The Year in Television
The year began in a writer's strike that threatened to sentence viewers to a spring season of nothing but reality piffle and endless syndication cycles of the Law and Order franchise, but 2008 soon turned out to be yet another banner year for television. We missed some longtime favorites--hurry up, 2009, and bring us our Nip/Tuck, 24, and, hopefully, full episodes of Rescue Me--and, with the series conclusions of The Wire and The Shield, the bar has been seriously raised for whatever crime dramas try to follow. But the old brain-rotting device still had a few gems in its endless channels. The following list was determined from weighted top 10 lists submitted by CP couch potatoes Anna Ditkoff, Lee Gardner, Jess Harvell, Joe MacLeod, Bret McCabe, and Wendy Ward. See citypaper.com for individual lists.
Men controlled Madison Avenue's advertising business in the '50s and '60s, but behind every misogynist, lunatic, homosexual, liberal jazz cat, suppressed elitist daddy's boy, alcoholic, and man with a mysterious past stands a woman in stiletto heels smoking and drinking a gin gimlet, carrying a smart handbag, and questioning her existence while fixing a casserole or Popsicle campaign. Joan's (Christina Hendricks) full figure wrapped in jewel-toned wool hides her sure empathy beneath her sexuality. Peggy's (Elisabeth Moss) girlish pin curls disguise her ambition. Betty (January Jones)--oh, Bets--learns that the Ladies Home Journalesque lifestyle guarantees little more than décor and cocktails. Mad's men are trying, meanwhile, to navigate a world that is operating differently from one year to the next--creator Matthew Weiner says he plans to advance the show five years between seasons--but it's the women that keep it on its axis. (Wendy Ward)
OK, so the pacing felt rushed and the pro-journalist polemic, however well-intentioned, often felt like a needless distraction from the Barksdale/Stansfield goodness. Television's all-time-greatest hour-long drama nonetheless kept the melodramatic heat cranked for its fifth and final season, ratcheting up the ice cold, grisly twists until you were clawing your couch cushions, nerves buzzing as one beloved character after another caught that fated bullet. God, we're gonna miss The Wire. Will we ever again find a show that humanizes pulpy cops-and-robbers contrivances like alcoholic philanderers, homicidal sociopaths, and corrupt politicians with such heart-rending depth? (Jess Harvell)
OK, so, yes, the current parade of ratings-baiting guest megastars is a little distracting/annoying. As naked attempts to get people to watch a television show go, it's not so bad (Steve Martin = funny), but as anyone who's been watching all along can tell you, 30 Rock doesn't need it. Tina Fey and her writers consistently deliver the most relentless belt-fed-funny TV comedy scripts since maybe ever, and then Fey, Alec Baldwin, Tracy Morgan, Jane Krakowski, and the priceless Jack McBrayer make them zing. And it's not just a quip cavalcade. When Morgan's batshit comedian Tracy Jordan can tell McBrayer's teary Kenneth the page is upset because he has "wife eyes," it's perfectly funny because it's perfectly him. (Lee Gardner)
The taint of those awful syndicated space operas starring ex-wrestlers and soap stars has made it hard for fans to take science-fiction TV serials very seriously. And yet the sci-fi bloggerati has no shame shouting the praises of Battlestar Galactica. For four seasons--or technically 3.5 seasons--BG has combined a bleak-unto-depressive worldview, political/theological intrigue much-ballyhooed by mainstream critics, and pseudoscientific military action into the kind of metaphor-drenched entertainment that still rings our geek-cherries in the world of literary sci-fi. When it comes to non-insulting, non-animated televised fantasy, BG slays all comers. Especially when the competition is over-hyped, nerd-bait hackery like Heroes. (JH)
We wondered how many episodes this show could keep up the comedy (but also heavy) gimmick of Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker), a struggling suburban hot-as-hell widow mom handling dealer weight Mary Jane to keep up on the house payments and lawn care--check that--but after four seasons we're still tuning in, and not just for the abundance, duration, and quality of Parker's gratuitous (but really important) nude scenes, no, because like a potent mutant strain of the finest kind, when it's not revealing the U.S./Mexico machinations of the narcotrafficante corridor, Weeds has flowered into a compelling examination of Motherhood and Ethics, not only because of drug-dealing bad example mom Nancy and her libidinous brother-in-law Andy (Justin Kirk), but also Elizabeth Perkins' Celia Hodes dealing with cancer, alienating her entire family, and--only after that--bottoming out as an addict, and paying the price by having her family come back to run her life. And we don't know if we have a contact high or what, but annoying tool-bag Kevin Nealon as renegade pothead accountant Doug Wilson makes us laugh. (Joe MacLeod)
Political/organized crime drama Brotherhood's main character, Del. Tommy Caffee (Jason Clarke), looks like and is just as opportunistic as a Martin O'Malley or a Tommy Carcetti, his brother Michael (Jason Isaacs) is a prince of the underworld, rogue cousin Colin (Brian O'Byrne) is a sucker for love, and life-long friend and detective Declan Giggs' (Ethan Embry) emotions get in the way of every job he takes. The Caffee family is Irish and run by a matriarch whose racism and snide remarks hide the deeper states of her depression. Tommy's wife Eileen (Annabeth Gish) is so bored that she's working in public health and having another baby. And Michael's worn girlfriend Kath (Tina Benko) and Giggs' wife Cassie (Georgia Lyman) only ask questions when they want a fight. Yet all of these women are just as--if not more--complicated and willful as their men. Like Carmela Soprano, you may not have to testify, but that doesn't mean you weren't complicit in the crime. (WW)
Here's the proof that The Office is one of the best shows on television: Last season it got its will-they-or-won't-they couple together and the show is still funny. Seriously, how many other shows have accomplished that? It has also created a compelling love triangle using the three least likable characters on the show. And while the humor is often cringe-inducing as you watch people put their feet so firmly in their mouths they're liable to knee themselves in the face, it's somehow devoid of mean-spiritedness. (Anna Ditkoff)
So You Think You Can Dance blows just about every other reality show out of the water. Not only is it one of the few shows that actually measures talent, but it features real artistry with some of the best choreographers in the country creating original pieces for a transcendent group of young dancers. With season four, the show hit a whole new level with its strongest group of dancers yet and routines that tackled more styles than ever before, including Indian and Russian dance. But the thing that really made this season stand out was the ascendancy of street dancers with little formal training. Both winner Joshua and runner-up Twitch proved that street dancers can ballroom, Broadway, jazz, and contemporary with the best of them. (AD)
The Today show has been live on TV for almost as long as there has been television, and with the exception of now broadcasting in color and losing the show mascot monkey J. Fred Muggs (a real-live chimp), it's changed very little and--we almost never actually just sit there and look at it--continues to provide the soundtrack to our bleary-eyed mornings; a couple-few minutes of news at the top of the hour, followed by a series of thinly disguised directives for all the modern conveniences and techniques a crypto-mechanical servant could swallow, interspersed with entertainment trifles, interviews with notable persons from the real and entertainment worlds, a smattering of sports, and your local weather. The 21st century sees the Today umbrella opening over four hours of programming that devolves from two hours of the standard show--our fave, currently featuring hosts Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira, weatherguy/class clown Al Roker, newspuppet Anne Curry, and the progressive dementia of older-than-television-itself Willard Scott as he accompanies photographs of centegenarians with details of their lives, but, like us, they're all in on the joke--into an extended cooking-segments hour with a decidedly relaxed and talking all over each other cast that comes off sounding like school recess, followed by an hour notable for the presence of Kathie Lee Gifford, but that hour's not carried on in our market, otherwise we'd make a remark about how maybe they brought the monkey back. (JM)
Everybody who didn't tune into this FX original series because its teasers made it look like crass motorcycle-gang crime drama missed the year's most original new show. Series brainchild Kurt Sutter, a The Shield alum, created an entire universe in Sons' Charming, a Northern California hamlet where the titular motorcycle club, a vestige of the 1960s idealistic outsiders turned to organized crime, practically runs the town with its own version of red, white, and blue American family values. These times they are a changing, though, as youngster Jax (Charlie Hunnam) begins to wonder if the club lost its way over the years. Katey Sagal's middle-aged wife to club leader Ron Perlman, though, provides the show's true moral center. The menfolk deal with rival gangs and gun running and rogue federal agents, but she's the menopausal matron who'll skateboard bitch-slap a piece of young Nevada sweet butt making eyes at her husband. (Bret McCabe)
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