Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Best Shows of 2007-08 Season

You know what I hate? When it's year-end list time and all the publications list their top television programs of the year. It has always frustrated me because half of the programs on these lists have seasons that are still in progress and they are therefore being judged on only half of the episodes. I understand how empty it would be to not include television shows when it's year-end time, but why don't people ever wait until the season is over and then come up with a list? As a lifelong TV addict, the season ends in May, not late December for me. With the upcoming Emmy nominations, now is a good time as ever to look at the best shows of the 2007-08 season (I counted shows that started and completed within June 2007 thru May 2008). Looking at my list, I can't help but wonder how different it would have been if it hadn't been for the strike. Heroes, which slumped for most of its second season, finally started to find its footing with the last three or four episodes. At that pace, it could have easily reached the heights of its debut season. And who knows? Shows like Reaper could have been bumped up a few extra spots with a full 22 episode season and the pieces were definitely set in place for Bionic Woman to become compelling. If the season hadn't been cut short, it could have eventually hit its stride, but a little thing like a strike could never stop me from making a list.

20. Celebrity Rehab (VH-1)
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the world's greatest trainwreck captured on tape. I will give credit to A&E's Intervention for being the classier show, but there's an added sense of intrigue when looking into the not so fabulous lives of celebrities after the cameras go off. This is a side of them that we've never seen before and is unexplored terrain in the vastly diminishing land of ideas in reality television. Sure, you get the feeling that both the participants and Dr. Drew relished benefiting in the extra exposure of being on TV, but the struggles of the celebrities are hard to cover up and come off as genuine, and even scary at moments. Like the most uncomfortable of reality shows, it's intrusive and squrim-worthy at times, but Lord help me, it's extremely captivating.

19. Prison Break (FOX)
Each episode of Prison Break is charged up with the grit and adrenaline of a late 80's action movie, which is not as bad as it sounds when it comes in weekly installments. What has always kept Prison Break from being overly simple is its convoluted mythology, which seems to reveal itself more slowly with each passing season, but has always kept the stakes high, no matter what the situation. Now that I think of it, that's the best way to describe each scene in Prison Break: the stakes are high. There is rarely anytime to delve deep into character study and if anything is revealed, you better believe it's done to move the plot along. Prison Break is a show that wastes little time getting to the juicy part. It's like one big pulp bonanza with a guaranteed weekly cliffhanger. I guess that's why I can't help but watch every week.

18. The Game (The CW)
The award for most improved show goes to the second season of this Mara Brock Akil creation. As the other Akil-led show, Girlfriends, suffered through its dullest season and sadly it's last, The Game applied the same balance of drama and comedy that made Girlfriends so great during the middle of its run instead of keeping it as a straightforward sitcom. I thought The Game was one of the lamer shows when it debuted in the fall of 2006. The jokes seemed too eager to please and the characters were nothing but exaggerated cariactures. During the middle of that season, the show switched to a dramedy and fleshed out the supporting roles more by putting them in compromising situations. What made season 2 even stronger was the switch in focus from Tia Mowry to the rest of the cast, whose collective comedic chops are the real find of the show. From Coby Bell's hilariously penny pinching Jason Pitts to the charismatic arrogance of Hosea Chancez's Malik Wright, the comedic timing of the supporting cast is on par with just about any other network sitcom. Don't let its status as a CW sitcom deter you from checking out a few episodes.

17. Reaper (The CW)

After what was probably one of the greatest pilots I had ever seen, the following episodes just could not match up. The show was still solid, but it all paled in comparison to that pilot. Awesome first episode aside, Reaper was still worth tuning in to for Ray Wise's sadisticly charming performance as The Devil and Tyler Labine's wisecracks. Ray Wise turning in a good performance is no surprise, but Labine is the real discovery of the show and this is probably the funniest thing I've ever seen him in. While the monster-of-the-week plots were good ol' fantasy/horror fun, the show impressed me the most with its late season arc concerning demons trying to overthrow The Devil. I'm not saying this because it featured former members of The State, Michael Ian Black and Ken Marino as gay demon lovers, but it provided the right amount of depth and gravity that made me care what was actually going to happen the next week. It pushed an otherwise simply solid show into near-great territory.

16. Samantha Who? (ABC)

In a world of sitcoms that are either too earnest (According to Jim) or too meta (30 Rock), it's refreshing to have an actual situational comedy on the air. Samantha Who? lives to put its title character, played by Christina Applegate in her most delightful role ever, in the most awkward moments. Of course being an amnesiac and discovering that you were the world's biggest asshole will provide plenty of opportunity for comedic situations. The thing that got me hooked on Samantha Who? and what ultimately took me by surprise was how sharp the writing was. No character is dumbed down for the sake of a joke and the one-liners are always fresh. The ongoing storyline of Samantha remembering bits and pieces of her life pre-accident also keeps thing interesting and helps to keep the show unique from others. The strong supporting cast has also been a blast to watch, with reliable veterans like Jean Smart, Kevin Dunn and Melissa McCarthy leaving few scenes without at least one chuckle.

15. The Office (NBC)

While a lot of Michael Scott's antics stretched plausibility this season, they have yet to capsize the show. Luckily, there were plenty of awkward moments to go around with the two love triangles this season(Jim-Pam-Toby, Andy-Angela-Dwight) and making Ryan head of corporate in New York finally made his character interesting and worth watching. I don't think I've ever laughed so hard at a drug addict. I think twists like that and Andy's stealth proposal are proof that the writers are as aware as anyone that they don't want the show to become too predictable, even as Michael Scott becomes moreso.

14. Everybody Hates Chris (The CW)

I simply have to give credit where credit is due. Nearly every episode gave me two or three huge laughs and a ton of chuckles in between. That always goes over well with me. I blame a great cast and some of the best cut-away jokes this side of Family Guy and 30 Rock (one of my personal favorites: the government collects on a debt owed by the family by repossesing various items from their home, including the daughter, who's taken away in a cage). If it were on a bigger network, this show's name would come up every year when talking about Outstanding Comedy Series at the Emmys. It has the perfect mix of heart and humor that plays well with a wide audience.

13. Kid Nation (CBS)
I think the biggest surprise with this show wasn't that the kids were not treated like labor slaves as a lot of the controversy before the premeire suggested, but that it turned out to be the best new reality show of the year. I can't remember enjoying a debut season of a reality show this much since The Amazing Race's inaugural season. With 40 kids total, there definitely wasn't a shortage of colorful characters (I'm still saddened that Morgan's "Deal with it!" didn't become a national catchphrase). It was one of the few social experiments in reality television where you genuinely felt that the participants' character evolved over time.

12. Gossip Girl (The CW)

The characters of Gossip Girl live in a world that is not our own. For crying out loud, how do they get into those clubs, much less have drinks without being carded? And is curfew even in their vocabulary? Once you accept that this is a reality different from ours, the show provides a healthy amount of entertainment. The first season was filled with it's own share of surprises (spoiler warning: mistaken virginity, stealth outings, girls' choir singing Fergie), but made sure to develop its characters first before getting too sticky with the situations. On the surface, it may appear to be just another dumb teen show—hell, it probably is, but its ambition to provide engaging television outweighs any other factors. Or maybe I need to put it in simpler terms; OMG, u need 2 watch this show n stop bn such a hater! XOXO

11. Law & Order: SVU (NBC)

It's either this or Boston Legal on Tuesdays at 9, and I pretty much lost track of that show during the first season. I'm sure it has its moments though. Good ol' SVU just keeps truckin' on though. This season wasn't all that different from any other season, with the exception of a new face (Adam Beach) and one horrifying close for Mariska Hargitay undercover in prison which pushed the boundaries of what can be done on network television. You just know you're gonna be in for a compelling hour whenever you watch this show. Guaranteed.

10. Back To You (FOX)

Why this show is now off the air and 'Til Death still lives on is just plain baffling. It surely didn't help that the show didn't get enough viewers and the two leads' paychecks certainly were not cheap. Damn shame though since Back To You was one of the funniest three-camera sitcoms in recent memory. It goes without saying that Kelsey Grammer, Patricia Heaton and Fred Willard brought the goods, but I had just as much fun watching Ty Burrell as a hapless field reporter. There were fewer funnier moments this year than when he attempted to eat soup after he was tasered or him practicing for an anchorman slot with a repeated monotone inflection. It's sad that I have to point out how lowered expectations are for almost any new three-camera sitcom. Ten years ago, Back To You's quality would not have been seen as a surprise, but as welcome competition. If this show can't be a success, maybe the traditional sitcom is dead.

9. Dirty Sexy Money (ABC)

Dirty Sexy Money was another show deeply affected by the strike. It never went back into production after an agreement was reached. The strike can be blamed for saving DSM since there were hardly any new pilots too choose from for the '08-09 season, thus leaving a few networks to resort to their current stable again for the fall. Only 10 episodes managed to air before the show was taken off the air, which was just enough to make it one of my favorite new shows of the season. Dirty Sexy Money follows the lives of the socially inept socialties, the Darlings, who have an unhealthy dependency on their lawyer, portrayed by Peter Krause. There was a murder mystery tucked in there somewhere, but the real highlights of the show are the antics of the Darling family. They often provided the most laughs, the most intriguing twists and are pretty much the main reason to watch the show. Even with all the wackiness of having transvestite mistresses and illegitimate children posing as orphans, Dirty Sexy Money is still a character driven show at its heart, as evidenced by the maturing of spoiled twin Jeremy and Brian's slow acceptance of his son. Ever since Arrested Development went off the air, DSM has nicely filled my quirky rich people void.

8. Aliens In America (The CW)

What fools you execs at The CW are! You had a classic in the making! Aliens In America, which detailed the experiences of a nerdy outsider and a Pakistani exchange student in the Midwest, provided a welcome combination of referential humor and social commentary. As the show went on, it just hit so many right notes and I came to love it. The earlier episodes displayed how xenophobic a small Wisconsin town could be, while making Raja a full-rounded character, a rarety for roles of that ethnicity in film and television, as later episodes focused more on the twosome's social life in a small town. Whenever I think of episodes like the one where Raja, a devout Muslim, compromises his beliefs by dating a fellow Muslim raised in America and finds out the hard way how different the views are between East and West and just how beautifully the whole thing was handled, I know I'm going to miss this show more and more. Please catch it while it's still running in reruns.

7. The Boondocks (Adult Swim)

The Boondocks is another show that deftly handles humor and social commentary. No one is safe, not even African-Americans, from the razor sharp satire of the writing staff. The first season was often a mixed bag, but season 2 consistently brought some of the biggest laughs I've had all season long. The formula to this show's success is its ability to work on so many levels. For those of us who keep up with the news, the episodes dealing with Katrina victims and BET will provide plenty of discussion, while those with an appreciation for broader humor will get a kick out of Riley's potty mouth and pretty much the entire "Attack of the Killer Kung-Fu Wolf Bitch" episode, which was a great example of how outrageous the show could be and showed off how much its animation had improved.

6. Survivor: Micronesia (CBS)

The last time former cast members were brought back on the show for the All-Stars edition, the results did not live up to expectations. The formula was tweaked for this 16th season, pitting past favorites of the show against fans. The result was the best season since the first one. Nearly each episode provided a surprise at tribal council and for the first time in a long while, the show did not feel as if it was on auto-pilot. With Survivor, you can usually pinpoint who the next to leave is, but that certainly wasn't the case with this season. Coupled with a cast of reliable veterans, starstruck fans and a crapload of immunity idols, the 16th season of Survivor found the form that made it the cream of the reality show crop back in the earlier part of this decade.

5. Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job! (Adult Swim)

I'll admit that not everything on this show makes me laugh. But if a scene doesn't make me laugh, it certainly gets a response from me, ranging from OMG to WTF. Thankfully, there are mostly LOLs in this sketch show, which is blurring the lines between comedy and abstract art. It can be howlingly hilarious or delightfully haunting. Just look at the skit where Tim and Eric are dressed up as aging groupies in a parking lot discussing their various afflictions and try not to react.

4. Pushing Daisies (ABC)

Any show outside of Viva Laughlin! that manages to break away from the story and do a straightforward musical number is usually okay with me. Pushing Daises thrives on quirk and colorful storytelling, and you kind of have to when the premise of the show deals with the fantastical concept of a man who brings things back to life with a simple touch. Oh yeah, and he also bakes pies for a living. The set design of the show is something to truly marvel at as well. Along with Ugly Betty, ABC has become the destination for shows with unique and vibrant sets that are as much a character as the actors reciting the dialogue. Much like Ugly Betty as well, the dialogue of Pushing Daisies has its own distinct rhythm and wit, which if you've got a sharp ear, clearly keeps the show from digging too deep into sap territory. The snappy dialogue, dazzling sets and the liberty of the writing staff to dispose of television's conventions resulted in a true original of the medium.

3. Lost (ABC)

The 4th season of Lost made another strong case for the title of best show of the 00's. Longtime fans finally got much needed insight into the mysteries of the island while still bringing up new questions. It's a simple tactic to keep people tuned in, but I'll be damned if it doesn't work. At the end of the day, this may have been the most satisfying season yet for viewers who have followed every episode. The perspective of the world outside the island, both from the passengers on the Freighter and in flash forwards, was just the right move to keep the show fresh. After three seasons of being on the island, it would have gotten pretty redundant to keep the focus on the island. Even with the emphasis on the show's mythology, Lost still paid equal attention to the characters we've come to love. Whenever it does that, there are few television shows that can match its power.

2. Mad Men (AMC)

Whenever I talk about this show with friends, dealing with advertising men acting mad mannish in the early 60's, a phrase that I commonly use to describe it is "I love this show so much, I want to marry it." Before you get the wrong idea, it's not because the men on the show are so dapper, but because everything about this show is excellent from top to bottom. There's that fine cast. Jon Hamm is at the center of the show as the reserved and mysterious Don Draper in a performance that is layered with perfectly placed nuances, that once his big secret is revealed at the end of the season, his performance is even more appreciated. I could go on about Elisabeth Moss' naive Peggy and Christina Hendricks' smoldering affirmative Joan, but just take my word when I say that the cast is great. Then there's the writing. As boorish as the men of Sterling-Cooper can be, each one has a surprising moment of genuine humanity that reveals them to be more than simple-minded skirth chasers. Everyone else is written beautifully and honestly as well. The dialogue remains true to the era as well and each episode feels as if you've been transported through time. And kudos to the directors for delivering a consistent tone that can be as equally relaxed as it is tense. Honestly, I can't think of anything this show does wrong.

1. 30 Rock (NBC)

I could easily make a list of words and phrases from or related to 30 Rock as to why its my favorite show right now (Sandwich Day, Werewolf Bar Mitzvah, MILF Island, "Me want food", Amadeus parody and so on) and still have it be a sufficient argument. Instead, why not talk about the madcap intensity of each episode, peppered with the most ridiculous crew of characters since Arrested Development (Kenneth The Page, Jenna, Dr. Spaceman, etc.) and and a sly bit of political and social commentary here and there. What I also love is how the jokes are never predictable. They come out of nowhere, but when they finally land, they always fit like a glove. Aside from all the zany pop culture references and every bit of dialogue from Tracy Morgan's mouth, the show also finds time to have a heart. The relationship between Tina Fey's Liz Lemon and Alec Baldwin's Jack Donaghy is so refreshing since it places two reasonably attractive adults of the opposite sex in the mentor and mentoree roles and it is never once played for sexual tension, as most onscreen duos tend to end up. The moments between Liz and Jack are also necessary from time to time if the show has any hopes of the viewers becoming more involved. While Seinfeld-Vision and porno video games are all fun and enjoyable, to be a great sitcom, you must have characters that the audience cares for. True, I don't think anyone watches the show to see Liz and Jack give each other encouragement—but those scenes can be hilarious as well, its those moments that help to bring a smile to my face whenever I think of why I love 30 Rock.

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