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.

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You Get A Guest Spot! And You Get A Guest Spot! And *You* Get A Guest Spot!

Tonight is Oprah Winfrey’s guest appearance on 30 Rock, and I confess to being kind of curious about how they’ll use her. You have to admire her work ethic, perseverance, and success–not just anyone can build an empire like that. At the same time, I find her increasing emphasis on materialism offputting (watching a talk show is not a lifestyle). I guess in the long run, I’m just not sure how much of a sense of humor Oprah has about herself.

So I had to smile watching her squished like a salmon in Grant Park Tuesday night, just like hoi polloi. Maybe this is a harbinger of her willingness to poke fun at herself, which seems like a crucial prerequisite to surviving the 30 Rock world. If David Schwimmer is willing to appear as Greenzo, what can we expect from Oprah Winfrey?

Emmys with a Side of Bacon

Susannah and I have been kicking back at the Emmys for a good long time now. We’ve wept. We’ve wailed. We’ve gnashed our teeth. Personally, I’ve worn sackcloth and ashes, but that’s just my general fashion aesthetic.

Part of the issue is that we can’t put our finger on what the problem is–something’s wrong (really, Academy–Entourage? Really?), but what is it? We’re inclined to blame the Emmy categories–is Pushing Daisies really the same kind of beast as Two and a Half Men? Should Dirty Sexy Money–or Boston Legal, for that matter–really be considered a drama? We’re embarrassed to admit, however, that every new categorization scheme we tried went exactly nowhere.

We considered doing away with “Drama” and “Comedy” and going instead with “Half-hour”/”Hour” or “Single-camera”/”Multi-camera”, both of which are already used in the technical and animated categories. In today’s television landscape, however, that left us with a couple of strong contenders and a couple we could argue about in the half-hour or mutli-camera categories while overloading the hour/single-camera even more than the current drama category already is. We toyed with the idea of honoring more actors by creating lead, supporting, and ensemble categories. These might allow for, say, Hugh Laurie (lead), Robert Sean Leonard (supporting), and Omar Epps (ensemble) or Steve Carell (lead), Rainn Wilson (supporting), and Ed Helms (ensemble) to be nominated for the same show, or for the large ensemble casts of, say, Lost or Friday Night Lights to be considered separately from shows that focus on true leads, like House or Life. The details necessary to make that work, however (“if the character appears on-screen for less than 30% of the broadcast…”), both felt arbitrary and were, frankly, nearly impossible to hammer out. We played with the possibility that there just aren’t enough slots available to honor all of the great performances out there, so we tried adding and dividing up categories differently–“Classic Sitcom”! “Workplace Drama”! “Speculative Fiction”! “Human Interest (read: Soap Opera”)! Each of those seemed just as arbitrary as “Comedy” and “Drama,” though–is Grey’s Anatomy a workplace drama or a human interest show? You could argue either category for Mad Men. We were stumped.

And then it occurred to us: maybe the categories are the problem–and maybe that means there shouldn’t be any categories at all. This was a strangely liberating idea. We kept the sex split, both because it seems less arbitrary than the above and because we feared our lists would be swamped with male roles otherwise (try filling out the female comedy roles under the traditional categories–brutal). We limited ourselves to people on the official Emmy ballot, which meant excluding favorites because of production-based eligibility problems (goodbye, British-based Doctor Who crew), because of genre (sorry, Venture Brothers–we’ll catch you next time), and because they simply didn’t appear on the ballot for reasons beyond our understanding (who dropped the ball on submitting Dan Byrd from Aliens in America?). We began with a list of 40 actors of each sex, then narrowed the list to 30 and ranked them. By assigning points to those rankings, we were able to compare and combine our lists to create a category-less Bacon Emmys. After complaining that there just weren’t enough spots to honor all of the excellent performances out there, we were pretty surprised to find that in the end we shared 21 ranked male actors and 21 ranked female actors–with one tie in the Lead Actor in a Drama category leading to 21 official male Emmy nominees in the “major” acting categories this year, that means our numbers are pretty much right on the real numbers. Some other patterns surprised us, too:

Male actors (in alphabetical order):

  • Alec Baldwin, 30 Rock
  • Steve Carell, The Office
  • Kyle Chandler, Friday Night Lights
  • Gaius Charles, Friday Night Lights
  • Henry Ian Cusick, Lost
  • Glenn Fitzgerald, Dirty Sexy Money
  • Neil Patrick Harris, How I Met Your Mother
  • Ed Helms, The Office
  • Michael Hogan, Battlestar Galactica
  • Hugh Laurie, House
  • Robert Sean Leonard, House
  • Zachary Levi, Chuck
  • Damian Lewis, Life
  • Zeljko Ivanek, Damages
  • Jack McBrayer, 30 Rock
  • Chi McBride, Pushing Daisies
  • Lee Pace, Pushing Daisies
  • Wendell Pierce, The Wire
  • Andre Royo, The Wire
  • Michael K. Williams, The Wire
  • Ray Wise, Reaper

Female actors (in alphabetical order):

  • Julie Benz, Dexter
  • Connie Britton, Friday Night Lights
  • Rose Byrne, Damages
  • Kristin Chenoweth, Pushing Daisies
  • Glenn Close, Damages
  • Tina Fey, 30 Rock
  • Anna Friel, Pushing Daisies
  • Ellen Greene, Pushing Daisies
  • Christina Hendricks, Mad Men
  • Holly Hunter, Saving Grace
  • January Jones, Mad Men
  • Angela Kinsey, The Office
  • Swoosie Kurtz, Pushing Daisies
  • Mary McDonnell, Battlestar Galactica
  • Elizabeth Mitchell, Lost
  • Adrianne Palicki, Friday Night Lights
  • Amy Pietz, Aliens in America
  • Jamie Pressley, My Name Is Earl
  • Sarah Shahi, Life
  • Sonja Sohn, The Wire
  • Natalie Zea, Dirty Sexy Money

For the record, Susannah’s top two ranked actors I didn’t list were Lost‘s Michael Emerson and FNL‘s Jesse Plemmons, while my top ranked she didn’t list were Breaking Bad‘s Bryan Cranston and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia‘s Charlie Day. For the women, her top two ranked picks I didn’t list were The Riches‘ Minnie Driver and Lost‘s Evangeline Lily, while my top picks she didn’t list were Tricia Helfer of Battlestar Galactica and Sunny‘s Kaitlin Olson.

These 42 actors represent 17 shows, which isn’t as many as the real nominees (24 shows). So maybe the Emmys do a better job of spreading the wealth than we would. On the other hand, they spread that wealth by nominating Charlie Sheen and Mariska Hargitay, and…yeah, we’re not going to apologize for not spreading the wealth quite that far. In fact, TV Bacon and the Academy agree on slightly fewer than 25% of the nominees (ten out of 41/42). It’s a supporting-heavy list, although that’s slightly skewed by self-submissions we’d place elsewhere (in what universe is Connie Britton supporting?)–that may reflect the current popularity of the ensemble shows we had such a hard time categorizing. It’s a very, very white list, especially for the women. Thank goodness for The Wire–if we remove their four candidates, 35 out of 38 of the remaining nominees are white. We’re still doing a little better than the real Emmys, who, including The Wire (from which they chose zero nominees), had four minority nominees out of 41 total. While we’ve both had America Ferrera and Edward James Olmos on our lists in the past, even including them wouldn’t hide the whitewash that is American television in 2008.

Perhaps most interesting, however, is that after all our complaining about the traditional categories–and we’re still plenty irked about several exclusions among the real nominees–it wouldn’t take us long to declare winners in each of those. Adding together our rankings to create a “winner,” we’d have to go exactly four names down our list of female actors to fill the four traditional categories, as our top four were Connie Britton (supporting actress in a drama), Glenn Close (lead actress in a drama), Kristin Chenoweth (supporting actress in a comedy), and Anna Friel (lead actress in a comedy). The pattern for the men isn’t nearly so clear, since we’d have to go five whole places down our list to declare winners in the four traditional categories: Andre Royo (supporting actor in a drama), Lee Pace (lead actor in a comedy), Alec Baldwin (lead actor in a comedy), Kyle Chandler (lead actor in a drama), and Jack McBrayer (supporting actor in a comedy). If we’d hewn even more strictly to the Emmy rules and judged a single episode the actors submitted, Baldwin’s tour de force journey through 70s sitcoms might well have pushed him over the top. So after all our complaining and rearranging–are the categories really the problem after all?

What do you think? How would you have rearranged the Emmy categories? Who do you think was robbed? Are you coming after me with pitchforks because it was my list that kept John Krasinski out? Will the Emmys ever get it right?