Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Best of 2009: Television

I would like to think that I do not watch a lot of television (don't we all?). But I could be wrong. In the past year, I have stopped watching live television. I record my favorite shows on DVR and then catch up on them whenever schedule permits. Hence I cannot profess to have even superficially sampled everything this is offered on most television channels. My selection below of the best of television in the past year is therefore highly biased and based on restrictive sampling. For example, since I do not subscribe to any of the premium channels, I have not seen much of the supposed higher-quality shows (Big Love, True Blood, Dexter, The United States of Tara, The Tudors etc.) to be able to form an opinion about them. Also, I have taken the high road and not included guilty pleasures on this list, because.....well, I feel guilty about them.

The one thing that unites all of the shows on this list is the only thing that ultimately matters: great writing. 

1. Modern Family
This show is graced with the trifecta of great writing, perfect acting, and the most elusive of all, being of the moment. What sets it apart is that it is refreshingly free of cynicism; it chooses to be unashamedly sentimental. Even as it laughs at the foibles of each of the characters in the three related families it covers, it also has genuine affection for each of them. When I was watching this show last week, I paused the taping to take a phone call; upon returning I actually felt sad to see that there were only ten more minutes remaining in the episode. This is always a test of a good show. And Ty Burrell must be the funniest man on television right now; somebody get him an award already. The show started only in late 2009, but it already feels comfortably familiar. 

2. 30 Rock
There is nobody I respect more on television these days than Tina Fey. I do not know if she has secretly found the secret to having forty eight hours in a day, but she is churning out the most creative, consistently high-quality content on television right now. Ten years from now, this show will be considered genius. And boy, is it funny or what. I came into '30 Rock' late, but am now a devoted fan of its rapid-fire, blink-and-you-will-miss-it, comedic style. It gets away with taking names, and calling out on what is wrong in popular media right now. It may look simple, but each episode is impossibly tightly crafted. If you are not watching this show you are missing out on spending thirty delicious minutes inside the head of the sharpest mind on the boob tube right now.

3. How I Met Your Mother
This show has been quietly defining excellence on television for the past four years. You will not find a bad episode of this show. Two dimensions more clever than "Friends", this show covers the lives of five thirty-somethings trying to have a go at relationships. It plays within the conventions of the sitcom in that the characters talk like no one we know, but when what they are saying is this funny, why complain? Watch this show back to back for two hours and the experience will easily best any romantic comedy playing in the cinemas. The acting from all of the leads is outstanding, but Neil Patrick Harris steals the show. I do not know the last names of the main characters of most television shows, but I do for this one. 

4. The New Adventures of Old Christine
I am surprised this show has not been pulled off the air yet. Not because it is terrible; quite the contrary. But because it gets away with some remarkably strong criticism of the far right. Maybe that is one advantage to a show that is not watched by too many...fewer people protesting. If it had higher ratings, "The New Adventures of Old Christine" would be on the target bullseye of many a conservative pundit. I like the fact that Julia Louis-Dreyfus' character on the show goes all out with being flawed, and the actress is refreshingly free from vanity in inhabiting this role, warts and all. Besides any show that has Wanda Sykes and Louis-Dreyfus is automatically insured against mediocrity. Funny stuff, here. 

5. Better Off Ted
I want to seek out the writers on this show and personally shake hands with them to congratulate them for the scripts. Once you get into the rhythms of 'Better Off Ted', it is hard to stop laughing. Like a distant cousin of '30 Rock', this show too goes gleefully into the surreal. Anybody who has been a part of a corporate environment will be smiling at how wickedly the show satirizes that milieu. It would be unfair to single out Portia De Rossi's corporate boss as the star of the show since she gets the best lines in every episode, but her delivery of the lines is flawless. And Lem and Phil, the two goofy scientists on the show, are maybe the most original and adorable characters on television right now. Just the sight of them puts a smile on my face. This may be the most criminally unwatched show on your TV screen. 

6. Men Of A Certain Age
Like 'Modern Family' and 'Better Off Ted', this show started in 2009 but I feel at home with it already. Unlike the shows above, this one is not a ha-ha funny piece of television. Rather it plumbs some rather dark territory in circling around the lives of three male friends in their forties, who are all dealing poorly in one way or another with where their lives have brought them. Ray Romano, who has already contributed to classic television with 'Everybody Loves Raymond' goes for something more hard-lived and rough around the edges with his next foray into episodic television. Because the show is in no mood for pat resolutions, or ascribing easy heroism to any of the lead characters, it is one of the few shows on network television that manages to be surprisingly gloomy (and a little angry), which aptly matches the current economic and cultural climate. Romano, bless his heart, has no intention of sugar-coating things on this show, and by the very adult treatment of the material here, may be on to creating something approaching significant relevance for our times. If the show stays on the air, that is. Start praying. 

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