Wednesday, June 07, 2006

TV: Top Ten of 2005-2006

The traditional September-through-May TV season is over, and it's time to take a look back at the outstanding programs of the year, at what succeeded and what didn't. In other words, I like making lists, so here we go.

I will say this: it's a much different list than I thought I'd be making at the beginning of 2006, when we were mid-season and certain shows had yet to suffer a downturn, while certain others still had their best ahead of them. Also: I didn't watch The Sopranos, so don't look for it here. I'm a couple seasons behind, and I keep meaning to catch up on DVD, but I never do. Maybe, by the time this last season concludes in six months, I'll have gotten around to it. Anyway, judging from lackluster reviews like this one, I didn't really miss much in the first half of the season.

1. Battlestar Galactica

That's right. I'm putting the show with the robots right at the top. There was no other show I looked forward to as much this year, and no other show that had such a powerful beginning and mind-blowing ending to its season. (Some of the middle bits -- a little draggy, I confess.) And I'm referring to the second half of the season here, which ran from January to March -- like The Sopranos, Battlestar Galactica's season was split in half, with the first half ending way back in September (and thus mostly outside the parameters of this look back). Fantastic action, shocking twists, a powerful cast headed by Edward James Olmos, Mary McDonnell, and my future wife, Katee Sackhoff, wonderful guest stars (Dana Delany, Dean Stockwell, Lucy Lawless), and a cliffhanger more thrilling and surprising to me than any TV finale since "I am Locutus of Borg" (bonus nerd points for me!) -- I dig this show, is what I'm saying.

2. The Office

It's quite possible that, even if Arrested Development hadn't had an early cancellation, The Office still would have become my favorite sitcom of the season. But Arrested was cancelled, leaving no contest in this category. The Office is the funniest and best sitcom on the air, bar none. And it has become so in a way Arrested never entirely succeeded at, by making us care about the characters -- more specifically, by making us care about the goings-on between office drone Jim (John Krasinski) and receptionist Pam (Jenna Fischer). The chemistry between the two of them is more relatable and believable than any other couple on the air, making their relationship -- culminating in the terrifically romantic season-ending kiss -- as integral to the success of the show as the hilarious ineptitude of Steve Carell's Michael Scott and Rainn Wilson's Dwight Schrute.

3. The Shield

Watching a show this good get even better is a rare thrill for a TV viewer. But The Shield's fifth season blew away everything that came before, due primarily to a mesmerizingly powerful performance from Forest Whitaker as Internal Affairs Lt. Kavanaugh, and his clashes with Michael Chiklis' bad cop Vic Mackey. The final episode left me feeling like I'd been punched in the gut -- in a good way, churning up raw emotions the way only the best of dramas can. Rumor has it that the second half of the season (yes, another show with a season cut in half) is going to be the show's last. Which means that as insane as things got this year, hell has only just begun to break loose. I can't wait.

This just in: another season has been confirmed. Although, for some reason, that story refers to the new season as the seventh, when the show still hasn't finished its fifth season. Weird. Well, whatever -- more episodes of The Shield!

4. Rome

The first episode aired in August, before the September-May window I'm using for the rest of the countdown, but I'll let that slide because, dammit, this show was just that good. With a brilliant cast from top to bottom, Rome was sexy, smart, funny, shocking, thrilling, and often heartbreaking. The first season seems almost like an impossible act to follow -- how do you top Julius Caesar's death? But hey, it's HBO. I'm sure they'll manage.

5. Arrested Development

One of the funniest sitcoms ever ended on a bit of a down note: prematurely cancelled midway through the season, with its last four episodes (which were dumped opposite the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympics) sometimes feeling rushed and clumsy in their efforts to wrap the show up neatly in the short time they had left. That, and the fact that out of sight = out of mind, is why I'm ranking it this low. But! Its third season was still funny as hell, with a wonderful extended guest appearance from Charlize Theron, and a surprisingly naughty, but hysterical, turn from star Jason Bateman's real-life sister Justine, being among the highlights. We were lucky to get three seasons out of a show so unlike, and so much better than, most any other comedy on TV.

6. Veronica Mars

Sometimes it felt like there was a little too much plot getting in the way of the action in the second season of Veronica Mars, but the show succeeded in keeping itself grounded in sharp, witty writing and great characters -- those you loved, like Veronica and father Keith, and those you loved to hate, like Charisma Carpenter's sexy, devious Kendall Casablancas. I'm tremendously pleased the show has survived to a third season on The CW. Veronica in college. Hey, maybe she'll solve that head-shaving mystery left unsolved last year!

7. Lost

I'm still hopelessly hooked, but this show has dropped a few notches in my regard from last year. There were some amazing episodes scattered throughout, but in between, it felt like there was an awful lot of filler. Quite an ass-kicker of a finale, though, wasn't it? A statue of a giant, four-toed foot? Desmond crashed the plane by neglecting his button-pushing duties? Desmond's girlfriend has found him?? A heap of incredible moments, none better than Locke ruefully confessing to Eko, as the both of them are about to be ripped apart, "I was wrong." By the way, I heartily recommend Heather Havrilesky's sharp and thoughtful examination of the finale at Salon. It'll make you look at the characters, and the show, in a whole new light.

8. The Colbert Report

The one-two punch of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report is a mighty powerful combo. I've talked so much about The Daily Show that I retired it to the Hall of Fame last year, vowing not to rank it in a top ten list again. I mention it here only to say that the Report has matured into a more-than-worthy -- in fact, essential -- companion piece. Where Jon Stewart is all loosey-goosey and self-aware, constantly breaking out of his faux-anchorman persona, Stephen Colbert is constantly, rigidly in character, and the performance is remarkable. I feared the show would over-rely on this one joke -- Colbert as staunchly right-wing pundit -- and grow stale. Well, they're sticking fast to the one joke, and it's brilliant, always fresh and funny, with as much to say (and skewer) about Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, Fox News, and the rest of their ilk as The Daily Show says about mainstream network news. I still find Colbert's interviews hard to watch, partly for the frequently uninteresting guests, partly because so many of them seem unaware of the joke, and partly because Colbert really hammers the more unaware ones with the joke, interrupting and confounding them until the interview is a shapeless mess. That said, his interview with former FEMA head Michael Brown was hilariously, deliciously brutal, and a high point of the TV season.

9. Justice League Unlimited

I recently looked at the series finale of this show, and I'm still finding it hard to believe that next year, for the first time since 1992, I won't be hearing Kevin Conroy as the voice of Batman on TV. I said most all I need to say about the show in that post. JLU, and its cartoon predecessors, formed a vital universe of smart, funny, thrilling animated entertainment, and TV is worse off for the loss.

10. How I Met Your Mother

I honestly wasn't sure if I'd include this show or not. Neil Patrick Harris' Barney instantly sold me on the show, and the rest of the cast quickly won me over too, including the two who were new to me, Josh Radnor as Ted, and the improbably named, and impossibly lovely, Cobie Smulders as the object of his (and my) affection, Robin. I loved this show in 2005. But in 2006, it had the biggest drop-off in quality of any show this season. The episodes began to meander humorlessly; Barney was too often underused, or misused; then the show began to take itself too seriously, with the Ted-Robin drama played up too aggressively, and an out-of-nowhere wedge driven between happy couple Marshall and Lily. It recovered enough toward the end of the season, and I still had enough of an abiding affection for the characters, that it just snuck in the last spot. In fact, it was a bit of a toss-up between this, My Name Is Earl, and Scrubs, with Scrubs just barely getting edged out. Call it #11. In fact:

11. Scrubs


I'll probably have more on my season wrap-up tomorrow. I mean, I haven't even begun to discuss the shows that fell apart for me this year. I'm mostly looking at the WB when I say that, by which I mean you, Gilmore Girls and Smallville.

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