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Television Year Zero: 2008 in Review

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Television Year Zero: 2008 in Review

I started out 2008 as a paid TV critic with a happily stable and sedate personal life that rarely edged into something all that exciting. After a series of corporate maneuvers seemingly designed to leave me weeping in the street early in the year and a last week of the year that spent most of its time beating the hell out of me, I’ve been more than ready to leave 2008 behind and stride off into the untamed wildness of 2009.

Normally, as bad shit was going down, I would find my solace in the world of television, but television pretty much sucked in 2008. The long, hazy hangover of the strike that we began the year still dealing with cast its pall over the rest of the year with a dread efficiency, and after a while, I just didn’t even want to turn on the TV anymore to watch something like Sons of Anarchy fight its way through its growing pains. Also, I spent a couple of months working for Barack Obama’s election (yay!), inadvertently setting in motion events that would reverberate through the rest of my life, and I just didn’t watch a ton of TV in that time period. So I’m maybe not as caught up as everyone else, but that’s why we have special awards.

Anyway, 2008 was a terrible year for TV. Sweet little shows I actually enjoyed were canceled (Pushing Daisies) while Dancing With the Stars’ ratings hegemony grew ever stronger. One network ceded a WHOLE HOUR of primetime to Jay Leno. JAY LENO! The writers strike shortened seasons of just about everything. Some shows returned and had a problem matching their pre-strike heights (30 Rock), while others went away for nine or ten months and returned when no one could even remember they existed (Pushing Daisies again). Some STILL aren’t back (my beloved Big Love returns in January). I mean, not ALL television was bleak—Mad Men ignored the industry-wide memo and gave us one of the best seasons of television ever, while Lost and Battlestar Galactica each hit new creative highs—but the fact that The Wire and The Shield both wrapped up, with BSG and Lost soon to follow, made things SEEM that much bleaker. Mad Men can only take us so far, especially with Matthew Weiner getting stiffed on a new contract deal.

So rather than make a list of shows that had SEASONS I found uniformly excellent in 2008 (because I get to six or so, and then I just start giving out lower slots to shows I’m effectively patting on the head for just trying so darn hard), here’s a list of 20 episodes and TV moments I unquestioningly enjoyed this year, followed by a few special awards for shows that maybe never pull it all together but offer up a fun element or two for the discerning TV fan.

Late Night with Conan O’Brien during the strike (January through February): See? Here I go. Cheating already. But the difference between the increasingly strained comedy of Conan O’Brien WITH writers and the sheer, daffy anything-for-a-joke brio of Conan O’Brien WITHOUT writers was so palpable that I’m loathe to single out an episode. While other late night talk shows struggled without writers (The Daily Show, outside of Jon Stewart’s bitterness that the WGA wouldn’t grant him a waiver like they did with David Letterman’s production company, mostly kinda sucked), O’Brien just went for broke, bringing to mind the heady days of Letterman in the 80s. He zip-lined from the audience onto stage. He got in a fight with Stewart and Stephen Colbert. He wandered his offices and settled in to play Rock Band against a bunch of backstage personnel. It was glorious. And then his writers came back, and he settled in for more of the same-old, same-old. Oh well.

Aqua Teen Hunger Force, “Reedickyoulus” (Feb. 10): Aqua Teen has succeeded over the years by taking the age-old comedy formula of the very smart guy (Frylock) paired with the very dumb guy (Meatwad) and tossing in a personality type that can only be described as “cable news anchor” (Master Shake). While the show’s absurdist streak can occasionally grow a little TOO hard to take, the underpinning comic engines are as old as cinematic entertainment itself, and the Master Shake twist keeps the show from getting TOO old, as he antagonizes Meatwad mercilessly and irritates Frylock with his bullheadishness. I almost didn’t include this because if you don’t get Aqua Teen, you won’t get this, and it’s not exactly the most shining example of the televised form, but this 11 minute tale of Meatwad’s attempts to protect his kittens from Master Shake’s malevolence probably made me laugh more than anything else this year.

Breaking Bad, “... And the Bag’s in the River” (Feb. 10): Breaking Bad does pretty much everything I say I want a great television series to do, and yet I, like other TV critics, kept underrating it while it was on the air, largely because it was on AMC, and AMC has Mad Men, and the TV critics’ charter says, “THOU MUST LIKE ONLY ONE SHOW PER CABLE NETWORK IF THAT CABLE NETWORK IS NOT HBO.” It’s true. Look it up. But, to be honest, I’ve probably spent more time turning this particular episode, brilliantly scripted by Vince Gilligan and directed by Adam Bernstein with a fine sense of suburban claustrophobia, over and over in my head than anything else broadcast this year. Bryan Cranston’s work as a man pushed to his limit by financial difficulties has ratcheted up in poignancy thanks to world events (seriously, I think this and How I Met Your Mother were THE ONLY TWO FICTIONAL SHOWS to deal, however obliquely, with the credit crunch), and the show’s creation of a whole KIND of world (the raw exurbs of the American Southwest) we haven’t seen before is much appreciated. Here, Cranston’s Walter contemplates the murder of a man he’s keeping locked in a basement, seeing how far he’s willing to go to protect his family and, OK, himself. It was riveting. I can’t wait for the DVD release, so I can find out just how much I underrated this.

Lost, “The Constant” (Feb. 28): Lost is, at heart, a puzzle box mystery. For all of the series’ pretensions and beliefs in its own grandeur, it’s really just a lean, mean update of The Twilight Zone, only with recurring characters. What’s missed, I think, in pieces that grapple with Lost’s inconsistency is just how much the growing pains of the second and third seasons are about executive producers Damon Lindelof and Carleton Cuse trying to throw off the goofy restraints placed on them by the original concept and characters dreamed up by J.J. Abrams and Lindelof and make the show they always wanted to make (which is, apparently, a batshit insane series about confronting your worst fears). Season four finally saw Lindelof and Cuse able to DO that for the most part (they still had to toss a bone to that insipid Jack-Kate-Sawyer triangle occasionally, and Jack and Kate, the ostensible leads, remain the least compelling characters—Abrams’ curse remains!), and they never proved it more than in this puzzle-box-y hour that took the character best exemplifying the show’s deeply romantic soul (Desmond) and sent him on a quest through time and space for a lost love. It sounds overwrought until you watch the thing, and it, improbably, works so damn well.

The Wire, “-30-” (March 9): Now we come to the HBO section of the list, as we see what the once ever-dominant pay-cable channel tossed up for us in 2008. (And, before you ask, I didn’t have HBO for most of the year, so I still haven’t caught up with Generation Kill. Mea culpa.) By now, everyone knows that The Wire is the best series in the history of television, etc., etc., etc., and I’m supposed to talk about how the episode BEFORE this (“Late Editions”) was REALLY the show’s finest hour because the penultimate episodes always are and blah, blah, blah, but I think “-30-” is one of the most daring things I’ve ever seen done on television, so I’m honoring it here. It’s less an attempt to bring an end to a long-running series and a group of much-loved characters (on the part of its small audience, at least) and more an attempt to create something that really resembles the rhythms of life as it’s lived. Those two audacious montages of Baltimore, a city bleeding and breathing, that break the episode proper from its coda and wrap up the whole thing, are so full of great filmmaking that I feel like I’m STILL unpacking them.

John Adams, “Join or Die” (March 16): Whether or not you liked John Adams was one of those big TV questions of 2008, and there was little-to-no room for wafflers. Well, watch me waffle. I thought John Adams started and ended really well, but mostly lost its way in the middle, thanks to an occasionally overly literal script and some hapless direction (Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney remained fine throughout, and the portrayals of the other founding fathers—Tom Wilkinson’s Benjamin Franklin excepted—were pretty solid). Still, the whole thing started off excellently, with Giamatti’s Adams getting drawn, almost against his will but in line with his reason, into a revolution. I’ve rarely felt as cognizant of the stakes in Colonial America as I was in this piece of TV, and it’s a shame much of the rest of the series lost that sense of urgency.

In Treatment, “Alex, Week 8” (March 18): In Treatment baffled me for three or four weeks. It wasn’t as smart as it thought it was, and the storylines for the various patients were terribly inconsistent (in general, Sophie and Alex good, other patients ... there but for the grace of God). I also didn’t like the way everybody kept stating baldly what they were feeling (and, yes, it goes with the psychotherapy territory, but, GOD, it could be on the nose). But, little by little, the series wormed its way under my skin as a portrayal of one man’s strengths and failings (something that television does as well or better than any other medium). Viewed less as the story of a variety of patients and more as the story of a doctor treating them, the series works (and earned Gabriel Byrne an unexpected and welcome Emmy nomination), even if the filmmaking, confined as it is to one set, usually felt a little stage-y. The finest hour was this episode from late in the series’ run, as Glynn Turman (who actually managed to WIN the Emmy, again unexpectedly) stopped in for one week to talk with Byrne’s Paul about his son, Alex, one of Paul’s patients. Turman’s performance and the quiet theatrics of the script elevated the series beyond its usual trappings, and Byrne’s elegant underplaying managed to show Paul’s search for his soul without yelling about it.

The Office, “Dinner Party” (April 10): Here’s an episode that divided even diehard Office fans. In general, in the latter half of The Office’s third season and the first half of its fourth season, the series got too in love with being as wacky as possible (and sacrificing the character moments that made the show work). After the strike, though, the series righted itself, homing in again on the huge roster of great characters, and giving them all moments to build on the series’ established history (Stanley’s explosion in “Did I Stutter” seemed like a lifetime in coming). “Dinner Party” established the welcome return to this dynamic with a half-hour of dark, dark comedy that played like “Virginia Woolf” condensed into a sitcom episode. Without gimmicks (like field trips to the great outdoors) to fall back on, the series delved into the collapsing coupling of Michael (Steve Carell) and Jan (Melora Hardin) with squeamish efficiency, alienating many fans but winning just as many back. Since this one, the series has been back in a big way, easily retaking the crown of Best Comedy on Television from 30 Rock.

Zero Punctuation, “Super Smash Bros. Brawl” (April 23): The boomlet in Internet-only series felt like it came into its own this year (see later for the best example), as people finally figured out how to use the limitations of the form to create superior short entertainments. Zero Punctuation’s Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw vaulted to the top of the very, very tall heap of online video game criticism this year, mostly by having very definitive opinions of what makes a good game and what makes a bad game, expressing those opinions in a crystal-clear manner and being very, very funny. Croshaw can fall back on pseudo-homophobia too much for my tastes, but there’s no question that he’s randomly become one of the two or three best video game critics out there (admittedly, not as tall a heap), and this episode, viewable here, is a good example of why. It punctures fanboys, lazy game concepts, the Wii and the idea of multiplayer gaming as the be-all and end-all of video games in under five minutes. And it’s funny!

Battlestar Galactica, “Revelations” (June 13): Galactica’s fourth season was its best yet (and the final handful of episodes, coming in a couple of weeks, promise even better, if everyone is to be believed), building on seasons worth of tension between the characters to create something raw, human and aching. It all ended in a magnificent piece of television (maybe the best of the year) that I’ve already written about extensively.

Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog, “Act 3” (July 19): Joss Whedon is one of our great, perpetually out-of-work filmmakers, always trying to make his visions conform to major network or major studio visions and failing miserably to the tune of box office and Nielsen flops. Despite all of this, the guy has a huge fan base, always ready to check out his latest project (even if it sounds like an outright debacle like his upcoming Dollhouse). He harnessed all of that and his considerable Hollywood connections to make the Internet-only Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog during the strike, and in the program’s third act it becomes one of the two or three best things he’s ever done and an exemplar of what you can do with Internet series. I can’t really explain too much without going into spoilers here, but the third act revives Whedon’s traditional fascination with story structure and narrative as it asks why we identify with the characters we identify with, gives us everything we’ve ever hoped for and then mocks us for having those hopes in the first place. Oh, and it’s apparently also about how the writers lost the strike.

Mad Men, “Three Sundays” (Aug. 17): I toyed with putting “Mad Men’s second season” on the list, but that REALLY felt like cheating. It was the only series that barely took a misstep this year, as Matthew Weiner chased an elusive dream of America that was and finally managed to land it in the end. It was, as mentioned, one of the best seasons of American television ever, right up there with Deadwood season two or The Simpsons season four or that fabled first season of The Sopranos (don’t make me pick a Wire season). The series grew into a modest hit (at least by AMC standards), won an Emmy and spawned a healthy backlash, but here’s an episode that shows why the backlashers are just wrong. Unfolding over three Sundays (surprise!), the series shows us a marriage in disintegration, a young woman struggling to cope with her guilt and an ad agency facing an uncertain future, all without having a character monologue about any of it. What makes Mad Men so great is how UNEXPECTED all of it is, even though absolutely every story turn and twist seems perfectly predictable in retrospect. It’s a hard trick to manage, but “Three Sundays” is proof that it’s so satisfying when it comes together.

The Daily Show and The Colbert Report cover the conventions (August/September): There’s rarely a better example of eye-rolling American political theater than the Democratic and Republican National Conventions, and there’s never been a better example of comedy programs not knowing what to do with a political figure than Barack Obama. The Daily Show and Colbert managed this first feat in the week of the DNC by both mocking the man’s movement (that bio video featuring Obama’s face superimposed over Simba from The Lion King kills) and subtly condescending to him (mostly in the case of faux-blowhard Colbert). But it was the week of the RNC when both shows turned loose. As much as everyone talks about Tina Fey cementing the image of Sarah Palin in the eyes of the American public, it was Jon Stewart and the team at The Daily Show who first managed to savage the right-wing media fawning over the deeply contradictory figure with whole features that played up clips of right-wing talking heads and showed their double standards. Colbert then landed the punchline by overpraising her ridiculously. Despite my card-carrying Obamabot credentials, I found Palin a fascinating figure, but deplored the right’s attempts to make her a Messiah and the left’s attempts to make her a two-bit hillbilly. The reality lay far more in the realm of media creation, and Stewart and Colbert found that soft underbelly, as they so often do.

How I Met Your Mother, “Shelter Island” (Oct. 20): Playing with narrative again (though that’s this show’s raison d’etre). This wasn’t Mother’s funniest episode of the year (that honor goes to “The Bracket” or “The Naked Man”), but it was unexpectedly poignant, in the way that only a sitcom episode can be. In its denouement, it also suggested something that other works of art get at but rarely express so well: We’re ALL living out our own stories, and we rarely realize how those stories interact with other people and can devastate them until it’s too late. It’s all well and good when we’re the protagonist, and everyone smiles down upon us, but the second reality intrudes, and we have to consider the collateral damage, we stop and reconsider. Or we don’t. And so it goes. And, of course, Neil Patrick Harris’ Barney Stinson is the great comedic creation of our decade, so let’s give him some awards soon please.

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, “The Tower Is Tall, but the Fall Is Short” (Oct. 20): I never quite know which Sarah Connor Chronicles is going to show up from week to week. Will it be the lugubrious, boring show where boring people complain about boring problems? Or will it be the unexpectedly tight SF/action showcase with compelling characters who fret about hard-SF concepts rarely aired on TV, like what effect traveling through time has on the future or whether or not machines can feel and think? This episode, the last addition to this list, makes a good case that, given time, the series could find its way into being the latter on a weekly basis. Focusing on a robot from the future forced to take care of a very human child when she takes that child’s mother’s place, the episode also sends the aforementioned boring leads into therapy (a hackneyed device, but hear me out) and starts to get into ideas of how you act when you know the apocalypse is just around the corner that are rarely aired outside of Big Love. But it was the terrifying mother-child scenes that made this episode work. They make you think there’s something more to this series, something good enough to keep you coming back week after week.

Obama is elected (Nov. 4): The kinda-bullshit-but-trendy pick to put atop your TV of 2008 list is “the election” or “the election coverage,” but outside of a few weeks there when everyone wondered how, exactly, Obama or McCain would confront the growing economic catastrophe, the televised news coverage of the election was woefully inadequate, veering as it did from bullshit personality issues (like, say, lipstick on a pig) to bizarre fawning (over Obama or over Palin or, briefly, over Hillary Clinton or ... you name it). All it did was highlight how terrible TV news really is and how much better newspapers and (now) blogs do it anyway. I mean, if I want my election news with a heaping helping of opinion-based personality, I know how to find Daily Kos or Red State online, thank you very much, and they won’t yell at me. But damned if it didn’t all lead to this, a moment that, at least symbolically, said that America is still what it says it is, even to the right wingers who called Obama a communist moments before (“Only in America,” they said, to a man). The talking heads mostly stayed out of the way of those delirious moments from when they called it for Obama to when McCain gave a terrific concession speech to when Obama stepped up for his speech. I watched it in a bar in Indiana, surrounded by newfound friends. We cheered and cried. I ate a fish sandwich. Where were you?

Pushing Daisies, “Oh, Oh, Oh, It’s Magic” (Nov. 19): The writers strike was based on some very solid issues, but the way it was carried out and the results that the writers got were all pretty stupid. The writers won only very minor concessions, and it increased network TV’s reliance on reality (though an unexpected benefit was the ratings resurgence of the sitcom). Oh, and Pushing Daisies got canceled thanks to it. Daisies was a show that most of my friends found teeth-grindingly irritating, but they were, of course, wrong. The series really grew into its own in the second season when most of America had forgotten about it (again, thanks, strike!). The mysteries were stronger, the emotional centers were more resonant and the series’ examination of what it means to confront your own death grew only more fascinating. This hour, which reunited series’ lead Ned (Lee Pace) with his half brothers and sent them all into the world of magic, combined a mostly satisfying mystery (still the show’s weakest link) with an acutely observed story about what it means to find a new family when you are an adult. ABC plans to burn off the final three episodes at some point. Set your TiVos!

The Shield, “Family Meeting” (Nov. 25): I’ve always held The Shield at arm’s length, sort of convinced that it wasn’t as good as it thought it was and got by mostly with breakneck plotting and pushing forward through implausibility. The show’s seventh and final season, though, convinced me, by showing that everything in the show’s run could, more or less, be tied up in a way that was satisfying on both a plot level and revealed the essential nature of the characters (both needed elements for the finale of a serialized drama). Some compared the period placed at the end of this episode favorably to the semicolon at the end of The Sopranos finale, but that’s missing the point. The Shield was as much about finding a fitting climax as The Sopranos was about avoiding one. So if this isn’t as audacious as The Sopranos’ finale, it’s still pretty great in its own way, with one of the most haunting setpieces in recent TV memory (you’ll know it when you see it) and an ending that’s as ambiguous about the future as The Shield ever gets.

30 Rock, “Reunion” (Dec. 4): 30 Rock struggled all year long with how to recapture the sheer vim and vigor it displayed before the strike in its second season (only one pre-strike second season episode aired this year, and while I liked it, I liked this one better). It was kind of the opposite of The Office, which rediscovered everything that made it enjoyable once it resumed after the strike. 30 Rock has always been a show that’s less a coherent whole than a collection of very funny parts, and it relies on all of those parts being very funny, with only the relationship between Liz (Tina Fey) and Jack (Alec Baldwin) being reliably so. It also, depending on the week, is a different KIND of show with every episode, which will likely keep it from ever being a huge hit. But here’s an episode that takes the age-old sitcom plotline of the lead returning for a reunion and turns it on its head (the bullies Liz wanted to show off to secretly feared HER wisecracks and putdowns) AND ties in Jack’s occasional desires for a normal life. It’s as perfect a sitcom episode as you’ll ever see, and it bodes well for the future.

Chuck, “Chuck vs. Santa Claus” (Dec. 15): In one of the rare bits of good TV karma this year, Chuck returned after the strike and somehow became a very good show (it had been promising, but all over the place in an abbreviated first season). Of course no one watched it. But then, week to week, it grew in audience, until it was challenging the ever-more-idiotic Heroes in audience share. Granted, a lot of that was people giving up on Heroes, but it was also viewers somehow finding Chuck against all odds. Every light, fluffy genre show needs an episode where it makes the leap from just trying to be a goofy good time to when the characters take on the emotional resonance for us to want to stick with them for years to come. On Buffy, for example, this came in the season two diptych “Surprise/Innocence.” And on Chuck, hopefully, it came here, in an episode that had one hell of a great twist midway through the episode and concluded with some emotionally solid beats that put everything the series had so carefully built in ruin. The show’s still a little overstuffed, but there are few I look forward to watching more week to week.

Some (hopefully brief) Special Awards:

Best comedy on TV: OK, yeah, I said The Office was up above, but Grey’s Anatomy OBVIOUSLY is? I mean, most critics are disgusted by Izzie sexing Ghost Denny, but I THINK IT’S HILARIOUS.

Socks folding TV, drama division: A good socks-folding show is one that you can sort of pay attention to and enjoy. It’s generally well-crafted, but not especially ambitious. Chuck used to fall into this category. Now it doesn’t. My picks this year are the goofy rapscallions of Bones (outside of that terrible third season finale) and Supernatural, which scratches that old X-Files itch in completely ridiculous fashion (but does so winningly).

Socks folding TV, comedy division: CBS’ The New Adventures of Old Christine and The Big Bang Theory each have terrific performances (from Julia Louis Dreyfus and Jim Parsons, respectively) and generally solid scripts.

Great soundtrack for a middling show: Life on Mars tries too hard to be the second coming of Twin Peaks and fails a lot of the time, but the soundtrack is killer.

I’m never gonna get it so shut up: Especially in the current economic climate, I find myself having trouble giving a shit about Gossip Girl, a show that basically rehashes the superficially enjoyable things people pretended to like about 90210 and other teen soaps without an ounce of emotional realism. At least The O.C. had irony!

Probably should have included this episode, but I stopped caring: House’s two part finale, “House’s Head”/“Wilson’s Heart,” was just about the best example of traditional TV finale-craft out there, but the show completely lost it in the fall, and I stopped caring. Similarly, Ugly Betty’s “When Betty Met YETI” was a pretty good example of how to do a Very Special Episode, but it was on a show that has gotten so obsessed with having “heart” that it has none anymore, so I had stopped caring.

Probably should have included this episode, but I forgot: I really did mean to put Doctor Who’s “Midnight” on there. It was the best Twilight Zone in decades. My mistake!

Best “News” show: TV news has mostly disappeared down a rabbit hole of personality journalism, but if it’s going to do that, it may as well embrace compelling personalities like Rachel Maddow of The Rachel Maddow Show. Maddow is unfailingly (sometimes kneejerk) liberal, but her opinions are well-expressed, and her fights with Pat Buchanan are awesome.

I probably would have put it on here, but I didn’t see it: Friday Night Lights’ third season is, reportedly, pretty darn good, but it’s on DirecTV, and illegally downloading it and then avoiding the NBC rebroadcasts seems like kicking a low-rated show when it’s down. Also, I just haven’t caught up with Sons of Anarchy.

Great performances in weak shows: Ray Wise’s Devil is so good he makes Reaper watchable some weeks, and JoAnna Garcia is making me keep up with Privileged in the hopes that the inconsistent scripts will eventually match her awesomeness.

What?: Dexter’s third season veered from awesome to awful so rapidly and with such little warning that I’m still not sure what to make of it. Ask me in a year.

And yet ...: Michael Emerson’s Ben grieving over his daughter, the smoke monster crackling along behind in Lost’s “The Shape of Things to Come,” Ted’s two-minute date with Stella in How I Met Your Mother’s “Ten Sessions” (makes me tear up every time), Snoop’s final moments in The Wire’s “Late Editions,” the look on Vic Mackey’s face as he prepares to talk in The Shield’s “Possible Kill Screen,” Michael chewing out corporate in an airport in The Office’s “Business Trip,” Peggy telling Pete the truth in Mad Men’s “Meditations in an Emergency,” Walter blowing up the bad guys in Breaking Bad’s “Crazy Handful of Nothin’,” the freeze ray song in “Dr. Horrible,” Joe Biden’s mom tottering along, Sarah Palin unleashing howls in the convention hall, David Tyree catching a pass against his friggin’ helmet, those Opening Ceremonies!, Usain Bolt apparently not being human at all, the Doctor flying to save the day in Doctor Who’s “Forest of the Dead” and everybody joining in for “Midnight Train to Georgia” in 30 Rock’s “Episode 210.” I can’t really untangle any of them from my mind, despite 2008 being such an awful year for TV. Here’s to better 2009, and more moments we care as much about.

House contributor Todd VanDerWerff is the publisher of the pop culture blog South Dakota Dark.