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Top TV Picks of 2006

As it's nearly the end of the calendar year (only a few more days to go, in fact) and since I'm leaving behind sunny-yet-chilly Los Angeles for the warmer, tropical climes of Hawaii tomorrow for a much-needed break, 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, with freshman series dropping like flies (and the season's only half over!) and serialized dramas--those supposed saviors to each and every network--more or less ending up the TV equivalent of three-day-old socks. 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 below.

Best Reality Series:

The Amazing Race
Project Runway
Top Chef

While there are a host of other reality-based programs that have captured my heart over the course of the past year (Top Model, Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, 5 Takes, and Hell's Kitchen being just a sampling), the above three represent the epitome of my current reality TV fixation. The Amazing Race will always be a favorite of mine as long as the locations are exotic, Phil waits patiently (and points effusively) from the pit stop, and they never, ever revisit that Family Edition format again. Some surprise twists this season had me a little worried (that random elimination in episode 1, for example), but the series has managed to maintain a fresh vibrancy throughout its many seasons and continues to be the best exploration of human relationships (particularly romantic ones) on television. Reality dating shows, take note.

Project Runway engages me in a way I never thought possible and has shown erstwhile fashion designers to be the catty, ego-centric, manipulative little minxes that they really are (in the best possible way!) and has hands-down the best TV host on any series in the form of the walking lexicon Tim Gunn, who proves that being a reality series host doesn't mean being cruel or vindictive.

Finally, Top Chef is a no-brainer here as I'm an unrepentant foodie and love seeing the drama in and out of the kitchen as these chefs compete for the top prize and are put through the ringer with a series of complex, bizarre, and "shocking" culinary challenges each week. Proving that food is just as much an art form as fashion, Top Chef entertains as much as it entices and educates. And that's something I can raise a glass to.

Worst Wardrobe on a Reality TV Series Host:

Padma Lakshmi, Top Chef.

Leather vests. Need I say more? Paging Tim Gunn...

Best British Imports:

Doctor Who
Black Books
Jamie's School Lunch Project

This was one of the toughest categories to narrow down to three contenders (I couldn't be a greedy bastard and choose five), so I went with one drama, one comedy, and one reality series to comprise this category.

Life on Mars
would have ended up here, but Doctor Who's second season--and its new incarnation of the Doctor, played with manic aplomb by Viva Blackpool's David Tennant, is consistently engrossing, mind-blowingly bizarre, and just plain cool. Two of my favorite hours this season came from Doctor Who ("The Girl in the Fireplace" and "School Reunion" to be precise) and I love how the series keeps reinventing itself with new faces (not to mention new actors) but still radiates a consistency and vibrancy all its own, in the capable reins of showrunner Russell T. Davies.

It was tough choosing a favorite comedy to place here as there are so many bloody good choices (Peep Show, Spaced, Little Britain) to choose from, but if I had to pick one (and I did), it would have to be Black Books. Despite the presence of a laugh track (which you'll soon forget exists as you'll soon be laughing OVER it), Black Books is one rip-roaring laughter-laden stew of absurdity, black humor, and misanthropic mirth ever devised. Bill Bailey, Dylan Moran, and Tamsin Greig are the simply the very best comedy cast assembled and once you've been seduced by the (dubious) charms of Manny Bianco, Bernard Black, and Fran Katzenjammer, this is one run-down, musty old bookshop you'll keep coming back to.

Jamie's School Lunch Project is one of the most important reality series that you've never seen. It follows celebrity chef Jamie Oliver as he spends two months in the school cafeterias of England and is shocked to discover what the nation's children are eating for their school lunches and that the government is only budgeting a few measly pence per day to feed these kids. His mission is to overhaul the school lunch program, introduce healthy and tasty food (with an emphasis on fresh fruit and veg), and give these kids a fighting chance at life. Informative and heartbreaking, this is gonzo reality television at its best, offering a life-changing and thought-provoking respite from inane game shows and drunken housemates.

Biggest Letdown from a Once Great Series:

Gilmore Girls.

Seasons 6 and 7 have forever destroyed one of my favorite television series of all time. Fortunately, I have my DVD box sets of the early years of Lorelai and Rory Gilmore to keep me company these days. I think you can literally see the very moment when the show drifted into the wrong direction, careening right over those double yellow lines into oncoming traffic. Ouch.

Best US Comedies:

The Office
30 Rock
Arrested Development

Few series manage to be as consistently funny, touching, and sometimes outwardly depressing as the US version of The Office. Proving itself capable of standing on its own two feet (and out of the shadow of Ricky Gervais' groundbreaking original version), The Office has come into its own in 2006, delivering classic episodes that can be viewed again and again (despite the pain from laughing so much). In its characters Michael, Dwight, Pam, and Jim (not to mention the entire extended cast of characters that populate Dunder-Mifflin Scranton), showrunner Greg Daniels and the Office writing team has given us heightened versions of our own office mates and 9-t0-5 lives. Hands down, this is the funniest thing on television today.

I surprised myself by putting 30 Rock on here, but I just can't get the damn show off of my mind grapes, especially since NBC did something smart for a change and created an entire Thursday night lineup of single-cam comedy greats. The show's gotten a hell of a lot more funny since Tina Fey let her Liz Lemon character play the straight man for a change, letting her loose in a madhouse populated by deranged sketch comedy stars, kooky network execs, and beeper salesman boyfriends. It might be set in showbiz, but at its heart it's a brilliant (and bizarro) workplace comedy. Keep on truckin', Girlie Show staffers.

Despite only airing four episodes in 2006 (and all on one night, thank you very much, FOX), Arrested Development has to be on this list for giving us one of the weirdest comedies ever created and prophesying the now ubiquitous TiVo effect that appears in everything from Lost to The Office. Bluths, your brand of wacky humor and love and loathing is dearly missed.

Best Cancelled Series:

Arrested Development

Like you expected anything else. It's nearly a full year since the cancellation of absurdist comedy Arrested Development and I still can't get it out of my head. All I can say is thank god for DVDs, reruns on G4, and the fact that the Bluths ever made it onto the air, much less lasted (nearly) three seasons on FOX, of all places. Still, curious to see what Mitch Hurwitz is able to do with the US adaptation of the scathing satire The Thick of It.

Best US Dramas:

Battlestar Galactica
Veronica Mars

It's no secret that I'm completely enamoured with Veronica Mars, which in its third season manages to still keep me completely hooked with its interpersonal dynamics, the best father/daughter relationship on TV, and noir-tinged mysteries that twist and turn with every new clue. Plus, it's got some of the snappiest patter around and Veronica and Logan may very well be this century's equivalent of Nick and Nora.

Some detractors may have eliminated Lost from this list, but not me. I'm still wildly addicted to this series and miss my Wednesday night fix very much indeed. It's also proven that people weren't tuning into ABC every week out of habit (thank you very much, Day Break), but rather for the labyrinthine plots, compelling characters, and complex storytelling. Sorry, naysayers, but unless Jack suddenly becomes the lost-long avatar of a dead god worshipped by the Others and foretold in some ancient text deciphered by Walt, I'm in it for the long haul.

Battlestar Galactica
has, over the course of its two-and-a-half-and-counting seasons, managed to hook me in a way that few dramas can, delivering a consistently taut metaphor for the war on Iraq one week, a haunting look inside alien culture the next, followed by a kick-ass space opera that's one of the most intelligently written and complex (not to mention beautiful) series on television today and which forces us to examine our own humanity in the face of, if not the Others, than the Other.

And there we have it. A sampling of some of my favorites from 2006. 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.

What's On Tonight

8 pm: The King of Queens/The King of Queens (CBS); Identity (NBC); Next Top Model: British Invasion 2 (CW; 8-10 pm); George Lopez/George Lopez (ABC); Bones (FOX); Wicked Wicked Games (MyNet)

9 pm: Criminal Minds (CBS); Dateline (ABC); According to Jim/George Lopez (ABC); Bones (FOX); Watch Over Me (MyNet)

10 pm: CSI: New York (CBS); Medium (NBC); Primetime: Basic Instinct (ABC)

What I'll Be Watching

8 pm: Next Top Model: British Invasion 2.

Okay, Top Model might be over and CariDee was crowned the victor, but I need my ANTM fix... Fortunately, the CW is giving us a highlights package of the second season of Blighty version of Top Model. So sit back, relax, and prepare to unleash your inner model.

10 pm: Top Chef on Bravo.

It's the second season of Bravo's culinary competition Top Chef. On tonight's episode, chefs must create a seven course dinner inspired by... something "shocking" for Debi Mazur and guests. Meanwhile Ilan and Marcel clash, Ilan tells Marcel to "keep making [his] foams and go cry in the corner," and several of the chefs are accused of committing a culinary sin, leading Marcel to yet again arrogantly lash out at the judges. I'm counting the hours!


Anonymous said…
"In its characters Michael, Dwight, Pam, and Tim (not to mention the entire extended cast of characters that populate Dunder-Mifflin Scranton..."

Typo....or freudian slip? ;)
Anonymous said…
Good list! I think it's interesting that most of the best dramas on TV right now are Sci-Fi. (Battlestar, Dr. Who, Lost, Life on Mars.) Sci-Fi has definitely come a long way!

Great comedy picks. I'd also like to add honorable mentions for "Everybody Hates Chris" and "Old Christine" which have brought back the family comedy in a creative way.
Anonymous said…
Great list! Our end-of-the-year picks were actually the same for several categories. I'm not sure Top Chef rises to the level of Project Runway and TAR yet, though. Mostly because its judges and hosts have lacked personality. But once they get that together, I think it'll be a great show.

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