Wednesday, January 11, 2006

The 20 Best Network Television Shows of 2005

The Family Guy, adoption and personal struggle posts I am working on will have to wait (due respect, but you'll never read THAT in the Wall Street Journal).

But this cannot.

I have thought, and thought, and thought. And these are the best shows on the six networks (sorry, Pax) that you can still watch (sorry canceled shows). And I'll do a list of 20 cable shows when I get back.

I was actually surprised at how hard this was to do. Once I got past the top 10, everything kind of blended together. So I suppose I should have only done 10. Oh well! Lessons for next time.

20.) Alias (returns March 2 on ABC) -- Let me just say straight off that a lot of season four and the first half of season five was vastly uneven. Let me just say that this show SHOULD be ending. But also let me just say that there is no crazier time on television than when this show is firing on all cylinders. Having heard who's coming back for the latter half of season five (leading in to the series finale), I have high hopes for the last run of episodes.

Strongest episode: "Tuesday" (originally aired 3/30/05). In which the incomparable Kevin Weisman saved the incomparable Jennifer Garner from being buried alive and the show felt like its old self again.

19.) The Amazing Race (returns in March on CBS) -- This would have been up higher, but they had to run that crazy family edition I completely stopped paying attention to. Regardless, this remains the Cadillac of reality shows. It's part game show, part travelogue, part personality study and all fraught with tension. Here's hoping the next race is a return to form.

Strongest episode: "I've Been Wanting a Face Lift for a Long Time" (originally aired 3/29/05). Usually, the Race makes you THINK two teams are really close, when, in reality, they're hours apart (as you can tell when one team arrives with the sun high overhead and the other arrives with the moon in a corresponding position). But this episode featured a car crash AND an honest-to-God footrace that ended with heroes vindicated and villains vanquished.

18.) Supernatural (airs Tuesdays at 9 EST/PST on the WB) -- This really, really shouldn't work in our age of heavily serialized genre shows. This is like X-Files ULTRA lite. But the engaging cast and energetic guest stars make it come off breezily. It's a goofy little show, perfect for killing time. And such.

Strongest episode: "Phantom Traveler" (originally aired 10/4/05). Creator of the short-lived (and much-mourned) Miracles Richard Hatem gives us a good old-fashioned exorcism. ON A PLANE! And offers up hints to the show's ongoing mythology. ON A PLANE!

17.) Bones (airs Wednesdays at 9 EST/PST on Fox) -- Yes, I know. It seemed all I could do was complain about this show. And yet. . .I still like it. A lot. It needs work, but I'm willing to stick with it a little while longer, if only for Deschanel and Boreanaz's chemistry. Which is sizzling.

Strongest episode: "The Man in the Fallout Shelter" (originally aired 12/13/05). I alluded to this one in my review of this show, but it really is a fine episode, navigating the treacherous terrain of the Christmas episode with panache. It's got heart-tugging moments, big laughs and even a montage set to "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." What more do you want?

16.) How I Met Your Mother (airs Mondays at 8:30 EST/PST on CBS) -- A sparkling cast and oft-witty writing make this the finest sitcom CBS has had in ages. There's a very particular angst to your 20s that the show gets ever-so-right, and the character of Barney (Neil Patrick Harris) is deservedly a breakout. Double special bonus points for giving us back the national treasure that is Bob Saget and for introducing concepts of fate and free will to the overlying sitcom framework. Now if only they could do something about that dull leading man. . .

Strongest episode: "Okay Awesome" (originally aired 10/17/05). A friend of mine called this the best half-hour CBS has ever broadcast. While that's patently false (I mean. . .every sitcom they had on in the 70s begs to differ), it's something I actually thought about for a while. This episode is actually SO good that it sort of towers above the rest of the show like a colossus. The leading man is likable (we can see WHY a woman would fall for him), the jokes all hit their marks, it perfectly nails what's so miserable about clubbing, and it has a perfect end line ("That place has great salads!"). All this and Jayma Mays!

15.) Grey's Anatomy (airs Sundays at 10 p.m. EST/PST on ABC) -- I hate myself for doing this. I really, really do. I was above this show when it premiered. It had too much pop music. Too much rambling voiceover by an annoying protagonist. Too many manipulative plot twists. But, ever so gradually, I was sucked in. The main character still annoys me, but I sort of like that she does (even if she seems obsessed with finding a man to the detriment of career -- the Joss Whedon-ite in me says no). And the supporting cast is stellar. I can't help it. I, I who hate medical shows, am being sucked in.

Strongest episode: "Into You Like a Train" (originally aired 10/30/05). Normally, the patients-as-metaphors-for-problems-in-the-characters-lives schtick irks me. Not so here. Two trains collide and the passengers arrive at the hospital. The interns must decide who to save and who to let die. It's heartbreaking and emotional and nervewracking. All at once. And it's the episode that made me decide I liked this show.

14.) Without a Trace (airs Thursdays at 10 EST/PST on CBS) -- Procedurals are starting to wear on me. I just can't bring myself to care about them anymore. But this one still knocks out a good episode every few weeks. It's getting complacent and a bit long in the tooth, but I still watch it, unlike CSI, which used to be one of my favorites. That has to count for something.

Strongest episode: "A Day in the Life" (originally aired 11/17/05). The problem with all procedurals is that they end up creating an insular world, inviting the viewer in along with them. It's fun to be in that world, but it's too easy to forget the emotions of the families of the victims. This episode brilliantly turns that paradigm on its head, giving us a chance to see the detectives as brutes and grieve with a family.

13.) Prison Break (returning in March to Fox) -- Let me just get this out of the way. THIS SHOW IS COMPLETELY IMPLAUSIBLE. If you thought 24 was bad, this is going to trump that on every level it possibly can. It had a few curiously flat hours toward the top, but shortly into its run, it hit a stride that it's kept up ever since. It's not the best written show on television (nor the best acted), but I challenge you to find a guiltier pleasure.

Strongest episode: "Part 2" (originally aired 10/3/05). The show went away for its baseball break in style with an episode that featured a prison riot, a murder, inconvenient people learning about the plan and sweet, sweet unresolved sexual tension. It was an hour with so many plates spinning that the show has struggled to top it since (though the cliffhanger episode in November came close).

12.) Invasion (airs Wednesdays at 10 EST/PST on ABC) -- Okay. The pilot was a little slow. So was the next episode. Get over it. This story of aliens invading a tiny Florida town built and sustained a creepy, suspenseful mood like few television shows ever have. Then, when that mood was sufficiently built, it went ahead and added plot twist after plot twist to the scenario. I mean, how many OTHER shows would have someone take a chainsaw to their own arms? And the show's central metaphor is one of those wonderful ones that can stand for just about anything you want it to. Right wing hegemony? Sure thing! LEFT wing hegemony? Go right ahead. Terrorism? Naturally! Man's eternal struggle with nature? Uh. . .sure. . .

Strongest episode: "Unnatural Selection" (originally aired 10/19/05). Some of the later episodes were much better in the "advancing the plot" department so many worry about, but this one had the finest performance from the series' secret weapon, William Fichtner. It also concluded with that magnificently creepy scene in the church, lightning flashing all around, Fichtner matter-of-factly delivering a speech that talks of very awful things.

11.) Scrubs (airs Tuesdays at 9 EST/PST on NBC) -- Big whimsy. I have never liked Scrubs as much as I feel I should, even though I like it very much. It's absurdist and whimsical in the very best possible ways, and it manages to fight its way out of some very odd little holes. It's also one of the few sitcoms out there that's not afraid of the gravitas. It'll go for the jugular now and again. And it's got an expert cast. At the end of the day, though, it just doesn't make me laugh as much as some of the other comedies on my list. Sigh.

Strongest episode: "My Best-Laid Plans" (originally aired 3/1/05). Zach Braff directs and goes very stylized. Plus, the lovely and talented Miss Heather Graham lights up the screen (in a way she just can't in "Emily's Reasons Why Not"). It has a VERY contrived twist at the end, but getting there is pure bliss, full of laughs and ruminations on why we do the things we do.

10.) My Name Is Earl (airs Thursdays at 9 EST/PST on NBC) -- This one is odd because it gives me so much enjoyment, but I can already see where it's going to start falling apart one of these days (much like Desperate Housewives a long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long time ago). But for now, I'll gladly hop on the bandwagon for this big-hearted, warm hug of a show. It's taken all the lessons Arrested Development taught us and employed them in an interesting manner. While some of the endings get TOO schmaltzy, the show makes up for it with big laughs. And, honestly, if they just give Earl some more setbacks and keep from turning preachy, they could make it several seasons without falling apart.

Strongest episode: "Joy's Wedding" (11/15/05). The show rarely has huge belly laughs, but it had them by the barrelful in this episode, which also explored one of its strongest supporting characters, Earl's ex-wife Joy. As good as Jason Lee is, Ethan Suplee and Jamie Pressley lift this show above the usual dross and give it a comic point-of-view.

9.) 24 (returns Sunday on Fox) -- It stretches credulity. It's borderline fascist. It inspires drinking game after drinking game. And still, somehow, 24 stays on top. Season four's "everything but the kitchen sink" approach offered up kidnappings, nuclear missiles, the destruction of Air Force One and Shohreh Aghdashloo in one of the supporting performances of the year. Quibble all you want, but 24 remains TV's most energizing thrill ride. And the start of season five is nothing too drab either!

Strongest episode: "12 p.m. to 1 p.m." (originally aired 1/24/05). It's always difficult to pick "one" episode of 24, thanks to the nature of the show, but this one had a lot going on in it and never let up. Jack got in to a huge gun battle, Shohreh got to begin the long path to betrayal and Tony's return was set up. It's not going to make a lick of sense if you haven't seen the first few episodes, but it's enjoyable nonetheless.

8.) The Office (airs Thursdays at 9:30 EST/PST on NBC). I was all set to hate this show. I love the British original. It's one of my top TV shows of all time. And while this isn't as good (and made the mistake of showing us by copying the British pilot for its pilot), it's still an amazingly funny show. The developers have taken the British idea and perfectly Americanized it. Those who claim that it is just an overdone gloss on the original don't get the uniquely American nature of these characters. And the Jim/Pam romance comes close to eclipsing Tim/Dawn. I NEVER thought I would say that.

Strongest episode: "The Fire" (originally aired 10/11/05). In season one, the show felt a little unsure of how far it could stray from its roots. In its second season, it abandoned the roots entirely, as shown in this amusing episode that takes place almost entirely in a parking lot. The writers turn the mundanity of workplace life into something revealing, offering up the little games we play to make the time go by as psychological insights.

7.) Gilmore Girls (airs Tuesdays at 8 EST/PST on the WB) -- It sounds like a terrible idea for a show. A mother and daughter who are more like friends than family. It sounds positively NAUSEATING. And add in the proto-feminist undercurrents that could threaten to overwhelm everything? But for five-and-a-half seasons now, the Girls have navigated those waters skillfully, offering what is maybe the most heartfelt show on TV. It's a deconstruction of the American class system, a celebration of the small town way of life and a subtle celebration of girl power. And it's got the best pop culture references you ever did see. It's a national treasure, even when it has no direction (see: much of season 6). Check it out.

Strongest episode: "Wedding Bell Blues" (originally aired 2/8/05). There were so many good episodes this year that it was a bit head-spinning, but this one, the show's 100th, managed to get all of the central relationships whirling while providing big fights, public meltdowns and lots and lots of goofy humor. This may be the best episode the show has ever produced.

6.) House (airs Tuesdays at 9 EST/PST on Fox) -- Here it is. The one good thing American Idol has ever done for us. It made a hit of this show that shouldn't have been a hit, featuring a cranky doctor (remember: viewers don't like characters that are mean!) and his team of young go-getters. It's not perfect, and it threatens to slip into formula all too often, but most of the time, the incomparable Hugh Laurie and the most well-researched writing team on television keep everything functioning.

Strongest episode: "Three Stories" (originally aired 5/17/05). This just might have been the television episode of the year. The sound you heard once it was over was America's collective jaw dropping.

5.) Everybody Hates Chris (airs Thursdays at 8 EST/PST on UPN) -- How often does television talk about the poor? How often is a sitcom father something other than a bumbling oaf? How often does a family sitcom show the bleaker side of life, while still offering up a family that convincingly makes it seem like a kid could grow up dancing just above the poverty line and turn into an accomplished comedian like Chris Rock? If your answer was "All of the time!" you clearly don't pay any attention. This is a one-of-a-kind show and a joyous treat every week it's new. It's also gloriously funny.

Strongest episode: "Everybody Hates Christmas" (originally aired 12/15/2005). So what? I'm a sucker for Christmas episodes. Especially when they have as much heart as this one, which actually presents the idea of a kid not getting ANY presents as a heartwarming ideal. When's the last time you saw THAT on According to Jim?

4.) Everwood (returns in March on the WB) -- At one time, this was a treacly, often maudlin show that seemed destined to always be pretty good and never crack the top 10. Then the last two seasons hit. This is a family drama that doesn't shy away from hard-to-discuss topics. It's got richly developed character after richly developed character and perfectly executed scenes about the small wonders of life in every episode. And it never, ever takes the easy way out. It's always pushing its characters in new, interesting directions and making arguments for the necessity of small town life. I'm not one for shows like this, but this one works, maybe as well as any show of its type in the history of the medium. And it has Chris Pratt and Sarah Drew, two of the best young actors anywhere.

Strongest episode: "Fate Accomplis" (4/17/05). On paper, the storyline of Andy keeping the birth of a secret son from Ephram shouldn't work. But the show took a plotline that had been handed to it by a prior writing staff and handled it with grace and maturity. It had the strength to ask what would REALLY happen if this happened, and it followed through on that scenario with devastating results.

3. Arrested Development (please return sometime soon on Fox!) -- What? I'm not breaking my rules! This show hasn't BEEN officially canceled yet. It apparently will be soon, but there are still four episodes, which will air. . .sometime. Catch them while you can. Better yet, buy the DVDs. Because this is the kind of show that only rarely comes along. Whipsmart, ridiculously funny and full of the best acting on television, Arrested only takes a break long enough to make fun of itself. Or hail itself. Or do a shoutout to an obscure sitcom from the 90s. You're not going to find a funnier show on the air. And for all of the talk about how "smart" and "rewarding" the show is, that's the real selling point. It's funny, funny, funny.

Strongest episode: "Motherboy XXX" (originally aired 3/13/05). The demented Jessica Walter is one of the show's finest performers and the oblivious Tony Hale is one of its least-heralded. This episode gives the two of them a madcap plot of their own AND lets the other members of the talented ensemble swirl around them. More laughs than you get from most sitcoms in a whole season.

2. Veronica Mars (airs Wednesdays at 9 EST/PST on UPN) -- Yes. It's a show about a teen girl. Who solves mysteries. On UPN. Last year at this time, I was worried it would disappear down a rabbit hole of self-contained stories and never appear again. Never fear, gentle reader, for that clearly did not happen. Instead, Veronica Mars began to balance mystery solving, teen angst, soap opera plotting and an overriding mystery better than any show since Buffy in its prime (and that's high praise from me). And when other shows (including a certain hit on ABC on Sunday nights) came back after solving their season one mystery and spun their gears, Veronica Mars built a new mystery that rose out of the ashes of "Who killed Lilly Kane?" and actually surpassed it in many respects. Sure, the cast has a couple of weak links, but this is a strong, confident show and with Gilmore Girls and Everybody Hates Chris, it offers up smart commentary on the American economy week after week.

Strongest episode: "A Trip to the Dentist" (originally aired 5/3/05). Most regard "Leave It to Beaver," the first season's finale, as the series finest hour so far. I, however, prefer this penultimate episode, which tackled the question of who drugged Veronica and raped her at a party (see? not a typical teen show). Characters from all of the previous episodes resurface, and the answer is not what you might expect. About halfway through, Libby said, "I think I'm going to be sick." It's just that powerful. And that good.

1.) Lost (airs Wednesdays at 9 EST/PST on ABC) -- What? You didn't get any answers? Stop whining. Lost is network TV's bravest show, taking every possible form of stereotype, then inverting them and seeing what makes them tick. It's also a ridiculously addictive puzzlebox mystery that actually appears to have some idea where it's going. With a rich ensemble, a stable of strong characters, a great writing staff and some of the most distinctive direction on television, Lost is the kind of delight that only comes along once in a great while. In the end, television, better than any other medium, poses questions. And Lost poses those questions, but not in the ways you might think. Who are we? it asks or What is right and what is wrong and who decides for us? It may seem to be taking its own sweet time, but trust me, that's a good thing.

Strongest episode: All of them? Hmmm. . .no. . .I guess. . ."Man of Science, Man of Faith" (originally aired 9/21/05). All right. You've just won the Emmy. Fans are rampant for your return. Everyone was a bit angry at where the finale ended. So there's a lot riding on this premiere. Remarkably, Lost rose to the occasion and then some, offering a creepy hour that made Mama Cass into a harbinger of doom, took the show's mythology and flipped it on its head and answered so many questions while posing so many more. Good on you, Lost!

We'll name the top 20 cable shows next time around. After that, we'll hand out some special prizes.

Here's a network by network tally:

ABC: 4 (Alias, Grey's Anatomy, Invasion, Lost)
CBS: 3 (The Amazing Race, How I Met Your Mother, Without a Trace)
Fox: 5 (24, Arrested Development, Bones, House, Prison Break)
NBC: 3 (My Name Is Earl, The Office, Scrubs)
UPN: 2 (Everybody Hates Chris, Veronica Mars)
The WB: 3 (Everwood, Gilmore Girls, Supernatural)


David Sims said...

Good call on "A Trip to the Dentist". Definitely my fave VM ep.

Todd VanDerWerff said...

This is why America loves you, you crazy Brit.

Andy said...

Good call on House and Bones. . .they're pretty much the two shows we make time to watch!