10. Emmitt Smith on ABC’s ‘Dancing with the Stars’
Dressed up as if channeling Fred Astaire, Emmitt Smith, the show’s eventual winner, scored almost every time he twinkletoed. And look at the music he toed to—Stevie Wonder (samba), Frank Sinatra (fox-trot), MC Hammer (freestyle)—which was as diverse as a UNICEF greeting card.
9. Gil Grissom and Sara Sidle on ‘CSI’
Last spring, in the last minute of the last episode of the season, Grissom (William Petersen) looked up from his bedtime reading at Sara (Jorja Fox) in the bathroom door, fresh from a shower. All this reticent fall, they haven’t touched and barely smiled, but their intimacy has a resounding vibe. Runner-up: What’s going on behind the eyes of Brennan (Emily Deschanel) and Booth (David Boreanaz) on Bones? No wonder lab boss Saroyan (Tamara Taylor) is jealous, though she’s the one sleeping with Booth. The lesson of both couples: Don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t show.
8. ‘African-American Lives’
Four hours into this PBS special, after following Oprah Winfrey, Quincy Jones, Whoopi Goldberg, and Chris Tucker into their ancestral pasts through photos, court records, genealogy, and gene sequencing, we learned that (1) the average African-American is 20 percent European, and (2) Whoopi is 8 percent and Oprah zero, whereas (3) Henry Louis Gates, our host and chair of Harvard’s African and African American Studies, is not only 50 percent European but the other 50 apparently spent lots of time in Dublin. An essential televised send-up of identity politics, all the more so for coming in an election year.
7. The Exegesis of the Old Testament on Prime-Time Television
Over and over in the PBS series Bill Moyers on Faith & Reason, such writerly guests as Salman Rushdie, Mary Gordon, Richard Rodriguez, and Margaret Atwood butted their talking heads against obdurate questions about good, evil, mystery, miracles, and martyrdom. If you want to know what the book of Job really means, it’s this: “I’m God and you’re not!”
6. ‘The Closer’
Kyra Sedgwick’s Brenda Johnson made a surprise return to TNT this month with a special two-hour The Closer, in which an old pal from her CIA days talked her into an unofficial investigation of the murder of an Arab boy who turned out to be the innocent victim of terrorists, moles, and a triple-cross out of John le Carré. Christmas joy from a summer series out of season: the mint-julep vapors, the steel-trap mind, the closet chocolate-snacking, the FBI boyfriend, the fiercely loyal subordinates, and a timely reminder of why this is now running nose-to-nose with Bones as my favorite show.
5. Robot Sci-Fi as a Metaphor for Iraq and the War on Terror
Specifically, Battlestar Galactica on Sci Fi, which features the human race duking it out with the robots (Cylons) they created as a servant class. This show actually wonders out loud how we’re supposed to distinguish between terrorists and freedom fighters. Not only that, but in this parallel universe, human beings are the suicide bombers, Cylons detain them without charges or trial, prisoners are tortured on both sides, cells sleep, and genders bend.
4. Annette Bening as Jean Harris in HBO’s ‘Mrs. Harris’
Good bones, good genes, and a good brain needn’t mean you lack erotic depth, although common sense is another matter. Bening can’t be bettered in conveying the discrepancy between our romantic illusions and our too, too solid flesh.
3. ‘Three Days in September’on Showtime
Thanks to newsreel footage outside and video cameras within, we lived frame by frame through the siege of a Russian schoolhouse in which 30 Chechen terrorists held 1,200 children, parents, and teachers hostage with machine guns. We, too, weren’t permitted food, water, or the bathroom. We, too, ate flowers and drank urine. Then happy triggers on both sides opened fire, leaving 331 dead hostages, among them 176 kids.
2. Helen Mirren
This year, she was the best queen—both as Elizabeth I on HBO and as Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect 7. (Not to mention as Elizabeth II in movie theaters.) Who knew that the English royal, in the middle of all that sixteenth-century empire building, spoke in sarcastic iambs, from a face painted like a playing card? And what can we expect from Scotland Yard now that Jane is smoking and drinking on her own time? Part whiskey priest from Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, part Mother Sugar, the Jungian analyst in Doris Lessing’s Golden Notebook, she listened better than most people talk.
1. Spike Lee’s ‘When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts’
In which the grand-operatic bungling of FEMA, the incompetence of the Army Corps of Engineers, the opportunism of the insurance companies, the cowardly finger-pointing of the governor of Louisiana and the mayor of New Orleans, and the fugue-state indifference and denial of the president of the United States in the wake of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation are pictured in a masterful crosscutting of arrogant past and anguished present, sick-city misery and soul-stirring music, sanctuary and dispossession, liars and corpses. In a year in which documentaries found heartbreak all over the world, from Latin America to Pakistan, Lee’s had the most art and the most soul.
NBC’s Heroes brought salted-peanuts addictiveness back to TV. America Ferrera blossomed on Ugly Betty. Fox’s 24 topped itself with a ludicrous, addictive—luddictive?—fifth season. Fox’s Prison Break revived itself, thanks to Javert-like FBI agent William Fichtner. Speaking of Javert-like inspectors: Forest Whitaker as Lieutenant Jon Kavanaugh on The Shield. Rashida Jones provided Jim with an all-too-tempting alternative to Pam on The Office. Chloë Sevigny surprised as a priggish Mormon vixen on Big Love, while Michael Emerson slithered as villain Ben Linus on Lost. Martin Landau showed up the whippersnappers on Entourage. Laura Bennett, the candid, fecund, red-tressed Project Runway New Yorker, won our hearts, if not the show. With Weeds, Sleeper Cell, Brotherhood, and Dexter, Showtime out-HBOed HBO. L Speaking of Dexter: Michael C. Hall as TV’s most—well, only—sympathetic psychopath (sympopath?). Steven Weber and Amanda Peet on Studio 60.
Alec Baldwin and Tracy Morgan on 30 Rock. The surprising, uncompromising Rescue Me. The sanity-preserving double dip of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Speaking of The Daily Show: new correspondent Rob Riggle. Speaking of correspondents: Rob Corddry’s sitcom The Winner, the funniest show you haven’t watched yet—expect Fox to premiere it mid-season. —Adam Sternbergh
Industry Star: Simon Fuller
Fox’s ratings are in free fall, down 9 percent from last year. Its fall shows were among the season’s first casualties. Then there was O.J. But none of that will matter come January 16, when American Idol premieres. Idol is the Atlas of reality TV, carrying a network on its shoulders. Credit goes not just to creator Simon Fuller, but to Bronx-born billionaire Robert F.X. Sillerman, who last year bought Fuller’s 19 Entertainment company for $188 million. This year, his investment looks shrewder, as three former winners—all under contract—struck gold: Kelly Clarkson won two Grammys, Carrie Underwood beat out Faith Hill for country music’s Female Vocalist of the Year, and Taylor Hicks’s first single debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100. Even Idol castoff Jennifer Hudson is being mentioned for an Oscar for Dreamgirls. More improbable, by resisting efforts to drive his franchise into the ground, Fuller’s maintained his bubblegum dominance even as other reality shows lose their flavor. Not even Fox expected the show to last, let alone grow. Simply put, in a year when everyone was talking about TV on the Internet, everyone was watching American Idol on TV. —Jada Yuan
On ESPN, every opinion is belligerent and every delinquency equally urgent, from Terrell Owens to Donald Rumsfeld. The addition this year of Monday Night Football just gives more opportunity to shill for the sister companies, from Disney movies to ABC programs. But the cannibalism is actually in reverse: ESPN is swallowing the culture. Why do we no longer see a wide receiver scamper to a touchdown without a subsequent Sun Dance or a debauched-gazelle mime? Because they’re all now playing to the broadcast booth, hoping to score the highlights show.