Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Best of 2008: TV

This year in TV continued the Golden Age of television, as some of my all time favorite series had career best seasons. Doctor Who, Mad Men and Battlestar all offered their best years yet, and beneath them was a fairly deep bench of really solid, but unexceptional series that all fall somewhere in between great and just ok, depending on the episode. The class of 2008 doesn’t look to have any all time classics, but there’s a lot of potential there.

10. Life on Mars
Best Episode: ‘The Man Who Sold the World’

There’s a bunch of shows on this list that are very much “TV good.” The best of Golden Age TV has been the kind of stuff that is said to ‘transcend’ television. How many times have we heard The Sopranos is more like a movie than a TV show? Life on Mars is very much the sort of thing that feels like a TV show, it looks good, but it’s not particularly artistic, and the characters generally follow that TV protocol of the illusion of change, stuff happens, but it doesn’t seem to add up to change that much. Still, if TV good was good enough for everyone watching TV before 1995, it can be good enough for me from time to time. The acting on this show is fantastic, and it’s still fun to watch Sam Tyler adrift in the alien world of the 1970s. It’s a show that has incredibly promising moments, these trippy interludes that are great fun and hint at a much larger world underneath the procedural storytelling that the show is structured around. What side of things will they emphasize next year? Who knows, but I am eager to see the show come back.

9. True Blood
Best Episode: ‘I Don’t Want to Know’

Speaking of TV good, True Blood barely even reaches that level, it’s more at TV so bad it’s good a lot of the time. I wanted more from Alan Ball’s followup to Six Feet Under, one of the greatest TV shows of all time, but this is still an entertaining show, one that had some really good moments and some really weak ones over the course of its first season. The central problem is that most of the characters were pretty bland, only Anna Paquin’s Sookie and Bill really popped out of the core cast. But, as the series went on, some of the supporting cast, particularly Lafayette, started to stand out, and during the Amy/Eddie arc, there’s plenty of great moments. However, the show stumbled in its final episode, with an absolutely arbitrary murderer revelation, and a barely there cliffhanger that didn’t really pay off anything the season had been to date. I still think the premise is strong, and the show was usually entertaining, but I doubt that it’ll ever be truly great. But, it’s still quite entertaining.

8. Swingtown
Best Episode: ‘Cabin Fever’

This is a classic example of a really strong “TV good” show. Nobody’s confusing the series for art, but it hits the emotional beats that you really want from an ongoing serial narrative. The characters are well realized, and I found myself drawn into their emotional dramas even as I was aware of the emotional manipulation the series was creating. Sure, there were way too many episodes that involved someone having a party and all the characters going, but there was some great subtle change in the characters over the course of the season. Watching the show brought back memories of Buffy or Six Feet Under, and the joy you get from just investing in characters’ lives. It never hit the heights of those two series, but it was a really solid season, and I’m sorry that the show won’t be back for a second round.

7. 30 Rock
Best Episode: ‘Cooter’

The show has been a bit less consistent this season than in past years. The onslaught of guest stars got old, but an episode like “Reunion” reminded me just how good the show could be. That was the year’s best comedy episode, with the hilarious Braverman impression, and the show’s over the top flaunting of its snobbishness and disdain for the ‘common man.’ The abbreviated second half of season two had some classics as well, particularly last season’s hilarious, and emotionally true, finale, “Cooter.” It’s the closest thing we’ve got an Arrested Development successor on TV today.

6. Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles
Best Episode: ‘The Tower is Tall, But the Fall is Short’

This is a show that I almost gave on a couple of times. I stopped watching during the first season, then caught up on DVD. As year two progressed, I almost dropped it again. The episodes didn’t have that much continuity, it was a b-movie of the week type thing, but starting in mid season two, things started to knit together better, the characters became more defined, and the universe of the series kept expanding to more interesting directions. It’s a really strange show because there’s no clear focus, it’s got so many different plotlines going on and they all involve strange philosophical questions about predestination and the nature of humanity. I love the addition of Jessie, who’s managed to make the initially boring Riley into an interesting character. There’s just a lot of interesting stuff going on, and you never know what you’re going to get from week to week. The lack of cohesion is still a problem to some degree, but the show has made a vast improvement, which will hopefully continue when it’s paired with Dollhouse next year.

5. The Daily Show/Colbert Report

Normally I keep these sort of lists confined to traditional scripted series, but this year, I’ve got to give props to two of the funniest, most insightful political commentaries on TV. I don’t know if I can add anything to the myriad praise both series have already received, but it’s still amazing how these shows can be simultaneously funny, and cutting in their assessment of a political world gone mad. The Daily Show still struggles to find new correspondents who are as good as Colbert or Rob Corddry were a few years ago, but Stewart is as sharp as ever. And, it’s amazing that the seemingly one joke schtick of The Colbert Report could grow into an entire skewed universe that can be goofier than The Daily Show ever is, and occasionally surprise you with an absolutely brutal condemnation of the policies of those in power. And, if the past few weeks of political scandals tell you anything, it’s that the shows will have no shortage of material, even after Obama takes office.

4. Battlestar Galactica
Best Episode: ‘The Hub’

After an underwhelming back half of season three, BSG soared forth with its best set of episodes yet. It feels like forever since the show was on, but as I recall, each episode of the fourth season was really strong, nicely building on the tension inherent in the third season’s closing revelation of the final four, the show was more complex and emotionally engaging than ever. And, thankfully, we’ve only got a month left until the show finally returns for its final bow.

3. The Wire
Best Episode: ‘Late Editions’

It wasn’t the show’s finest season, mainly due to the not quite fully formed newspaper storyline. However, I think the show deserves a bit more year end love than it’s been getting because there was no show that had me more hooked on a week to week basis than this final run of The Wire. So much is written about the show’s sociological content and intellectual merit, but beyond all that, this is one addictive piece of fiction. “Got that WMD” indeed, I would stay up until 3 or 4 AM every Sunday night, waiting for the new episode to show up On Demand. The season did a great job of resolving the series’ ongoing character arcs, particularly the beautiful Bubbles ascent out of the basement, juxtaposed against the kids’ fall. It was a fitting final run for one of the greatest TV series of all time.

2. Mad Men
Best Episode: ‘Jet Set’

Mad Men had one of the strongest first seasons of any show in history, but Matt Weiner and co. still managed to top it with an introspective, often surreal and always compelling second outing. Don Draper is one of the most fascinating characters in TV history, made all the more so by the blank slate he projects to the world almost all the time, broken only occasionally by strange events, such as his encounter with a group of European vagabonds in the season’s best episode, “Jet Set.” This show is picking up the mantle of 60s European art cinema, deepening our understanding of the series’ universe with each episode. This series is the heir to The Sopranos, and like that legendary series, it’s the important commentary on contemporary American society in any medium.

1. Doctor Who
Best Episode: ‘Forest of the Dead’

I love all kinds of shows and movies, I can appreciate the artsy personal ennui of Mad Men or the gritty realism of The Wire, but there’s still part of me that responds more than anything to the sort of crazy sci-fi epic that Doctor Who at its best is. This season was by far my favorite of the series, there’s no outright clunkers, a swath of solid mid-level episodes, and a disproportionate amount of all time classics. The Russell Davies scripted three part closing arc is more epic than the show has been to date, from the fanboy joy of seeing characters from all three series brought together to the utter tragedy of Donna’s fate. Nothing else on TV emotionally engages me like this series, it may be galaxy spanning alien wars, but the show manages to puncture right to the heart of the emotional issues we all deal with. “Forest of the Dead,” the season’s high point, spun through a multitude of different realities, and managed to make one off characters extremely memorable. No series stuck in my head like this one did, when The Wire ended, it was all resolved, this one’s stuck in my head and had me eagerly awaiting the series’ real continuation when Moffat comes on board in 2010.

1 comment:

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Thank you a lot for sharing! These are really the best films of 2008!