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Monday, December 29, 2008


ModFabulous 2008: The Best In Television

2008 will go down in the history books, but not only for its political milestones and its devastated economy. Time will tell, of course, but I think it will also be remembered as the year television finally surpassed cinema as the cultural touchstone of the nation. TV has been gaining ground (and market share) on its bigger cousin for almost a decade, and its successes in that period -- The Sopranos, The West Wing, Sex and the City, Will and Grace, Survivor, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Six Feet Under, Friends, Arrested Development, Angels in America, American Idol, 24, Desperate Housewives and more -- redefined the medium and its social significance in striking ways. This year, with Hollywood's middling output after 2007's writers strike and the continued downsizing of independent filmmaking, television became the preeminent unifying thread of American popular culture.

One shouldn't curse a Golden Age with being greedy, but after ten years or so, it's marvelous to see quality programs thriving (and an excellent batch on deck for 2009, including The United States of Tara, Lie To Me, Dollhouse, Caprica, The Beast, Cupid and Castle). Sure, there's a lot of shlock on the airwaves: dull police procedurals, terribly unfunny comedies, and the creative black abyss of VHI reality shows. But there's much gold as well. ModFab's favorites this year were:

10. True Blood (HBO)
After a rough and shaky first two episodes, this juicy modern allegory sparked to effervescent life...and not just because these Louisiana vampires put Twilight's moody teens to shame. Alan Ball (Six Feet Under) provocatively mixed a gumbo of themes -- erotic awakening, political equality, gender, spirituality -- with a cheeky gloss on the supernatural. Soapy and sudsy, there was no new show in 2008 more entertaining.

9. The Office (NBC)
Network television's most dependable comedy quietly expanded its palette with brilliant guest turns (Amy Ryan as a quirky love interest) and nontraditional plot twists (Jim and Pam, the long-aborning romance consummated, are...happy? That's not the way it's supposed to work!) It's also given its superb supporting ensemble, the finest in television, some deliciously meaty plotlines. This is the way you do it.

8. So You Think You Can Dance (Fox)
Laugh if you must, but SYTYCD has taken the Runway's crown among reality-show competitions as a fizzy, intoxicating celebration of talent and ability. The choreography performed by the dancers is often jaw-droppingly difficult; the smart producers make sure the contestants are people first, dancers second. In 2008, watching the little-trained underdog Joshua reach the winner's circle was a nail-biter (even if it did mean other talented competitors, like Will and Twitch, didn't get their due).

7. Family Guy (Fox)
Smart even when scraping the bottom of society. And Stewie Griffin is the single greatest comedic device of this new millennium.

6. The Beijing Olympics (NBC)
It's not every time that a world event delivers such stunning drama. But Beijing was a nightly treasure of thrills: the dazzling opening ceremony, the records of Michael Phelps, the history-making of gay medalist Matthew Micham, the brio of Usain Bolt, the triumph of Dana Torres. NBC did a near-perfect job of capturing the event (even if it left the success of other countries somewhat under-reported).

5. In Treatment (HBO)
The most fascinating experiment of 2008, this nightly, fictionalized account of a psychologist and his patients' therapy sessions was brutally intense and fascinatingly interwoven. Career-best performances from Blair Underwood and Dianne Wiest anchored the heady drama to the ground, while first-rate newcomers Mia Wasikowska (Defiance) and Melissa George (Mulholland Drive) defied the writing's melodramatic tendencies and gave blistering indictments of surburban dysfunction. Heaven.

4. Lost (ABC)
The conventional wisdom was that television couldn't tell epic stories...or that if it could, audiences would never have the attention span to inhabit them. Lost shatters both of those myths, and does so with mythmaking of its own...a whopper of a tale, so huge it blows past the edges of the screen. The storytelling structure is equally visionary, wrapping both subject and form into the dramatic equivalent of a mobius strip. One day, people will talk about Lost alongside greats like I Love Lucy and The Twilight Zone, a groundbreaking addition to the history of television.

3. The Wire (HBO)
I admit it, I'm late to The Wire party...I spent last summer watching all of the previous seasons on DVD, in preparation for the show's final run. The 2008 episodes, which dealt with the confluences of crime, ambition and the media in Baltimore, weren't the best in the show's history...but that's like saying DaVinci's The Last Supper isn't as good as the Mona Lisa. Each teleplay unfolded like a sublime Greek drama, full of rich characterization, elegant plotting, and surprising turns that were always earned. (Michael K. Williams' Omar, the vicious murderer who remains television's most fascinating gay character ever, should have received an Emmy. Period.) Now, with The Wire's cast members scattered all over the dial (popping up on Heroes, Fringe, 90210, Brothers and Sisters and True Blood, to name but a few), every sighting of Baltimore's Finest makes me wince with regret...and longing.

2. Mad Men (AMC)
Story is important. Character, too, and design. But never before has a series found such superiority, such elegant grace, in the power of pacing. Mad Men is a slow boil, a stewing cauldron of 1950's sexism and power, a comment on and about America and How It Got This Way. It eschews quick answers and one-episode arcs, focusing instead on building complex lives with stoic detail. In only two seasons, it's become a worthy heir to The Sopranos. Can legendary status be far behind?

1. Battlestar Galactica (SciFi)
As if I'd pick anything else. As if there were any other candidate...Galactica being, of course, television's most dazzling glimpse at our shared humanity. The journey to find Earth, as unexpected and shocking as anyone could imagine, has come to an end...but there's a great deal more to discover than a new home. In 2008, the show solidified its potent blend of politics and faith, which leap our contemporary cultural mores like an Olympic hurdler. Gaining speed and intensity for its final episodes, Battlestar Galactica continues to shock and awe. I'm firmly convinced that if world leaders watched Galactica, the planet might be in a better place. But as it is, I'll settle for it being the greatest space journey the small screen has ever witnessed.

Honorable Mentions (In Alphabetical Order): The Amazing Race, Big Love, Brothers and Sisters, Friday Night Lights, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List, Make Me A Supermodel, The Rachel Maddow Show, Summer Heights High, Survivor, Top Chef, The Tudors, Ugly Betty

Wish I'd Seen: Breaking Bad, Skins

Off The Air In 2008, But Would've Made The List If It Had Been On: Damages

Guiltiest of Pleasures: Tabitha's Salon Takeover, Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew, The Janice Dickinson Modeling Agency

Most Improved: Top Design, Shear Genius

I Just Don't See What All The Fuss Is About: 30 Rock, Brotherhood, Dancing With The Stars, Fringe, Gossip Girl, How I Met Your Mother, Pushing Daises, Torchwood, Weeds

I've Tried, Oh God How I've Tried: Dexter, Private Practice, The Shield, Kath and Kim, The Closer, Saving Grace, The Hills

How Sad They've Become: Grey's Anatomy, Heroes, Nip/Tuck, Project Runway, American Idol, America's Next Top Model, The Real World
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Blogger Paul said...

great list - we share a couple of shows (Family guy which i am VERY late to but now addicted to; True Blood, Lost, etc) but am sad you don't like the whimsical Pushing Daisies :( Oh well - it's an acquired taste that's for sure!

12/29/08, 5:04 AM  

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