Monday, December 24, 2007

The Finer Things on TV Club

Despite what I said about Heroes here, I'm enjoying television quite a bit. Even if you don't pay for HBO and Showtime, there's a lot to see. Below I list the best of 2007, but before I start, I'd like to cite a pair of honorable mentions.

First, to Saara Akaash (on AZN occasionally), a goofy Hindi soap opera about terrorists that threaten India/Pakistan relations. While it originally aired a few years ago, this year some obscure Asian channel in my digital cable lineup decided to carry part of the series. It's like Alias on crack.

Second, to Chuck (Mondays on NBC), if only for Zachary Levi's slacker reading of this culinary compliment: "That 7-layer dip, Ellie? Tasted like 8." It's like Alias on weed.

10. Reaper (Tuesdays on The CW). Sure, it's got a solid lead in Bret Harrison, a likeable galpal in Missy Peregrym, a demented devil in Ray Wise, a massive tool in Donavon Stinson, and apparently we needed Tyler Labine to be the next Jack Black. But this show makes my list because of the guy pictured above. Rick Gonzalez is the funniest third banana on TV.

9. Prison Break (Mondays on FOX). I've always said that this was the perfect two-season show, which means a 3rd season is completely unnecessary. But dang if it ain't still watchable. I dislike the idea of having a Season 1 character killed (rather unbelievably) by a new character, just to retain the show's signature shock value. But I'm so invested in the surviving characters by now that I'm locked in.

8. How It's Made (nightly on the Science Channel). I have never been one of those viewers hooked to the Discovery Channel and its spinoffs. But I have to make an exception for this show, an marvelous, step-by-step examination of machine craft and hand craft that also creates a kind of utopia: items are manufactured as efficiently as possible, and with a level of precision you would not expect from mass production. This is the world we choose to live in, at least until Skynet goes online and the robots take over.

7. Psych (summer Sundays on USA). Dulé Hill needed to leave The West Wing to hit his acting stride. Here he's the most comically enjoyable straight man on television, becoming the ideal (and stronger) partner to sorta-funny James Roday in this fake psychic comedy. Episode titles like "Meat is Murder but Murder is Also Murder" can't hurt.

6. 30 Rock (Thursdays on NBC). This show gets so lovably dumber every week, it's irresistible. Tina Fey's finally hit her stride in balancing the characters into a true ensemble, no longer needing Alec Baldwin to fill in all the awkward moments. And this show makes better use of guest stars than any other show.

5. Pushing Daisies (Wednesdays on ABC). Anna Friel is on American television! Sure, the narration is a bit precious, the quirk level is freakishly high, and it takes half an episode to set up a "Birdhouse in Your Soul" joke, but Anna Friel! Love that girl; always have. Anna Friel!

4. House (Tuesdays on FOX). Kal Penn is on American television! But it's all about odd couple Hugh Laurie and Robert Sean Leonard. You have to let go of the formulaic plots -- the fun is in the dialogue, and the constant ribbing. Sure, it's a present-day medical version of Sherlock Holmes, but that also means the writers are well aware of that modern invention, slash fiction.

3. Journeyman (Mondays on NBC). Recent industry news and rumors suggest that this show may not even last the whole season, which seems almost tragic. But the same lack of hype was one of the show's strengths. NBC doesn't promote it endlessly. People seem surprised they like it. It's just a hard working performer that delivers, and unlike Heroes, is unafraid of revealing its secrets before the end of the season... if there is one.

2. The Office (Thursdays on NBC). I was late to the party on this one; two high school friends sat me down and forced me to watch. (This was probably for the best; the show didn't hit its comedic stride for me until the third season.) Now I'm a total convert. Signs that I've become addicted: (1) I articulate every syllable of a spoken sentence, like Kevin; (2) I make quirky faces to the invisible cameras in front of me, like Jim; and (3) I find the character with whom I most closely identify: surprisingly, it's Angela.

1. Mad Men (summer Thursdays on AMC). I think Elisabeth Moss is miscast; she's too modern for a show set in the year 1960. And maybe to justify that promo line "from the writer-director of The Sopranos," creator Matthew Weiner tries too hard to balance the work and home life of the main characters. But other than that? Outstanding show, with an atmosphere, attitude, and appeal unlike anything else on television. Like the impossibly proportioned Joan (Christina Hendricks), they don't make 'em like this anymore, but they sure can simulate the experience. With solid anchor work by Jon Hamm and January Jones, and a starmaking, lean and hungry performance by Vincent Kartheiser (pictured).