The Best Television Performers of 2008

More than anything, though, I wish all those political pundits would take some time off, to rest and let their vocal cords recuperate. That truly would make for a happy new year.

Eli Stone

Airtime: Thursdays, 10pm ET
Cast: Jonny Lee Miller, Victor Garber, Loretta Devine, Natasha Henstridge, James Saito, Laura Benanti
MPAA rating: N/A
Subtitle: Series Premiere
Network: ABC
US release date: 2008-01-31

Pushing Daisies

Airtime: Wednesdays, 8pm ET
Cast: Lee Pace, Anna Friel, Chi McBride, Kristin Chenoweth
MPAA rating: N/A
Subtitle: Series Premiere
Network: ABC
US release date: 2007-10-03

The Mentalist

Airtime: Tuesdays, 9pm ET
Cast: Simon Baker, Robin Tunney, Amanda Righetti, Tim Kang, Owain Yeoman
MPAA rating: N/A
Subtitle: Series Premiere
Network: CBS
US release date: 2008-09-23

Criminal Minds

Airtime: Wednesdays, 9pm ET
Cast: Joe Mantegna, Thomas Gibson, Paget Brewster, Shemar Moore, Matthew Gray Gubler, A. J. Cook, Kristin Vangsness
MPAA rating: N/A
Subtitle: Season Four Premiere
Network: CBS
US release date: 2008-09-24

True Blood

Airtime: Sundays, 9pm ET
Cast: Anna Paquin, Ryan Kwanten, Rutina Wesley, Michael Raymond-James
MPAA rating: N/A
Subtitle: Series Premiere
Network: HBO
US release date: 2008-09-07

It was a busy year for television -- a writer's strike, the unveiling of the networks' new year-round programming, Lindsay Lohan's firing from Ugly Betty, and enough reality television to prove that someone will make a series about anything (Parking Wars… really? What next, The Real Housewives of Boise? And who exactly is Rachel Zoe?). Oh, yeah, there was an election. I seem to recall something on TV about that.

While many Americans were watching their personal savings wither, political journalists and pundits were seeing their fortunes grow, appearing on television with increasing frequency as the election process proceeded. Some, it seemed, were inescapable, such as Andrea Mitchell, voicing the concerns of the upper-class, surgically improved crowd, and Andrew Sullivan, representing the vast English gay conservative demographic here in the States. For 2012, news outlets could hire an elderly Hungarian gypsy woman with a crystal ball and a pack of rabid, mutant dogs, and it's doubtful we'd notice any difference in coverage.

Television will be different without Tim Russert, though, a classy and savvy journalist who will be missed. Here's hoping David Gregory can craft his own noteworthy legacy on Meet the Press. Another journalist standout was Gwen Ifill, whose Washington Week was one of the few news shows offering regular deep discussions of issues other than the election. And who would have thought that it would be Joy Behar of The View asking John McCain the tough questions?

The television star of the year was an emerging comedienne, whose comic portrayal of a clueless politician raised serious questions about the qualifications required to govern the U. S. I'm talking about Sarah Palin, and I don't mean Tina Fey's brilliant impersonation. The real Palin was the comic highlight of the year, with her Joe Six-pack colloquialisms and rambling attempts to answer questions. Unfortunately, the fact that Palin's act was no act made the whole thing rather terrifying, allowing Fey to claim the actual title for Performance of the Year. Nothing on television this year made me laugh harder than watching Fey's take on the Republican VP candidate.

However, over on little seen LOGO, two performers did give Fey a run for the title. Caroline Rhea and Beth Grant, as redneck, trailer park neighbors Noleta and Sissy on Sordid Lives, have been outrageously funny. It is especially nice to see Grant, who has guest-starred on almost every series of the last two decades, finally step into a role so well suited to her Southern-fried talent.

A bit more sophisticated than Rhea and Grant have been Loretta Devine and Victor Garber on ABC's recently cancelled Eli Stone. I originally wasn't impressed with Garber's performance, but this season gave Garber a chance to stretch, showing his character's softer side. Devine has run the gamut this season, handling both drama and comedy with equal skill. ABC should keep the show on the air just to allow these two song and dance vets the chance to strut their stuff.

The same could be said of ABC's cancelled Pushing Daisies; Kristen Chenowith's rendition of The Bangles' "Eternal Flame" was haunting and heartbreaking.

The Breakout Star of the year is Simon Baker. Though he's hardly a TV newcomer, The Mentalist has allowed him to put his Aussie charm and grit to their best use yet. Just think how much better the show would be if Baker had a costar with whom he had some chemistry instead of the wooden Robin Tunney.

Nerds have become more numerous on TV in recent years, but today's nerd not only comes with a wealth of technological skills, he or she also has tattoos, piercings, multi-colored hair, and other manifestations of nonconformity. Two of the most appealing of this crowd are Kirsten Vangsness, Garcia on Criminal Minds, and Pauley Perrette, Abby on the surprisingly hot

NCIS. Both provide needed comic relief, but also bring to their respective shows a sense of innocence missing in some of the "hardened" detectives.

Over in Nerdville, The Big Bang Theory, Jim Parson's socially inept Sheldon gets most of the attention and laughs, but it is Johnny Galecki's Leonard who is the show's heart. Galecki makes Leonard the most sympathetic character on the show, despite Leonard's high IQ.

Far from nerdish, True Blood's Ryan Kwanten wins the award for the TV star whose butt appeared on screen most often, not that anyone was complaining. Still, the show's scene stealers were Nelsan Ellis' flamboyant yet macho Lafayette and William Sanderson's weary Sheriff Bud Dearborne. Sanderson has become a master of understated comic delivery.

Among guest stars, Jane Lynch was a standout as both doctor and patient, playing Charlie's sarcastic psychiatrist on Two and a Half Men and Spencer's crazy mom on Criminal Minds. Tom Cavanaugh also got to show his dramatic skill, playing Eli's drunk, visionary father on Eli Stone, while Frances Sternhagen and Barry Corbin were a blast as Brenda's loving, meddlesome parents on The Closer. Another TV vet, Daniel J. Travanti, was moving (and unrecognizable) as a patient suffering from a chronic headache for years on Grey's Anatomy.

In reality programming, I'm still trying to tell the difference between David Cook and David Archuleta. Let's see -- one of them won American Idol and the other won Simon Cowell's undying devotion? Oh, that's right -- I don't care. The reality star of the year had to be Cloris Leachman, who won more fans in a few weeks on Dancing with the Stars than she had done in 60 years in the biz. Still, no one gets bigger props than Marlee Matlin, who not only held her own on Dancing, but did a better job than many of the hearing contestants.

I do have high hopes for the coming television year, particularly if an actors' strike doesn't plummet us into another abyss of desperation reality programming like the one endured this past year. I hope that February hurries up and gets here and the Obama administration doesn't put off the switch to digital signals, so I don't have to look at any more scrolling reminders about it. I hope that whoever decided to revive Mr. Bill's career doesn't have any more dumb-ass ideas. And I really hope that networks with the words "movies" and "classic" in their names will adopt stricter standards of what constitutes a "classic" -- FYI, St. Elmo's Fire isn't one.

More than anything, though, I wish all those political pundits would take some time off, to rest and let their vocal cords recuperate. That truly would make for a happy new year.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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