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The Shield (#110 of 3)

Television Year Zero: 2008 in Review

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Television Year Zero: 2008 in Review
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.

T.V. on TV: Big Love, The 4400, and The Shield

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T.V. on TV: Big Love, The 4400, and The Shield
T.V. on TV: Big Love, The 4400, and The Shield

I’ll talk about Big Love in more detail starting June 11, when the House debuts a new recap series, “Big Love Tuesdays.” For now I’ll just say that in the first five episodes of the HBO drama’s second season, it has evolved from a damn good show to a nearly great one. In its first season, Big Love seemed reluctant to tell the story of a polygamous family without leaning on expository crutches; to make certain episodes happen, it occasionally lapsed into plot contrivance or needless melodrama. But in its sophomore outing, Big Love moves with the confidence of a series that has figured out what it wants to be and how to get there. As the House recap title indicates, HBO, in its infinite wisdom, has stranded the show on Monday, a night where even Six Feet Under couldn’t do much, ratings-wise, so I’ll sound the alarm now: Don’t miss it.

Big Love parses relationships between people in a family setup that few Americans have experienced, and makes it comprehensible and believable. Even if you’ve never had to deal with a third mother or a sister wife, the series illustrates the difficulty of navigating these relationships with subtle writing and even better acting (especially from Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloë Sevigny and Ginnifer Goodwin as the wives of Bill Paxton’s ambitious retailer, Bill Henrickson). It still rankles when the two younger wives call Tripplehorn’s Barb “boss lady”; but no other series could concieve a scene as original as the one where Goodwin’s Margie tells Barb that she understands her limits in her uneasily flirtatious relationship with Barb and Bill’s teenage son. Just as striking is the fact that Big Love really understands the sheer passion of fundamentalism—of giving in to something larger than yourself and dedicating yourself to that abstract dream. While the characters’ polygamous lifestyle puts them out-of-step with mainstream America, they speak unironically of following God’s calling and having visions and abstaining from alcohol or sex before marriage. Unlikely as it may sound, given the multiple spouses and the subtextual arguments in favor of gay marriage, America’s fundamentalist Christians have no better friend than Big Love, which argues that the passion they feel for God is as valid as any other emotion. At the same time, though, the series is not afraid to depict polygamy and fundamentalism’s discontents, represented most notably in its teenage characters, portrayed by Douglas Smith, Amanda Seyfried and Daveigh Chase. All cope with losing their faith in the culture that raised them, and fighting against a secular world that enfolds them every time they leave the house.

T.V. on TV: The Shield

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T.V. on TV: <em>The Shield</em>
T.V. on TV: <em>The Shield</em>

The first six episodes of The Shield’s sixth season build to a scene that we’ve seen coming from the very beginning. It’s well photographed (the cameras capture the inimitable late-night glow of L.A.), beautifully and subtly written, and the actors underplay it nicely. Thanks to the gradual accretion of time, the scene plays out with the sort of intensity you can only find in the best serialized television. But it takes a lot of heavy-lifting to get there. When The Shield is firing on all cylinders, it’s like nothing else in television, the cop show reimagined as a violent testosterone opera. Yet it’s never quite as good as it could be; it often lacks subtlety, and it’s a little too impressed with its sense of daring.