Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Best Television Shows of 2009

Considering the writers' strike did major damage to last year's TV season, it was only natural that this year would see a resurgence in good programs. What I did not anticipate, however, was the bounty this season would offer -- from cable to broadcast, networks programmed their schedules with a number of eminently watchable, well-conceived series. I had so many great television experiences last season that I decided to split up my lists into best shows and episodes -- and I've purposefully tried to limit overlap between the two. Below are my favorite television shows and episodes of the 2009:


10) Bored to Death (HBO)

Writer Jonathan Ames created this comedy about a writer's block-plagued novelist (Jason Schwartzman, playing Jonathan Ames) who decides to become a detective on the side. But the show is less about the cases than about Jonathan's relationships -- whether they be with his best friend (a hilariously neurotic Zach Galifanakis), his George Plimpton-esque editor (Ted Danson, doing some of the best acting of his career) or the string of women who invariably reject him after he falls for them. The show is still getting its sea legs -- early episodes were very hit or miss -- but by the season finale Ames had started to get a strong grasp on his vision. I'm excited for the show's return.

9) Better Off Ted (ABC)

No one is watching this show, which is a real pity, both because it's one of the best comedies on broadcast television and because its biting, extremely funny satire of corporate America should be welcome in these hard economic times. Following the exploits of an R&D executive (Jay Harrington, an able straight man) and his team of scientists and product testers at the soulless, often incompetent company Veridian Dynamics, Better Off Ted finds black comedy in the kinds of corporate initiatives and marketing-speak that anyone who works in business can appreciate. The show also produced one of the best episodes of the year, "Racial Insensitivity", about the company's effort to reduce costs by installing motion detectors at headquarters -- only to discover that the detectors could not see black people.

8) It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia (FX)
Focused on a gang of deeply immoral characters who run a bar in Philadelphia,
this FX series has been on the air for 5 seasons and a large part of the show's madcap charm is its loose, emphatic comedy. But a consequence of the show's casual style is that it can be very inconsistent -- a typical season generally has a .500 batting average. This latest season, however, may be the show's best yet -- not only was it a riot from beginning to end, it featured some delightfully skewed comedy, particularly in the episode above where the gang takes on a fraternity in a game of flip cup.

7) Friday Night Lights (DirectTV/NBC)

Few shows have the courage to hit restart – which is why most series set in high school keep their characters in school for much longer than logic would dictate. Friday Night Lights, to its credit, decided to end its last season with Coach Eric Taylor (the great Kyle Chandler) forced to coach a new high school in the same town, and the resulting challenges from the new setting have proven to be very entertaining. The show continues to set the bar for realistic, deeply affecting depictions of adolescence and small town community – one recent episode in particular, about the loss of a student’s father, is among the most powerful shows the program has ever done.

6) Modern Family (ABC)
I’ve actually cooled on this comedy a bit – its sentimentality is starting to wear – but when Modern Family keeps its focus on getting laughs instead of pulling heartstrings (which is most of the time), it can be extremely funny. Using a mockumentary format to follow three very different branches of an extended family, Modern Family succeeds by taking standard family sitcom tropes and updating them for the 21st century.

5) Big Love (HBO)

The last season of this HBO drama about a polygamous family upped the stakes by introducing a new potential wife for the Henrickson clan and by wreaking havoc on the fundamentalist compound where much of Bill Henrickson's extended family still resides. The show has grown quite a bit from its initial gimmick -- the Henricksons may be polygamists, but their problems and flaws turn out to be both compelling and deeply moving.

4) Party Down (Starz)

From creator Rob Thomas (Veronica Mars) and actor Paul Rudd, this Starz sitcom about a Los Angeles catering company comprised mostly of wannabe actors and writers is biting, cynical, and consistently hilarious. Each episode focuses on a different catering event, allowing the series regulars (led by Adam Scott, as a former actor determined to leave showbiz behind) to engage with a different set of guest stars every week. Starz doesn't have wide distribution, but the network has made the wise decision to make the first season of Party Down available on Netflix Instant Streaming -- it's a good way to quickly lose 5 hours of your life.

3) Lost (ABC)

This island drama became deeply weird in its 5th season, which was a boon to die hard fans who relish the series' many Sci-Fi mysteries. Most notable among those mysteries was the question of time travel and, specifically, whether the past can be changed. While such questions were being debated, Lost also offered new dimensions to old characters such as Josh Holloway's Sawyer, who demonstrated surprising leadership when he was forced to live with the Dharma Initiative. Many have noted that Lost is facing an uphill battle as it enters its final season since there is probably no way to tie up this story while pleasing everyone. At this point, I'm not sure it matters -- all I know is that I'll be watching.

2) The Office/Parks and Recreation (NBC)
Parks and Recreation

The Office

This pair of NBC comedies, both from creator Greg Daniels, complemented each other perfectly during 2009, with The Office reaching a creative high point in the first half of the year before suffering a bit of a decline in the fall, while Parks and Recreation got off to a slow start but became the best comedy on television by the end of the year. The strongest episodes of The Office dealt with a storyline that had Steve Carell’s Michael Scott start a rival paper company after becoming disenchanted with the management at Dunder Mifflin. The venture was a spectacular failure but provided ample moments of both hilarity and heart. Parks and Recreation, about a small-town parks department, hewed too close to The Office model at first, with Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope seeming like a cheap Michael Scott knock-off. Over time, however, the writers started to understand the character and the backdrop better and came up with wickedly funny episodes that capitalized on all the humor to be found in government bureaucracy. Of particular note: Nick Offerman as Ron Swanson, the head of the department and Leslie’s boss, who steals every moment he’s on the screen, particularly in the episode featured above.

1) Mad Men (AMC)

Even though it started off feeling like it was telling a story we've heard before -- Don Draper has a wandering eye, Betty is alienated, Peggy is lost -- the last season of Mad Men turned out to be a pretty momentous one for the characters at the Sterling Cooper ad agency. Don made clean breaks in both his personal and professional lives, as he finally spilled the beans to Betty while also navigating a thrilling escape from his new bosses at the ad agency (both instances providing opportunities for Jon Hamm to prove he's the best actor on television). The season ended on a surprisingly optimistic note -- leaving us desperately hoping that things will still be okay when this brilliant drama returns.


10) The League - "The Bounce Test" (FX)
FX's new comedy, about a middle-aged group of high school buddies who compete in a very competitive fantasy football league, features a number of up-and-coming comics and scripts that get better with every episode. The best episode of the short season was centered around Ruxin, a selfish character played wonderfully by Nick Kroll, and his desperate attempts to get his wife to sleep with him.

Community - "Spanish 101" (NBC)

One of the best new shows of the fall, Community has yet to reach the heights of its Thursday night counterparts on NBC, but it has a great cast (led by The Soup's Joel McHale) and funny scripts about life at a community college. This episode culminates in one of the best set pieces the show has done to date -- a hilarious Spanish presentation given by McHale and fellow castmember Chevy Chase.

8) House - "Wilson" (Fox)

House is a very frustrating show – the producers seem intent on focusing their attention on lame subplots and secondary characters when the most compelling parts of the program are the main character (superbly played by Hugh Laurie) and his best friend Wilson (an understated and very effective Robert Sean Leonard). In this episode, we saw the world of House through Wilson’s eyes, and the change of focus made the show seem fresh and interesting again.

7) The Big Bang Theory - "The Creepy Candy Coating Corollary" (CBS)

The only sitcom with a laugh track on any of my lists, The Big Bang Theory has become a reliable source of laughs whenever it puts socially awkward, demanding scientist Sheldon Cooper at the center of its stories. That's primarily because actor Jim Parsons is one of the best comedic actors on television, as he demonstrates in this episode as he attempts to best a childhood nemesis.

6) Top Chef - "Vivre Las Vegas" (Bravo)

This season of Top Chef featured the best chefs of any season to date – I would have happily eaten in any of the finalists' restaurants. If the season lacked drama because of the lack of parity (4 contestants were head and shoulders above the others), it at least featured some pretty interesting challenges, like in this episode where the chefs had to demonstrate their French cooking skills by serving a meal for chefs Daniel Boulud, Hubert Keller, and the don of French cooking, Joel Robuchon.

5) Curb Your Enthusiasm - "The Table Read" (HBO)
The Seinfeld reunion revitalized Larry David’s comedy since it provided a very funny conceit – Larry agrees to write a Seinfeld reunion in the hopes of winning back his ex-wife by giving her a role in it – that helped give focus to the whole season. Also, it was a blast watching the various Seinfeld parties fall back into their natural rhythms with one another.

4) Eastbound and Down - "Chapter 5" (HBO)

There were only six episodes of this very funny HBO series about a washed-up baseball player (Danny McBride) who is forced to return to his hometown and become a substitute teacher to pay the bills. A large part of what made the show so enjoyable is that the main character, Kenny Powers, seemed to have no redeeming qualities. This episode almost made him sympathetic as Kenny began to come to terms with his fading glories, only to reverse course due to a spectacularly gruesome twist that was as funny as it was disturbing.

3) Chuck - "Chuck vs. The Best Friend" (NBC)

Chuck, about an electronics store employee who becomes an accidental secret agent when a super computer is implanted in his head, is dumb fun in the best possible way. This episode was the strongest of its very strong second season, as Chuck had to once again balance his secret spy world with the needs of his family and, in this case, his best friend.

2) 30 Rock - "Dealbreakers" (NBC)
30 Rock had a very erratic 2009, as many episodes felt like they were trying too hard to get laughs. That was not the case with this very funny episode of the new season, where Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon gets her own talk show and begins to crumble under the pressure of being a performer. Fey gives a fantastic performance, particularly in the scene where she tries to talk “performer Liz” down from a cliff.

1) Flight of the Conchords - "Unnatural Love" (HBO)

Flight of the Conchords second season wasn’t as delightful as its first, but that was because the duo of Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie set such a high standard with both their comedy and music the first time around. The best episode of the second season, about an ill-fated courtship between Jemaine and an Australian, was my favorite television episode from last year. Directed by filmmaker Michel Gondry, it also featured some very good songs, like “Carol Brown” (above).

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