For starters, let me qualify this blog since the very notion of a television season is as outdated as a Betamax (Kids, if you don’t remember what that is, I’ve proven my point). This list includes all TV shows that are on the air right now, or will be in the next calendar year. We lost some good ones recently in “Lost”, “24”, and I think even “Flash Forward” had some misspent opportunities to entertain, but such is life in the ever-changing landscape of television. Since these shows have gone the way of the dodo, they are no longer eligible.
There is a lot to choose from out there these days as TV audiences become more and more splintered: scripted or reality, network or cable, good or bad, entertaining or provocative. I’m not saying my list is more “right” than anyone else’s, they just happen to be the most right for me and what I’m down with (this will probably change over time too). Anyway, on with the show[s]…
10) Castle: I’m not into police procedurals at all. Frankly, I don’t get the appeal of CSI – in the end, it feels like I’ve just watched a science class rather than a cop show. I’d rather spend my dramatic hours with the likes of “Hill Street Blues” or “Starsky and Hutch”, rather than another chemistry club infused by The Who’s music. That’s why I was so intrigued by the British version of “Life on Mars”, and why I’ve become a closet fan of “Castle”. Yes, I suppose it’s technically a procedural, but it never gets weighed down in the science, the human mystery of the cases always carries more weight than the clues themselves. The show itself is also filled with a lot of charisma and clever wit. But what keeps me returning week in and out are the leads Nathan Fillion (something of a cult hero after his sci-fi series “Firefly) and the scorchingly hot Stana Katic. Fillion plays a mystery writer charged with helping the NYPD’s homicide unit solve cases, Katic is the lead detective for the station and the pair make perfect foils for each other. Yes, squabbling co-workers with sexual tension boiling below the surface is an old trick in the TV biz, Sam & Dianne, and David & Maddie come to mind. They probably did the will-they-or-won’t-they? thing better, but not by much. The cases aren’t standard fare, but if you’re paying attention, your solve rate might be as high as the two characters having a lot of fun solving them themselves. Castle airs on ABC.
9) Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives: Dubbed 3-D for those in the know, what could have been an average restaurant review show on the Food Network, is anything but thanks to the most charismatic host on television, Guy Fieri. Boasting the worst name pronunciation by a celebrity since Brett Favre, Guy actually hits a make believe T in his Italian last name. That’s a small gripe, because this show brings the hunger and the fun. A former winner of the Food Network’s Next Star contest, you get the sense that Guy loves his job maybe more than anyone in America. And it’s a good gig to be sure, he tracks down holes in the wall that have some of the best kept secrets in their respective cities. Guy meets with the owners and chefs, has them prepare their best and favorite dishes, and more or less shoots the shit with them. On paper it seems rather simple, in practice it makes for some damn good television, mainly because Guy keeps the proceedings so damned entertaining.
8) Breaking Bad: I was a late recruit to this series, I blame it on my aforementioned aversion to science, but I am one of the faithful now. There is nothing I like more in any form of entertainment than being surprised. By subverting a genre or being brave enough to take unique risks, you will surely hook me for the long haul. To be fair, some people whom I trust assured me that this was the best thing on television (in some cases, they even dared to say ever) – now, I wouldn’t go that far. Bryan Cranston, who portrays the lead in the series, gives a raw, unflinching, virtuoso performance, and his acting is worth the time of admission alone but calling it the best is a bit too much. If you haven’t checked out this AMC series, the lowdown is straightforward, but the actual plot is anything but. Cranston’s character is a high school science teacher dying of cancer, fearing he’ll leave his family penniless, he starts manufacturing and selling crystal meth. That’s even bolder than it sounds – tackling drugs and the current economy as the overarching themes of your show is about as ballsy as it comes. Pulling the trick off with emotional and powerful performances, make it all that much sweeter.
7) Modern Family: I honestly didn’t think it was possible to bring back the old TV staple of the family sit-com without being ironic or snarky. Modern Family is neither, and I’m so glad it’s a hit. I think this is one of the rare occurrences where the general populace has sniffed out a good show and tuned in with big numbers. Or maybe I’ve turned into a big softy and I’m losing my edge. Either way, I don’t care, simply because this show makes me laugh – a lot. Strengthened by a spot-on ensemble cast (even the child actors are funny!), I keep coming back for two performances in general – Ty Burrell as Phil Dunphy and Eric Stonestreet as Cameron Tucker. Burrell’s everyman father is both a raging putz and a caring father, something that feels unique in the landscape of television. I’m not sure if this is actually the case, but as a testament to Burrell, it certainly “feels” like that’s the case. On the other hand, Stonestreet’s effeminate homosexual partner is a series of contradictions, fiercely loyal and equal parts pristine and temperamental, his performance is like watching a high-wire act during a fireworks display. This show received a slew of Emmy nominations this time out, and it is much deserved. I don’t know how much of a risk ABC took in airing this, but I thank them for having the courage to develop it when on paper it must have seemed rather pedestrian.
6) Curb Your Enthusiasm: Larry David, you are forgiven. More than a decade after blowing the series finale to the best sit-com of all time – your mulligan paid off big time. For those of you living in a cave (or more accurately didn’t pony up the dough to purchase HBO last year), David brought back all four of his friends from “Seinfeld” to stage a mock special in order to win his ex-wife back. What turned into a season-long behind the scenes look into this experiment gone wrong proved to be some of the funniest TV seen all season. Each of the stars had their turn to shine and Jerry Seinfeld, Michael Richards, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Jason Alexander did not disappoint. In a season of brilliance (this series’ best by far) the highlight for me came when David’s character accidentally splashes an inopportune bodily function on a picture of Jesus. When the homeowners see the miracle, they believe that Christ has shed real tears and one of the funniest and most uncomfortable set-ups in screen history comes to life. David recently announced there will definitely be another season of Curb this year, but how he’ll top this one, I have no idea.
5) The First 48: We all know that the term for Reality TV has lost all of its luster. Sadly, there’s nothing real about the game shows and pseudo-reality programming that permeates the erosion of channel surfing. That’s more than unfortunate, especially when it comes to shows that are actually documentaries pertaining to very specific fields or situations. Maybe it’s because the term documentary reminds viewers too much of boring films they don’t want to see (I hope you realize this couldn’t be further from the case). Anyway, whatever you want to dub these types of shows, I think I may have discovered the best of the litter. Shown on A&E (a network that can’t quite decide what it wants to be), “The First 48” follows two sets of homicide detectives in two different American cities, as they try to solve a new murder. The show is entitled that because stats prove out that within the first 48 hours of a murder, the police have a 50% better chance of solving the crime if they get a solid lead. Racing against the clock and the perps themselves, the detectives tirelessly work to put the bad guys behind bars. The show is very real, and utterly fascinating when the actual obstacles play out – the how, the who, the when, and the what are all interesting – but I am most frequently amazed at the why. Another shock to me is how infrequently the suspects lawyer up and actual confessions are obtained within the police station itself. But after all, you can’t fake this stuff. Absolutely riveting. This would rank higher on my list, but it was only a recent discovery and I haven’t been able to see a season’s worth of shows yet.
4) The Office: Sadly Steve Carell is leaving the show after this season, so hop on the trolley while you still can. Highlighting a collection of goofballs, oddballs, and eccentric locos – this is the best repertory cast on TV. I mean this in the best way possible, none of them are pretty, all of them look like someone you’ve met and/or worked with before. Obviously this kind of authenticity only lends more credence to the effectiveness of the comedy itself. What started as a good core of comedians led by Carell and one of TV’s all-time great characters in Rainn Wilson’s, Dwight Schrute, has only been enhanced by the outlandishness of Ed Helms and Craig Robinson (who have become breakout movie stars in their own right). Equal parts farce and social commentary, sometimes The Office even borders on plain bizarre – all of which is fine by me. As far as I’m concerned, you can work to get laughs anyway you want and/or can. “The Office” succeeds more times than not. Additionally, I love that they brought back two alums from the best show of all time in “The Wire” with Idris Elba and Amy Ryan. If you don’t know what the first rule in roadside beet sales is, you really need to check out this comedic gem before it’s too late. Maybe the only thing still worth watching on NBC.
3) Weeds: Remember when I told you I like surprises in my TV shows? I hope you do since it was only five paragraphs ago. If not, maybe you should look into some ginseng. Where was I? Oh yeah, surprises. I think it’s a photofinish between “Weeds” and “Lost” for the TV shows of the modern era that surprised me more. Both shows excel at it, and both shows love to reinvent themselves too. Let’s concentrate on “Weeds” though since it’s still on the air. Featuring the sexiest woman on TV in Mary Louise Parker, this show has morphed into something else four times by my count. Starting with a scornful look at American suburbia and the drug trade, we were next taken to the battles along the border, then to international disputes between our country and Mexico, now as the show opens this season, we’re on the lam. God only knows where we’ll go next, and that is precisely the point. Bolstered by the wackiness of Justin Kirk and Kevin Nealon, this show has plenty of laughs to go along with all of its social commentary. I don’t mind any show being political when it’s this funny. To say nothing of the cliffhanger season finales which continually appear to leave our beloved characters with no possible hope for safety or redemption, only to have a very fitting magic trick either transform the series once again, or relieve all of us with a huge comedic payoff. I won’t spoil last year’s for you here, but a croquet mallet never looked so good. I can’t wait for the end of July for all the fun to start all over again. Showtime is the place for this gem.
2) Justified: Timothy Olyphant once ruled “Deadwood” with an iron fist. I know it’s not possible, but I think somehow the descendant of Seth Bullock was reincarnated into his new character, U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens. I’m not sure what makes Olyphant so damn interesting as an actor, and frankly I don’t give a shit, I’m just glad he exists. I even saw “The Crazies” because he was in it. And yes, predictably he’s by far the best part about it. But this show is unique in its own right. First off, has there ever been another TV series that took place in Kentucky before this one? I can’t think of any. And if you like your characters with equal measures of good and bad, this show is right up your dusty, dark alley. Givens is a brutal man sent home for a less-than-clean shooting of a drug trafficker in Miami, his time in Kentucky is supposed to be a bit of a punishment. It turns out to be one for him, and any criminal that gets in his way, including his father, who’s not the greatest role model to say the least. Based on a short story by Elmore Leonard, a dude who knows a thing or two about the Hollywood treatment, including “Out of Sight” and “Jackie Brown” to name a few. This twisting, turning serial is best viewed from the first ep on. The bad news is, it’s over for this year. The good news is, Raylan will be back for a season two. This beaut airs on FX.
1) Mad Men: The winner of Emmy’s last two Best Drama awards, what more can you say about this show? How ‘bout Don Draper is the coolest character in entertainment since James Bond? The ladies love him, the guys want to be him. I’d settle for sharing a martini with the real-life Draper aka Jon Hamm. “Mad Men” doubles as both a historically accurate portrayal of its characters and an allegory to the troubles and strife of today. Mixed with emotion, humanity, political incorrectness, and suavity – this show not only encapsulates the era it depicts, it makes viewers long for it, even if they never lived through it. Aided by an outstanding supporting cast including January Jones, Elizabeth Moss, and Robert Morse – it’s John Slattery’s Roger Sterling who just might be the best character on the air right now. I can’t stress how much I love this show for everything it throws on the screen, but more importantly, I love this show for what it doesn’t show. Mystery is a big part of the reason why it works, and showrunner Matthew Wiener (formerly of “The Sopranos”) has learned what you don’t say (or spell out) is just as important as what you do. Showing on AMC at the end of this month, we will soon see what life has in store for the Mad Men that blew up their old company, all in an effort to begin again. I for one, am excited more than most.
So now, go get that remote, you have a lot of homework to do before you fall behind anymore.
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