I could easily fill this list with returning shows that continued to entertain us with quality TV — Deadwood, Veronica Mars, The Daily Show, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Entourage, Ted Koppel’s last year at Nightline — but that would leave out all the new programs that grabbed my attention in 2005.
Invasion The best of the new alien series. For one thing, it has William Fichtner, who right now is officially TV’s creepiest dude. His uniform says sheriff, but what chills the blood is his secretive role as the soft-spoken “mayor” to his alien-infected Everglades community. In a recent episode, he even persuaded an amputee, who was elated to have his arm restored after an alien encounter, to chain-saw it off so he wouldn’t attract attention. Wow. Nothing that emotionally disturbing or flat-out freaky ever happened on Threshold or Surface.
My Name Is Earl It’s been a pretty good year for new comedy on the networks — and I’m hoping that shows like The Office, How I Met Your Mother and Out of Practice get even better — but this Jason-Lee-with-a-mustache show seemed fully formed right away. Its beer-buzz sunniness and trailer-park farce plots are a joyfully funny antidote to the sarcasm orgies in today’s sitcom world.
No Direction Home: Bob Dylan Martin Scorsese’s bio-doc for PBS’s American Masters series is a marvel of found-footage editing and talking-head storytelling. Dylan himself makes a surprisingly lucid guide for this emotional, humorous and wonderfully musical tour through his formative years as an artist and reluctant phenomenon during a period of American history that roiled with belief in political change and personal, artistic power.
Medium Currently, Patricia Arquette — as a Phoenix wife and mother grappling with psychic visions about crimes that inevitably test her more relatably humanlike ability to analyze and reason — is giving the best, most honest and most captivating weekly performance by a woman on television. Hers was an Emmy well-deserved.
Weeds Instead of using suburbia as a familiar framework upon which to graft jokes, this fresh, bracing and decidedly un-P.C. Showtime comedy takes pains to explore the duality that’s inevitable when people try to individuate in a world built on sameness. Mary Louise Parker’s pot-dealing mom is a truly fine sitcom creation: a woman whose empathy, wit, sadness and sexiness are all of a piece.
The Colbert Report The best thing about Stephen Colbert’s Daily Show spinoff is that it’s a different animal from Jon Stewart’s headline riffing and power pricking. It feels closer to alternative comedy theater, with its bespectacled star serving up a grandly weird portrayal of a constantly aggrieved, spitefully boastful opinion maker. It can be the kind of thing you’re not in the mood for night after night, but when you are, and he’s on fire, it’s tear-inducingly funny.
Green Wing/Extras/I Am Not an Animal Smart, tricky, funny British comedies continued to jump the pond more quickly than before, with Ricky Gervais’ latest embarrassment-humor series, Extras — a solid follow-up to The Office — even sharing co-production duties with HBO. Green Wing, on BBC America, presented a consistently nutty, gear-shifting parade of hospital employees in various throes of sexual panic, one-upmanship and pressurized derangement. And Sundance brought over the warped animated series I Am Not an Animal, which features lab-raised talking creatures who think they’re human, and incredible voice work from Steve Coogan and Julia Davis.
Homecoming When a talented director like Joe Dante winds up making his most fully realized film in years via an anthology series for Showtime, it’s time to acknowledge television’s ever-increasing ability to show up the movies. This razor-sharp tale of zombies, dirty politics, an unpopular war and peaceful-then-violent revenge was exhilarating stuff for the Masters of Horror series.
Wonder Showzen MTV2’s virulent strain of parody imagines a children’s show submitting cynical life lessons even Fassbinder might have deemed harsh, but nevertheless is crafted in the best spirit of gonzo comedy. I still can’t get some of the hilarious kid-on-the-street interviews — real-life grade schoolers saying wild-ass shit to grownups — out of my head.
The Staircase This six-hour Sundance Channel documentary by Frenchman Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, who won an Academy Award for the harrowing Murder on a Sunday Morning, kept you pingponging back and forth over the guilt or innocence of its subject: North Carolina widower Michael Peterson, who might have killed his wife and made it look like a fall down the stairs. Between the unusual level of support from his stepkids, the weird secrets in his life and the rigorous defense put on by his lawyer, this was like curling up with a cracking legal thriller. Go rent it.