It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World
By Belinda Acosta, Fri., Jan. 2, 2009
The writers' strike put a dent in the traditional, TV-watching calendar, but not to fret. There was still plenty of good stuff to watch if you knew where to look.
1) Mad Men (AMC): This meditation on the American dream set in the 1960s is simply brilliant. This year was particularly engrossing, as it focused on the female characters, while the series as a whole moved closer to the social revolutions that will change the nation – and, inevitably, the characters – forever. This is not a series you watch while doing other things. Frankly, it's hard to imagine anything else deserves your attention when an episode of this artfully rendered series airs.
2) The Wire (HBO): In its fifth and final season, the cop drama set in Baltimore turned a harsh spotlight on the American press. While its characters were flawed, it nonetheless treated all of them – the corrupt, the strung out, the drunk, the forgotten – as if their stories mattered. As someone wiser once said, "If writers don't tell the truth, who will?" Week after week, season after season, viewers could depend on The Wire to tell the truth with clarity and unflinching candor.
3) The Office (NBC): There are precious few comedies worth noting this year, but this comedy (based on the Ricky Gervais vehicle from Britain) is brilliant. Buoyed by a fine ensemble cast, Steve Carell makes the doofy, mildly competent middle manager Michael Scott his own while still making him likable.
4) 30 Rock (NBC): Tina Fey's frazzled Liz Lemon does her best to steer her wonky staff behind the scenes of a sketch-comedy show. This season, the awkward friendship between Lemon and her boss, Jack Donaghy (the sublime Alec Baldwin), found its footing, which should make for the most curious twosome since – is there a comparison?
5) Documentaries on IFC: The Independent Film Channel is a cable network that exceeds expectations. This was a banner year for IFC, bringing some of the most intriguing documentaries to the small screen: Goth Cruise, At the Death House Door, This Film Is Not Yet Rated, among others. The recent launch of The IFC Media Project series only broadens its menu of TV worth watching.
6) Skins (BBC America): This sobering look at contemporary teens from Britain will make any parent shudder, no matter which side of the Atlantic he or she lives on. What's remarkable is that it manages to capture the youthful angst of its cast members while still finding some wicked humor in the head-slapping situations they find themselves in.
7) Life on Mars (ABC): Another British series refashioned for a U.S. audience. Detective Sam Tyler (Jason O'Mara) finds himself transported to the 1970s after being hit by a car. Preposterous? Yes, but somehow this smartly assembled series manages to make the paranormal incident, the cop-show drama, and the trappings of a period piece all work together like a well-oiled machine. O'Mara is the star of the show, but Harvey Keitel steals almost every scene he's in as the flinty Lt. Gene Hunt.
8) Fringe (Fox): Still haven't jumped on the Lost bandwagon? Lost your love for Heroes? Then J.J. Abrams' Fringe can fill the void. You won't need a spreadsheet to keep track of what's going on in this paranormal detective series. All episodes point back to a spooky thing called the Pattern and a corporate entity with nefarious intentions. Simple, but not simplistic. Anna Torv as Special Agent Olivia Dunham leads the strong cast, but it's John Noble as mad scientist Dr. Walter Bishop you want to watch.
9) The Daily Show With Jon Stewart & The Colbert Report (Comedy Central): Consistently funny, topical, irreverent, and sharply observant, these shows are probably watched more than the nightly evening news.
10) Burn Notice (USA): Cool with a sense of humor. While Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan) tries to find out why he's been burned, he must make ends meet by playing private eye. Those MacGyver skills come in handy when helping dimwits in distress. With assists from former Military Intel Operative Sam Axe (a very droll Bruce Campbell) and a trigger-happy former lover (Gabrielle Anwar), Michael gets the job done with time to spare for a mojito or two.
Other notable series: The New Adventures of Old Christine (CBS), Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (Fox), Chuck (NBC), Pushing Daisies (ABC), Real Time With Bill Maher (HBO), True Blood (HBO), In Treatment (HBO).
E-mail Belinda Acosta at email@example.com.