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Top Ten

The Year in Television

PROTECT AND SERVE: (from left) Idris Elba and Dominic West face off on opposite sides of the law in HBO's The Wire.

Top Ten 2004

The Year in News “There’s a myth that emanates around some floors in Annapolis,” Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley told... | By Van Smith

The Year in Quotes 1 “The First Amendment doesn’t say you have to be good.” — street-performance advocate Stephen Bair...

The Year in Sports Suffice it to say that 2004 will not go down as a banner year in the annals of Baltimore sports. ... | By Gabriel Wardell

The Year in Film Cheer up: 2004 was a good year—at least for film. While the past 12 months didn’t produce a film as ...

The Year in Television The “moral values” referendum surprised and rebuked lefties in Hollywood and elsewhere. The post-Nip...

The Year in Music Run down the list of recent heavyweights that released albums in 2004 which have moved units but los...

The Year in Local Music Only one local music story really percolated around Baltimore newsrooms this year: Paula Campbell. T... | By Bret McCabe

The Year in Art Sure, 2004 was the year of Baltimore’s very own public art controversy, in the guise of Jonathan Bor...

The Year in Books Yeah, publishers keep telling us that the book business these days really belongs to nonfiction, tha...

The Year on Stage The vamping post-op transsexual of our No. 1 selection notwithstanding, this year’s roster of Baltim...

Posted 12/15/2004

The “moral values” referendum surprised and rebuked lefties in Hollywood and elsewhere. The post-Nipplegate FCC crackdown shell-shocked ABC affiliates into not airing the high-moral-values-but-f-bomb-dropping Saving Private Ryan unedited, despite the fact that it had aired intact before. Two-thirds of a generation of broadcast news anchors retired, taking with them their barnacled gravitas and leaving us and their replacements at the mercy of the howling winds of the cable-news crossfires. Joan of Arcadia is still on the air. It’s enough to leave you thinking that television, ever the canary in our cultural coal mine, is looking a little peaked.

But just when the ratings grabs begin to seem too cravenly desperate (Nicolette Sheridan meets Terrell Owens on Monday Night Football), just when you think that you—much less anyone else—can’t possibly stomach another numbingly rote sitcom starring the otherwise lovable John Goodman (CBS’ Center of the Universe), just when you think reality TV has hit its nadir (hard to decide between Richard Branson’s Trump-biting, ego-pumping Fox series The Rebel Billionaire and NBC’s slyly cruel The Biggest Loser), along comes the smart cliff-hangers of Lost, yet another brilliant yet undersubscribed series starring Denis Leary, or another season of the indescribably compelling America’s Next Top Model. Even Desperate Housewives, desperate as it is, represents the kind of trashy lower-brain fun at which TV excels when it lets itself have, well, actual fun. And then there’s HBO, which not only continues to offer a smorgasbord of interesting programming—including The Wire, Deadwood, and Da Ali G Show, which made our critics’ Top Ten, and Entourage and Curb Your Enthusiasm, which didn’t—the network actually gets people to pay for it.

Maybe the country is entering some kind of new dark age, but it’s good to know that, despite appearances, at least there’ll be something good on at some point. (Lee Gardner)

1

The Wire (HBO)

Why is The Wire the best show on television? The wealth of great characters? The superb cast that embodies them? The stellar writing? The x-ray view of crime and punishment and money and power at work in an American city—one so specifically our own, but one that could be any of two dozen others? A third-season storyline that both returns to the first season’s Barksdale crew saga and expands the show’s purview via somewhat familiar-seeming white City Councilman/mayoral wannabe Thomas Carcetti (Aidan Gillen)? All of that, but most of all because it’s a story about surviving in a world that isn’t getting any cleaner or more fair or less complicated, whether you’re cop or crook or pol or the nice lady down the street. Who can’t relate to that? (LG)

2

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart (Comedy Central)

For those who feel that if they don’t laugh at the current state of the nation they won’t be able to stop crying, The Daily Show With Jon Stewart offers much-needed respite. Stewart and his gang of reporters and commentators (including Stephen Colbert, Lewis Black, Rob Corddry, Ed Helms, and Samantha Bee) skewer lying and corrupt (at worst) and hypocritical and inept (at best) politicians, as well as a media indifferent to—and sometimes complicit in—its own exploitation by propagandists. This self-described “fake news” program is often more realistic in its presentation of national and world events than the real thing, all the while managing to be laugh-out-loud funny. This is a show that knows a partisan hack when it sees one, and isn’t afraid to call a douchebag a douchebag. (Benn Ray)

3

Rescue Me (F/X)

Denis Leary’s drama about a post-Sept. 11 firehouse is a sinus-clearing punch to the face. His Irish Catholic Tommy Gavin is a pissed-off, hard-drinking, womanizing asshole. Separated from his wife and kids (who live across the street from him), he’s haunted by the lives he’s seen pass since that fall Tuesday morning. What really stings is that though Rescue Me is driven by familiarly real absurdity—Gavin’s firehouse starts a betting pool on his divorce, he fights with his priest brother at his mother’s wake, he rifles through a regular booty call’s mail because he can’t remember her name—through it all Gavin and his alpha-male fellow firefighters are often more vulnerable than newborns and just as ill-equipped to deal with life’s mundane mess. (Bret McCabe)

4

Lost (ABC)

Lost is one of those shows that sounds dreadful on paper. A scripted Survivor? A dramatic Gilligan’s Island? But Alias creator J.J. Abrams once again proves that he is a master of creating complicated, keep-you-guessing narrative labyrinths. The show’s outsized ensemble cast (including Party of Five’s Matthew Fox, once again mining the tortured good-guy role, ex-hobbit Dominic Monaghan, Emilie de Ravin, and Evangeline Lilly) means a lot of backstories to get through, which means Lost has a tendency toward the heavy-handed, but with so many secrets left to be revealed and Abrams’ tendency to end every episode with a cliffhanger that practically knocks us off our sofas, we’re willing to forgive a few minor sins. (Anna Ditkoff)

5

Deadwood (HBO)

It’s a long way from the clean laundry and family-hour yearnings of Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman to Deadwood’s down-and-dirty Black Hills gulch, awash in blood, spunk, and whiskey and echoing with “cocksucker”s. It’s not TV, of course, it’s HBO—but whodathunk that the small-screen Western had any life left in it all, much less the sort of grimy, rich, and unpredictable life creator David Milch and co. flesh out in this series? With so many characters evolving and so many story lines unfolding, Deadwood sometimes seemed as cluttered, haphazard, and soapy in its inaugural season as The Sopranos did in its fourth. But we’d tune in just to watch characters like Ian McShane’s anti-heroic saloon keeper/pimp/fixer/overlord Al Swearengen pick their teeth (and we pretty much did, at times), and the show’s portrait of a lawless frontier outpost grudgingly trying to come to terms with—and turn to its advantage—the approach of civilization provided a welcome vision of the values, good and bad, on which America was really built. (LG)

6

Da Ali G Show (HBO)

What kind of jackass thinks comedy-out-on-a-limb means nailing yourself in the nuts? We’d like to see anyone go cojones-to-cojones with comedy masochist and king of the poker face Sacha Baron Cohen, whose Da Ali G Show provokes more cries of “Oh my God, what is he saying?” than Meet the Press. In a series of unrehearsed interviews and encounters with unwitting public figures, Baron Cohen proves he possesses a wicked improvisational intelligence and/or a death wish. Whether it’s as cretinous “hip-hop journalist” Ali G (who asks a Catholic priest, “Does Jesus really exist or is it just your favva dressed up?”), Austrian gay fashionista Bruno, and clueless Khazak cornball Borat, no comedian has so vengefully sought out injury for our amusement since Buster Keaton. (Violet Carberry)

7

America’s Next Top Model (UPN)

From plucky Mercedes’ battle with lupus to Shandi’s post-cheating-on-her-boyfriend breakdown, Season 2 flat-out rocked, but we admit Season 3 has been a little disappointing so far. So what keeps us coming back to watch skinny girls who are too short and too old to become models face bizarre and sometimes illogical challenges to win a dubious title? Well, that pretty much says it all, doesn’t it? Seriously, what keeps us watching is the—perhaps unintentional—harsh light ANTM sheds on the glamour industry. We wince at the lack of respect shown to plus-sized Toccara; stare agape as a designer tells bulimic Cassie that her thighs are too fat; and watch through our fingers as the panel of judges destroy these young gamines week after week. It’s kind of like seeing the most popular girl in high school puke her guts out at a party, but it also serves as a welcome reminder that in the real world 5-foot-8 isn’t short and 120 pounds isn’t obese. (AD)

8

Kevin Hill (UPN)

Taye Diggs’ titular lead is a cocky New York lawyer with all the expected Maxim stuff: the slick apartment and wardrobe, the fat bankroll, the guy’s-guy best friend (Jon Seda), and a knack for leading Manhattan hotties to his bedroom. Then he’s named guardian of his 10-month-old niece when his cousin dies. Admittedly, it’s the fish-out-of-water cliché repackaged in the multicultural colors of Benetton, but for once the UPN treatment isn’t just an ethnic patina. Kevin Hill’s vibrant characters—a successful African-American professional as series lead, an African-American woman boss (Michael Michele) of the all-female firm Hill joins, and Hill’s immediate male circle—a gay man (Patrick Breen’s nanny George) and a Hispanic man (Seda)—aren’t one-dimensional cutouts. Diggs is what really makes this show work, though, as he charmingly allows moments of maturity to reshape Hill’s superficial vision of what it means to be a man with entertaining grace. (BM)

9

Adult Swim
(Cartoon Network)

Adult Swim offers a late-night block of daily programming for people old enough to miss Saturday morning cartoons. And while the production values of some of these cartoons are not dissimilar to those of Hanna- Barbera 20 or 30 years ago, that’s where the comparison ends. With a roster of more than 25 ’toons that range from syndicated has-beens (Futurama, Family Guy) and edited-for-TV manga (Cowboy Bebop, FLCL, Trigun) to failed cartoons by other networks (Baby Blues, The Oblongs, Mission Hill), Adult Swim has a lot of ammo in its clip. What makes this block of shows so powerful, however, are the Cartoon Network originals, especially ATHF (a group of teenage, crime-fighting fast-food items who spend more time in their neighbor Carl’s pool than actually fighting anyone). Edgy, sharp, and surreal humor in cartoon form for grownups. (BR)

10

Arrested Development (FOX)

While the central storyline involves prodigal son Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman) barely holding together a wealthy family of L.A. wingnuts after his father George’s (Jeffrey Tambor) financial malfeasance, the best way to appreciate Arrested Development fully is to realize that it’s Ron “Opie” Howard narrating a show that has made visual gags by implying that guys are flashing nutsack. Fox’s Arrested Development is basically nonstop non-sequitur jokes somehow forming a narrative, and how its gets away with its goofy, puerile thrills—high-schooler Maeby (Alia Shawkat) tells a delivery boy that her horny mother Lindsay (Portia de Rossi) is actually her transgendered father; family matriarch Lucille (Jessica Walter) unblinkingly announces Carl Weathers’ presence at the evening meal with “Guess who’s coming to dinner?”—on network TV is part of its pants-pissing rush. (BM)

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Top Ten archives

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The Year In Tracks (12/15/2009)
. . . just in the case the album really is dead.

The Year in News (12/9/2009)

The Year in Movies (12/9/2009)

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