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Top TV Picks of 2008

As it's nearly the end of the calendar year (only a few more days to go, in fact), I figured now was as good a time as any to look back at some of the shows that that have entertained and inspired me over the past year.

It's been a crazy year, between the WGA strike affecting everything from truncated freshman seasons for Pushing Daisies, Dirty Sexy Money, and Chuck, delayed seasons for FX's Damages and HBO's Big Love (and a host of others), and a generally frantic development season that only saw two relative hits emerge this fall.

So, what were the favorite series in the Televisionary household? Which left me wanting more... and which ones made me eager to change the channel? Find out after the jump.

Best Reality Series:

Top Chef
The Amazing Race
Flipping Out

Top Chef remains my number one reality obsession. Bravo and Magical Elves have done themselves proud with this sleek, slick production that makes the art of cooking into a nail-biting competition in which egos clash, visionaries emerge, and the judges knock the competitors down a few pegs each week. While those of us at home can't taste the food being prepared, the aura of creativity around this series is more than enough to sate us.

Despite some creakiness in The Amazing Race's format (this most recent cycle won't go down as the most entertaining iteration of the series), this reality franchise remains one of the most consistently high quality unscripted productions around... if the casting directors do their job right. I'm still engaged with the ride but I was hoping for a bit more out of this most recent season, given that one of the main reasons I tune in is for the interpersonal element, seeing which teams emerge stronger than ever after running this gauntlet and which crumble under the pressure.

Flipping Out remains one of the most gripping and tense hours of television around... and also one of the most bizarre. Its breakneck second season had boss Jeff Lewis installing a nanny cam in his office to spy on his employees, the dissolution of Jenni and Chris' marriage, and the Client From Hell which lead to Jeff quitting, not once, but twice over the course of the season. Flipping Out might nominally be about the Los Angeles real estate market (and speculative buying) but it's about some of the quirkiest characters ever to be drawn on the small screen and I just can't look away.

Reality Series Most in Need of Fixing:

Project Runway

Given the current legal battle over the future of the series (producers the Weinstein Co. tried to take it to Lifetime), it seems like the most recent season of Project Runway will be the last for some time (or until that case is tried)... and I have to say that I found it to be pretty lackluster as the contestants seemed more apt to making each other (and themselves) cry than wowing us with any sartorial finesse. And overall the competition seemed overshadowed by Kenley's tantrums. A series with that many seasons under its belt should know better and it's likely that it will be the last one I end up watching.

Best British Imports:

Doctor Who
Skins
Gavin & Stacey


In its fourth season, Doctor Who remained just as entertaining and exciting as ever, even as it introduced the Doctor's latest companion, Donna Noble (Catherine Tate, who originated the role in the 2006 Christmas Special, "The Runaway Bride"), easily the most heartbreaking character on the revival series. In a season that saw the return of three prior companions (including fan favorite Rose Tyler), it's the sacrifice that Donna makes that adds a sheen of loss and tragedy to this rip-roaring sci-fi adventure series. And its season finale altered the landscape of Doctor Who, featuring a final battle with some ancient enemies in the form of the Daleks and Davros and a bittersweet ending that had our Doctor (David Tennant) off on his own once again, just as he finally found a traveling companion who might have been his very equal.

Like a bolt from the blue, Skins has shown its devoted audience just what the teen drama genre is capable of, deftly turning out plots ranging from eating disorders and love triangles to the death of a parent, unwanted pregnancy, and teenage mortality. It also gracefully juggled a wide array of well-drawn characters that were alternately cruel, kind, funny, bitter, sly, witty, stupid, and gifted (often all at the same time) but who always remained sympathetic. At times laugh-out-loud funny and utterly traumatic, Skins redefined drama for the under-18 set while also remaining completely relatable to those of us who have left our teen years behind.

No romantic comedy has ever achieved the level of bittersweet emotion that Gavin & Stacey has managed to acquire. What started out as a simple love story between strangers--Essex lad Gavin and Welsh lass Stacey--transformed into a touching portrait of disparate national identities, the problems facing today's twenty-something lovers, and, well, omelettes. It's a rare thing to find a series that makes you laugh as much as it does make you cry, but Gavin & Stacey--created by co-stars Ruth Jones and James Corden--effortlessly achieves both ends with a wit and flair all its own.

Best British Import (Yet to Air in the States):

Ashes to Ashes

The sequel to the cult hit Life on Mars (which wrapped its series very early on in 2007 and thus gets an honorable mention), Ashes to Ashes follows a single mum forensic profiler who, after being shot in the head in 2008, finds herself seemingly sent back in time to 1981, where she encounters Gene Hunt, the New Romantics, a terrifying phantom Pierrot clown, and a mystery that involves the death of her parents. Can she figure out a way to return to her daughter in 2008 and cheat death? Both funnier and scarier than Life on Mars, Ashes to Ashes breathes new life into this franchise, which seemed to come to an end with John Simm's Sam Tyler. US audiences can catch this fantastic series beginning in March on BBC America.

Biggest Letdown from a Once Great Series:

The Office

I'll be blunt: The Office used to be one of my very favorite series but watching this sodden comedy has become more of a chore than a pleasure. While Amy Ryan's Holly Flax seemed to reinvigorate this comedy for a bit, her six-episode arc quickly came to an end and has left The Office at a bit of a loss this season. The comedy seems more prone to overwrought absurdity than tweaking humor from the mundane, Jim and Pam irritated me more than ever as a long-distance duo, and the moments of comedic genius, which The Office used to have in abundance, seem ever more isolated. To me, it's not Meredith who needs an intervention, it's The Office itself.

Best Canceled Series:

Pushing Daisies
The Wire

More than any other cancellation in recent television history (save perhaps, Arrested Development), I feel utterly betrayed by that of Pushing Daisies. After launching a nine-episode first season last fall (courtesy of the writers strike),
Pushing Daisies should have returned with new episodes in the spring... yet ABC unwisely chose to "relaunch" the series this fall and squandered both the creative momentum and the ratings Pushing Daisies had achieved in its first season. Hilarious, touching, and quirky, Pushing Daisies was unlike anything ever to air on network television and redefined genre-busting sensibilities, blending together supernatural drama, romance, humor, and mystery procedural into one tasty package that was as comforting as a slice of warm apple pie. You'll be missed.

Over the course of five compelling seasons, HBO's The Wire tackled every issue facing today's modern American cities--from corruption and the drug trade to the failing educational systems and underfunded police forces--and did so while juggling a cast of deeply flawed individuals each trying to cope with the lot that fate dealt them. But it was the series' Dickensian aspect that earned it a place in my heart, as it gave equal weight to cops, drug dealers, homeless people, hoppers, politcos, and teachers, creating a memorable fabric of a city on the brink of destruction. Season Five of The Wire may not have been the series' strongest--with an indictment of the media and Jimmy staging a series of homeless serial killings--but it also paid off the series' long-standing storylines in a powerful and memorable way. Likely, there will never be another series as raw and honest as this one.

Best US Comedies:

30 Rock
It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia
Chuck

Consistently belly-achingly hysterical, 30 Rock remains my favorite comedy on television and only seems to be getting better and better with age, even as it remains the most politically-minded program on television today. Not bad for a series that's allegedly just about the goings-on behind-the-scenes at an NBC comedy sketch series. In the hands of creator Tina Fey and her crack team of writers,
30 Rock continues to push the envelope for broadcast comedy, offering well-placed snarky jabs at the media elite, politicians, and pop culture icons while also giving the audience one of the most well-drawn (and realistic) portrait of a 2008 working woman in Liz Lemon. My only complaint: that it can't be on every single week, all year long. Blerg indeed.

Raunchy and provocative, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia is a raucous laugh riot from start to finish. Set in a low-rent Philly pub owned by a bunch of shallow, self-absorbed, and selfish losers,
It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia follows Seinfeld's adage that the funniest characters need not be the most sympathetic. It's the best exploration of arrested adolescence ever to hit the small screen and its absurdist plots--Mac and Charlie faking their deaths, a story about the cracking of the Liberty Bell, a forensic investigation into bed-bound fecal matter--reach to new depths of bizarre depravity and hilarity. I wouldn't have it any other way.

Chuck isn't quite a comedy but it is a series that skillfully manages to conflate comedy, romance, workplace intrigue, and action/adventure into one satisfying thrill-ride each week, all while remaining uproarious and emotionally satisfying. And Chuck has something for everyone: a star-crossed romance between Everyman Chuck (Zachary Levi) and his handler Sarah (Yvonne Strahovski), explosions, double-crosses, quirky best friends, and fancy spy technology. In its second season, Chuck has only gotten better: more funny, more gripping, more touching. And I can't wait to see where it takes us next.

Best US Dramas:

Lost
Battlestar Galactica
Mad Men


In its fourth season, Lost seemingly rewrote its own rules, having the fabled Oceanic Six made it off of the island and return to normal society and chucking out its own flashback technique in order to make use of a groundbreaking narrative format in which we now flashed forward, seeing the castaways who made it off of the island adapt to life back home and see Jack (Matthew Fox) come to the realization that they had to go back. A brilliant gambit that paid off in spades, the flash forwards added yet another layer of dread and mystery to a series already teeming with intrigue. Having an end date for the series has invigorated the path to that ultimate end of the franchise and made each and every installment count. Plus, "The Constant," in which Desmond (Henry Ian Cusick) travels through time and encounters physicist Daniel Faraday (Jeremy Davies) in his quest to find his lost love Penny (Sonya Walger), remains one of the very best single hours on television this year and a reminder of why Lost breaks nearly every one of television's rules, resulting in a series that anything but predictable.

Halfway done with its final season, Sci Fi's Battlestar Galactica has remained must-see TV for lovers of high quality drama. Despite its setting in the far-flung reaches of space,
Battlestar Galactica has remained a series that offers a dark mirror through which to view our own society, offering glimpses through the looking glass at the occupation in Iraq, racial cleansing, religious intolerance, human resistance, political tampering, civil war, and the hard choices governments must make in times of war. Having discovered Earth to be nothing but a radioactive wasteland, the crew of the Galactica--in an uneasy alliance with the Cylon race--learns to their dismay that we must all be careful what we wish for. There's still many mysteries to be solves as we begin the countdown to the series finale and I for one and dizzy with anticipation to see how Ronald D. Moore and David Eick manage to tie everything up.

AMC's Mad Men, which wrapped its second season earlier this year, is one of the most gripping dramas on television, regardless of what period of time it might be set in. Expertly recreating the 1960s with its attendant sexism, racism, and homophobia, Mad Men explores the public and private lives of the era's men and women with equal relish. This season produced some shocking twists, including Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) telling Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) that she gave birth to his child and gave it up for adoption, Betty (January Jones) kicking Don (Jon Hamm) out of the house, Don's trip to California and his rendezvous with the wife of the man whose identity he had stolen, and Peggy finally placing herself on equal footing with Don Draper. But none was more brutally shocking than the rape of Joan (Christina Hendricks), right in the offices of Sterling Cooper, by her supposedly "perfect" fiancé. Terrifying, brutal, and horrifying, the scene showed just how far women had come since then, just how little had truly changed, and just how quickly every vestige of power can be yanked away.

Best New Fall Series:

Fringe

I'll admit it: it was tough to find a new fall series that I could give the term "best" to. After a season that saw many new series strike out, only Fringe and The Mentalist emerged as justifiable ratings hits. Fringe is the far superior series and I'm somewhat enjoying it but I still have huge reservations about the series' choice to use self-contained storylines rather than serialized storytelling. (Additionally, I've twice now offered up suggestions on how to improve the series.) Fringe has an extraordinary amount of potential that I want the series to achieve sooner rather than later but it seems to be suffering in its execution: too much formula and water-treading and not enough layered mythology and trust in its audience.

And there we have it. A sampling of some of my favorites from 2008. As the year rapidly swings to a close, I'm curious to see what your favorite (and least favorite) series were, which shows you can't get enough of, and which ones you're happy to see the back of now.

Comments

Anonymous said…
Gotta love those British imports. I totally agree with you on your selection of Doctor Who, Skins, and Gavin & Stacey. All three of those shows are superb (each in their own, unique way). And I'm thrilled to hear (from your earlier post) that Gavin & Stacey will have a season three!
Anonymous said…
Your review made me realize that there really aren't very many decent 1/2 hour comedies on anymore. 30 Rock is brilliant and I love It's Always Sunny but also agree with you that The Office has taken a turn for the worst. I used to love that show and it makes me depressed how flat it's become.
Mazza said…
Awesome round up for this year. I agree re: Lost, Mad Men, 30 Rock, BSG and Skins. But I especially agree that the best series that was canceled this year was Pushing Daisies. I am going to miss Ned, Chuck, Olive, and Emerson more than anything. Come on ABC give fans a chance to see more PD!
Anonymous said…
Glad to see that Pushing Daisies, Mad Men, Lost, and The Wire all made your best of list. I can't help but feel that in just a few years time we'll look back and wonder what happened to all of the quality TV.
Anonymous said…
Thanks for giving the nod to Chuck! That show is awesome!
Tillie said…
I completely agree with your best reality shows and that Project Runway was a shell of its former self this season. I was hoping that it would be revived once moved, but it looks like we may never know. I am sad though that you don't watch Big Bang Theory. It's filled with the laughs that The Office has been missing lately.
Anonymous said…
Great to see that things like THE WIRE and SUNNY are still respected among critics. Not surprised by the love for LOST and 30 ROCK, they are two of the best T.V. shows around.
Anonymous said…
Nice list.

Can't remark on the reality shows as they are non grata in my viewing habits.

Top Shows for me this year:
Chuck
Lost
BSG
Burn Notice
True Blood
The Big Bang Theory

Dropped this year:
Heroes - what a train wreck. A case study on watching a show fritter away an initially interesting premise.
Anonymous said…
Oh and thanks for the shout out for the Lost episode - 'The Constant.' The Desmond/Penny romance was also touching but that episode really tugs at the heart strings.
Vance said…
Of all the shows you list that I watch, they will probably end up on my Tops list in some form or another too. And all the shows I don't watch are ones I've always planned to and sitting on my stack (once I find some breather time. Damn job!)

I really do like Fringe but I think the best new show of the fall season was by far Privileged which defied the cutesy premise and found a gap that someone manages to mix Gossip Girl with the wholesomeness of Gilmore Girls.
CL said…
No Sarah Connor, Jace? Merry Christmas, by the way.
Page48 said…
I cut "Heroes" loose a couple weeks back. Life is too short.

I'm still waiting for credible evidence that "Fringe" comes from the "Alias" brain trust. I've suggested that JJ/Orci/Kurtzman/Pinkner et al lock themselves away and watch the "Five Incredible Seasons" of "Alias" and then (and only then) come back and start writing "Fringe" storylines that are worthy of their heritage. I realize JJ found "Alias" hard to follow, so perhaps he should be dropped from the team before it's too late. Go serial or go home.

"Chuck" is a cute blend of comedy and Alias-lite, which is probably why underemployed "Alias" cast members occasionally pass through Chucktown.

BSG and "Lost" are excellent. Sarah Connor is under-rated and "Dollhouse" is highly anticipated but nerve-wracking.

Reality doesn't cut it. Haven't watched a sit-com since "Frasier".

There's nothing else on TV.
The Rush Blog said…
I don't think I would have included LOST or BATTLESTAR GALACTICA as among the best TV dramas. LOST's Season Five was rather spotty. I think too many people have judged it on its finale, while ignoring what I believe was a very mediocre season. The trials and travails of Oceanix Six, anyone? As for BSG, I found its last batch of episodes to be among the worst of the series.
Jace Lacob said…
Rush Blog,

Neither of those things are included in this list, which is my top TV picks of ***2008*** and was written in December of 2008, long before Lost launched its fifth season or BSG had its final episodes.

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