Who’s Your Daddy: Television’s Best Dads

Good fathers are a common trope on television, possibly because there are so few of them in the real world. Which makes it a challenge to narrow them down to just a few of our favorites. What follows is our top twelve, and we salute them, as well as the also-rans like Eric Taylor, Tony Micelli, Michael Bluth, Howard Cunningham, Mike Brady, Stephen Keaton, Henry Spencer, and James Evans. Happy Father’s Day, and thanks for making our real dads seem so inferior!

1. Cliff Huxtable (Bill Cosby), The Cosby Show
Let’s be honest: Bill Cosby was everyone’s dream dad in the ’80s. When he wasn’t making us laugh with his wholesome comedy routines, telling stories of Fat Albert and the gang, or extolling the virtues of pudding pops, he was delighting us all as Heathcliff Huxtable: obstetrician, jazz aficionado, husband, and father of five. Cliff was silly, kind-hearted, competitive, embarrassing, available to help whenever one of his kids had a problem, and usually clad in a fluffy sweater that just begged to be hugged. He was even chosen as America’s top TV dad in a Harris Interactive poll, the favorite among respondents of all races, ages, and political affiliations. Take that, Ward Cleaver.

2. Dan Conner (John Goodman), Roseanne
If Cliff Huxtable was the dream dad of the ’80s, Dan Conner was the reality. This beer-drinking, blue-collar everyman worried about money, fought with his wife, yelled at his kids and suffered through the recession along with the rest of us. But through it all he was the emotional center of a ground-breaking show that wasn’t afraid to give us an imperfect, realistic take on the American family. You never for a second doubted that Dan would do anything for his kids, and his triumphs were all the more meaningful because he had to work so hard for them. It’s possible he even helped us understand and appreciate our own over-worked, imperfect dads a little better.

3. Richard Castle (Nathan Fillion), Castle
Best-selling novelist Richard Castle is something of a playboy, a bit irresponsible, and frankly kind of self-centered. Except when it comes to his teenage daughter Alexis, whom he’s raised without any help from Alexis’ even-more irresponsible mother. He’s pretty much the ideal dad, to be honest. He has fun hanging out with Alexis (they have laser tag tournaments in their tony Manhattan apartment!), but he’s not afraid to set limits when he needs to. He trusts her, because he’s raised her to be trustworthy. He values her opinions and takes her advice as often as he offers his own fatherly guidance. In fact, the wonderfully heartfelt interactions between this father and daughter are one of the things that sets Castle apart from the other crime procedurals crowding the TV landscape.

4. Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen), The West Wing
As we learned in the fifth season episode, “Abu el Banat,” to be a father of daughters is to be a man deserving of sympathy, and Jed Bartlet is the father of three very headstrong women. He may not always know how to relate to them, and he may not always approve of the choices they make or the men they marry, but he makes damn sure they know he’s always in their corner, like when he tells his middle daughter, Ellie: “The only thing you ever had to do to make me happy was come home at the end of the day.” *wibble* And on top of that he somehow manages to run the country AND co-parent his loyal inner circle of staffers (with a little help from Leo, of course).

5. Mitchell Pritchett & Cameron Tucker (Jesse Tyler Ferguson & Eric Stonestreet), Modern Family
Like any first time parents, Mitch and Cam have suffered their share of mishaps, like the time they accidentally locked baby Lily in the car (pshaw! Let me tell you about the time my two-year-old locked her babysitter out of the house). But on a show that’s all about the push and pull of family, these two dads are the perfect yin and yang. Between the two of them they’ve got all the bases covered—they’re smart, affectionate, serious, fun-loving, responsible, spontaneous, athletic, and artistic—ensuring that Lily (and any other children they might adopt in the future) will never want for anything.

6. Keith Mars (Enrico Colantoni), Veronica Mars
While we sometimes wished that Keith had kept a shorter leash on Veronica, you can’t deny that his example is the reason she grew up to be the clever, strong, fiercely independent champion of the underdog that we know and love. And the fact that the touching bond between this father and daughter was able to transcend the skeletons they each kept tucked in their respective closets is nothing short of miraculous. Even when it seems like the rest of the world is against them, Keith and Veronica always have each others’ backs. And dessert for dinner to ease some of the pain.

7. Howard “Bunny” Colvin (Robert Wisdom), The Wire
On a show with nary a good parent to be found (even the so-called good guys weren’t exactly model parents), Maj. Colvin stands out, not only as a father-figure to the officers who served under him and the neighborhood he wanted to protect with his Hamsterdam experiment, but to the corner kids he tried to help after he was pushed off the force. Even when his middle-school program was terminated, he did the one thing he could do—he pulled Namond out the thug life his mother was pushing him towards by convincing the incarcerated Wee-Bey to let the Colvins take in Namond and raise him away from the streets of West Baltimore. Namond’s out there somewhere right now, getting ready to go off to college thanks to his foster-father, Bunny Colvin.

8. Charles “Pa” Ingalls (Michael Landon), Little House on the Prairie
Charles Ingalls did all the things you’d expect of a frontier-based SuperDad–protecting his offspring from wolves and rogues, carrying them across frozen rivers, keeping the fires stoked during bouts of fever and ague. He even welcomed prairie orphans into the family and put his own dreams of farm life on hold to work in the city during drought so no one would starve to death. But what makes Charles most memorable is his ability to put the 1800s behind him and rock the 1970s sensitive man fathering. Whether gently chastising his Half-Pint to set aside her selfishness or mourning the loss of his son, Charles Ingalls’ mix of stoicism, emotion, and gentleness makes him a pioneer in masculinity as well as the wide prairie.

9. Julius (Terry Crews), Everybody Hates Chris
Julius might be best remembered for his penny-pinching–heaven help you if you try to use an eletrical appliance–but he comes by it honestly. He works himself to the bone at multiple jobs to try to provide for his family in the big city. Julius is a lovable combination of big softy and unwilling disciplinarian (with a belt for every crime) who is a good example of making the best out of the little he has. He labors to make Thanksgiving and Christmas memorable for his kids, but his idea of the perfect Father’s Day is spending the day alone (or having the kids paying the bills). And as one of the hardest working dads on our list, he’s earned it.

10. Rupert Giles (Anthony Stewart Head), Buffy the Vampire Slayer
No, technically Giles wasn’t a father. But Joss Whedon’s shows are all about constructed families and there’s no denying that Giles was a father to not only Buffy (filling the gap left by her deadbeat dad), but also to the rest of the Scoobies, most of whom didn’t fare very well in the parental lottery. Teaching Buffy to kill vampires was the easy part–it was teaching her to survive the rest of the world that turned out to be hard. Without the benefit of biology or the even the advantage of similar temperaments, Giles forged a bond with his Slayer that was far stronger than most “real” dads ever manage to achieve, and was the glue that held the rest of Buffy’s “family” together to boot.

11. Burt Hummel (Mike O’Malley), Glee
As soon as you see that Burt’s only reaction to his son’s football-by-way-of-Beyonce exploits is to worry that Kurt is too little for the game, you know the truth: this baseball cap-wearing, Deadliest Catch-watching dad adores his kid, regardless of his sexuality or skin care routines. It’s pretty clear that Burt often doesn’t have the foggiest idea of what’s going on in Kurt’s head, but that doesn’t stop him from being by turns insistent on better behavior, a safe place to land during scary times, and fiercely protective (bullies beware: we hear he’s got a flamethrower). Contrary to his reputation, Burt’s not perfect–he’s a man of his generation and is still more likely to wish his kid would tone it down than demand that the world deal with Kurt dialed to 11–but this widower works hard at parenting and has good results to show for it, both with Kurt and with his new stepson Finn. Even with some gender fail, Burt’s version of The Sex Talk will likely be a great model for real-life parents for years to come.

12. Walter Bishop (John Noble), Fringe
While it seems unlikely that Walter’s own son, Peter, would nominate him for this list, our affection for this shattered genius is such that we can’t help including him. Okay, yeah, he’s got all of the ego and bad temper you’d expect from a mad savant, his childlike (and childish) mentality is often a trial for poor Peter, and, okay, he did sort of conduct unethical experiments on children and steal Peter from his real dad. But STILL. His love for his son was strong enough to literally tear a hole in the universe. And his intentions in doing so were unselfish and pure, even if he might have inadvertently destroyed two worlds in the process. And can you really blame Walter for loving his wife too much to watch her lose Peter twice? I know I can’t, and neither could Peter, even if he’s the one who has to go on all the two a.m. strawberry milkshake runs.

You Just Keep Me Hanging On: Repeat Emmy Winners among Lead Acting Nominees

All hopped up on the excitement of Emmy ballots coming out on Monday, we posed the question yesterday of whether Emmy voters’ love affairs with certain shows might be blocking other deserving winners. 30 Rock and Mad Men are great, but does rewarding them over and over “cheat” other great shows out of the prize? It’s a tricky question–maybe these shows (or their submissions) really are the best, or really do best match voters’ tastes. While voting panels change from year to year, it’s not like there are sweeping changes to the overall Academy membership across short periods of time.

Still, the numbers suggest that there’s a pretty good case to be made that logjams among series winners are creating a few victors and a block of losers. We wondered, however, whether the pattern of repeat winners would be the same for performers. There are obviously many more actors to choose from than series, and since actors submit a single episode to be judged, an especially striking performance or storyline might propel a seeming underdog to victory. At the same time, everyone can think of anecdotal evidence suggesting that some lauded actors just aren’t able to break through. Hugh Laurie and Steve Carell, for example, have both done seven seasons of their signature roles, they’ve both been nominated for performance Emmys five times for those roles…and they’ve both won exactly zero times. Could repeat wins for other actors be the explanation? Today we look at 20 years of actors in lead categories.

Lead Actor in a Drama: 25% repeat winners, 60% multiple winners

Dennis Franz, who was terrific on NYPD Blue, won four times; during those years George Clooney, Anthony Edwards, Jimmy Smits, Jerry Orbach, Sam Waterston, and David Duchovny were nominated multiple times and never attained the prize. (You thought Jimmy Smits won one of those years, didn’t you? Me too. Like Laurie and Carell, he was nominated five times without a win.) James Gandolfini’s three wins kept Orbach, Peter Krause, and–hold me closer, tiny dancers–Martin Sheen off the podium, while James Spader’s and Bryan Cranston’s three wins apiece have pretty effectively blocked Laurie, Michael C. Hall, Gabriel Byrne, Denis Leary, and Jon Hamm.

Lead Actress in a Drama: 15% repeats, 65% multiple winners

To be fair, the annual nominations of the usual suspects in this category probably reveals a dearth of quality roles for women. But from year to year, this tends to be the same small number of women trading off the trophy. With a historic lack of good leading roles for women, is rewarding the same good stuff over and over a problem? As much as I like Angela Lansbury, for example, I can’t get that worked up over Kathy Baker’s three victories keeping Murder, She Wrote out of the winner’s circle. Still, The Edie Falco and Allison Janney Hootenanny Variety Hour (I would totally watch that) that soaked up five Emmys effectively blocked Jennifer Garner and Frances Conroy from winning for notable performances, and a second win for Glenn Close for a lesser season of Damages could have gone to someone like Holly Hunter.

Lead Actor in a Comedy: 20% repeats, a staggering 70% multiple winners

The six-year Kelsey Grammar/John Lithgow stranglehold shut out John Goodman, Gary Shandling, and even Michael J. Fox’s Spin City performance until he was forced to leave his show. (It also shut out Paul Reiser while Helen Hunt won four Emmys in a row for the same show and Jerry Seinfeld while his show was the biggest phenomenon on TV, but, like Sue Sylvester, I don’t care so much about that.) While Tony Shaloub’s Monk was certainly a great performance, his three wins came at the expense of  Matt LeBlanc, Bernie Mac, and Steve Carell, who I note again has never won for playing Michael Scott. (Alec Baldwin’s repeat win in 2009 helped with that little blockade.)

Lead Actress in a Comedy: 25% repeats, 50% multiple winners

While the 50% multiples number is a lot, there hasn’t been a repeat winner in almost a decade. The Candice Bergen/Helen Hunt (four in a row)/Patricia Heaton era, during which five women won in 12 years, meant no awards for Betty White, Delta Burke, Marion Ross, Cybill Shepherd, Ellen DeGeneres, Calista Flockhart, and Jane Kaczmarek. Since Heaton’s repeat win in 2001, however, nine different women have taken home the Emmy in this category. A sign of a sea change?

All of this is only mentioning the repeat nominees who were blocked–second, third, and fourth wins also beat out solo nominations for the likes of Ian McShane, Dylan McDermott, Matthew Fox, Kyle Chandler, Amber Tamblyn, Minnie Driver, Zach Braff, Jason Bateman, Bonnie Hunt, Marcia Cross, and Connie Britton (although we’re still hoping Chandler and Britton will become two-time nominees this year). And of course, repeats mean leaving out a laundry list of never-nominated actors too long to list here. As was true of serial series nominations and wins, there is little representation for genre stories (where is Mary McDonnell’s Emmy? Where is Nathan Fillion’s? Where is Kristen Bell’s? Where is Sarah Michelle Gellar’s?)–would requiring a winner to sit out, even a year, open up the field for unexpected nominees and maybe even winners? Would instituting such a rule have solved your favorite example of a great performance that missed out on a nomination or win?

Saturday: Ensemble shows probably make up the bulk of TV–quality and otherwise–today, and we tend to find the supporting categories the toughest to winnow down as we try to pick nominees. With so many actors to choose from, is the winners carousel even more problematic in supporting categories?

Repeat Offenders: Consequences of Emmy Love Affairs

Ah, spring–when a TV watcher’s heart turns to Emmy consideration. Ballots come out on Monday, and since there’s nothing the Baconeers love so much as a good list (you may have noticed), said ballots whet our appetite. As much as we are sometimes frustrated with the Emmys–and oh, how frustrated we get–last year’s had some surprisingly great moments. Remember the murderous comfort food cookoff judge from the greatest Pushing Daisies episode ever? Eric Stonestreet has an Emmy now. How neat is that?  While we might gripe about who was excluded from nominations–wherefore art thou, Community and Friday Night Lights?–Modern Family and Mad Men were deserving winners. Huh. Maybe that adorable Jimmy Fallon-Glee opening just put everything in a more flattering light.

Bryan Cranston gives me pause, though. I love Cranston–I thought he was robbed of an Emmy for his Hal on Malcolm in the Middle, and his performance on Breaking Bad is a genuine tour de force. It’s certainly hard, then, to argue that he shouldn’t have won. At the same time, this was Cranston’s third win in a row, while nominees like Hugh Laurie–who, believe it or not, has never won for House–continue to languish unrewarded. While I’m not ready to ask Cranston to remove himself from contention this year (Breaking Bad‘s broadcast schedule takes care of that), it got me to wondering about how often the Emmys get “stuck” on one winner, and what repercussions that might have beyond the winner.

We looked back at the last 20 years, examining in particular three things: first, the percentage of repeat winners (winning in consecutive years for the same role or show), such as the Cranston example above. Second, we looked at the percentage of multiple winners (winning in non-consecutive years for the same role/show)–two lauded performances trading off wins across several years might block notable others from winning just as much as one repeat victor might. Third, we looked at who the other nominees were during years with repeat or multiple winners. Who is potentially being blocked from an Emmy when the Academy becomes obsessed with a single winner? If, for example, Frasier‘s multiple wins came at the expense of The Nanny, maybe that’s not a problem–maybe it’s justice.

Drama Series: 40% repeat winners; a whopping 75% multiple winners

While Mad Men has won the last three trophies, the most notable repeat winner in this category in the past 20 years was The West Wing. The show usually cited as a close second-place–or robbed, depending on your perspective–was The Sopranos…which won the Best Drama Emmy twice, so maybe things turned out just fine. In the past 13 years, however, only 6 series have won (The Practice, The West Wing, The Sopranos, Lost, 24, and Mad Men). Notable nominees during that time who never won? Six Feet Under, Deadwood, House, Grey’s Anatomy, Boston Legal, Damages, Breaking Bad, and Dexter. While I like some of those shows very much, and while I would have preferred to see some of them win in their nominated year(s) (hi, Deadwood), the repeat winners do look pretty strong.

Maybe the problem is in the nomination process: notable shows that couldn’t break the repeat stranglehold because they were never nominated include Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Wire, Battlestar Galactica, Veronica Mars, and Friday Night Lights, among others. If repeat winners had to skip a year or took themselves out of contention, would genre spoilers sneak into contention?

Comedy Series: 30% repeats and 60% multiple winners

Two non-consecutive wins each for Murphy Brown and Everybody Loves Raymond (Except Me), but four consecutive wins for 30 Rock and five for Frasier (Modern Family‘s win certainly raises the question of whether Christopher Lloyd has the submission process dialed in). Frankly, I personally have more trouble with some poorly chosen one-time winners than these repeaters (Ally McBeal? Really?), but notable nominees who lost to repeaters include Scrubs and The Larry Sanders Show. On the other hand, I can’t feel that bad about Two and a Half Men.

Still, perhaps the problem is–again–in the nominating process, since Frasier and 30 Rock tended to beat the same competition over and over: Pushing Daisies, Gilmore Girls, and, perhaps most notably, The Simpsons were boxed out entirely during these repeat winner years.

Are repeat winners a problem, or just rewards for a job well done? Should the Academy attempt to spread the wealth more? What series do you think were most unfairly denied the gold by repeat winners?

Friday: But you were talking about Bryan Cranston and Hugh Laurie. Does the tendency toward repeat winners hurt individual actors more than series?

THE PHILANTHROPIST: When Naivete Meets Arrogance

I’m a tiny blue dot in the midst of the reddest county in one of the reddest states in the US of A (thanks for overtaking us, Oklahoma!). I’m also a TV lover who is crazy about much of the oeuvres of both Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson (oh, how I miss Homicide: Life on the Street, for example). So I’m pretty much smack on the nose the target audience for The Philanthropist, a combination of action-adventure stories set in exotic climes and the tale of naive rich people (lead character Teddy [Rome‘s James Purefoy] and his friends/co-workers) coming to realize they could use their power and money for good. As Sam Seaborn once said in that great liberal wish-fulfillment show The West Wing, “Let’s forget the fact that you’re coming a little late to the party and embrace the fact that you showed up at all.”

And I’ve tried to be their audience–I’ve been trying for over a month now, because a show with that pedigree and that subject matter that also features Jesse L. Martin (best known for Law and Order: Original Flavor, but also much loved for being a baseball-playing alien on The X-Files) and Michael K. Williams (the great Omar Little on The Wire) should be pretty much my favorite thing in the world. Instead, watching The Philanthropist is like having someone read hectoring op-ed pieces at you. Since the show inexplicably uses a voiceover narration framework to explain the story as it unfolds, it is like having someone literally read hectoring op-ed pieces at you.

And these op-ed pieces are the worst flavor of the genre, as they combine the indignance of someone who, as an educated adult, ought to have known better discovering a social problem and screaming at everyone around them about it with the arrogance of someone who thinks their recent discovery of a social problem makes them superior to everyone else. A recent episode’s in-show commercial for sponsor Bing had Williams’ problem-solver Dax make the following astonishing statment when asked about troubles in Burma:

“Hellish. I’ll tell you, that place needs more help than what Teddy and I can give.”

Really. A rich guy and his muscle can’t waltz in and set straight in a week a country with a history of warring kingdoms, of being a British colony, and of being ruled by a military junta for nearly fifty years? Really? I’m shocked and disappointed at this failure–surely men of your poise and talents could have expected to unroll centuries of complicated political machinations. Why didn’t you just stay another week? The characters reflect the show–it certainly means well, but its own high opinion of itself is undercut by its slapdash approach. If this is what my neighbors think liberals are like, no wonder they dislike the whole crew. If only we could introduce them to Sam Seaborn instead.

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency: More Tea, Please!

no_1_ladies

Pop quiz: If you were HBO, and had burned through season after season of violence and profanity on The Sopranos, Oz, Deadwood, and The Wire, what show would you commission to take the slot of the somewhat violent, profane Big Love? If you said The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, you would be correct. If you are surprised by that answer, you would also be correct. Parachuting Precious Ramotswe into the land of Tony Soprano, Al Swearingen, and Omar Little seems…odd.

This is a show, after all, that essentially opens with an adorable, brilliant girl who has a meerkat sitting on her head and closes with clever animation over the end credits. The lead character is besotted with her country of Botswana and just wants everyone to behave in a manner befitting that motherland. She solves the case of an imposter father with a nurse’s uniform and the threat of a transfusion, and the case of a missing child with a cake (well, sort of). Steve Buscemi slamming a stripper’s head into a curb, this is not.

And thank goodness for that, because Mma Ramotswe deserves a television landscape all her own. Jill Scott, perhaps better know for her singing career, is excellent as our No. 1 detective, who has left an abusive husband and used her late father’s legacy to start a new life. She’s hard-nosed and soft-hearted by turns, and not above being nosy and heartsick as the situation requires. Perhaps even better is Anika Noni Rose (Dreamgirls) as Mma Makutsi, the new secretary who set an all-time high on her qualification exam. The stellar scene between the two where Mma Makutsi grimly explains that she regularly loses out on jobs to prettier, but less able, secretaries and Precious instantly understands what Mma Makutsi’s’ life has been like makes clear the differences between The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and HBO’s previous shows: this is a woman’s world, with a focus on women’s lives, women’s problems, women’s anger and desire and understandings. And these particular women are going to clean up the neighborhood.

A charming and lovingly photographed neighborhood it is, too, with Botswana being a compelling character in the drama. The show does not move at a snappy pace (I predict said pace will be criticized hither and yon by people used to more murder in their crime shows), and that would have been true even without the gentle hand of (the late, great) Anthony Minghella, who directed the pilot and wasn’t exactly known for moving a story along at a fast clip. The pace reflects the setting, creating a storytelling flow unlike anything else on television today. There are still plenty of laughs (Mma Makutsi’s running commentary from the outer office); there is still plenty of menace (provided by the boatload in this episode by the terrific Idris Elba [The Wire, The Office]); there is still romance (between Precious and neighborly mechanic JLB Matekoni [Lucian Msamati]) and mystery (where was that finger really lost?). Those things just unfurl at the pace of life instead of with a craggy white guy poking them in time to bad techno music on CBS.

So make yourself a cup of bush tea and settle in to watch Mma Ramotswe solve cases of claimed paternity, cheating husbands, and missing children–this focus on the ways real women’s lives get caught up in loss, confusion, and mystery translates across all continents. Sunday nights on HBO, with reruns throughout the week.

Squee! It’s…

Ooh, double squee tonight. The brilliant William H. Macy returns to ER in their continuing self-congratulatory parade of former stars (eh, they survived 15  years–let ’em have their parade. If it weren’t for Macy, we wouldn’t notice it going by anyway). Though perhaps best known for films such as Fargo, Boogie Nights, Seabiscuit, and Pleasantville, Macy’s won a boatload of awards for his work in TV movies like The Wool Cap and Door to Door and has been a guest on many well-known series. We, unsurprisingly, will always love him for stirring up trouble and then resolving it on Sports Night.

On Bones, Deirdre Lovejoy pops up as a US Attorney. You’ll remember Ms. Lovejoy not as part of the reverend’s family on The Simpsons, but from Eli Stone, Law & Order: Honey Barbecue Flavor, and the last great episode of The West Wing (“The Supremes”). We remember her most fondly, however, as another attorney: ADA Rhonda Pearlman on The Wire. Just thinking about her makes us happy, because Pearlman was one of the few characters who got an unobstructed happy ending (Cedric Daniels/Lance Reddick, rowr). She’s joining Bones for the return of the Gravedigger storyline; since that plot produced what might be the show’s finest episode (2006’s “Aliens in a Spaceship”), we expect all kinds of sparks to fly tonight. Bones appears on FOX at 8pm Eastern and Pacific; ER on NBC at 10.

The Ten Best Television Moments of 2008

I’m one of those grouches who generally doesn’t love New Year’s Eve, spending the evening grousing in a corner about another year slipping away into the ether. In a lot of ways, however, 2008 has been great enough to kick me out of that rut. This year, we saw whales in two different oceans and camped with alligators and saw David Tennant and Patrick Stewart in Hamlet (side note: truly excellent) and touched Paul Revere’s headstone and made awesome Brussels sprouts and actually did workout programs. Heck, one of us even survived a hurricane and a week without power by washing dishes in rainwater while one of us had a chunk of her head removed and lived to tell the tale (should we give out prizes if you guess which was which?). Good year.

A lot of times, it didn’t feel like TV kept up–although we did (and still do) support the WGA in their strike, the repercussions slammed down 2008 TV pretty hard. We can’t say there’s a new show from the fall docket we actually, you know, watch, and that probably has a lot to do with the munched-up development season. We lost a bunch of old TV friends this year, too (shut up, ABC). Upon further reflection, however, we found plenty to celebrate in TV 2008.

This is only our list, of course, made up of shows that we watched. If your top ten list is different, feel free to leave a comment letting us know what we’ve egregiously omitted (or criminally overrated). Fair warning–any video or links may have spoilers.

10. Tina Fey asks whether the vice presidential debate will include a talent portion on Saturday Night Live (October 4 on NBC): It’s probably stretching things to suggest that a comedy show decided the US presidential election, but it’s hard to deny that David Letterman’s jilted outrage and Fey’s spot-on impression of Sarah Palin put the McCain/Palin campaign in an unenviable position: they moved from being candidates to lead a superpower to being punchlines. Fey might have done more to revitalize late-night comedy in a couple of months than she did in years as SNL‘s head writer.

9. Amber shuffles off this mortal coil after trying to do House a solid (“Wilson’s Heart,” May 19 on Fox): House is essentially a procedural, just one set in a hospital and with a really tremendous lead. House will guess the Disease of the Week is vasculitis about ten minutes in and then manufacture a crash cart crisis right before every commercial break. It really stands out, then, when they break that pattern, and they’ve never broken it like they did when they broke Wilson’s heart. Watching doctors who deal with life and death every day shed their professional armor to say goodbye to the colleague they can’t save gave us emotion we rarely see from this crew, and the resulting break-up between Wilson and House drove the fall run of the show. Part of the reason Hugh Laurie is so great on this show is because Robert Sean Leonard raises his game, and Mr. Leonard has never been better than here.

8. Shawn asks his (appalled) father for a pair of his underwear in an auto shop classroom on Psych (Murder?…Anyone?…Anyone?…Bueller?,” July 25 on USA): Maybe Psych is more fun for those of us old enough to remember all the pop culture gags the show tosses out at lightning speed. No episode had more of those gags than the one centering around Shawn and Gus’ 13-year (yes, you read that right) high school reunion, which was a cornucopia of 80s teen movie jokes. Having a reference to Abe Froman, Sausage King of Chicago, or ending the show with the Breakfast Club fist in the air is nice, but what really put us over the edge was Shawn bonding with Henry in a dark auto shop classroom…and then asking for his underwear in a Sixteen Candles homage so funny it makes us want to break into a chorus of “If You Were Here.” We wonder if Shawn’s long-lost mother will claim that she paid a buck to see Henry’s underwear at the dance.

7. Desmond finally finds Penny–or is it the other way around?–on Lost (“The Constant,” February 28 on ABC): I’m neither the biggest Lost fan around nor the biggest romantic, and even I got all teary at the end of this one. After an episode of bouncing dangerously through time and space revisiting his own past and salting in potential clues about physics and relativity, Desmond faces the same fate as others who have messed with the island: death by nosebleed and seizure. How is he able to avoid such a sorry end? He has a constant in time and space. Penny’s looking for him, too. In one quick scene, Lost gains more emotional momentum and satisfaction from an oft-referenced but rarely seen character than it does from many of its regulars.

6. Jason Lezak’s come-from-behind relay leg keeps Michael Phelps’–and NBC’s–Olympic dreams alive (4X100m freestyle relay, August 11 on NBC): The Beijing Olympics left a big footprint on the television landscape this year, and no athlete was more of a Sasquatch than 8-time-gold medalist Michael Phelps. We were able to learn more about his diet, his mother, and his dog, however, because his 32-year-old teammate, Jason Lezak, hunted down recent world record holder Alain Bernard of France to keep Phelps’ record hopes alive. Lezak made up half a body length in 25 meters and merely swam the fastest relay split in history. It wasn’t an implausible comeback–it was an impossible comback. And it was almost more fun to watch Phelps scream his teammate to victory just like we were than it was to watch Phelps swim.

5. Crews and Reese find unhappy surprises in trunks scattered across LA in the season opener of Life (“Find Your Happy Place,” September 29 on NBC): Other detective shows focus on how ugly the world can be. Life is different because it focuses instead on how unsettling the world can be. A nearly dialogue-free opening with our heroes helplessly opening trunk after trunk containing dead bodies underscores why the conspiracy hiding who framed Charlie Crews is so important. In a world so unsettling, we need Charlie Crews (and Dani Reese) to find the bad guys and keep us safe…but Charlie isn’t even able to protect himself, not even with a Zen attitude and a lot of fruit. The typically brilliant musical choice accompanying the scene–Gram Rabbit’s “Devil’s Playground” –says it all: the mean streets aren’t so cheap as to just murder you. They’ll play with you first. Better hope Charlie is there to help.

4. Chuck hears her mother talk about giving birth to her on Pushing Daisies (“Oh Oh Oh…It’s Magic!,” October 29 on ABC): Lonely Tourist Charlotte Charles can occasionally be a little grating (did you see that? Did you see how I slipped that little cheese pun in there? Hello?) in her insistence that everyone be as fascinated by their origins as she is. Still, given that her boyfriend accidentally killed her father with his magic finger and she’s only recently discovered that the aunt who raised her is actually her mother, Chuck’s obsession with her family tree is understandable. The end of this episode, with ever-patient third-wheel Olive wearing a wire and asking Aunt/Mother Lily an eavesdropping Chuck’s questions, gave us a window into how much these bits of information mean. We can’t put too fine a point on it: Chuck, who was told her mother died giving birth to her, is able to hear her mother say she knew her baby was an angel. It would have softened us toward Chuck’s perspective, but we were too busy crying our little hearts out with her. (And did Olive retreating to fantasy love while singing “Eternal Flame” make us cry, too? Maybe. A little. Hush, you.)

3. The TARDIS tows the Earth home on Doctor Who (“Journey’s End,” July 5 on BBC One; August 1 on Sci Fi): Doctor Who‘s season finales can be…a bit messy, and this one was no exception. Several old buddies didn’t really do much plot-wise but get in the way (really, what were the odds Martha Jones was going to use the Osterhagen Key?), but they needed to be there for one purpose: they needed to be there so we could see the TARDIS fully staffed, flown the ways TARDISes are meant to be flown. For one glorious moment, the TARDIS is viewed in all of its potential, with all of its might–it’s towing a planet. And it can because it’s piloted by a family, restoring to the Doctor so much of what he’s lost. Yes, the end of Donna’s story minutes later is crushing, but it hurts so good because everything was singing so beautifully such a short time before. From this point forward, every time we see the Doctor running around the TARDIS’ console and hitting things with sledgehammers, we’ll miss this moment, and something so indelible in a show that is so much about how things change is special.

2. David Simon and Co. say goodbye to Baltimore to close the series finale of The Wire (“-30-,” March 9 on HBO): One of television’s greatest achievements, The Wire revisited over and over again the idea that unless institutions change, the same patterns of poverty and corruption will keep destroying people’s lives. Perhaps the most amazing thing, however, was that in the midst of that soul-deadening truth, both the show and the viewers found characters to love, the most notable of which was Baltimore itself. The series-closing montage showed us not only where each of our beloved characters ended up (sweet merciful crap, how did he become police commisioner?!? The circle really is unbroken), but also the beauty and pain of the city they loved in so many different ways. I’ll never love a dining room table as much as I did in this moment of watching television.

1. Barack Obama’s acceptance speech (November 4 on various networks): Regardless of your political leanings, the sight of as many as a quarter of a million people crowding into Grant Park to hear the newly elected US president was a spectacle made for television. At the same time, the sight of sheets of bulletproof glass separating said newly elected president from the people he will represent is the kind of thing politicians used to be able to hide before the advent of television. Can you imagine FDR keeping his health issues a secret if there had been 24-hour news channels in his day? The thing that makes television different from other medium is the shared nature of the experience–millions of people might see the same film, but they don’t do it all at the same time. Obama’s acceptance speech, so rousing that researchers are using it to try to study emotional elevation, would likely have affected people anyway, but the exponential expansion of that elevation that comes from sharing it with millions of other people comes thanks to television. And the inability to hide things less elevating, things that still need fixing, is in many ways thanks to the real-time, moving pictures television is able to provide. There’s some talk that web-based communication will supplant this function, but I’m not sure texts can ever create elevation the same way watching history unfold can. Even in a television year that may not have been historic itself, this kind of participatory history gives us something to celebrate about television.

LIFE Makes AFI’s Top Ten of 2008

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NBC’s Life received its first ever awards attention Sunday when the American Film Institute announced its top 10 TV programs of the year. The other television honorees (which include series, telepics and minis) are Breaking Bad, In Treatment, John Adams, Lost, Mad Men, The Office, Recount, The Shield, and The Wire.

Conspicuously missing from the list is award-darling 30 Rock, as well as other frequent nominees Entourage, Weeds, Damages, Dexter, and House. AFI awards are selected by a 13-person jury composed of “scholars, film artists, critics and AFI trustees.” Creative teams for the selections will be honored at a luncheon on Jan. 9 in Beverly Hills.

THE WIRE, FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS Recognized by WGA

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The Writers Guild of America, West and the Writers Guild of America, East today announced nominations for outstanding achievement in television, radio, news, promotional writing, and graphic animation during the 2008 season. Obviously, we only care about television. And we’re excited, because finally someone has given The Wire and Friday Night Lights their due. And look, Burn Notice! Also, we’re loving the fact that the WGA isn’t afraid to nominate My Name Is Earl‘s hilariously titled episode “Vote for This and I Promise to Do Something Crazy at the Emmys.”

Although some of the WGA’s nominees do mystify us. Entourage? Fringe? True Blood? For real? You guys sure you don’t want to watch them again and reconsider?

Winners will be honored at the Writers Guild Awards on February 7, 2009, in Los Angeles and New York. A complete list of television nominees is behind the cut…

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Why HEROES Is Killing Me

The Baconeers like comic books. We get it. We’ve been to Comic-Con more than once and read Brian K. Vaughn’s website and are dying to see what happens next in Powers and are worried about the Watchmen movie and are excited that Pia Guerra is drawing the new Doctor Who comic. I once cried like a baby while reading Runaways (it was something the Leapfrog said. Shut up.). Really–we like comic books. Heck, we’re even very fond of Tim Sale and Jeph Loeb together. So it’s not an anti-comic worldview that leaves us easily irritated with Heroes. In fact, we wonder if it’s just the opposite–maybe it’s that we’re familiar with comic book structure and find it’s not working very well on TV…or maybe just on Heroes (even with Loeb and Sale on the team).

So we try to avoid Heroes, because, to be perfectly frank, we haven’t got time for the pain. There are too many characters complaining too often about having superpowers, for heaven’s sake, and making too many stupid choices about too many alternate universes (I’m especially fond of Alan Sepinwall’s assertion that if you give either Peter or Mohinder any two choices in the world, they will pick the wrong one). Even Hiro seems to have the special power to get dumber every time he uses his superpower, which is just about the end of things as it ruins the only character worth rooting for.

Why, then, can you catch me tuning in to Heroes on a fairly regular basis? In spite of accusations of masochism (which may not be entirely unfounded), it’s because they’re as good at casting as they are bad at telling a story that makes any sense. Starting in Season 1 with the reveal of Malcolm McDowell as an ultmate baddie, the show has larded in more characters than any three shows could handle–but they’ve gotten some of the most engaging actors around to play them. Veronica Mars love means we’ll follow Kristen Bell almost anywhere–even to Heroes. We got a kick out of the brief reunion with Level 5 villain Francis Capra (Mars‘ Weevil). Dana Davis‘ upcoming turn on Pushing Daisies reminds us that her Monica disappeared into the Heroes void to make more space for characters like Maya (sigh). Jamie Hector has brought his scary smoothness over from The Wire, and he was joined recently by former castmate and TV Bacon’s top Emmy vote-getter this year, the wonderful Andre Royo…who was promptly sucked into his own vortex just as we got to know him. Now they’ve topped themselves by introducing Robert Forster as Arthur Petrelli. This season has been a lot about the questionable family ties in the Petrelli family, and I’m guessing this means Peter isn’t really a Petrelli–Robert Forster can act.

Please, Heroes, we’re begging you–either figure out how to translate comic book grammar to the small screen, or start pulling cast from The Hills and put us out of our misery.