The idea is to populate this list with what debuted in 2008. That’s not to give short shrift to older programs of consistent quality, but you’re all probably sick of seeing The Wire on one more Top 10 roster, even though its glorious, tragically Emmy-deficient run has ended. 30 Rock excelled, too, with Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin a magnificently funny screwball couple for the ages. Mad Men will probably be the next annoying repeat resident on critics’ year-end hallelujah wrap-ups. But hey, these shows all had — again — great seasons. They should be on lists like these. Lost is, as far as I’m concerned, in its prime right now, as it flashes forward and hurtles toward some kind of resolution. Same with Desperate Housewives, an unfairly maligned show that’s a model of comic plotting, tonal shifts and female-driven farce acting. And Gossip Girl is simply evil and juicy. But I’m at peace with my best-of-the-new rigor. Or maybe I’ve just run out of things to say about The Wire, and this is a convenient excuse.
1. The 2008 Election: Let’s be real, this was the long-form variety serial to beat this year. It had everything: inspirational drama (Hillary versus Barack), a hillbilly comedy (Sarah Palin), a meltdown-filled reality show (the McCain campaign), a procedural (the investigations into Troopergate), and a talent showcase for aspiring talking heads (winner: Rachel Maddow). It offered up catch phrases faster than Saturday Night Live could parody them, made us feel smarter than a vice presidential candidate, and provided more nail-biting thrills than 24. It closed with a first for our country — a real tearjerker — but in its promise of a hard road ahead for the winner, also turned out to be a cliffhanger.
2. Gavin & Stacey: My favorite new show of 2008 first aired in the U.K. in 2007, a pure-of-heart British comedy that allowed for tenderness, warmth and some serrated laughs. Creators/writers James Corden and Ruth Jones played the skeptical best friends of the titular lovestruck couple – a cheery bloke from Essex (Matthew Horne) and a captivatingly ebullient lass from Wales (Joanna Page) — but instead of crafting a show around the usual storytelling obstacles thatfans of romantic comedy never believe anyway, they celebrated the steps that bring two worlds together. A true grin-eliciting charmer.
3. John Adams: In the year we spent vast sums to help elect a new president, HBO coughed up plenty of cash to re-create the making of one of the country’s first commanders in chief. The result was a photographically rich yet urgently directed mini-series, full of period details yet resonant today, star-studded but sublimely acted. Paul Giamatti’s sear of a performance revealed a great American patriot as the sum of smarts, ego, experience, reasoning, fire and compassion. Culled from David McCullough’s wonderful biography, this was that rare nonfiction adaptation that cared about the dramatic impact of scenes rather than checking off moments from history. For its solemn, portent-filled depiction of the Continental Congress’ vote for independence alone — because these men knew it ensured bloodshed — this intelligent, moving work deserves praise.
4. Breaking Bad: Bryan Cranston won a well-deserved Emmy for his portrayal of milquetoast Albuquerque chemistry teacher Walter White, whose writing-on-the-wall cancer diagnosis spurs him to criminally unbounded levels of motivation and freedom. (Think Death Wish meets Weeds.) Only seven episodes were made and were aired before the writers’ strike, but they stirred up something brittle and dangerous, and Aaron Paul made hilarious work of Walt’s ex-student Jesse, a low-level meth dealer who learns quickly that there’s nothing scarier than a partner with nothing to lose.
5. In Treatment: This American adaptation of an Israeli series was a gripping experiment in chamber soap opera, with Gabriel Byrne’s therapist seeing different patients four nights a week in his home office, then emptying his own issues out to a onetime mentor played with doting imperiousness by Dianne Wiest. Melissa George’s temptress storyline was a snooze, but everywhere else it was a sterling showcase for actors who could evoke pools of psychological depth from a limited physical space, and Mia Wasikowska’s emotionally turbulent, forked-tongue teen was the best performance any actor gave in a television series all year.
6. A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All: Progressive comedy superstar Stephen Colbert’s nightly cryptofascist-mouthpiece satire The Colbert Report is the funniest show on the air, but now he’s turned his sights on the old-fashioned holiday special. A fantastic hybrid of jokes, silliness and jubilantly nutty tunes, it did the most important thing any variety show could do: made an eclectic mix of guest stars — including Toby Keith, Willie Nelson, Feist and John Legend — seem like the greatest sports in the world. And the witty closing song by David Javerbaum and Adam Schlesinger, sung by Colbert and Elvis Costello, is like a masterpiece of pessimistic optimism. Warming and melancholy, just like the best Yuletide standards.
7. Bernard and Doris: Quietly weird, funny and moving, this speculative piece of filmmaking about the gay, alcoholic Irish butler whose mere six years in service of wealthy heiress Doris Duke led to his being granted control of her fortune after her death was a tour de force for actors Ralph Fiennes and Susan Sarandon. Rather than chew on scenery, this pair breathed in, swirled and emanated the perverse bouquet of their characters’ strange symbiotic relationship, and the results were a captivating portrait of power and loneliness.
8. Sons of Anarchy:The Sopranos is still a TV force, as evidenced by the crime family setup of this typically hard-edged new FX series. But the biker club element proved to be a potent genre tweak, and creator Kurt Sutter’s many tense character dynamics — revolving mostly around the tug of war between Katey Sagal’s knife’s-edged matriarch, on a mission to preserve the gang’s outlaw exclusivity, and the grown son (Charlie Hunnam) who senses a way to avoid counterculture oblivion – made for drama that was high in octane and low on exhaust sputter.
9. The Wendy Williams Show: The trial run last summer of the sassy and statuesque East Coast DJ’s tawk-and-gawsip hour was unpredictably fun, a salon confab whose lack of A-through-C-list guests seemed irrelevant when the host herself — a gleeful, intuitive and cheeky rumor analyst — was the main attraction. You can pretend her skills and topics of interest are somehow of lesser worth than what you get from opinion-mongering cable news hours, but you’d be kidding yourself.
10. Cranford: Gossip was also an integral element of this brisk and affecting BBC miniseries, a cleverly woven adaptation of 19th-century English writer Elizabeth Gaskell’s stories about the plucky solidarity among eccentric village women. What prevented this from being another stuffy exercise in costume porn and spinster charm, however, were its keenly observed sense of how people’s notions of charity inevitably evoke their class, its incredibly human performances — from Eileen Atkins, especially — and its unsentimental but never unemotional attitude toward mortality.
Scores provided by Rotten Tomatoes