Saturday, January 06, 2007

Idiocracy and Jesus Camp

(Absolutely no commentary on the latter title by the first, I swear. Just the way they came up in the DVD stack.)

Mike Judge, such an affable and empathetic artist in such works as Beavis and Butthead, King of the Hill and Office Space, is angry. In Idiocracy, he looks at the world around him and turns it into a world 500 years hence. He could have entitled the film "And, Yea, a K-Fed Shall Lead Them," and it would have been mostly accurate.

That savageness is both the film's greatest strength and its greatest weakness. While that anger allows many of the movie's jokes to hit their targets with stinging accuracy and pinpoint hilariousness, it also obscures the film's characters. Aside from his lead, Judge doesn't seem to LIKE anyone in his movie, and it makes the whole thing tiresome at various points, especially when he gives control of the movie over to someone other than the affable Luke Wilson, who makes a particularly good center as the most average man in America (the role he was born to play, it would seem).

Satire, of course, relies on anger, often, to get its point across. But the best satire turns that rage at institutions, corporations and the other machines that run our society. Judge's premise -- that the faster breeding rate of the less intelligent will inevitably create a nation of morons -- necessarily attacks whole swathes of PEOPLE, and that sits less easily. Of course, like all good science fiction, this isn't really about a society 500 years in the future, but, rather, about our society right now, obsessed with being entertained and involved, unable to focus its attention on anything and only interested in immediate gratification. His rage is palpable, but it thwarts what has been the most potent weapon in his satiric arsenal to date -- his empathy for his characters.

Regardless of how you feel about Beavis and Butthead, King of the Hill or Office Space, each of those works is interested in all of its characters and what they think and feel. These works may not agree with each and every one of them (and, admittedly, Office Space's boss character is a boring cog in a corporate wheel rather than a real human), but they also embrace all they see. King of the Hill, in particular, is a nuanced work, both making fun of and proving right its hero, Hank Hill.

Idiocracy is not, as some have argued, a platform paper on the dangers of dysgenics. It's not a call to arms to the ruling elite to have more babies. It's, ultimately, a movie that argues that the best thing we can do is to help each other out and take a more active role in our communities (the journey of Wilson's character is from a man who gets out of the way to a man who leads). And that's certainly an admirable world view. Still, it takes a long time to get there, and much of what happens on the way is so mean-spirited that it may turn some people off.

The jokes, though, are almost all on-point. The opening montage, showing how the yuppies of the world will go extinct, is right on. Though it's followed by a too-long bit about an Army officer who is fond of the lifestyle of pimps, the movie rights itself by showing the gradual dumbening of society as the name of Fuddrucker's gradually becomes a more obscene phrase. From there, there's at least one solid joke or sight gag in every minute. Judge's vision of the future may be an angry one, but it's also a funny one. Just be prepared for a big side of angry bitterness.

Jesus Camp, a documentary about a camp for evangelical Christian kids in North Dakota, is another hit-or-miss proposition, though it skews more narrowly to the hit column. Directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, two liberal non-Christians, the film is actually one of the more unvarnished looks at the lives of evangelicals in America out there -- that is, it's one of the more unvarnished looks at the lives of evangelicals in America except when it's telling us exactly how much we should be afraid of them.

(Full disclosure: The church I attended until I was about 11 years of age was remarkably similar to the churches in this film, and I went to a Christian camp that was like a less militaristic version of the camp featured here. While my family left that church for more mainstream denominations in my late childhood/early adolescence, a lot of my conflicting views on evangelical Christianity were formed in that period of time. Hence.)

That's not to say that, from a purely political sense, liberals shouldn't be afraid of evangelical Christians. Certainly most of the aims of evangelical Christians are very different from those of most liberals, and the evangelical voting body tends to be eager to vote and very unanimous in its voting choices (at one point in the film, since-deposed evangelical leader Ted Haggard assumes a big grin and says that if evangelicals vote, they can decide any election -- more or less true, though that could apply to any number of constituency groups). However, as the 2006 midterms, when unprecedented numbers of evangelicals voted for Democrats, and the success of Barack Obama with said audience show, the temptation to simply write off evangelicals as one, singular monolithic force is one that should be avoided.

Ewing and Grady are pretty good about avoiding that temptation for most of the running time of their film. They present their characters, who would be so easy to caricature, as real human beings. Focusing on four kids who are attending the camp and the woman who started it, Ewing and Grady show just how much evangelical life has grown beyond what it was in the early 20th century (when members completely shunned the outside world, often). The children, who are mostly home schooled, strike an uneasy balance between being of the world and not being of it -- they'll listen to heavy metal music, but only if it's explicitly about Jesus. The layers of insulation they have gotten against their environment (a scene with a science lesson is particularly baffling) are put there from early childhood in the hopes that the world won't get in and rip them down.

When Ewing and Grady are at the camp or attending home school lessons, Jesus Camp is the best kind of documentary -- a film that takes you inside an insular world that can be hard to understand for outsiders. It's easy to see why Becky Fischer, who runs the titular camp, liked the way she was portrayed in this film. Ewing and Grady treat her and her kids fairly, and any biases brought against them are brought by the viewer himself.

But Ewing and Grady, who stated that they wanted to get the film out in time for the midterms in 2006, overplay their hands. The use of horror movie-esque mood music grows more and more prominent as the film goes on, and the film also unfortunately includes a long section about how the kids and Fischer hope to eventually influence American politics. Furthermore, Ewing and Grady frequently cut to Air America radio host Mike Papantonio, who functions as a voice for liberals who see the film to nod emphatically with. While Papantonio has a lot of intriguing ideas about how American Christianity warps the Christianity in the Bible, his rhetoric doesn't feel of a piece with the work -- he's just there to provide a shield for the audience from the central characters.

It's unfortunate that Ewing and Grady felt that there was a need to articulate just how frightening the evangelicals are, because it cuts against the message of the rest of their film, which shows just how human and frail these particular evangelicals are. All of the kids are instantly recognizable, and while Fischer's views are probably not views held by the majority of Americans, her passion for educating her charges is palpable. But Ewing and Grady get tripped up by finding the fear in a movement, while losing sight of the millions and millions of individuals that make up that movement.

(Note: For a similar film on the same subject that's less patronizing, check out the little-seen 2001 documentary Hell House.)


Thursday, January 04, 2007

Top Ten Albums of 2006

As promised, yet another list. Below are my top ten albums for 2006. However, seeing as this was a pretty damn fine year for music, I had some trouble narrowing my list down to only ten. So, I've included a small Runners-up list of sorts. The following are ten albums that I couldn't quite find a spot for in my official top ten, but desperately wanted to. All are amazing in their own ways, and any music lover who may have missed them this past year should seek them out.

Here you go:

The Fiery Furnaces, Bitter Tea
Ghostface Killah, Fishscale
Nellie McKay, Pretty Little Head
Asobi Seksu, Citrus
Justin Timberlake, Futuresex/Lovesound
Girl Talk, Night Ripper
Islands, Return To the Sea
Danielson, Ships
Man Man, Six Demon Bag
Destroyer, Destroyer's Rubies

And now, on with the show.

Every album on this list affects me in a different way, but affects me nonetheless. On a personal note, it's been something of a rough year for yours truly and I reserved these ten spots for albums that, however recently, touched me and aided me through it. That's not too sappy is it?... It is? Oh. Sorry. Oh well. Enjoy!


10. The Pipettes, We Are The Pipettes

When I first heard The Pipettes, I was convinced there was no possible way they could be as clever as they thought they were. The bratty posturing, the cutesy, Polk-a-dot imagery, the Beatles trashing while militantly embracing the Specter model--I mean, it was all too good to be true. How could an entity so deliciously campy actually deliver when it came time to shine? Color me stupid. From a presence filled with substance, to a commanding pop delivery only surpassed by its own ambition, We Are The Pipettes is assured, loud, and ultimately intoxicating. The Wall of Sound is alive and well!

09. Cat Power, The Greatest

So, my favorite female artist went all Dusty on us this year. Good, I say. You can't say the results were lackluster. Among Chan's catalogue, The Greatest may not be...the greatest (aren't I funny?) but it stands up to just about any of her former releases. The Greatest is smoky and sad, yes, but it's also downright soulful and lively--which is not the usual adjectives you would employ when discussing a Cat Power record. When it's all said and done, you have a thoughtful, tuneful, and meditative piece from a conflicted artist finding herself yet again. If you didn't like it the first time, try it once more.

08. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Show Your Bones

There is a part of me that genuinely hopes this album will achieve (for lack of a better example) Pinkerton like status in the time ahead to compensate for it being widely and criminally overlooked and underrated by just about everyone. Of course there is that other part of me that simply feels that if someone missed Show Your Bones and the power that it wielded, then tough shit. You could say that the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, or even specifically Karen O, matured on their Sophomore LP. You could say they gained perspective or got serious...even soft. All of that sounds kind of lame, though. The truth is that Show Your Bones is every bit as visceral and intense as Fever To Tell was--just in different ways. Karen O is a slave to her influences, and pays for it daily. However, the sheer honesty and electricity poured into Show Your Bones makes for a blend of originality that is refreshing, vivid, and blisteringly alive.

07. The Thermals, The Body, The Blood, The Machine

Ramones style guitar, thrashing drums, an odd John Darnielle vocal pitch belting out seemingly blasphemous subject matter? Yes, The Thermals have it all. The Body, The Blood, The Machine is something of a "concept" album, if one calls questioning the idea of a higher power and his or her affect on humanity a concept. It all sounds very pompous, but The Thermals are actually quite genuine. If not for the sense of wonder or the inquisitive nature prevalent through out the album, its sarcastic exterior might put one off. On a completely superficial level though, they bring the punk, they bring the pop, they bring that bounce, plus the bassist is way hot. The Thermals really DO have it all!

06. Peter Bjorn & John, Writer's Block

This Stockholm trio, boasting an acronym as misguided and tongue in cheek as the album title suggests, deliver one of the biggest surprises of the year. Building on the lovelorn dramatics of their previous Long Player, Writer's Block is a layered aural wonder traversing genre footsteps and tickling pop tid bits that must be crow barred from your subconscious. A tumultuous blend of 80's pop and shoegaze shadows, Writer's Block plays with expectations like few albums did in 2006. The result is a carefully conspicuous gem filled with romance, brains and moments of shocking perfection.

05. Hot Chip, The Warning

Hot Chip and their smoothly layered synth-pop is something that is both relentlessly simple and wondrously textured. The complexity within their compositions only takes a backseat to the general poppy easiness instilled by almost every track on The Warning. Faintly damaged vocals with sweetly morose implications, while sometimes crystalline sometimes-spastic drum machines tell the story behind the story and a synth accompaniment tops off the tale with a melancholic cap that only adds to the longevity. A grower, but a keeper.

04. Junior Boys, So This Is Goodbye

This was quite the year for Electronic music. No, really. A group like Junior Boys, whose lauded LP in '04 served as little more than a statement of arrival for me, built upon the sonic tracks they laid with that album, and found themselves a softer side in 2006. So This Is Goodbye is melodramatic in all of the right ways. Completely self aware and unfettering, it melds a manic dance layout with a heartbreak manifesto that proves to be both club thumping and therapeutic. Its production is unimposing and, forgive me for saying, angelic (in a way). So This Is Goodbye soars and glides and never really comes back down.

03. TV on the Radio, Return To Cookie Mountain

The unmastered, tracks wrongly named and out of order, version of this highly anticipated Sophomore LP had been floating around for months before its much argued over release date. Yeah, I had it. So what? The thing is, while listening to that first version, even knowing it wasn't the finished product, it was hard to deny you were holding onto something special. Return To Cookie Mountain, in all its final cut glory, is probably one of the most brilliantly heartbreaking records I've ever heard. An odd, manacled offshoot of Astral Weeks, Loveless, and Pet Sounds all rolled into one, it uses its grand sonic presence to tell a singular story that is emotional, infectious and downright enjoyable. A fervent mix of genres, TVOTR quite imperfectly plod and trip in places never taking away from the purity of the album's resolve. This is the Break-up album of the decade.

02. Joanna Newsom, Ys

I was pretty late getting this album. Actually, I was pretty late getting into Joanna in general. When Milk-Eyed Mender hit I was predictably off-put by her tender but nonetheless Chippette style of vocalization. It's a hard door to open, however, when it does finally reveal the sad-eyed, spirit-filled world residing on the other side, it is an unforgettable turn of events. Ys is a different animal all together but far less laborious to listen to then some would have you believe. Five tracks long, but clocking in at well over fifty minutes in length, Ys is a delicate creature comprised of fantastical elements and somber reprieves that both fill and drain the heart. Newsom's guarded antics and dainty vocals dance with the careful strings and create a diluted neverland that warrants much pondering providing a stilted grace that is mostly indescribable.

01. The Hold Steady, Boys and Girls In America

Did I listen to the Hold Steady because I was an alcoholic, or did I become an alcoholic because I listened to The Hold Steady? Eh, I try no to be so cynical. That's not Craig's style. It seems that after three years and as many albums that Craig Finn and his troupe have finally found something snappy. Granted, I've never had a problem with anything they've ever done. Stream of consciousness, spoken-word novel style vocals? Dirty rawk riffs with no hook in sight? I'm down. It probably had an adverse effect on others, however. So with, Boys and Girls In America, The Hold Steady's most confident and fully realized album to date, we get a tuneful Craig; a pensive Craig. Oh, the characters are still there. We're still reading this story with no beginning middle or end. Were still staying up late with Craig on those lonely, drunken Twin City nights. It's just that here, things are wider in scope. Everything is a little more bittersweet; a little more tragic without being tragic; a little more fun without being fun. These are slices of life in the most ridiculous way possible and you are always left wanting more in the best way possible. Boys and Girls in America is a universal album that reaches peaks and heights that none of us knew this band was capable, and it takes you places that no rock band has taken you in a long, long time. Boys and Girls in America is, quite simply, the best album of 2006.


Wednesday, January 03, 2007

What would you like to see?

I've got to be honest with you, folks. I never know what to write about anymore.

So it's time to ask you again -- what would YOU like to see? Are there features that I haven't resurrected recently that you would like to see again? Do you want less TV talk and more book talk (I don't know that we've really had ANY book talk, but. . .hey!)? Do you want cage wrestling?

Let me know, and I'll get on it. This blog is almost one year old, and it would be a shame for it to go away due to lack of posting.

Please, please, please comment. Or e-mail. I don't care one way or the other.

Tomorrow: Daniel gives you his top ten albums of 2006!


Tuesday, January 02, 2007

As If One Wasn't Enough: DAVID'S TOP 10 OF 2006

Despite Todd's already impressive (honestly, rather intimidating) 2006 list just below, I felt I had to throw my two cents in nevertheless. I feel I should point out the glaring omission from my list: The Wire, which I have not caught up to quick enough to see the fourth season. Still, it lets me be a little off-center in my choices. I'll mostly eschew the introduction and let my list speak for itself, and I hope to be back in full force posting this year. Without further ado:

TOP 10 OF 2006
(1) Friday Night Lights (NBC)
I’ll just come out and say it: the movie spinoff high school football drama Friday Night Lights might just be the best show network television has produced in years. The last time I’ve felt this way about something on one of the big four was NBC’s similarly no-ratings, one-season (please, NBC, renew this one!) wonder Freaks and Geeks. Like that program, Lights is a winning, low-key, small-town piece that earns both its drama and its humor entirely from its investment in its characters. The ensemble is flawless: no doubt you’ve read how Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton, as the beleaguered Coach Taylor and his knowing wife Tami, put any other TV couple to shame. That aside, there’s still no weak link in the cast here, and no character that feels anything less than fully realized. The best of the bunch is probably Zach Gilford’s Matt Saracen, a doe-eyed team youngster balancing quarterback duties with caring for an unwell grandmother and a treacherous romance with the coach’s wise-beyond-her-years daughter Julie (Aimee Teegarden, as Rory Gilmore with a Texan twist).

Upon watching the pilot, I worried that Lights, which is at heart not a sports show (although it does effectively use football, the only cinematic sport, for the crunching last-minute drama it can provide) would be too serious for its own good. Poetic, grainy and bleak, with storylines ranging from paralysis to drug use, from alcoholism to infidelity (and all involving teenagers!), there’s definitely a lot of darkness to this portrait of small-town America. But as the show has continued and the cast have settled into their performances, Lights has found its feet without sacrificing any of its key artistic values. It’s clearly always going to be a tough show to sell but I’m hoping NBC will bite the bullet and take the gamble on another season here rather than (for example) Aaron Sorkin’s floundering Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, which espouses its view of America through countless hectoring speeches every week. Friday Night Lights has so much more to tell us, and it tells us with nuance, with characters built from the ground up whose qualities and failings will strike any viewer to the bone.

(2) Big Love (HBO)
Here’s a mature HBO drama with an impressive cast (Bill Paxton! Chloe Sevigny!), a grabby setup (Utah polygamists! Evil cults!) and that expensive, near-cinematic sheen that we’ve come to expect from the stable that produced The Sopranos, Deadwood and Entourage. So why didn’t Big Love, the only other new show on this list, hit as big as some of HBO’s other big offerings? It seemed to come and go early this year after gaining strong, but muted critical praise and a couple minor Emmy nominations. It’s no surprise, really—Big Love is a little too niche-y, a little too weird (yeah, Six Feet Under might be morbid, but bigamy is gross!) to ever really get the attention some of its cousins on cable receive. I myself was skeptical at first, wondering whether I could maintain interest in the sex life of a Viagra-popping, thrice-married Mormon man. I shouldn’t have worried.

Big Love is a compelling, if obviously unusual, take on religion in America (happily, the characters are not at all patronized by the writers for their beliefs) the stereotypical TV family drama, and the outsider’s status in America. Smarter minds than I have pointed out how the show, which involves you emotionally in a household that is breaking not only the law but our moral standards simply by existing, is an argument for overturning bans on gay marriage or maybe even re-writing the laws of marriage altogether. That aside, it’s not hard to love Big Love just for its week-to-week stories: particularly striking was an emotional and physical ‘affair’ between Bill Hendrickson (Paxton) and his first wife Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn, who deserves all kinds of accolades) within their marriage. On the creepier side, Harry Dean Stanton made a memorable comeback as Roman Grant, the wife-hoarding prophet of a polygamist compound with whom Bill struggles. As the season drew to a close (season two will be returning this summer) Big Love went where it logically had to go: the family was shaken by public revelations of their situation and were left unsure of how to continue living a lie. Season two (which will air sometime this spring or summer) will hopefully build on the remarkable promise of this underrated little gem.

(3) How I Met Your Mother (CBS)
I know, I know: as far as network comedy goes, what kind of a fool doesn’t pick The Office as #1? CBS’s How I Met Your Mother is undoubtedly comedy of a simpler, goofier brand, laugh track and all, and while I do love The Office (just look further down this list for proof), I personally can’t help but favor the madcap, buzzing zippiness of HIMYM. I’ve waxed lyrical on this topic before: the undeniable chemistry of the core fivesome; the energetic abandon with which each episode chops a traditional sitcom plot to pieces before re-assembling it in a refreshing new guise; and the gigglesome new catchphrases which are invented weekly but never overused. Mother has definitely shown marked improvement in its second season, too. After a lot of humming and hawing over Ted and Robin’s possible relationship (a relationship we the audience know is doomed—isn’t postmodernism fun?), they finally bit the bullet and coupled up, but the writers have happily spared us any protracted Ross and Rachel-style dramatics, and have instead let the pair mature together in the background. It’s hard to imagine praising a show as zany as this one for its realism, but this is a straight-up sitcom that knows how to earn its dramatic moments and knocks them out of the park when it does, and for that, HIMYM needs more of an audience, more attention from its network, and to repeat the crowning episode of its second season so far, “Slap Bet”, over and over again. Flaws aside, I challenge you to watch that episode and not fall for the intoxicating fun of this show.

(4) Battlestar Galactica (Sci-Fi)
2006 was a very good year for Battlestar Galactica, easily both the best science fiction and the best political drama television has had in years. It started with the barnstorming two-parter ‘Resurrection Ship’, a fantastic example of the sheer balls-out action/thriller material this show can produce. The second season wrapped with ‘Lay Down Your Burdens’, which had audiences gasping for air as it radically shifted the formula of the show, landing the humans on a barren planet and leaving them at the mercy of their Cylon enemies. Season three, which began this October and continues on in January, has once again challenged audience expectations and managed to keep remarkably fresh by exploring the effects and after-effects of occupation, oppression and betrayal among the humans, meaning a return to the Galactica was not as simple as it sounded. A further look into the mythology of the supposedly evil Cylons, guided by their stowaway Gaius Baltar (the fantastic James Callis, who at times gives a literally hysterical performance) has proved even more surreal and helped take the pressure off of the ‘bottle episodes’ (single-episode stories) in between the wider arcs of this incredibly dense, endlessly fascinating show. Still essential viewing.

(5) Veronica Mars (CW)
America’s favorite brittle, cynical, jaded teen detective continues to entertain: the sophomore season’s mystery arc (who blew up the school bus?) was certainly hard to follow on a week-by-week basis and lacked the pathos of the Lily Kane murder in season one. But it all came together remarkably well and refined the Mars recipe to perfection: all your favorite teen soap clich├ęs, mixed with classic hardboiled noir, a sometimes outrageously bitter worldview (the third season has had fans crying for our precious Ronnie to crack a smile once in a while) and dialogue crisped to perfection. Speaking of fans, we mustn’t forget Veronica and Logan’s snappy, bittersweet romance, of which it must be said: it’s never better than when they are at each other’s throats. Season three has suffered slightly with the switch to college and an attempt to condense the mystery arcs to make the show more accessible, but there’s no doubting Veronica Mars’s potential to grip you like no other teen drama can, and we have a juicy murder mystery awaiting us in 2007. Here’s hoping The CW doesn’t make the same mistake it made canceling Everwood too soon, and that Ronnie won’t be on the dearly departed list next year.

(6) Bleak House (BBC/PBS)
The BBC Dickens drama (especially at Christmas) is a venerable tradition: rarely does a year pass without one of Charlie’s works being mounted in a lavish manner by the Beeb (and subsequently Masterpiece Theatre). But Bleak House was unusual, and all the better for it. Although American audiences may not have experienced such, the show was written in a half-hour format, airing twice-weekly, usually after nighttime soap operas. It was a refreshing and innovative way to look at Dickens’ work: short, punchy segments of pure drama and cliffhanger spread out over a number of weeks, a serial drama in the truest sense of the word, just as Dickens’ novels were also originally published. Of course, the sterling writing (from the inordinately reliable Andrew Davies) and truly impressive caliber of the cast went a long way to making Bleak House truly memorable. The imposing stars Gillian Anderson and Charles Dance both turned in their best work in years, but there were plenty of smaller diamonds in the rough too. Burn Gorman’s pathetic Guppy, Phil Davis’ alarmingly nasty Smallweed, and (possibly best of all), Alun Armstrong as literature’s first detective Inspector Bucket, a ridiculously loquacious yet still steadfast and reliable center in a country rotten to the core. Undoubtedly the best BBC costume drama since Davies’ Pride and Prejudice.

(7) The Shield (FX)
After a barnstorming (no pun intended) fourth season, which demonstrated showrunner Shawn Ryan’s mastery of mixing single-episode, multi-episode and whole-season story arcs together with remarkable poise and complexity, The Shield took an entirely different tack in its fifth year. Forest Whitaker, giving the performance of his life in another bit of excellent stunt casting for the show (Glenn Close is sadly missed), dominated the whole season as his intense IAD Lt. Kavanaugh tried with all of his might to finally expose Vic Mackey’s deep corruption to the world. After Mackey (and Michael Chiklis’ usually incendiary performance) took a bit of a backseat in season four to keep his job, he was right back in the foreground here as the show began to narrow in on what must be his eventual downfall (two more seasons are booked up, and then The Shield ends for good). In only ten episodes, most other plots were forgotten as Kavanaugh began squeezing Mackey’s partner Curtis Lemansky for info and Mackey’s Strike Force tried desperately to wriggle out of a guilty charge once again. By revisiting Mackey’s past sins instead of letting them lie dormant in the viewers’ mind, The Shield has achieved the moral ambiguity it’s always been going for. Mackey has veered too close to a Robin Hood figure at times, and it was good to see them bring him back down into the dirt, although nobody here—including the manic Whitaker, who was painfully snubbed of an Emmy—is at all clean. The Shield’s fifth season ended with remarkable tragedy and a setup for another year possibly even more gripping than the last. Godspeed!

(8) The Office (NBC)
I thought of consigning The Office to my runners-up list in favor of something maybe a little less praised this year, but I found I simply couldn’t do it. As revered as this show has become (amazing really, considering its tepid debut in 2005) it’s hard to disagree with the consensus: The Office is definitely essential television. The second season’s conclusion in 2006, which brought the Jim/Pam romance to a head and climaxed with the rather unforgettable ‘Casino Night’ episode, was close to the stuff of legend: there hasn’t been that zeitgeisty a will-they-won’t-they in recent years, and it’s been handled with amazing poise by The Office’s writers. Season three’s gambit, which relocated Jim to a new branch and let the heat on ‘Jam’ simmer, was a successful one and introduced two memorable new characters (Rashida Jones’ winning Karen and Ed Helms’ frat-moron Andy, who has already eclipsed the much more uneven Rainn Wilson, in my opinion). Jam aside, The Office’s real success is how it has brought the background characters into play so memorably, and how it has put a truly American stamp on the philosophy of a show I thought impossible to replicate.

(9) Doctor Who (BBC/Sci-Fi)
Undoubtedly campy and sometimes a little too fanboyish for uneducated viewers like myself (I was less thrilled with the Cybermen vs. Dalek showdown of season two than I’m sure hardcore Whoheads were), but Doctor Who has a charm that is utterly beguiling. American viewers had the good fortune to enjoy both seasons of Russell T. Davies’ revival of the classic British science fiction series, and experience both new Doctors: Christopher Eccleston’s dark Northern ham, and David Tennant’s sprightly, hot-tempered hottie. The odd episode strays too far into geek-land but there are also episodes of remarkable power (‘Father’s Day’, ‘The Girl in the Fireplace’), thrilling fun (the two season finale double-bills) and, heck, it can even be pretty scary (‘The Empty Child’). British television is not currently experiencing its finest era, but Doctor Who knows how to entertain like nothing else: it’s the full package.

(10) Lost (ABC)
I almost excised Lost from this list too, but despite (or perhaps because of) its downturn in buzz, I feel the need to defend it. After a fantastic start and shaky middle, the second season drew to an end with a fine blend of action and the typical, teasing Lost mysteriousness, with standout episodes such as ‘Dave’, ‘?’ and the barnstorming finale ‘Live Together, Die Alone’, which devoted screentime to the loveable, bewildered Desmond (Henry Ian Cusick, the show’s only Emmy nominated actor that year). Season three has been a bumpy ride so far, half due to the six-episode miniseries approach, which shed some light on the light of the Others, offed a decent character unceremoniously while introducing two more rather clumsily, and advanced last season’s finale only a few inches. I personally have enjoyed the miniseries, but it all hinges on whether one is captivated by the Others mystery. As their creepy leader Ben Linus, Michael Emerson has been a revelation in 2006: his new female foil, Juliet (Elizabeth Mitchell) is equally arresting. Here’s hoping for an impressive 07, and a fourth season premiere in 2008—the miniseries concept was cute, but Lost would be even better suited to a 24-style run-through beginning in January.

Rescue Me (FX)
Flawed beyond belief, but it can still hit the right notes when it wants to, certainly on the comedic side. Jon Scurti and Steven Pasquale were particular standouts this year.
The Sopranos (HBO)
After a genius opening set of episodes, The Sopranos cruised along interestingly, but was not at its absolute best. I have faith that the show will deliver for its finale in 2007.
24 (FOX)
Has dropped off my radar a little in recent years but season five was undoubtedly impressive, and wrapped itself up well without ever getting too ridiculous.
Grey's Anatomy/Scrubs/House (ABC/NBC/FOX)
I’m a sucker for medical shows and all three of these are usually reliable for solid entertainment. Plus, they’re more similar than you’d think—who wouldn’t love to see Drs. House, Cox and Bailey dine together?
Dexter (Showtime)
The other standout new show of the year, with a fun premise, an excellent central mystery and an award-worthy performance from Michael C. Hall to boot. The supporting cast is thin, but Showtime undoubtedly beefed up its prestige this year.
Deadwood (HBO)
Dearly departed Deadwood, I have only seen half of thee, for reasons I can’t explain in two sentences. Here’s hoping those wrap-up movies surface one day, if reports on the unfulfilling “series finale” are to be believed.
Arrested Development (FOX)
Another dearly departed show: actually went out on such a fantastic high, I don’t really regret its passing. Already Will Arnett and Jason Bateman have been popping up in movies everywhere: Mitchell Hurwitz already has a great follow-up project lined up (The Thick of It), so let’s hope we see some of the fantastic AD cast get their due too.


Monday, January 01, 2007

The Year in Television

The year in television 2006 was most marked by just how easy it was to watch television at your own chosen time, rather than a time chosen for you by network heads. DVRs made it easy to postpone watching your favorite show a few hours or even a few weeks. If you had to wait months, you could always turn to the inevitable DVD set and buzz through an entire season in a long weekend. And if you missed something completely, you could always turn to watching it on a network Web site or, less legally, on YouTube or via BitTorrent.

While many publications have realized that these events were significant in some fashion (Time magazine, no less, named all of humanity person of the year for seizing the reins of the information age so dramatically), few have realized just how significant they could be, given the right time and proper room to grow. Sure YouTube made mincemeat of public figures as varied as George Allen and Michael Richards, but it could prove an even bigger revolution when it comes to distribution models. Television, which has never had a proper independent television movement, seems poised to leave behind a network as a necessity, just as thousands of bands now more easily communicate with fans through their Web sites and offer MP3s through same.

Want more, up to and including a top ten list? The rest is up here at the House Next Door year in review blog.


Happy New Year!

Later today, my top ten will be up at House Next Door and (ideally) David's top ten will be up here. We'll link you either way.

For now, enjoy this.