Friday, January 16, 2009

TV: Top Ten of 2008

Used to be a tradition here at You Know What I Like? to sum up, at year's end, exactly what I did like in the preceding year, in the form of various Top Ten lists. Unfortunately, I didn't seem to absorb a lot of pop culture in 2008. I couldn't possibly write a Top Ten list for music. I maybe bought three or four new albums, tops. I can't attempt a Top Ten list of comics; I haven't collected regularly for years now. I could take a stab at movies, though I'm not entirely sure I've seen more than ten movies in the theater this year. I may have to double check that.

What I can do, though, is a Top Ten list of TV. Ah, good ol' TV. Always there, always reliable. Oh, except for 2008 kind of sucked for TV, overall, what with coming off the writer's strike, all kinds of shows being forced into hiatus at the beginning of the year, just when they were getting interesting. The strike also helped result in a pretty damn lackluster Fall premiere season. Not a lot of keepers out of that mangy lot.

Still, when TV was good in 2008, it was very very good. (And when it was bad, which was more often than not, it was horrid.) So here are my picks, only a few weeks late, for the ten best shows of 2008.

1. The Shield
How could it be anything else? The final season of this landmark drama started out a little slow for me, with a little too much emphasis on the "Blackmail Box" MacGuffin. But it built to the most emotionally powerful and rewarding final two episodes in television history. Shane didn't exit the way I expected him to, but it was all the more achingly devastating for not seeing it coming. Walton Goggins richly deserves Emmy consideration. Speaking of earning that Emmy: I don't know which was more riveting, Michael "Vic Mackey" Chiklis's chilling testimony in the penultimate episode, or his condemnation to the hell of his own making in the finale. When he pulls the gun out of his file cabinet at the end, what do you think is going on? Is it an empty reminder of the man he used to be? Or is it a promise that he plans to go out on his own terms? Not suicide -- never suicide, for Vic. He is the ultimate survivor. No, I mean: is he going to go fuck shit up any way he can, within the confines of his cubicle prison, in a neverending game of raising stakes? Because it never seems to be about the win, for Mackey; it always seems to be about the gamble. As despicable as Mackey proved himself to be -- I hope it's the latter. I hope that shark keeps swimming.

2. 30 Rock
The third season has been a little overstuffed with guest stars that don't quite work (how can Steve Martin not be an automatic home run?), but with Tracy's pornographic video game and his gold shoes and money suit, Jack's romance with C.C. (Edie Falco) and his battles with Devon Banks (Will Arnett), Liz's ill-advised reunion with the Beeper King turned Subway Hero and her struggles to adopt, Kenneth's... well, everything Kenneth does, ever, but especially his engineering of a Night Court reunion, and the insanely uproarious finale to the second season (featuring a guest star who did live up to his full potential, and more, Matthew Broderick as "Cooter"), 2008 was an incredible year for the funniest show on TV.

3. How I Met Your Mother
I think 2008 is the year when it became common wisdom that Neil Patrick Harris is completely awesome as Barney (and HIMYM began to be taken seriously as a quality sitcom), and I think it's just a matter of time before he starts winning scads of awards like David Hyde Pierce. (Can't you so easily picture NPH as Niles, by the way?) The rest of the cast is very strong as well, especially my fave Cobie Smulders, whose chemistry with NPH is the highlight of the show, and the writing and direction are always clever and inventive. Best sitcom you're probably still turning your nose up at. (Don't end a sentence with a preposition? I end mine with two, suckas.)

4. Lost
The flash forwards, The Constant, the island disappearing -- this was a season for a lot of wow moments. The predetermined number of remaining episodes gave the fourth season direction and momentum it has often lacked in previous seasons, and the show hasn't been more consistently thrilling since the first four episodes. Can't wait for the fifth season to begin next week.

5. The Office
2008's first episode of The Office was one of the year's -- and the entire series' -- highlights: "Dinner Party," in which the spectacularly dysfunctional relationship between Michael and Jan was revealed in all its hideous glory. One of the best half hours of 2008 on any TV show. And the Fall season began with the beautifully bizarre mating of Michael and Holly, whose doomed relationship generated some genuine pathos amidst the hilarity. Throw in Ryan's coke-fueled downfall, Dwight and Angela's affair, and the show's success in keeping Pam and Jim both together and still interesting, and The Office showed no signs of slowing down.

6. It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia
Much of the season built on the familiar formula of picking a topic, and having the Gang react like idiots to it (the gas crisis, home makeovers, healthcare) -- and don't get me wrong, I love that formula. Charlie in a green suit hitting someone in the balls never gets old. But this season also featured two unusually ambitious, and tremendously rewarding, departures: "The Gang Cracks the Liberty Bell," a Revolutionary War period piece in which the Gang gets to call the British "dicks" a lot, and "The Nightman Cometh," the disastrous staging of Charlie's rock opera (which most of the rest of the Gang misinterprets as having a lot of man-boy rape). Always funny, in the crudest way possible.

7. Corner Gas
Either you like it or you don't. Me, I love this low-key comedy about a bunch of colorful eccentrics living life in the slow lane in Dog River, Saskatchewan. And I'm dying for WGN to begin broadcasting the final season in America (nine episodes of which have already aired in Canada).

8. House
This show falls too often into rote formula, but I enjoy House's new team a great deal (especially Kal Penn as Kutner, and let us not forget the recent OoMA, Olivia Wilde as Thirteen), as well as the tentative steps toward romance between House and Cuddy (though I am sorry private detective Lucas, Cuddy's seeming alternative romantic interest, was written out so quickly). And the heartbreaking storyline bridging seasons four and five, in which Wilson's beloved Amber died, basically as a direct result of coming to House's aid, was a thrilling and agonizing break from that familiar formula.

9. Battlestar Galactica
It was an uneven season (or first half of a season, with the second half set to commence tonight!), with way too much time spent on Starbuck's side quest. But, as usual, the beginning and ending of the arc were terrific; the climax, involving the abduction of Laura Roslin, the revelation of four of the final five to one and all, Baltar's messiah cult, the eventual truce between humans and Cylons, a beautiful 'shipper moment between Roslin and Admiral Adama, and the discovery of a nuclear war-ravaged Earth, was especially powerful.

10. Pushing Daisies
Often a little too whimsical for my taste, the show nonetheless boasted a truly original vision, from the color scheme to the oh-so-proper narration to the random outbursts of song (and cleavage) from Kristin Chenoweth. And it had a touching central romance between Chuck and the Piemaker. Plus Chi McBride as Emerson Cod was a total badass. Too bad it got the ax.

Honorable mentions:

The Sarah Silverman Program
Vulgar, stupid, offensive, filled with fart and balls jokes. Which is hilarious.

The Rachel Maddow Show
Vulgar, stupid... oh, wrong show. Sharp, funny, insightful. A new bright spot in cable news.

The Big Bang Theory
It makes me laugh. So there.

A Colbert Christmas
I rarely get the chance to watch Colbert's regular show anymore, but his Christmas special was ingenious, highlighted by a surprisingly sublime rendition of "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace Love and Understanding" as performed by Colbert, Toby Keith, Willie Nelson, Feist, John Legend, and Elvis Costello in a bear costume.

Allegedly great stuff that I didn't watch, though I swear I will catch up on most or all of it on DVD some day:

1. The Wire
Yes, yes, YES, I know it's the greatest TV show of all time (according to a lot of you). I'll get to it. Now lay off!

2. Mad Men
Watched the first couple-three episodes of the first season of this show, and I thought it was damn fine. Then... I don't know. I fell out of the habit. I missed an episode somehow, and didn't want to watch the next episode without seeing the previous one, and... now I haven't watched it since the beginning. That's my bad, and I know it.

3. Breaking Bad
I caught the first few episodes of the first season, and I thought it was brilliant. Bryan Cranston was an absolute revelation in his role as a cancer-ridden high school science teacher-turned-meth producer. But... same thing with Mad Men. I let it slip away from me. I will catch up!

4. Saving Grace
I watched the first couple episodes of the first season (starting to sound familiar?), and... eh. I love Holly Hunter, and I admired her work in this show, especially the parts where she kept getting drunk and naked, but the show as a whole didn't grab me. I know a lot of people have heaped a lot of praise on the show. But you gotta really, really sell me on any "angel" business you're gonna throw into my TV viewing, and Saving Grace fell short on that count. I found the supernatural aspects just laughable, which spoiled the whole thing for me.

And there you go. What about you? Any of your favorites I didn't watch? Anything I did watch that you hate? Comment away!

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