Thursday, September 17, 2009

Best TV Shows of 2008-2009 Season

The Emmys will be handed out soon, so what better time to reflect on the best television shows of the 2008-2009 season? I never understood the logic of most critics discussing their favorite shows at the end of the calendar year instead of after the season has ended in May, but such is the way of life. I've always preferred waiting till the season has run its course.

10. The Game (The CW)

The best soap opera in primetime last season was The Game, hands down. The show, which centered around pro football athletes and the women in their lives, quitely evolved from a standard sitcom with obvious punchlines to a juicy, drama-filled half hour dramedy. The Game hit its stride this season whenever it played down the laughs in favor for more serious moments, which were handled adeptly with simple direction and solid acting. In television's ever-growing quest to deliver the most ambitious and high-concept programming, it's nice to know that good old-fashioned entertainment exists to provide a balance.

9. Southland (NBC)

The influence of cable television's advances can be seen all over Southland. From the salty language to the mature themes, NBC's latest cop drama went as far as they could go on network television, bleeps and all. The result wasn't strained or contrived, but actually felt gritty and realistic. Everyone here is flawed and the show toys with the conception that cops should always be depicted as knights in shining armor. While none of the characters come even close to the corruption shown on F/X's The Shield, they each have their ugly moments, which makes Southland all the more compelling.

8. The Office (NBC)

Sure, The Office specializes in extremely awkward moments that make us squirm and laugh with delight, but it's the heart and sincerity of the show that makes it truly great. Season 5 got back to basics and stayed away from the weekly "Michael does something Homer-esque" plots that made the previous season appear slow at times. By giving Michael a love interest with Holly—played to wonderfully charming effect by Amy Adams—and having him strike out on his own as an entrepreneur, The Office was able to explore new depth for the show's main character that will prevent things from going stale for a few years. There is also no current comedic cast that I enjoy watching more than the employees of Dunder-Miflin.

7. How I Met Your Mother (CBS)

How I Met Your Mother has been one of the more consistent sitcoms on television for a while, but the writers flexed their creative muscles like never before with soon-to-be classic episodes like "The Naked Man," in which unexpectedly going in the buff is used as a tactic to hook up and "The Best Burger In New York" which follows the gang around the city for one night in search of the title burger. Midway through the season, it was almost easy to forget the original premise of the show, which explains how Ted met the mother of his children. While that aspect of the show will continue to draw viewers, it's the chemistry of the cast and the hilarious exaggeration they give to ordinary events and details that kept me watching from week to week.

6. Chuck (NBC)

When Chuck first started last season, it came off as a show that thought it was more clever than it actually was. During the second season, it actually became clever and didn't need to shove it down the throat of the audience. The show fully embraced all the fun aspects of a computer nerd becoming a spy and became the rare piece of entertainment that doesn't just use pop culture as a reference, but as a homage instead. NBC made the right decision to bring this back for a 3rd season, seeing as how it's one of the funniest and most inventive shows on their current roster.

5. Friday Night Lights (NBC/DirecTV)

After an inconsistent second season, Friday Night Lights took back its place as one of television's best dramas with a third season high on the kind of emotion and natural character development that was on display in the first season, which is still one of the finest seasons I've ever seen for any series. The argument that most FNL fans will tell you is that the show is really not about football, but about the interaction with the characters, but I think that's really underselling the show. While the small football crazy town of Dillon, Texas serves as a great volatile backdrop with endless dramatic potential, FNL's beauty lies in its realism, which is felt through every patient camera shot and the overlapping dialogue. In the episode where Coach Taylor discovers that his teenage daughter is having sex, there is a scene where he confronts the boy—who also happens to be his former starting quarterback—and the exchange is brief, but not loud as you would expect. It's an honest moment that didn't need to be dialed up and it's that sort of subtlety that draws you in while making you forget you're actually watching a television show.

4. 30 Rock (NBC)

Tina Fey and company were still as zany as ever for season 3 while delivering some of the sharpest satirical one-liners on TV (from Kenneth: "Science was my most favorite subject, especially the Old Testament"). While its commonplace for most television shows to have likeable characters, 30 Rock revels in the flaws of their characters. While everyone on the show is still likeable to a degree, the character study that goes on in each episode provides ample ammunition to create the most ridiculous and awkward situations. There isn't one person in the main cast that doesn't have some sort of issue, which helps to make 30 Rock endlessly entertaining. The dizzying pace of the show, which I can only compare to a cartoon, only accentuates the quirks of the characters and is as intergral to the enjoyment of the show as the jokes themselves.

3. Mad Men (AMC)

There are rarely few things I can find wrong with Mad Men, but that's not enough reason to include it on this list. There are actually so many things that this show does right as I mentioned on last year's list, that I fear I would probably just repeat myself. For season 2, Mad Men only continued to excel in all areas while still being able to find new emotional ground for the characters of Don, Peggy and Pete to explore. If season 2 proved anything, it's that this is a show that is interested in seeing its characters grow instead of simply providing juicy plotlines for them to constantly hop between. Not to say that Mad Men doesn't have its fair share of entertaining, easily digestible moments (Don cheats on his wife! Peggy struggles for equality!), it's the journey that the characters go on and how they end up is what blows my mind.

2. Lost (ABC)

While Mad Men is mind-blowing in a more subtle way, Lost opts for the jackhammer approach. As the series winds down, more revelations have come to light and the creators have rewarded those who've stayed from the beginning with explanations of long-standing questions. In past seasons, Lost was able to balance the sci-fi aspects with a constant human, emotional touch, but season 5 put the focus on action to great results. With few new round characters added, the lack of emotional development didn't hurt this season one bit and made nearly every episode filled with tension. Season 5 only cemented the belief I have that Lost is one of the most ambitious television series ever produced due to its dabbling in time travel, philosophy and too many other things to name.

1. Life (NBC)

A cop gets framed for a crime he didn't commit, spends a rough time in prison, becomes enlightened by Zen, gets exonerated and is awarded millions in a civil case, but chooses to return to the force as a detective upon release. And so goes the basic idea of Life. Or at least that was the basic idea for season 1. The first season dealt with Det. Charlie Crews, played by Damian Lewis, searching for the person who actually committed the crime while season 2 follows Crews in pursuit of those who framed in. While that is a big part of the show, what made Life work so well is that it was also a procedural in addition to having a season-long mystery. When done right, procedurals can be a lot of fun and Life set itself apart with its unique concept and an even more unique protagonist who spouted out Zen teachings while also adjusting to a different world after being in prison for so long. The contrast with typical cops from other shows provided a good amount of smart comedic moments that could only be found on a show like Life. Each episode was also punctuated with great song selections (which unfortunately aren't on the DVDs) from artists like M83 and Blonde Redhead that added more to Life's unique and hip feel and gave it more cinematic flair than what's usually expected out of a cop show. There is no doubting that Damian Lewis did a terrific job, along with his co-star Sarah Shahi, but the addition of Donal Logue to the cast this season made Life just a little bit more enjoyable than it already was. While Lost, Mad Men and 30 Rock provided me with more thought and subtleties, Life proved to be the most consistently entertaining piece of television

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