Nielsen ratings show that the most popular programs for 2008 included a singing duel between The Davids, Cloris Leachman pretending to dance, various teams of crime scene investigators investigating crime scenes and a group of doctors who are willing to have sex with ghosts when they can’t bang each other.
None of those shows made my Top 10 list.
But this isn’t some snobby list of cable shows that nobody but critics watch. Confession time: I just didn’t have the time and patience for “In Treatment,” so even though I have trusted friends who tell me it’s the best thing going, it didn’t make my list.
I also didn’t include shows like “House,” “The Office,” “Dexter” and “Weeds,” which have had featured places in my Top 10 in previous years.
No network has more than two shows on my list, but ABC, NBC and HBO all have two apiece.
Without any further ado… My Top 10…
10)”Survivor: Micronesia – Fan vs. Favorites” (CBS) – The 16th installment of CBS’ Cadillac of reality shows had a cumbersome title and some truly questionable “favorites” (Sorry, Cirie and Eliza). It also had an odd-ball winner in former foxy-boxer Parvati “My Last Name Isn’t An Accident” Shallow. But it also delivered some of the franchise’s finest moments, including Jonny Fairplay’s abrupt bailout, a pair of doctor-mandated surrenders, Ozzie getting blindsided, plus Erik making the stupidest move in series history. Best of all, it had comely Amanda making an unlikely run to the Top Three only to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory at the final Tribal Council for the second consecutive season.
9)”The Life and Times of Tim” (HBO)- From the first twang Hank Williams’ “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive” over its opening credits, HBO’s low-buzz slacker animated series was one of the fall’s most pleasant surprises, regularly providing laughs and genuine insight into day-to-day life in the white collar salt mines. Steve Dildarian’s hero Tim just wants to get ahead at work and spend time with his long-suffering girlfriend. Is it his fault his boss asks him to pretend to be Hispanic, his friends ask him to pretend he was raped by a bum and he enjoys the company of an uncouth neighborhood streetwalker? Tim’s problems are truly universal.
8)”Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog” – As you may have heard, there was a little strike in the spring. It was bad, especially for television, which was crippled for months. Joss Whedon’s musical story of a villain trying to save the world from its own corruption and a hero trying to get laid may be the best thing to come out of that time. It’s on the list for that reason, but also for another: With the opportunities for scripted television shrinking on the network landscape, “Dr Horrible” showcased a different way of doing business, a different way of promoting and marketing and distributing the most creative material available. I doubt it’s a business model many people who aren’t Joss Whedon are capable of making work, but if Ben Silverman wants to turn NBC’s primetime schedule over to Jay Leno, gladiators, weight-losers and briefcase babes, it’s worth it to find out.
7)”Lost” (ABC) – Credit Damon Lindelof and Carleton Cuse for realizing that viewers were only going to tolerate so many flashbacks that told us repeatedly that poor Dr. Jack has daddy issues. The introduction of flash-forwards rejuvenated the storytelling on the ABC drama’s fourth season and while there was still plenty of time to learn more about Jack’s daddy issues, we also got emotionally stunning episodes like “The Constant.” “Lost” may not be as hot as it was when it launched, but the fourth season reassured fans they were sticking around for a reason, even if we’re probably never going to get an answer for that four-toed foot.
6)”Pushing Daisies” (ABC)- Is it really the fault of “Pushing Daisies” that the series “Pie-lette” was an impossible act to live up to? When the show premiered last fall, I’d have expected Bryan Fuller’s whimsical fairy tale to be cancelled after four or five episodes. The fact that it will have survived 26 episodes is a minor miracle. I’m going to miss Emerson Cod and Olive Snook and Digby and Pigby and Chuck and the Piemaker. More than the individual characters, though, I’m going to miss the love of language that Fuller and his writing team brought to every episode, infusing each 44 minutes with more double-entendres, antiquated vocabulary, twisted syntax and delirious wordplay than any show since Fuller’s “Wonderfalls.” The show was just too special for mainstream television.
5)”Chuck” (NBC)- Operating in one of TV’s more brutal timeslots, “Chuck” has very quietly found its creative rhythm in its second season, delivering a string of fall episodes combining energetic stunts, geeky humor, well-ultized guest stars (as different as Nicole Richie and John Larroquette) and more hints of romance than ever before. In Zachary Levi and Yvonne Strahovski, “Chuck” has a great central pairing, but the show’s regular universe has expanded beyond that duo and with Adam Baldwin, Josh Gomez, Sarah Lancaster, Ryan McPartlin, Vik Sahay, Scott Krinsky, Mark Christopher Lawrence and Julia Ling, there’s a whole ensemble capable of carrying episodes and a crack writing team capable of giving them those opportunities. At its best, “Chuck” may be the most purely entertaining show on TV at the moment.
4)”30 Rock” (NBC)- MILF Island. The mysterious Teamster sandwiches. Cooter. Jenna in black-face. Suck it, monkeys, I’m going corporate! Tracy with a claw. Cooter. A “Night Court” reunion. Kenneth experiences TV. Liz gets out of jury duty by dressing as Princess Leia. Tracy makes a pornographic video game. I’m snitting next to Borpo.
3)”Mad Men” (AMC)– The first season of “Mad Men” was “The Don Draper Show,” as Jon Hamm’s ultra-confident ad-man dodged mysteries from his past and rarely broke a sweat. In the second season, Don unravelled. For some viewers that was an uncomfortable experience, but in the world of the series, Draper’s erratic behavior opened the door for the supporting characters to step up. In particular, the second season of “Mad Men” could almost have been subtitled “Mad Women,” with Elisabeth Moss, January Jones and Christina Hendricks rising to equal status with Hamm.
2)”The Wire” (HBO)- Alas, the fifth and final season was probably the weakest of the landmark HBO series’ run. That’s why it finds itself only at No. 2 on this list. David Simon’s analysis of the plight of contemporary journalism was, at times, a bit on-the-nose. That doesn’t mean he didn’t rip the newspaper world to shreds in biting, dramatic and accurate fashion. Conscious that the end of near, Simon worked to sculpt resolutions (not endings) for the residents of Baltimore viewers have grown to love and fear over the years. Some characters were redeemed. Others let us down. Some found validation and success, while others knew only tragedy. Oh and in case it never comes up again, the lifetime Emmy nomination tally stands with “The Wire” and “According to Jim” having two apiece.
1)The Election – Cop-out or catch-all? I’m saying this choice is the latter, because with only one new network show breaking out this fall (CBS’ derivative but totally serviceable “The Mentalist”), August-to-November was dominated by election coverage as in no other year previously. There was an election night where only The CW (airing new episodes of “90210” and “Privileged”) was immune to the excitement at hand, two extensively covered conventions and a trio of Presidential debates and one VP debate that trumped them all. But the television and the election discourse went together in unexpected ways, like Katie Couric’s endlessly rehashed interview with Sarah Palin, plus Tina Fey’s profile boosting impression of the Alaska governor. The Comedy Central late night hosts had their usual field day. “Saturday Night Live” enjoyed months of renewed relevance. Barack Obama bought out a primetime block across networks and cable. Maybe the reason why so many scripted shows failed this fall was because the unscripted drama was so much better.