Sunday, December 27, 2009

Danny's BEST OF 2009: The Year In Television

- It's been an interesting year for TV - in many ways a disappointing one, but also a surprisingly encouraging one in some respects. Mostly though, it was clear this year that the recent golden age of TV that characterized the mid-00's was officially over and done with. Sure, there were plenty of bright spots. We still had old favorites like Lost and The Office, and new series like Modern Family proved that there was still room for great new scripted series in the network TV wasteland. But the times, they are a-changing. This year, we saw less and less great TV, and more and more stuff that seemed to be on air solely to fill up space. Sure, TV has always been a business ... but, for a while there, it seemed like the creative ambitions of television rivaled those of cinema. Even when things didn't work, there was still a sense that TV was getting increasingly out-of-the-box with its programming - more mature, more sophisticated. It used to be that the networks aspired to match up to the HBO's of the world. Now, network TV is becoming increasingly indistinguishable from bottom-of-the-barrel basic cable. That said, cable is thriving now more than ever. Is it really due to some kind of creative resurgence? Shows like Mad Men seem to say yes. But also, it speaks to the ever-more-fragmented TV market. Broadcast networks aren't truly reaching mass audiences like they used to, so in a more level playing field, cable's lucrative dual-revenue stream always wins out. In fact, as the Comcast takeover of NBC Universal showed us, cable is everything these days - it's where the money is. And man, is it ever all about the money. Economic recession hasn't helped the penny-pinching, but it's a sad day when so much potential creativity is stifled in the name of the almighty dollar. No ratings? Fine, then simply try to squeak out every penny you can from the old model by going cheap.

But you also have to wonder ... does anyone really know who's watching anymore? I've talked about this before, but you have to ask how reliable any of this information is to begin with. People are DVR'ing, watching online, downloading, catching up on DVD and blu-ray. You have to question how accurate a Nielsen rating is, how much it really captures what shows people are really interested in or passionate about.

It's funny, because I'm writing this at home in Connecticut, and from a media perspective it can be like being in another world. When I talk to my parents and other older relatives, they are still slaves to the on-screen menu guide. They watch whatever happens to be on when they sit in front of the bedroom television. And yet ... when I talk to younger kids, new NBC Pages coming in to interview with us ... some don't own a TV, don't subscribe to cable. Everything is done online, on the computer or iPod. For those that are big TV watchers, the thought of sitting down to watch a show when it actually airs at 8 or 9 pm - well, that doesn't even cross their minds. The new generation is all about personalization, customization - and it's a time-shifted world we now live in. The question is whether networks are actually going to program for the audience that doesn't watch their shows in the traditional manner. CBS has made a nice business of appealling squarely to the AARP crowd, for example. On the other end of the spectrum, a show like Gossip Girl gets a relatively small Nielsen rating, and yet, clearly, people are watching it - it's one of the most-buzzed-about shows on TV.

It's interesting though, because I look at a show like Glee and I think: "what took so long?" Glee works so well in part because it actually feels new and fresh and unpredictable. Kids, teens, twenty-somethings - they love it, it speaks to them - and guess what? - it's one of the year's biggest TV success stories. It's a testament to the fact that if you put the right show out there, the audience will come. It used to be that you'd look at the movies and say "if only there was something at the theater as compelling as Lost or 24." Now the pendulum has swung back in the other direction. People are flocking to high-concept films like The Dark Knight, Twilight, Avatar ... and you wonder when TV is going to feel relevant again as compared to the movies (then again, HBO does have True Blood, CW has The Vampire Diaries, etc.). I'm not saying that TV has totally lacked ambition, but it does sometimes feel that way. And sadly, two of the Fall's biggest and most ambitious new series, Flashforward and V, somewhat fizzled after much-hyped debuts. I still hold out a little hope for V though - maybe it can come back with a bang in the new year?

In the end though, it may all come back to the that old nugget of wisdom: "nobody knows anything." TV execs can only achieve so much by sticking to formulas and creating shows by committee. This year, two of the best and most successful new shows - Glee and Modern Family - are the kind of risks, maybe even happy accidents - that shouldn't really exist but, luckily for us, they do. And you want to celebrate that, but then you see that *the* most successful new show is ... a spinoff of NCIS. Funny, because I've never personally met a single person, ever, who watches NCIS. Can pop-culture really be that fragmented, that I, a plugged-in twenty-something, has never met or talked to a single person who claims to watch TV's highest-rated drama? Yikes.

But that's what TV is now - small niche audiences. It's less about reaching the masses and more about demographics and psychographics. However, what strikes me as sad sometimes is that smart, ambitious, creative programming is now, apparently, considered niche. What's still mainstream? American Idol, Dancing With the Stars, and the dozens of other shows that rip those shows off. Still, I like to think that those are just the shows being watched the old-fashioned way by the old generation - the shows whose ratings are easily tabulated, but that have no real lifespan beyond that initial airing. The cool kids are watching the good stuff online, on Hulu, on their XBOX or PS3, or via DVD marathons.

And as always, I'm here to give some kudos to the good stuff. The shows that kept me riveted, that filled up my DVR week after week. The shows that made me laugh, that made me smile. The shows that, yes, made me think. I said in my opening paragraph that there was a lot to be encouraged about this year, and that's true. There were signs of life in the TV industry. Great shows - hilarious comedies and gripping dramas. And the beginning of 2010 has a lot to look forward to - 24, Chuck, and the final season of Lost. Set your DVR's folks. Speaking of which ... as always, my disclaimer is that I can't watch everything. The latest season of Curb Your Enthusiasm, I'll be watching that one as soon as it hits DVD. I recently started to get caught up with True Blood, so that's another one I'll be able to weigh in on eventually. One of these days, I'll get around to watching Dexter or Breaking Bad or Battlestar Galactica, but hey, I am only one man. So with that said, here's my list of the year's best -- enjoy:


1.) Eastbound & Down

- I picked up a DVD of this HBO comedy series on a whim, and it blew me away. Like a cruder version of the original UK Office, Eastbound & Down is a mini-epic both hilarious and tragic. As disgraced former major league baseball star Kenny Powers, Danny McBride has created a character as memorable and awkwardly hilarious as Ricky Gervais' David Brent. Eastbound & Down is vulgar, dark, and very much R-rated, but it has a surprising amount of depth to its story and characters. This was the best and funniest comedy of the year, and one of those shows that just felt like an instant classic by the end of Episode 1.

2.) The Office

- The Office had a pretty amazing batting average this past year. I thought the show did something pretty brilliant - they went a whole year with Pam and Jim together without any melodrama. This allowed the show to go dark, so to speak. The Office did stories about Jim's promotion and the subsequent challenges of being middle management. Stories about Michael Scott going off and starting his own rival paper company. Stories about Dunder-Mifflin going under. The Office went back to basics, and was darker, funnier, and fresher than it's ever been.

3.) Fringe

- Episode to episode, week to week, no drama kept me on the edge of my seat this year more so than Fringe. What started out as an interesting if not wholly captivating sci-fi show blew up in 2009. Suddenly, its multidimensional mythology kicked into high gear, and the show began trumping Lost in terms of killer cliffhangers and mind-bending twists. And as always, I have to mention the stellar cast, with John Noble consistently ruling it as the show's resident mad scientist, Dr. Walter Bishop.

4.) Lost

- Lost didn't have quite the string of mind-blowing episodes that it did last year, but it still had an incredibly solid season, with a number of fascinating twists and unexpected turns. The death and resurrection of John Locke, the stranded survivors stuck in the 1970's with the Dharma Initiative, and the much-anticipated reveal of Jacob and his secrets. Lost was very continuity-heavy this year, but it still managed to have those great character moments that originally set the show apart. Most importantly, it set the stage for what should be one hell of a final season.

5.) Flight of the Conchords

- Okay, so the songs may not have been quite as memorable in Season 2 as they were in Season 1, but Flight of the Conchords still brought the funny in 2009. The fact is, few things crack me up more than the deadpan kiwi antics of Bret, Jermaine, and their hapless manager Murray. Some of the episodes in this season were just classic, and if this is really it for the Conchords, I'd say they went out with a bang.

6.) Modern Family

- The best new series of the season, Modern Family has so much potential, it's crazy. It's amazing too, because so often, a new comedy series takes several episodes, if not a full season, to really find its footing. Modern Family came out of the gate swinging though, with an exceptional pilot that brilliantly set up the series and its characters. The show seamlessly combines new-school humor with old-school sitcom charm, and, wow, we're still only halfway through Season 1 at this point.

7.) 30 Rock

- Did 30 Rock slip a bit this year? I think that's fair to say. But I also think that rumors of 30 Rock's creative bottoming out have been greatly exaggerated. The fact is, it's still one of the funniest, smartest, and most entertaining series on TV. And one of the most quotable. As long as Tina Fey, Tracy Morgan, Alec Baldwin, and the rest of the great ensemble cast are there to provide me with my weekly dose of classic comedy moments, then 30 Rock remains must-see TV.

8.) Chuck

- 2009 was the year that Chuck went from being a pretty good show to becoming a great one. Chuck had a string of awesome episodes in late 2008, and then finished off its second season with a bang in 2009. The show just seemed to really start clicking, mixing action, humor, and heart like no other show on the air. I loved the recurring guest roles from Chevy Chase and Scott Bakula, and their presence helped to deepen the show's mythology and really raise the stakes for Chuck. The S2 finale was completely kickass - one of my favorite TV episodes of the year. Bring on Season 3!

9.) 24

- 24 had its ups and downs this year, but overall, it was an incredibly solid year for the Jack Bauer Power Hour - especially considering the disappointing outing the show had in 2008. The return of fan favorite Tony Almeda brought back some energy to the show, but overall, this season of 24 flat-out upped the ante. Jon Voight was great as a recurring villain, a fun new companion for Jack was introduced in the form of Renee Walker, and lots of great 24 characters - Bill, Chloe, Aaron Pierce(!!!) - returned. The highlight of the season? The insane two-parter in which Tony Todd and his troops laid siege to the White House. Truly epic TV, brimming with gravitas.

10.) Prison Break

- Prison Break's final season was a roller-coaster-ride, to be sure. It meandered at times, but man, the show began firing on all cylinders as it approached its series finale, which was an absolute classic. Prison Break Season 4 introduced some great new characters like Michael Rappaport's Agent Self and Kathleen Quinlan as Michael and Lincoln's terrifically evil mother. But in the end, the epic conclusion to the season and the series cemented Michael Scofield as one of the great TV heroes, and Prison Break as one of the great action-adventure shows of the decade.


11.) The Prisoner

- I am not a number! There was, to be sure, a degree of skepticism surrounding AMC's remake of the cult-classic 60's TV series. But in the end, I came away a huge fan of the miniseries, and I was really impressed with its intelligence and ambition. It was surreal, non-linear, mysterious - a big risk for any TV show. And yet, I think they pulled it off, and did a nice job updating the old show's themes of paranoia, conformity, and surveillance for 2009. Plus, Ian McKellan was pretty great as #2. A very satisfying head-trip, indeed.

12.) Glee

- If nothing else, I give Glee huge points for being so unrelentingly original. In fact, the show proved so unpredictable that it was hard to know what you'd be getting week to week. A dark teen comedy? A peppy musical? An over-the-top comedy? But Glee has so much energy that, when all of those disparate elements were working in sync, it really was an infectiously joyful show to watch. And as the series went on, it did seem to find that tonal balance more and more. Ultimately, it was hard not to get caught up in the hype.

13.) Michael & Michael Have Issues

- As a huge fan of The State, Stella, etc., I was pumped for Michael & Michael. I love the random, absurdist comedy of Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter, so I was eager to see them return to TV in this Comedy Central series. The new show was hit or miss at times, but it produced some absolutely hilarious moments. Just the random back and forth dialogue between the two Michaels made this one of the year's funniest half-hours.

14.) Parks and Recreation

- Most improved show of 2009? Parks and Recreation. The NBC sitcom started out a bit shakily in its first season, but it was like a whole other series in Season 2. Parks & Rec smartly began to focus on its ultra-talented ensemble cast rather than on Amy Poehler alone, and that allowed people like Nick Offerman, Aziz Ansari, and Chris Pratt to really shine. In fact, there have been weeks this season where Parks outshines the likes of The Office and 30 Rock ... not too shabby.

15.) King of the Hill

- One of the greatest shows of the last decade, King of the Hill finally rode off into the sunset in 2009 not with pomp and circumstance, but with the same kind of quiet dignity that Hank Hill would have been proud of. While FOX's other Sunday night mainstays struggled creatively in '09, KOTH was, as always, consistently entertaining, with a handful of classic episodes sprinkled throughout the year before all was said and done (the Propane Convention, anyone?). It was sad to see KOTH finally end (and heartbreaking to hear about Brittany Murphy's passing this December - so funny and memorable as Luanne for all those years) ... but it's good to know that KOTH went out with its head held high.

Special Mention -- Pushing Daisies

- The facts are these: Pushing Daisies was technically cancelled in 2008, but it's final four episodes aired in Summer 2009, and what a final four they were. While Season 2 did get a bit over-cluttered with a number of overlapping plot threads and several intertwining mysteries, I felt like the show wrapped up in fine fashion. Right up until the end, Pushing Daises looked spectacular, felt like no other show before it or since, and had a top-notch cast that I hope we'll be seeing much more of in the years to come. It's a true shame though that this wonderfully-written whimsical show couldn't find a bigger audience. It definitely deserved better.

Special Mention - Late Night With Conan O'Brien / The Tonight Show With Conan O'Brien

- I stuck to scripted shows in my Best-Of list, but I wanted to give a shout-out to my man Conan O'Brien, and the great year he's had - filled with memorable TV moments. Because the fact is, while others were garnering attention through personal scandal or primetime time slots, Conan made a smooth transition from Late Night to The Tonight Show, where he's gotten better and funnier each week on the air. But man, that final series of Late Night shows in January and February were classics, and Conan's speech on his final show was one for the ages. It was the end of an era to be sure, but only months later, Conan kicked off his version of The Tonight Show with a bang, literally running from New York to LA as Cheap Trick's "Surrender" played in the background. Even Conan diehards will admit though that there were some rough spots in the initial transition. But I will say this: Conan has really been kicking ass for the last month or two. The show is getting into a nice groove, and personally, I think that when the hype has died down and the smoke has cleared, Conan will once again be king of late night. Seriously though, take away the hype and the politics, and you have to admit: Conan had one heck of a year in 2009.


1. Chuck Bartowksi - Chuck
2. Michael Scofield - Prison Break
3. Olivia Dunham - Fringe
4. Sawyer - Lost
5. Jack Bauer - 24


1. Christina Rose Scofield - Prison Break
2. Jonas Hodges - 24
3. Ben Linus - Lost
4. David Robert Jones - Fringe
5. Sue Sylvester - Glee


1. Jenna Fischer - The Office

Runners-Up: Tina Fey - 30 Rock, Amy Poehler - Parks and Recreation


1. Jane Lynch - Glee

Runners-Up: Ellie Kemper - The Office, Rashida Jones - Parks and Recreation


1. Danny McBride - Eastbound & Down

Runners-Up: Ty Burrell - Modern Family, Steve Carell - The Office


1. Rhys Darby - Flight of the Conchords

Runners-Up: Nick Offerman - Parks and Recreation, Ed Helms - The Office


1. Anna Torv - Fringe

Runners-Up: Evangeline Lilly - Lost, Elizabeth Mitchell - Lost


1. Yunjin Kim - Lost

Runners-Up: Kathleen Quinlan - Prison Break, Annie Wersching - 24


1. John Noble - Fringe

Runner-Up: Josh Halloway - Lost, Wentworth Miller - Prison Break


1. Jeremy Davies - Lost

Runners-Up: Lance Reddick - Fringe, Michael Emerson - Lost

Special Mention: Sir Ian McKellan for his captivating turn as #2 on The Prisoner miniseries


1. Lost - the final season is sure to be epic

2. Chuck - Season 3 is potentially make or break for the series, so expect the show to pull out all the stops

3. Smallville - the show has slowly but surely been improving over the last month or so, and 2010 will bring the much-anticipated Geoff Johns-penned Justice Society two-parter

4. 24 - with a new NYC setting and a revamped CTU, I can't wait to see what surprises 24 has in store for 2010.

5. Happy Town - still no official word on when ABC will begin airing this Twin Peaks-esque drama, but I have seen the pilot, and it is really, really badass - can't wait to watch this when it finally premieres

- Thanks again for reading. I'll be back soon with more Best-of-2009 lists, so, as always ... stay tuned.

No comments:

Post a Comment