John Walker's Electronic House

Top 11 TV Programmes of the Year

by on Jan.01, 2007, under The Rest

1. Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip

Studio 60 suffers in people’s critical minds thanks to expectations set so very, very high. Any mistake the programme makes pulls it down from the perfection demanded. It’s like dropping a few pieces of gravel in a tray of precious jewels. Easily spotted because they don’t sparkle, it’s all people can focus on, ignoring the riches all around.

I do the same. I hesitated to choose this for number one for no good reason. What else am I going to put here? Superheroes? Spaceships? In honest comparison, Studio 60 stands out from an excellent year of television, with the finest writing on screen, accompanied by equally strong acting. Yes, the sketches suck. (Oddly, they weren’t so bad when the tirade against them began, but troublingly they’ve become increasingly poor as the series progresses. When watching an episode in which a huge hook is the desperate race to write a replacement sketch for the end of the show, the expected brilliance is not the cast’s spitting water in each other’s faces). But this is the gravel. All around is a joyously intelligent production. I still have worries, and I still believe there’s something significant missing (but can’t put my finger on what), and most of all I want a reason to care about the love interests.

It’s too easy to forget how magnificent it is between episodes, until you see that a new one has been broadcast and run through walls to watch it.

2. Dexter

Never has there been a more gruesome opening title sequence. It’s only fitting for a programme about a sociopathic serial killer/blood spatter forensic officer, who is either working in repulsive crime scenes, or creating his own. Except the titles simply show Dexter having breakfast and getting ready for work. Close-ups of a grapefruit being squeezed have never been so stomach churning.

Perhaps the knife-point psychology of Dexter doesn’t survive too much scrutiny. For all his narrative exposition of his emotionless state, he’s remarkably emotionally driven. However, perhaps that’s simply more realistic. Just because the narrator says it, doesn’t make it true. The first twelve-episode series has concluded, superbly, but it’s unfair to discuss it as Channel 4 haven’t even noticed it yet, let alone started showing it on random days at random times in the wrong order. But who would ever have guessed that the Ice Truck Killer was an alien!?!

Another twelve episodes are on the way, which is a great relief. Not only for the further opportunities to stare at Dexter’s sister’s excellent eyes. What a splendidly disturbing and emotionally conflicting series it was, asking you to not only cheer on the murderer, but fall in love with him completely. And it’s a rare example of something incredibly good receiving the attention it deserves. Showtime broke their ratings records once a week with each new episode.

3. Heroes

The little superheroes that could. I knew this was going to be great, in the face of all the stupid wrongheaded people I know. Especially Ste. I am best. NBC demolished the pilot, rendering the beginning of the second episode utter gibberish. This only made the deliberate lack of continuity within the second episode all the more confusing. However, once the idiotdust settled, everything slotted into place.

I’m surprised by the number of people who hate Peter. His character – deliberately weedy and underwhelming – is not nearly as garish as others have suggested, and the potential for his powers is exciting. (Conscious again that BBC2 haven’t started showing this yet, I’m avoiding spoiling anything). And anyone who didn’t like the Cheerleader is a buffoon, Graham. She is great. Fortunately everyone in the universe loves time-stopping Hiro, as well they should.

Now in the middle of its agonising two month hiatus, all the rumours that the first chunk of episodes would be a self-contained arc were LIES! LIES! There’s no programme that has me moving the mouse to the bottom of the screen to check how much time is left, hoping for ages and ages, quite like this one.

4. The Lost Room

There’s a key that can open any door. The doors it opens always lead into the same motel room. Then think of a door anywhere in the world, open the motel room door, and you’re there. Door-to-door travel. It’s a powerful object, and there’s a lot of people after it. The key falls into the hands of a cop, who through a string of events (after discovering the room “resets” each time the door is closed) loses his young daughter in the room. So there’s some motive to find a way to get her back.

There are, it turns out, about one hundred such Objects, each imbued with a unique power. Some are excellent, like a pair of glasses that resist all combustion. Some are rubbish, like the wristwatch that hard boils eggs. And there’s a number of hidden cabals, all fighting to recover or destroy the Objects for their own reasons.

Shown on the Sci-Fi Channel in the US in December (and infuriatingly advertised through every episode of Battlestar with stupid giant graphics – but dammit, it seems to have worked) The Lost Room was three one and a half hour episodes, forming a self-contained mini-series. While the first half hour of the first part is a garbled mess of exposition and rushed character establishment (sometimes so rushed they forget to provide motivation), it then slots into its groove and is away. There’s something especially potent about the most ordinary objects being dangerously powerful. The programme taps into the same brilliant vein that Stephen King found when he was great, taking the mundane, everyday objects in our lives, and making them sinister. There are certainly vibes of Needful Things, especially with the strange obsessive nature of those who’ve possessed an Object for some time. Certainly hokum, it’s great because rather than the oh-so fashionable trend of saying, “We’ve got these amazing powers – let’s never, ever use them so we appear sophisticated”, The Lost Room constantly uses everything, all the time, non-stop for four and a half hours. If it’s fun to teleport someone to a remote town in Mexico with a magic bus ticket, then it’s fun to do it twenty times for increasingly good reasons. Sure, you’ll get sick of the main character saying, “I’m looking for my daughter. She disappeared into that ROOM!”, and having every baddie touched by the tragedy, but meh, who cares? This is proper magical fun, unafraid to embrace nonsense, and constantly delivering on all the reasons you ever enjoyed an episode of The Outer Limits.

5. Battlestar Galactica

Whether the big red reset button was a good idea or not has become somewhat academic. But what a splendid collection of episodes kicked off series three. It’s a shame that the momentum was clearly never going to last, and while on-board machinations can be just as gripping as planet-based terrorism, the last couple before the break found themselves back in scrappy territory. But let’s not moan, as series three has been some of the greatest sci-fi ever made, and the Cylon stories are becoming increasingly fascinating. Especially each time Dean Stockwell appears.

6. Ugly Betty

That a programme as wonderful as Ugly Betty can come sixth shows what a brilliant year it’s been for square eyes. Every single episode has been a thing of utter joy, grabbing one handful of fairytale and the other handful of happy endings from 80s movies, and merrily combining them in an explosion of colour and pursed lips. The staff of the fashion magazine for which poor, plain Betty works, are obstensibly the baddies. But rather than be so tiresomely simple, instead it makes every one of them fantastically fun to encounter, and through Betty’s eyes, people to try and like. The stand-out character so far is Amanda, cruel and jealous (of everyone), she’s also adorable. I’ve never seen better facial expressions on a person. And what is it JimFromNeighbours is up to, eh? Oh good grief, I love this show so much.

7. House

Who knew this could last three seasons? And further, who amongst those people knew it would be consistently better with each new year? If it’s you, you win a prize! That prize is lupas.

The main concern was that they’d run out of medical mysteries for the team to explore. That, so far, doesn’t seem to be a problem, although this may be more to do with the patients having taken a backseat to the increasingly tormented life of Gregory House. The season three arc has been the most compelling so far, reaching a stunning high/low point with the amazingly depressing Christmas special.

The reason House is great is not because of sophisticated writing, or an especially stunning cast. (BillyFromNeighbours’ gurning has yet to evolve into anything resembling acting). It’s because it knows its limits, and has a hell of a lot of fun down there. Hugh Laurie is nonstop perfect as House, wry and hilarious, while impressively tortured, while all around the script, cast and patients provide walls for him to bounce his ball against. It’s nonsense, like awful programmes like CSI are nonsense, but the key difference is House knows it, and is brilliant at being nonsense.

8. Scrubs

Forgot this one! How Scrubs manages to keep the quality for so long is a mystery, but if the first three episodes of season six are an indication, it’s still being maintained. Season five was a complete joy from start to finish, seeing a lot of the characters mature with Carla’s pregnancy. And JD not mature in the slightest, which is how it should be. A lot more interesting stories for Cox was an excellent idea, and while there wasn’t an episode that matched the return of Cox’s brother in law, or the sitcom, it was still a magnificent season.

9. Bones

I enjoy Bones far more than I know I should. The ensemble cast are brilliant, and the stories so daft and entertaining. Every now and then there’s an episode of agonising dreadfulness (for example, the recent Blair Witch rip-off, that at no point acknowledged the film it was wholesale stealing in such a peculiarly blatent way, but instead made constant comparisons to other horror movies with which it had nothing in common), but most of the time this is perfect entertainment television. Undemanding, but very funny, and with all the fun of the murder mystery fair.

10. Drawn Together

The third series has so far been more shocking than I could have hoped for. Horrifically offensive, and consistently hilarious, the cartoon “reality show” is a series with infinite sources to mock. Only topped by Wonder Showzen for on-screen offense, it is, unlike the MTV show, possible to watch without putting your fingers over your eyes and feeling your childhood dying of cancer. (I’ve not seen the new season of Wonder Showzen, hence its not being included in this list).

11. South Park

I had completely dropped out of South Park, until, like so many, the Scientology episode. The following season 10, from the death of Chef to Cartman’s epic adventures after freezing himself to try and pass the time before the Wii was released, has been stunning. The World of Warcraft episode did what nothing else on television can do – understood a videogame and presented it mostly accurately – and even the season’s duffer, Satan’s birthday party, was pretty funny. The speed with which the show can respond to world events and have them appropriately satirised is a key strength, from Muhammad cartoons to 9/11 conspiracies. Then there’s the remarkable brutality of the paedophile teacher episode, or the aching cruelty of the sports movie parody that finished the series.

Also Rans

How I Met Your Mother has been mostly delightful, and certainly the only sitcom I can currently be bothered to watch. Help Me Help You lost its way after, well, episode one, and despite a couple of high points since (most significantly when Inger met her WoW guild friends in real life), has mostly wallowed in mediocrity. Family Guy has been funny, if nothing to immediately rush off and talk about as it has been in the past. Jericho has been the worst programme I’ve ever looked forward to watching every week. My Name Is Earl carries on with the same excellent writing and beautiful filming, but is in extreme danger of disappearing up its own bumhole with the increasingly patronising “messages” our moustachioed Scientologist friend seems to want to impart. And Scrubs has only just started, but is looking like it’s every bit as wonderful as ever before. A few more episodes in, and it would have definitely been on the above list.

15 Comments for this entry

  • Graham

    The further away she got from the horrible American high school clichés, the better cheerleader became. But at the start it was painfully painful to watch her throw hissy fits about being invincible while fussing over the coming football game. If you’re going to do school life, then you either have to use it as a mere backdrop of social mores, like Veronica Mars, or you have to commit to being very clever and commenting upon the experience, like Buffy. You can’t have a character who is actually engaged in the pettiness, and then not do anything smarter or less obvious with your story than having supportive nerds, mean jocks and the eventual realisation of what’s actually important in life. It’s painfully painful.

  • Thomas Lawrence

    OK, what is the deal with people bitching about the Heroes pilot being full of continuity errors? I doidn’t see or remember any in what I watched. What gives?

  • John

    The deal is your not noticing them, dippy.

    How about, oh, I don’t know, THE ARTIST CUTTING HIS OWN HAND OFF?

    It’s just a thought.

    Then all sorts of smaller stuff, like the kid running away, stealing the wallet, suddenly mysteriously home without explanation.

  • Steve W

    Tsk. Cheerleader is the second-best character on that show (Hiro #1, yawn).

    Despite repeated attempts over Christmas at producing one for my blog, I’m no good at compiling these best-of lists. I can seldom remember everything I’ve seen during the earlier part of the year and 2006 was made more difficult to evaluate than usual, due partly to the fact it was a lean year for good movies, but mainly because the birth of my son meant I didn’t seem to do anything save watch a colossal amount of television. I think I’ve only been to the cinema about twice since February, which means the best film I saw last year was most likely V for Vendetta. Um.

    Still, 2006 was a pretty good one for quality television at least. Galactica nabs the top spot, closely followed by Dexter. I reeeeaaalllly like Studio 60, but what I feel is closer to admiration for the technique than the love I had for the characters and situations in The West Wing. Once I’m past comparing it to that show, it’ll perhaps come higher on the list.

    I always have to fight to urge to write a response equally as long after reading your posts, but I’ll stop here and ruminate on the other shows Elsewhere. Hope you had a good holiday and all that.

  • Steve W

    the urge”

    Also, Dexter starts in the UK on the FX channel (Sky 179) soon, Heroes on Sci-Fi and BBC2.

  • John

    Could be apologies all round. I’m told the broadcast pilot was different from the leaked pilot.

    Although Mr Lawrence could have phrased his question better : )

  • Sarah

    The fruit in the opening credits of Dexter is a blood orange, not a grapefruit. Sociopath or not, the man puts together a quality breakfast. Evidently serial killers appreciate the little things in life like fresh juice and French press coffee, and get out of bed three hours earlier than they’d otherwise need to to make sure they get them.

  • bob_arctor

    Earl is a scientologist? The actor?

    Also: House is complete nonsense. “ALS” -amyotrophic lateral sclerosis- or as we in the UK call it Motor Neurone Disease, was diagnosed on the basis the patient couldn’t feel House hit him. Motor neurone. MOTOR. Not sensory. No sensory loss at all. None. Maybe, rarely, sensory change. But no loss.
    Later in the episode they cure a stroke several hours at the least after the brain tissue had died.

    Apart from that it’s great. But from the perspective of someone trying to learn medicine it’s annoying, as I know I can’t pick up anything from it; in fact I must resist that entirely.

    Although aparently muscle death does hurt lots. So that’s true.

  • John

    Yes, Jason Lee is a Thetan-free loon. Sad, isn’t it?

  • Thomas Lawrence

    Aa, there was another pilot? Which one did I watch, then, the broadcast one or the leaked one? Mine totally lacks hand cuttation or kids which run away.

  • Steve W

    The original, leaked pilot was around 53 minutes. The broadcast pilot was the usual 42-minute jobby, accounting for the confusion. The unaired episode was titled “In His Own Image” rather than “Genesis”.

    Additionally, the original original pilot (unreleased, even via chunky torrenty goodness) was 90 minutes long before NBC chickened out, so they unceremoniously chucked most of the cut material into episode two (my only source for this is an interview on the Sci-Fi Channel with Greg Grunberg).

  • Cian

    My Name is Earl is no longer the thought free pleasure it once was.
    And I can’t fault your list, I now turn to this blog whenever I need something new to watch.

  • The_B

    Best episode of Season 5 I feel was “My Lunch” and the subsequent one. Absolutely awesome episode, especially for Dr. Cox.

  • Renee

    I absolutely love DEXTER and can not wait for the new season start. BTW when does it?

  • Clare

    Do you know when Studio 60 is being shown in the UK (on real live television that is, not clever internet television)?

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