TELEVISION: The Best and Worst of 2008!

Dexter

There was an overwhelming amount of great TV, this year [and, as you’ll see not too much later, an almost equally overwhelming amount of excessively bad TV]. Given the truly amazing amount of quality to be found between the networks and the various cable outlets, I’ve decided to list my favorite fifteen shows of the year.

The Best

15. Torchwood

Torchwood, the Doctor Who spin-off for older viewers, brought a second season of sex, lies & sci fi to provoke, titillate and entertain the North American audience. We learned a downside to Captain Jack’s [John Barrowman] immortality; we met Captain John [James Marsters] – a former partner and lover of Jack’s who really held a grudge – though not as well as Jack’s long lost and thought dead brother; the team’s curmudgeonly doctor, Owen [Burn Gorman] found life after death, and the team lost two of its members, Owen and Tosh [Naoko Mori], the team’s cyber-whiz. On a happier note, Gwen [Eve Myles] got married – though only after an alien crisis. Smart, dark and twisted, Torchwood was one of those little pleasures that sneak up on you…

14. Bones

Loosely based on Kathy Reich’s Temperance Brennan novels, this procedural with heart centers on the relationship between forensic anthropologist Brennan [Emily Deschanel] and FBI Special Agent Seeley Booth with whom she investigates murders requiring her special skills. What makes this series special is the David & Maddy banter and growing respect that characterizes the relationship. Add the group of idiosyncratic specialists with whom Tempe works, and the result is very entertaining.

13. Durham County

This short [six episodes per season], dark, twisted Canadian series revolves around the family of Detective Mike Sweeney [Hugh Dillon – Flashpoint, former lead singer of legendary band, The Headstones], who moves them from the dangers of big city Toronto to the more laid back Durham County. He comes to suspect that his next door neighbor – and former high school and hockey nemesis – Ray Prager [Justin Louis] might be a serial killer. Durham County exists in a state somewhere between Twin Peaks and the Brit series Meadowlands [though it’s not quite as good as Twin Peaks and much better than Meadowlands]. Too my knowledge, the show hasn’t been broadcast in America as yet, but it can be acquired on DVD through amazon.ca.

12. Chuck

Chuck Bartkowski [Zachary Levi] is the supervisor of the Nerd Herd section of the local Buy More. When an e-mail from his former best friend plants the sum total of American spy agencies’ intel in his brain, he becomes the unlikeliest of spies. Because of interdepartmental rivalry, agents from both the CIA [Sarah Walker, played by Yvonne Strahovski] and NSA [Jon Casey, played by Adam Baldwin] are assigned to “handle” him. His life is further complicated by family [his sister, Ellie, and her perfect fiancé, Captain Awesome] and fellow Buy More employees. The show is fast-paced perhaps even wittier than it is funny – though it has its supremely dramatic moments.

11. The Middleman

An hour-long exercise, Middleman proves that you can adapt a series of graphic novels to TV without having to dilute their colors, zaniness or pure, unfettered joy. The Middleman [Matt Keeslar] is all that stands between the Earth and various aliens, mad scientists and evil twins from alternate realities – that is before he meets Wendy Watson [Natalie Morales], the office temp who stands up to a hentai monster that gets loose in her current temp office. Episodes have titles that call back to The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and the opening credits homage The Avengers [Steed and Mrs. Peel – not those other guys] – not to mention what seems like ninety minutes of dialogue in every one-hour ep. The Middleman is unique on TV.

10. Doctor Who

The adventures of the tenth Doctor, this time with his most important companion, ever, continued to delight in David Tennant’s last full season. The Doctor met his daughter [a good trick, since he was the last Timelord before that]; the Sontarans enlisted the aid of a group of disaffected young geniuses in their attempt to destroy the Earth and – if you could sniff out the subtle clues planted from the beginning – we discovered that Donna Noble [Catherine Tate] turned out to be the most important person in the universe! Under the guidance of Executive Producer Russell T. Davies, the series maintained its high level of excellence and imagination. After a handful of specials spread throughout this year, both Tennant and Davies are moving on. Their successors will have to go some to maintain the show’s quality.

9. Battlestar Galactica

The fourth season of Galactica had the ragtag fleet, in concert with the Cylons, find Earth. Problem is it was destroyed in what looks to have been a nuclear war. Now only two questions remain: where do they go from there, and who is the final Cylon? BSG dropped from my top five this year because it seemed like every episode of the fourth season was a place holder. What kept it in my top ten was the fact that the five good eps were frakkin’ amazing! Plus, this season’s web series, The Face of the Enemy, is a smart, locked room murder mystery – though the room here is a raptor that’s been separated from the rest of the fleet.

8. Saving Grace

Supernatural isn’t the only series to involve Angels, this season. Detective Grace Hanadarko [Holly Hunter in a truly brave performance] is one of the best detectives on the force. Off duty, it’s a different story as she engages in all sorts of self-destructive behavior. Because, at heart, she’s a good person, she is assigned a “last chance” angel named Earl [Leon Rippy] to help find her way back onto the better path. What could have been a one-gag show, turned out to be a layered drama with no small amount of humor – light and dark.

7. Life

This series, about a cop who was wrongly convicted of murder and eventually exonerated, is one of the quirkier shows on network television. Charlie Crews [Damian Lewis] sued for cash and reinstatement as a detective. Now he’s working the homicide beat while trying to track down the people responsible for framing him. Life is odd enough that it makes a change from most procedurals but its the show’s balance between Charlie’s vendetta and the cases he investigates on a regular basis that makes it unique. With his new partner, Dani Reese [Sarah Shahi], his former partner, Bobby Stark [Brent Sexton] and current captain, Kevin Tidwell [Donal Logue] – not to mention his tenant/accountant, Ted Early [Adam Arkin] – you have a crew that would fit perfectly on USA, but are staying alive [for the moment, at least] on NBC. Which makes it NBC’s best show [what with the decaying of Heroes].

6. Pushing Daisies

ABC’s Pushing Daisies was original, a whimsical quasi-fairytale for all ages. The story of Ned the Pie Man [Lee Pace] who could bring dead things [animal and plant, at least] back to life with a touch and the love of his life, Charlotte “Chuck” Charles [Anna Friel] – whom he brought back to life after she died on a cruise – had a unique sensibility. Everything felt just a little larger than life because, after all, Ned could do something about life [and death – if he touched something/one a second time, they were dead for good]. Part fairytale romance, part mystery, Pushing Daisies might well have been a hit on HBO or Showtime. Genuinely clever, remarkably involving and quite endearing, the show was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

5. Breaking Bad

When a high school chemistry teacher develops a fatal cancer, what’s the first thing he so do? Anyone? Well, how about devoting his spare time manufacturing high grade meth to raise the money to take care of his family after he’s gone? That’s case with Walter White [Bryan Cranston]. He teams up with former student and current drugs dealer Jesse [Aaron Paul] – and we watch in horror [and occasionally bemusement] as Walter slowly becomes a criminal. Breaking Bad is an intensely disturbing series and the complexity of its lead character earned Cranston a Emmy.

4. Damages

Glenn Close has gone on record as saying television produces more quality work for “actresses of a certain age” than film, and Damages is a case in point. Patty Hewes is a powerhouse attorney who will do anything to bring her opponents down – in court and out. The show’s first season found her pursuing a class action suit against Arthur Frobisher [Ted Danson] whose actions caused five thousand of his employees their life savings. Add into the mix Ellen Parsons [Rose Byrne], a potential protégé for Patty, Frobisher’s attorney, Ray Fiske [Emmy winner Zeljko Ivanek] and enough twists and turns to create envy in all the rollercoasters of the world and you’ve got yet another powerhouse cable drama.

3. Lost

By adding the flash-forward device at the end of season three, the Lost creative team was able to answer a major question right off the bat, to wit, will the Losties ever get off the island? They will, they do and it appears that they’ll have to go back – including the late Jeremy Bentham/John Locke. Sure we got questions answered. Big ones. But we also got new questions – like what are the freighter folks up to [both the mercenary ones and the civilians – it seems like each has its own agenda]? On the meantime, we learn more about our favorite characters in three different timeframes: before the island; on the island, and after the island. Thus we are, once again, involved in ramped up storytelling, characterization and philosophical puzzles on the highest level. You gotta love that!

2. Dexter

Everyone’s favorite serial killer of serial killers had an odd year. Dexter Morgan [Michael C. Hall] got engaged, made a friend in Miguel Prado [Jimmy Smits], acted spontaneously, and, in The Skinner, had a new serial killer to chase, and helped a family friend in the hour of her greatest need. The rest of the cast also had their moments: Debra Morgan [Jennifer Carpenter] got her shield – and an ethically questionable boyfriend; Angel [David Zayas] got promoted to sergeant – and learned what a two-edged sword that was; Vince [C.S. Lee] finally got some respect, and the late, great Harry [James Remar] counselled Dexter when the friendship thing turned sour. While there was less blood this season, the image of Dex’s injury dripping blood on Rita’s [Julie Benz] wedding dress gave the series finale an ominous final note.

While not as gory as seasons one and two, this season Dexter was more about family – real and surrogate – and their effects on each other; not to mention the problems that would give Dexter as he strives to blend in. Overall, only one other show has writing, acting and direction that was as good [or perhaps a little bit better].

1. Mad Men

madmen

Mad Men is unique. In a form that relies on action and pacing, Mad Men moves along in a deliberate manner, gently weaving its plots and subplots together in precise measure. It takes it time to reveal the layers that exist in an industry that is all about making people want to buy things they don’t really need. It shows the taken-for-granted prejudices of the times in bold colors [the female office manager who can do things better than most of the executives, but no one even notices, let alone gives her a chance; the treatment of a former agency star who’s become a detriment when his drinking becomes an addiction]. While most of its male characters are well drawn, the lead, Don Draper [Jon Hamm], remains a cipher – the more we learn about him, the more we don’t know. Even better, the longer we know him, the more we realize that he does know, either – but he sure can sell a product! Even more impressive is the writing for the female characters. In a time when women hadn’t yet become liberated, the women of Mad Men are aware of what they are and are not expected to be.

Mad Men is the kind of show that demands your attention. Details become important. Because of its deceptively deliberate pacing, it’s easy to lose track of things – but if you pay attention, there’s something going on. It’s drama on a near-Shakespearean level. Mad Men is the year’s best TV series. No question.

The Worst

5. Reality TV

All “slice of life” reality shows. Nothing about them is real and, sadly, they are uniformly edited to create villains – sometimes from people who are actually decent human beings [though usually not].

4. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia

I know that the joke is that these characters are all reprehensible. I get it. I just find it boring and wasteful.

3. Worst Week

One of those adaptations of another country’s hit that just doesn’t get it. Poorly written; awkwardly directed, and utterly unfunny.

2. Two and a Half Men

A sullen, not particularly bright boy is raised by his hellraiser of a father and his socially inept uncle. This is a hit comedy series? I weep for our continent!

1.Criminal Minds

Criminal_cast

The show’s title is an accurate description of the minds that created it. This misogynist wreck takes great pleasure in flaunting its nature in the myriad ways it makes women suffer. Shows like CSI get it that women are the most frequent targets of serial killers, but only Criminal Minds gives us all the gory details of that suffering. Even when one of the men on the team is hurt in a bomb blast, he’s just got minor injuries, while the female agent injured in the blast gets her back ripped open as she’s blasted across the asphalt – and gets to suffer for long moments before she dies. Criminal Minds is the dung beetle of TV programming.

1a. Estate of Panic

Estate of Panic

Fear Factor in a haunted house. Snakes and bugs and worms, oh my! Make money by subjecting yourself to ever-increasing jolts of electricity. Are we having fun, yet?

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