Monday, December 25, 2006

Best of 2006: Top 10 TV Series

It was a pretty good year for TV. Three of the series on this list are new ones, and a couple of old ones reached new heights. Perhaps best of all, only one series on the list is over, so we could see some returners next year.

10. Entourage

It wasn't the show's best season, but it's still one of the warmest, funniest comedies on TV. The characters may not be the most admirable, but the show maes you appreciate them for what they are. There's a large element of fantasy here, but it's not like they're flaunting their wealth, it's like you're a part of their crew, the fifth member of the entourage. This season's highlight was the Almost Famous homage in the second episode, and Martin Landau's guest arc. The ending took a convincing turn to the dramatic, with a great cliffhanger that sets us up for an interesting fourth season.

9. Heroes

The show suffers a bit from Lost syndrome, namely the sense that they're making it up as they go along with the goal of keeping the audience watching rather than putting character development at the priority, but every single episode has delivered something fascinating and worth watching. It's one of the best looking shows on TV, and while it might not reach Watchmen level, it's at least up to Rising Stars level in terms of a superheroes in the real world story. If the show does pay off the major hints they've been laying, we could be in for something really special. I'm happy that such a decidedly genre show is finding success with a mainstream audience.

8. Rescue Me

I'm still going through the third season, up to episode nine, but it's been good enough to place it here on the list. The show is capable of incredibly powerful scenes, as we watch Tommy's cold exterior crack, some very broad and hilarious comedy, and also some missteps. But, the show's remarkably consistent, I've never disliked an episode, and even though some of the developments in this season were contrived, the cast makes it watchable. If nothing else, Leary and Tolan manage to perfectly capture this world and the values of those who live in.

7. Big Love

I wasn't too keen on this show when I first watched it, but it grew one me as the season went on. The characters developed nicely, particularly Margie and Sarah. The conflicts between the internal values of the Henrickson's and the world at large are ripe for drama, and give the series a central moral focus that prevents it from drifting off into soap opera. I'm not sure if there's five seasons of drama in this show, but there's a couple more at least, and a cast this good can make even fairly standard scripts into gold. In terms of pure acting chops, no cast on TV can match this bunch.

6. Gilmore Girls

This ranking is for the end of the sixth season, not the stuff that's aired in this TV season. That year was one of the show's best, finishing the story of Lorelai's deep repression depression surrounding the sudden appearance of Luke's daughter April. Lauren Graham did her best work in the series' entire run, culminating in her wedding toast breakdown and rush to Christopher at the end of the year. The show's millieu never changed, but now we could see deep pain beneath Lorelai's snappy banter. It was tough to watch, but made for incredibly compelling TV.

5. 24

After the first season of 24, I thought it would be impossible to top it, certainly nothing could match the scope of having Jack's family kidnapped and a presidential assassin on the loose. Well, each season has raised the bar, and this was no exception. I'm not sure if it was better that season four, but we got some of the best stuff on the show yet. The opening, wiht Palmer and Michelle's death was shocking, and Edgar's death was one of the saddest moments of the series to death. More than before, we got a sense of how the day's events affected those involved. And, as always, at the center was Jack Bauer. I like that the show now acknowledges Bauer's superhuman skill at saving the world. This is better than any action you'll see in the movie theater.

4. Friday Night Lights

The best new show of the year, this is that rare show that has a totally distinct voice. Like Freaks and Geeks, this may use a high school setting and some soapy plotlines, but it belongs our reality rather than TV reality, and that's refreshing. The cinematography is consistently fantastic, as is the music. Lately, the characters are getting deeper, and the show's getting funnier. It's smart, entertaining and addictive, everything a great TV show should be.

3. Battlestar Galactica

If I was grading the show on its best work, the seven episode run from Downloaded to Exodus II, this'd easily be at number one. At its best, no show on TV can match the moral complexity and scope of the series. However, the other episodes have been frustratingly uneven. It's precisely because the show can be so good that it's tough to watch an off week. But, the good definitely outweighs the bad, the first four episodes of this season was one of the best runs of any show ever.

2. Arrested Development

Only five episodes aired this year, but they were some of the series' best. In the final run, things just went off the rails into increasingly bizarre territory. There was the absurdly meta Save Our Bluths, followed by the classic Justine Bateman hooker episode. Then the Iraq episode and finally the series finale. When the show got cancelled, I was really hoping it'd get picked up by Showtime, but the series finale did such a good job of tying everything up, I didn't need anymore. The show was always odd, but never more so than in the final run. It's the best sitcom ever to air on American television, and at least the cancellation means we'll never have to suffer through a compromised or lesser version of the show.

1. The Sopranos

This season received a lot of criticism, largely because of the two year gap between the fifth and sixth seasons. The first half of the season was as strong as the show's ever been, with a run of six classics. The Sopranos seems to operate on a whole different level from every other show. While I love Six Feet Under and Buffy more, they feel like typical TV shows done at the absoulte apex of the form. The Sopranos is artier, more challenging and ambiguous. When you watch a bad episode of most shows, you usually think you're smarter than the show. Watching the backhalf of the season, I felt like I wasn't smart enough to fully appreciate it. Chase deliberately messed with our expectations and it was frustrating. I think he might have gone too far in dedramatizing things, but he's always succeeded by doing things differently, and even if this isn't setup for something big in the final miniseason, it's still compelling on its own merits. The show is about the decline of the mob, and it's fitting that we see Tony not go out in a bang, but instead just fade out. The end of the season did a good job of dramatizing that change. It might not be as far ahead of everything else as it once was, but the show is still operating on another level from the rest of television. That's why it's the best show of the year.


Anonymous said...

what about prison break and lost man

Patrick said...

I gave up on Lost midway through season two. I really hated the fact that they did all their character development through the flashbacks. If someone crashed and was stranded on an island, you think that would change them more than some random bad things that happened to them in the past. I saw a couple of episodes from season three, but it seemed to be up to the same glacial pacing and character development as before.

I will admit there are some fascinating ideas in every episode, and I kept watching so long because every time I was ready to drop it, something incredibly cool came along, making me watch another couple of episodes, But, eventually I gave up.

And, I haven't seen Prison Break, but I may do a DVD catchup when I finish Babylon 5. It's in season two now, right?