I get really annoyed whenever I hear people talk about how there's nothing but crap on television. You change a couple words in that sentence, and it's fine: say, there's a lot of crap on TV, and I've got no problem, but "nothing but"? Sorry, you're just watching the wrong things, and obviously it's my job to set you straight.
I've done my best to watch everything at least a couple times, but with 7,854,326 channels across the cable and satellite spectrum, obviously I can't get to it all. Among the shows that plenty of TV critics seem to love but I just never saw this year are the big three from FX: The Shield and Nip/Tuck (which I have seen, just not this year) as well as its newest cousin, Rescue Me. Tomorrow I'll discuss the shows that deserve mention but didn't make the top 10, as well as the worst and most overrated! But for now, I'm just going to (unfairly) pretend that FX doesn't exist and present you with the definitive list of the top 10 television series of 2004!
(Full comments after the jump or by clicking the title!)
- Arrested Development
- Desperate Housewives
- The Wire
- Curb Your Enthusiasm
- The Amazing Race
- The Simpsons
- Gilmore Girls
- American Dreams
Knocking on the door: Chappelle's Show, Da Ali G Show, South Park
Arrested Development: The main reason Arrested Development tops my list is simple – the other top shows are all too new, and none of them have proved that they will be able to maintain their quality past a first season. That's not the case for this Emmy winner which has already managed to exceed what it did the first time around. Arrested Development is simply the most well-written and well-acted show anywhere on television. It has yet to disappoint, and while it's jokes may sneak-up on you, they're far more satisfying (and intelligent) than what you'll see on any other half-hour comedy. Intelligent, mind you, is not the same thing as high-brow. There's plenty of slapstick, sight gags and even toilet humor in this show, but it's better than all the rest because it's always funny and never predictable. I don't know why Arrested Development continues to have trouble sustaining a large audience, but here's hoping that Fox shows it the same patience NBC once provided Seinfeld, and maybe like that show, this one will catch-on by its third or fourth season to become the huge hit it deserves to be.
Desperate Housewives: My only worry about Desperate Housewives is that once it gets too far away from or beyond the suicide of Mary Alice (and at some point it will have to), the show will have trouble sustaining itself. However, that situation has already placed itself into the background, and creator/writer Marc Cherry has managed to delve deeper into the individual lives of our main characters. Personally, as much as I love Arrested Development, I think Desperate Housewives is possibly the best show to hit network television in the last five years. The writing is so smart and the satire so dead-on, the show started full-steam and has barely let-up since. It has received the moniker "guilty pleasure," which I think is unfortunate because there's no reason to feel any guilt for enjoying the imagination and creativity of the people behind this show. Just because its roots are in the primetime soap doesn't mean it should be treated the same as a Dallas or Dynasty. Desperate Housewives knows from whence it came, and it revels in it. Has it suffered some growing-pains here or there, sure, but that's normal for any new show. And maybe it won't sustain itself into a second and/or third season. Plenty of shows shoot their wad the first year, and why not? Creating 23 hours of interesting television is hard. Still, for now, Desperate Housewives is at the top of the class, and HBO – which really could use a marquee hit again – should be kicking itself for passing on this great series.
Deadwood: The biggest crime at this year's Emmys was the omission in the Best Actor category of Ian McShane for his role as Al Swearengen in HBO's western series. Will Deadwood ever catch-on like The Sopranos or Six Feet under? It has a better chance than the other two current one-hour HBO dramas, but it still might be rough. In Deadwood, even the good guys are bad guys. It is, in many ways, a western period version of The Sopranos, but people these days don't seem to like cowboys the way they once did. If you've never seen it, though, give Deadwood as hot. Complex, but not too complex, storylines and several multi-dimensional characters fill the landscape of this series. But the main reasons this was the number three show this year are simple: first, the show got better every week. As more happened and the stakes rose, everything got more interesting. And second, even as some elements became resolved, when the season ended, I couldn't wait for the beginning of the next one, not because I wanted simple resolution to any cliffhangers, but because I couldn't wait to see where these characters were headed. Especially that cocksucker Swearengen.
Lost: J.J. Abrams has rightfully become one of the best writers in television today. His specialty is creating shows with extraordinary situations and huge stakes that draw you in and don't let you go. The problem is, the situations are so extraordinary, the shows are always bumping up against the line of being ridiculous. That's what has happened with Alias, a series that to my mind after last season is running on fumes and has almost completely lost touch with its original purpose (but more on that later). Lost definitely faces the same dangers. Right now, there's certainly not a more exciting or riveting show on television, but can it last? If any show has a bullseye of Twin Peaks syndrome on its heart, it's Lost. The test for this show will be the end of this season and the entirety of next. But regardless, right now, Lost is running on all cylinders. It excels at one of the things I look for in every series; that is the ability to tell an individual story while also moving the season-long arc forward in every episode. I hope that J.J. has some good surprises for us, but I wouldn't be surprised if as with 24 at some point he writes the show into a corner and the only way out will be one that makes all our eyes roll.
The Wire: There's one thing that The Wire has that none of the top four series does, and that's the ability to excel without ever being showy. The Wire has earned it's critical praise for each of its seasons, but chances are it will never become a big hit for HBO. That's because more than other show on television, The Wire requires patience. Each season has been like a complex novel, telling multiple storylines from several points-of-view, all orbiting some central main focus. It's hard to say that any one episode is better than any other because they're all so intricately connected. Little things will happen in one episode and then we won't hear about them until three episodes later, but rather than getting annoyed by this hole or that unanswered questions, I always feel like I know everything I need to for that moment in time. The characters are interesting and so are the stories. The world of The Wire may disappear after 13 weeks, but we're completely aware that it's never completely gone because more than any other show on television, The Wire seems like we're peaking in on real-life in the Western district of Baltimore.
Curb Your Enthusiasm: Larry David's series wasn't that consistent this year, but it still was funnier than almost anything else on television, and when the season finale rolled around and tied everything together, it was the kind of denouement that every show should have. In fact, if 24 could plan ahead the way David did, it probably wouldn't have the let-downs it suffers at least at some point every year. Between Arrested Development and Curb Your Enthusiasm, not to mention Scrubs, the format for half-hour comedy is going through a very necessary change, and it's all for the better.
The Amazing Race: If you read this blog, you know how much I love this show. Far and away the best of all the reality shows out there, The Amazing Race continues to excel. The series that ran during the summer was possibly the best one yet, and while I'm still finding my way with the current teams, the show hasn't lost a step. It's action, comedy and human drama all wrapped into one. The only problem I've ever had with this show is that current player Jonathan is so evil, stupid and annoying, it's not even fun to watch him. I just want him gone, and hopefully something will force his elimination soon.
The Simpsons: Is there really anything left to say about The Simpsons. The show is now in its 16th season, and it continues to be as funny as ever. The writers still somehow pack more story into one 22 minutes than most hour-longs can fit into two episodes. It still manages cutting-edge satire and rarely copies itself (although it has a few times). The Simpsons still rocks, and paired with Arrested Development, 8 PM Sunday is the best hour of comedy on television.
Gilmore Girls: It's actually quite simple – good writing means good television, and few shows are consistently written as well as Gilmore Girls. The show has a very distinctive tone and voice (which I know turns off some), and although Stars Hollow has the eccentric feel reminiscent of a Northern Exposure or Newhart, the show never actually relinquishes its grasp on recognizable realism. The show has its weaknesses – it's repeated returns to Rory's on-again, off-again relationships with Jess and Dean have hopefully come to an end – but every week there's usually something involving the Gilmores that's worth watching.
American Dreams: I know I'm in the minority here, and most people consider this show to be a pleasant little trifle, but I think people don't really give American Dreams a fair shake. Either that, or it's just impossible for anyone to admit that a show dealing heavily in sentiment can be among the best. The beginning of this season has been especially excellent as the Pryors have had to deal with the birth of a grandchild and the fear that eldest son J.J. was missing in Vietnam. Yes, he came home just in time for Christmas so it will be interesting to see the direction of the show when it returns, but American Dreams has excelled at representing the world of the early '60s while juxtaposing its stories with the issues of today. It is an excellent series, the best family drama on television, and it absolutely deserves to be called on of the best series on television.
There are three other series which deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as the above 10; three series that deserve better mention than simply "honorable" (which I'll present tomorrow), and all three are non-traditional comedies.
Chappelle's Show: I never laughed harder at anything this year than at the Rick James and Wayne Brady episodes of Chappelle's Show. Hopefully, the delay in production of a new season won't be too long because this show needs to come back with fresh episodes and quickly.
Da Ali G Show: Scratch part of that. I laughed harder once, and that was at Borat leading a bunch of rednecks in an Arizona country-western bar in his little sing-a-long about some Jews, a well and setting his country free. Da Ali G Show had its hits and misses, but when it hit, it hit hard. But only six episodes? Come on. We need more than that, and how much longer can Sacha Baron Cohen keep fooling people into chatting with his many characters?
South Park: I have a weird relationship with South Park; I don't often feel compelled to watch it, but every time I do, I laugh my ass off and marvel at how topical and biting the show's satire and sarcasm are. This year featured the absolutely brilliant episode "The Passion of the Jew," the phenomenal election episode "Douche and Turd" and most recently the hysterical "Stupid Spoiled Whore Video Playset" featuring a guest appearance by "Paris Hilton." The most recent episode, "Woodland Critter Christmas", was a wonderful homage, in its own way, to the origins of South Park, the original Spirit of Christmas video in which Santa Claus and Jesus go at it. Team America: World Police may have been much less fun than anticipated, but South Park hasn't seemed to lose a step at all.
Honorable Mentions: The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, The O.C., Veronica Mars, Huff, Kevin Hill, Joan of Arcadia, Scrubs,
Special Mention: The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, PBS' American Experience
Most Overrated: Alias, The West Wing, ER, Will & Grace
Teetering on the edge: 24