Thursday, November 24, 2005

TV To Be Thankful For

I remember a few years back when critics began lamenting the death of TV. It was overrun with cheesy cookie cutter sitcoms and reality TV shows, and there was very little fresh, creative TV aside from a few programs on HBO.

However, things have changed. Over the past two years, network TV has finally realized (thanks to ever-plummeting ratings) that they need to break the mold – get some new ideas, and break the mold.

If you remember before the fall TV season started, I wrote a Fall TV Preview, listing the shows that I was excited about, shows that I intended to watch. But like every year, shows that looked promising turned out to be pretty mediocre, and shows that weren’t even on my radar became new obsessions. Back in September, I estimated there would be 15 shows I would be watching and loving. In reality, right now, there are only five shows I consider “must see”.

In honor of Thanksgiving, here are the five reasons to be thankful for the state of television today.

5. Lost.

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Obviously. I write volumes and volumes about this show every week. Admittedly, this season has been pretty uneven. The first few episodes this season were fantastic – introducing the Dharma Initiative, the Hanso Foundation, the Tailers, Desmond, etc. – but since then it’s kinda been in a rut. Yes, Shannon died. Yes, we saw our first true glimpses of the Others… but at this point, the show needs to get back into the Hatch, start finding out about Dharma, and exploring this Island.

You almost get the feeling like the writers could tell the story they want to tell in about 10 episodes, but they need to stretch it into 22. Thus, we have episodes like the Sun flashback, the Hurley flashback, etc. – which, while they are nice episodes, well made, and well meaning – are really throwaway episodes that the average viewer could skip and still miss nothing critical to what’s happening on the Island.

I’m hopeful for the future. Now that they’ve tied up the loose ends of how the Tailers spent their first 48 days on the Island, got the “big death” out of the way, there’s nowhere to go but forward with the story.

In a nutshell, it’s beautifully shot, well acted, smart, interesting, and different. It’s getting huge ratings when in reality it should be a cult-show. Definitely one of the top five shows on TV.

4. The Office.

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Quirky. Subtle. Hilarious. If you work in an office full of cubicles and strange co-workers, this show is for you.

This is the perfect example of a show being the opposite of standard “sitcoms” that you see on CBS Monday Night. There’s no laugh track. The show doesn’t center around some “married couple who get in fights and their misbehaving kids and weird neighbors.” There is no background music, so awkward silence abound. It’s told in a single roaming camera shot / confessional style (similar to Arrested Development, RIP) that makes the show feels unlike anything else on TV.

The cast is phenomenal. Steve Carell is fantastic as clueless-boss-who-wants-to-be-everyone’s-friend Michael Scott. Rainn Wilson is probably the most entertaining character on TV as Dwight Schrute. The two “normal people” in the office, Pam and Jim, give us a gateway to the lunacy. Each character on the show has the potential to deliver a great comedic one-liner or just make an expression that makes you laugh out loud.Some episodes are better than others, but there’s usually at least one or two scenes that are great. When the show goes out on an edge, such as their Diversity and Sexual Harassment episodes, it’s as politically incorrect and hilarious as TV comes.

3. My Name is Earl.

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The most feel good show on TV. As Will Riley puts it, “this show had the best 15 minute setup in the history of TV”. A white trash con-man wins the lottery and learns of kharma from the prophet Carson Daly. How can you go wrong with that setup?! Each week centers on him righting some wrong that he has committed in his life, yet there is always a twist, a lesson, and some laughs.

Jason Lee deserves Emmy consideration for the way he has embodied the character of Earl, to the degree that Johnny Depp seems to “become” each character he plays, Lee is Earl.

The show doesn’t always make you laugh out loud, but it does make you smile and feel good about life. It’s different – and that’s a good thing.

2. Grey’s Anatomy.

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This show came out of nowhere to become my new obsession. I had caught bits and pieces of this show last year after Desperate Housewives, but never really gave it my full attention. However, I’d heard some good buzz about the show and ended up sitting down and watching a heartbreaking episode a few weeks back (if you watch, the one where the two people had the pole going through them). I was hooked. Since that point, I’ve downloaded the entire first season, devoured them, and watched each episode this season.

Why didn’t I watch it initially? Call it fear of this being another medical-type show that were all the rage in the early 90’s. But it’s not. Yes, there is medicine on the show, but it’s closer to “Sex and the City” than “ER”.

Ellen Pompeo plays Meredith Grey with a heartfelt honesty that I can’t really compare to any other actress on TV. When she hurts, we hurt. When she’s happy, we’re happy. The cast is young and interesting, each a multi-layered individual rather than a stereotypical character. The narrative is unbelievably strong (voiced by Pompeo), book ending the action of the hospital with a an overall theme for each episode.

I can’t think of any other show on TV that can consistently make you want to laugh, cry, and learn a lesson each episode.

1. Prison Break.

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A show that started as a filler for Fox until 24 comes back to the schedule in January turned out to be the best show of the Fall. It’s got all the action of the aforementioned 24, but it’s in a completely fresh setting, making it totally different. Putting the show inside a prison gives it an Oz meets the Sopranos feel. But the nonstop action is intense. I can’t think of any other show (including 24) that gets my heart beating and honestly makes me worry about the characters as Prison Break does. When Michael Scofield is secretly climbing through the jail walls as a guard approaches his cell, I sit on the edge of my seat.

Part of this is due to the fact that we don’t know the rules of the show yet. Could Michael die? Where is this series really going? Will he end up in jail? Will they break free? Will it be like “The Fugitive” or like “Law and Order” once they escape?

Unlike most shows on TV, the viewer really gets the feeling like the first season was entirely mapped out from the start, with bits and pieces of how these prisoners will break out of prison unfolding with each passing episode. I truly hope the show keeps its intensity and action once it goes outside the prison walls.

(Note: Scrubs and 24, cruely put on hiatus until early 2006, barring any sort of trainwreck seasons, will almost surely make this list by the end of the Spring.)


Bo said...

Rex, you gotta start watching "House." Maybe I love it so much because I've quickly become a medical dweeb, maybe I love it because the main character tells everyone he meets (including his deathly ill patients) exactly what he thinks about them without a hint of remorse. Either way it's great. ("How I Met Your Mother" is also a fabulous program).

bengalsfan said...

The biggest bust of the season has to be "The OC" season 3 with "Desperate Housewives" season 2 running a close second.

The new Freddie Prince show is funny because it makes fun of dumb girls and it makes fun of "playas".

Lost needs to pick it up for another month to get us to the craziest season of 24 yet. Now Jack has no rules to live by which makes him even more dangerous.

Brian said...

House - I should give this show a shot, but I think it's on during the super-competitive Tuesday at 9:00 hour (when I'm watching Earl / Office and DVR-ing Amazing Race). It falls victim to being on during an uber-competitive timeslot.

How I Met Your Mother - cute, made me smile a few times - but not hilarious.

The OC - I loved the first season of this show so much, and then it's done nothing but bore me for the past season and a half. Such a shame. It's hard to say what caused the fall from grace. It's just not the fun, over-the-top, self reverent show that it used to be.

Desperate Housewives - There have been plenty of articles written about why this show isn't as good this year, but I think it's really the fact that the original premise was a mystery of why one of their friends committed suicide. The dead person was voicing over, hinting at things, the mystery unfolded, it was interesting. Now what? We have new neighbors, the dead lady is still voicing over for some unknown reason, and the stories seem to be rehashes of Season One for the most part. Lame.

Freddie - I don't know if I'm allowed to watch this based on the principle that it's titled that name of the lead actor of the show. But he is pretty dreamy in She's All That...

stinkowoman said...

Have you ever used Torrent? My friend introduced me to this alternative to Tivo. I can't comment on the other shows. I try to limit my energy to sucking the marrow out of Lost. It is all the TV I need. :)

Brian said...

Bit Torrent and I go way back. Actually, back in college, you used to be able to download TV shows BEFORE they aired due to people in Canada / overseas getting them earlier than us and posting them. The networks wised up and now no longer air them prior to their USA airdate in any other country.

However, it's thanks to Bit Torrent that I have seen whole seasons of shows I missed on the first run through, such as Scrubs, Alias, 24, Grey's Anatomy, etc.

amanda said...

oh my god if anyone else even utters "Frddie" or mentions watching it, i will come to cincy and kill you all. it's hands-down the worst show ever made. sorry.

grey's and office basically rule my existence. god bless jim halpert.

Dutch said...

I like watching Smallville on Thursday nights. The show has gotten a lot better.

Movie related, I saw "Walk The Line" when I was back home in Louisville over the break. It was excellent.

Brian said...

I have heard that Smallville has been pretty good this year (basically because they have started having all the "life changing" things in Superman's life starting to happen).

However, Thursday nights are already jam-packed with potential TV shows to watch (The OC, Reunion, Alias, Survivor), and I'm still bitter about Smallville ripping off Buffy storylines for its first two seasons.

PS - who saw Grey's Anatomy last night? This show continues to dazzle - heartfelt, funny, and I cannot wait to see what happens next week.