Thursday, January 1, 2009

TNRLM's Best of Television 2008

In many ways, 2008 was a down year for television, with the strike disrupting or derailing the continuity of the programming schedule, and "reality" TV continuing its plague-like spread across the airwaves. Yet amidst the chaos, several shows stood out above the rest, and here is the TNRLM Top 10:

(Quick note: two shows that appear on virtually every Top 10 list this year are The Shield and The Wire. For whatever reasons, I never got into either of them, and can't accurately assess their quality. Perhaps that will be a summer DVD Project).

  1. Lost. Now that Team Darlton have a confirmed end in site, the show ratcheted up the pace and responded with a stellar season light on the filler and heavy on the drama. The "flash forwards" added a thought-provoking new dimension to the narrative, and the new characters (Faraday, Charlotte, Miles, Lapidus) were all fascinating, well acted and spot on. Plus, Lost gave us the single best hour of television this year with "The Constant."
  2. Battlestar Galactica. The sci-fi show for people who don't like sci-fi shows. This gritty, mesmerizing drama features the finest ensemble cast on the tube, and despite being set in a world with robots, spaceships and prophecies, always retains its focus on what matters: the characters.
  3. Mad Men. Season 2 refused to push the "action" forward at a breakneck pace, instead languorously taking us through the existential crisis of adman Don Draper, and we were all the better for it. Like Lost and BSG, Mad Men offers a cast with depth and talent to burn, and the stories that didn't focus on Don (Peggy's growth, Pete's realizations, Duck's machinations, Roger's divorce) were just as fascinating.
  4. The Middleman. This (sadly) little watched gem on ABC Family pulled off the most difficult high-wire act of the year, straddling the line between cult and camp with a verve, wit and energy I can't recall seeing before. The laugh out loud scripts and wordplay were matched only by the precisely calibrated and endearing performances. "Mutual of Omaha!" "I’m as serious as a hefty bag full of rottweilers " when I say I will buy this baby on DVD the second it comes out.
  5. Pushing Daisies. Thanks to my relocation, I missed the boat on this one when it first started, but I quickly caught up and found this quirk-filled beauty a total delight. I was also in love with Bryan Fuller's other fantastical show, Wonderfalls, and Pushing Daisies upped the ante on that show in every conceivable way. The central premise is intriguing enough (a piemaker who can raise the dead, and solves crimes with his just resurrected longtime love and a caustically sarcastic PI), but you compound that with candy-acid set design and cinematography, Emmy-worthy performances, musical interludes and a rich mythos, and you have something truly unique. Despite their radically different settings and concepts, one thing the top 5 shows here all have in common is their uncompromising and brilliant scripting.
  6. Chuck. Once you get past the fact that everyone seems to be connected to some espionage organization, you can just sit back and enjoy the easy charms of this action-spy-comedy. The antics at the Buy More are just as entertaining as the main plots that drive the action, and the Chuck / Sara romance takes what could be a cliche and finds equal parts humor and pathos. Plus, any show that saves the world by getting high score on a Missile Command arcade machine is okay in my book.
  7. In Treatment. HBO's novel experiment - a five night a week, 30 minute drama, with each episode being one session between a shrink and one of his patients -- delivered the goods with claustrophobic and searing performances. All of the sessions were involving and dramatic, but the ones with damaged gymnast Mia Wasikowska were riveting.
  8. CBS Monday Comedy. Okay, I'm cheating here (and on the next one) by combining two shows into one entry. But the one-two punch of How I Met Your Mother and The Big Bang Theory is a treat on a night crammed with eminently watchable TV. HIMYM continued being one of the best under the radar classic sitcoms ever, and the fractured narratives and pop culture concepts (like "the naked man") never fail to amuse. Season 2 of Big Bang sanded off some of the rough edges, and made all the characters engaging and involved. Now we can laugh with them, instead of at them.
  9. NBC Thursday Comedy. Despite an overreliance on guest stars, 30 Rock easily produces the highest laugh / minute ratio of any show on TV. Liz Lemon is a dysfunctional Mary Richards for the modern era, and Alec Baldwin's Jack Donaghy is an inspired comic creation. The Office ventured away from some of the unbelievably stupid (like following a GPS into a lake) antics and found its groove again with Micheal's relationship with the dorktastic Holly.
  10. Burn Notice. This burned spy caper show is an easygoing marvel of efficiency. The plots hum along, giving viewers lots of little "how to" insights into the world of spycraft, all while providing a healthy dose of sex appeal, action beats, humor, yogurt and geek deity Bruce Campbell.

Honorable Mention (in no particular order):
  • Supernatural. I'm not sure why I didn't latch on to this show when it started, but I just spent the xmas break devouring the first 3 season on DVD, and catching up on TiVo'd season 4. A worthy successor to the Buffy/Angel/X-Files tradition of character-based drama, scares and laughs.
  • Law & Order (original recipe). The new cast is the best since the glory years.
  • House. House and Wilson are as great as ever, but I don't care about Cuddy's baby (showrunners: please stop adding kids to shows. I tune out. Thanks. TNRLM). And as hot as Olivia Wilde is, I don't care that much about Thirteen. Or Foreman.
  • Life on Mars. Intriguing and entertaining. Worth watching for Michael Imperioli's mustache.
  • Dexter. Micheal C. Hall is certainly Emmy-worthy (as always), Jimmy Smits was a live-wire foil for the year and Deb is still delightfully profane. But see House above: please stop adding babies.
  • The Closer. A by the numbers procedural, anchored by an electric central performance and a talented supporting cast.
  • Fringe. Could have easily made it into the Top 10 with a greater sample. Many don't like Anna Torv's Olivia, but I think her stoic performance is right in line with the character (plus, we got to see her lighter side late in the season when she was doing shots). Walter Bishop is the best new character on TV, and his son Peter is delightful snarky.
  • Eli Stone. I want to dislike this because of the religiosity and consistently preachy lefty politics, but I can't. It's too well crafted.
  • True Blood. It took a while to find its footing, but this deep south vampire show showed considerable promise.
  • The Mentalist. TV's highest rated new drama was yet another procedural, but one with a charming and star-making performance from lead Simon Baker.
  • Torchwood. Upped the body count this year, and just as kooky, sexy and entertaining as year one.
  • Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. I'm getting a little tired of the terminator of the week being sent back in time, but the central mysteries, dramatic performances and character conflicts keep me coming back eagerly.
  • Bones. A modern Moonlighting for the cadaver set, without the lead actor antipathy. Charisma to burn, and the addition of Sweets was a smart move (and goes a long way to make up for the Zack debacle).

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