1. THE WIRE
Some say that David Simon’s Dickensian tale ended on a weaker note compared to season’s past. They’re dead wrong. A single episode of THE WIRE (about the drug wars, the cops investigating them, and the corrupted city government in Baltimore), even the worst one, is still better than everything TV had to offer in 2008. The final season centered on the local paper too inept too take notice of the overt tragedies before them. We saw the series’ most engrossing characters fall into the archetypes the failed city doomed them to fill, and we saw our antiheroes’ faces tighten into grimaces as their futures unfolded in an appreciated final goodbye. It wasn’t just a cop drama about good poh-lice and the gangsters they hunted, but a testament to the most tragic, serenely poetic, and tearfully funny tale of our time: us. THE WIREe wasn’t just TV, it was a masterpiece.
2. MAD MEN
Don Draper (Jon Hamm, stone-jawed poster-man for steely-eyed Great Performances), flailing in his age and failing to stay faithful, goes covorting by the sunny poolsides of California, far away from his Madison Ave office, where chaos is in full swing: Sterling Cooper, the ad agency where he works, has just been sold to a British firm. His ex-secretary has catapulted to the top of the steno pool, landing a junior copy writing job in a man’s world; his weaselly protege is unravelling like a ball of yarn thrown out the window. And his wife, peering into her refrigerator late at night, grabs a bottle of milk, and takes a swig. She just got back from her own extra-marital tryst, rendering her empowered, yet disgusted. MAD MEN’s second season unfolded with relishing zest, set at its own pace, tagging us along to the Bay of Pigs.
3. 30 ROCK
This spot should really be for Tina Fey, who’s celebrity went from “that sassy girl from SNL,” to “I can see Russia from my howse!” But her show 30 ROCK seemed to benefit just as well: its ratings are slightly up (though its no Two and a Half Men), and it’s as boldy creative as ever in its third season, anchored by Alec Baldwin’s game-changing performance as a whispery GE honcho. 30 ROCK is the true blood heir to the late ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT in that it is the embodiment of the best of TV’s past (think Mary Tyler Moore meets Seinfeld), under-appreciated for its smart, literate sense of humor. I bet Sarah Palin watches.
4. THE SHIELD
Now this is how you do a final season. Shawn Ryan’s tragic drama about a corrupt police squad came to the most arresting emotional breaking point in the series’ history as Vic Mackey’s (the astounding Michael Chiklis) seven years of a downward spiral finally thudded against the ground, leaving us in fits of tears, laughs, and pain. Walton Goggins, as Vic’s longtime partner and ultimately betrayer, deserves an Oscar. I don’t even care that it doesn’t make sense. THE SHIELD’s profound legacy doesn’t always either.
5. DR. HORRIBLE’S SING-ALONG BLOG
Okay, while not technically television in the traditional sense, Joss Whedon’s three-part series is what the new generation of TV should be: site-crashing, I’ve-got-to-pay-$1.99-for-it-on-iTunes good. Starring Neil Patrick Harris as the eponymous evil doc applying for membership into the all too exclusive Evil League of Evil, it had the level of sophistication in its storytelling that Whedon is infamous for without making it as laborious as watching TV on your computer can sometimes be. Oh, and it’s a musical.
I’ll admit it: for a while there, I had lost faith in LOST. It got murky in its already convoluted plot, and it felt like all the primary characters were either being shorthanded or rendered boring for the sake of peripheral characters who we didn’t care about anyway. It’s redemption is all the more worth celebrating. LOST shed itself of all the trappings and pretensions that made it annoying to watch and just stuck along the trajectory laid out by the showrunners, who were smart to set an end date. So was taking up flash-forwards, to when six of the islanders are actually off the island. It’s coming full circle, and we can finally be in the loop.
7. ARCHITECTURE SCHOOL
Architecture was both central and completely beside the point to this poignant reality series about a group of Tulane students attempting to build modern, avant-garde-ish, affordable housing in a Katrina-stricken New Orleans: central because how the houses are made is integral to the survival of the community, beside the point because the greater story was in the citizens left after the storm, downtrodden and desperate to start anew, their appreciation was mixed with apprehension. It’s a story about people trying to salvage their identities more than it ever was about dedicated kids building.
8. CHUCK and GOSSIP GIRL
Super-producer Josh Schwartz may have lucked out with last year’s writer’s strike: both of his new shows returned creatively charged. CHUCK weaved a much needed serialized element into its rewardingly comical procedural setup, and GOSSIP GIRL just gave up on playing coy, and embraced the fact that its stars look like they’re in their mid-twenties — so they started behaving like they are, fully aware and completely engrossing.
9. LAW & ORDER
Who knew Dick Wolf’s long-running legal drama could reinvigorate itself so powerfully in its 18th season? Thank new cast members Jeremy Sisto and Anthony Anderson as the new detective duo, and Linus Roache as the slicingly slick new assistant district attorney Michael Cutter. It stuck to its ripped-from-the-headlines approach, but now they’re now laced with personal and emotional implications, connecting the crimes with the people who solve them. And finally upgrading Sam Waterson’s Jack McCoy to district attorney? Thanks for that.
10. THE MIDDLEMAN
Talk about undervalued. This adaptation of the Javier Grillo-Marxuach graphic novels was a short-lived treat into a world where bad guys wear luchadore masks and the good guys dressed like fired Canadian Mounties, and it’s completely okay because its so self-effacing and purposely goosey that you just don’t care.