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
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.