Friday, January 16, 2009

"Court? At Night? I'm Laughing Already!"

Best of Television: 2008 Edition

Back in July, when reviewing the best of '07, I wrote:
Having just completed S1 of both Mad Men and Breaking Bad (note: actually a 2008 show. Rats.), I think it's time to quickly (and retroactively) rank my Top 16 Shows of 2007 (that is to say: the 2007 season--which may, confusingly, have begun in September 2006--for shows. In other words, S1 30 Rock is eligible, early S2 eps that aired late in the year are not. So, unless my math is off, things like S5 of The Wire, S1 of Chuck, and S1 of Life won't be eligible until my Best of '08 List...hopefully appearing in December. You know what? Now I'm confused. Stupid strike....
I'll be honest, I don't even know what that means now (did I have a minor stroke partway through writing that sentence?). So, screw it. Instead...if it aired in '08, it's eligible. In some cases, I'm looking at two different seasons for some of these shows (season ending in May, starting up again in September).

Standard disclaimer: I don't count shows that air daily, otherwise my top four would look a lot like this: PTI, Jeopardy!, The Daily Show, and The Colbert Report. Note that all of my comments are limited to programs I actually watch (i.e. no Grey's Anatomy talk here--not even to say how fucking awful it is. Also: no FNL talk, which I really should be watching).

Some Opening Remarks

Try Harder: Scrubs (which, in fairness, it seems to be in '09) and Damages (note: it didn't technically air in '08. Still...try harder).

Just Fucking Give Up Already, OK?: Heroes, Entourage, and
The Hills

Worth mentioning: The Celebrity Apprentice (meh...whatever, I still watch it); Reaper (I got a little tired of the formula, and consequently stopped watching after the first eleven eps, but I'm now told that it got really good after that, so I'll have to check it out again); Battlestar Galactica (I'll come back to it eventually--I swear.)

The Top 30

30. ER: the grand old dame, still getting it done...sort of. Looking forward to Carter's return.

29. The Bachelor/Bachelorette: god help me. I've cut myself loose from the shackles of The Hills, but I can't shake this show. The Bachelorette was delightful this year (due in no small part to Jasob being so obviously suited for DeAnna, yet DeAnna ended up going for the other guy for the sole reason that Jason had a kid...yet she could never say that--since it would make her look awful--so she came up with a series of convoluted reasons for it not being right. Shocker of shockers, she's no longer with the other guy, and is now openly pining for Jason) and The Bachelor (through two eps in 2009) has been compelling thus far (helped by this tidbit: DeAnna is coming back to the house to try to win Jason back--though you can never trust ABC promo monkeys, so who knows...). Sorry, that was a very questionable paragraph on my part. So...football is awesome, eh?

28. Corner Gas: I was late coming to this show...and I regret that, because it's legimately funny (and I don't mean it's passable but gets bumped up because it's Canadian; I mean it's actually amusing). Too bad this is the final year.

27. Dragon's Den:
that's right, two Canadian shows...and back to back no less! I really this one...despite liking only one of the five Dragons (the new guy). Part human interest story, part math problem, part Apprentice (minus all the awful stuff, which nowadays is pretty much everything that doesn't directly involve Invanka Trump being awesome), and part "smack yourself on your head because you can't believe you didn't think of that super-obvious invention." It's as close as you're going to get to interactive TV (and, yeah, I'm excluding the scratch and sniff ep of My Name is Earl).

26.
Kitchen Nightmares: The transition from "Gordon bitches out restaurant owners, reveals to them to their obvious weaknesses, and then completely re-designs their menu to much critical fanfare" to "Gordon bitches out restaurant owners, reveals weaknesses, then takes them out for some sort ridiculous character-building exercise--boxing classes to promote assertiveness, screaming into the canyons to let out pent-up rage--then re-designs their menus" has not, I'll admit, been all that welcome, but there are far worse ways to spend an hour.

25. Worst Week: ...though I have a sneaking suspicion that this show is O-V-U-H, as the first post-wedding episode was perfectly awful. Mind you, prior to that: funny.

24. American Dad: It may not be running on fumes (like the Simpsons) or be totally out of gas (Family Guy), but this current season suggests that the writers no longer have their fastball, including something that I'd previously thought impossible: an episode centering entirely on Roger (the show's best character) being completely and painfully unfunny (the one where his personality split in two). Still, it's good for two or three big laughs an episode (with the added bonus that it could come from any of the following: Stan, Francine, Roger, Klaus, Bullock, or Steve...sorry Hayley, you're just not that funny). And it probably deserves a spot for "Tearjerker" (the Bond spoof episode) alone.

23. Hard Knocks: Great show...I'm stunned/embarrassed how long it took me to start watching it. One unfortunate by-product, however, was me wildly overvaluing all Dallas Cowboys in my fantasy leagues. Case in point: in the Osgoode league, I picked the following guys--Jason Witten, Marion Barber, Felix Jones, and Patrick Crayton--in the first ten rounds, prompting some to ask me "what do you plan on doing when the Cowboys have a bye?" Shut up--that's what. Also, this series led me to believe that the Cowboys were going to win the Super Bowl. If that's not a tribute to the filmmaking, I'm not sure what is...

22. Pushing Daisies: Even if I wasn't always in the mood to watch the show (its tweeness could be exhausting at times), I was always satisfied when I did tune in. I'll be honest, I don't really miss it at the moment (too much new stuff coming back--a re-invigorated Scrubs and 24), but, come September, I'm sure I will. Allow me to be the 4,000th fan to say: movie?

21. House: not sure if I can say the same thing about House, which is becoming less appealing on a weekly basis. Hugh Laurie, Sean Leonard, and (to a slightly lesser extent) Lisa Edelsteing are all amazing in their roles, so I can't criticize them, but everything else? Oh, my, yes! My biggest pet peeve--well documented by
Alan Sepinwall and, presumably, others--is that, without fail, the patients of the week now--miraculously--mirror (either vaguely or exactly) the personal issues of the doctors treating them. Examples: pregnant patient (Cuddy), patient dying young as a result of a rare illness (Thirteen), bisexual patient (Thirteen), philandering patient (Taub), patient who is agoraphobic and reminds Cameron of her husband who died (Cameron), patient who is a bully or something (Kutner), excruciatingly boring patient (Thirteen). Whoops, that last one is made up. And I've just discovered that the episode that's going to air on Monday features a patient whose symptoms--wait for it!--mirror House's exactly. Oh, good! Yes, it's still good on occasion ("House's Head" and the one where House and Wilson go to House's dad's funeral), but, 97 episodes in, the show is staggering towards syndication.

20. American Idol: hiss away (I assume you're all Harvard law students), but this show? Is still getting it done.
Season seven--admittedly, only the second I've watched from start to finish (I used to bail after the audition eps)--was the strongest one I've seen (even though everyone watching it/running it were so certain the sky was falling that they decided to do a major revamp) and produced the first winner (David Cook) that could legitimately be huge. Yeah, Simon aside, the judging is horrendous, but isn't that part of the fun? Of course it is. Also, four words: American. Idol. Drinking. Game.

19. Fringe: what could easily have been a totally forgettable X-Files clone has developed into something much more impressive. I'm still not sold on Anna Torv in the lead role (I mean: she's ok, but she's certainly not capable of carrying the show all on her own, something the producers seem to be recognizing), but the supporting cast is excellent. Joshua Jackson--yes, Pacey--is great, and his father on the show (John Noble, who you'll probably remember as Denethor, aka "the King who went crazy in Return of the King") is amazing as a mad(dish) scientist, who, having regained his sanity (sort of), is starting to come to grips with his past misdeeds. Seriously, he's terrific.

18. Generation Kill:
Possibly a bit of a cheat, since this was a one-off seven episode mini-series, but it deserves to be recognized (hmm...given my readership, "recognized" is perhaps a tad too strong--"mentioned," perhaps?). I was slow to warm up to this one (notably: I fell asleep for parts of each of the first four episodes--though one of those times I was on an airplane, so that may not count), but it built up to something very powerful. In particular, the montage that closes the series out (to the tune of Johnny Cash's "When the Man Comes Around") is a doozy. Check it out.

17. How I Met Your Mother: This show... boy, I dunno. I'm pretty torn here, since ever since I discovered this show in season two (as in: I personally discovered it, not: I unearthed it for all the world) it's been in a serious slide, yet several of the people I tirelessly sung its praises to (Shuk, my brother), who only began to tune in in season three, love it. In addition, the commenters on Sepinwall's site are so in the tank for the fourth season, I've started to wonder if I'm actually watching a completely different program than the one they are. Needless to say, I no longer comment on the eps.

My beef? I just don't think it's that funny anymore (often I don't think it's funny at all.) I don't like Robyn and Barney together. I didn't like Stella. I don't like how Lily is given nothing to do (except riff on the B-plots of other characters). I don't like that they've strayed from being a funny show about something resembling real life into full-blown sitcom territory (with convoluted plots that, in the real world, could be resolved in about six seconds...and can only be maintained if all the characters involved agree to act as ridiculously as possible.) And I don't like Ted.

Still, on occasion, it's not without its charm--I just wish those moments weren't so few and far between.

16. South Park: not quite feeling it with this new season...and I'm starting to wonder if "Imaginationland, Part One and Two" will end up being the last legitimate high notes for the series. We'll see.

15. This American Life:
the season finale--from their website: "The story of one life, told through the lives of people from all over the country, all named John Smith"--is easily the most beautiful, profoundly sad, and life-affirming thing I watched on television all year. With all due respect to the 14 other shows I'm going to list after this one, it's was the single best 45 minutes of TV in 2008.

14. Life: Damien Lewis. Damien Lewis. Damien Lewis. He's just so great (as is the music). Truth be told, two out of every five episodes here are rote police procedurals, and two more out of five are probably only slightly above average, but it's that fifth episode--Russian mobsters or Charlie uncovering still more pieces of the conspiracy--that elevate this show to the upper echelon.

13. Top Chef: I still think the judges are dicks (inexplicably, Tom Colicchio seems to have gotten it in his head that the show is popular because of him, and insists on insinuating himself into plotlines), but the concept is terrific. Note: always watch while eating (it's the anti-House).

12. Chuck
: the little show that could (or something less patronizing). By all accounts, it would've been cancelled had there not been a strike, so it was lucky to get a second season, but boy have they capitalized on it. While Chuck is best developed character on the show (and extremely well played by Zachary Levi), he is, at best, the fifth or sixth funniest character (behind, in no particular order: Captain Awesome, Big Mike, Morgan, Casey, Jeff, and Lester). This is good. Also, the suspension of disbelief quotient is off the charts here, so I really shouldn't care about what happens to these characters, but God help me, I do.

11. Gossip Girl:
I moved this up three spots solely on the basis of a tree-mendous late '08 episode which focused on the aftermath of (SPOILER, highlight to reveal) Bart Bass's death--not only was it a great ep, but they included maybe the best back-to-back musical cues ("Signs" by Bloc Party, quickly followed by "Slow Show" by The National) I can ever remember. You know, it's easy to dismiss this show as pure puff (and, to a certain extent, I don't disagree--although, if you have 30 minutes to spare, I can go into minute detail about why this show is approximately 6,000 times superior to the new 90210), but the performances are so strong here (in particular: Chuck, Blair, and Rufus Humphrey) that I'm willing to forgive quite a bit (in particular: why should I care about the goings-on at an ultra-snobby NYC private school?).

The Top Ten

Note: I think this Top Ten is a strong as any in the past, say, twenty years (and, if you're looking at just the top five, maybe ever--I know that's a bold claim, but, seriously, find me a time when there's ever been five shows that are this, simultaneously, on top of their game.* I don't think you can.**). Promise me that, in 2013, when every hour of television programming (primetime or otherwise) will involve Jay Leno in some way, shape, or form, that we'll meet back here...and weep.

* = Here's the best I could do: 1985--> Hill Street Blues, Family Ties, Cheers, Dallas, and The Cosby Show (and L.A. Law will premiere in just under a year). You could also make a case for 2002, with five of the following: The West Wing, 24, Alias, Angel, Scrubs, The Shield, The Wire, and Six Feet Under. Still, I'll take 2008, thanks very much.

** = Note to Shuk: do not come back to me with a list that contains Golden Girls.

10. Breaking Bad (S1): unrelentingly dark. And if you're surprised that Bryan Cranston is this good of an actor, you really shouldn't be.

9. Dexter (S3):
(Note: I almost dropped this out of the top ten upon discovering that Michael C. Hall married his in-show sister in real life, partly because it's kinda gross, but mostly because she's a terrible actress, but I didn't. I'm bigger than that. Barely.) Before the season started, I wondered aloud if Dexter wasn't running out of steam. Now that it's over, the verdict? Um...sort of. There's no doubt that they're spinning their wheels--SPOILER Was there any doubt after, say, four episodes, that Dex was inevitably going to have to kill Prado? Of course not; also: it's hard to convey any sort of meaningful sense of peril when you know the main character isn't going to be killed--but it's still a pretty entertaining ride. Just know that the Dexter of S1--dark, tortured, totally removed from society--is long gone, replaced instead with a largely sanitized version of the character, and that this is probably a bad thing.

8. It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia (S?):
Goddamn, this show is hilarious.

7. In Treatment (S1):
as soon as I heard about this show, I was excited. That said, it's much, much better than I anticipated. Excellent writing (in many ways, the first season is actually 43 one-act plays, which, admittedly, won't appeal to everyone) plus great performances (even from show-killer Melissa George) adds up to an incredibly satisfying show. A special shout-out to Glynn Turman, for his outstanding guest performance as Alex's dad.

6. The Office (S4/S5):
They are absolutely killing it in season five...though they can't end this Andy/Dwight/Angela thing quickly enough. Wise of them to abandon the super-sized, 60 minute eps (which always petered out after 35 minutes) and smart of them to play to their strengths (Michael, Jim, Pam, Dwight). The fake sales call between Jim and Dwight in episode 5.6--and, not coincidentally, the closest the show has ever hewed to the original British series--is probably the funniest thing they've done in three years (you'll have to Hulu it).

5. Lost (S4):
"The Constant" immediately puts this in the top ten, the remainder is what bumps it up five more spots. With a better season finale (which was by no means bad, but paled in comparison to S3's gut punch of an ending), it'd be #3. I'm already on the record about this, but I'll say it again: fixing an end date was the best thing they could've done for this show (something that #9 on this list would do well to consider).

4. 30 Rock (S2/S3):
"I want to go to there."; "I'll just tell Don Geiss that I let a subordinate with an unaccredited theater-tech degree do a billion dollar handshake deal while my girlfriend and I showered together at a Red Roof Inn."; Jack: "The stutter got so bad I was taken out of my grade and put in the special class, held in the boiler room. My only other classmate was named Gilly. He'd fallen though the ice as a child and was technically dead for 57 minutes. They told us to sweep sawdust so we could find work at a mill. Of course I overcame the stutter in three languages. On to Princeton, Harvard, the top of the business world. I thought I blocked this out, but a thing like this brings back emotions." Liz: "I'm so sorry." Jack: "I feel like I'm back in that boiler room; making little piles of sawdust while Gilly plays with himself in the corner."; "I wandered around the building all night. I didn't run into another living soul... except one gigantic lesbian. Who is Conan O'Brien, and why is she so sad?"; "I was destined to create a video game were players get weird with each other for golden points. My genius will not be denied. I'm like Mozart, and you're like that guy who was always jealous of Mozart."; "I got business sick on my suit."; "I even stopped to catch a snowflake with my tongue, but apparently that's some signal in Chelsea."; "I'm like the Michael Clayton of Cleveland."; "Cooter Burger? What am I, a cartoon dog?"; "Shut it down!"; "If there's one thing I've learned, it's keep your friends close and your enemies so close it's like you're kissing."; "It's just "G" now, Jack. I sold the "E" to Samsung. They're Samesung, now."; "Nobody flies without medication anymore. Why shouldn't you enjoy the same luxuries as a dog?"; "There's going to be a detour. Don't follow it. It's a trap."; "We all have ways of coping. I use sex and awesomeness."; "And I definitely would have gone to my reunion, but the boat I was educated on sank."; "What kind of a mother tells her son that John Kennedy died because he talked in church?"

And even that doesn't really do the show justice. (That said: weakish through two eps in '09. Hopefully not a trend.)

3. Mad Men (S2): were it not for two late season episodes with Draper in California (which I thought were basically crap), this show would've opened with the strongest 26 episode run (S1 and 2) of any show ever. As it stands, it'll have to settle for one of the strongest openings ever. Jon Hamm: great actor or greatest actor? Those are your only choices.

2. The Wire (S5):
true, S5 wasn't the best season (admit it, it wasn't), but it's still the fucking Wire. Top to bottom: it's the strongest show in television history. I miss it.

1. The Shield (S7): I'm putting this seventh season right up there with S2 of The West Wing, S1 of Veronica Mars, S4 of Angel, both seasons of Sports Night, S2 of Buffy, S5 of The Larry Sanders Show, seasons 7 through 9 of Seinfeld, S2 of Alias, S2 of 24, seasons 3 through 6 of The Simpsons, S1 and the second half of S3 of Lost, seasons 2 through 5 of Dallas, S1 of Dexter, season 1, 3, and 4 of The Wire, S2-3 and 6 of ER, S2 of HIMYM, both seasons of the British Office, S1 of Extras, S1 of Mad Men, seasons 3 and 4 of The X-Files, S5 of The Shield, S2 of the US Office, S1 and 2 of 30 Rock, and S2 and 5 of Friends as one of the best seasons of any show ever (and the series finale--"Family Meeting"--in the same breath as my two all-time favorites: The West Wing's "Tomorrow" and (my #1) Angel's "Not Fade Away")

I should probably write more, but the show is so densely plotted that I'd end up giving something away (even inadvertently). Just watch it.

5 comments:

The R.O.B. said...

Yeah, you really ought to get on FNL.

Rosie and I were talking about it last night and kind of thought it was a little like Entourage - in that its just a really cool, fun concept - except there is some legitimately good acting and excellent characters: Coach, Riggins, Smash, Buddy Garrity, etc., etc.,

I can't believe you're down on the Hills... what about Bromance? I hope you're watching...

Question Mark said...

Corner Gas is a fantastic show. CTV has all of the current season and about half of last year available for free on their website. Plus, the Comedy Network airs it a few times each day.

Finally took your advice and got ahold of S1 of Breaking Bad. Four episodes in and it's treeee-mendous! Bryan Cranston's Emmy was well-deserved....07-08 Best Actor In A Drama class, the best group of nominees ever?

Fernando said...

As a die hard wire fan (and yes, im still waiting for that wire/sopranos article) i can't see why it isnt number 1? that said, im only thru 4 seasons of the shield now so im pretty sure my head will explode whenever i get to the end.

I rather liked Draper in Cali, if for nothing else then him telling pete "did u ever think maybe i left u there cuz u were ready" (I dont believe him, but its still a pretty good, ambiguous moment"

30 rock is really stinking it up right now.

Ditto on FNL, first season is classic.

Hal Incandenza said...

Rob: re: FNL...I know, it's unacceptable. Hoping to get caught up in the next couple of months.

I've given up on The Hills and all Hills-related tie-ins (Bromance, The City).

Shuk: apparently Brett Butt is doing a couple of shows at Massey Hall. I'd be interested to see what his stand-up is like. As we've discussed elsewhere, this may well be the strongest acting category in Emmy history (though you make a very good case for Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy in the mid-90s, with Seinfeld, The Larry Sanders Show, and Frasier all in their heyday. I don't even think John Mahoney--who would probably be deserving of a win in some weaker years--was ever even nominated.)

Fernando: S7 of The Shield will absolutely blow you away. I'll wait patiently for your apology until you get there (kidding!)

Fair enough re: Mad Men. The first Draper in LA ep was pretty good (it also had that amazing shot where Don thinks he sees Betty at the bar...and then the girl actually talks to him in Betty's voice). Looking back, I suppose my real issue was with the episode immediately before (Don and Betty visit Betty's ailing father) and the scenes in the subsequent two episodes set at Sterling Cooper sans Don, which felt really flat to me. The season finale, however, was first rate.

re: 30 Rock: the three that have aired in '09 haven't been quite up to par. Still very quotable, but not adding up to much (note to writers: stop teaming up Jenna and Tracy. Trust me.) And, of the nine that have aired thus far this season, only three (the Christmas episode, the high school reunion episode, and the one with the cast of Night Court), and they really only knocked the latter one out of the park. Still, I'm hopeful.

Hal Incandenza said...

sigh...Brent Butt.