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Top Ten

The Year in Television

Uli Loskot

Top Ten 2006

The Year in News Republican rule was supposed to be good for Maryland, tightening up the fiscal scene and challenging... | By Van Smith

The Year in Quotes 1 "We dress up funny, run around in the woods, and hit each other with sticks. There's something ...

The Year in Movies Must 2006 be the year of Borat? Not trying to take anything away from director Larry Charles and act...

The Year in Television Three-quarters of a century into its existence, television may finally be becoming our mirror. Yes, ...

The Year in Music A bad year for hip-hop? People kept saying that throughout the last 12 months, but you'd never know ...

The Year in Local Music This was hard. A shit-ton of Baltimore bands, singers, rappers, and bang-on-some-pots-and-pans'ers r...

The Year in Art The year's past first Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays have been ridiculously event-packed. How to ...

The Year in Stage There's no denying the pleasures of maximalist theater. A large-cast, elaborate-set production such ...

The Year in Books David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest first appeared 10 years ago. And, apparently, the 10th annivers...

Posted 12/13/2006

Three-quarters of a century into its existence, television may finally be becoming our mirror. Yes, it's forever been championed as the medium that reflects who we are, but like way too much of our great nation's entertainment, that image was advertiser mediated and market-research pruned into some make-believe fantasyland. Of course, having a kajillion channels means not everybody is going to look at and like the 7th Heaven's Camdens, the nth iteration of the Cleavers or Andersons. As a result, TV is beginning to look like us.

Which is not to say that it's not still run willy-nilly by committee, too eager to glom onto whatever it superficially believes is working. Network-wide TV jumped onto serialism's season-long story line this fall, but there's really only so many plot- and character-thick, drawn-out narratives we're willing to take (sorry, Heist--do know that at least one person watched and enjoyed your brief run). Some formulas work better in one format than another: It's much easier to suspend disbelief about Aaron Sorkin's liberally educated white people with their snappy dialogue just trying to make the world a better place when they're running the White House than when they're Hollywood types just trying to be funny while railing against the Network Man. Prison Break lost some momentum after its convicts escaped, becoming less Escape From Alcatraz and a little too The Fugitive. Shark sadly neutered James Woods a couple of episodes into the series: his gaping-asshole über-attorney was a welcome respite from the norm. And can anybody say what Six Degrees was actually about?

When TV does work, though, it's actually crafting some remarkably entertaining and smart programming--and not just for their surface charms. Spike TV's Blade: The Series took the comic-book movie series and turned it into a rather dark and paranoid allegory about blood relations. Kiefer Sutherland's Jack Bauer continues to lead a life of absurdly ludicrous bad days, but 24 also wondered aloud if our country's biggest threats might be coming from inside the very government that runs it. Julia Louis-Dreyfus' The New Adventures of Old Christine is just another sitcom from a Seinfeld alumni, but it's also a surprisingly candid look at a divorced fortysomething mother's mundane life, with its incipient money problems, body-image concerns, and sleeping with the wrong men. Cop psychic drama Medium offers one of the few TV sketches of a totally functional husband and wife and their three daughters. Friday Nights Lights has commendably never wavered from trying to capture the day-to-day reality of a very small Texas town. And The Closer refreshingly looks at the man's man world of the Los Angeles Police Department through the eyes of one resilient woman who has a love/hate relationship with sweets. Although both meandered a bit, FX's Andre Braugher-powered Thief and the unrelenting The Shield dramatized complicated portraits of conflicted bad men trying, by hook and crook, to be good men internally praying that the questionable means justify the hoped-for ends. And, in one instance, we're still trying to process what we saw on the small screen--for When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, all we can say right now to Mr. Spike Lee is: "Damn."

Naturally, TV is still Pez-dispensed to us in little half-hour or hourlong nuggets, so it's not like we don't watch some mindless entertainment. So thank you, Ugly Betty, for the pure glee that is America Ferrera and the less pure appreciation that is guest appearances by series producer Salma Hayek. Thank you, 30 Rock, for weekly doses of Tina Fey's deadpan wit and Alec Baldwin's midlife comic genius. Thank you for the consistent belly laughs, Everybody Hates Chris and Boston Legal. Thank you, Showtime, for Sleeper Cell, Dexter, and, especially, Weeds and Elizabeth Perkins' totally cynical suburban soccer mom. Thank you, USA, for the sidesplitting lip-sync codas to Psych. And thank you, MTV, for the ongoing glee that is Xzibit hosting Pimp My Ride.

While there's still that shit we watch despite ourselves--hello, Grey's Anatomy, Brothers and Sisters, ER--for our voting critics this year, though, there was The Wire, and then there was everything else. This list was determined by weighted ballots submitted by CP couch potatoes Anna Ditkoff, Ian Grey, Joe MacLeod, Bret McCabe, and Jason Torres, with ties broken with extreme bias by me. (Bret McCabe)

The Wire (HBO) Sure, some of the thrill of this show--the best effing thing on TV, the program we actually have to pay attention to and use our brains to keep up on, the show everybody in Baltimore should get a tax credit for watching--now in its fourth and finest season, is observing the crime-tastic machinations of some truly Bad Motherfuckers occurring safely inside our TV screen, and trying to figure out just how much of any one real-deal Baltimore person is in any particular "composite" character. But we also see the heartbreaking, all-too-common come-up of soldiers in the street-drug industry in a way that makes us realize it doesn't have to be this way. Yeah, a tremendous wealth of brainpower and energy is wasted on our streets, and not just in Baltimore. The Wire is a lesson plan not only on how shitty most TV is and how good it can be if it's thoughtfully written, but it's also a primer on what's wrong with Your Blighted City, U.S.A., and not just because people are doing crimes on this show. They do right, too, and that's what we can see on The Wire: not just the problem, but a way to the solution. (Joe Macleod)

Battlestar Galactica (Sci Fi) One of the darkest, most politically convoluted, and straight-up sober sci-fi series the small screen has ever seen, Battlestar Galactica ventures into its imaginary places as if being led to the gallows. Aside from tackling occupied forces, psychological and physical interrogation, secret executions, flat-out torture, and the moral calculus of suicide bombings (and deciding such missions were worth it) with its third season, the show is, at its core, about what it is to be human--and what, if anything, makes humans worth fighting for and saving. That it may never come up with a satisfactory answer but never stops looking for one makes it such a gripping drama. (BM)

Heroes (NBC) Heroes is one of those shows that sounds just awful when you try to describe it to people. There are these people and somehow they've jumped a rung in the evolutionary ladder so that they have these special powers. There's this Asian guy who can time travel and a flying politician and an unbreakable cheerleader, and Rory's ex-boyfriend can totally take on other people's superpowers when he gets close to them. Not that they're superheroes--no capes or tights we swear. And there's this guy with horn-rimmed glasses who might be evil or good or evil with good intentions. It all sounds like a crap-ass cast-of-nobodies X-Men ripoff, but the thing is, Heroes is awesome. It just is. It's funny and clever and suspenseful. The multiracial cast--this is one of our favorite new TV trends, keep it up--grounds the show, giving the characters emotions so real and recognizable that you rarely, if ever, question the outlandishness of the show's setup. Save the cheerleader, save the world? If Peter Petrelli and Hiro Nakamura are doing the saving, then we're more than willing to go along for the ride. (Anna Ditkoff)

Rescue Me (FX) Yes, the tidal wave of harshness that has swept through firefighter Tommy Gavin's (Denis Leary) life over but three seasons in this riotously funny FX drama passed ludicrous long ago, but anything willing to confess that people confront debilitating family strife with misplaced blind rage, flagrant self destruction, and feral sarcasm has us at hello. The writing remains consistently acid-tongued, the humor the most profane you'll find on a non-premium cable channel, and with Tommy's sister (played with fangs-out brilliance by Tatum O'Neal) impulsively staging an absolutely inappropriate wedding at a cemetery, Rescue Me hit an absurd illustration of dysfunctional family selfishness that nothing else touches. (BM)

Nip/Tuck (FX) In the Great Lesson of Existentialism that is the major motion picture Malice, Alec Baldwin's "Dr. Jed Hill" character teaches us that when one goes under the knife, the person working the scalpel in your particular operating room on that day is God. For us, the guy who holds the sharpest blade on the shiny unhappy plastic-surgery sex soap Nip/Tuck is the a/moral Dr. Christian Troy (Julian McMahon), and as he judges and tweaks various faces and bods, he tracks with that God-idea, even if he also proclaims we're irrevocably doomed to dust. He's got a partner--the square, albeit, shall we say, increasingly complicated, Dr. Sean McNamara (Dylan Walsh)--dealing with the stresses of operating on his own child, but as far as we're concerned, while he's not (nonsurgically) entering as many of his--yes, flawed, you get it--clients as possible, Dr. Troy's the head surgeon, helping fix up all that skin-deep beauty and making people happy while their insides rot. What's not to like about that? (JM)

Veronica Mars (CW) With ratings moribund, creator Rob Thomas promised three less-attention-taxing mysteries for the third season of his terrific teen noir novel-in-progress, Veronica Mars. The first has centered on a near epidemic of rape infecting tony Hearst University, where Veronica is now studying criminology. (Typical Mars teen gallows humor: some topless college girls hoist a banner that reads, "We go to Hearst: Rape Us.") But Mars being Mars, the smaller mysteries only return in true noir fashion to older crimes and new complications, all of which echo Lou Reed's observation that "You can depend on the worst always happening." As essentially grim as Battlestar Galactica, but, um, funnier. (Ian Grey)

Surgery Saved My Life (Discovery) We want to live to watch TV for hundreds of years, so we stay abreast of the latest developments in medical science--on TV. The Discovery Channel's warning: not-for-everyone Surgery Saved My Life provides deep while not overwrought background on the doctor and patient while training the operating-room camera lens danger-close on increasingly mind-boggling procedures, the latest being a six-organ transplant for a poor woman who had not eaten a bite of solid food for 14 years and looked like grim death. We had to keep reminding ourselves that the title was Surgery Saved My Life as we watched this Miracle of Modern Medicine: liver, large and small intestines, stomach, and spleen removed--body cavity for the digestive system completely emptied while keeping a human being alive--and replaced with donor organs in one marathon session. Amazing. Next episode on our schedule: "Extreme Spine Surgery." (JM)

It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia (FX) Gambling on underground street fighting, pretending to be disabled to score tail, committing arson, joining Alcoholics Anonymous, impersonating al-Qaida members to scare people off their property, and exploiting a stain that kinda-sorta looks like the Virgin Mary for a quick buck--all is basically an average afternoon for the maladjusted young bar owners on It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Charlie, Dennis, Dee, Mac, and Frank--the funniest thing Danny DeVito has ever done--are all so equally despicable, hapless, sketchy, and oblivious to their own lack of scruples that they're charming. Not really charming, but certainly funnier than if you and your degenerate friends tried to pull off half the crap this gang does. (Jason Torres)

America's Next Top Model (CW) Tyra Banks has lost it. Whatever hold on reality the model-turned-TV personality had is long gone--and we haven't even seen what kind of batshit shenanigans she's pulling on her talk show. Banks has become a parody of herself. With her red bouffant hairstyles and horribly unflattering '60s-style dresses, she looks like a drag queen decked out as a Sophia Loren Barbie doll. She surrounds herself with sycophants (hey there, Mr. and Miss Jay), puts on weird little skits (this season's more-scary-than-funny pretend diva blow-up comes to mind), and makes totally nonsensical proclamations, like her insistence that it is more important in modeling to really, really want it than to, you know, take good pictures. But watching Banks cruelly and capriciously torture beautiful young girls is what makes ANTM so entertaining cycle after cycle after cycle. Sure, we have a few qualms: the girls should be younger and taller--this is the modeling industry after all--and they should cut Twiggy loose and bring back the only person who can outcrazy Tyra, Janice Dickinson. But as long as Banks keeps the catfights, challenges, and meltdowns--both hers and the contestants'--coming, we'll keep tuning in. (AD)

Prime Suspect 7: The Final Act (PBS/BBC) Rare is the program willing to focus its gaze on a professional if imperfect middle-aged woman. Rarer is for that role to be given to an actual middle-aged actress. Rarer still is for that actress to be as stupidly gifted as Helen Mirren. And rarest of all is giving Mirren the chance to realize this character over the course of 15 years and some 10 hours of television. Prime Suspect 7 finds the incomparable Jane Tennison investigating a missing girl's murder while still drinking a little too much, pretending to cope with aging, and coldly staring her career's end in the face. Flawless as ever. (BM)

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The Year In Tracks (12/15/2009)
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The Year in News (12/9/2009)

The Year in Movies (12/9/2009)

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