As we approach the holidays, with the TV year winding down (if only briefly), it's typically the time to look back — and so it is with a flurry of awards nominations and best-of-year lists raining down.
My own top-10 (and then some) list of shows and networks that made 2010 memorable can be found here. I also had the honor once again to participate on the American Film Institute's TV jury to select a list of 10 top programs of the year. You can do your own comparison to see how these lists differ. The one show that took me by surprise on the AFI list is The Big C. Great performance by Laura Linney, iffy show. And if we must honor an NBC comedy, why not go with an on-the-rise upstart like Community instead of the tired 30 Rock, which is not having its best year (and tends to fall apart any time Liz and Jack aren't center stage).
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But that's why lists exist: to be debated, argued over and, at best, to help us celebrate the shows, performances and episodes that kept us coming back for more.
And then there are all those awards nominations. The Golden Globes, hardly a barometer of coherent taste, did some things right — finally acknowledging a traditional sitcom hit like The Big Bang Theory and its brilliant star, Jim Parsons — and some things surprising, like singling out AMC's gripping The Walking Dead for best drama honors (although snubbing Breaking Bad, but compensating with a nomination for Bryan Cranston, who's finally invited to the Globes party after three straight Emmy wins).
But typically, there's a lot of "huh?" going on, most infamously this year the inclusion of Covert Affairs' Piper Perabo among the drama actress candidates. Yes, she's very appealing and holds her own in a fun little show, but it's a weightless performance when compared to Glenn Close's work on Damages or Connie Britton's on Friday Night Lights (the sort of small gem the hype-obsessed Hollywood Foreign Press almost never acknowledges). And outside of Katey Sagal's overdue nomination for Sons of Anarchy — she is far and away the best thing about that series — FX is completely off the Globes' radar. No Justified or Timothy Olyphant. No Rescue Me or anything for the outstanding supporting cast of Damages, which you might think would ring their star-chasing chimes (Lily Tomlin, Martin Short, Campbell Scott). And so on.
At least the SAG nominations found room for Glenn Close among a field of actresses including last year's winner, Julianna Margulies, this year's surprise Emmy champ Kyra Sedgwick, and the person who I hope sweeps all the TV awards in the next year: Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss, whose Peggy Olson went through so much fascinating change last season. (Same for Jon Hamm, who has yet to win an Emmy as Don Draper and whose one Globe win came the year the writers' strike turned the show into an awkward press conference.) The biggest omission in this category is Boardwalk Empire's Kelly Macdonald. There are no "supporting" categories on the TV side of the SAG Awards, but that didn't stop Glee's Chris Colfer and Modern Family players Ty Burrell, Sofia Vergara and (thank heavens) Ed O'Neill to make the cut in the comedy acting ranks.
The big head-scratcher among the SAG nominees is Hot in Cleveland for comedy ensemble, once again demonstrating Betty White's Midas touch this year, even when the gold in this case is tarnished by corn. (She also got a separate nod for comedy performance.) If anyone ever doubted that White is hot in Hollywood, her double-barreled SAG showing caps an extraordinary year for the living legend.
Now on to some shows that I managed to fit in during a week of serious holiday-season distraction. (Seriously, when has there been this much first-run TV in the dog days of December? Not that I'm complaining. Much.)
FINALE WATCH: My thoughts on last Sunday's Dexter and Amazing Race finales can be found here. Short version: Very happy that Nat and Kat broke the jinx for all-women teams winning Race. They played a good, clean game, and it's not their fault the final episode was about as exciting as an Easter egg hunt. And with Dexter, the more I think about it, the pat resolution to so many stories — especially the aftermath of the Liddy killing, as it ensnared Quinn in what could have been a very promising and suspenseful development — leaves me underwhelmed. Still, Deb's near-reveal of Dexter and Lumen as the vigilantes behind the curtain remains a thrilling moment, though again feels like a cop-out to not truly go there. (And surely they haven't really dropped that whole "Kyle Butler" complication from last season's Trinity storyline?) And will I miss Lumen? Not so much.
On to another suspenseful wrap-up: Burn Notice, easily USA Network's best and most gripping show when it brings things to a boil, as it did in this week's back-to-back episodes. The first hour is an enjoyably tense battle of wills between Michael and his manipulative "mega creep" nemesis Brennan (a playfully sinister Jay Karnes), who currently possesses the current MacGuffin of a list naming all the conspirators who burned Michael. Brennan happily blackmails Michael to force him to assassinate everyone on the list, with the help of the unscrupulous spy Larry (a very engaging Tim Matheson). But Larry turns the tables, plunging a knife into Brennan once he learns that the safe holding the list is biometrically controlled. "Geez, I would kill for a bone saw," he says, coolly surveying Brennan's corpse and wishing he could transport just the hand. But Michael's team have already taken the safe, leaving Larry empty-handed (so to speak) and pinned down by sniper Sam, allowing Michael to get away. For now.
Because hour two brings the return of the lethal Vaughn (Robert Wisdom, another great guest performance) for an all-out war to take possession of the list. This siege is serious business. Jesse is impaled on rebar, Maddie is taken prisoner and knocked to the ground — reason enough for killing the bad guys right there — and in the final Alamo-esque showdown, Fiona leaps into the suicidal fray with Michael. "I belong out there with him, better or worse," she gasps to Jesse. It all looks most dire, until Sam shows up with the cavalry (courtesy of Maddie's favorite congressman) and all is saved. Leading to a terrific final reveal when, a week or so later, Michael is shown in the custody of feds driving him around in a limo. And when he emerges, something new for Burn Notice: We can see Michael's breath. It's cold outside! Something tells me we're not in Miami anymore. Enter Dylan Baker, emerging from a building to shake Michael's hand, but not as strangers. "Welcome back," says Dylan, as we realize we're in D.C. — possibly Langley? Is Michael burned no longer? What will being "back" mean? We'll have to wait until summer to find out, but nice potential game-changer. And Maddie? You rock.
BANG-UP JOB: If more recent episodes of The Big Bang Theory had been as hilarious as this week's Justice League homage, I would have had no hesitation putting it on my best-of-year list once again. (But I didn't, since we were already "Cheer"-ing it in our Cheers & Jeers issue — currently on stands — and besides the fact the show no longer needs my help to find an audience, I have felt that it has been getting cruder and sillier in recent months, though I still get big laughs most weeks.)
This week, the foil is Penny's dumb-hunk boyfriend Zack (Brian Thomas Smith, a keeper), who says things like, "That's what I like about science. There's no one right answer." The "science dudes" mock him mercilessly, yet recruit him to be their Superman for the comic-book store's New Year's Eve costume contest. "You can't replace me with Zack," Leonard whines. "Why not? Penny did it," snaps Sheldon. In this episode, we learn that Milk Duds, "with their self-deprecating name and remarkably mild flavor, are the most apologetic of the boxed candies," much more than Junior Mints. And that Scooter is the Aquaman of Muppet Babies. (Because both suck, according to poor Raj.) We get to see Sheldon-as-Flash "speed-knocking" and speed-"Penny"-ing at Penny's door — and speeding to the Grand Canyon to vent his frustration at Leonard changing the thermostat. And we get moments like Zack wondering, upon entering the comic-book store, "Where do they keep the Archies?" Sheldon: "In the bedrooms of 10-year-old girls, where they belong." Yes, "Infinite Sheldon" FTW.
IT'S LIKE POETRY: Except it isn't. But here's Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report, reciting new lyrics to a proposed final stanza for "Send in the Clowns" in front of his guest, Broadway colossus Stephen Sondheim. This takes guts. We quote:
Where are the clowns?
I booked them for 8.
Hold on, that's them on the phone, saying they're late.
Traffic was bad.
The tunnels a mess.
All 12 of them came in one car.
They lost my address.
You just can't trust clowns.
That's why they're called clowns.
Sir, you are a clown. In the best sense of the word.
And then there's this: "From Heather Mills' leg to Ross Perot's twang, you always cajole, never harass or harangue." That's an excerpt from Katie Couric's farewell poem to Larry King on the news-star-studded final night of Larry King Live. I'll spare you the rest, while trying not to picture Larry cajoling Heather's leg.
WIVES' TALES: Another first-rate episode of The Good Wife reconfirms my decision to include this on my year-end list as network TV's best drama. From Alicia's opening sex dream involving Will (who she later tells, "We need a moment ..." to be continued) to Peter cursing on live TV in defense of his marriage during a debate (prompting a sly smile of approval from Alicia) to the final shot of Alicia peering in on daughter Grace praying at bedside, this taut story of a last-minute death-row appeal had it all. Including a great scene between Alicia and Kalinda as they brainstorm in her bedroom — and how gobsmacked was her son Zach to see this exotic creature enter their home? — with Kalinda remaining a mystery to all as she tells her friend, "I didn't like my life before, so I changed it ... in ways that Blake is trying to use against me." Leaving Alicia, and us, wondering about just what skeletons have yet to emerge from that closet (otherwise obviously stocked with fabulous boots). Such a smart, entertaining show — and not afraid to wear its heart on its sleeve, as Alicia pleads over the phone to a judge to stay the execution because "to do this to a man, it has to be right." As usual, she's right.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have Desperate Housewives setting up a predictable midseason whodunit, as hissable villain Paul Young (after duping Lee and Bob into selling him their house — duh) incites a full-blown riot involving a year's worth of extras on the Wisteria Lane set. Who are all these surly suburban Jets from Hydrangea Circle waging battle against the halfway-house Sharks? In the protest melee, after Bree incites a stampede by shooting off her gun, Susan is trampled, a sad Juanita (who naturally has read Gaby's letter to her biological daughter Grace) is trapped in Bob and Lee's car under mob assault, Keith is beaten in his wife-beater when he's mistaken for a con, and no picket fence is safe. Come the night, Paul smugly walks the ruined block and is shot in the chest, presumably in the cavity where his heart should be. As he bleeds out, we remember how much we once cared when this sort of thing happened to J.R. Ewing.
AS HEARD ON TV: "By God, I started it. I'll put it out." — Jane on Survivor, dousing her camp's fire in response to learning her alliance is voting her out at Tribal Council. Honey, you may have lost the game, but you won our hearts. ... "The tall blonde in the red track suit is starting to freak me out." — Two and a Half Men's Charlie watching Glee, where the cheerleading coach looks an awful lot like his therapist (Jane Lynch). ... "Don't pull a Jen." — The new watch-cry on Top Chef: All Stars, as chef-testants on the chopping block try to avoid the combative Jennifer Carroll's fate. ... "Look, up in the sky. It's a bird, it's a plane ... I forget the rest." — Zack failing to live up to his Superman costume on The Big Bang Theory. ... "If Jews control the media, why can't I get on Jimmy Kimmel?" — Krusty the Clown's lament in the drunk tank, on The Simpsons. ... "We're both in the zipper club." — Larry King's last great gaffe, as he talks to Bill Clinton on his final show. The reference is to both of them surviving open-heart surgery, as King is prompted from the booth to explain. And Clinton tells Larry, "I'm glad you clarified that." Oh, NOW Larry gets it! I wish we'd seen Bill Maher's face during all of that. But it's Ryan Seacrest's fault, for bringing up Larry's preference for zippers to a button fly in the first place. Awkward!
And that's a wrap. Let's do this again next year. Till then, season's greetings and happy new TV year!