Once the writer’s strike was over, the television industry got back to business with a vengeance, offering up quite a lot of high quality material…so much, in fact, that my TiVo is STILL loaded down with shows I just haven’t had the time to watch. Seriously, I’ve got three episodes of “My Boys” that I’ve been sitting on since July. There just aren’t enough hours in the day…and I’m a full-time TV critic, for God’s sake! But here’s at least some of the stuff that I dug and despised during the course of 2008…and sometime around 2012, maybe I can offer up a complete picture of 2009.
1. “The Big Bang Theory,” CBS
No other sophomore series came roaring out of the gate like this one. Fears that the show had already jumped the shark by getting Leonard and Penny together were dismissing before the end of the second-season premiere, the addition of Sara Gilbert to the cast was an added bonus, and the suggestion that Sheldon is a sex object to physics geeks is almost too funny for words. Mark my words: this is the year that Jim Parsons earns his first Emmy nomination.
2. “30 Rock,” NBC
There’s no truth to the rumor that you can’t be a member of the Television Critics Association if you don’t like “30 Rock,” but, really, what’s not to like? Tina Fey is both gorgeous and hilarious, Alec Baldwin can’t open his mouth without getting a laugh, and, come to think of it, there’s really no-one in this ensemble who isn’t funny. So why do they keep bringing on all of these guest stars? Beats me. But since they incorporate them so well into the episodes, it’s hard to complain.
3. “Life on Mars,” ABC
When I did my 2008 Fall TV Preview, I hadn’t yet seen the pilot for this series, but if I had, it would’ve beaten out “Fringe” for the top spot on my list of new shows I was most excited about. Rising above its “based on a British series” origins, “Life on Mars” has one of the strongest casts on television (Jason O’Mara, Harvey Keitel, Michael Imperioli, Gretchen Mol, and Jonathan Murphy), a great premise (a police detective gets knocked unconscious in 2008 and wakes up in 1973), and – perhaps most impressively – managed to survive its network’s recent purge of quality dramas. For God’s sake, don’t let it go the way of “Pushing Daisies.” If you haven’t watched it yet, it’s not too late.
“John Adams,” HBO
I’m not just saying this because I had the chance to meet many of the major players involved in this production, nor because one of my good friends from high school appeared as an extra. The truth of the matter is that “John Adams” is fantastic on multiple levels: great cast, great script, and incredible attention to detail in its reproduction of a bygone era. What matters most in the end, however, is that it truly does make history come alive and proves enthralling whether you’re a history buff or not. By the end of the production (if not long before then), it will succeed in something that hasn’t always been that easy to accomplish in recent years by making you proud to be an American.
“90210,” The CW
I can’t really explain this. I didn’t watch the original “90210,” so it’s not like I owed any particular allegiance to the series, but as a card-carrying TV geek, there’s always been something fascinating about the concept of reviving a show several years after its original run. Besides, just because I didn’t actually watch the original doesn’t mean that I didn’t know that I was supposed to be excited about seeing Jennie Garth and Shannen Doherty together again. It’s cool for critics to like “Gossip Girl,” but I somehow feel like I’m not supposed to admit that I kinda dig this series, but I do. Granted, the adults feel like they’re way better written than the teens, but maybe it only seems that way because I’m old and out of touch. Wow, I’m feeling even guiltier about this now that I was when I started. Wait, maybe I should’ve just pretended that I’m watching it because my wife wants to watch it. Yeah, actually, let’s pretend I said that instead and just scratch all of that other stuff.
“Farmer Wants a Wife,” The CW
It’s hard enough for someone who loves scripted television to admit that they watch any reality shows, but then maybe that’s why, when I finally decide to watch one, I make it the most perverse choice possible. At the tail end of 2007 and the very, very beginning of 2008, I watched every single episode of “Crowned: The Mother of All Pageants,” but it feels wrong to give that series the award, since it began its run last year. Instead, I’ll give it to an equally ridiculous reality-show entry that ran on the same network. “Farmer Wants A Wife,” where an upstanding young gentleman from Missouri went hunting for a suitable spouse, was car-wreck television at its finest. Particular kudos to the producers for waiting until two episodes before the finale – a point when no-one caught up in the show would ever bail out – to offer up an elimination challenge where each of the farmer’s future fiancées had to reach inside a cow’s rectum to see if the bovine was pregnant…and bonus points for airing it while I was eating a late dinner. Every moment was painful, but damned if I wasn’t there from premiere to finale.
“The Soup,” E!
I used to stop by “Talk Soup” whenever it was on, and no matter who the host was, I always enjoyed it, but for whatever reason, it just never ended up as part of my customary viewing schedule. This summer, I attended a panel for “The Soup,” where Joel McHale held court, and…well, something just clicked. I’ve since added it to my TiVo season pass list, and I’ve laughed heartily week after week. I still don’t know what the hell that cat-eating-spaghetti bit was about on “The Morning Show with Mike and Juliet,” but it never fails to make me laugh when Joel brings that kitty out. Or when he offers up a clip of the ever-angry Steve Edwards berating one of his co-anchors. Or when he makes up new meanings for the acronym in “Paris Hilton’s My New B.F.F.” Or…well, basically, I laugh a lot. Long live “The Soup”!
“Code Monkeys,” G4
Maybe it’s because I grew up in the ’80s and can appreciate old-school video-game animation or maybe it’s because I have an occasionally twisted sense of humor, but when I stumbled upon G4′s “Code Monkeys” upon the release of its first season on DVD, I fell in love and immediately added the series to my TiVo Season Pass list, so as to catch Season 2. Mind you, it’s a twisted little show that’s not for all tastes. As I wrote in my review of the Season 1 set, if your sense of humor veers toward the dark side and you immediately thought of “Star Wars” when I used the phrase “the dark side,” then you’ll love it…but you don’t see anything funny about the revelation that Adolf Hitler didn’t actually die in 1945 but was instead frozen in carbonite, then this isn’t the cartoon you’re looking for, so move along.
“Sid the Science Kid,” PBS
Given that it’s a production of Henson Studios, it shouldn’t be any surprise that Sid looks suspiciously Muppet-like, but it’s that vague familiarity that draws kids into this educational show. Blending a certain amount of repetition per episode, such as the song when Sid arrives at school (“I’m looking for my friends / I’m looking for you!”) with Sid’s question of the week (“Why does my banana get mushy?”) is the perfect combination to keep your son or daughter coming back day after day. Plus, Teacher Susie’s songs are often catchy enough to rival the best work of “Schoolhouse Rock.” Don’t believe me? Check out “Checking Out Charts” for proof:
“Gavin & Stacey” and “Primeval,” BBC America
No need to revisit my repeated comments about “Primeval,” except to say that it’s lots and lots of dinosaur-laden awesomeness, but if you’re a fan of shows that blend raucous comedy with unabashed sentimentality without ever falling into the Schmaltz Zone, then you’ll want to check out “Gavin & Stacey” post-haste.
“Aliens in America,” The CW
The network finally found the perfect pairing for the forever-underrated “Everybody Hates Chris” with this excellent sitcom, which blended tales of teen angst with some highly valuable lessons about defeating racial intolerance, but rather than giving either series a prime spot of real estate, they first threw them up against CBS’s Monday night sitcom line-up, then moved them to Sunday night against Fox’s Animation Domination. “Chris” survived through its dedicated fanbase, but “Aliens” never had the chance to build a following. Have these people never heard of the concept of counter-programming? Fingers crossed someone gives the show a DVD release; it’s more than worthy of being replayed. And if that happens, let’s hope someone has the sense to include this show-connected video of PJ Olsson & Salmon Ahmad covering Nick Lowe’s “What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love and Understanding” as a special feature:
“The Return of Jezebel James,” Fox
There was so much right about this show that I still don’t understand how it could have gone so horribly wrong. It was created by Amy Sherman-Palladino, who brought us the inestimably wonderful “Gilmore Girls,” it starred Parker Posey and Lauren Ambrose, and the premise involved a children’s book editor asking her estranged sister to act as a surrogate mother for her. The problem, as near as I could figure, was that while Posey and Ambrose delivered the dialogue well enough, the timing required to make Sherman-Palladino’s writing really crackle is horribly unsuited for a sitcom with a laugh track. I had high hopes for “Jezebel James” until I actually watched it, but when it left the airwaves after a mere three episodes, I was neither shocked nor in mourning…and based on most reports, neither was anyone else.
“Do Not Disturb,” Fox
The first episode provided to critics inspired me to write, “Sweet Jiminy Christmas, this thing sucked so much that it might as well have been sponsored by Oreck,” and I was not the only one to express such an opinion. Not coincidentally, Fox decided to go with a different episode as the premiere. It didn’t help. The highest praise I could muster for this episode was, “It was in no way as painfully unfunny as the original pilot, but it definitely serves to secure my belief that ‘Do Not Disturb’ will in no way be appointment television for me.” Clearly, the majority of America shared my opinion.
“My Boys,” TBS
Between “The Bill Engvall Show” and “House of Payne,” you can see why people wouldn’t think that TBS would be a place to find a truly hilarious sitcom, but if you dare to venture into the waters of the network, then keep an eye out for “My Boys.” It was one of those series that I didn’t get the chance to investigate until the release of Season 1 on DVD, but once I did, I found myself daring to make a comparison to “Friends,” a point of reference I hadn’t made since “How I Met Your Mother.” It’s true, though: the interaction between the guys and gals on the show really does feel like a bunch of friends hanging out. The writing is hilarious, and if don’t believe me, sit yourself down and watch the first-season episode entitled “Douchebag in the City,” where Brendan gets called out for having turned into a complete and total douche. Season 2 was equally successful, with its storylines involving Stephanie becoming a best-selling author, P.J. letting Bobby inch closer and closer to the altar, and Andy having a “work wife.” When the show returns for Season 3 in 2009, be there.
Too many to count
It’s been really rough going for fans of the hour-long drama this year, especially those which take a step outside of the mainstream with their premises. ABC’s recent cancellation trifecta of “Dirty Sexy Money,” “Eli Stone,” and “Pushing Daisies” was enough to send many TV critics into apoplexy, but the other networks were just as bad. By killing off both “Jericho” and “Moonlight,” a pair of series with some of the most diehard fans this side of “Star Trek,” it’s a wonder CBS is even still standing. NBC’s “Journeyman” stopped airing in ’07 but didn’t formally get the axe ‘til ’08, and when it did, it really pissed off a lot of the Bullz-Eye staff. And while we’ve probably come to expect Fox dramas to get yanked, it never felt like “Canterbury’s Law” got a fair shake, and…am I the only one who really liked “New Amsterdam”? Well, anyway, as you can see, I needed my Xanax prescription more than ever this year…but if you really, really need a definitive one-show answer, then let’s go with “Jericho.” (Side note: can you believe that it’s now being re-run on Sunday nights by The CW? Dare we hope for a comeback…?!?)
“Knight Rider,” NBC
I’ve already admitted that my interest in this series came from my nostalgic feelings toward the Hoff-happy original version, but I just can’t believe there wasn’t some way to do “Knight Rider” without making it feel so God-awful cheesy, especially not when Doug Liman (“The Bourne Identity,” “Mr. & Mrs. Smith”) was one of the executive producers. Unfortunately, the first episode…which the network wisely waited until nearly the last minute to get to critics…offered only the faintest glimmer of hope, and that was quickly extinguished when it became evident that the episode titles were the most clever thing about the series. (Example: “I Wanna Rock and Roll All Knight.”) But NBC still tried to recoup their investment and, instead of canceling it at mid-season, renewed it but got rid of half the cast – including Bruce Davison, who’d given the show its own touch of class that wasn’t vehicular – in a desperate attempt at retooling. Word on the street is that it’s finally being put out of its misery. Good riddance, but let us all remember the moral of the story: “Knight Rider” just ain’t “Knight Rider” without the Hoff.
“The Ex List,” CBS
I’m sure the network thinks they did the right thing by arguing with creator Diane Ruggiero over the direction of the series until she had no choice but to quit. Anyone who watched her hold court during the TCA Press Tour, however, knows what a talented and hilarious woman she is, so I just can’t imagine that her vision for the series wouldn’t have been the right vision for the series. Don’t let the bastards get you down, Diane; I’m already ready to see what you’re working on next.
Square Pegs: The Complete Series
For the longest time, I viewed the release of this show as a gimme, since I figured, hey, it’s Sarah Jessica Parker, she’s the star of “Sex and the City.” As time passed with no release, however, it occurred to me that Sony probably figured that the average “S&TC” fan wouldn’t have any interest in seeing their beloved Carrie Bradshaw playing someone who was…gasp!…uncool. Thankfully, wiser heads prevailed, and “Square Pegs” emerged on DVD this year. Even better, it’s aged remarkably well, offering a look at teen life in the ’80s. It may not resemble present-day high school on the surface, but the existence of cliques will continue until the sun explodes (and possibly beyond), so the inherent message of the show still holds up: not everybody is as pretty as the cast of “Gossip Girl,” “Beverly Hills, 90210,” or “Dawson’s Creek,” and not everyone is out to be tremendously popular. Putting the spotlight on socially-stunted teenagers was always going to be a risk, but Anne Beatts and her crew did a remarkable job of showing a side of high school that was and still is viewed as a dirty little secret. If you liked “Freaks & Geeks,” you should definitely give “Square Pegs” a try.
1. The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour: The Best of Season 3
Well, it’s about time. You can thank the people at Time-Life for fulfilling the dream of many a ’60s rebel who’s been chomping at the bit to revisit this series and see just how controversial it really was. The truth…? Just as Tommy Smothers has been claiming, it really isn’t all that controversial. Most of it is your standard ’60s variety show, albeit with performances from cooler-than-average artists, such as the Doors or Ike & Tina Turner. But as you watch, you’ll find bits and pieces of each episode inspiring raised eyebrows as you wonder how they got away with this or that. This is a fantastic historical document of how a network’s censorship killed a show, and with the combined efforts of the Smothers Brothers and Time-Life, the special features and bonus material paint as full a picture as you could hope for. Need more proof? Well, I just happen to have this commercial handy…
2. M Squad: The Complete Series
What’s the matter, you never knew Lee Marvin did TV? Actually, neither did I until relatively recently. I always thought of him as one of those iconic movie actors, so well-known to me for a particular film…in this case, “The Dirty Dozen”…that it never occurred to me that he did anything but film. As it turns out, however, he starred in the entire 117-episode run of “M Squad,” a gritty black-and-white cop show that’s almost the antithesis of “Dragnet.” Not that Jack Webb didn’t have a menacing way about him at times, but you viewed him as tough only because he was an authority figure. With Lee Marvin, you view him as tough because you know with 100% certainty that he could kick your ass. As you watch “M Squad,” you’ll probably notice that “Police Squad” targeted a lot of this series’ elements, but Marvin is such an imposing figure that, although it’s unquestionably ripe for parody at times, you’ll be gripped throughout every single episode.
3. Mannix: Season 1
When you think “super cool private eye,” you think Jim Rockford, and there’s not necessarily anything wrong with that, but thanks to CBS’s DVD wing, you can see that Joe Mannix was pretty damned awesome in his own right. Mike Connors’ tough-as-nails P.I. changed a bit over the course of his eight-season run, but never more than he did after this first season, where he was working for a huge Los Angeles detective agency called Intertect and reporting to Lew Wickersham (Joseph Campanella). Even those pop culture fans who are aware of the existence of “Mannix” may be surprised to discover just how cool the series was. For one thing, Mannix is an old-school tough guy, generally wearing a suit and tie, smoking a cigarette as often as not, and ending conversations with pulling a gun or delivering a sharp right hook. (Like the split-screen opening credits aren’t awesome enough with the Lalo Schifrin theme, they’re made all the more fab by having a punch thrown in the bottom left corner square and connecting in the upper right square!) Not every cop show or detective drama from the ‘60s survives intact when held up to the harsh light of today’s TV standards, but “Mannix” manages to do so handily.
4. Burke’s Law: Season 1
Amos Burke is not only the Chief of Detectives for the city of Los Angeles but also a suave millionaire playboy who arrives at homicide scenes in a Rolls Royce driven by his Filipino manservant, Henry. Yes, I know it sounds laughable, but, damn, it’s good! Gene Barry strolls through the show with a wink and a smirk, constantly firing off quips and flirtatious remarks like he’s the James Bond of Southern California. Sure, it’s all a bit campy, but Barry never quite winks at the camera, always managing to indicate that, for all his flirtatious ways, he’s still on the job and dedicated to bringing the murderer to justice. And, hey, if he manages to shake some action in the process, more power to him, y’know? Plus, the show had the greatest line-up of guest stars this side of…well, this next show, actually.
5. The Love Boat: Season 1
Love is indeed life’s sweetest reward, but for fans of kitschy ’70s TV and guest stars of varying degrees of celebrity, there was no greatest gift this year than the arrival of Season 1 of on “The Love Boat” on DVD. Granted, it was split into two volumes, which was a little bit annoying, but just to have it all was enough to bring a smile to this critic’s face. It’s so light and fluffy that it might just blow off your shelf, but where else can you find a cast that includes Jimmie Walker, John Ritter, Charo, Bill Bixby, Scott Baio, Milton Berle, Jim Nabors, Tab Hunter, Ray Bolger, Steve Allen, Gary Burghoff, Leslie Nielsen, Pat Morita…oh, I could go on and on. No, seriously, I could. This show was awesome. Not necessarily good, but definitely awesome.
The Biography Channel’s stirring episode about the life and times of Mr. Scott Baio. As we thrilled to his career, tackling everything from “Bugsy Malone” to “Scott Baio is 46…and Pregnant,” with stops on the life and times of Chachi Arcola, “Charles in Charge,” and, of course, “Zapped!”, we heard not only from family and friends but also from noted experts on the man’s career.
And, then, we also heard from this jackass:
Hey, to my way of thinking, I could’ve come off looking a hell of a lot worse than I did. At the very least, the experience of having a film crew fly to my house and film me as I waxed ridiculous about Baio’s lack of rock cred in “Joanie Loves Chachi” was one that I won’t soon forget.
“Scrubs” is coming back…but for what will probably be its final season
But, hey, chin up, buckeroo. Instead of being stuck on NBC, the series is finally getting the respect it deserves – albeit in the twilight of its run – by moving over to ABC. It might seem weird for the show to make such a move so late in the game, but as it happens, “Scrubs” has actually been a production of ABC Studios (formerly Touchstone) since it first went on the air, so it actually does make sense that they’d be the ones who’d want to see it go out with glory. And, indeed, the first two episodes of the season are a glorious return to the blend of humor and drama that has been the hallmark of the best “Scrubs” episodes over the years. If this is finally the end, at least it looks like Bill Lawrence and the cast will be bringing the show to a solid conclusion.