You know, for all the bitching we do, 2009 was a pretty fantastic TV year. Sure, it threw up the “Jersey Shore” (bringing back severe childhood nightmares for some of us), stuffed more Heidi and Spencer down our throats, and tried to convince us that “Flash Forward” was something other than dumbed-down science fiction at its worst. But every year has its filth and dregs, and if you were willing to take a deep breath and dive into the murky sludge, there were actually quite a few good pearls waiting for you at the bottom.
Take “Lost,” for example. While there’s some minority dissent, most would agree that 2009 started off with the show delivering a strong penultimate season, perhaps its best season yet. It was an engrossing arc of television, doing service to both the characters and the overarching mythology, all while quietly turning unsuspecting TV viewers into fans of a science fiction show (a genre which generally bombs on network TV). As we said in our list of The Ten Best Television Shows of the Aughts, “Lost’s” ultimate merit, as a series on the whole, will come down in large part to how things wrap up when the final season begins in the new year, but even if it’s a colossal disappointment, the fifth season will still stand as 20-odd hours of solid viewing.
Speaking of conclusions to excellent science fiction shows, “Battlestar Galactica” ended its run earlier this year with a fourth season that presented a decidedly mixed bag for viewers. Some would put the show’s endgame in the “colossal disappointment” category, although I think that most, myself included, have come to grips with it. The fourth season wasn’t perfect, and the series finale came with a few significant blemishes (I’m still unhappy about Starbuck vanishing like a fart in the wind). But even still, as I wrote of the finale last March, I think it was a better-than-average wrap-up to what was a generally fantastic show, and I look forward to rewatching the series one day.
That being said, the most interesting thing about television this year, for me, has been second seasons. The two best dramas currently on TV aired their second seasons this year, with one continuing its march of excellence while the other is finally hitting its stride. This spring saw Bryan Cranston continuing his absolutely stellar performance as chemistry teacher-turned-meth dealer, who has now upped it a notch and started morphing into a good ol’ fashioned druglord. While the first season of “Breaking Bad” was an excellent season of television, this second season was simply outstanding. The acting is top notch, particularly from Cranston and Aaron Paul, and the writing has been second-to-none. The unusually slow pacing doesn’t make the show itself feel slow or boring, but actually ratchets up the tension, allowing you to really get into the gruesome and tense moments and situations. And perhaps most impressive of all, the second season took Hank on a really interesting path, throwing out sentiment and making him even less sympathetic and more despicable. I absolutely cannot wait for the third season of this show and if you haven’t been watching it, go get yourself the DVDs pronto.
Meanwhile, “Sons of Anarchy” came back for its second season this fall and, well, god damn. The first season wasn’t as solid as “Breaking Bad’s” first season, but it had started to cohere as it came to its end, and the second season took that progress and ran with it. While I found the season finale ever-so-slightly disappointing, the season as a whole, much like “Breaking Bad,” wasn’t afraid to allow its lead characters to continue down their morally and ethically challenged paths. “Sons” was easily the show I most enjoyed watching these past few months, and if Katey Segal doesn’t get herself an Emmy nod, well, that will simply be the latest botch in a heinously long list of Emmy fuckups.
Another second season loaded with great performances was HBO’s “In Treatment.” I enjoyed the show’s first season, which aired when there was pretty much nothing else on because of the writer’s strike, but I was skeptical of whether the second season would be able to hold my interest when there was other stuff on. But it did. I suspect that most of you never saw the first season, let alone the second, and I don’t blame you — it’s a hard show to follow, given its five-episodes-a-week format. But if you did miss it, that’s a shame, because “In Treatment” really is worth the investment. Each episode plays out like a mini staged play, with good writing accentuated by even better performances (Hope Davis was a particular standout this season). You wouldn’t think a show set almost entirely in a shrink’s office, with little more than 20-to-30 minute conversations taking place each episode, would be engrossing. But it was. I think the show’s been picked up for a third season, and that’s good, because this is the second best show HBO has going right now (behind “Big Love,” which was great in 2009 and will hopefully be equally as strong when it comes back in a few weeks).
On the comedy side of things, meanwhile, an interesting thing happened with NBC’s Thursday night lineup. I still love “The Office” and “30 Rock,” and the freshman “Community” has been pretty good, and is one of the standout new fall shows. But with its second season, “Parks and Recreation” has become the most consistently funny show of the night. Many of you may think I’m nuts, but many of you probably stopped watching it sometime in its short-run first season. And I don’t hold that against you, because the show was a bit up-and-down last year as it was trying to figure itself out. Well, it’s figured itself out now. It’s figured out the balance to play with Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope, who can be as delusional and oblivious as Michael Scott, at times, but lacks his mean edge and is far more competent at her job. It’s figured out how to flesh out and utilize its hilarious supporting cast, particularly Aziz Ansari and particularly the gem that is Nick Offerman (playing department head Ron Swanson). It’s figured out how to balance being ridiculous without generally being over-the-top, it’s figured out how to use the cast’s improv and adlib skills, and it’s figured out how to use its cut-aways (and uses them as well as, if not better than, “The Office”). As I say, I still dig on “The Office” and “30 Rock,” but I feel like both tend to be a little more hit-and-miss when it comes to how much I actually laugh at an episode. That’s ok, because I enjoy watching the characters and those worlds enough that I don’t mind if each episode isn’t a laugh riot. But I do consistently laugh out loud every week while watching “Parks.”
Two other second seasons this year represented the last gasps for their respective shows, but that didn’t deter either from providing entertaining rides. Perhaps without coincidence, both were/are Fox sci-fi shows. First, there was “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles” which wrapped up its second season this past spring. It’s not a surprise that it didn’t get a renewal, because the ratings were terrible, and I figured as much as I was watching the second season play out. But knowing that its demise was all but inevitable didn’t take away from enjoying what was, in most episodes, a somewhat-tight little action show that was slowly developing an interesting mythology of its own within the greater Terminator mythology. Similarly, knowing that “Dollhouse” is on its way out hasn’t taken away from enjoying its second season this fall. In fact, its impending demise may have helped it some, as Joss Whedon and company seem to have accelerated the storyline towards last year’s unaired “Epitaph One” (and this year’s conclusion which is apparently titled “Epitaph Two”). It’s not a perfect show, and I’m not particularly upset that it will be gone once it finishes out early next year, but it is surprisingly more watchable and engrossing than I thought it would be when it first started last year (it helps that we’re getting more of all the non-Echo characters which means, necessarily, a little less of Dushku, who is clearly the weakest part of the show).
Moving beyond second seasons, some longer-running shows are also still going strong. The best example is probably “Curb Your Enthusiasm” which, with its unofficial-but-as-official-as-you’ll-get “Seinfeld” reunion, seemed to find a new creative source to pull from and, coupled with Larry David’s normal shenanigans, the season was as hilarious, crude and uncomfortable as it’s ever been. As evidence of the show’s creative resurgence, in fact, this season’s finale was the most watched “Curb” finale in over 5 years. As usual, it will be some time before we know whether David wants to come back for another season but, if he doesn’t, “Curb Your Enthusiasm” sure went out on a high note.
And then there’s “Friday Night Lights.” Technically, the current fourth season is the one that counts for 2009, because the third season originally aired on DirecTV mostly in late 2008. But those of you who watched more likely saw it when NBC aired it this spring, just as most of you will likely see the currently-airing-on-DirecTV fourth season next spring. But it doesn’t really matter which season we talk about, because the third season was, and the fourth season is so far, fantastic. In fact, a recent episode of the fourth season was easily one of the best hours of TV this past year, bar none. It’s borderline tragic that so few watch this show, because it’s about as rich a show as you can find, mixing drama and comedy with a realism that is rare in almost any other drama on TV.
But wait, you say, what about “Mad Men?” To that, I say “meh.” This third season was good, don’t get me wrong, and it was one of the top ten shows of the year (although I don’t think it would break into my list of the top five shows). But that doesn’t change the fact that I still believe this show to be a bit overrated. The acting is great, and it’s visually beautiful. But the writing tends to think a little too much of itself at times and, to paraphrase something Dustin said to me about the show at one point during this season, it’s the best show I was least excited about watching on a week-to-week basis this year. The season finale was top notch, yes, but it was a little too much of a chore getting there.
Now although I’ve been focusing on returning shows, we did get some worthy new shows this year (though most new shows were, as is par for the course, utter duds). I haven’t watched “The Good Wife,” but I hear that, for what it is, it’s entertaining enough. And while I’m not as much of a fan of “Glee” as many others (as my favorite critic, Alan Sepinwall, repeatedly points out, it suffers from many of the same foibles as Ryan Murphy’s other shows), it is something different and generally entertaining. And though it’s still young, I’m quite enjoying TNT’s “Men of a Certain Age.” But the best new show of the fall, hands down, is ABC’s “Modern Family.” And the only reason I can’t declare it the best new show of the year is because that award goes to a show that almost nobody saw, Starz’s “Party Down.” If you’re not watching “Modern Family,” you should be sure to tune in when it comes back in the new year. And if you didn’t see “Party Down,” you should rent the DVDs when they come out sometime next year (likely late winter). Both shows are simply hilarious, nuff said.
As I’ve said, I recognize that there was a lot of bad TV this year too, both new and old. (When asking one pretty young lady her thoughts on the crap side of TV, she had this to say: “‘The Cleveland Show’ is an animation abortion.” Couldn’t agree more.) However, I’ve chosen to focus on the positive for the purposes of this retrospective. We all love pissing and moaning about the entertainment complex, and such bitching is the veritable foundation of this site. However, in doing so, we risk losing focus in why we still love the TV that is pumped out to us, even though good taste rarely prevails in ratings. Take the list of the Top Ten programs for the year, according to Nielsen:
1. American Idol-Wednesday (Fox)
2. American Idol-Tuesday (Fox)
3. Dancing with the Stars (ABC)
4. NBC Sunday Night Football (NBC)
5. Dancing with the Stars - Results Show (ABC)
6. NCIS: Los Angeles (CBS)
7. NCIS (CBS)
8. NFL Regular Season (ESPN)
8. Sunday Night NFL Pre-kick (NBC)
10. The Good Wife (CBS)
Three dramas, two of which are crap procedurals, football and reality TV. Not exactly a rewarding list to those who covet quality and creative programming. Of course, with the diversity of channels and programming these days, it’s rare for many shows, no matter how popular, to get the type of ratings needed to break into a top ten list like this. In fact, when you look at the Top Ten list of single telecasts, not only won’t you see anything scripted, you won’t even see any reality TV (not even “American Idol’s” finale), as the Academy Awards are the only non-NFL-related program on the list:
1. Super Bowl XLIII (NBC) (2/01/2009)
2. Super Bowl Pre-Kick (NBC) (2/01/2009)
3. Super Bowl Kick-Off (NBC) (2/01/2009)
4. Super Bowl Post (NBC) (2/01/2009)
5. AFC Championship On CBS (CBS) (1/18/2009)
6. Fox NFC Championship (Fox) (1/18/2009)
7. Academy Awards (ABC) (2/22/2009)
8. AFC Divisional Playoff (CBS) (1/11/2009)
9. Fox NFC Playoff (FOX) (1/11/2009)
10. Fox NFC Wildcard Game (Fox) (1/04/2009)
But, as a television watching society, all isn’t hopeless. Check out this list of the most “timeshifted” shows, ranking which shows are most DVRed and watched later in the week:
1. Battlestar Galactica (SyFy)
2. Mad Men (AMC)
3. Damages (FX)
4. Rescue Me (FX)
5. True Blood (HBO)
5. Stargate Universe (SyFy)
7. Sanctuary (SyFy)
7. Heroes (NBC)
9. Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (Fox)
10. 10 Things I Hate About You (ABC Family)
10. Dollhouse (Fox)
10. Melrose Place (CW)
Not sure how “Melrose Place” sneaks onto this list, nor do I understand how anyone can still be suffering through “Heroes.” And there are obviously many good shows missing from this list. But it does show that some good shows can still find their way onto a list based on viewership, rather than just landing on the lists of critics accused of being out of touch with the general viewing public. I think the past decade has been the richest one for television since Farnsworth and Zworykin took their place in the history books and, on the whole, this past year was an excellent example of why that’s the case.
So, those are my thoughts on the year in TV. What say you all?