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The Top Ten TV Shows of 2008

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It's year end list season again, so it's about time I got into the game. Actually, most publications and websites have already finished their year end lists, but those are written by people who get early screenings of things and, you know, don't earn their money doing things other than writing blogs. So expect the movie list sometime at the end of January, and my album list between now and then.

I'll start with TV because it's the list that doesn't require any more time to take in the contents (because if I haven't seen a season of a show yet, it's too late to catch up). The rules for my year end TV list are a little different than most other year end lists, in that it doesn't just cover things that took place within the calendar year of 2008. Television doesn't operate on a January to December calendar (or at least network TV doesn't), and I think it's silly to try and judge a TV show from the back portion of one season and the front portion of another.

Instead, this list judges seasons that ended in 2008, including portions that began in 2007. If a season began in 2008, but is slated to return in 2009, then it is not under consideration for this list. Make sense? Acclaimed shows that I don't watch, and thus won't be appearing on this list include The Shield (I'm on season three), Battlestar Galactica, Chuck, Doctor Who, Pushing Daisies, and House. On to the list…

Honourable Mentions: Dexter (Season 3), The Colbert Report (Season 4), How I Met Your Mother (Season 3), It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia (Season 3), The Spectacular Spider-Man (Season 1)

10. Sons of Anarchy (Season 1): Creator Kurt Sutter moved on as a writer from The Shield to this to create FX's next great action-drama. When Sons of Anarchy began, it looked like a new spin on The Sopranos, with bikers replacing Gambinos. It was entertaining, if not terribly original. But as the season wore on, the show took the Shakespearean tradition of dramatic storytelling that's inherent in many American televised dramas and took it a step further, presenting Hamlet by way of the Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club Redwood Originals, with a healthy dose of Macbeth thrown in through the brilliant performance of Katey Segal.

9. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (Season 13): The biggest thing on TV all year was probably the historic election in the U.S., leading to some of the best TV coming from the political comedies like The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, The Colbert Report, and, surprisingly, Saturday Night Live. I chose TDS as my representative on this list as it felt just a little more vital and in tune to the issues than their cohorts over at The Colbert Report (who have to tailor the news a bit to fit the Colbert character). This year, the new class of correspondents (John Oliver, Aasif Mandvi, Wyatt Cenac, and Rob Riggle) polished their rough edges and made the show their own (joining veterans Samantha Bee and Jason Jones).

8. In Treatment (Season 1): It started off as a TV experiment, airing a half-hour drama every night of the week, with each night assigned to certain characters (adapted from an Israeli show). But beyond that, it was an experiment in what can happen when you strip away all the excesses of standard dramas, and simply put two actors in a room and let them play off one another. The surprising thing was how something so simple could be so gripping. Without any of the traditional rising action of other TV dramas, we're left with the smallest gestures, be it a wavering voice, a fidgeting hand, or that which is left unsaid, resulting in some of the most in depth character studies ever seen on television.

7. Breaking Bad (Season 1): When Bryan Cranston wound up winning the Best Actor Drama Emmy for his work in this series, I was shocked along with everyone else (with "everyone else" including the very small percentage of the world who give a shit, which I don't necessarily, but I was watching). Then I got a chance to catch the first season of Breaking Bad through an AMC marathon, and I was no longer shocked that he earned the honour, simply shocked that enough people saw it to vote for him. It's a phenomenal performance of a man slowly falling apart, in one of the more refreshingly original shows on TV.

6. Generation Kill (Mini-series): David Simon and Ed Burns wrap up the greatest show in the history of television to start the year, then give us one of the best mini-series in the history of the medium. That's a pretty good year (although, there really haven't been that many relevant mini-series in the past decade or so). For Generation Kill, Simon and Burns left the streets of Baltimore for the sands of Iraq, adapting Evan Wright's book of the same name to provide a stark account of the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom. I'd say this seven-part series is a bit of a mix between The Wire and Band of Brothers, and since I consider those to be two of the best things ever to appear on TV, that equals pretty high praise for Generation Kill. It didn't reach the epic level of Band of Brothers, largely because the stories behind United States Marine Corps' 1st Reconnaissance Battalion didn't reflect the epic battles of the 101st Airborne Division in WWII. Instead, Kill was interested in the mix of immediate danger with large periods of inaction, and the ambiguity of the situations the Marines faced. The result was a weird mix of high tension and tedium, with a compelling look at the men on the front lines.

5. Lost (Season 4): Lost went from being one of my absolute favourite shows on television to completely disappearing from these lists. But it picked up momentum midway through season three, carrying it forward to its fourth season, which may have been even better than its legendary first season. It is now easily the best drama on network TV, proving that the format need not be a dead zone for quality long-form storytelling (although at this point, it is the exception, not the rule). Switching from unimportant flashbacks to the new flashforward format injected life into the series, but the biggest improvement came from A) reducing the number of episodes thus trimming the fat that accompanies most network shows, and most importantly, B) setting an end date for the series to build toward. What looked to be a show aimlessly stretching for two seasons now has real momentum every week, making it again what it started off as: the most exciting show on television.

4. The Office (Season 4): It's funny, I still stick to my caveat of only judging seasons that ended in the calendar year, but this year, that rule only applied to the following two sitcoms on the list (well, and HIMYM in the honourable mentions section). Because only network TV separates seasons into two years, and even then, they're moving away from that trend with some of the bigger, continuity-heavy dramas like Lost and 24. It's also funny that NBC used to be home to the majority of my favourite shows, and now they only have one hour of watchable programming, the two best sitcoms on television. The writers' strike was tough on all shows this year, but particularly network shows that were interrupted by it. Of the two sitcoms sitting near the top of the list, I felt The Office was more negatively affected because it's the one with a stronger ongoing narrative. When that momentum was slowed by the strike, it took the show a bit of time to get its momentum back, and was hurt a bit more by the missing episodes. But, it was still fantastic, churning out classic episodes like "The Dinner Party", "The Deposition," and "Goodbye Toby".

3. 30 Rock (Season 2): So I gave 30 Rock the slight edge, mostly because I felt that its zanier tone was less affected by the interruption, as there's very little that ever changes with these characters. In fact, the worst episode of the season, "SeinfeldVision," was its first, and thus had nothing to do with the strike. "MILF Island", their first after the layoff, was a bit off, but then the show was on fire, with "Subway Hero", "Succession", "Sandwich Day", and "Cooter" all contending as best episodes of the year. Plus, any show that can come up with this deserves to be on top of the comedy division. This show makes me feel like my heart is trying to hug my brain!

2. Mad Men (Season 2): After an excellent first season, Mad Men improved in its second season to assume the mantle of Best Show On Television. And like most Best Shows, it's not a show for everyone, demanding patience and attentiveness from the viewers, progressing more on character and atmosphere than it does by plot. But those ready to commit that kind of attention to a show are rewarded with one of the richest, most dense shows I've ever seen; an hour of television that you can spend the next six days mentally unpacking. What's great about the second season is that it had less work to do in terms of unlocking the mysteries of Don Draper, and thus had more time to turn over to supporting characters. The result was a season that was as much about the women that fill the cast than the eponymous men of Sterling Cooper. For a show that features the rampant misogyny and casual sexism of the time period, it has three of the strongest female characters on TV.

1. The Wire (Season 5): 2008 saw the final season of the great American novel brought to you by David Simon and Ed Burns. Season five was the first season of The Wire that I got to watch as it aired, and the experience did not disappoint. This was the season that some critics started to turn on the show they had championed for years, largely because they didn't like it that Simon turned his critique to their area (the media), rather than his previous targets of City Hall, the War on Drugs, or the failing public school system. Since I don't work in the media, I had no problem with him attacking the ink-stained wretches of The Baltimore Sun, especially since the season was followed by a couple more fabulist scandals and a whole lot of layoffs in the newspapers around the country. Plus, the newspaper angle was only a small part of a season that featured a fantastically dark farce, the surprising fate of one of the best characters in TV history, and a painful elegy for characters we saw grow over the years. If you haven't gotten into this series yet, consider this my final plea.

Looking ahead to 2009: Both The Office and 30 Rock have been up to their usual high standards in their current seasons, so I look forward to seeing what they can do with full seasons at their disposal. Big Love, Flight of the Conchords, and Damages all return in January after being completely absent in 2008 due to the writers' strike. Those of you who haven't been following along on DirectTV (or, ahem, other means) are in for a treat when Friday Night Lights returns to NBC in January. It's been a comeback season for the beloved show, one that would've contended for this list if it didn't have two more episodes left to air. Lost begins its penultimate season near the end of January, Burn Notice continues its second season on January 22, and Breaking Bad returns in March. On DVD, I'll catch up on The Shield in time for the Andy TV Awards, so I don't stiff them again. As for new shows, I'll be checking out Showcase's The United States of Tara, HBO's Eastbound and Down, ABC's Cupid, and fully plan on falling in love with Joss Whedon's Dollhouse until FOX prematurely cancels it.

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About Andy Sayers

  • Billy

    It’s interesting looking back at your past lists at the ones that make it like Prison Break season 1. Which I even remembered really liking during its first season, and even its second season did pretty well.

    Heroes is another one of those how the mighty have fallen. Same with Dexter. From #1 to an honourable mention. And you caught Grey’s Anatomy at its height.

    Reminds me of Barbara Walters commenting on her own list of the “Most Fascinating People of 19/20XX” When even she can’t remember so of the people on her lists going back five-ten years.

  • http://www.dorksandlosers.com Tan The Man

    Yah for your love of The Wire and Generation Kill…

  • Andy

    @Billy:
    Yes, I wonder which of these ten shows will either drop down significantly (a la Dexter), or will get dropped completely (a la Heroes or Prison Break, and Grey’s should be). Or maybe these ten are just better than past years (or at least eight out of ten, as two won’t be making future lists because they are complete).