Back to Basics - The 30 Best TV Shows of 2008

by PopMatters Staff

11 January 2009

The Year in TV was a lot like the US economy: struggling until summer and then tanking under the hope of a 2009 comeback. Still, our staff found 30 solid reasons to be cheerful come entertainment investment time.

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Summer Heights High

Cast: Chris Lilley, Elida Brereton, Stan Roach, David Lennie



Summer Heights High HBO

High school as a bastion of comical coming of age nightmares—now there’s something original. Or how about the one man show in which a talented foreign actor takes on every role as part of some sketch/skit style spoof? If both of those ideas seem overplayed, then you have yet to see this sensational HBO import starring Australia’s Chris Lilley. Actually his second stint in the mock-documentary format, the talented chameleon essays the series three primary characters—the two faced Ja’mie King, the narcissistic Mr. G, and troublemaker Jonah Takula—and, with interaction between other performers, brings the realities of the Hell known as higher education to ludicrous, loony light. Bill Gibron

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The Soup

Cast: Joel McHale

(E! Entertainment)
US: 1 Jul 2004


The Soup E! Entertainment Television

To watch The Soup—the E! Network’s weekly roundup of pop culture “news” and clips from a wide array of truly awful programming—is to witness television talking to itself in a self-referential sweat-soaked fever dream just before it begins to convulse in its death throes. Hosted with glib, winking incredulity by comedian Joel McHale, the show is an endless parade of high level, meta-absurdity as the bottomless trough of bad television is tapped to its very dregs and trotted out for condemnation and celebration. Essential by the very virtue of the inessentialness of its fodder, The Soup is the only truly appointment worthy viewing left on the dial. Jake Meaney

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The Rachel Maddow Show

Cast: Rachel Maddow
Regular airtime: Weeknights, 9pm

US: 8 Sep 2008


The Rachel Maddow Show MSNBC

After decades of shtick heavy right wing pundits, it’s only fair that the left get their televisual due—and no one does liberal snark better than MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow. It was only a matter of time before the Air America radio host replaced underachieving talking heads like Dan Abrams and Joe Scarborough as part of the post-Chris Matthews/Keith Olbermann news block. And with regular features like “Talk Me Down” (in which a guest tries to calm Rachel’s spin anxiety) and “Ms. Information” (focusing on underreported stories), her irreverent approach to the day’s headlines make for wonderfully acerbic viewing. Bill Gibron

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Life on Mars

Cast: John Simm, Philip Glenister, Liz White

US: 9 Jan 2006


Life on Mars BBC America

At 16 episodes, the original Life on Mars ran far too short. Worst of all, the series ends by opening up, not closing off, metaphysical possibilities. Sam Tyler’s (John Simm) weekly intonation about being “mad, in a coma, or back in time” notwithstanding, the finale raises other ideas, notably that he’s native to 1973. And by the time he jumps into the blue and “returns” to Manchester in the ‘70s, anything seems possible. We’ll never know, and more’s the pity. Shaun Huston

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Project Runway

Season Three Finale
Cast: Heidi Klum, Tim Gunn
Regular airtime: Wednesdays, 10pm ET

US: 18 Oct 2006

Review [23.Oct.2006]


Project Runway Bravo

The exciting thing about most reality shows is the manufactured drama of “real situations”, but Project Runway is truly all about the clothes and the talent. The mix of designers was odd this time; most were talented to a degree, but there was no one who stood out as fiercely as last season’s Christian Siriano. Still, the final five had a ridiculous amount of ability between them. A late season dose of trying to inject some villiany aside (which I hope the producers realize didn’t work), this continues to be one of the few reality shows worth watching. Aaron Marsh

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Series Premiere
Cast: Anna Torv, Joshua Jackson, John Noble, Lance Reddick, Kirk Acevedo, Blair Brown
Regular airtime: Tuesdays, 8pm ET

US: 9 Sep 2008


Fringe Fox

The networks’ best new series was Fringe, a J.J. Abrams vehicle with another big conspiracy and some crazy twists. Does this sound familiar? There are some major difference, however. There’s an ongoing story, but the style is more reminiscent of The X-Files than Alias or Lost. Most episodes are one-off tales covering a nasty aspect of “fringe science”. Anna Torv does a nice job as the lead Olivia Dunham, but the breakout role is John Noble’s seriously off-kilter Walter Bishop. With Joshua Jackson (Pacey!) and The Wire‘s Lance Reddick in the cast, there’s plenty to like each week. We still don’t know much about “The Pattern”, but the small hints offer lots of promise for the rest of the season. Dan Heaton

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The Amazing Race

Cast: Phil Keoghan
Regular airtime: Tuesdays, 9pm ET


Review [2.Nov.2007]
Review [21.Sep.2006]
Review [2.May.2005]


The Amazing Race CBS

In its early days, it was impossible to expect that CBS’ reality gem would last 13 seasons. Although the latest incarnations were not the series’ best, they still maintain enough memorable teams and exciting tasks to keep us watching. The 12th season had an entirely likable final three, which has never happened. This included the grandpa/grandson team Don and Nick, who blew by the arrogant young teams to make the last leg. The 13th entry included Andrew and Dan, two completely inept frat guys who bungled their way through each task but somehow reached the finish line.  Neither team won the million, but both kept us entertained each week and showed why The Amazing Race still delivers great fun. Dan Heaton

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Doctor Who

Cast: Christopher Eccleston, Billie Piper
Regular airtime: Fridays, 9pm ET

(The Sci-Fi Channel)

Review [12.Apr.2006]


Dr. Who BBC America

This year, The Dr. and Donna visited the Titanic and Pompeii, helped Agatha Christie, and had a “sliding door” vision of what might have been, but it was the battle against the Daleks that kept the series gripping. Most sci-fi shows have apocalyptic storylines, but Dr. Who‘s season-end story excelled where others fail. The two-part closer brought back old characters, united all the different factions of the Dr.‘s world, and forever altered the landscape of the series. Most of all, the series—with tongue planted firmly in cheek—made viewers think about what it means to be human. Michael Abernethy

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South Park

Cast: Trey Parker, Matt Stone, Isaac Hayes, Gracie Lazar, Mona Marshall
Regular airtime: Wednesdays, 10pm

(Comedy Central)

Review [18.Oct.2006]
Review [26.Oct.2005]


South Park Comedy Central

Diminished ratings or creative atrophy keep most shows from reaching their 12th seasons. And when a show does survive past 12, the age lines show. Take any recent episode of The Simpsons as ample evidence. South Park’s 12th season, on the other hand, was fantastic. While not quite up to the level of the past few years, it contained two of the series’ most inspired episodes. Take “Tonsil Trouble,” a brilliant episode that’s ample AIDS jokes stretch even South Park’s limits of good taste, but that manages to redeem itself with a devastating closing sight gag. “The China Problem” isn’t quite so perfect, but its disturbingly literal take on fanboys’ accusations of raped childhoods at the hands of George Lucas should live on as one of the most disgusting, and hilarious, moments in the series’ history. All in all, it was a season to remember. As Cartman might say, “I’m not just sure, I’m HIV-positive.” Nav Purewal

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The Simpsons

Cast: Dan Castellaneta, Julie Kavner, Nancy Cartwright, Yeardley Smith, Harry Shearer, Hank Azaria
Regular airtime: Sundays, 8:00pm


Review [26.May.2005]
Review [1.Jan.1995]


The Simpsons Fox

What is there to say about The Simpsons that haven’t been said over its 20 seasons? It’s become just as important as the nightly news and its commanding relevancy, contrary to critical belief, has not slowed down a bit. Staying up to date with current issues and the world at large, Homer & the Gang have been informing us through comedy of many of the world’s tragedies—an enormous achievement in itself. John Bohannon

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