Tuesday, December 30, 2008

2008's Top 10 Visual Aids

10) Costas Now With Aaron & Mays (HBO)
Full disclosure: Bob Costas tapes his radio show out of the studios on my floor, so I’ve had the chance to actually speak with him a couple of times. After seeing this hour long discussion with two of the greatest living ballplayers, I felt compelled to stop him and pay him a compliment. He replied with the simplest explanation possible about why this town hall meeting style show worked—“With those two up there, I just tried to stay out of the way.” And Costas largely succeeded, gently directing the pair to another topic when it was needed and smartly bringing in some select audience members (Dave Winfield and Jimmy Rollins) to further the conversation. It was an extremely well executed show on every front (most of the reaction shots from the star-packed audience were perfectly placed) and was one of the reasons I’m glad I kept up my HBO subscription this year. (Well, that and the fact that Flight of the Conchords returns in January of ’09.)

9) Psych (USA)
This fake-psychic-plays-detective show seems to draw a divisive line down the viewing audience. Folks like me enjoy the witty banter of James Roday’s character Shawn Spencer. Others can’t stand any line that the character says and feel that Roday comes off a smarmy. (I particularly enjoyed reading one TV critic’s blog where he said that “I’d enjoy watching an episode where Shawn repeatedly gets punched in the face.”) In other words, this Friday night comedy-mystery ain’t for everyone. I’ll admit that every plot is the same every week—Shawn takes a case, his partner Gus (Dule Hill) poo-poos Shawn’s antics, Shawn hits on detective Juliet O’Hara (Maggie Lawson), detective Carlton Lassiter (Timothy Omundson) gets annoyed in a laughable way, and Shawn’s dad (Corbin Bernson) gets in a few sarcastic remarks. Fortunately the first half of season three expanded on the show’s blueprint by giving Shawn and his father some emotional depth by bringing Shawn’s long-departed mother (played by Cybil Shepherd) into the mix for a couple of episodes. It brought a new light onto this prickly father-son relationship and gave Roday and Bernson some good scenes in which to explore the motives of their characters. The show also scaled new comedic heights with an entire episode set around a murder on a Spanish telenovella. Roday (whose real last name is Rodríguez) looked especially gleeful in his scenes where he had to speak Spanish in a halting, ill-constructed manner. And now that I have a DVR, I’ll never miss an episode.

8) How I Met Your Mother (CBS)
This year has been a bit uneven on the first CBS show I’ve watched regularly since the days of Northern Exposure. The sitcom that never felt looked like it was shot, acted or written like a traditional sitcom fell into some of those long held plots and jokes that could have been on any other unfunny comedy polluting the networks. More than once I said to myself, “Isn’t this something I saw, or could have seen, on Friends?” Yet the high points have more than made up for the typical plots that are very atypical for this show. And the main reason for that is the award-worthy performance of Neil Patrick Harris. His portrayal of womanizer Barney Stinson discovering he’s in love with his friend Robin (played by Colbie Smothers) has brought a human edge to the character. And Harris was especially outstanding in the episode where Barney tries to resist the lure of single, horny women at a wedding while hoping to reconnect with Robin. Harris should win an Emmy based on those five minutes on screen alone. I’d also like to mention that this year the show has included goats as plot points in two episodes—and you can never go wrong with a goat.

7) Elvis Mitchell: Under the Influence (TCM)
Elvis Mitchell served as one of the New York Times film critics from 1999 to 2004. During that time I always looked forward to Friday’s paper, as I knew I’d get to read a humorous yet thoughtful take on everything from the latest Jerry Bruckheimer blow ’em up blockbuster to the smallest shoestring budget indie film. Mitchell wrote my favorite film review ever, a hysterical indictment of John Travolta’s hard-on for Scientology flick Battlefield Earth. (I still have the clip of it from the paper in my archives.) The opening few lines still make me laugh eight years later: “‘Man is an endangered species,’ announces one of the titles at the beginning. And after about 20 minutes of this amateurish picture, extinction doesn't seem like such a bad idea. Sitting through it is like watching the most expensively mounted high school play of all time…It may be a bit early to make such judgments, but Battlefield Earth may well turn out to be the worst movie of this century.” Ha ha ha! Mitchell’s post-Times career has seen him work for the L.A. NPR affiliate KCRW as an interviewer. This year he brought his ability of drawing the best out of his subjects to a cable talk show about films. Normally I’d yawn at that idea (and maybe even fall asleep typing out that sentence) but Mitchell’s soothing voice and way of posing questions that make his guests think works for me. His ability to get normally press shy actors like Bill Murray and Edward Norton to open up about their favorite films and actors is no small feat. Under the Influence is perfect show for a fan of film or smart, in depth conversation to watch as they wind down their week.

6) Nova: Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives (PBS)
I’d never watched PBS’s Nova before this fall. I’m pretty doubtful I’ll ever watch it again. That’s what made the enjoyment of this episode so surprising to me. Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives is a documentary about eels frontman Mark “E” Everett and his exploration of his father’s theory of parallel universes. Watching the guy who wrote “Novocaine for the Soul” learn about quantum physics from his father’s old college buddies and co-workers while saying he couldn’t even remember his father ever hugging him was damn fascinating. I felt smarter after the show was over—and that I definitely knew where Everett’s dark view of the world was formed.

5) Burn Notice (USA)
I am fearful for the second half of the second season of this lighthearted spy show. It’s coming back in January and I wonder if I’ll love it as much as I did during the summer. Will its mix of inventive action and comedy work when its not 65 degrees at night and I’m not sitting around in shorts sipping on a cold beer? I sure hope so. The first part of second season showed that the writers have really understood what makes these characters so memorable and watchable. The interactions between Jeffery Donavan and Sharon Gless (going to therapy together, Donavan’s Michael Weston sometimes revealing the dangerous line of work he was in) have been superb. Bruce Campbell is the glue that holds this whole action and comedy mix together. Campbell’s Sam is an old army green beret, and his old high school football coach look (a former athlete gone to seed) fits his role to a tee. His peculiar mannerisms and delivery might be a bit campy on another show, but here he's fantastic. I hope Burn Notice makes an easier transition to the “real” TV season. (As if anyone pays attention to the traditional beginning and end of the TV season anymore.)

4) Dr. Horrible’s Sing-A-Long Blog (Timescience Bloodclub)
Here’s how to make comedy/sci-fi fans like me crash a website (and keep checking iTunes day after day to download something new): have Joss Whedon (Angel, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) launch an online only tale in three acts about an evil doctor, a beautiful woman and a smarmy superhero that also happens to be a musical that stars Neil Patrick Harris and Nathan Fillon (Firefly). This hysterical program is the best thing that came out of the lengthy writer’s strike. (The second best is that my number two show of the year got to come back for a second season.) Whedon wrote Dr. Horrible as a way to prove that writers deserved a cut of internet profits networks were getting for showing episodes on the web. And with the amount of online buzz and server crashes that happened this summer, I think Whedon proved his point.

3) The Middleman (ABC Family)
The television landscape is littered with shows that lasted all of one season, got canceled and had a cult following pining for a resurrection that never came. That’s the (still unofficial, yet likely) scenario for The Middleman. The show’s title character, as played by Matt Kessler, is the guy that saves the world from aliens, demons, vampire puppets and other unlikely forms of evil that turn up in California. His sidekick Wendy Watson, as played by Natalie Morales, is a Middleman in training and can kick some serious ass on her own. On paper the idea for the show seems flat out stupid. On screen, it was a pure joy to watch. The Middleman is an almost too decent to be true good guy (drinks milk, doesn’t swear, watches old westerns for their heroic qualities) on TV today. Yet Kessler makes him absolutely believable because he doesn’t play him with a knowing wink to the audience. Kessler believes in the goodness of his character, and we in turn end up believing right along with him. The Middleman also had some of the finest pop culture references ever stacked into TV dialogue. (The show’s blog would list about 30 of them for every episode.) Sadly, the show seemed horrible misplaced on ABC Family, even at a more adult oriented 10:00 p.m. time slot. (And who knew that at 11:00 p.m., Pat Robertson still hosted the 700 Club on there from the old Family Channel days. Wow.) When the inevitable DVD comes out, add it to your Netflix que. You won’t be sorry.

2) Chuck (NBC)
Here’s exactly when I knew that the second season of Chuck might be one of the best second seasons ever for a TV show: a plot about how Missile Command had actual codes to control a satellite buried on the game’s final screen and how Chuck needed to play along to Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” to make it to that screen made complete sense. And inspired some gut busting laughter in my little slice of Kensington. The writer’s strike that shut down production of the first season did wonders for Chuck, as co-creators Josh Schwartz and Chris Fedak figured out how to make everything fit together on the series. The main plot of each episode (whatever bad guy is trying to control the world, etc.) now usually has a thematic link with the events at Chuck’s non-spy job, working at the Buy More. They also have squeezed in some top-notch guest stars. John Larroquette as a spy who was once the world's greatest lover and is now the world's biggest drunk, The O.C.’s Melinda Clarke as a Russian black widow and Morgan Fairchild and Bruce Boxleitner as Chuck’s sister’s future in laws. While stunt-casting has killed many a show, it works perfectly here. With such a large ensemble cast and so many different parts of Chuck's life to maintain plot-wise, there's never been much screen time to establish the one-shot characters. Having a Larroquette or a Clarke gives you a stronger sense of each character and helps fill in a lot of blanks. And as I said last year, any show with Adam Baldwin is always a good time.

1) Lost (ABC)
I’m running out of good things to say about this show, which rebounded in second half of season three and hit new peaks in season four. Giving the show’s writers a specific end date for the series was the best idea ever. Not every mystery has been answered (there’s at least 30 things I still don’t understand, some dating back to the freaking pilot) and I’m sure not all of them will. I don’t care. As long as we keep getting the twists and turns of the Oceanic Six and those left on the island for the next two years, I still won’t care. Well, I really would love a real answer about the polar bears on a tropical island.

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