The Year in TV

Photo: Courtesy of Dana Edelson/Courtesy of NBC

The Made-for-TV Election

Amid the white noise of blogs and Netroots organizing, TV—yes, good old-fashioned cranky, creaky TV—reasserted its news-making primacy, whether it was supposedly obsolete anchors like Charles Gibson and Katie Couric slow-basting Sarah Palin, or Tina Fey systematically dismantling half of the Republican ticket over a month in real time on Saturday Night Live, or the usual yeoman’s work from political pressure valves Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, providing their nightly catharsis. Sure, a lot of the telltale image-bites—“In what wespect, Charlie?”—were later diced up and forwarded digitally to a million e-mail in-boxes. But in this election, TV was the dog and the Internet was the tail. Obama’s speeches were expertly staged as TV-friendly spectacles, while McCain floundered in front of that ridiculous green backdrop (our digital-age analogy to the Kennedy-Nixon debates). Like McLuhan’s media, Obama was cool and McCain was hot. This time, cool won, in every respect.

The Year in Superlatives
Great Performances
The Top Ten TV Shows

The Year in Superlatives

Best By-Product of the Election: The Rise of the Female Pundit
With two female candidates, skeptical female pundits were key, from the swashbuckling Campbell Brown to lefty pinup Rachel Maddow to, hell, even those crazy babes on The View, who blurred the line between personal and political with an eraser the size of Ohio.

Best Real-Life Fairy Tale: Super Bowl XLII
If we learned one thing from the underdog New York Giants, it’s that anything—anything—is possible. If this game had been a movie, you would have booed the improbable ending. Manning eludes that sack? Tyree makes the catch? Get real! But this was the real thing: a matchup so dramatic even non-football-fan New Yorkers turned to their screens. We heard one such viewer comment afterward, “Wow, I never knew football could be so exciting.” To which we responded, “Don’t ever watch another game. You’ll never see a better one.”

Best New Way To Watch TV: Hulu
Merely a step toward the inevitable: TV streaming through your computer, searchable, sortable, replayable, pausable, portable, binge-able. The networks are throwing spaghetti against the wall, trying to game these new distribution models. But in its current form, Hulu hints at a revolutionary way to view TV (e.g., while reading e-mail and IMDb-ing the cast!). And the archives! How else are you going to watch Welcome Back, Kotter at 3 a.m.?

Best Better-Than-You-Think Sitcoms: The Big Bang Theory and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
Big Bang for getting geek psychology (mostly) right—from the Aspergian prig (Jim Parsons) to the yearning horndog dork (Simon Helberg), with a special emphasis on the pleasures of bickering over the life lessons in string theory and World of Warcraft. And the admittedly crude and twisted It’s Always Sunny for its sophomoric foursome, sort of a goyish Seinfeld for the Jackass age.

Most Jaw-Dropping Episode of TV. Ever: South Park’s “The China Probrem”
Perhaps like you, Matt Stone and Trey Parker didn’t care for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. But rather than just complain about it to their friends, they concocted one of the most disturbing (and gut-busting) sequences ever seen on South Park: The brutal rape of Indiana Jones—again and again and … you get the idea—by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. That the film’s studio, Paramount—owned, like Comedy Central, by Viacom—reportedly had no idea that this literal skewering was coming is a testament to Stone and Parker’s awesome lack of fear eleven years into their show, still TV’s most purely satirical comedy.

Best WTF: Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!
Not even Monty Python reached the head-scratchingly bizarre heights of the supremely lo-fi “Adult Swim” show. This season, Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim (with help from folks like John C. Reilly and Bob Odenkirk) riffed on paninis, child clowns, scat singing, and cops on recumbent bikes. Why? When you laugh this hard, who cares.

Best Import: Skins
Breathtakingly frank about sex and spastically hilarious, the BBC America show is also the most authentic examination of adolescence on TV. And who would have thought that little dork from About a Boy (Nicholas Hoult) would turn out to be such a stud?

Photo: Jeff Lipsky/Courtesy of MTV

Reality Show Breakout: Audrina Patridge The Hills
The fourth season of MTV’s wildly popular reality-scripted mix The Hills got off to a slow start. Leading lady Lauren Conrad had little drama in her life, and Spencer and Heidi were solidly together in their dysfunction. Thankfully, Audrina—otherwise a vacant doormat—stepped up and had an absurdly entertaining season. Granted, most of that involved being trampled on by her on-again/off-again boyfriend, Justin. But without their tormented love, the season would have been unwatchable.

Great Performances

Photo: (Clockwise from top left) Mathew Imaging/WireImage; Chris Haston/Courtesy of NBC; courtesy of Mutant Enemy Productions; Justin Lubin/Courtesy of NBC; Timothy White/Courtesy of FX; Carin Baer/Courtesy of AMC (2); Prashant Gupta/Courtesy of FX; Dana Edelson/Courtesy of NBC; Cliff Lipson/Courtesy of CBS

Clockwise From Top Left

Ricky Gervais at the Emmys
His Blighty bile, genuine wit, and spontaneity saved a stultifying evening.

Damian Lewis
As Hugh Laurie is to House, Lewis is to Life: The you-can’t-take-your-eyes-off-him star of a ho-hum show.

Neil Patrick Harris
Officially TV’s MVP (see Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog and How I Met Your Mother).

Amy Ryan
Ryan’s funny—who knew? Her endearingly goofy Holly was the perfect foil for Michael on The Office.

Katey Sagal
Sons of Anarchy’s a must-see for Sagal’s Lady Macbeth–meets–Carmela Soprano biker moll.

Patrick Fischler
As Mad Men’s seething, self-loathing comedian Jimmy Barrett, he stole every scene he was in.

January Jones
Mad Men’s Betty Draper could have easily slipped into melodrama but for the power of her icy fury.

Michael Chiklis
The Shield’s stupendously amoral, bald-headed, bare-knuckle renegade: R.I.P., Vic Mackey.

Kristen Wiig
Tina Fey may have stolen Saturday Night Live’s spotlight, but Wiig stole almost every show.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus
Her vibrantly loserish MILF divorcée lends The New Adventures of Old Christine oddball guts!

The Year in TV