High Redefinition: The 30 Best TV Shows of 2007

[17 January 2008]

By PopMatters Staff

In some ways, this feels like an elegy, not a eulogy. Four short months ago, critics were clamoring for the new Fall TV season, celebrating inventive new shows, the return of established actors, and the ongoing reinvention of the medium itself. Phenomenons from 2006 were returning to even more buzz, long running series found ways to reboot, and an aura of experimentation and embracing the different seemed to drive every network’s game plan (well, not every strategy, right Viva Laughlin?). Things were definitely looking up for the annually left for dead entertainment entity—and some of the best material lay in wait for the inevitable midseason replacement call.

Then the writer’s strike hit, and with it, the standard management circling of the wagons. Shows on the cusp were either cut or unceremoniously resurrected, while reality and news oriented programming was scraped for every non-scab fragment of an idea they could provide. Before long, smashes just out of the box were packing up production, while the so-called established series where metering out their current crop of product in financially determined drips and drabs. With no end to the contract dispute in sight, and numerous cancellations in the works, what promised to be one of the best Falls ever has turned into a gallery of missed golden opportunities and a real loss of media momentum.

So what we are left with now are the reminders—and the eventual DVD release of same—of what could have been. Within the next few weeks, many in the current nightly line-up will have to shut down, and once the lights have been dimmed and the set doors closed, opening it all back up will take Herculean efforts, not to mention a boatload of corporate cash. Not all networks may be willing to restart something that barely began in the first place. So in memoriam of a TV season cut down before its prime time, PopMatters staff celebrates the Top 30 TV Shows of 2007. Some are old favorites. Others have barely made their impression felt. But at a time when all broadcast fortunes are up in the air, they definitely deserve the recognition. After all, they remind us of what we’ll be missing all too soon.


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This American Life

(Showtime; US: 22 Mar 2007)

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This American Life Showtime

Ira Glass’ popular radio show with pictures, as Glass travels the country introducing viewers to the unique among us, sans editorializing. The simplicity of Glass’ storytelling allows viewers to bring to the show whatever hue they have on their palate; one could view these stories of ordinary folks doing out of the ordinary things as slices of life or as exposure of the American psyche or as implied commentary on the social order. Regardless of one’s perspective, the stories featured were always interesting and Glass’ approach a pleasant change of pace from the muckraking of many newsmagazines. Michael Abernethy



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Dirty Sexy Money

(ABC; US: 26 Sep 2007)

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Dirty Sexy Money ABC

Yep, Dirty Sexy Money is a soap opera at heart, but one fueled via thinly-veiled caricatures of the powerful and tabloid-friendly, imagined here as a single clan: the graying, disingenuous family patriarch with the smile one dares not trust, the asshole priest, the rising-star politico smitten by a tranny, the empty-headed 20-something scions, and so on. The lawyer hero—our entry point into a growing web of secrets, lies, and double-crosses—might not be as innocent as we’d like to believe. Time will tell, provided cancellation doesn’t strike before we can find out whether or not the patriarch offed his lawyer’s father. Ray Cummings



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Ace of Cakes

(Food Network; US: 17 Aug 2006)

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Ace of Cakes Food Network

Ace of Cakes can be variously enjoyed for: mind blowing cake designs, the pleasure Duff & Company seem to take in their work, and its Baltimore locale. Ace of Cakes is not The Wire, or a Laura Lippman novel, or an early Barry Levinson film, but like such works, it is very much of its place. The series foregrounds the city, making it unique on the Food Network. Not only does “Charm City Cakes” derive from a Baltimore nickname, but episodes routinely feature city icons and landmarks. Examples from 2007 include John Waters, the Baltimore Zoo, and Camden Yards. Whatever it is that makes Baltimore’s creative class invest in their city, Ace of Cakes has it. Shaun Huston



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Tony Bourdain

(The Travel Channel)

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Tony Bourdain: No Reservations Showtime

Don’t call him a foodie. His foul disposition will wipe that sadly misguided sentiment off your McDonald’s filled face. And he’s far from a celebrity chef, since he’s actually spent time in a restaurant cooking for a living. No, Anthony Bourdain is the curmudgeon of capons, the last angry man of culturally correct cuisine. After being mindlessly removed from the floundering Food Network, he’s found ever increasing fame with his moveable Travel Channel feast. Thanks to his straightforward, cynical air and fearless respect for native fare, he makes anyone pretending to be a taste bud trendsetter into a true culinary charlatan. Bill Gibron



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Flight of the Conchords

(HBO; US: 17 Jun 2007)

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Flight of the Conchords HBO

A musical sit-com in which the low-key plotlines are driven by catchy folk-pop tunes. Jemaine and Brett are a New Zealand duo living in a tiny New York City apartment and hoping to make it to thebig time.  Dimwitted and deadpan, they mostly converse, and sing,about girls. Typical song: “A Kiss Is Not a Contract”, delivered to a “bastard girl” who only wants Brett (pronounced Brit in Kiwi) for his body. Without the songs, this one-note show would be funny in a Seinfeld meets Napoleon Dynamite sort of way.  But with the songs, it enters new territory, comedy we can hum. Peter Swanson



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The Daily Show

(Comedy Central; US: 22 Jul 1996)

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The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Comedy Central

With the Presidential Primaries in full swing, was any show in this truncated TV season immediately missed more than The Daily Show? In recent times the show has seemed a victim of its own success, emaciated by the loss of Stephen Colbert, Ed Helms, and Steve Carell. But in 2007 it recaptured its former glory, particularly during a stellar summer run that saw some of the show’s best material to date. The barely watchable writer-less edition of the show only further illustrates how hard it is to put together such biting material four times a week, and only makes viewers more appreciative of what The Daily Show accomplishes at its best. Nav Purewal



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The Colbert Report

(Comedy Central; US: 17 Oct 2005)

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The Colbert Report Comedy Central

Last year’s best-of lists asked how The Colbert Report would ever outdo its deliriously bonkers 2006 season, which began in a White House scuffle and ended in, well, guitarmageddon. To their, and our, eternal gratitude, the show’s staff managed to out-“Coal-bert” Colbert from its first days back from hiatus. The 2007 Report featured more wordplay (a “Meta-free-phor-all” moderated by U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky), more singing (in Korean!), more fisticuffs (a waterfight with Richard Branson), and more acts of hubris (a quixotic run for president). But the show’s best work of the year, the WristStrong campaign, brought the considerable generosity of Stephen Colbert the real-life entity to Colbert the character. I am missing this humane side of The Colbert Report this winter, and so can you. Maureen Miller



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Chuck

(NBC; US: 24 Sep 2007)

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Chuck NBC

One of the best new shows of Fall 2007 was Chuck, about a computer tech working in the “Nerd Herd” at Buy More, a parodic Los Angeles electronics superstore. When Chuck’s old college roommate-turned-spy emails the video-encoded contents of the CIA/NSA’s joint intelligence files, all the world’s biggest secrets get embedded in Chuck’s brain. He quickly acquires handlers from each agency. Sarah is the hot blonde from the CIA posing as Chuck’s girlfriend. Adam Baldwin is brilliant as Casey, the menacing NSA man keeping an eye on Chuck. Joshua Gomez plays Morgan, Chuck’s coworker and super-dorky best friend, perfectly. Most winning of is the burbling chemistry between Zachary Levi and Yvonne Strahovsky, who portray the maybe-faux-couple Chuck and Sarah with just the right notes of awkwardness and melancholy. Each week, Chuck offers a fun new caper and the deepening of a very rewarding cast of characters. When the writers’ strike is over, don’t let reality TV win the airwaves. In 2008, vote for Chuck. Michael Keefe



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The Wire

(HBO; US: 2 Jun 2002)

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The Wire HBO

Until 2007, Wire co-creator Ed Burns had been something of a silent partner in David Simon’s searing (and occasionally sneering) off-screen critiques of epidemic institutional complicity. Season four shifted the focus to the laconic ex-schoolteacher’s more solutions-minded version of it on-screen, and the show became richer and sharper for bringing Burns’ realpolitik to the fore. A companion to Burns’ “Hamsterdam” arc from season three, which introduced viewers to “corner kids” left behind by caretakers trying to save face, Season four’s school system arc explained how the kids were made, in more ways than one.  Reducing its affecting narrative to a single exchange or performance would be like solving Baltimore’s budget crisis. (I’d go with Namond’s trip to the steakhouse, or the series of betrayals that destroyed Duquan and Randy.) There’s a saying in The Wire, “the game is the game.” During season four the show wasn’t a show anymore, which made it all the more difficult to not hit “play”. Maureen Miller



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Friday Night Lights

(NBC; US: 3 Oct 2006)

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Friday Night Lights NBC

Amid a television landscape obsessed with the lives of the rich and spoiled, Friday Night Lights is something of a miracle. It’s a show about a middle-of-nowhere Texas town and the people living there paycheck to paycheck, yet it’s enthralling, big-hearted, frequently hilarious, and thankfully devoid of the clichés about the heartland that crop up whenever Hollywood steps out of its blue state comfort zone. Friday Night Lights treats all of its characters with humanity, even though it understands that not everyone’s dreams of a better life are within reach. And while the strategy of football has never been more exciting or easier to follow, the show sees it as more than just a game: it’s a dangerous obsession, a temporary solution to the depression of small town routine, and a metaphor for the frustrating unpredictability of life itself. Jack Rodgers



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Countdown with Keith Olbermann

(MSNBC; US: 31 Mar 2003)

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Countdown with Keith Olbermann MSNBC

Some say he’s inherited the mantle left behind by previous broadcast giants like Edward R. Murrow (whose ‘goodnight and good luck’ catchphrase he liberally borrows) and Walter Cronkite. Yet the former EPSN analyst’s shtick is far more politicized than his predecessors. Beginning with his anti-Bush posturing - he loves to point out the number of days since the President declared “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq—and ending with his famed Special Comments, Olbermann is the perfect pundit, a man unashamed of speaking his mind. That it frequently reflects the truth of a situation makes the one sided reportage all the more meaningful. Bill Gibron



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Ugly Betty

(ABC; US: 28 Sep 2006)

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Ugly Betty ABC

Ugly Betty‘s a total soap opera. It dramatizes the struggles of children and grandchildren of Mexican immigrants. So it’s just The Devil Wears Prada reconceived as a television series, right. No: Ugly Betty‘s simply more proof that unlimited wealth can’t buy happiness, that the richest 1% of Americans have problems, too. Maybe the series does act as a loose post-mortem critique of John F. Kennedy Jr.? Question: which statement is true? Answer: all of them, which is what makes this America Ferrera-helmed vehicle one of the fiercest, funniest comedy-dramas going right now. Did I forget to mention how ceaselessly hilarious this show also is? Shame on me. Ray Cummings



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The Sopranos

(HBO; US: 8 Apr 2007)

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The Sopranos HBO

Cut to black. With that, The Sopranos ended and sparked a conversation about TV as art. Television is often implicated in American culture wars, but those are clashes about content. The impassioned debate about The Sopranos’ finale is about form and meaning. Is that any way to end a drama? Does the “nothingness” signify death? Or is it an elision of false resolutions? These are not questions asked of series television. Find flaws if you want with “Kevin Finnerty”, or time spent on Vito Spatafore (Joseph Gannacoli), or how abruptly Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) drops Tony (James Gandolfini), or the cut to black, The Sopranos expanded the horizons of American TV. And for that it can’t be faulted. Shaun Huston



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Big Love

(HBO)

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Big Love HBO

Season two of HBO’s polygamy drama picked up two weeks after season one, with Utah businessman Bill Henrickson in danger of being exposed as a man with three wives.  Despite a typical season’s worth of plot machinations—a video game poker enterprise, a possible fourth wife, the hardcore polygamists that make up the Henrickson’s extended family—the show sticks to what it does best, depicting a modern-day family trying, with genuine conviction and love, to make it work. The writers never condescend, and they never turn away. The acting is across-the-board excellent but Jean Tripplehorn as proud, lovelorn first wife Barbara, and Chloe Sevigny as Nicky, the wily second wife, stand out. Peter Swanson



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VH1’s The White Rapper Show

(VH1; US: 8 Jan 2007)

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VH1’s The (White) Rapper Show VH1

Every now and again, reality television as a genre knocks one out of the park. Witness VH1’s The (White) Rapper Show, wherein a bespeckled, grizzly MC Serch put a rag-tag group of melanin-deficient hopefuls through hip-hop boot camp. The program functioned almost as a honkie microcosm of commercial, “real-deal” rap world, with a contestant for almost every possible role: John Brown as cold, conniving gangsta, Jus Rhyme as backpacker activist, Persia as b-girl female jonesin’ for respect, $hamrock as florid Lil Wayne clone, and so on. The (White) Rapper Show began—seemingly—as a way for channel-surfers to feel superior to yet another cultural public, but concluded as an unwittingly addictive cousin to Bravo’s Project Runway: we were granted a window into the bare mechanics of an art and the ugly clashes erupting between ambitious personalities. Now: when are those debut albums gonna drop? Ray Cummings



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Ninja Warrior

(G4 Television; US: 26 Sep 1997)

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Ninja Warrior G4 Television

Imagine MXC without the excessive toilet humor. Actually, imagine the Spike series original production, Takashi’s Castle, with actual reverence for the source. Looking for a way to broaden their fanbase, the video game oriented G4 cable channel bought truncated versions of Sasuke (a seasonal televised athletic contest) and renamed it. Now presenting all 19 seasons, including the females only Women of Ninja Warrior, this intensely entertaining obstacle course competition features recurring participants, outrageous stunts, and more than a few spectacular failures. In fact, one of the best elements of this show is its difficulty. It truly rewards only the best and most accomplished. Bill Gibron



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South Park

(Comedy Central)

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South Park Comedy Central

Rumor has it that Brad Neely, creator of such internet staples as The Professor Brothers and Baby Cakes, was a consultant for this year’s season (11, for those counting) of South Park. It’s unconfirmed, but would explain the crowning achievement of the most irreverent show (cartoon or otherwise) on television: the “Imaginationland” Trilogy. If South Park this year will be remembered for anything, it will be this epic, ridiculous, avant, cult arc that posits a terrorist attack on Imaginationland and the government’s response. Indicative of what the show has become—topical and absolutely batshit crazy simultaneously—the trilogy stands against other season staples: parodies of Hillary Clinton, U2, Guitar Hero, Michael Richards, Gay Camp, and zombies. Who knew back when flying excrement was the motif of the day that South Park would be the pop culture junkies’ best friend? Mordechai Shinefield



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Human Giant

(MTV; US: 5 Apr 2007)

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Human Giant MTV

It was a short series run and a good chunk of the sketches were re-plays of the Internet shorts that got them there. But the comedians who make up Human Giant—Aziz Ansari, Rob Huebel, Paul Scheer, Jason Woliner—had a promising debut on MTV this year, welding Kids in the Hall and Mr. Show with New York geek cool that was absurd, accessible, and contagiously fun. They’re equally talented played broad or straight to their inspired guests (Linda Cardellini as the head of a mother/son moving company, pint sized ham Bobb’e J. Thompson as the head of Shutterbugs). And with their 24-hour marathon they proved they’re not just funny in two-minute bursts. Michael Buening



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Veronica Mars

(UPN)

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Veronica Mars CW Network

This year, the CW robbed us of TV’s craftiest detective in favor of the younger, blander Gossip Girl—the kind of bonehead move Veronica herself would take down with a single acidic one-liner. Not being as verbally blessed as Ms. Mars (who is?), I’ll simply note that the final chunk of the third season—including a sex tape, a sheriff election, and Paul Rudd as a besotted rock star—kept to the show’s high standards, right up to a series finale as intriguing, thorny, and frustratingly unresolved as vintage noir. Jesse Hassenger



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House

(Fox; US: 16 Nov 2004)

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House Fox

Last season, show creator David Shore did something incredibly ballsy. He had all of the House ducklings (Chase, Cameron and Foreman) either quit or be fired. Essentially, he wiped the show clean—something admittedly needed after the extended Tritter fiasco. Still, it could’ve been the moment that Gregory House jumped the shark. Instead, we were treated to a Survivor-style reality show in which House took a room full of potential new ducklings and whittled them down to three. As always it was sharp, indignant, and hysterical, but for the first time, every episode seemed essential. Unlike Tritter (and the first season Vogler), it was a House arc worth paying attention to. Not to mention Kal Penn. Genius. Mordechai Shinefield



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Metalocalypse

(Cartoon Network; US: 6 Aug 2006)

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Metalocalypse Adult Swim/Cartoon Network

In a programming realm that’s seen similar slices of animated brilliance, Metalocalypse stands apart. To call it better than Spinal Tap would not be an overstatement. This is by far the smartest, most insightful statement concerning metal ever conceived. The obvious creation of true fans, what we witness is the direct deconstruction of the sex/drugs/rock ‘n’ roll mythos mixed with every warning ever issued by the PMRC and the FCC. These animated agent provocateurs are absolutely flawless. Toss in a selection of songs that turns the power of parody on its pointed little head and you’ve got a remarkable example of The Evil Dead meets anime. Bill Gibron



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Dexter

(Showtime; US: 1 Oct 2006)

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Dexter Showtime

Definitely one of television’s most subversive series: what other show would dare feature a cat and mouse duel between a serial killer and an action-hero cop, and have viewers rooting for the killer. Or a stalker ex-girlfriend whose murder was eagerly anticipated and cheered by fans. With taut writing and powerful performances, Dexter‘s second season was slasher-horror, psychological study, boy-meets-loses-gets-girl romance, and office politics drama. Michael C. Hall shook off any lingering memories of Six Feet Under, frighteningly barring the soul of television’s most complex good guy / bad guy. Michael Abernethy



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Heroes

(NBC; US: 25 Sep 2006)

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Heroes NBC

Season two of Heroes, NBC’s weekly drama about genetically gifted do-gooders and villains, got off to a slow start. An amnesiac Peter Patrelli spent a lot of time crushing on an Irish barmaid, Matt the cop and Doc Mohinder were playing My Two Dads, and loveable time-traveler Hiro hopped back to 17th-century Japan to live out a fairy-tale. Least interesting of all: would Claire make the cheerleading squad at her new high school? Gradually, though, the pace accelerated, the risks heightened, and the stories intertwined. Soon, we discovered that the parents of several heroes had designed a virus that threatened to wipe out most of humanity. Also, a neutralized Sylar hooked up with Maya, a deadly Latina on the lam. In the wild finale of Heroes’ strike-shortened season, the good guys saved the world again. Still, the future seems grim. It looks like mother Patrelli has gone filicidal. Oh, and Sylar? He’s baaa-aack. Michael Keefe



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Mad Men

(AMC; US: 19 Jul 2007)

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Mad Men AMC

AMC’s Mad Men is rightly noted for its gorgeous production design, but that look backgrounds intelligent, searching drama.  Set in 1960, Matthew Weiner’s series hints at explosions to come in U.S. society, but resists rewriting the past to make what follows seem inevitable. This is particularly true with regards to gender, and the show’s unapologetic depiction of sexism, but extends to race, ethnicity, and sexuality. In a fabulous exchange from “New Amsterdam,” Roger Sterling (John Slattery) explains generational differences to Don Draper (Jon Hamm) in terms of service in war. The U.S. war in Vietnam simultaneously frames this moment and is hardly a glimmer in the minds of Sterling and Draper. Mad Men is deft and beautiful TV. Shaun Huston



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The Simpsons

(Fox)

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The Simpsons Fox

As part of the recent Simpsons Movie DVD package, Fox offered a Season 19 trailer that jokingly states that this is the one show that “will never die”—and frankly, why should it. Certainly, old fans who’ve long since abandoned ship (usually for messageboard myopathy), continue to complain about newcomers keeping the show in ratings rewards. Yet what most critics miss is the fact that, even with its occasional uneven results, Groening and the gang have managed to find success within the simplest of formulas—the dysfunctional yet loving family. Two decades on, that definitely deserves some credit. Bill Gibron



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Battlestar Galactica

(Sci Fi Channel; US: 8 Dec 2003)

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Battlestar Galactica The Sci-Fi Channel

No shootouts, no fights, no space battles—as the third season of Battlestar Galactica drew to a close, its creators took a huge risk by ignoring the sort of action we’ve come to expect from the show and instead turning it into a courtroom drama. But the stakes remained as high as ever: the trial of Gaius Baltar, former President of humanity and possible Cylon collaborator, was a scathing look at the mob-like desire to see someone crucified in the wake of a tragedy rather than ask hard questions about how the disaster happened in the first place. If The Wire is a brilliant, multi-layered expose of how the institutions of our society—the government, law enforcement, the legal system—are unintentionally rotting our cities from within, then Battlestar Galactica is a fascinating “what if” scenario about how those institutions might function when the civilization that produced them is gone. Jack Rodgers



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The Office

(NBC)

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The Office NBC

The Office’s creative team has struggled maintaining ongoing storylines while masking the show’s conventional episodic structures within its documentary style and staying consistent through numerous extended episodes. For non-stop gags they’ve been overshadowed by 30 Rock. But they constantly seek ways to tweak themselves as a deeper exploration of modern ennui, balancing moments of unexpected fulfillment while constantly tracking soul crushing frustration. As the relationship between Pam and Jim blossomed into something sweet, heartbreak shifted to Dwight’s falling apart over his break-up with Angela and Michael Scott’s dysfunctional relationship with Jan. From the absurdly astute (Dwight’s reproduction of his real life in Second Life, except he can fly) to the depressingly realistic (Ryan’s wunkderkind facial hair) the writers and performers still show an endless capacity for trenchantly illuminating the struggle of cubicle drones against their ho-hum circumstances. Michael Buening



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Lost

(ABC; US: 4 Oct 2006)

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Lost ABC

The six episodes of Lost’s third season that aired in 2006 were met with viewer and critical ambivalence, but the sixteen that aired in 2007 were the best run of the series thus far. With a concrete end date on the horizon, show-runners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse quit dragging their feet and pushed the series forward at a relentless pace. Longstanding questions were finally answered, and though others were raised, at this point it’s clear they’re not just making it up as they go along. It all culminated in a brilliant two-hour finale that proved that if the next three seasons are even just nearly this good, Lost will be remembered as one of the defining shows of a very good decade. Nav Purewal



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30 Rock

(NBC; US: 11 Oct 2006)

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30 Rock NBC

Tina Fey’s workplace comedy is many things: a media satire, a speedy farce, and a love/hate letter to New York City, among others. In fact, the show has mastered so many styles of comedy at once that picking stand-outs is like choosing a favorite Beatle, or a preferred watch gear. How can you compare the instantly quotable, stream-of-unconsciousness Tracy Jordan rants with Jack McBrayer’s loopy earnestness or Alec Baldwin’s hushed deadpan? Less flashy but maybe best is Fey herself as comedy writer Liz Lemon. Scarfing an entire steak, calling Homeland Security on her neighbor, holding her bras together with tape, and still managing to look like the smartest one in the room, she finds hilarious new angles on career gal tropes. Jesse Hassenger



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Pushing Daisies

(ABC; US: 3 Oct 2007)

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Pushing Daisies ABC

Never before has a show so consumed with death been so darn perky. In a year when even the strongest comedies like The Office try to make us feel at least a little bit bad inside, Pushing Daisies reverses the formula and turns a dark premise into a virtual antidepressant. The setting is pure fairy-tale, an eclectic mix of candy shops, old-timey cars, and a city of vibrant, sunny colors. The leads are easily lovable, oozing charm and adorability and full of whip-smart banter. Even the ongoing will-they-or-won’t is more affirming than in most other shows—the scales are so tipped toward “will” (except for that minor touch-her-and-she dies thing) that the yearning experienced by the lead characters feels more like giddy pleasure-delaying. Taken as a whole, the affect is not unlike a fresh-baked pie with fancy cheese grated into the crust. Marisa LaScala


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/high-redefinition-the-30-best-tv-shows-of-2007/