Friday, October 07, 2005

Top Ten TV Shows: Fall 2005

Getting that Digital Video Recorder over the summer turned out to be a blessing and a curse both. No longer could I sit back and slush off the subtle guilt of not keeping up with any number of shows on the air. After all, I was able to say to myself under the cold glare of a nightmare's blackness of blank televised screen, you can only see one show at a time, right? And who has the human capacity in this Busy Age to actually haul bottom in front of a set week-after-week anyway for more than a handful of programs?

The DVR changed everything. I hate to admit it. Something involving the damned Box of Dreams and Failures changed my life forever.

That's my prefix for saying that I've watched at least a little bit of many of the shows on the air for this Fall 2005 season. Enough to have a read on what's good, what's bad, and what's ugly.

Let me preface right up front so we don't have any confusion:

Shows I don't watch and don't plan on catching anytime soon

CSI: The Franchise
Law & Order: The Franchise

Anything with Kirstie Alley
Anything on Lifetime
Any reality show that begins with So You Wanna or So You Think You or Gilligan, etc.

Without further delay, DeLay, or delusion, I give you my Top 10 shows, followed by some other nuggets of goodness most tasty.

#10 — Prison Break
Prison Break is a delightful departure from reality… and into the confines of a maximum security prison. It's as fine a roller coaster ride of thrills and chills as you're ever likely to find inside of prison walls. That said, the plot is at many points wildly implausible:

Exhibit A, your honor:

* Dude commits a crime so that he can bust his brother out of prison, who's on death row for the murder of the Vice President's brother
* Dude just happens to be a structural engineer
* Dude's death row con bro (who's really innocent, of course) just happens to end up in the prison that dude helped to design
* Dude tattoos his body with the prison's architectural schematics, robs a bank, gets hauled off to the clink, and we're off to the races

And that's just for starters! But it's fun, really!

The acting is strong, the pacing is nearly always pulse-pounding, and there's just enough off-beat humor to make you forget the plot holes (Exhibit B: the attractive female doctor, who just happens to be the Governor's daughter, is left alone with prisoners with nary a guard in sight) you can drive an armored truck through.

#9 — The West Wing / Commander in Chief
Okay, so I'm cheating already!

Both of these fictional shows of presidential life and political machinations are well worth tuning in for.

I'm way back into The West Wing saddle after a few years of catching the occasional rerun on Bravo. It's come alive by focusing upon the kinetic energy of a presidential race, in this case to replace our beloved and dear leader Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen). This was an outstanding decision, matched expertly with MTV-style quick cuts, fast-paced music, and freeze frames.

New or recent additions to the cast such as presidential combatants Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) and Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda) bring a lot to the table, but I absolutely love how much screen time Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) has snagged as Santos' beleaguered yet crafty vet of a national campaign manager.

The B story line, which deals with a White House press leak, is downright ho-hum in comparison, but things are looking up as it looks as though everything is going to dovetail into the presidential madness.

Speaking of madness, I'm mad about Geena Davis as President Mackenzie Allen in Commander in Chief. While The West Wing has tended to focus on the wonky day-to-day minutiae and grind of American political life at the highest level, Chief – in its early stages – is taking a page from fine films such as Dave and The American President by focusing upon the human side of life at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

And there's plenty to explore, what with the first female President of the United States (and an Independent to boot!) learning the ropes, a First Gentleman trying to find his bearings, and a missing diary by one of the kiddies that might expose family secrets if left in the wrong hands!

There's also some nice political machinations in the works, with Harry Lennix, Donald Sutherland, and the great Peter Coyote (who just recently turned in superior work on The Inside) clearly having fun in their roles.

#8 — The Real World
This guilty pleasure is still very much guilty and still very much a pleasure to tune in for each week. Ah, the angst and apathy and trials and tribulations of the youth-type set. Much of which seems to center around Austin, Texas' Dizzy Rooster bar this time round. That place is certainly getting a lot of free pub.

In any event, the focus is on coupling in this iteration, with Mel and Danny finally seeming to work things out, and the cocksure Wes and mercurial Johanna on some kind of an ill fated rendezvous of love.

The gang is supposed to be producing a documentary on the South by Southwest music festival, but that all seems entirely secondary to getting one's party and love on.

Casting is king in Realityville, and The Real World is still sovereign over that there castle.

#7 — The Apprentice: Martha Stewart
Yes, I'm aware that this may qualify as my Surprise Pick, but I dig it, so there it is.

The Apprentice: Martha Stewart really does a good job of improving upon the original model, constructed by the tag team of Mark Burnett and The Don himself, El Senor Trump. By softening Trump's rough-and-tumble style ever so slightly, Stewart has very much energized this stalwart of realitydom.

I think what I like the most is that the audience is allowed to see more of the thinking process behind the hiring/firing process. Stewart is actually winning me over (I was skeptical about having to put up with her coming in, I'll admit) with her thoughtful, team-based approach. Sure, she's a little bit full of herself and her hand written note to the loser del week is dopey, but I'll manage to get over it.

And there's a requisite super crazy dude on the Creative Team to get worked up about, so that always helps.

#6 — My Name Is Earl
It's the laid back storytelling and general zonked out lunacy that make this quest for redemption and karma (of the good variety) worth tuning in for. Plus, it's funny as hell and has a great cast fronted by Jason Lee. Just press B7, sit back, and enjoy.

#5 — Extras
Looks like I picked the right time to get back with the HBO.

Ricky Gervais (BBC's The Office) has triumphed again, this time as a loveable loser trying to make good in show business. Unlike the gaudy slapable showoff he played so brilliantly in The Office, here he's largely the straight man, albeit a self-centered one who in no way can get out of the way of his self-made social disasters. The surrounding cast (Ashley Jensen particularly) and guest stars (hilarious turns by Kate Winslet and Ben Stiller thus far) power a wonderfully unique comedy that really matches the greatest heights of British comedy.

#4 — The Office
While this might sound heretical to some, the American version of The Office may already be outshining the awkwardly brilliant original in some ways.

Comedy is often about chemistry as much as writing and acting, and here we're treated to a simply great blend of slapstick, romantic comedy (the interplay between John Krasinski and Jenna Fischer each week is delightful), and cringe-inducing humor (which is in vogue right now with pioneer Curb Your Enthusiasm and Extras also on the air). The pseudo-documentary style and reactions (cringing, eye rolling, smiling) toward the camera are second to none and lend a huge amount of humanism and humor to the proceedings.

Sorry Ricky.

#3 — Rome
Forget the history for a moment. If you like backstabbing revenge and adultery and sword fighting and bloody carnage and hedonistic trysts in full view of the slaves until a conniving schemer breaks it up by commissioning artists to spread the word via lewd (and we're talking big penis lewd) graffiti all about town, you're gonna dig on the Rome.

And that's just for starters!

This is one you have to watch from the beginning or at least catch several episodes and hang with them. It all comes together eventually. The large cast and multiple story lines will eventually get you to the point where you will make the transition from pointing out "that guy who's married to the cheating woman with the brother-in-law" to "Ah, that's Vorenus."

Overall, Rome is a great mix of historical epic and involving soap opera, with just enough playful humor to keep you on your toes and honest.

And watching out for them graffiti folk!

#2 — Veronica Mars
The recent recipient of's Buffy Award picks right back up at the start of Season Two. While Veronica is finally back in the fold with the rich kids of Neptune, you knew it wouldn't be long before she was forced back into her detectivizing ways.

The writers didn't waste much time, either, in giving our high school girl sleuth a pile of mystery to wade her way through, ending the premiere with a spectacularly surprising school bus plummeting off a cliff. A school bus, mind, that our girl should have been on.

In the meantime, Miss Mars finds plenty of time to get with the dating and boy scoping in between classes and murder investigations. Now that she's been through Logan and Duncan, could Weevil or Wallace be in the offing?

All of the above shouldn't distract us from the fact that the writing – and particularly the dialogue – are nearly the best in the game, and the quirky and off-beat comic flavoring belying deep intrigue and mayhem remind strongly of the early adventures of Miss Buffy Summers herself.

And that's saying something.

#1 — Lost
For the second season in a row, getting Lost is the best hour you can spend in front of the television.

Show creator J.J. Abrams (Alias) has perfected a storytelling vehicle in which a action-oriented plot with a mystical underbelly supports a large cast that's allowed to undergo meaningful character development and sharp writing.

As the expertly doled out back stories mesh with the immediate dangers on the island, more questions spring up every week than are answered. And we all can't wait to come back for more each week.

Questions, questions, questions:
* Who the hell are The Others?
* Why does Desmond listen to cheesy non-supersounds of the 70s?
* Why is Desmond super strong... like that other dude who wasn't in the manifest during the first season and got shot by the hothead dope fiend hobbit?
* Why did the bloody shark have the logo of the corporation on its tail (anyone else notice that?)?
* Did Locke get more out of the Orientation Video the second time around than the first?
* How creepy was that Orientation Video?

The big question is how long Abrams can keep the plates spinning. Alias was a hell of a ride for two or three seasons, but petered out dramatically after that as it had, it seemed, told the story and revealed the answers that it needed to tell.

I have a feeling Lost won't go that route, and will keep its rapt audience watching and waiting and wondering for some time to come.

Honorable Mention

Curb Your Enthusiasm
Still very good, but showing signs of wear and tear.

The Apprentice: The Donald Edition
The new wrinkle of having teams vote for whether or not the winning Project Manager gets exemption doesn't add a lot. It's still well worth watching.

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the premiere. Benjamin Bratt and (still cranky, still eccentric) Dennis Hopper are fun as Pentagon insiders fighting for truth, justice, and female underlings to get them coffee.

Just so you don't get the impression that I like everything, I give you…

Dishonorable Mention

Kind of boring body snatcher melodrama. I uttered the following circa Episode Two:

This is the slowest god damned invasion I've ever seen.

I'm not planning on catching Ep Three

More space aliens in the water killing people and freaking out the masses.

If we could get a Surface Invasion show going, we might be onto something.

What I've been really, really waiting for all along
The return of Making the Band III with the Diddy.

Now we're talking!


girlfiend said...

Aside from my predilection for teen melodrama- i.e. anything on the WB- we seem to have pretty similar tastes in television. I was surprised that the American Office is as good as, if not better than, the British.

Eric Berlin said...

I kind of dropped off the WB circa when Angel moved to UPN. The only thing I've caught recently was Supernatural, which has potential but wound up not having enough to hold my interest.

I have to say that I'm beyond belief that I neglected to put Arrested Development, which may be one of the funniest shows of all time, on this list.

Huge, huge mistake!