Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Listmania: The Best of TV in 2008

First, because I’m expecting a lot of outrage from obsessive TV watchers, let me explain the methodology for my choices. In ranking a show, I am comparing it not only to all the other series out there, but also to previous seasons of the show. This would explain, for example, the relatively low ranking of The Wire, whose fifth and final season, while better than anything else on TV, was weaker than the four seasons that preceded it. And let me apologize for not including Mad Men. I just don’t get all the fuss about it.

The Best Shows

1) Lost

Let’s start by taking a moment to laugh at all of those who gave up on Lost during the admittedly weak first six episodes of the third season. Then, let’s take another moment to laugh at those who suggested Heroes was a better show than Lost. The thing is, Lost never really lost (yes, that’s an obvious pun) its mojo. Even the supposedly slow second season is awesome when watched continuously on DVD. But the shortened fourth season is easily the best and most audacious season yet. The sci-fi elements came to the fore, the pace quickened and the few flashbacks there were (Locke being continuously visited by Richard Alpert being the most prominent) gave answers about questions that mattered rather than explaining where Jack got his tattoos. The more prominent role played by Ben Linus (Michael Emerson), who along with Terry O’Quinn is the best actor on the show, also helped with the quality of the season, Think back to the best moments of the season, and chances are they will involve Ben. The desperation in Ben’s voice as, in an unsuccessful gambit, he frantically tells Keamy that he really doesn’t care about his daughter and the shattered look on his face after she is killed. And who can ever forget the chilling moment in the finale when Ben takes his revenge by frantically stabbing Keamy? As Locke asks him what he’s done, Ben chillingly replies, “So.” It was the frequency of these little moments that keep the mythology of the show believable. Jin asking Sun, “Is the baby mine?”, Sawyer whispering in Kate’s ear before taking a plunge from the helicopter and, of course, The Constant, which would surely top every list for best episode of the year. I must admit I was close to tears when Desmond met Penny in the past (or did that count as the present?) and begged her to give him his phone number. The 2004 phone call at the end of the episode was similarly heartbreaking and handled with extreme sensitivity.

2) The Office

For the purposes of this list, I am only including those episodes which aired in 2008, which would include the tail end of season four and the first nine episodes of season five. For a more detailed dissection of what makes The Office the most consistently funny comedy on television (sorry, 30 Rock fans), check out this New Yorker piece comparing the US and British versions of the show. I’m going to mainly concentrate on Amy Ryan. Her character Holly, who replaced Toby in Human Resources in the season four finale, was the perfect foil for Michael. She can be as naïve as Michael (the way she believed that Kevin is mentally challenged, whose behavior hilariously did nothing to challenge that notion) and as dorky (the Lazy Scranton rap in the first episode of this season and the Physical parody in the second). Ryan’s send-off was also perfectly appropriate, as she and Michael sing Life is a Highway multiple times. Ultimately, Holly was a smarter version of Michael. Unlike him, she realized that a long-distance relationship wouldn’t work. Oh, and major props to the writers for the way they handled the Jim-Pam engagement. Getting two of your main characters together has destroyed lesser shows like Moonlighting and Cheers, but has only improved The Office.

3) Friday Night Lights

I really shouldn’t like this show. I hate teen soap operas and don’t understand American football. But none of that really matters when you have such a top notch ensemble. The second season, with its murder plot and general melodrama, was mediocre, but what should be the final season of this ratings-challenged is a return to form. The interaction between Mr and Mrs Coach may be the best thing about the show, but this season also brought out the best in Matt Saracen, Smash Williams and Jason Street. Plot is really of no consequence in FNL; the only reason to watch this show is its minute observations of small-town Texas and the fantastic acting.

4) The Wire

A journalist friend of mine once mis-defined penultimate in a story as more ultimate than ultimate rather than next to last. Both definitions would be appropriate for The Wire. While it would be a mistake to concentrate too much on individual episodes as The Wire is meant to be digested as a season-length arc, the penultimate episode always brings together the various storylines in immensely satisfying and uncontrived ways. In Late Edition, the second last episode of the final season, we learn the fate of the four children of the fourth season as Michael kills Snoop without any hint of violence or malice and is forced to say a tender goodbye to his beloved brother Bug. My only quibble with this season was the portrayal of the Baltimore Sun. Probably because I am a journalist myself, the depiction of the newspaper just didn’t ring true. Then again, if I was a dock worker, my least favorite season would probably be the second one.

5) Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles

Yes, I know how ridiculous this show is. It’s plot has as many holes as Heroes (which is surely the worst show on television) and Thomas Dekker and Shirley Manson are terribly wooden actors. But if you don’t think too much about it, this is actually a really fun show. Most of the credit for that goes to Summer Glau, who should be familiar to fans of Firefly. As the good terminator, she has shown some subtle signs of independence and human feeling, which should come to the fore if the show is renewed for another season. I’m hoping the upcoming Terminator movie with Christian Bale as John Connor will incorporate some elements of this show. Overall, each episode has enough thrills and twists to keep me watching. It is also the most improved show on TV after a boring first season.

Other random stuff from the year in television:

The funniest scene of the year: Alec Baldwin of 30 Rock channels Redd Fox and many others in increasingly hilarious impersonations. How does this guy not win every award out there while Jeremy Piven wins an Emmy every fucking year?

Best ever Devil: Ray Wise (a television legend for his role as Leland Palmer in Twin Peaks) plays the devil as a cross between a horny teenager and a used car salesman in Reaper.

A great performance in an otherwise mediocre show: John Noble as the mentally challenged genius in Fringe. His non-sequiters always have me laughing but he also manages to bring out some pathos.


supersizeme said...

I heart lost! #1 brother!!
what about this scene? this makes me well up too!

love the video you've linked brother, haha!

i loved how season 4 had flash''forwards'' (of the future) instead of the usual past.
i definitely agree with you about the constant, that was one baaad episode!
what about the finale when jin gets left behind and the helicopter flies off, i was wailing louder than sun!
yep definitely, those initial 6 episodes of lost 3 were awful, the kate and sawyer story just didn't flow!
whenever i ask anyone if they watch lost, they usually say they dont watch it as heroes is better and the most typical response is ''i got lost with lost'' and then go off surprised, amused and smug with their very original choice of words!
oh.. i could go on forever about lost.. i'd better shut up now.

i dont watch the rest of what's in the list. what about prison break? that's sheer brilliance, another favourite.
24 season 6 should be starting soon (?) and tony almeida is still aliiiive! cant wait!

bubs said...

Yeah, the flash forwards were a stroke of genius. I'm really interested in what structure they'll take for the next season. I'm guessing in the present time, the Oceanic 6 will be trying to get back to the island while in the flashbacks we'll see what happened with Locke and those left behind on the island. Eventually (the finale, probably), we'll get everyone back together.

Even though the first six episodes of season three weren't that great, at least we got to know Ben and Juliet pretty well, so that's one redeeming feature.

Jin was one of my favourite characters and he's supposedly going to pop up now and then. It'll be interesting to see how they work that in. Claire won't be in the next season but is supposed to come back for season six. I would also have loved to see a Rosseau flashback but with her dead I guess that won't happen.

I really liked 24 until season five. After the nuclear explosion, it really lost its way, rehashing old story lines (Jack going into another foreign embassy, CTU being taken over by terrorists). And as much as I love Tony Almeida, I'm a bit worried that his reappearance will be a bit unrealistic; despite realism and 24 being mutually exclusive I hope its not too dumb.

Btw, season 6 of 24 starts mid-Jan and they've already aired a slightly above average two-hour movie linking season 5 and 6. Lost comes back Jan 21 with a two-hour premier.

zak said...

I like TTSCC..its quite a good show and deserves a good audience..I agree with Lost it really has rediscovered itself and even surpassed itself.

How can you not mention Battlestar galactica?!

Ahsan said...

You're forgetting the Daily Show, which reached new heights in its coverage of the primaries and the election.

naqiya said...

dude! you forgot south park's the "china probrem"?? seriously?? that was like the best 1/2 hour of tv this whole year.

AKS said...

@ Bubs

Dude, 30 Rock should certainly deserves to be on the list. It's good to see someone acknowledging the awesomeness of Alec Baldwin. Having said that, discounting the last (crappy) season of Entourage, Jeremy Piven is hilarious.

I watched a bit of the first season of the Terminator series but wasn't that impressed, I guess I should perserver till season 2.

I miss Firefly.

@ Ahsan

The Daily Show's coverage of the elections was pretty good but they covered little else, which I guess is to be expected in an election year. BUT even when they did cover non-political issues, it just wasn't as good.

I'm really liking John Oliver, he's become my favourite correspondent.

Ahsan said...


Aasif Mandvi. End of discussion.

By the way, this is Rob Riggle's last week on the show.

Asfandyar said...

FNL is brilliant. Is the second season done? Time to head over to the torrents I suppose.

Also, you missed out Dexter (if you haven't seen it, that's different). A very intelligent show.

AKS said...

1) Most Frustrating Show

A Town Called EUREKA.

The show has a brilliant premise - a town founded by Einstein where everyone is a kooky genius - but the crappies story-lines.

2) Most Infuriating Show

BrassTacks With Zaid Hamid

Mr Hamid, an ex-Mujahid and present day 'security consultant' who believes that: the Zionist want to destroy Pakistan as the Jews want to exterminate Muslims; the CIA / RAW / Mossad is responsible for every bombing / murder / act of social, moral corruption in Pakistan; Pakistan can annihilate India, etc.

Imagine a more self righteous Hamid Gul, now hand him a weekly show - voila, you've got BrassTacks.

Worst Show

Grey's Anatomy (surely?)

Sappy Music, hot doctor falls for dying patient, patient dies, crying, more crying. Repeat cycle every 3 episodes.

Worst TV Special

The Olympics. Man, were they boring.

bubs said...

Zak: I'm withholding judgment on this season of Battlestar Galactica until the second half of the season airs.

Naqiya: China Problem would be on a list of the ten best episodes of the year (but not the top five). There is no way I would ever include South Park as one of the best shows of the year.

Ahsan: I haven't put any current affairs shows, late-night comedy, specials or web-only series, simply because I haven't watched enough of them. Had I included them, TDS, The Colbert Christmas special and Dr Horrible's Sing Along Blog could have made it.
I also think its debatable if TDS has reached new heights. While Jon Stewart is a much better interviewer - maybe the best on TV - the correspondents from 2000 to 2004 were much better. Just watch Even Stephen and This Week in God or any Steve Carell segment.

AKS: I gave up on Entourage midway through the last season. While Jeremy Piven is good, he doesn't deserve four Emmy's in a row. I also thought the last few episodes of season two and the beginning of season three of 30 Rock haven't been their best while The Office has been as good as ever.

Asfandyar: The third season on FNL is nearly wrapping up. Dexter has gone down so much this season that I'm seriously considering giving up on it altogether.

Anonymous said...

psp: hi there. i don't know how many seasons of 'lost' have been aired in pakistan, but the show does get really dull towards the end of season 4. more and more ridiculous twists and turns just to keep the story going have made it into a really vapid show. the gripping opening season and a taut follow through of season 2 is just a distant memory now :(

zeyd said...

Wow, I haven't even heard of half the shows mentioned. Having said that I've only seen like 10 different shows in my life so it's easy to be oblivious.

My all time top 5 for what it's worth:

1) Monty Python
2) South Park
3) The Office (U.K)
4) The Simpsons
5) The Sopranos

I've seen Curb Your Enthusiasm, Extras, a bit of Seinfeld, some Heroes and obviously The Daily Show as well, but none of them make it to a top 5.

Oh yeah I forgot Weeds, watched a bit of that too when I was, uhhhh, bored.

Asfandyar said...


I adore season 3. Nothing will ever top season 1, but for me season 2 wasn't as strong as it could've been, but season 3 has brought the mojo back. Definitely.

Heroes was heading towards shit near the end of the first season. I liked Mad Men though, haven't seen season 2 as yet.

AKS: Grey's Anatomy has to be one of the worst shows ever.

zeyd said...

Thinking further back and I can't believe I didn't put Blackadder or Fawlty Towers on my list. Fawlty has to be there so I'm taking The Sopranos out!

supersizeme said...

noooo.. hahahaha!

bubs if i started planning out the seasons like that i'd risk ruining all the excitement for myself, but you've got a pretty sound idea for season 5, i like!

juliette and ben, no way! i couldn't stand either and when she was chirpsing up jack i was very annoyed, NOT that jack's my crush (desmond all the way), jack and kate make a better pair. hey maybe juliette and sawyer have an opportunity together, maybe she'll take sawyer off kate's hands?

i'd actually really like juliette to turn out to be some sort of evil-whacko-psycho-beeatch it'll up the ante definitely, no way can she be as angelic as she comes across!?

oh.. rousseau (did i spell that right?) i'd definitely love to see her again and know exactly how she survived on that island for so long, alone and about her relationship with ben and estranged daughter.

about 24, i absolutely detested the first season, couldn't form any attachment with the characters and have never really liked the main character jack, but my friend was forcing me, guaranteeing i'll love it, the perseverance paid off. it was michelle and tony that did it for me (weren't they the cutest? after penny/desmond and MiSa of course)then the palmer brothers and the baddies; the salazars, habib marwan, syed ali, asad al-hamri (alexander siddig is love) and i could go on... but yeah they're the ones who made the show (for me), jack's just such a bore and you're right, things tend to get repetitive with him.

naqiya said...

do any of you watch dexter? because you should.

its really quite good

M. said...

House? Hello?!

changinguppakistan said...

Lost!! Yes, so glad to see it was number 1. I felt like I was one of the few loyal fans that gritted their teeth and knew it was going to get better (after the disastrous first half of the 3rd season, esp.), so it's good to know others think the same. Am really excited for next season to start.

On another note, Heroes, until the latest episode, has been one big disappointment. Much harder to be a loyal fan of that one.

JJY said...

Dude, i'm sorry - i've watched 8 episodes of Lost now, and I'm trying really hard to get into it, but i just can't.

i know it's still early, so please tell me that it gets better. thus far, the characters are caricatures, the dialogue is predictable, and the plots within the larger plot are so stereotypical it's not even funny. especially the charlie episode - that was supremely awful.

tell me it gets better.