At the end of any year, compiling a list of TV's worsts is easy—this year, too easy. What sport is there is in shooting the dead horses of CBS's Secret Talents of the Stars (dead after one awful episode), NBC's Rosie Live! (dead after one horrendous special) or NBC's Knight Rider (dead on arrival, but still running on empty)?
OK, so there's a little sport. That was fun. But there's much more enjoyment in reveling in the great things—the TV offerings truly worth celebrating—from the calendar year 2008. In a year of a cratering economy and a still-stinging writers' strike, there was a lot to love.
The election: A double-barreled treat. There was the year-long, unpredictable excitement of the presidential race itself, which, among other things, was a winner for CBS as well as Barack Obama. It boosted the image of Katie Couric when she needed it most, and deservedly made 60 Minutes a Top 10 show again. Then there was the comedy coverage of the election, which made Tina Fey the Queen of Political Satire, NBC's Saturday Night Live once again the royal court, and Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert the crown princes. Cranky jester? David Letterman. All provided fabulous, memorable and arguably influential moments.
The Olympics: Michael Phelps getting eight gold medals was the second-best real-life miniseries of 2008. (The best? See above: the election.) But there were other events—and, as cultural pageantry, the jaw-dropping opening ceremonies. By the end, even the architecture was familiar, inspirational and worth applauding. Well done, Dick Ebersol and team.
The finales: How many great series bowed out with fabulous final episodes in 2008? Start with these: HBO's The Wire. ABC's Boston Legal. FX's The Shield. The first had Dominic West's McNulty leaving Baltimore no better than he'd found it, but leaving a lot wiser. The second ended with breathless, fabulous argumentative rants by James Spader's Alan Shore (on China's ascendancy and lack of access to potentially life-saving experimental drugs). And the third ended in silence, with Michael Chiklis' Vic Mackey jailed in a confining office cubicle, then breaking free to hit the streets and…do what? We'll miss them all (and so will their networks).
The rookies: How many excellent new series premiered in 2008? Enough to consider it a good crop in any year—but in a strike year, enough to almost call it a miracle. So thank heavens for cable. AMC's Breaking Bad started the year off dramatically, and boldly, in January, as did HBO's In Treatment. Bryan Cranston, star of Breaking Bad, even wound up walking away with the Emmy for best actor in a drama series. After that, we had other freshman cable delights—ABC Family's playful The Middleman, and especially HBO's high-octane True Blood. But wait: The broadcast side has a couple of promising rookies, too, in CBS's charming, playful The Mentalist and Fox's intriguing, quirky Fringe.
The imports: Partly because of the strike, the networks looked elsewhere for programming in 2008, and ended up finding good material in out-of-the-way places. NBC brought Quarterlife from the Internet—cancelling it almost immediately, but its quality was evident. CBS repeated the first season of Showtime's Dexter, editing it slightly (more for language than violence), but displaying that show's excellence to many times more viewers than saw the first season originally on cable. And Showtime itself pulled the import trick, selecting to acquire, rather than remake, Britain's Secret Diary of a Call Girl, and showcase, rather than recast, Billie Piper as the titular high-class prostitute.
The returning champions: Psst! Here's a secret. This is where you really measure the worth of a given TV year—by how many quality TV shows come back, and by how well they come back. In both respects, as Frank Sinatra once sang, it was a very good year.
On broadcast TV, ABC managed to rejuvenate Desperate Housewives while making its heroines five years older. Pushing Daisies was sheer brilliance, even as ABC's treatment of it was sheer idiocy. And Lost had a great year, culminating in a cliffhanger that should set up another. Fox had another still-popular American Idol year, and also presented the best season yet for House, a good year forBones and another delightful year for The Simpsons.
NBC enjoyed a banner year for Saturday Night Live, and the same political tailwind benefited 30 Rock, TV's funniest current comedy. Other returning NBC sitcoms, My Name Is Earl and The Office, benefited from more focused storylines, and Chuck and Life, while not getting big ratings, have been fun to watch both seasons. Heroes has faltered, but not fatally, and the Law & Order shows, while not attention-getters, are just fine. And even though Friday Night Lights was punted to DirecTV, it still counts—and it's been wonderful this fall.
CBS's most impressive returning earners are the Monday sitcom block. The Big Bang Theory, How I Met Your Mother and Two and a Half Men are a blast to watch each week, each with its own peculiar comic sensibility. And in engineering the handoff from William Petersen to Laurence Fishburne on CSI, CBS has presented some solid dramatic hours. Finally, for The CW, what is there to say? Lots of attention for Gossip Girl, but not much else.
On cable, it's almost an embarrassment of riches, so here's a bare-bones laundry list of returning series, in addition to the finales listed above, that qualified in 2008 as Must-See Cable TV: AMC's Mad Men and Breaking Bad. HBO's Entourage. Showtime's Dexter, Californication, This American Life and The L Word. FX's The Riches and the Rescue Me minisodes. Comedy Central's Daily Show With Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report. TNT's The Closer. And many, many more.
And, finally: It was on the Internet, not TV, but Joss Whedon's Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, starring Neil Patrick Harris, was one of the most unexpected and satisfying treats of the year.