The Best TV Performances of 2009

It would have been easy to miss most of this year's best, with all the distractions -- Rihanna and Chris, Taylor and Kanye, Adam and his same-sex drummer, Tiger and, well, who knows, and, ugh, Jon and Kate.

Recently, I was interviewed by Niklas Eriksson, a reporter for Sweden's second largest newspaper, Svenska Dagbladet, regarding the re-emergence of the family sitcom in America. Specifically, he asked whether Modern Family had brought the genre back from death. The family sitcom never died, I replied, new shows premiere each year. They've only just sucked, like most other sitcoms. Give people some funny to watch, and they'll tune in, regardless of type or premise.

It happens that there was a lot worth watching on TV this year. However, it would have been easy to miss most of this year's best, with all the distractions -- Rihanna and Chris, Taylor and Kanye, Adam and his same-sex drummer, Tiger and, well, who knows, and, ugh, Jon and Kate. Donny trumped Marie by winning Dancing with the Stars, Kris Allen surprised on American Idol, and both Top Model and Project Runway crowned new champions that we'll never hear from again. Hopefully.

This was the year that the networks started "year-round programming", which means, "Instead of showing repeats all summer, we're going to show crappy reality shows." This was also the year that Guiding Light burned out after 57 years, and Sesame Street got old enough to have a mid-life crisis.

There were also some damn good performances. Edie Falco, Chevy Chase, Julianna Margulies, Laurence Fishburne, and Jeff Goldblum all made big returns to TV, and Drew Barrymore showed she has the acting chops to sustain a long career with Grey Gardens. But there were also some performances that didn't attract so much attention.

The man of the year had to be Neil Patrick Harris, who not only ruled on How I Met Your Mother, but proved himself a worthy successor to George Jessel as a Master MC by rocking the Tonys, Emmys, and TVLand Awards. If you don't know George Jessel, you're probably under 50.

On TV's most buzzed about series Glee, Lea Michelle shows what it would have been like if Idina Menzel had played Tracy Flick in Election and Jane Lynch is delicious as Sue Sylvester, cheer coach from hell. Still, the true scene stealer has been Mike O'Malley as blue-collar, compassionate and befuddled dad Kurt Hummel.

The sweetest teen couple on TV, Non-rich, Spoiled or Threesome-oriented Category, would be Jean-Luc Bilodeau and Magda Apanowicz's Josh and Andy of the cancelled Kyle XY, as Andy had to deal with the recurrence of her cancer. Oh, to be that young and idealistic.

Science fiction enjoyed a boost this year, with several new hit shows. On FlashForward, Broadway great Brian F. O'Byrne shone as a confused dad fighting the urge to hit the bottle, while Alan Tudyk played a far less sympathetic character as an alien FBI agent on V. Lance Reddick has been dynamic all decade, in Oz, The Wire, and now Fringe, making him the winner of this decade's Actor Most Frequently Screwed Over by the Emmys.

Not all adversaries of evil fight the supernatural or otherworldly. On Bones, John Francis Daley as Sweets and Patricia Belcher as DA Julian are sweet and sour, no pun intended, and wonderful comic relief. A little quirkier but equally intelligent is Marshall Marshall on In Plain Sight, played with nonchalance by Frederick Wheeler. Anika Noni Rose was a different type of detective on The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, gangly and insecure, but effective.

In comedy, Kaley Cuoco has proved a worthy counterpart to Jim Parsons as Leonard on Big Bang Theory. In the past year, she's mastered the deadpan response that is so appropriate for Leonard's ramblings. Jane Adams was a hoot as an earth-mother pimp on Hung. Although Edie Falco has gotten all the press this year, Nurse Jackie's Haaz Sleiman has provided more than his due shares of the laughs on a show that emphasizes the "dra" in "dramedy". A bright guest spot on the show was the dynamic Judith Ivey, full of spit and vinegar as a former nurse come back to her old workplace to die.

Meredith Hagner was fun to watch as cybercondriac and nutrition freak Libby on Royal Pains. Libby was initially irritating, but she developed a certain charm over her four appearances. Alex O'Loughlin has charm, but he can't catch a break. After being the vampire du jour on the short-lived Moonlight, he struck out again as a doctor on Three Rivers this fall. In between, though, he turned in an eerie performance as an obsessive-compulsive serial killer on Criminal Minds.

Other moments, small but special, include: Taylor Swift's opening monologue song on SNL and, even though she's overexposed now, Susan Boyle's audition on Britain's Got Talent. Glenn Close not getting shot in the season finale of Damages was spellbinding, while Kyra Sedgwick's eating a ding-dong after her wedding and, later, saying goodbye to Kitty were both subtle but powerful scenes on The Closer.

Of course, I have my complaints about this year's TV. Haven't we all seen enough fighting between rich people, real and fictional? It was fun 25 years ago when Krystle and Alexis rolled around in the reflecting pool on Dynasty, but enough! I'm also tired of the new trend of mini-seasons, where we get a few episodes, then wait four months for the next small batch. Just show me the whole season, then move on to the next show for that time slot. Except for Jay Leno -- perhaps smaller doses would be better.

Here's hoping that you and your Modern Family find much worthwhile to watch in the coming year.

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