Thursday, December 27, 2007

THE BEST OF 2007 - PART 2 - The Year's Best TV

- Looking back, it's quite possible that 2007 will be viewed as a landmark year in the history of television. However, it may be remembered as the year that people finally decided to tune out. The big news, of course, was and still is the Writers' Strike - the full effects of which most likely won't be felt until early '08. There are so many reprecussions here that 2007 may very well end up as the last year that things were, mostly, business as usual in the world of television. Let's examine some possible after-effects of the strike:

- Americans will shut off their TV's and won't come back. The TV industry is kidding itself if it doesn't realize how many other entertainment options there are, right now, for the average person. Sure, may people, older folks in particular, still like to just turn on the tube and go with whatever's on, whether its a football game or a Golden Girls rerun. But for most of us, TV is but one option in a world of media. Videogames are now more mainstream than ever - who cares if there's no new Heroes to watch when you can be a hero while playing 20+ hours worth of Mario Galaxy or Mass Effect?

- The good stuff will still get watched, just not on schedule. More and more, people are filtering out the crap, and finding the shows they really like via TIVO, iTunes, Amazon, online streaming, etc.

- Writers and other creative types will flock to alternative venues. Already, we're seeing some great web shows like Clark and Michael. We're seeing guys like Joss Whedon continue the stories of their TV characters in comic books. We're seeing writers from shows like The Office produce some funny content for YouTube in lieu of creating new TV episodes.

But these are only short-term effects. This strike could lead to the end of the fall premiere season as we know it, a shift in how entertainment corporations program networks vs. cable channels, and a myriad of other changes that are slowly beginning to materialize.

As far as what is going on right NOW in TV ... this past development season was decent, with a few quality new shows coming out, but also a lot of high-profile bombs. As always, the networks saw certain trends and sought to capitalize. The success of HEROES led to a number of shows that I'd put into the category of "extraordinary things happening to ordinary people." - not strictly sci-fi shows, because the new crop of Heroes offshoots were more character driven and looking for a mass audience. After Lost debuted, everyone wanted complex shows with intricate mythologies - this year, it was sci-fi-lite, with lots of shows that had comic book-ish premises but that focused more on romance, soap opera, and character dynamics. It was also the year of the Geek, as a ton of shows focused on longtime losers trying to move on up in the world - from Reaper to Chuck to The Big Bang Theory, there were a ton of geek-centric shows on the air this year, many trying to capture the fun of Hiro of Heroes fame. Finally, we got a lot of rich people behaving badly. I think a show that deals with unlikable characters has to be very savvy in order to remain appealing - whether its having a great sense of self-mocking humor a la Arrested Development, or having a solid entry-point character like Dirty Sexy Money. But - what happens when you take unlikable jerks and just expect us to find them utterly endearing? Well, you get Big Shots - one of the most easy-to-hate shows I've seen in a long while.

Finally - this was a year that a number of beloved fan favorites said their final goodbyes. Early in the year, THE OC capped off a run that had its ups and downs, but gave us some of the most memorable TV characters of the last few years. It was a show that was genuinely buzz-worthy in its first few seasons. As summer approached, two shows with huge fan followings concluded, both on The CW, which has continually struggled to market most of its programming. Yep, it was a sad day when GILMORE GIRLS closed up shop, and an even sadder one when one of my all-time favorites of the last few years, and the show that I've probably endorsed more than any other on the blog - VERONICA MARS - presented its last-ever mystery. As much fun as new shows like CHUCK and PUSHING DAISIES have been thus far, I am still missing that weekly dose of Ms. Mars, and am still a little bit bitter, I'll admit, at the CW for giving it such an unceremonious cancellation.

It was definitely a year of mixed quality, with a few favorites really suffering through creative slumps. Normally, the mighty 24 sits perched atop my year-end list with few other shows to challenge its GRAVITAS-infused dominance. But this year, I can't in good conscience even include the once-untouchable TV titan on my Top 10 list. Sure, a weak season of 24 is still better than most of what else is on TV, but it feels wrong to rank such a flawed year of such a typically great show above other, scrappier shows that came out in '07 and made an impact and brought their A-game.

HEROES was another one that had a much-talked-about slump. Personally, I never thought the show reached the creative heights to have that big a fall, with one or two exceptions. But I admit, I thought the show had drastically improved in the latter half of Season 1, and had high hopes for Season 2. So yeah, like most people, I have been pretty underwhelmed with the season so far. And really, there were only a handful of S1 eps that I considered truly A-level, so it was hard to justify the show making my list. With SMALLVILLE, I was hoping for a bit better quality than the last season or three, and I'll admit I've been pleasantly surprised that the show has raised its game a bit so far this season. But, it's still a far cry from the show that really hit its stride about five years ago now, and while it remains enjoyable, at this point I think only the hardcore fans find it worth watching each week for those little bits of brilliance every now and then.

Also, I definitely was a bit let-down by some shows this year that I had hoped might rebound and find new life. There was no better time to get excited again about THE SIMPSONS than this year, with a new, pretty well-received movie that I thought just might light a spark on this long-dormant sleeping giant of comedy. This season, there've been one or two bright spots (the most recent episode, in which Homer seeks to regain lost memories, was surprisingly well-done), but, for the most part, the Greatest Comedy of All Time has been depressingly mediocre, as has been typical the last, um, several years ... FAMILY GUY did have a bit of a resurgance late this fall, with a string of hilarious episodes (Stewie Kills Lois / Lois kills Stewie being the highlight) after several that were nothing special. It's a shame that the Strike may have derailed what was looking like a true return to form for this show after a few seasons of being merely sub-par. But man, I have nothing but respect for the still-ticking KING OF THE HILL. The show is as good now as it's ever been, and it's just a joy to see the show still going strong and delivering funny episode after funny episode. With this season's death of Cotton Hill, KOTH proved once again why it is one of the greatly underrated comedies on TV, one of the few shows that could handle the touchy subject of death in the family with so much humor and sweetness.

Even as shows like Heroes, 24, and even The Office went through slumps (those hour-long eps that opened S4 were a letdown for sure), some other shows regained their footing, or even improved by leaps and bounds. To me, PRISON BREAK was never more riveting than in the latter half of Season 2, thanks to the infusion of awesomeness that William Fichtner brought to the table. Similarly, many had counted out LOST, and I myself was totally frustrated with the show by the end of Season 2. But to me, S3 of LOST was, largely, a creative triumph, and the season was capped off by a string of classic episodes and one hell of a finale - one of the best, coolest episodes of a drama I've EVER witnessed. And finally, 30 ROCK kicked all kinds of ass in '07. I had a great feeling about the show from the start, but it continually surprises me in that it just keeps getting better and better. Season 2 has simply been phenomenal thus far - each episode has been gut-bustingly hilarious, and each of the leads, from Baldwin to Morgan, have been great. As great as The Office can be, 30 Rock has stepped it up and become the new undisputed king of TV comedy.

As far as new shows go, a few really stand out to me. I'll start with an HBO gem, FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS. Watching this hilarious comedy, it's like the first time I saw Ali G or the British Office - it feels completely new and fresh, like nothing I've seen before. Sure, there are elements of everything from The Office to Beavis and Butthead to Tenacious D ... but there's no denying that the deadpan humor and hilarious songs of the Conchords are a brand of comedy that is pretty wholly unique. A bit more traditional is The CW's ALIENS IN AMERICA. But to me, the show blends the quirky-yet-realistic POV of a Malcolm in the Middle with some pretty astute social commentary. PUSHING DAISIES, on the other hand, is like nothing I've seen before, exactly. A Tim Burton movie meets, well, I don't know ... the show is just that unique, and fills my post-Gilmore Girls need for quirky characters and mile-a-minute, lovingly-crafted dialogue. CHUCK started off strong but has since only grown on me - it's a great blend of THE OC's style and humor with more traditional spy shows. And yeah, speaking of The OC, Josh Schwartz's other new show, GOSSIP GIRL, is already as addictive as that show was in its prime, with a similarly intriguing cast of teens who manage to getinto all sorts of entertaining trouble.

- A few quick notes about my Top 10 list: As always, I am only one man, and therefore can't watch everything on TV (though I sometimes feel like I do). I haven't really checked out some of the big cable buzz shows like Mad Men, and I still don't get HBO. So while I have already poured over the Flight of the Conchords Season 1 DVD and swept through all of Extras, I am anxiously awaiting the new season of Curb Your Enthusiasm's DVD release in January. And, I haven't been following shows like The Sopranos or Dexter, which are obviously critical and fan favorites. Some day I'll catch up ...

So without further ado, Danny's TOP 10 TV SHOWS OF 2007:

1.) 30 ROCK

- Last year at this time, I would surely not have predicted that 30 Rock would be my top show of 2007. But here we are, and this actually turned out to be a fairly easy choice for me. 30 Rock has just been firing on all cylinders in its sophomore season. Alec Baldwin, Tracy Morgan, Tina Fey, and the rest of the superb cast just nails it, and the jokes fly a mile a minute, barely allowing time to recover from laughing at one thing to pay attention to what comes next. But hey, I guess it's only fitting that the best show on TV should so prominently feature an NBC Page! If you need further proof of 30 Rock's greatness, simply find and watch the recent episode "Greenzo" - one of the finest, funniest episodes of TV in recent memory.

2.) LOST

- What really struck me about Lost in '07 was just how focused the show was. It finally felt like we were getting tightly-plotted storyarcs alongside some great one-and-done, standalone episodes, and it felt like said storyarcs had a predetermined and well-thought out beginning, middle, and end. But put all that aside for a moment - Lost in '07 simply kicked ass in so many ways. Crazy eye-patched villains, Desmond becoming unstuck in time (brother), the final fate of Charlie, Locke going rogue, great chemistry between Kate and Sawyer, strong performance all around ... and yeah, the finale was all kinds of awesome, ending on one of the biggest twists ever seen on TV. Rarely, if ever, did a show leave me so primed and ready for the next season to commence.


- This one gets such a high ranking with me because not only is it flat-out hilarious, and endlessly quotable, but like I said above, it is so fresh and different from anything else out there, that's it's been great to simply watch each new episode and delve deeper into the show's wondefully wacky sense of humor. Jermaine and Brett - the next great comedy duo? As soon as I heard "If You're Into It" I knew that these guys were legit - who else could dream up such innocently perverted song lyrics? Flight was surely the best new TV discovery of the year.


- As I've said over the last few years: for sheer pulpy pleasure, nothing matches up to Prison Break. Season 2 spiraled into a chaotic burst of energetic entertainment, as Mahone's insane streak brought him ever closer to tracking down Lincoln and Michael. As Season 2 ramped up the action and intensity with each episode, I found that there was no show I anticipated each week moreso than this one. With Season 3, there's been a lot to like, but the escape from Sona prison has yet to grab me as much as S2's international fugitive plotline. Still, with the craziest cast of characters on TV (T-Bag is surely television's most entertainingly vile villain), Prison Break is still a show that brings it each and every weak.


- I think I may be going against the grain with this pick, but to me, the final season of Gilmore was pretty much great TV from start to finish. Call me a softie, but that final string of episodes were enough to make even this hardened soul feel a bit tingly inside, and it was truly heart-breaking to say goodbye to one of the all-time great shows on television, with one of the most memorable cast of characters ever. Sure, people think of Lorelai and Rory Gilmore when they think of the show, but what I already miss most are all of the zany residents of Stars Hollow and the world of Gilmore - from Paris Geller to Lane and Zack to Kirk - I loved 'em all, and seeing Stars Hollow come together to give their beloved Rory a send-off worthy of their favorite daughter -- well, I don't know if there's ever been a more perfect series finale than this one.


- Seeing the great Kristen Bell on Heroes, well, it almost makes me sad, because it just makes me miss Veronica Mars that much more, and realize that most shows on the air could never hope to match its trademark blend of witty dialogue, film-noir stylings, teen angst, and intricate mysteries. Now it's true, VM did falter a bit throughout Season 3 ... but more often than not, this show was week in and week out one of TV's best, even if that remixed theme song was a pale shadow of the original version ... But I digress, Veronica Mars is one of those shows that people will talk about and remember for a LONG time to come. The truth is, it may have been too smart, too cool, too good for TV, and that is what's truly a shame. The fact that starry-eyed fanboys will forever dream of the Veronica-as-FBI-trainee Season 4 that never was speaks volumes about how damn endearing this show was.


- The best new network show of the year, it felt like everyone loved the show's pilot, yet still doubted its ability to sustain itself over the course of a season. Well, I think the show has done a fabulous job of defying the skeptics. Week in and week out, Daisies has been of the utmost quality, with the same kind of witty writing, fantastical style, and storybook appeal that made the pilot such a standout. Lee Pace and Anna Friel are magic as the two leads, and Chi McBride and Kristen Chenoweth have only gotten better each week. I can only hope that we have many more years of Pushing Daisies to look forward to.


- Yes, The Office stumbled early this season with its string of hour-long episodes that felt dragged out and bloated. But those episodes were the exception to the rule - for most of '07, The Office was aces, building on its own momentum and doing a great job of fleshing out its large supporting cast. Ed Helms as Andy, for example? Just one more go-to source for hilarity that the show can take advantage of. The show had really handled the burgeoning Pam and Jim romance well, and done hilarious things with Dwight-Angela and Michael-Jan. And there's no denying that the last several episodes have all been near-classic. The last new ep so far this season - The Deposition - was a pretty brilliant deconstruction of Michael Scott, for example. 30 Rock may be king right now, but I don't think The Office will relinquish its crown without a fight.


- As always, KOTH is the one true bedrock in FOX's Sunday night lineup. While Family Guy and The Simpsons vary wildly in quality from week to week, you always know what you're going to get from KOTH - just the way Hank Hill would like it. That's not to say that the show is in a rut, far from it. In its own understated way, KOTH manages to be one of the msot subtley funny and yet genuinely affecting comedies in TV history. I loved last season's wedding of Luanne and Lucky, and I was equally in admiration of this season's death of Cotton episode. I don't know if any other show is so consistent with its characters or themes - they may be cartoons, but I feel like I know Hank, Bobby, Dale, and the rest as people, and it's always a great pleasure to drop in on their lives. Here's to more great King of the Hill to come.

10.) CHUCK

- My other favorite new network show of the season, I've really come to have a soft spot for Chuck. The show has a great comedic voice, and more so than a Reaper or Big Bang Theory, I watch Chuck and really feel like I'm watching a love letter to all things geek. What other show could so seamlessly mix in references to Zork, Dune, or Call of Duty? And what other show features Adam Baldwin kicking ass and delivering self-referential one-liners in the way that only Adam Baldwin can? Chuck is a lot of fun, and I love how it is so genre-bending - it's not afraid to do slapstick comedy, have an intricately-choreographed fight scene, or get a little soapy, OC-style. This is another show that I really want to see thrive and prosper - so watch Chuck and ensure that we have many more adventures featuring Chuck, Morgan, Sarah, Casey, and yes ... Captain Awesome, for many more seasons.

Honorable Mention #1 - ALIENS IN AMERICA

- The next two picks didn't quite make the cut for the Top 10, but I felt they were worthy of special mention. Aliens in America is the best new sitcom of the year - it features some great characters and some genuinely smart episodes that often have really funny premises. I love the character of Raja - he's goofy and funny, but not a total cartoon either. And Justin is a great TV teen - with an outsider's sensibility that makes me think he'd get along well with the kids on Freaks And Geeks. If you like good comedy, you need to check this one out.

Honorable Mention #2 - GOSSIP GIRL

- Gossip Girl could have been a typically lame WB-style teen soap, but it really is a great show thansk to smart writing that produces a number of quotable lines each week, and makes its great-to-be-bad characters like Blair and Chuck that much more fun to watch. It's too early to tell exactly how good this show will or can be, but it has that rare quality that makes it a must-see - with storylines that generate buzz and characters that make you appreciate the fact that you're NOT a spoiled upper East side rich kid - because man, it ain't, apparently, as fun as you thought.

Special Mention #1 - EXTRAS

- Because Extras is a British import, and timing-wise it's a bit nebulous as to when, "officially," some of the episodes / season actually aired, I wasn't quite sure where to put it on my list. Adding to my uncertainty is the face that I feel like so much of my ultimate opinion of the show may end up being affected by the concluding Special, which I have yet to see. With THE OFFICE (UK), the Christmas Special helped, in my view, solidify the show as an all-time classic, and I could see something similar happening with Ricky Gervais' latest. As it stands, Extras was one of the best things I watched in 2007 - Gervais as always has a brilliant ability to meld comedy and satire with a surprising sense of dramatic weight. More than anyone else, Gervais somehow imbues his small little comedies with this epic sense of importance and scale. In Extras, the story of Andy Millman takes on an almost mythic importance, and that's partly why its conclusion will mean so much to the series. But in terms of sheer comedy, Gervais, Stephen Merchant, and the great Ashley Jensen are pure gold. I was very happy to see Gervais take home an Emmy for his work here, and, while I can't quite put it at the same level of The Office, Extras to me is a worthy followup, and another bloody good bit of comedic goodness from Ricky Gervais.


- Yikes, it's hard to say if there will even BE any new episodes of most of our favorite shows in the new year. Already, it looks like 24 may be delayed until '09, which is a true shame as I was chomping at the bit to see a hopefully-revitalized 24 featuring a back-from-the-dead Tony Almeda wreaking unholy vengeance on Jack f'n Bauer. At least we know LOST is back in only a matter of weeks, but unless the strike gets resolves soon, it will be a woefully cut-short season. In a way, it's liberating to know that the new year will have less TV with which to get caught up in, but at the same time, it's frustrating to think how much quality stuff is now not going to make it to our living rooms anytime soon.

- LOST: Like everyone else, I'm still reeling from last season's killer cliffhanger, and dyin' to know what happens next. With only a finite number of eps left before all is said and done, I can't wait to see the buildup to the endgame.

- 24: Man, it may not come until '09, but who among us 24 faithful is not pumped to see the Soul-Patched one return, and as a potential villain no less? I have a good feeling about this season - Jack Bauer, Tony Almeda, Kurtwood Smith? Hells yeah, it's on like Donkey Kong. Please let us get some much-needed gravitas in '08!

- FAMILY GUY: Right before the strike, the once-great show seemed to be returning to its Season 1 form. Could it be so? Let's hope we get a chance to find out ...

- FUTURAMA: I haven't gotten a chance to watch Bender's Big Score on DVD yet, but I've heard excellent things, and I cannot wait for more Futurama in '08, whether it's on DVD, Comedy Central, whatever. One of the most underrated shows on the air in its day, more of this modern day classic can never be a bad thing.

- FRINGE: Little is known about this new project from JJ Abrams, except that it supposedly takes a few cues from one of my all-time favorite shows, The X-Files. From the buzz I've heard, this will definitely be one to watch for. And seeing as how it's one of the few high-profile drama scripts already completed, it may be one of the ONLY new TV blockbusters in '08.

- THE MIGHTY BOOSH: I loved what little I saw of this ridiculously quirky British show whilst in London in November, and it's my left-field pick to become a cult-fave in The States. I mean - surrealist tales of rock-star adventures, shamans, and giant apes? What's not to like? Could Boosh-mania hit the US in '08?

- THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES: I was pretty keen on the show's pilot, which I saw over the summer. It had some great action, and seemed to really tie-in well to the already established Terminator mythology. Summer Glau could be a real breakout as the teen-girl Terminator starting to discover her human side. This one definitely has potential, and could be the go-to source for slam-bang action in the absence of 24 or Prison Break come January.

- MISS/GUIDED - I don't know if this one will even make it to air, but in the absence of other new material, I can see ABC giving it a shot. It's a comedy starring Judy Greer (Arrested Development), who is really funny and made the pilot a lot of fun when I saw it originally. I thought the premise, about a once-nerdy girl going back to her old high school to be a guidance counsellor, might prove tiresome, but there seemed to be a ton of potential here.

- THE STATE ...? - Rumor is there may be a STATE special of some kind in the works for Comedy Central. If that's the case, well, I STILL demand that THE STATE be released on DVD, but, it would be awesome to have all-new State material on the tube as well.

So that's what I thought of '07 and what I'm looking out for in '08. Of course, the reality is that there will be a lot, of, well, reality. Ahhhh ... well, bring on American Gladiators, brother, because it's going to be a lot of top models and fat losers and eligible bachelors from here on out. So will people tune out en masse? Will we all be watching TV on the internet? Or will we all decide that playing some movie quiz on Facebook is way better than some stupid TV show anyways? Hmm, maybe someone should make a TV show about people who make quizzes on Facebook - then we could start a Facebook group about how much we hate it! Yes folks, it's a brave new world out there. See you on the flipside.

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