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Monday, December 25, 2006

 

ModFabulous 2006: The Best in Television


Turnabout is fair play it seems...or at least it seemed so in 2006. As some of television's best programs stumbled (Lost, The Sopranos, Nip/Tuck, Rome), a healthy crop of newcomers made it look all too easy. Perhaps it was something in the air -- politics in America had the same sensibility -- but television in 2006 was a place where common-man populism often triumphed over showbiz elitism.

As anyone who has (like me) struggled through Studio 60's convoluted and erratic performance, there's a comfort in shows that keep it simple: Ugly Betty isn't trying to save the universe, and that's fine with us. ModFab found much to love in unlikely places: football teams in Texas, the far reaches of outer space, the industrial parks of Scranton, and the California wine country. Here are the places we'll keep our TiVo pointed in 2007:

Runners-up (alphabetical):
America's Next Top Model (CW); The Colbert Report (Comedy Central); The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (Comedy Central); Desperate Housewives (ABC); Everybody Hates Chris (CW); Family Guy (Fox); Lost (ABC); Real Time with Bill Maher (HBO); Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (NBC); Top Chef (Bravo); Ugly Betty (ABC)

Shows Sliding Downhill Fast: American Idol (Fox); Big Brother (CBS); Big Love (HBO); The Class (CBS); Extreme Makeover: Home Edition (ABC); Nip/Tuck (FX); The Sopranos (HBO); Survivor (CBS)

We'd Rather Die Than Watch It Again: Jacob and Joshua: Nemesis Rising (LOGO); Dancing With The Stars (ABC); Blow Out (Bravo); The Apprentice (NBC); or anything with the letters C, S, or I in the title.

MODFABULOUS: THE BEST OF 2006

Honorable Mention: It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia (FX)
The appeal of this series in nearly unexplainable: watching the hijinks of three overgrown infantilists while they drink at the local bar they somehow own, and the even more ridiculous hijinks of their father (played by Danny DeVito). But it's not the plot that gets us, it's the little ironic/nihilistic moments. The show has an improv-comedy instinct for what works and what doesn't; by the end of each episode, you find yourself wondering where this crazy crew has been all your life.

10. Entourage (HBO)
First, we should come clean: we hated this show when it premiered three years ago. Navel-gazing and shamelessly craven, we detested everything about it (well, everything except Jeremy Piven, who is indescribably dreamy). But what a difference a few years can make. Entourage has become the most engaging comedy of manners that television currently has to offer, with a solid cast and an insider's understanding of the movie industry's folly. And Piven is still a prince among men...as superagent Ari Gold, he commands the screen even when he loses the deal.

9. Design Star (HGTV)
The strength or weakness of reality shows depend upon casting; this new spin on the talent competition format, a congenial battle among interior designers, had contestants with style, attitude, and psychoses to spare. The African-American twins, the bitchy blondes, and the burnt-out hipsters were all in force; ultimately, it was won by the incredibly nice gay hottie, Robert, in a surprisingly mesmerizing final challenge. If you're a reality show regular, this is the perfect companion series to #2 (see below).

8. Noah's Arc (LOGO)
The second season of this breakthrough comedy found its four protagonists confronting the love in their lives: some good men, some bad men, and all of them sexy. But the real joy in this Arc is watching the actors settle into their roles, matching their playfulness with increasingly solid comic timing. The comparisons to Sex and the City remain valid, both good and bad...but the improvements in production design and in the writing are what make it appointment television. For the first scripted series from a fledgling, underfunded network, it's come a very long way, baby.

7. Heroes (NBC)
Having grown up as a comic-book kid of the 70's, it's probably no surprise that I am drawn to this supernaturally potent mystery about ordinary folks developing extraordinary powers. But even I'll admit it's not perfect; there's periodic bouts of cliche and tedium in the mix, and more than a few flourishes of melodrama. But the actors -- especially Masi Oka, Ali Larter, Greg Grunberg and Hayden Panettiere -- spectacularly rise above the weaknesses to keep the audience engaged. Let's hope they can avoid the traps that their obvious spiritual parent, Lost, found itself in this year. (Keep us guessing, and you'll be fine.)

6. Friday Night Lights (NBC)
Texas football is brutal...and not just on the field. The most sophisticated and moving of the new evening dramas excels in revealing the intense pressures placed on a small town with a championship team, exploring adolescence and social politics with a gritty camera style and a talented young ensemble. Not since ESPN's short-lived 2004 drama Playmakers has football been so dramatically relevant. Lights is still struggling to find an audience; let's hope they do, and that this kind of quality television sticks around.

5. Jericho (CBS)
Storytelling is the key to this apocalyptic soap opera. In the post-9/11 era, their premise -- an unexpected military attack on the United States from an as-yet-unknown foreign power -- could be disastrous. But by focusing on the small-town lives and the struggles to hold normality together without electricity, processed food, or alcohol (more important than you know!) rather than on the political polemics, the show becomes a surprising exploration of community and family.

4. The Office (NBC)
There's simply no better ensemble on TV at the moment than the crew at Dunder-Mifflin, who have suffered this season through a merger, sensitivity training, and an Indian wedding. The writers are insanely talented. Steve Carrell is so funny he should be regulated by the government, lest we overdose. And the character entanglements remain as divinely internecine as ever. This, kids, is how comedy is supposed to be done.

3. Battlestar Galactica (Sci-Fi)
Last year's #1 dropped a bit, primarily due to the weak plotting of the middle of this season. After landing on (and escaping from, in spectacular fashion) a new home planet, the crew drifted without direction for a few episodes...a potentially damaging problem for a series which is, by definition, about moving forward. But the characters remain as sharp as ever, and the camera work is astounding for the small screen. Even on a bad day, Battlestar Galactica is better than 99% of what's on. Now that they're back on track and headed for Earth (with the Cylons not far behind), it's bound to rebound.

2. Project Runway (Bravo)
Kayne. Jeffrey. Laura. Michael. Vincent. Malan. These aren't just the latest designers on TV's best reality show; through superb editing and story plotting, they became iconic characters that capture the imagination, rugged individuals in search of their dream. Do you think this is just an accident? Think again. Project Runway knows how to create unforgettable moments from real life, a skill in rare evidence these days. (Take a look at the interchangable dullards of American Idol, and you'll see what I mean.) One other big plus for the Runway: not-so-secret-weapon Tim Gunn, television's dapper doyenne of fashion. ModFab hearts Tim.

1. Brothers and Sisters (ABC)
I'm as surprised as you are by this year's #1, considering its troubled pre-production, its trite conservative-versus-liberal family dynamic, and its soapy antecedents. (Think Falcon Crest, minus the sappiness.) As written by Jon Robin Baitz, however, the clan is refreshingly free of trite TV plotting; families are difficult beasts, and Baitz isn't afraid to show its clumsy, awkward entrails. The cast surprises us with their dynamism in almost every episode -- while one expects Rachel Griffiths and Ron Rifkin to be dynamic performers, there's a very deep bench here, including Matthew Rhys, Patricia Wettig, and Dave Annable. Heck, even Calista Flockhart and Sally Field are engaging and irritation-free (maybe the series' biggest achievement). It may not be for everyone, but we could live with these brothers and sisters for quite a while.

Previously: Best Television of 2005
Tomorrow: Best Music

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