Looking back at this past year, my taste in TV shows shifted ever so slightly. I've never been on a high diet of crime procedurals or science fiction, and I don't watch as many reality shows as I used to, so luckily for me it was a strong year for new comedies. As some of my old favorites continued to age, I found plenty of fresh blood to keep me entertained. Unlike my monthly music inventories, my list of five favorites is not intended to be complete; sometimes I read those critics' best-of lists, and it's like they're taunting me for nothing having HBO or Showtime. Nevertheless...
1. "Mad Men," AMC. Just when the muted angst and slow-like-molasses plot movement was about to drive fans away, some British dude gets run over by John Deere tractor. As grotesque as that scene might've been, it was an unexpected high point in what was probably the show's strongest season yet. The JFK assassination, the defining moment in American history that warped the perfected, Camelot-esque existences of nearly every principal character, was treated with realism, gravitas, and an unexpected level of shock. Memorable Episodes: "Guy Walks Into An Ad Agency," "The Grown-Ups," "Shut The Door, Have a Seat."
2. "Parks & Recreation," NBC. This show might be the pleasant surprise of the year. What was initally conceived as a slapped-together, in-it-for-the-money spinoff of "The Office" has become a tight political satire about the lowest and seemingly irrelevant rungs of local government. If this show was merely a star vehicle for Amy Poehler, P&R would've died a quick death. Instead, it thrives on the strength of its supporting cast; Aniz Ansari has found a breakthrough role in affable d-bag Tom Haverford, while Nick Offerman has proven to be a Rock of Gibralter as breakfast-loving sourpuss Ron Swanson. Memorable Episodes: "The Stakeout," "Practice Date," "Kaboom."
3. "Community," NBC. I'm surprised that I haven't seen this show on more best-of lists. Much like its fellow Thursday night comedies, "Community" revels in the latent absurity of its setting (a West Coast junior college) and the precision-like casting of its ensemble (dark horse Emmy consideration for Joel McHale and Danny Pudi). Memorable Episodes: "Spanish 101," "Football, Feminism, and You," "Debate 109."
4. "Modern Family," ABC. Though nothing will ever replace "Arrested Development" in most comedy geeks' hearts, "Family" is a strong heir apparant. Brownie points to Ed O'Neill for not playing his grandfather/sugar daddy character as a rehash of Al Bundy, and Ty Burrell may very well be reinventing the cookie-cutter "idiot dad" archetype. Memorable Episodes: "The Bicycle Thief," "Come Fly With Me."
5. "Better Off Ted," ABC. Like my #4 pick, "Ted" is the next-generation model of another brilliant-but-cancelled early '00s Fox series, "Andy Richter Controls The Universe." (The fact that it's produced by Michael Fresco and co-stars Jon Slavin is no coincidence.) Alas, it appears that nobody's watching and ABC is antsing to pull the plug, so enjoy this while you can. Memorable Episodes: "Racial Sensitivity," "Jabberwocky."
Honorable Mentions: "Glee," Fox; "American Dad," Fox.
Best British Import: "Look Around You." A wry parody of the educational strips that you watched in elementary school, with topics ranging from math to germs. "Look Around You" aired for two seasons on BBC earlier in the decade, but it became a cult favorite online and Adult Swim picked up the TV rights in early '09. Each episode is about ten minutes long, which also makes it perfect for viewing on YouTube.
Of course, no year is perfect. These were my three least favorite TV shows in '09:
1. "Sit Down Shut Up," Fox. A complete mess of a show, from the one-dimensional characters to the forced, repetitive premise of nearly every episode. What makes this especially disappointing is that no less than six major players on this show were alums of the brilliant "Arrested Development," including producer Mitch Hurwitz and stars Jason Bateman, Will Arnett, and Henry Winkler.
2. "The Jay Leno Show," NBC. I can't believe it took an overhyped time slot change to convince most of America what most comedy connisseurs have known since 1992: Jay Leno just isn't that funny.
3. "Secret Girlfriend," Comedy Central. A homage to '80s sex-farce movies, with "you" as the main character. There's precious little artistic license here; a unique twist on the single-camera concept is wasted on frat boys punching each other and gratutious shots of scantly-clad women jigging around.
I conclude my last blog of the decade (and the year, I guess) with a quick reflection at everything that's changed in the past ten years. What stands out most in my mind is the number of technological advances made since then. Think about it: in January 2000, there was no Facebook, MySpace, Wikipedia, YouTube, or Twitter, Huffington Post, or Townhall.com. There was no iPhone, iTunes, or iPod, though iMacs were still the rage. There were no plasma TVs, DVRs, or converter boxes. Three of the most-used search engines in the United States were AskJeeves.com, AltaVista, and Netscape, with Google just barely in the top ten. Blackberry was in its nascent stages, and was little more than an expensive walkie-talkie. Only a select handful of people had ever texted, and you couldn't access your e-mail on your cell phone. The majority of Americans still used a landline to go online. Even TV Tome, the for-us, by-us TV episode guide that evolved into the site we know today as TV.com, wasn't launched until June 2000.
It was a terrible decade in terms of foreign and domestic affairs, and a shrill and bloated ten years in pop culture; however, it was the American political dynamic that changed most signifigantly, and probably not for the better. In 1999 we had two major political parties finding a very delicate semblance of bipartisanship; that was followed by a gung-ho, all-encompassing Republican majority that ignored its opponents as it tried to push through a mountain of high-impact and controversial legislation while losing favor with the American public, which was then succeeded by a Democratic majority that was essentially doing the same thing. The rift between conservatives and liberals has grown exponentially, and the internet has become a new battleground for their partisan bickering. Political discourse has become a multimedia haymaker of illogical conspiracy theories, self-righteousness, and constant reinforcement of the same tired bullet points. On the other hand, ten years ago Gary Condit, Jack Ryan, Duke Cunningham, Mark Foley, Larry Craig, John Edwards, Eliot Spitzer, Rod Blagojevich, John Ensign, and Mark Sanford were still by and large upstanding public citizens, so maybe it wasn't all that bad.
What will happen in the next ten years is anyone's guess. I guess that's the thrill of the future; it's a big frontier where anyone can stake a claim. So many elements of our culture hit their nadir in the 2000s, and from this point there's nowhere to go but up. It may not be a clean slate, but there's plenty of room for opportunity. I wish you all a wonderful 2010, and make sure to savor every moment that you can.