Emerging from my December blog hibernation, I'm much more inclined to look forward to what the small screen has in store for '09 than reassessing '08. Fortunately, my Variety colleague Stuart Levine was motivated to muse on his highs and lows for '08 (posted after the jump).
There's not a whole lot that I've penciled into my must-see sked for the first quarter. Of course, the Big Event is the Jan. 21 return of "Lost" for its high-five season (more on that later). The final two "Friday Night Lights" segs of the season (maybe forever) on DirecTV Jan. 7-14, will be three-hanky affairs, for sure, according to sources who have already screened them. And there'll be more multicamera hijinks to enjoy from "The Big Bang Theory" ensemble, my fave comedy troupe on the tube these days, hands down.
As for new material, I was very impressed by what I saw on the four-episode screener of Showtime's "The United States of Tara." Toni Collette is amazing as a suburban mother and artist who grapples with three distinct personalities who also inhabit Tara's corporeal being. The supporting cast is also strong, with John Corbett playing Tara's husband in an understated way, and the always-engaging Rosemarie DeWitt as Tara's sister. Brie Larson impresses as the older of Tara's two teenage kids.
"Tara," which as everyone knows was conceived by Steven Spielberg and birthed by Diablo Cody, bows Jan. 18.
A number of people whose taste I respect have raved about HBO's "Big Love," which also returns for its third season on Jan. 18. I'm still not ready to commit but I'll give it at least one more date. HBO's "Flight of the Conchords" returns for its sophomore season the same night. I like the wacky Kiwi duo and their folksy novelty ditties, but usually about halfway through an episode I find myself thinking about how Bret and Jemaine are better enjoyed in small doses.
I'm game to see what TNT has made of its Tom Cavanagh-Eric McCormack drama "Trust Me," set in the world of advertising. I'm particularly fond of Cavanagh. It goes without saying that the bar here is extremely high given that other little cable drama that has used Madison Avenue as a backdrop. Granted, "Trust Me" isn't period a la "Mad Men," but there will still be comparisons on how well the show captures the zeitgeist of the persuasion biz. "Trust Me" begins its hard Jan. 26.
On Jan. 29, the flames flaw anew in Gordon Ramsay's "Hell's Kitchen." My husband has previewed the screener Fox sent out a little bit ago and pronounced it fabulous. I haven't been able to spare the time yet but he made me watch a three-minute reel featuring vintage Ramsay roars, shrieks, shoves and sundry hand movements. (It's a wonder he doesn't get charged with assault and battery, but then I'm sure all that is taken care of in the phone book-sized waivers that contestants must sign to be on the show.)
Farther on down the road, there'll clearly be a lot said and written about the finale of "ER" on March 12. Frankly, I've never been a regular viewer of the NBC stalwart, but I've been doing this long enough to know that (almost) any show that has been on the air for 15 seasons deserves a little respect on its way out.
Also in March, I'm eager to see what ABC and ABC Studios have come up with in "Castle," a dramedy about a horror novelist who consults for the NYPD. This intrigues mostly because I find Nathan Fillion to be charming, given the right material, and because there's a lot of good buzz about the show internally at ABC. Starts March 9.
A few more shows that are on my radar but don't have preem dates yet are NBC's untitled Amy Poehler comedy (I wouldn't be shocked if that one is held until next season); Showtime's Edie Falco starrer "Nurse Jackie" and HBO's "East Bound and Down," from the good folks at Gary Sanchez Prods. I'm hearing that "East Bound," starring Danny McBride as a burned out baseball player turned high school coach, will be one of those shows that you either love or hate. Hey, I'm game.
Now, back to the Big Event. The return of "Lost" is going to be satisfying indeed for fans. The first two get the story going at a fast clip right out of the gate, with plenty of "Lost"-licious moments to engage fandom. I don't dare say too much (I hate spoilers!), but I will say that the second seg is heavy on Hurley, which is always a good thing.
An added benefit to "Lost's" return is that the week after its two-hour opener, "Life on Mars" returns Jan. 28 as its skedmate in the Wednesday 10 p.m. slot. The period-fantasy-gumshoe drama "Mars" deserves to draw a bigger aud than it did in the fall running behind "Grey's Anatomy." Here's hoping that the "Lost" tribe will lead "Mars" to the promised land, or at least a second season.
STUART LEVINE'S 2008 SCORECARD:
Although the fall broadcast offerings were mostly a dud, there was certainly plenty of terrific TV fare to choose from in 2008.
Much of the best stuff came from cable, but not everything. There was enough good and bad to be spread out throughout the 500-plus channel universe.
1) “The Wire”: Critics have been sounding off about the brilliance of David’s Simon’s tale of the demise of Baltimore — its drug trade, lost souls, politicians, cops, and, most recently, the disintegration of the media — since the HBO show launched in 2002. While this fifth season may not have been its best (I’ll say season four with the Corner Boys was tops), the show remained absolutely brilliant. I don’t know if we’ll ever see a dramatic series on television as impressive in scope and execution.
2) “The Shield”: There’d be no onion rings finale for Vic Mackey and his Strike Team. Creator Shawn Ryan understood that for all of Mackey’s unlawful conduct and shenanigans, there would have to be repercussions, and it arrived in a suit, tie and one-hour lunch. No exceptions. Michael Chiklis and Walton Goggins — as well as a longtime underrated cast (Jay Karnes and CCH Pounder especially) — never did anything half-assed, and their grit and dedication came through to the end.
3) “Lost”: I don’t absorb this intoxicating island saga like many others. I rarely connect the dots as quickly as “Lost” groupies, but even if I don’t realize that what Jack said in the 12th episode of season two will greatly affect what happens in the fourth episode of season five, it doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy it as much on a week-to-week basis.
Brilliant storytelling by showrunners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse — as well as their writing staff — and an innovative flash-forward concept makes this the most addictive show on television.
4) “Mad Men”: It’s all in the details, and in this second season, that meant having the ladies, slowly but deliberately, revealing something about themselves. Betty finally got the nerve to call Don out on his philandering, Peggy battled her conscience and Joan still can’t quite understand what it means to be in a relationship in which she’s treated as an equal. Patience, from both a character and viewer perspective, paid off in a big way and here’s hoping creator Matt Weiner will be back to continue the work on the masterpiece he has created.
5) “Friday Night Lights”: If there are 10 shows on my Tivo waiting to be viewed, this is the one I always feel the need to watch first. After a season-two hiccup, “FNL” is back with the awe-gosh elements that made it great in the first place, particularly the backbone of the show: The relationship between Eric and Tami Taylor. The two remain secure in their foundation even when they’re on opposite ends of a dilemma. Most often that's when she’s looking out for the Dillon students and he’s forced to do what’s best for the team. Although some plot points feel as though they’ve been played out — Tyra, stop chasing after losers and get your act together, already — the moments of redemption (Jason moving to New York, Riggins getting accepted to college) can’t help but make you smile.
6) “In Treatment”: You didn’t have to be a therapist, or even be in therapy, to admire the wonderful performances by the patients who went to visit good doctor Gabriel Byrne. While some will single out teenager Mia Wasikowska as best, I think a case could be made each actor. And in what might’ve been the series best episode, Glynn Turman took home an Emmy for his turn as Blair Underwood’s grieving father.
7) “The Big Bang Theory”: Under the constrictions of broadcast, nothing makes me laugh harder than “Big Bang.” As supernerd Sheldon, Jim Parsons is diabolically funny — kudos for just memorizing all the scientific jargon — but don’t overlook Johnny Galecki, Kaley Cuoco, Kunal Nayyar or Simon Helberg in delivering the funny. The series has broken out ratings-wise more than any other comedy this year, and its rise from middling sitcom to bonafide hit was, as Sheldon would say, in the stars.
8) “The Life and Times of Tim”: Arriving completely under the radar, “Tim” uses its crude animation as a strong suit. While Tim refused to take responsibility for his actions — creator Steve Dildarian says the character is always a victim of circumstance — always complaining that his cohorts always egged him on. And by dividing each episode into two shorts, the humor was never dragged out or uninspired.
9) “Sons of Anarchy”: Nice to see Katey Sagal, after years of dumbing down on “Married With Children,” go badass as Ron Perlman’s motorcycle club moll. Coming from “Shield” alum Kurt Sutter, there was little doubt that the testosterone level would be high here, but the stories were complex and intoxicating, especially Opie and his half in, half out dilemma of — pardon the pun — going full throttle or not in his dedications to the Sons.
10) “30 Rock”: Yeah, it was all about Tina Fey this year (thank you Sarah Palin), and it was incredible that with all time demands put upon here she was still able to deliver laughs on her signature show. It might not be as consistently funny as when it first launched, but any scene with Alec Baldwin is a sure-fire winner and the episode where Liz Lemon returns to her high school reunion was pitch perfect.
Honorable mentions: “Fringe,” “Life on Mars,” “True Blood,” "Generation Kill"
1) “Do Not Disturb”: Wow, this one didn’t work not only for the sophisticated, but for anyone with half a brain.
2) “The Ex List”: A real shame, especially because Elizabeth Reaser is a talented actress and usually plays adorable characters. Not here, though.
3) “Knight Rider”: That NBC actually thought this would be a hit is astonishing. A talking car. In 2008. Please.
4) “Grey’s Anatomy”: The saddest fact is that “Grey’s” used to actually be very entertaining. And then Denny arrived.
5) “Kath and Kim”: What would Brandon Tartikoff think?