The pay TV predictions regarding the death of broadcast television seemed pretty prescient a few years back. Sloppy sitcoms dominated the airwaves, and dramas drew on standard show business material (families in crisis, cops in crisis, doctors in crisis) to create their stereotypical storylines. However, it is safe to say that in the last few years, the networks have fought back in a big way. Proving that comments concerning their imminent passing were greatly exaggerated, the Big Four (or five, if you count the still struggling coming together of the WB and UPN known as CW) have avoided cable’s micromanaged programming directives and instead have delivered outstanding entertainment that has managed to touch a broad-based audience. Even better, they’ve found the critical compliments that usually accompany offerings from those experts in experimentation like HBO.
If this were a war, the 2006 battle would easily be won by the non-coaxial companies. Take the PopMatters list of the best television from the last 12 months. Seventy percent of the chosen Top Ten shows are broadcast offerings. Indeed, of the overall 20, 65 percent come from rabbit ear accessible stations. While cable can claim the remaining seven titles, only two arrive from a premium service. The rest are found on your typical line-up. So the forecasts that fed a wasteland weary nation the notion that Showtime and Sci-Fi would fill the void left by such routine stations as ABC and NBC were way off the mark. If anything, the competition from so many divergent sources has seen the networks taking risks they otherwise might not have envisioned. After all, who would have expected a weekly study of superheroism, the ongoing dilemma of a group of plane crash castaways, or a comedy concentrating on a loser lottery winner and his attempts to correct his karma?
Consequently, you won’t have to look far along your television dial to discover the Top TV picks from PopMatters staff. From 20 upward, each entry represents the boob tube at its best:
Season Three Premiere
Ellen Pompeo, Sandra Oh, Katherine Heigl, Chandra Wilson, Sara Ramírez, Kate Walsh, Patrick Dempsey
Regular airtime: Thursdays, 9pm ET
(ABC; US: 21 Sep 2006)
Grey’s Anatomy‘s success in its original post-Desperate Housewives time slot makes perfect sense. After each tease-filled Desperate hour, viewers can’t help yearning for actual story, and they can find several of these each week in Grey’s Anatomy. Revolving around a handful of surgical interns and their superiors at Seattle Grace Hospital, the series has emerged as a quality guilty pleasure and, in its way, a fine successor to that recent Sunday night must, Sex and the City. Grey‘s creator Shonda Rhimes is doing her own soapy thing, such that the series only resembles Sex in its depiction of complicated, ambitious women defined by their work and friendships rather than their sex partners.
Kyra Sedgwick, J.K. Simmons, Corey Reynolds, Robert Gossett, G.W. Bailey, Anthony John Denison .
Regular airtime: Mondays, 9pm
(TNT; US: 13 Jun 2005)
The Closer is Brenda Johnson. Two other shows (Monk and House MD) featured such dominant central characters, but only The Closer had a lead who could go from slapstick to melodrama to frazzled disorganization to kick-you-in-the-balls toughness with such ease. Kyra Sedgwick was the delight of the tv season, and her portrayal of Johnson showed that a keen mind and quick wit are far better crime-solving tools than the forensic expertise and high-priced technology so prominent in most detective shows. Along with interesting cases and a strong supporting ensemble, Sedgwick made The Closer TV’s top cable show.
The Daily Show
Regular airtime: Weeknights, 11pm
(Comedy Central; US: 22 Jul 1996)
Recently celebrating “10 F#@king Years” of brilliant news show parody, Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart continued to unmask the world phonies in hilarious fashion. In an era when the “real” news found on the major networks is increasingly reliant on sensationalism for ratings, The Daily Show shines its light on the hypocrisy and double-speak of world politics, all while providing riotous entertainment. While the major networks cast cozy morning show hosts in the roles of nightly news anchors, The Daily Show‘s Jon Stewart is primarily a comedian, but one who wields his extensive knowledge of world politics and razor sharp intellect to great effect. In 2006, The Daily Show is where we turned for real news, and really big laughs.
Show Clip: More is Hell
The Next Generation
Dalmar Abuzeid, Sarah Barrable-Tishauer, John Bregar, Stefan Brogren, Deanna Casaluce, Daniel Clark
Regular airtime: Fridays, 8pm
(The N; US: 14 Oct 2001)
Like its suddenly blossomed cast of young adults, Degrassi: The Next Generation is all grown up. It’s not just that the show takes on the big issues—teenage pregnancy, drug use, getting it on with the editor-in-chief of the college newspaper, etc.—since any teen soap worth its salt throws around this kind of heavy drama. Instead, it’s the quieter, less hot-button themes, like Spinner’s yearlong quest for forgiveness for an adolescent prank gone bad, that mark the newer, more mature Degrassi. To complement this new attitude, the look of Degrassi has grown up as well, with moments that are impressively shot and surprisingly cinematic.
Tina Fey, Tracy Morgan, Jane Krakowski, Scott Adsit, Jack McBrayer, Alec Baldwin, Rachel Dratch
Regular airtime: Wednesdays, 8pm ET
(NBC; US: 11 Oct 2006)
Tina Fey’s backstage/workplace comedy, sort of a scrappier kid sister to Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60, has steadily improved since its enjoyable pilot. Fey plays put-upon straight (or bicurious, if you ask her coworkers) woman to a crack batch of eccentrics: Tracy Morgan, who plays crazy with greater gusto than anyone on TV; Alec Baldwin, giving a rich mahogany voice to an unflappable network exec; and relative newcomer Jack McGrayer, an improve vet whose line readings as Kenneth the NBC page elevate his every appearance. With Fey gluing it together, 30 Rock has grown into a thoroughly snappy sitcom—one that would rather end with a punchline than a lesson.
Season Three Finale
Heidi Klum, Tim Gunn
Regular airtime: Wednesdays, 10pm ET
(Bravo; US: 18 Oct 2006)
The third season of Project Runway had its most diverse collection of designers yet, and more drama and comedy than many of the fictionalized shows that aired. There were the drama queens (Vincent, Angela, and Kayne), villains (Jeffrey, Laura, and Keith), and a few regular joes (Michael, Uli, and Alison), who stood on the sidelines watching the fur fly. Runway also featured some of the most creative challenges on reality tv (design a dress made of garbage or an outfit for a dog and owner) and, of course, imaginative and delicious ensembles. While some reality contestants were crawling through the mud to get to the big prize, Runway‘s were creating things of beauty.
Dan Castellaneta, Julie Kavner, Nancy Cartwright, Yeardley Smith, Harry Shearer, Hank Azaria
Regular airtime: Sundays, 8:00pm
Currently in the midst of its 18th season on Fox, The Simpsons hit its stride back in the early ‘90s and has never slowed down. The yellow, four-fingered family of five from 742 Evergreen Terrace are now deeply imbedded in the landscape of pop culture, but that didn’t stop creator Matt Groening and his team of writers and animators from continuing the explore new topics in 2006. By poking fun at the army in episode 383, The Simpsons maintained its fearless devotion to skewering all aspects of American culture, risking reprisal in these “support our troops” times. Moreover, The Simpsons continued to play to its greatest strength in 2006, by holding up a mirror to humanity and making us laugh at our beautiful faults.
Hugh Laurie, Omar Epps, Robert Sean Leonard, Jesse Spencer
Regular airtime: Tuesdays, 9pm
(Fox; US: 16 Nov 2004)
Hugh Laurie has to be the most unlikely dramatic TV star in the history of the American small screen. For decades he’s been part of the British humor renaissance, paired up with Cambridge cohort Stephen Fry for a series of seminal shows. But with his turn as acerbic doc Gregory House, the brilliant performer has almost placed his outrageous comedic style behind him. Instead, he lights up this Fox hit as a physician who should really heed the maxim and heal himself. Now in it’s third season, House is a show that defied the standard ‘disease of the week’ ideal to broaden our understanding of medicine, and the individuals who practice it. It may not always be pretty, but with Laurie in command, it’s compelling as Hell.
Zach Braff, Sarah Chalke, Donald Faison, Neil Flynn, Ken Jenkins, John C. McGinley
Regular airtime: Thursdays, 9pm
(NBC; US: 2 Oct 2001)
While some may call it a sitcom, Scrubs actually doesn’t fit well into such a television category. More character and story driven than your typical laughfest, this medicomedy focuses on individuals, not incidents, to cull its laughs. For fans of Zach Braff, whose hound dog expression seems to mimic a generation unable to fully grow up, this is where his status as a considered slacker started. But thanks to the brilliant ensemble cast surrounding him, Scrubs is much more than a one man show. As a matter of fact, turns by Donald Faison and longtime character actor John C. McGinley make each episode an exercise in performance perfected and characterization clarified. All half hour humoresques should be as witty as this one.
Timothy Olyphant, Ian McShane, John Hawkes, Robin Weigert, Molly Parker, Paula Malcomson, Powers Boothe, Kim Dickens, Alice Krige
Regular airtime: Sundays, 9pm
Deadwood is possibly the most coruscating indictment of American capitalism ever aired in primetime. Here the frontier requires order but has no use for law. Yet it represents a critical moment in history: in the decade between 1877 and 1887, four and a half million migrants flooded the Western plains. This revisionist vision of the pioneer myth is not wholly original. Deadwood capitalizes on the TV series’ spacious format to strip the last vestiges of retrospective nostalgia from the frontier. The humor is cruel, irony pitiless, and cynicism almost absolute. While creator Steven Milch’s previous work—Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue—courted his audience by perfecting the “deeply flawed but deeply touching” character, the clinical detachment of Deadwood is unrelenting.