The Year in Television
4, 8, 15, 16, 23, 42—this string of numbers are both plot device and red herring in ABC’s Wednesday night narrative shell game Lost. The surprising popular hit—Gilligan’s Island filtered through a metafictional prism—has created the sort of online fan story line parsing not seen since The X-Files, with critics and the Emmys lauding the series in equal measure. You have to tip your pen to a writing staff that floods its series in dead-end details and coy clues, spinning storytelling gold by turning a literal hole in the ground into a contextual metaphor for the series’ ongoing great unknown.
Lost isn’t anything new, merely an extremely clever update of that old TV staple: the pulpy adventure yarn. Lost is basically a Wagon Train weaned on nouvelle vague jump cuts, a popular entertainment that strokes the close-viewing ego and rewards being able to discern Flann O’Brien and Umberto Eco from Conan O’Brien and Oprah Winfrey. What Lost represents as ABC’s biggest 2004-’05 hit is far more interesting. It signals that the major networks are following a cable and foreign TV lead: the season-long serial narrative.
Episodic drama has ruled prime time on the Big Three for what feels like ever. All shows that revolve around the workplace—cops shows (the still-blossoming CSI franchise, Cold Case, Without a Trace, Numb3rs, TNT’s offbeat The Closer), legal shows (the endless Law and Order syndicate, NCIS, even Medium), medical shows (stalwart ER), even oddball workplaces such as Las Vegas—and shows that chronicle hokey piffle (Smallville, Ghost Whisperer, Close to Home) are character sets thrust into stand-alone, hourlong exercises in genre week after week. The genre machinations aren’t any more polished in Lost—or its serial narrative kin in Veronica Mars, Prison Break, the listless Invasion, the stillborn Reunion, Deadwood, The Shield, Rescue Me, the brutal Nip/Tuck, and even Gilmore Girls and Desperate Housewives—but the season-long narrative arcs encourage weekly viewing. They stoke the sort of loyalty that makes shows event nights marked on calendars.
The BBC has mined such storytelling for years; ground zero for contemporary American TV serial narrative begins with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Sopranos. It’s a strategy that even revamps formerly failing episodic dramas. The West Wing reinvigorated itself by remembering that campaign politics is more compelling than governing politics and found better ratings with season-long runs for the Oval Office.
Sustaining this drive over subsequent seasons is the real magic act, though, and few writing staffs are up to the challenge. The final season of Six Feet Under almost redeemed itself by plunging into unselfconscious family grief following the death of Peter Krause’s assholic Nate Fisher, but even that late-blooming turn couldn’t make up for the sniping, navel-gazing whining of the past three seasons. Denis Leary’s wonderfully angry Rescue Me woefully dipped into the dodgiest of plot manipulations—the death of a child. And even Lost is wading through its second year, perhaps a victim of its own success, as the writers navigate the series’ trapdoors and convolutions. Fortunately, sub-par Lost is still entertaining as hell, and good enough to make our year-end list for the best shows of 2005. We’ll be watching. (Bret McCabe)
1 Nip/Tuck (FX)
Could a pair of too-pretty Miami plastic surgeons and their inhumanly hot wives and women possibly be a moral parable for our times? Ryan Murphy—the supergenius behind the underrated Popular—puts common insecurities, frailties, fears, and failings into handsome family man Dr. Sean McNamara (Dylan Walsh) and Teflon manwhore Dr. Christian Troy (Julian McMahon) and then amps up the crazy. Nip/Tuck is basically a superglossy soap opera—a show about people who want to be perfect on the outside even though they’re ugly on the . . . you get the picture. But it twists that cliché by pushing perfect so beyond reality that the imperfections become the only things left. And season three has delivered emotional pain in continuous waves: From the real-life mother-daughter action of Vanessa Redgrave and Joely Richardson as N/T’s mother-daughter combatants, who mellow out by pulling tubes, to Sean’s son Matt (John Hensley), in a harrowing sexual tailspin that can only come from a teenage boy finding out his first true lust is actually a postop transsexual who looks like Famke Janssen. Tell me what you don’t like about yourself. (BM)
2 Grey’s Anatomy (ABC)
Nothing new here. Crafty televisual types have been combining and recombining genre staples for a minute, for good and for ill. Grey’s Anatomy creator Shonda Rimes took the standard multicharacter hospital drama, threw in some wry comedy and a little CSI-style weekly freaky factor, and then soaped it up big time. (In what nonmelodramatic context would all the unprofessional bed-hopping and multidirectional pining among the interns and residents not lead to unbreachable enmity, malpractice lawsuits, and/or dismissals?) Grey’s Anatomy may be sorta unoriginal and sometimes eye-rollingly over-the-top, but it’s brisk, entertaining, and smarter than it looks. Anatomy not only hired top-drawer actors Isaiah Washington and Sandra Oh, it wrote them into a relationship with each other. That, friends, is good TV. (Lee Gardner)
3 Laguna Beach (MTV)
Though debate still rages, it’s pretty obvious that, yes, Laguna Beach actually is a reality show. No scriptwriter could pen a show this devoid of incident, character development, and conflict. Shot on film rather than video, unlike most reality shows, it has a glowing sheen that makes it feel inherently fake. And possessed of a pretty blankness that resists any empathy for its airheaded, airbrushed Real Teens, the show is a queasily compelling, shockingly static study in early-21st-century American narcissism. Their petty squabbles and boyfriend-swapping are eerily hypnotic, but not cumulative; forget release, there’s barely any tension. But the scariest part of all is that somewhere there are some real Real Teens who really identify with this kind of amazing, real fake-ass reality show. (Jess Harvell)
4 Lost (ABC)
The problem with making TV that rewards close attention is that viewers start paying close attention. And there are grumblings among the faithful hooked by the canny, twisty first season about the rewards (or relative lack thereof) of season No. 2: too much time spent doubling back on the narrative, too many red herrings, too many weeks off, too much Girlfight girl (scowl much?), too little Locke. And what about Lostzilla? On the other hand, we were getting a little sick of Jack and Kate and (especially) Charlie, and we can’t wait to see what Mr. Eko doesn’t say next. Despite the fact that it will likely never again surprise viewers the way it did the first time around, Lost remains one of the most ingenious, well-crafted, and tantalizingly unpredictable shows in television history. Fans have learned to have faith that, as the tag line says, Everything Happens for a Reason. That reason had just better not turn out to be stupid. (LG)
5 Epitafios (HBO Latin America)
Finally, somebody had the brilliant idea to combine telenovelas with Se7en. This 2004 Argentine miniseries, broadcast this fall on HBO Latin America (and currently on HBO Signature), raises the bar for the crime saga. You’ve seen everything here before—a too-smart serial killer exacting karmic revenge with a fondness for baroque murders, a psychologically scarred ex-cop who gets coerced into working the case, and the gorgeous psychiatrist he loves who has heartbreak written all over her—but rarely are these familiar devices delivered with such cold-blooded brio and grave panache. The body count leaps into the double digits in one episode. A medical examiner is punished by in vivo autopsy. And halfway through the series, fortysomething All About My Mother bombshell Cecilia Roth shows up as a no-B.S. über-detective in the Prime Suspect Jane Tennison mode, and the whole series becomes a streamlined nail-biter to its devastating conclusion. (BM)
6 Arrested Development (Fox)
Eat up, kids, there’s only five or so episodes of the dazzlingly dysfunctional Bluth family’s escapades left to go before Fox officially drops the guillotine on the funniest goddamn sitcom of the new century. Some of the third season’s hijinks: George Sr. avoids recapture by joining Blue Man Group? Tobias, dressed as a mole, destroys a model development before an audience of aghast Japanese investors? Charlize Theron as a surveillance-hat-wearing spy? Arrested Development was so dizzyingly absurd, jaundiced, silly, multilayered, and brilliant that it seemed less a sitcom and more the answer to a secret prayer for real entertainment we’d been unconsciously uttering for years. Guess now we’ll file it away in the same rarefied circle with Nirvana, Calvin and Hobbes, and Fruit Brute cereal—stuff we knew was good when it was around, but just how good only once it was gone. (Violet Glaze)
7 Family Guy (Fox)
The thing is, Family Guy misses as often as it hits. The relentless pop-culture dada yuks are wearying. Watch it often enough and you realize that’s the point. A single joke will be stretched out for over a minute—an eternity in sitcom time—to the point where the punch line is slapping you in the face. And then they stretch it out some more. There’s a deadpan contempt to the show that’s hysterical in both senses of the word. It’s far too joyless to love, lacking the human core that lets you love fucked-up cartoon families from the Bunkers to the Simpsons. But in 2005, the subliminal anger coursing through it feels dead on, for better or worse. Plus the alcoholic dog and the talking baby that looks like it swallowed a football can be really funny. Sue us. (JH)
8 Everybody Hates Chris (UPN)
Chris Rock and Ali LeRoi created this comically bittersweet look at growing up young, black, lower middle class, and nerdy in early-1980s Bedford-Stuyvesant, and in the process delivered the most revolutionary half-hour of television since Roseanne brought the daily lives of blue-collar Midwestern America into the living room. By turns absurd and poignant, Everybody Hates Chris is that rare sitcom that dares to confront the commonplace of being a city kid—a mordant awareness of racial tension even as a 12-year-old, being trenchantly class conscious because so little money is coming in, and finding ways to deal with the what life throws at you. “Bed-Stuy even had its own motto, ‘Bed-Stuy do or die,’” Rock says on voice-over as the camera catches a couple of young black teens. “Those are some of the guys that are gonna die.” ABC, NBC, and CBS, wise up: This sitcom game’s done changed. (BM)
9 The Daily Show With Jon Stewart (Comedy Central)
The recent debut of Stephen Colbert’s spin-off Colbert Report only underlines what makes the original so special: 1) Jon Stewart, and 2) sincerity. Colbert is funny, but the smarm that is the whole point of his show wears on you in a way that The Daily Show never has. Stewart brings the funny, but he also brings a genuine engagement with the stories he’s fake-anchoring; often his outrage isn’t a joke, even though he’s smiling. It’s no wonder TDSWJS has become as legitimate a source of information as CNN for a whole generation. And most nights it’s still spit-take hilarious. (LG)
10 30 Days (FX)
Morgan “Super Size Me” Spurlock turned reality television into sociological essay with his 30 Days, one of the few genuine surprises of the year. The premise of Super Size is simple: walking the proverbial 30 days in somebody else’s shoes. Over the course of the series’ debut season, Spurlock followed a Christian man living with a Michigan Muslim family, a mother binge drinking for a month like—and with—her college-aged daughter, and a rural Midwesterner, who believes homosexual is a sin, living with a gay San Francisco man. While the pairings are obviously skewed toward liberal hot-button topics, Spurlock stayed out of the way enough editorially to keep it compelling—even in the debut episode, where he and his girlfriend moved to Ohio to work minimum-wage jobs. At its close, they were tired and in debt, and Spurlock actually acknowledges the obvious in his out-loud voice: “We’re both college educated, we’re both articulate—we’re white—and we’re still just getting by.” (BM)
812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201