20 December 2008

2008 List #1: The Best (and Worst) of Television

Ever since HBO raised the bar for television, it’s a lot less criminal to indulge in one’s love of the serialized medium. Plenty of grave offenses to the excellence that shows like The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Oz, Arrested Development and Curb Your Enthusiasm created still exist today. How does a laughless show like The Big Bang Theory continue to rake in viewers when Arrested Development gets the plug pulled on it prematurely? Questions like these will plague our thoughts just as much as the what-ifs Twin Peaks left us after its second season. Keep in mind that my last-minute movie consumption has prevented me from watching Generation Kill, which is now on DVD. The nice thing about the medium of television is that, like I did after suffering three seasons of Nip/Tuck and two episodes of this year’s putrid I Can’t Believe I’m Still Single in which middling writer/director/actor Eric Schaeffer ponders the title’s disbelief to nails-on-chalkboard extremes, you can always turn it off. So, here’s my first of at least six lists rounding up the year 2008, with an honorable mention to Cloris Leachman telling John Stamos that she wanted to fuck him with her Oscar on Comedy Central’s Roast of Bob Saget. I should probably suggest you not read about the shows you haven't caught up with yet, as spoilers will certainly follow.

1. Summer Heights High – HBO – with Chris Lilly

Chris Lilly’s hysterical, brilliant mockumentary about the lives of three awful human beings who call the titular Summer Heights High their home for a term beats Christopher Guest at his own game. At turns unbearably funny and gut-wrenchingly unsympathetic, Summer Heights High balances its double act gracefully. Lilly goes places you never expect him to with Ja’mie King (the private school cunt with a love for incorrectly using the word “random” who manipulates and condescends her way through her year-long exchange), Mr. G (the self-applied “director of performing arts” with delusions of grandeur putting on an exploitive musical about a schoolgirl who died of a drug overdose) and Jonah Takalua (the disobedient Pacific Islander who would rather break-dance than learn how to read). Watching Mr. G’s “arena spectacular” makes the only salvageable moments of Hamlet 2 look pitiful by comparison (“She’s a naughty girl with a bad habit / a bad habit for drugs”). Summer Heights High is easily the most refreshing television import since The Office UK. For more Ja’mie (my personal favorite) and Lilly, be sure to check out the show he made before this one, We Can Be Heroes, which I can only hope will be picked up by HBO sooner or later. The DVD set for Summer Heights High will be available on 24 February 2009.

2. Kristen Wiig (Saturday Night Live)

Sorry Amy Poehler and Sarah Silverman, but Kristen Wiig is not only SNL’s funniest comedienne, but perhaps even the funniest person who’s ever been on that entire show (take that comment lightly, this is coming from someone who gains and loses sporadic interest in the show on a regular basis). She’s taken Silverman’s place as the scene-stealer of dude comedies; her scene in Knocked Up provides more laughs than the rest of the film combined. Though she seems to be often stuck in deleted scenes (Forgetting Sarah Marshall) or unfunny roles (The Brothers Solomon), her comic genius truly comes through on SNL, playing a slew of neurotic or unflattering characters (as well as dead-on impersonations of Suze Orman and Björk) and always emerging as the only good thing in badly or underwritten skits. As NBC.com is one of the worst viral sites around, I’ve gathered together a few clips for your enjoyment. Wiig as Virgania Horson and Her Pony Express (thanks to my friend Mike for posting this on his Facebook page!); as the Deformed Sister of Laurence Welk Quartet; as one of the work-out ladies for Body Fuzion, with Drew Barrymore; as Björk in a send-up of The Sundance Channel's Iconoclasts; as Sue who sure is excited about throwing a surprise party, with Christopher Walken; as one-half of a set of adorable twins, with Seth Rogan; as Kyra Sedgwick, followed by a new crime program starring Penny Marshall, also with Andy Samberg as Juliette Lewis; as Suze Orman and again; as Crazy McCain Rally Lady on the Weekend Update; as one-half of another set of twins for a new Disney Channel program, with Amy Adams; as Penelope at traffic school, also with Amy Adams; as Jennifer Tilly on Celebrity Apprentice; and as the Target Lady, with Jonah Hill. Forgive me if some of the videos don't work.

3. (tie) Great Actresses As Greatly Embarrassing Republican Ladies: Tina Fey as Sarah Palin on SNL; Laura Dern as Katherine Harris in HBO’s Recount

Tina Fey emerged to be the only good thing to come from the hasty media obsession with Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin, showcasing the thespian side of our favorite hot, rimmed-spectacled gal. Like my experience in seeing Christine Ebersole play Little Edie on the Broadway version of Grey Gardens (which was lame otherwise), Fey didn’t just impersonate the similar-looking Palin, but became her in such a way that I could barely tell the two apart. “It seems that when cornered you become increasingly adorable.” Who knew even better things were to come for Fey at the beginning of 30 Rock’s third season? Check NBC's website, under the "Most Popular" category, to see the sketches.

The other fabulous depiction of a real-life female pawn for the Republican party came from one of my long-time favorite actresses, Laura Dern, in Recount. In the past few years, she’s been continuing to astound with dynamic performances in the wildly different Inland Empire and We Don’t Live Here Anymore, but just when I thought I’d never get another Ruth Stoops, she delivered some comedy magic as Katherine Harris. In easily upstaging the rest of the predominantly male cast (Kevin Spacey, Bob Balaban, Denis Leary, John Hurt and Tom Wilkinson, among others), Dern is the only reason to watch the simply passable, well-intended docudrama. Recount is available on DVD.

4. The Wire – HBO – 5th and Final Season – with Dominic West, Lance Reddick, Wendell Pierce, Clarke Peters, Michael K. Williams, Sonja Sohn, John Doman, Aiden Gillen, Andre Rojo, Clark Johnson, Thomas McCarthy, Dierdre Lovejoy, Seth Gilliam, Delaney Williams, Frankie Faison, Corey Parker Robinson, Jim True-Frost, Domenick Lombardozzi, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Jamie Hector, Tristan Wilds, Jermaine Crawford, Felicia Pearson, Amy Ryan, et al.

Had this been the final season to any other show, I probably wouldn’t have included it. But as it’s The Wire, the smartest show in HBO’s illustrious history, I can put my reservations aside. Cramming a shitload of information into a meager ten episodes, not the least of which involving a “serial killer,” season 5 felt as though it rushed through everything the show so deliberately laid out in seasons past (it was especially hard to try to top Pryzbylewski’s staggering stint as a mathematics teacher in Season 4). I would have allowed the show the sinister killing of its best character had the writers stuck with the raw, unforgiving nature we’d become used to by that point. Characters got off too easy in the show’s finale, developing an attachment the creators swore they’d never display. All that aside, The Wire was the most uncommonly compelling show of the decade (I keep Six Feet Under in a different basket), and I’m sure its legacy will last through DVD, even if no other show comes close to touching its vigor. All five seasons are currently available on DVD. [On a side note, I’m working on a piece which examines how The Wire has changed, for the worse, my cinema obsession. Look for it as soon as I finish these lists.]

5. 30 Rock – NBC – Seasons 2 and 3 – with Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin, Tracy Morgan, Jane Krakowski, Jack McBreyer, Scott Adsit, Judah Friedlander, Keith Powell, Katrina Bowden, Lonny Ross, Maulik Pancholy, Kevin Brown, Grizz Chapman

What began as a nice alternative to the multi-camera sitcoms that the networks kept throwing at us evolved into the cleverest show on NBC and a more-than-welcome replacement for the void Arrested Development left. Fey’s writing was never in question, but in the early episodes of season 3, she’s finally eluded the Dorothy Petrillo Zbornak curse, in which the lead actor of a sitcom is consistently upstaged by their co-stars (not that I don’t love you, Bea Arthur!). Baldwin, Morgan, Krakowski and McBreyer are uniformly hilarious, and though Friedlander leaves something to be desired, he finally got laughs out of me when, in season 2, he shows up at a gay disco where they’re playing a club mix version of Krakowski’s smash hit in Europe, “Muffin Tops,” and, in season 3, when he responds “yes” emphatically when Morgan, dressed as a white woman for a Freaky Friday experiment, asks if he wants to make out with him. With guest stars including Oprah Winfrey, Jennifer Aniston and Steve Martin, I can’t help but think 30 Rock is on the upslope. Season 3 is still in progress; seasons 1 and 2 are available on DVD, and you can catch all the episodes streaming on NBC.com.

6. Lost – ABC – Season 4 – with Matthew Fox, Terry O’Quinn, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Emerson, Josh Holloway, Naveen Andrews, Yunjin Kim, Jorge Garcia, Daniel Dae Kim, Elizabeth Mitchell, Henry Ian Cusack, Jeremy Davies, Emilie de Ravin, Jeff Fahey, Ken Leung, Harold Perrineau, Rebecca Mader, Mira Furlan, Alan Dale, Kevin Durand, Tania Raymonde, et al.

Lost would be nowhere without Twin Peaks, as you can imagine. It followed the show’s entire mold: intrigue your audience in the first season before fully introducing the supernatural head-scratching in the second. Ending the otherwise lackluster third season with a real mind blower, Lost cut its episodes by around ten, making it even more concise and wonderfully infuriating than it ever had been. With a deal made by the creators and ABC, which will conclude the show’s run in 2010, Lost will have what Twin Peaks never could… an ending. Heartbreak, anger, elation and confusion will be brought to us for another two seasons with the possibility of our Oceanic Six making their way back to the island. For the especially amazing episodes of Season 4, check out “The Constant,” in which the island’s lone Scotsman Desmond Hume (Cusack) discovers with the help of wormy Daniel (Davies) the two-way nature of time travel, or “The Shape of Things to Come,” which answers and poses more questions about that fucking smoke monster. Season 4 was just released on DVD, though you can watch every episode streaming on ABC.com, and Season 5 will begin early 2009.

7. Project Runway – Bravo – Seasons 4 and 5

Gay, straight, man, woman, I dare you to resist the charms of Project Runway (I’ve heard many hilarious confessions of friends who’ve caught their fathers watching the show). Cramming a season and a half into 2008, my would-be guilty pleasure (I’m seldom guilty about anything I like) awarded its top honors to the two most deserving winners in both seasons. Keep in mind that Project Runaway is the only reality contest that actually awards creativity over meager talent and mutiny and, without being too invasive, introduces you to plenty of wonderful (Chan Marshall look-a-like Leann Marshall and the endearing Sweet Pea), memorable (Christian Siriano) and detestable (I’m looking at you, Kenley) contestants. Sure, plenty of the players weren’t up to snuff in the past two seasons, but could you really live without the addition of “hot tranny mess” into your vocabulary? For shits and giggles, here’s Amy Poehler playing Siriano on SNL, and despite his best efforts, Blayne’s catch phrase “licious” will never catch on. Season 4 is available on DVD; no word yet on season 5 (or when the show will be rid of its legal troubles).

8. (tie) Unwatched/Unfinished Seasons of the Runners-Up of TV's Most Offensive, After The Hills: It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia – FX – Season 4 – with Glenn Howerton, Charlie Day, Rob McElhenney, Kaitlin Olson, Danny DeVito; South Park – Season 12 – Comedy Central – with Trey Parker, Matt Stone

I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve only caught a few episodes of the latest season of the fantastically mean-spirited sitcom about five selfish assholes and the Philly bar they own, but what I’ve seen leads me to believe that, like 30 Rock, the show is only getting better. Politically incorrect, undeserved narcissism hasn’t looked this good in a while. No word on when Season 4 will hit DVD, but the previous three are already available for you to catch up.

It’s hard to believe that South Park has maintained its appeal after twelve seasons, when the high priest of animated sitcoms, The Simpsons, fizzled out years ago. Like It’s Always Sunny…, I only caught selective episodes, including the Cloverfield spoof and the brilliant raping of Indiana Jones by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas by way of Jodie Foster in The Accused and Ned Beatty in Deliverance, but as soon as I finish the remaining films for my other Best Of’s, I’ll be heading over to ComedyCentral.com. The 12th season will be available on DVD on 10 March 2009.

9. True Blood – HBO – Season 1 – with Anna Paquin, Stephen Moyer, Sam Trammell, Ryan Kwanten, Rutina Wesley, Lois Smith, Chris Bauer, Nelsan Ellis, Lizzie Caplan, Carrie Preston, Michael Raymond-Jones, William Sanderson, Adina Porter, Alexander Skarsgård, Jim Parrack, Stephen Root, Kristin Bauer, Michelle Forbes, Todd Lowe, Deborah Ann Woll, et al.

Alan Ball’s television follow-up to Six Feet Under hasn’t yet lived up to its predecessor, but in laying the groundwork for a sexy, Louisiana vampire tale, the show definitely has promise. Six Feet Under really hit its stride in its second season, so I won’t fault True Blood in allowing the viewer time for a little establishment. Sure, Sookie Stackhouse (Paquin) is a stubborn, self-righteous pistol, and yes, it appears as if the show can’t figure out how it feels about bar-owner Sam Merlotte (Trammell). However, in Tara (Wesley), the viper-tongued best friend with the most hideously unlikable mother (Porter) in television history, and Bill (Moyer), the tender-hearted vampire love interest, the show more than makes up for the issues it raises with the other characters. The biggest faults so far involve a lame, convenient serial killer plot and the show’s lax nature in killing off major characters, which doesn’t allow for the institution of a world where no one’s safe as much as it does in ridding the show of characters that haven’t been given the chance to grow. The show will be available on DVD on 12 May 2009, with the second season beginning sometime in the summer.

10. The Life & Times of Tim – HBO – Season 1

I’ve been reprimanded by many of my friends for never allowing myself to get into Adult Swim, but things may change after seeing HBO’s version of Cartoon Network’s R-rated animated comedies. The premise is fairly simple: generally nice guy Tim is thrown into awkward situations involving hookers, mistaken identity and misconstrued good intentions, escalating in each 15-minute episode. After watching at least three episodes, The Life & Times of Tim quits feeling like the cringe-inducing, prone-to-failure antics that made the shitty Meet the Parents films so successful and becomes the perfect time killer for an aimless day of browsing the On Demand section of your cable provider. The best laugh I got all season occurred when Tim (writer/director/co-creator Steve Dildarian) asks Debbie (Bob Morrow), the surly lady of the evening, for help in learning gospel songs, only for Debbie to break out in Eddie Murphy’s “Party All the Time,” innocently mistaking that for a beloved church-going tune. Season 1 will be available on DVD on 24 March 2009.

As for the underwhelming or just plain despicable television programs I caught this year (usually when bored and visiting with my mother): Katherine Heigl’s Demi Moore/Patrick Swayze romance (and just about everything else) on Grey’s Anatomy; Hugh Laurie’s continued wasted performances as that whacky, unorthodox Dr. House; I Can’t Believe I’m Still Single; Little Britain’s unsuccessful relocation to the US; Tracey Ullman’s painfully unamusing State of the Union; anything and everything about The Hills; that stupid show on MTV (redundant, no?) about parents talking to their kids about sex (I don’t really care to find out what it’s called); The Big Bang Theory, proof of why the best sitcoms on TV don’t use a laugh-track; and the shittiest why-the-hell-is-this-still-on-the-air-program According to Jim, which shares a cell with Everybody Loves Raymond and Home Improvement in hell.

4 comments:

qta said...

Joe,
What an amazing list! I must check out Summer Heights High now. For some reason, I had been skipping it.

Joe said...

Damion, you won't be disappointed.

Ed Howard said...

Great list. Random thoughts... Tina Fey is of course brilliant, and her Palin has been pretty much the only reason to watch SNL of late, but I'm sorry to say that Kristen Wiig mostly just annoys me. She plays basically the same character in every sketch, with the same mannerisms and vocal tics, and she is the best representative of what has become SNL's primary mode of operation: running a single joke into the ground through repetition, until it is drained of whatever comedic potential it originally possessed. Her Target Lady sketches make me want to scream, and not with laughter... Glad to see someone else still likes Lost, which can be maddening at times but at its best is just lots of fun, especially in its high concept episodes centering around time travel... I am a HUGE South Park fan, but I've been sadly disappointed by these last couple of seasons. It seems to be stuck in a rut at this point, with fewer really great episodes than ever. There are flashes of brilliance like Randy saying "niggers" on Wheel of Fortune, or the amazing Heavy Metal parody with Kenny and Randy, but too many recent episodes seem like pale retreads of past glories, none more so than the Indiana Jones thing, which though kinda funny, has already been done much better when they ripped into Mel Gibson and even the last time they took on Spielberg/Lucas over changing their movies... True Blood has been lots of fun so far. It's a mess in a lot of ways, and your criticisms are certainly valid, but each episode usually has something to keep it interesting. My favorite bit so far is the formerly Christian vampire who now feels let loose from her morality; I'm glad to see that she seems set up to play a bigger role in season 2... One big omission to me is another Showtime series, Dexter, though this season was a whole lot of really promising setup all leading towards a disappointing resolution. There were times this season where I was really excited for this show in a way I rarely get about TV, but now that it's over, season 1 is still the series' best run. It's always fun and interesting, though... On the other hand, Chuck has surpassed all my expectations for what it could be -- once a light, airy trifle that I enjoyed but could do without, I now look forward to it without fail; the perfect blend of silliness, action, and warmth, and this season featured what must surely be the only network TV tribute to Orson Welles' Lady from Shanghai ever.

Joseph B. said...

Nice List. I respectfully submit "John Adams" as one of the premier viewing events of '08. No matter what performances come along in the very short rest of the year, I doubt anyone can top Laura Linney and Paul Giamatti.

I'm about to roll up my sleeves and dig into "True Blood" which is backlogged on my DVR right now.

And one note about "South Park"- the Heavy Metal episode is classic, but I loved, loved, loved the World of Warcraft episode.

Nice blog by the way. I just found it when Girish linked it out.