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.

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