Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Top Ten Television Shows of 2008

The writer's strike had a significant, adverse impact on this year's television season, resulting in weaker seasons of existing shows and no new series worth paying any attention to. Assuming the actor's strike doesn't happen, it'll be nice to have a return to normal production schedules and, hopefully, higher quality television. What follows are my few favorite series of 2008:

10) Chuck -

Created by TV wunderkind Josh Schwartz, the man behind The OC and Gossip Girl, Chuck has all the silliness and self-awareness we've come to expect from a Schwartz production without the heavy-handed melodrama. It's not a particularly revelatory or insightful show -- just a fun way to spend an hour of your time. Chuck, played marvelously by Zachary Levi, is an electronics store employee who inadvertently gets drafted into the CIA thanks to a computer implanted in his head. Minimum wage worker by day, spy by night -- Schwartz and Co. mine the premise for lots of laughs and enjoyable action sequences, but it's done with a sweetness and heart that keeps you hooked.

9) The New Adventures of Old Christine -

Now in its third season, this very funny show about a single mother and the family of characters that surrounds her really ought to have more fans. As the self-involved, neurotic, and altogether hilarious title character, Julia Louis-Dreyfus continues to demonstrate that she's one of the most talented comediennes working today. She gets strong support from Wanda Sykes, Hamish Linklater, and Clark Gregg as her best friend, layabout brother, and ex-husband respectively.

8) How I Met Your Mother -

I continue to believe that no show captures what it's like to be a young professional in Manhattan better than this CBS sitcom. It's been rather uneven as of late, but at its best HIMYM transcends sitcom conventions with unique narrative structures and insightful humor about living in New York. With Jason Segal, Alyson Hannigan, and the pitch perfect Neil Patrick Harris, it also has the most talented young comedic cast on TV.

7) Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog -

Not quite a television show, this side project by Buffy creator Josh Whedon was produced during the writer's strike and premiered to acclaim on the internet before heading to DVD. With an incredibly unique conceit -- an aspiring super-villain who also maintains a video blog is secretly pining for a woman who becomes the girlfriend of his archnemesis -- this musical production was funny, touching, and a welcome respite from the unoriginal reality programming the networks tossed at us during the strike.

6) The Office -

This season, The Office humanized Michael by introducing (and then unfairly withdrawing) the captivating Amy Ryan as Holly, one of the few people who could tolerate Michael's stupid jokes and inappropriate behavior and still love him anyway. The show also demonstrated that it's possible to ring entertainment out of Jim and Pam's relationship, even without the "will they or won't they" tension that was central to the series' earlier seasons.

Saturday Night Live -

The show is always stronger during an election season, but even by those standards it had an impressive year. Driven by Tina Fey's great impersonation of Sarah Palin, SNL took its political comedy in numerous directions and more often than not hit the mark. It also created a few hilarious digital shorts along the way. Special props to Fred Armisen and Kristen Wiig, who always seem responsible for the funniest non-political sketches.

4) 30 Rock -

After deservedly winning multiple Emmys this year, it would have been understandable if 30 Rock took a break from being the best comedy on network television. Instead, the show has been firing on all cylinders this year, most notably in the hilarious "Reunion" episode above. With Tina Fey coming into her own as a comedic actress and Alec Baldwin continually raising the stakes with his remarkable performance as Jack Donaghy, 30 Rock could stand to lose some of the slew of guest stars they keep parading on the show. Honestly, who needs real celebrities when you have characters as delightfully skewed as Kathy Geiss?

3) Lost -

At the end of its third season, the creators of Lost, a show that has always been about time and destiny, made the rather bold decision to start using flash-forwards in addition to the flashbacks that had always added mystery and intrigue to its wide cast of characters. That decision has singlehandedly rejuvenated the island drama, adding layers of complication to an already labyrinthine story. "The Constant," the episode excerpted above, was a good encapsulation of all that Lost does well: it combined island mythology with well-earned character development to produce one of the most heartrending moments of the season.

2) Mad Men -

I liked the first season of Mad Men just fine, but felt it wore its 50s period stereotypes on its sleeve and forced its characters into directions that did not always feel organic. But now that the first season's exposition is all out of the way, the show has matured into a much more interesting, multi-layered study of diverse characters in varied positions of social and personal entrapment. Much of this season focused on the challenges facing the women of Mad Men -- the ambitious copy writer Peggy, the frustrated housewife Betty Draper, the stifled secretary Joan -- while the male characters pursued their selfish personal fantasies (e.g., Don's lark in California, Roger's rash engagement to Jane). And yet, when all was said and done, they all ended up in the same lonely, unhappy place. It was a thrilling and poignant journey to witness.

1) The Wire -

I will be the first to admit that the last season of this great HBO drama was the weakest one of the show's five seasons, but it was still better than anything else on TV. Yes, the journalism plot was too simple and the serial-killer story was fairly unbelievable, but it didn't matter -- at the end of the day, the universe of The Wire, with its venal city officials, violent corner kids, damaged cops, and showboating politicians, was as fully-realized as ever. Creator David Simon and his collaborators did the unimaginable -- they gave us a brilliant show that was less about individual characters and their personal demons (e.g., The Sopranos or Mad Man) and more about the institutions that surround those characters and the futility of railing against a society where the decks are stacked against change. In doing so, they also penned an honest ode to Baltimore, the city at the heart of it all. I am going to greatly miss this show, the best television series in the history of the medium.


  1. Come on Sudhir, where's Wipeout? Are you going to do a separate list of the top reality shows? If so you'd need to include Reality Bites Back.

  2. You seem to have forgotten Gossip Girl. Undeniably. Best. Show. Ever.

    You did give Josh Schwartz a shout-out, I know, but it was for the wrong show. Clearly you are out of touch with culture.

  3. Oh man, I take it by the omission here that Pushing Daisies Season 2 really wasn't up to snuff? That's disappointing (was gonna get it when it came out on DVD).

    Also, yes, Wipeout really does deserve a spot.

  4. That episode of 30 Rock might be the best episode of the entire run so far.

    I agree with you on the guest stars -- every episode with a special guest has been flat. The regular cast is so good and has such chemistry that any "event" episode is automatically less funny just by virtue of crowding out the minor characters...

    ..with the exception of Kenneth. He's okay in small doses, but insufferable when the plot revolves around him.