The ups and downs of television — its loyalties and betrayals — are always fascinating. But in this season of best-of-the-year lists, what comes across most is that there are a lot of ups in TV right now. There is so much out there to see that no 2006 TV list can be all-inclusive of the best shows on the air. One human can’t possibly see everything that might be worth watching right now (do you sense an excuse coming?), which means I haven’t even gotten around to shows that seemingly everyone loves, like Battlestar Galactica. (“I know, I know,” he wrote, his head hung in front of the computer screen. “I’ll get that catch-up marathon started pronto.”)
In any case, here’s some kind of list ofnew shows with fresh ideas and recurring series that are having a good run, plus a few special events, in no particular order. My criterion was simple: Did the show cause me to shift my TV-watching state from vegetatively horizontal to upright and attentive? These are the ones that did.
Some friends who haven’t seen HBO’s standout series — which just completed its fourth and arguably best season — recently asked me why this show was supposed to be so good, and I mistakenly blurted out, “It’s about how we live today! About how institutions inevitably disappoint us!” They frowned. Let me try a different tack: The Wire has the sharpest writing, the best directing, incredible performances, unforgettable characters, tragic suspense, deep emotion, raucous humor and everything you’d ever want from a show you watch week to week. If I’m committed to catching up on Galactica, then you have to seek out this show. Deal?
The Thick of It/Saxondale/Look Around You
While signs of growth are apparent in Americans’ approach to the half-hour comedy, they still pale to the ways Brits tinker with the format, and BBC America has been great about giving the U.K.’s best a shot over here. The Thick of It was like a new dawn in government satire, a no-heroes, profane razor-swipe of a show about political damage control. Saxondale gave the wonderful Steve Coogan, playing an ex-roadie more comfortable with the trappings of middle age than he realizes, a warmer forum for his specialized embarrassment humor. And season two of the marvelously loopy educational-show spoof Look Around You was another potently funny chemistry-set mixture of Chyron graphics, rotary technology, fake science and hilariously blasé after-school-TV personalities.
Friday Night Lights/The Nine
The fall season served up a few new hourlong hits for the networks like Heroes and Ugly Betty, but my heart went to these two ratings-poor starters, which feel more human and messy. Friday Night Lights, a tale of Texas high school football and the crushing weight of promise, has a gripping immediacy, from its depiction of the grueling rethinking a star quarterback has to do after he becomes paralyzed to the ways hero worship inflames personalities to the breaking point. The Nine, about the aftereffects of a hostage situation, burrows into the ways shared tragedy shatters our notions of who we are and where our allegiances lie. Here’s hoping these two smart shows find an audience.
When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts
Spike Lee’s provocative movies are often filled with characters unloading their pent-up fury, sometimes directly at the camera. With his richly detailed, sad, eccentric and occasionally even gallows-humorous film about the destruction of New Orleans at the hands of nature’s wrath, human incompetence and government negligence, Lee finds genuine catharsis in the unscripted version of that same technique. Instead of a talking-head documentary, call it a wailing-heart true story.
Project Runway/Top Chef/Signe Chanel
Bravo’s high-end reality shows are clever packages of creative energy and competitive infighting, plus they effortlessly make you think you are suddenly an expert in fashion and cuisine. They’ve also given us memorable personalities, from Project Runway’s fashion mentor Tim Gunn (with the warmest aristocratic voice I’ve ever heard) to Top Chef’s restaurateur/judge Tom Colicchio, who has a witheringly entertaining way with blunt cooking truths. Then there was the Sundance Channel’s airing of the French-made docuseries Signe Chanel, a playfully entertaining peek — complete with a breathless narrator — inside Chanel’s famous fashion house and at the matronly looking, hard-toiling sewing queens who strive to fulfill Karl Lagerfeld’s elegantly dashed-off designs.
Trademark laws, hype and lonelygirl15 outrage be damned, recent viewings on the 10-minutes-or-less time-filler heaven include clips from the cheesy ’70s variety show Pink Lady and Jeff, an old Peter Cook interview on British television, that police video of an escaped convict who convinced a cop he was someone else, Paul Lynde from some Dean Martin roast, Schoolhouse Rock and a slow-motion montage of tennis champ Roger Federer.
Showtime’s best dramatic series yet is a throwback saga of politics and family in an Irish clan in Providence, Rhode Island — sort of The Wire meets The Godfather. Its trappings may be ’30s melodrama — good brother, bad brother stuff — but the intricate plotting, backroom negotiations and selling-of-the-soul introspection give it a healthy modern engine. And Jason Isaacs’ conscience-stricken underworld character makes shifting between psychotic violence and acts of charity seem frighteningly believable, and therefore believably frightening.
How I Met Your Mother/The New Adventures of Old Christine/30 Rock
Casting and sensibility. That must be it. It’s hard for me to buy into the conventional wisdom about the failing health of sitcoms when I find immense pleasure from these three shows, each distinctively funny. How I Met Your Mother relishes snappy storytelling, romantic comedy mischief and the joys of a crack ensemble. (Neil Patrick Harris, we salute you.) The New Adventures of Old Christine revives TV’s legacy of letting funny women be funny, in this case merging the awesome Julia Louis-Dreyfus with potent mommy-rage humor. And 30 Rock is a jubilant helping of show-biz-inspired silliness, coming dangerously close to feeling like crack for Alec Baldwin fans.
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Much of the miniseries acclaim went to period British imports like Elizabeth I and Bleak House, but I still occasionally think about this darkly stylish and superbly written and directed BBC America six-parter about the turbulent meshing of policing techniques within a detective squad. Solving the crime isn’t nearly as nerve-rattling as the sometimes unfortunate decisions cops make when under intense pressure to keep the peace, and this brilliant, overlooked miniseries worked that angle with brutal effectiveness.
David Mamet Episodes of The Unit
This better-than-average military action drama about Delta Force special-ops soldiers always shoots up a few notches when David Mamet, The Unit’s Pulitzer Prize–winning creator, writes an episode. The pace is tauter, the dialogue is sharper, and the stories are usually laced with a bracing element of subterfuge or deception — like the incredible real-estate-scam story from the spring, or the ironically hilarious ending to the Old Home Week episode — and I am instantly grateful this great writer has a weekly series outlet for his storytelling acumen.