha-Raw (otherwise known as the sister of Martha Jones in Doctor Who) were also pretty strong – but despite this pedigree it would appear that people simply wanted Alias 2, and in this respect Undercovers, albeit unfairly, disappointed. 

7. Revolution (2012- )

Revolution has the dubious honour of being the lowest-placed currently airing show on this list. This obviously comes with a health warning in that Revolution could, by the end of its run, be the best show Abrams has ever produced. Equally, the end of its run could only be a dozen or so episodes away. The problem with Revolution is that despite a good concept it spent a really, really long time to get going. It’s first season was a 20 episode arc that was crying out to be chopped down to 12. Also, and lets be truthful, does anyone actually care about the characters? They’re not particularly charismatic, even Billy Burke’s anti-hero Miles Matheson, who was rather good at the beginning, imbuing his character with a high level of ambiguity and distrust, was transformed by season’s end by becoming boringly good and wholesome (a change that took some swallowing considering the actions of his past). Also, was I the only one to be disappointed when the reason for the lights being turned off was revealed as nanites? In that one reveal, gone was the cool Lost-like vibe that occurred at the end of the first episode when Grace turned the computer on, gone was the mystery and with it much of the interest that the show had generated til that point. In many ways it was a direct response to Lost’s critics that highlighted the lack of answers and drawn-out plots.

Why then is this better than the others lower down the list? Well, despite its descent into mediocrity there are moments when Revolution shows what it should and still could be. The unknown reason for the slaughter on the mysterious level 12, (and 24 fans everywhere smiled when they realised that Aaron was responsible!), the great Giancarlo Esposito who steals just about every scene he’s in, swords (there are just not enough shows with swords in them!) and its ability to kill off characters that creates both shock and an audience uncertainty over just who will survive are all elements that give me hope that Revolution can improve.  There are glimpses already in the second season that some lessons have been learnt but lets hope Revolution gets a chance to get it right, unlike some other shows...

6. Alcatraz (2012)

When the publicity for Alcatraz first started to emerge it felt like that it was being billed as the natural successor to Lost. In all fairness, the story with its focus on a mysterious unexplained event set against a background of experiments and utilising effective flashbacks did have more than a passing resemblance to Lost, not to mention the presence of Jorge Garcia. Unfortunately Alcatraz shared another Lost trait, it didn’t want to rush explanations and the season seemed to be just question after question which even the final episode failed to answer. You could argue that Lost was no better, but it went on to be the phenomenon it was, while Alcatraz was cancelled just one season in. Alcatraz may have suffered from Lost fatigue (the thought of wading through multiple seasons before there was any satisfactory answers) or even the blacklash from that show’s poorly received conclusion. I think it’s a real pity though, because there were some really good elements within the show; Sam Neill was great, the flashbacks effective and the overall concept interesting enough to want to find out those answers that were only tantalising glimpsed in the final 45 minutes. I wonder if Abrams had waited a few years, giving it greater distance between it and Lost,  that the show may have had a better reception or at least the chance of another season to expand upon the interesting mythology that it had created.

5. Person Of Interest 2011 – 2013

Person of Interest is probably more well known for the name of Nolan (albeit Jonathan rather than Christopher) than JJ Abrams, but it has the latter's fingerprints all over it. Conspiracies – tick,  fast paced action – tick, strong characterisation – tick.  It is also a show that knows exactly what people want, yes there’s mystery but not to the detriment of what makes the show enjoyable, which is largely down to the characterisation and Jim Caviezel’s portrayal of John Reese and the strong relationship he’s developed alongside the brilliant Michael Emmerson. Who’d have thought that Emmerson could so easily banish the memories of Ben Linus with pretty much the very next show he did? That’s not the only element to enjoy, the concept itself has a very 80s ‘help a person down on their luck/need protecting’ vibe and yet also incorporates the now-standard season-long story arcs and expansive sub-plots that make Person of Interest appeal to a broad audience. Nor can we forget the strong supporting talent, especially Taraji Henson (Det. Carter) and Kevin Chapman (Harold Finch) whose banter and interaction with Reese remains a constant highlight.

There is a note of caution about Person of Interest in that despite the multiple narrative devices it uses, I’m not entirely convinced how it can go on indefinitely in its current guise. It might be that a major change to the story or its concept (and we know Abrams is more than capable of that – see both Lost and Fringe’s fifth seasons for show altering changes) may make this drop down the list. However, for now it continues to fly high and must be considered one of the most enjoyable, thrilling and fun hours on television.

4. Alias 2001 – 2006

I would argue that despite successes with Felicity, Alias was the show that truly established Abrams and set him on his path, although I doubt very much that anyone knew that at the time. It was perhaps the first of his shows that established a rabid fan base, which turned out to be crucial because the studio (ABC) had a hard time knowing just what to do with it and frequently changed airing dates in an attempt to tie in with a consistently criticised studio line-up. Its success could be considered even more special when you understand that the protagonist was a woman, and the show’s complicated plots were wrapped in layers of conspiracy with constant twists and turns that created a dense mythology that was simply not for the faint-hearted. Lets face it, Alias was not a show where the audience could casually jump in and out of episodes. It was very much a 'start from the beginning, strap yourself in, and lets see where we end up' deal. The key there is that the central concept and pace kept those early adopters so hooked that that always came back for more, and the show catered for them accordingly, (which sounds eerily like another Abrams show – Fringe). 

Apart from its success, just why is it then that Abrams became so well-known through this show?  Well it may not have been his first, but it’s probably the one that contains what we now come to understand as quintessential Abram stylistic tics. Complicated plots, reoccurring themes (deception, family, identity) macguffins, well staged set-pieces and strong ensemble acting were all in there. Despite the critical and fan acclaim, Alias is much more than a good show. Its fan base also made Abrams a genre show maker. The attention that was suddenly thrust upon him certainly opened doors onto bigger and better things.  The story goes that he was offered Mission Impossible III as a direct result of Tom Cruise becoming an avid fan of Alias, and the rest – as they say – is history. 

3. Felicity 1998 – 2002

Felicity is probably the show that most people forget Abrams produced, especially over here in the UK where it did not the reach the status of ‘phenomenon’ as it did in the States. Similar to Six Degrees, it had no pretension at being anything other that what it was – simply a show about a girl called Felicity, who had just started university in New York. Very much in the coming-of-age mould, it was about how she dealt with love (the constant is she/won’t she go for Ben or Noel), friends and generally growing up. To be honest, that doesn’t exactly sound special – in fact it sounds like one of the many American teenage dramas that are imported on a frequent basis. What made Felicity special was her characterisation. Keri Russell played her with a playfulness,  determination and that all important honesty not typically associated with that type of show. Such an impression was made that Entertainment Weekly voted her as one of the top 100 greatest characters in the last twenty years and Time included the show in its top 100 of all time.

Those still waiting for the catch - won’t be surprised to learn that Abrams' first show did indeed have some of his hallmarks. I would recommend the episode, Help for the Lovelorn in which it ventures into decidedly Twilight Zone territory in that there is a clinic that removes people’s hearts so that they don’t have to feel love. If that isn’t strange enough, the show was given an additional five episodes at the end of its run – okay that not particularly strange but what Abrams did with them was. They had already wrapped up the main storyline with Felicity's lovelife, so JJ saw the additional episodes as an opportunity and decided to go for a sliding doors approach, and opted to send Felicity back in time to see what would happen if Felicity had chosen otherwise. That’s right – time travel in a coming-of-age teen drama. I bet nobody saw that coming.

It’s importance is therefore different to Alias. Alias undoubtedly set Abrams on his way to bigger and better things. Felicity wasn’t exactly a sand box – but it could be argued that it gave Abrams not just his introduction to TV, but also his confidence to be different and for what came later – that’s got to be significant.

2. Fringe 2008-2013

Fringe started life as an Abrams X-Files, and finished as something completely different. Its early seasons, particularly its first, aptly deserve comparisons with The X-Files as the monster-of-the-week nature of the show was unabashedly similar. However, instead of the popular UFO mythology, Fringe went... elsewhere. Alternate dimensions had been done before (Sliders), but not with any degree of seriousness. Yet Fringe is not a serious show despite the many dark and serious matters it covered. I feel that the show knew and understood its audience and that since The X-Files had left the air, there was a significant appetite that needed to be fed. I’ve already mentioned that shows like Alias were a difficult sell for anyone just to jump in half way through a season (or even an episode for that matter). You had to buy in right from the off, but if you did, the rewards were plentiful and this is where Fringe truly shone. The confidence in the storytelling allowed the show and the actors to try new things, episodes like Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (Season 3 Ep. 19) where the characters become animated and Betty Brown (Season 2 Ep. 20) essentially a musical episode made the show special in ways that made its contemporaries look decidedly ordinary (especially those airing on Syfy) .

There was another reason for its confidence, and that came from one of the finest casts ever assembled for a show of this kind. It could have so easily have been the Walter (John Noble) show, but with strong support from Joshua Jackson, Lance Reddick, Jasika Nicole as well as Michael Cerveris and Jared Harris as the great David Robert Jones the show had strength in depth. It was needed, as that strength was regularly tested by some challenging and complicated plot arcs that similarly tested the audience in keeping up with the basic who, what, why and in what dimension. What Fringe did that so many shows failed to do (even The X-Files faltered in the end) was in the maintenance of its quality. The show had an interesting, compelling overarching mythology that was as great, or greater than its already excellent monster of the week episodes. In fact many of Fringe’s best episodes are mythology based including, Subject 13, Grey Matters and the masterful Peter to name but a few.

But lets not forget what Fringe did at its close. Saved for another season, the showrunners (and with all credit to the studio, Fox) decided not to extend the mythology running in season four, but to change everything. Absolutely everything. It worked, and although at times it was frustrating – especially the ending that doesn’t entirely satisfy all that’s come before it.  But that’s what Fringe did best, surprise and confound, it made us laugh and at times it made us cry but it’s quality rarely dipped and will be a show that will undoubtedly be a genre standard for years to come.

1. Lost 2004 - 2010

Which leaves the big one, Lost. Lost became a phenomenon that for the most lived up to its hype and then suffered a less-than ceremonious landing. I suppose the real question is that should an entire show be burnt by the way in which it ended. Before I answer that, can we all yet agree that it did end badly? True, it didn’t fade to black, and it did give us a resolution… of sorts. I feel that in Lost’s case the show, its legacy, its narrative, its actors and their performances outweigh the impact of those last few hours and by so doing - can arguably be recognised as the jewel in Abrams' crown.

A lot of words have been written about what made Lost so good, and I won’t go into that level of detail here. But I will point out a few of things that, for me, were the root of its strengths. Firstly, it had a concept that was simple: a bunch of people land on a mysterious island. Then Abrams and co. created a mythology that was interesting, exciting and addictive. Because no one knew exactly what was going on, the audience was always left on the edge of their seat wondering just how it all fit together. The real skill was that the show runners managed to keep this interest for so long, feeding the audience titbits that just whetted their appetite for more.  We can’t forget the actors either – three in particular, Jorge Garcia, Terry O’Quinn and the brilliant Michael Emerson. A reoccurring element in the best of Abrams shows was that he ensured that there was a strong ensemble cast, and Lost was the poster child in how to get ensemble acting right, with Garcia, O’Quinnn and Emerson well derserving in all the accolades and awards that they received. Lastly, and an element that often goes missed is Michael Giacchino’s music for the show. It was iconic and fitted so well with the meaning and intent of the show that it’s become an indelible element of its success - just see the moment when the Hatch lights up or the launching of the raft during Exodus in Season 1.  

Perhaps the real strength of any show is in the journey in which it takes the audience. Those journeys are ultimately punctuated by moments and its these little bits of the whole that we hang onto and upon which ultimately make an impression.  What other show on this list (and any other – but that’s a different article for another day) comes anywhere near the astonishing reveal that Locke was a wheel chair bound factory worker (Season 1, Walkabout) or the indelible moment when the hatch light comes on (Season 1, Deus Ex Machina) or where the showed played its own conventions against itself  and finished a season on a ‘flash forward’, (Season 3, Through the Looking Glass) or the shock when Michael shoots Libby and Ana Lucia (Season 2, Two for the Road) or when we realised that we had just seen perhaps one of the best genre television episodes for this or any other series, (Season 4, The Constant).

 Almost Human is next – and where this will fit on the list no one yet knows. I feel the trailers have yet to convince, and there’s part of me that can’t help but go back to that Friends Episode, The One With Mac and C.H.E.E.S.E. and hopes that as soon as the pilot airs those thoughts and comparisons will be forgotten. It does have Karl Urban and we know that he can be good – so there’s certainly hope. But also, it’s JJ Abrams. I think, looking at the list above, he deserves a great deal of credit for what he’s done and similarly, a lot of attention for what he does next…

Almost Human starts on Fox on Sunday the 17th of November in the US.

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