1. “Lost,” ABC
After two seasons of listening to viewers bitch about everything from too many characters to plots not moving fast enough, the “Lost” writers whomped us all over the head with a run of episodes that was better than anything fans had seen since Season One. Many of the show’s most important riddles were answered – or at least what we thought were its most important riddles, because now there’s a whole new list of them to answer. Not even that damn writers’ strike was enough to put much of a dent in this season of “Lost” — and not even the new Fray single playing in the background is enough to keep us from geeking out over the Season Five promos that ABC recently started airing.
2. “The Office,” NBC
Few network shows – and zero sitcoms – have played as fast and loose with their casts as “The Office”; whether it’s Oscar going on “gaycation,” Andy entering anger management counseling, Jim transferring to Stamford, Toby fleeing to Costa Rica, or Pam wandering off to art school in New York, you never know who’s going to move off-canvas for a spell – kind of like your actual workplace environment. It’s this grounding – along with one of the best casts and some of the strongest comedy writing on television – that helps keep “The Office” from getting stale, and allows it to transcend such stereotypically show-killing plot devices as the star-crossed couple (in this case, Jim and Pam) that finally gets together. Of course, it helps when said couple isn’t even the hottest pairing on the show: this season, Dwight and Angela’s secret warehouse liaisons have proven that even a Second Life-playing, beet-farming paper salesman can get his mojo rising every once in awhile.
3. “Friday Night Lights,” DirecTV
Unless you have DirecTV, you haven’t seen any of “FNL’s” third season – and you won’t until early 2009, under the terms of a unique cost-sharing deal that saved the show from cancellation…for now, anyway. It certainly remains to be seen how non-DTV fans of the show will deal with this arrangement – if, for instance, they’ve managed to keep from spoiling the entire season in advance with recaps posted on the Web – or whether NBC will deign to promote content that’s already aired elsewhere. In the meantime, however, here’s what we can tell you: the third season of “Friday Night Lights” packs all of the addictive small-town drama and pulse-pounding gridiron action of Season One, minus the unwelcome addition of stupidly soapy ingredients that weakened Season Two (in other words, nobody’s throwing any bodies off bridges). We’ll be very surprised if “FNL” returns for a fourth season – on any network – but we’ve still got our fingers crossed.
“The Biggest Loser,” NBC
It’s long been lumped in with crap like “Temptation Island,” but NBC’s “The Biggest Loser” actually puts reality television to good use, devoting each season to giving a handful of America’s ever-growing legion of fatties the chance to shed their extra pounds, change their lives, and win a bundle of cash in the process. Of course, this being a reality game show, “Loser’s” appeal isn’t all (or even mostly) altruistic – a big part of what keeps audiences tuning in is the chance to see said fatties try to scheme, cajole, and double-deal each other out of the prize. Last season’s cast was more harmonious (read: boring) than previous years, but this time out, the show’s producers tapped into a goldmine of backbiting and screaming arguments with a vengeful, endlessly plotting contestant named Vicky (not to mention Brady, her rooster-like jackass of a husband). It’s entertaining for all the wrong reasons, and it serves a purpose – what else could a viewer ask for?
“One Life to Live,” ABC
Since the early ‘90s, daytime serial viewership has been on a steep decline, and the industry has been in a state of chaos, with show runners flailing about for fixes both quick (cancellation) and painful (storylines and plot devices pulled from bigger-budget serials like “Sopranos” and “Lost”). On the flip side, though, there are still a few shows that remember how to take the daily drama format and turn it into addictive television – and “One Life to Live,” under the stewardship of head writer Ron Carlivati, has been the best of the bunch since last spring. Forget all the old stereotypes about bon-bon-gobbling hausfraus and melodramatic organ music, and tell your TiVo to skip one of the 400 daily episodes of “SportsCenter” so you can get a load of how well a group of underpaid professionals can juggle a huge cast, a miniscule budget, and a whole lot of scenery-chewing. And don’t worry – the storylines are no more ridiculous than anything you’ll see on “24” or “Prison Break.”
1. Newhart: The First Season
Given that we live in an era in which the complete run of “The Greatest American Hero” is available on DVD, a person could be forgiven for assuming that “Newhart’s” 1982-90 run would have been compiled for the DVD market long ago. But no: Season One of the classic CBS sitcom wasn’t compiled until early 2008, and as of this writing, there’s no release date – or any visible plans – for subsequent seasons to follow suit. Which is sadly ridiculous, but hey, at least we’ve got these episodes, all of which are filled to the brim with Newhart’s dry wit, not to mention the first appearance of the legendary Larry, Daryl, and Daryl. Let’s just keep our fingers crossed for seasons two through eight, shall we?
2. The Office: Season Four
Most 2007-08 season sets were highly abbreviated, thanks to the writers’ strike – and Season Four of “The Office” was no different. What made up for the lack of episodes, though, was a ton of extra content; like previous sets, it came packed with scores of deleted scenes – enough for a few more episodes’ worth of running time – and other assorted goodies, including featurettes and commentary. It also didn’t hurt that “The Office” was one of a handful of shows that managed to come back for a few episodes after the strike was resolved, allowing for an actual storyline arc, rather than plotlines condensed (a la “Heroes”) or halted midstream (a la “Friday Night Lights”).
3. The Wire: The Complete Series
Only a few months after releasing the fifth and final season to DVD, HBO bundled up the whole kit and caboodle, issuing the handsomely boxed “The Complete Wire” just in time for Christmas (and, indeed, for a shining write-up in our Holiday Gift Guide). As of this writing, the complete set is available at Amazon for $135 – a whopping $115 below the MSRP, and a damn sight cheaper than the price paid by fans who ate up the individual seasons as they were released. So here’s the bottom line: if you’ve been reading about the greatness of “The Wire” for the last six years – and if you love TV, you surely have – but haven’t gotten on board yet, you no longer have any excuses. Just get it. It’s really that good.