THE LEAST successful fall in years for broadcast networks had this writer wondering if there'd be enough shows to fill out a "best of" list this year.
But let's hear it for the resilience of TV, which survived a strike and a weak roster of new offerings and still managed to come up with the following quality fare in 2008:
1. "Mad Men," AMC
Even when it confounded me, this rich, complicated drama about yearning, unpredictable men and women left me hungry for more. This year, the "Mad" men frequently yielded center stage to the show's frustrated, fascinating women, who turned in stunning performances, and to supporting characters such as the lovable but heartbreaking Freddy Rumsen (Joel Murray).
2. "The Shield," FX
Few shows in the history of television have worked as hard to keep their fans' attention; only high-quality Swiss timepieces are more beautifully complex. Yet what I'll remember of the show's devastating final two episodes is the emotional wallop they packed. Kudos to the show's superlative cast and to this taut, brilliant serial, which set a new bar for quality drama and then kept raising it.
3. "Battlestar Galactica," Sci Fi
This show is not just full of political allegories and fascinating characters, it's also a terrific yarn. Every season, "Battlestar" unleashes one or two "are you kidding me?" shockers, and this year was no exception. But every well-earned plot twist speaks to the pursuit of a central question, faced by both humans and the robotic Cylon race: "Can we rise above our darkest impulses?"
4. "Lost," ABC
The pessimist in me is already wondering what network drama could possibly follow in "Lost's" footsteps. Once it exits in 2010, what show will be capable of engaging our brains, bringing out the obsessive clue-sifter in each of us and putting a lump in our throats? A world without this adventurous character drama is not one I want to contemplate, so I'll stay in denial for now.
5. "Chuck," NBC
Week in and week out, this delightful and well-crafted spy dramedy brings a smile. The "retail clerk as secret spy" premise allows for lots of zingy action, but it's the silly antics of Chuck's friends at the Buy More electronics store that greatly increase the delight quotient. Still, without the sweet, smart sincerity that Zachary Levi brings to the title role, the show would just be (highly enjoyable) fluff. As it is, his mutual crush on his spy handler, Sarah (Yvonne Strahovski), gives "Chuck" unexpected and welcome dramatic heft.
6. "Supernatural," the CW; "Torchwood," BBC America; "Doctor Who," Sci Fi
Don't make me pick just one genre favorite! The unheralded but excellent "Supernatural" is by far the most consistent of the three, packing meaty thrills, dude-tastic humor and solid storytelling into each episode.
"Torchwood" is by far the cheekiest and sexiest of the trio, and it was even more satisfying in its frequently imaginative and compelling second season.
"Doctor Who" was the most maddeningly inconsistent of the three, but when it worked, its mixture of wicked humor, slightly skewed sci-fi storytelling and poignant relationship drama was satisfying indeed. And David Tennant was simply brilliant as the Doctor; he'll be missed when he exits the role after a series of 2009 specials.
7. "In Treatment," HBO
If you made it past the first or second week of this drama, you were hooked. By midway through its unusual run, which had HBO airing five half-hour episodes per week, I was fully and frantically addicted to the tale of a sensitive, sometimes obtuse shrink (Gabriel Byrne), his patients, his wife (Michelle Forbes) and his own flinty therapist (Dianne Wiest).
8. "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog," Internet and DVD
What did TV maestro Joss Whedon ("Dollhouse," "Buffy") do during the writers strike? Well, he just reinvented the increasingly outmoded TV model, that's all. With "hey kids, let's put on a show!" brio, he and a talented cast created this three-part musical, put it on the Web and raked in all the loot for his merry band of rebels.
9. "30 Rock," NBC
"30 Rock" has given us many useful bits of advice ("Never go with a hippie to a second location." "Live every week like it's Shark Week."). But perhaps its most useful function is to remind us that NBC, despite its evergrowing roster of cringe-inducing mistakes, is still capable of supporting smart, sophisticated, quotable and utterly necessary comedy.
10. The presidential election
It wasn't just that the election provided more twists and turns than a "Shield" episode. It wasn't just that it was full of people who were more complicated and compelling than anyone on network TV. It's that dozens of other shows took the fodder that the election provided and made hay with it, from "Saturday Night Live" to "The Daily Show" to "The View" to CNN's John King.
We may have gotten sick of the election, sure, but don't we miss King's Magic Wall just a little bit? *