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2008’s best new TV shows: A Mad, Mad World

The devil and the slacker: CW's Reaper

The best television of the past year avoided rules and explored chaos and upheaval: shitty jobs, scary bosses, hungry lions forced to take down an elephant, confusing sex roles, lovers who can’t touch, lovers who won’t touch, even a disgraced covert op who hates biding time in sunny, hedonistic Miami. Sounds like a roster of downers, I know, but some of these are comedies. In keeping with the near anarchy of the year, this list is in no particular order. And if you think this was a year of turmoil, wait till next year’s list, which, because of untenable media conglomerates, might have to include reality shows, where chaos and upheaval have the exploitative lure of prize money and anything-for-fame personalities attached. Suddenly the scripted kind has a nice ring to it, huh?

Reaper. The fall’s most engaging, clever and funny new series is about an amiable slacker who’s been sold into indentured servitude to the Devil. But what about the hell of toiling for a little-seen network like the CW? Your fantastic show doesn’t get nearly as much buzz as the similarly themed, hotly hyped hit Chuck over on a bigger network, that’s what. In any case, a well-tailored Ray Wise is showing up that hoary old satyr Jack Nicholson week in and week out, playing Satan as a sublimely patronizing alternative father figure whose oily charm belies a taskmaster you don’t want to upset.

The CW | Tuesdays, 9 p.m.

Planet Earth. The BBC’s stunning nature documentary series (a companion to the awesome Blue Planet) was years in the making, and no, I’m not heading toward a coy joke about how long the planet’s been around. This was a Herculean effort to get specially designed cameras into some formerly uncaptured areas of the world, with results that beautifully and shockingly convey the interconnectedness of nature, starring an unforgettable cast of creatures. (The DVD, incidentally, restores David Attenborough’s original narration, which was replaced by Sigourney Weaver’s for the American broadcast on the Discovery Channel.)

Discovery Channel | Repeats aired periodically | 5-DVD set (BBC Warner), $59.

Damages. Easily one of the year’s standout performers was Glenn Close, playing a take-no-prisoners Manhattan lawyer whose skill at morally questionable manipulation could have landed her a job in the Bush administration. (I see spinoff!) She was simply frightening. The show was undeniably gripping, too, a serialized thriller of dark transactions, one-upmanship, paranoia and the pull of the abyss that made New York seem scary again — not on the streets, but from the high rises down.

FX | Repeats aired periodically.

Mad Men. A legitimate heir to The Sopranos, but with the hashing-out of cynical ad campaigns taking the place of soul-killing mob hits. Its depiction of early-1960s American urbanites seeking some measure of happiness had the feel of an undiscovered Hitchcock suspense classic at times, and at others, the novel Richard Yates never wrote. It was also a luxuriously bitter nostalgia bath of design concepts long ago discarded, and societal attitudes we should have cleared the air of along with all that cigarette smoke — but which we are still unfortunately choking on.

AMC | Thurs., Dec. 27, 10 p.m.; Fri., Dec. 28, 1:45 a.m.; Mon., Jan. 21, midnight.

Louis C.K.: Shameless. The most howlingly funny stand-up special in years. The red-haired comedian’s painfully articulate treatises on modern male humiliation are often profane but strangely, wonderfully inclusive instead of off-putting. (A 40-year-old man self-conscious about realizing he’s developed tits? It’s the only thing he’ll have in common with a 12-year-old girl.) The true shock in Louis C.K.’s comedy is that all the side-splitting hatred masks an astute observer of feelings. Call him the angrily sensitive comic.

HBO | Not currently airing. | DVD (HBO Home Video), $19.98.

Burn Notice. Like a scent that reminds you of a lost childhood, this cheeky adventure series was USA Network’s deft throwback to a time — namely the Jim Rockford/MacGyver era — when television sought to entertain first and foremost. Call it “Eye Spy” since it nicely merges the tropes of espionage larks and detective shows, and gave us a thoroughly winning Scooby team in Jeffrey Donovan’s rudderless ex-spook, Bruce Campbell’s scheming sidekick and a career-reinvigorating Gabrielle Anwar, who’s like a trigger-happy goon in a sultry supermodel’s body.

USA | Full episodes available for viewing at USANetwork.com

Tell Me You Love Me. I know it’s humorless. I know it’s unsexy. I know it’s aggressively “indie”-seeming. But HBO’s 10-episode deconstruction of three troubled couples — long married and chaste; just married and childless; engaged and trustless — had some of the year’s most astute portrayals of intimacy: what happens when it’s forced, where age and responsibility take it, and why its hidden pockets of selfishness seem so damaging when they surface at the wrong time. This was often painful viewing, defiantly unslick, but nearly always brilliantly acted (thank you, Ally Walker) and hardly a case of misery chic. It just felt real.

HBO| Currently off the air.

Pushing Daisies. Although it comes from the mold of a body-of-the-week mystery, the slyness of this dead/alive/dead-again fairy tale is that it’s actually a sweet-and-sour comedy about how we deal with romantic obstacles. This is a show that does not rest on the splash of its pop-up-book production design, and understands that a hilariously well-timed grumbly utterance from Chi McBride is often all the special effects you need.

ABC | Wednesdays, 8 p.m.

Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!/Lucy: The Daughter of the Devil. For short bursts of insanity, these new Adult Swim shows were consistently pleasurable frolics. The former is a two-man sketch jumble from comedy duo Eric Wareheim and Tim Heidecker, seemingly inspired by the entire spectrum of numbing cable-access programming, cheap video effects and Japanese pop-art riffs. (Occasional guest star John C. Reilly as a mush-mouthed, dimwitted local news personality is priceless.) The latter is ex–Dr. Katz writer Loren Bouchard’s dryly witty, hilariously voiced computer-animated goof about Satan’s turbulent relationship with his art-school-graduate daughter, and her romantic bond with — oops! — Jesus, who has returned as San Francisco’s hippest DJ.

Cartoon Network/Adult Swim | Tim and Eric, Sundays, 12:15 a.m. and 4:15 a.m.; Lucy: The Daughter of the Devil, not in current rotation, but episodes available on Adult Swim Video, www.adultswim.com/video.

WILD CARD: BBC World News. More than 200 years after we were all warned that the British were coming, the British were coming, they’ve come, all right, to show our pathetic, 24-hour news-cycle-addicted selves how to do a crisp, informative, globally conscious and refreshingly unsensational newscast. Watch any one of its weekday broadcasts — it’s an hour a day on BBC America — and you’ll quickly feel like you have an honest, unfiltered grip on world events and U.S. news, unmarred by the cult of personality that’s crippling television news in this country.

BBC America | Daily, 3 a.m.; weekdays, 4 p.m.

ADDENDUM: With the exception of the BBC wild card,I stuck to new shows here, but no Best of 2007 would be complete without mentioning how great many returning comedies have been. I’ve loved the three-ring-circus portrayal of showbiz egotism on the brilliant 30 Rockand its more darkly funny British sibling Extras, with its exquisite embarrassment torture. (Hail David Bowie and Clive Owen!) The friendship/courtship follies of How I Met Your Mother continued to wrest vigorous laughs and warm sighs from me. And on Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David concluded his season-long faltering-marriage and Katrina-boarders storylines with a gaspingly sublime and hilarious final five minutes, easily one of the greatest shaggy-dog jokes in television-comedy history.


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