TV & DVD: The best (and worst) of 2008

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Battlestar Galactica

THE BEST

1. Battlestar Galactica (Sci Fi)
This season could have been defined by Cally’s brutal death, Roslin’s deteriorating condition, Baltar’s cult or Papa Adama’s complete breakdown. But it was Lt. Gaeta’s delirious singing—a song about lost love sung to a lost leg on a show about humanity’s lost identity—that perfectly captured what BSG has evolved into: a haunting, exquisite lamentation.

2. The Wire (HBO)
The vividly actualized saga that explored Baltimore’s decay from the streets up through City Hall gave fans the complex, aggressive last act they wanted, and the show the untidy, unhappy last act it deserved. Sheeeeit.

3. 30 Rock (NBC)
MILF Island. “The floating city of New Chicago.” “The devil’s temperature.” Normalsauce versus crazy putty. “We should call Eureka! She always has good ideas!” If 30 Rock were a hit, its nonstop stream of memorable lines would make it the present-day Seinfeld. Instead, it’ll have to settle for being TV’s strongest comedy, ten times funnier and smarter than its closest competition. Tina Fey’s star has never been brighter, and Alec Baldwin and Jack McBrayer handily fill out the constellation.


The Shield

4. The Shield (FX)
Walton Goggins, as the out-of-options Shane, could have netted a spot on this list by himself, but with knockout performances from CCH Pounder and Michael Chiklis, the relentless cop drama’s final season was a study in intensity. Chiklis’s chilling Vic Mackey met his poetically just fate in the series’s final moments, and those two minutes—silent but for the soul-deadening hum of fluorescent lights—were as evocative as other shows’ entire seasons. While all 13 episodes were superb, the finale was a straight-up masterpiece, incontrovertible proof that, despite what David Chase might say, top-shelf dramas can reach a resolution.

5. Mad Men (AMC)
The second season of the ’60s-set meditation on the American dream was perhaps more about the women behind and around the mad men than the guys themselves. Betty’s horrific collapse under the weight of her husband’s betrayal contrasted sharply with Peggy’s increasingly confident ascent—which in turn highlighted just how atrophied Joan’s sense of self had become. The Jackie-or-Marilyn pitch pinpointed the era’s iteration of the Madonna/whore construct, but ambiguity is the show’s trademark: Somewhere between Bobbie Barrett, Betty’s anonymous one-night stand, Joan’s rape and the band of California free-lovers, Mad Men became a surprisingly contemporary exploration of sexual power dynamics.

6. Pushing Daisies (ABC)
In other hands, this amount of fantasy and cleverness might prove nauseating. But Bryan Fuller’s candy-colored orgy of fairy-tale wit had enough attitude, mostly from Chi McBride’s Emerson Cod (“Where did I put that rat’s ass I could give?”), to temper its cuteness. Unfortunately, shows like this—shows exactly like this, like Fuller’s previous work Dead Like Me and Wonderfalls—are never long for this world, and Daisies, about a baker who brings the dead back to life, could not survive.

7. In Treatment (HBO)
Like therapy itself, In Treatment was tough to get into, but once we committed, everything started making a new kind of sense, and we couldn’t shut the fuck up about how great it was. New episodes aired every weeknight for eight weeks, with each day reserved for a specific character’s therapy session. But on TV as in life, it was all a countdown to Friday, when our star therapist became the patient. Gabriel Byrne’s barely contained dysfunction as the doctor who couldn’t heal himself lent the show an emotional heft rarely found on half-hour shows, and the similarly excellent Dianne Wiest (who nabbed an Emmy for her performance) provided a serene counterpoint to Byrne’s twitchiness.


Mad Men

8. The Middleman (ABC Family)
An adaptation of the popular comic-book series proved to be the summer’s smartest, geekiest fare—well, it proved that to the dozens of us who watched and fell in love with Wendy “Dub Dub” Watson (Natalie Morales), an artsy recent college grad who found herself battling the forces of evil. Wendy and her boss, the retro Middleman, fought aliens, mad scientists, James Bond--style villains and the crippling ennui familiar to 22-year-olds, all while spouting allusions to every sci-fi classic or B-movie hero you’ve ever heard of and many you haven’t.

9. Friday Night Lights (NBC, DirecTV)
TV is riddled with teenagers who talk like adults and grown-ups who act like brats, so FNL's emotionally accurate characters are television unicorns, beautiful and majestic but destined to be left behind as we march two by two toward the new 90210. As the Dillon Panthers graduate more of their original starters—both Smash and Street had sobworthy send-offs this year—the show’s focus on Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford) has become ever sharper, and his arc over the past year reflects the show’s return to its most effective story lines.

10. The Soup (E!)
Joel McHale’s scathing commentary has gone from fun fluff to an unmissable digest of the week that was. Clips from the dumbest, most loathsome shows (Keeping Up with the Kardashians, A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila) are woven into an acute—but hilarious—indictment of television’s production-consumption cycle.

Honorable mentions: Carrier, the Olympics, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, The Colbert Report

WORST

1. The writers’ strike
While not technically a show, the WGA strike, which ended February 12, affected just about every series on television, and its aftermath can be felt still through this year’s few and mostly lackluster pilots.

2. Grey’s Anatomy (ABC)
Shonda Rhimes’s hospital soap has flatlined. Just when we thought Grey’s was getting its mojo back, the show booted Dr. Hahn (amid rumors that ABC was uncomfortable with her lesbian story line), yet brought back the deceased Denny Duquette for a plot so ridiculous, I feel humiliated just having watched those episodes. The Golden Gate Bridge could not suspend this level of disbelief.

3. Raising the Bar (TNT)
Steven Bochco’s latest drama trots out every clich in the courtroom character book: the lawyers who take their cases too personally, the judge who is a rotten bitch, the opposing counsel who is dead sexy, the renegade who does things his way and the by-the-book boss tasked with curbing him. The dialogue is awful (“What part of I don’t care don’t you understand?”), and the stories are so predictable, you’ll wonder if Bochco just asked Dick Wolf for his table scraps. To our enormous frustration, it was ad-supported cable’s most popular new series this year.


Report card: While the number of top-notch shows continues to increase, and our TiVos fill with sublime shows from networks and cable year in and year out, 2008 can be marked by an ever-widening gap between quality and popularity. The unimaginative Eleventh Hour and The Mentalist are the only two new series in the top 20 for ratings this season, and none of the shows on our list could be considered a hit. Scripted programming may be reaching new highs, but unscripted series are in a mad dash for whatever sludge swirls below the lowest common denominator, providing us with such shows as Hurl, in which contestants attempt to not vomit. Given some of the reality shows we sat through this year, we know how they feel.

FINAL GRADE:

B

Next: Best of the web >>


BEST (AND WORST) OF 2008:

ART | BOOKS | CLASSICAL | CLUBS | COMEDY | DANCE | FILM
GAY | MUSIC | THEATER | TV & DVD | KIDS

BEST OF THE WEB


1. Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog
(drhorrible.com) Joss Whedon’s fantastic 43-minute, three-part musical showcased Neil Patrick Harris’s pipes—and the potential for web-based entertainment to capture the pop imagination.

2. Hulu
NBC’s pet project (hulu.com) changed the way we watch TV online, namely by making legal avenues as useful and accessible as less-savory ones. Hulu’s glorious design, continuously expanding selection of current and classic shows (and a smattering of movies) and, most importantly, its smooth playback have made it as essential as YouTube this year.

3. Twitter
Who knew I wanted to publish 140-character blog posts from my cell phone? The strangely addictive Twitter did.


BEST (AND WORST) OF 2008:

ART | BOOKS | CLASSICAL | CLUBS | COMEDY | DANCE | FILM
GAY | MUSIC | THEATER | TV & DVD | KIDS

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