Net-Works: The Best TV of 2006

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:

TV Show: Grey’s Anatomy
Subtitle: Season Three Premiere
US release date: 2006-09-21
Network: ABC
Cast: Ellen Pompeo, Sandra Oh, Katherine Heigl, Chandra Wilson, Sara Ramírez, Kate Walsh, Patrick Dempsey
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/tv_art/g/greys-anatomy-2006.jpg
Website: http://abc.go.com/primetime/greysanatomy/index
MPAA rating: N/A
Trailer: http://abc.go.com/primetime/greysanatomy/page?pn=video
Airtime: Thursdays, 9pm ET

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List number: 20

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. Samantha Bornemann

Grey’s Anatomy

TV Show: The Closer
US release date: 2005-06-13
Network: TNT
Cast: Kyra Sedgwick, J.K. Simmons, Corey Reynolds, Robert Gossett, G.W. Bailey, Anthony John Denison .
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/tv_art/c/closer-2006.jpg
Website: http://alt.tnt.tv/closer/
MPAA rating: N/A
Airtime: Mondays, 9pm

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List number: 19

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. Michael Abernethy

The Closer

TV Show: The Daily Show
US release date: 1996-07-22
Network: Comedy Central
Cast: John Stewart
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/tv_art/d/daily_show_cast_2006.jpg
Website: http://www.comedycentral.com/shows/the_daily_show/index.jhtml
MPAA rating: N/A
Airtime: Weeknights, 11pm

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List number: 18

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. Michael Keefe

Show Clip: More is HellThe Daily Show

TV Show: Degrassi
Subtitle: The Next Generation
US release date: 2001-10-14
Network: The N
Cast: Dalmar Abuzeid, Sarah Barrable-Tishauer, John Bregar, Stefan Brogren, Deanna Casaluce, Daniel Clark
Image: http://ded5626.inmotionhosting.com/~popmat6/tv/reviews/d/images/degrassi-next-generation.jpg
Website: http://www.ctv.ca/mini/degrassi2006/index.html
MPAA rating: N/A
Airtime: Fridays, 8pm

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List number: 17

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. Marisa LaScalaDegrassi: The Next Generation

TV Show: 30 Rock
Subtitle: Series Premiere
US release date: 2006-10-11
Network: NBC
Cast: Tina Fey, Tracy Morgan, Jane Krakowski, Scott Adsit, Jack McBrayer, Alec Baldwin, Rachel Dratch
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/tv_art/3/30-rock1.jpg
Website: http://www.nbc.com/30_Rock/
MPAA rating: N/A
Trailer: http://www.nbc.com/30_Rock/
Airtime: Wednesdays, 8pm ET

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List number: 16

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. Jesse Hassenger

30 Rock

TV Show: Project Runway
Subtitle: Season Three Finale
US release date: 2006-10-18
Network: Bravo
Cast: Heidi Klum, Tim Gunn
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/tv_art/p/project-runway-2006.jpg
Website: http://www.bravotv.com/Project_Runway/
MPAA rating: N/A
Trailer: http://dw.com.com/redir?ltype=&siteid=45&edid=3&asId=&astId=&ptId=&ontid=49&ttag=vid_7265&lop=vid_sum&orderId=&destURL=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.tv.com%2Fmedia_player%2F7265%2F4%2Fviewer.php%3Fcontext_type%3D101%26context_id%3D26278%26tag%3Dvideos%3Bbutton%3B36
Airtime: Wednesdays, 10pm ET

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List number: 15

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. Michael AbernethyProject Runway

TV Show: The Simpsons
Network: Fox
Cast: Dan Castellaneta, Julie Kavner, Nancy Cartwright, Yeardley Smith, Harry Shearer, Hank Azaria
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/tv_art/s/simpsons-2006.png
Website: http://www.thesimpsons.com/
First date: 1989-12-17
Airtime: Sundays, 8:00pm

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List number: 14

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. Michael KeefeThe Simpsons

TV Show: House
US release date: 2004-11-16
Network: Fox
Cast: Hugh Laurie, Omar Epps, Robert Sean Leonard, Jesse Spencer
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/tv_art/h/house-md-2006.jpg
Website: http://www.fox.com/house/
MPAA rating: N/A
Airtime: Tuesdays, 9pm

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List number: 13

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. Bill GibronHouse

TV Show: Scrubs
US release date: 2001-10-02
Network: NBC
Cast: Zach Braff, Sarah Chalke, Donald Faison, Neil Flynn, Ken Jenkins, John C. McGinley
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/tv_art/s/scrubs-2006.jpg
Website: http://www.scrubs-tv.com/
MPAA rating: N/A
Airtime: Thursdays, 9pm

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List number: 12

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. Bill GibronScrubs

TV Show: Deadwood
Network: HBO
Cast: Timothy Olyphant, Ian McShane, John Hawkes, Robin Weigert, Molly Parker, Paula Malcomson, Powers Boothe, Kim Dickens, Alice Krige
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/tv_art/d/deadwood-2006.jpg
Website: http://www.hbo.com/deadwood/
Airtime: Sundays, 9pm

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List number: 11

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. Lesley SmithDeadwood

Net-Works: The PopMatters Picks for Best TV, 2006 Part 2

TV Show: My Name is Earl
US release date: 2005-09-20
Network: NBC
Cast: Jason Lee, Jaime Pressly, Ethan Suplee, Nadine Velazquez, Eddie Steeples
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/tv_art/m/my-name-is-earl-2006.jpg
Website: http://www.nbc.com/My_Name_Is_Earl/
First date: 2005-09-20
Airtime: Thursdays, 8:00pm

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List number: 10

Capping off its first season and launching its second in 2006, NBC’s sweet, funny, and irreverent My Name Is Earl is the story of a petty crook who turns his life around after discovering karma. Earl, portrayed with pitch-perfect low-key enthusiasm by Jason Lee, has quickly become one of the most loveable characters in television, simply by keeping an open mind to the world around him as he tries to right the wrongs of his life. Joining him on his journey are his dopey brother Randy, Earl’s delightfully obnoxious ex-wife Joy, her husband Darnell (aka, “Crab Man”), and Catalina, the sexy Latina maid who works at the run-down motel where Earl and Randy reside. In 2006, My Name Is Earl was scripted comedy at its finest. Michael Keefe

My Name is Earl

TV Show: The Colbert Report
US release date: 2005-10-17
Network: Comedy Central
Cast: Stephen Colbert
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/tv_art/c/colbert-report-2006.jpg
Website: http://www.colbertnation.com/
MPAA rating: N/A
Airtime: Weeknights, 11:30pm

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List number: 9

It was serendipity that led Stephen Colbert to introduce “truthiness” to the world on his very first broadcast, inadvertently providing the defining concept of these fractious times. In the months since his fall 2005 debut, Colbert’s mock-O’Reilly-punditry program has engendered a fiercely loyal following: He says it, and his minions make it so (at least on Wikipedia). Colbert keeps things moving with his infectious energy and let-me-entertain-you vibe, but it’s more than just a satire of blowhard talking heads: The show takes dead aim at the media’s groveling acceptance of the current administration, occasionally delivering punch lines, like those related to troop deaths, that draw as many gasps as cheers. To use another of Colbert’s favorite terms, the show has balls. Daniel CarlsonThe Colbert Report

TV Show: Heroes
Subtitle: Series Premiere
US release date: 2006-09-25
Network: NBC
Cast: Santiago Cabrera, Ali Larter, Masi Oka, Hayden Panettiere, Adrian Pasdar, Sendhil Ramamurth, Milo Ventimiglia
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/tv_art/h/heroes-2006.jpg
Website: http://www.nbc.com/Heroes/
MPAA rating: N/A
Trailer: http://www.nbc.com/
Airtime: Mondays, 9pm ET

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List number: 8

Serialized dramas with ensemble casts were the name of the game in scripted television for the 2006 fall season. Everyone wanted to copy the success of ABC’s Lost, but only NBC’s Heroes has proven a success. The show’s creators understood what made Lost a hit: compelling characters with complicated motives and personal demons. The “good guys” of Heroes often behave like anti-heroes, while the villains are drawn in shades of gray. We have a cheerleader who needs to be saved from herself. And possibly her father. The flying politician is a liar, the super-powered hot mom a killer, and the visionary artist an addict. Although the plotting may at times stretch thin, a fascinating collection of super-freaks made Heroes the breakout show of 2006. Michael Keefe

Heroes

TV Show: Battlestar Galactica
US release date: 2003-12-08
Network: Sci Fi Channel
Cast: Edward James Olmos, Mary McDonnell, Katee Sackhoff, Jamie Bamber, Grace Park, Tricia Helfer
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/tv_art/b/battlestar-galactica-2006.jpg
Website: http://www.scifi.com/battlestar/
MPAA rating: N/A
Airtime: Fridays, 9pm

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List number: 7

Odd but true: The cable show with the geeky name is turning out to be one of the best dramas on the air. Detailing the exploits of the human survivors of a genocide perpetrated by the Cylon robots they created, Battlestar Galactica packs more action, drama, and pathos into one episode than most shows do in a year. Edward James Olmos is the gruff heart of the show as the admiral leading a ragged fleet of spaceships in search of the mythical Earth, and the show deftly explores such weighty topics as the role of the military in government and the place of religion in modern society, as well as asking the ultimate question: Free from law, what makes us human? Daniel CarlsonBattlestar Galactica

TV Show: Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip
US release date: 2006-09-18
Network: NBC
Cast: Matthew Perry, Bradley Whitford, Amanda Peet, Sarah Paulson, Timothy Busfield, D.L. Hughley, Steven Weber, Nathan Coddry
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/tv_art/s/studio_60_on_the_sunset_strip-2006.jpg
Website: http://www.studio60theseries.com/
MPAA rating: N/A
Trailer: http://www.studio60theseries.com/
Airtime: Mondays, 10pm ET

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List number: 6

Yes, it’s cheesy and heavy-handed. And granted, the show within the show is almost never very funny. But Aaron Sorkin’s saga about the goings-on behind an SNL-like sketch comedy show is every bit as great as it is flawed. With Sorkin’s flair for witty, intelligent sentiment, superb direction led by fellow West Wing refugee Thomas Schlamme, and the tremendous interplay between leading men Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford, Studio 60 may have television’s best one-two punch both behind the camera and in front of it, further bolstered by a stellar supporting cast, led by the magnetic breakout star Sarah Paulson. And if the Christmas episode didn’t leave you emotional and giddy, you’re too heartless for anything but cop procedurals and reality shows. Amos Posner

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip

TV Show: Lost
US release date: 2006-10-04
Network: ABC
Cast: Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Naveen Andrews, Henry Ian Cusick, Michael Emerson, Matthew Fox, Jorge Garcia, Josh Holloway, Daniel Dae Kim, Yunjin Kim, Evangeline Lilly, Elizabeth Mitchell, Dominic Monaghan, Terry O’Quinn, Harold Perrineau
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/tv_art/l/lost-2006.jpg
Website: http://abc.go.com/primetime/lost/index
MPAA rating: N/A
Trailer: http://abc.go.com/fsp/index.html?channel=Lost
Airtime: Wednesdays, 9pm ET

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List number: 5

The creators of Lost started the third season with a bit of a predicament. After two seasons, fans now have a semi-grasp on the workings of the mysterious island: There are the magical monsters, the all-powerful Others, the explosive scientific research stations, etc. So how do they keep viewers engaged without tipping their hands about the island’s biggest secrets? The answer: turn everything upside-down. By starting the season from the Others’ point of view — and showing their prevalent pettiness, not omnipotence — fans have a new series of questions that’ll keep them scratching their heads. Marisa LaScalaLost

TV Show: The Wire
US release date: 2002-06-02
Network: HBO
Cast: Dominic West, John Doman, Frankie Faison, Aidan Gillen, Deidre Lovejoy
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/tv_art/w/wire-2006.jpg
Website: http://www.hbo.com/thewire/
MPAA rating: N/A

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List number: 4

Lauded by many critics as one of the best shows ever, The Wire also deserves the superlatives “most important” and “angriest.” Eschewing simple notions of good vs. evil, this show deconstructs “The Game” — the Politics Game, the Drug Game, the Education Game — to show the dehumanizing effects of American social institutions. Season 4 considered two plots: the upset election of white idealist Thomas Carcetti as mayor majority African-American Baltimore and four inner-city kids attempting to negotiate lives impacted by violence and poverty. Alternately inspiring, heart-breaking and enraging, The Wire is always riveting. Criminally unnoticed by the viewing public — because of its complexity and majority black cast — it should be required viewing for anyone who cares about the state of Urban America. Ryan Paul

The Wire

TV Show: Veronica Mars
Subtitle: Season Three Premiere
US release date: 2006-10-03
Network: CW
Cast: Kristen Bell, Tina Majorino, Percy Daggs III, Jason Dohring, Ryan Hansen, Enrico Colantoni, Julie Gonzalo, Chris Lowell
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/tv_art/v/veronica-mars-2006.jpg
Website: http://www.cwtv.com/shows/veronica-mars
MPAA rating: N/A
Trailer: http://www.cwtv.com/video
Airtime: Tuesdays, 9pm ET

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List number: 3

As if I didn’t already have enough trouble explaining to people why I own the DVDs of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I had to go and fall violently in love with Veronica Mars, a crackling mixture of mystery, humor, and high-school heartbreak. Rob Thomas’ teen sleuth has drawn comparisons to Joss Whedon’s cult heroine, but they couldn’t be more different: The second season delved deeper into Veronica’s relationships while unspooling a dizzying story arc about a school bus crash, and Thomas did it all without giving his girl superpowers. The show also isn’t afraid to confront the ugly truth that monsters look like normal people. Packed with pop references and an eclectic soundtrack, Veronica deals with darkness, but slays it with a smile. Daniel CarlsonVeronica Mars

TV Show: Arrested Development
Network: Fox
Cast: Jason Bateman, Jeffrey Tambor, Portia de Rossi, Michael Cera, Will Arnett, Tony Hale, Jessica Walter, David Cross, Alia Shawkat, Ron Howard
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/tv_art/a/arrested_development-2006.jpg
Website: http://www.fox.com/arresteddev/
First date: 2003-11-02
Last date: 2006-02-10

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List number: 2

As much as fans make shake their fists and grieve for unfulfilled promise of a season on Showtime, Arrested Development really got the send-off it deserved. Rather than dumb itself down in a last-ditch effort to be embraced by a mainstream audience, the show’s final season turned up all the elements that made it brilliant to begin with: the pace got faster, the storylines stranger, and the in-jokes more prevalent, culminating in a climax most satisfying for fans (hey look! It’s Annyong!), but puzzling for a casual channel-surfer. And, for those who still can’t get over the loss of the wonderful but underappreciated series, Arrested Development‘s penchant for running gags and sly references reward the inevitable, repeated DVD viewings. Marisa LaScalaArrested Development

TV Show: The Office
Subtitle: Season Three Premiere
US release date: 2006-09-21
Network: NBC
Cast: Steve Carell, John Krasinski, Jenna Fischer, Rainn Wilson, BJ Novak
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/tv_art/o/office-us-2006.jpg
Website: http://www.nbc.com/The_Office/
MPAA rating: N/A
Trailer: http://www.nbc.com/The_Office/video/
Airtime: Thursdays, 8:30pm ET

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List number: 1

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. American sitcoms derived from beloved British counterparts are cautionary tales, not success stories. But after a slow-building first season, the U.S. Office took off in seasons two and three, perfecting the workplace comedy just as Arrested Development rewrote the family sitcom. It’s arguably even better than its UK predecessor, not in its oft-lauded discomfort comedy, but because its ensemble of disgruntled and/or neurotic co-workers is richer and more varied — including deft character turns from Mindy Kaling (girlish Kelly), B.J. Novak (weary temp-to-hire Ryan), and Brian Baumgarter (accountant and part-time drummer Kevin), among others. In this way, The Office gives us the best and worst of America — an eclectic melting pot of personalities boiling in corporate hell. Jesse Hassenger

The Office

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