Every week on this CBS drama, a brand-new ghost story haunts Philadelphia homicide detective Kathryn Morris and her police squad that actually practices teamwork. The music is superbly cued to the moment, from Bessie Smith to The Rocky Horror Picture Show. And at the end of each hour, an avenged ghost waves good-bye.
(Fox) Never mind the tedious business between ex-lovers Hugh Laurie and Sela Ward—this medical show is more about death than love. What makes it so riveting is the acting (especially Laurie), the writing (high-speed, even highbrow, with compound sentences when required), and the odd cases themselves (guaranteed to flummox everybody, including Dr. House, until the last ten minutes).
(Fox) I really, really likethe screwball romance betweenforensic anthropologist Emily Deschanel and FBI homicide detective David Boreanaz—a romance made even better because neither of them is doing anything about it.
‘The Daily Show’
It’s so daily you can sometimes see it five times every 24 hours on Comedy Central, with the occasional family-friendly bleep, but otherwise as intelligent, insouciant, and insolent as Jon Stewart insists on being. Nobody does incredulity better than Stewart, and he’s not bad at contempt, either.
(Showtime)Getting to spend half an hourwith Mary-Louise Parker every Monday night is, like the Paris of Henri IV, worth a Mass, much less this year-end vote of thanks.
3 ‘Las Vegas’
(NBC) Notice thatthese women workingin James Caan’s casino, wearing as little as possible over their various moving parts, are nonetheless the ones with brains. This is bikini television with a smart mouth.
From understatement and minimal gesture, hesitation and the slamming of a door, Kitchen—as a British detective-superintendent on Foyle’s War, under the PBS Mystery! umbrella—has for three astonishing seasons conveyed anguish, contempt, despair, and something unremitting but always tethered to a moral compass. 2 William Petersen
The CSI: Las Vegas bugman, is thegravity holding these forensicgraces together, a kind of martyrto the scientific method.
3 Hugh Laurie
His line readingson House feature an accent here of Shakespeare, a seasoning there of Beckett, plus a rant of mouthy Mamet. He is our very own Philoctetes; his genius and his wound depend on each other.
S. Epatha Merkerson
She probably deserves it for her noble service on Law & Order, but she blew the windows off the boarding house on Lackawanna Blues on HBO. As earth mother “Nanny” Crosby, Merkerson—with her fierce loyalty, raucous humor, and supple cunning—tended to a houseful of refugees who sought sanctuary and found healing.
2 Mary-Louise Parker
As ifthere were ever anybody else.Well, there was, from Glenn Close in The Shield to Kristen Bell in Veronica Mars to Emily Deschanel in Bones, but I am nothing if not loyal, which I hope stops short of stalking.
3 Kyra Sedgwick
Who, onTNT’s The Closer, proved to bethe best interrogator this side of Helen Mirren on Prime Suspect.
David Grubin’s richly textured four-hour PBS documentary on immigration takes in, among many others, migrant workers from south of the border; modern dancers from Taiwan; and women who flee second-class citizenship or servitude in Guatemala, the Middle East, and even Italy. This is the sort of television that puts faces on stats, but it’s also almost elegiac: These are the doors we are bolting behind us.
2 ‘Death in Gaza’
(HBO)Award-winning documentarian James Miller and reporter Saira Shah began with the stories of three Palestinian children growing up in godforsaken Gaza, but before they got to interview a similar selection of Israeli children, Miller was shot to death by an Israeli tank. This is not the story anyone wanted to bring home, but doesn’t it bring home a story, anyway?
3 ‘Bearing Witness’
(A&E)Documentarian Barbara Kopple followed five female foreign correspondents—all of whom eventually converged on Baghdad—and who, between them, won dozens of awards and lost many relationships, several husbands, and one eye.
The Trampoline Bear from ‘Pardon the Interruption’
That bear: We kept seeing it over and over again on Pardon the Interruption, the ESPN sports yak show. The bear escaped from either a circus or a zoo, I can’t remember which. It climbed a tree in some backyard, and they set up a trampoline under the tree, shot the bear with sedative darts, and the bear flopped down and hit the trampoline and then went up, up, and away again, but this time when the bear came down, it missed the trampoline, and the Earth shook, and Tony Kornheiser couldn’t stop laughing and Mike Wilbon pretended not to, but they must have shown the same footage a thousand times, until finally I videotaped it myself. And I am heartily ashamed.
2 Tyler James Williams
Williams is terrific in Everybody Hates Chris, not only playing Chris Rock but playing him at age 13 in a Bed-Stuy junior high.
3 Bob Schieffer
Sitting in for Dan Rather on the CBS Evening News, Schieffer looked like the only person in prime time old enough to tell us what’s wrong with the world tonight.
The Short List
Jeremy Piven as Ari Gold in Entourage (HBO), whose best lines are highly quotable, if highly unprintable. His jokes aren’t funny on paper anyway, yet Piven’s turned Gold into TV’s foulest zinger machine.
Best Impromptu One-Liner
America’s Next Top Model (UPN) contestant (and New Yorker) Kim Stolz, who, after making out with one of the other female contestants on the show’s premiere, announced, “One down, eleven to go.”
Best Couple (Comedy)
Marshall (Jason Segel) and Lily (Alyson Hannigan), on How I Met Your Mother (CBS). Cool enough to be worth hanging out with, irritating enough to be believable.
Best Couple (Melodrama)
Dr. Derek Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey) and Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo), on Grey’s Anatomy (ABC), which has evolved into an addictive, high-end cross between General Hospital and ER. Okay, so they didn’t end up a couple—Shepherd decided to stick it out with his straying wife—but they should have. There’s always next season.
The reptilian T-Bag on Prison Break (Fox), a slippery southern pedophile who slithers around like a cross between Hannibal Lecter and Truman Capote.
Best Incredibly Complicated Plot That Hasn’t Unraveled—Yet
Prison Break’s plot details are ludicrous: The lead has the entire prison’s blueprint tattooed over his torso (hidden in a gothic pattern only he and schizophrenics can discern), and he’s so resourceful with discarded toothpaste tubes he’s like some sort of cellblock MacGyver. But against the odds, the show’s remained internally consistent—and ridiculously addictive.
Best Drawn-Out Tease
The numbers 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, 42—which will mean nothing to you, unless you’ve been watching Lost (ABC), in which case this mysterious string of figures has been driving you mad for months.
Best ‘Lost’ Rip-Off
Invasion (ABC), a creepy mash-up of hurricanes and aliens, and the real standout in this season’s crop of spooky one-word-title dramas (Threshold, Surface, Supernatural).
Best Show You Probably Never Watched
Starved (F/X), a show set among an eating-disorders support group. In a year of HBO-inflected, high-concept premises (suburban marijuana dealers!), this cringe-inducing setup yielded a surprisingly sharp—and funny—comedy.
Best Programming Decision
NBC is going to move My Name Is Earl and The Office to Thursday night—while putting the dismal Joey and the foundering The Apprentice in deep freeze—in an effort to recapture the network’s must-see-TV mojo.
Best Stunt Casting
Wink-wink celebrity cameos have gotten out of hand, but drafting Scott “Chachi” Baio to replace Henry “Fonzie” Winkler as the family lawyer on Arrested Development (Fox) was absolute genius.
The four-person firing on The Apprentice (NBC). Not that they all got fired but that the quartet then had to squeeze into one cab to the airport. That’s cold.
Best On-Air Evolution
The rapidly improving The Colbert Report (Comedy Central), in which Stephen Colbert is getting comfortable enough in his blowhard persona to occasionally, and hilariously, shrug it off.
In a year notable for great comebacks both inevitable (Neil Patrick Harris, after a few great film cameos, on How I Met Your Mother) and shocking (90210-er Brian Austin Green on Freddie), one actor returned as the same character we fell in love with way back when: Chris Noth as Detective Mike Logan, back on the beat on Law & Order (NBC).
Oprah finally, finally, finally agrees to appear on The Late Show with David Letterman (CBS).
Best Use of Pinteresque Pauses in Television
The Office (NBC), which is starting to get the hang of the painful, prolonged silences that made the BBC original so achingly great.
Best Elegant Ending
The flash-forwards in the finale of Six Feet Under (HBO), in which we got to see how all the characters eventually expire. A perfect endnote to a vital, if at times maddening, show.
The Year That TV Escaped the Box
Television is changing in ways so profound that the head hurts and the feet fall off. So they tell me, and I believe them. These changes have nothing to do with content, which is retro, and everything to do with delivery, which is way cool—coaxial cable, satellite dish, iPod, wi-fi server, DVD, DVR, TiVo. We are assured of a liberation into individual choice, supply-on-demand at an Automat of options. We need never again leave a cocoon of personal preference for the unpleasant surprise of somebody else’s point of view. Instead, we will carry around a mind/meat/machine interface—a portable portal like a smart phone or a Delphi XM SkyFi2 or Sirius Sportster Replay satellite-radio tuner box—to connect us to our golden-oldies archive, a private portmanteau of the same sad songs and predictable narrative, where we remain forever young. No network executive will ever again be fired for guessing wrong about the public’s taste. We are each our own net exec.
Sounds fun. And they promise this Brave New Podcast World will look more like a PlayStation or an Xbox than Aldous Huxley’s stupefied dreamscape of soma, “feelies,” and sex-hormone chewing gum. And maybe the culture has already so far atomized into attention-deficit disorderliness that nostalgia for the mass moment in TV—the communal experience of hope, dread, and exaltation on the occasion of Super Bowls, Watergates, moon shots, and M*A*S*H finales—is merely crazed, or no longer persuasive. But can I really trust myself to be my own vice-president of network programming? How do I know I won’t end up all day in a closet playing video games, or watching America’s Next Top Model, or hooked on that Website where American soldiers in Iraq posted their photos of gore and porn? Haven’t most of us relied on such gatekeepers as Edmund Wilson, Kenneth Tynan, and Pauline Kael to berate us for laziness and bully us into reading or watching something new? Unlimited choice is great, but we still need to be startled into sentience through the kindness of content-combing strangers, those guerrilla warriors of uncomfortable consciousness. They make us take the medicine that saves our lives and minds.
The Industry Award
Tony DiSanto and Liz Gateley, MTV
As the Law & Order behemoth lumbered through yet another season, shedding Nielsen points, one of the biggest stories in New York television was taking place 3,000 miles away—in the land of preternaturally beautiful and emotive teenagers known as Laguna Beach. Yes, that quintessentially California hit came from the offices of midtown MTV development executives Tony DiSanto and Liz Gateley. Like Lost, Laguna is last year’s debut but this year’s phenomenon, a game-changer so unlike anything that had come before that it took a year for audiences to stop questioning whether it was, in fact, a reality show. “It didn’t even occur to us that kids would get confused,” says DiSanto, but “the production team did such a good job making it look like a narrative film, we had to put text at the start of the show clarifying it was real.” Gateley came up with the idea of documenting “the real” O.C. by tapping into cliques of wealthy teens and exploiting their already tangled love lives. DiSanto, a film-school graduate, got rid of the shaky cams and taped confessionals of the reality-show genre. Next up for DiSanto and Gateley are shows about a house of models in Miami, a barbershop in Queens, and the ongoing saga of Laguna alum Lauren as she moves to L.A. for a Teen Vogue internship. As for the pair’s other big launch of 2005, PoweR Girls, Gateley says a flop here or there is par for the course. “It was the first show about the publicist world. At least it wasn’t derivative.”
— Jada Yuan