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TV 2004

Best of the year? Sure. But I prefer to think of these as the shows I was — or am — hesitant about deleting from TiVo.

The Wire. It’s not new, it’s in its third season, and has hardly any visibility — even though it’s an HBO Sunday-night show — so who knows if it’ll be around for a fourth. But with cops this smart and screwed up, criminals this shrewd and human, and politicians this snide and conflicted, it’s still the best damn chessboard on TV.

Little Britain/Nighty Night. Britain’s latest comedy sensations actually hopped the pond fairly quickly, on BBC America and Oxygen, respectively, giving hope to the half-hour comedy format that seems to be dying under the weight of fat man/skinny wife scenarios. Little Britain may be time-honored men-in-wigs-and-frocks silliness, but it’s an actor’s showcase, too, for creators Matt Lucas and David Walliams,who show a deft touch with character comedy. Nighty Night, meanwhile, is a brittlely hilarious masterpiece of all things taboo, a dark-hearted soap about obsession that should make us all very afraid of what writer/star Julia Davis dreams up next.

State of Play. And what do you know, the U.K. gave us the most pulse-pounding and dramatically satisfying miniseries of the year, too, with this precision-timed conspiracy thriller about a corrupt governmental energy policy, adultery, murder and heroic journalism. Bill Nighy’s sardonically chivalric big-city editor is so invigorating and boldly entertaining it should be brewed by Guinness and sold in pubs.

The Amazing Race. The hottest speculative question among reality-TV watchers is no longer how you’d handle yourself in Trump’s boardroom, or who you’d vote off the island. It’s who you’d team up with to crisscross the globe on this Emmy-winning nail biter of a game show. And any program that makes a point of flinging stodgy, sometimes-ugly Americans into foreign cultures and forcing them to make nice to get around is doing a public service.

Veronica Mars. When the preponderance of procedural shows started draining the fun out of solving crimes, along came the maligned teen genre to give it some life. After all, aren’t questions like "Why am I not more popular?" "Why won’t he/she look at me?" and "Is everyone a freak?" the real mysteries we want answers to?

Deadwood. Arguing over whether people of the 19th-century American West actually swore with Shakespearean flexibility is beside the point. It’s hardly a Western, either, in the way any of us have ever known it. It’s a funky, sad, bitingly funny, disturbing examination of the nuts and bolts of city building, and of how law and order is negotiated where none previously existed. With standout performances from Ian McShane, Timothy Olyphant, Brad Dourif, Robin Weigert and Powers Boothe, this also may be the best ensemble on the tube.

Wonderfalls. Fox may have the ugly reputation of stealing other networks’ reality-TV ideas, but they seem to be able to take risks putting fresh comedies and dramas on the air, like this eccentric doodad about an underachieving shop girl with reluctant Good Samaritan powers. Why kill it, then, before the viewership had a chance to make sense of it, especially when it had no chance in a Friday-night time slot? Sure, there’ll be a DVD of its criminally short run come February, but that’s a small and increasingly frustating consolation.

Desperate Housewives. "Ah, see," ABC says. "This is what we like. It’s an obvious hit! It started like gangbusters, and increased in viewership from week to week! Six Feet Under got too weird, right? And Sex and the City got too clinical, huh? Well, we’re all about balance in the big leagues! So for all the suicide, murder and earnest female solidarity, we’ll also throw in slapstick, hot sex and one-liners!" Yes, this is the show where you go "Okay, okay, I’ll like you," and kind of mean it.

The Daily Show. Jon Stewart likes to act bewildered when told that his show is a real news source for a lot of people. Well, there’s nothing to be ashamed of. When the major news media cease to even acknowledge the near-daily absurdity coming from our elected leaders and their appointees, then what Stewart and company are doing qualifies as accuracy. Heartbreakingly funny accuracy, and at times freakishly scary accuracy.


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