Sunday, December 24, 2006

I took some time out of my not-so-busy yesterday to check out NBC's struggling Friday Night Lights, and holy shit, how was I missing out on this!? Let me make one thing perfectly clear: I don't care at all about Texas, high school, football or Texas high school football, but Friday Night Lights manages to be about so much more — these not-quite-kids but not-quite-adults with the burden of leading their sleepy community bound by this eternal morality play, us versus them, exhibited in the football stadium every Friday night. I guess that's not as marketable an idea as "cute football jocks and cheerleaders," although it's not like NBC is having a ton of success marketing their high-concept shows where one genre becomes a microcosm of larger, universal themes, like Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip or Battlestar Galactica, which I'm not watching because I thought it was for sci-fi geeks. I wish NBC would hire the advertisers that got me to watch Sports Night during its initial run — not that they had a ton of long-term success either.

Not that I'm going to be able to generate buzz or anything, but here's my list of the new fall programming that you should be (or you should've been) watching:

  • 1. Friday Night Lights. I haven't seen anything this year that comes anywhere near the artistry of Friday Night Lights. Thief, from way back in January, comes close, but it's a bit more parochial in scope. Fifty years from now, the Friday Night Lights pilot will be, if anyone's around to remember it, the cornerstone of the Western television canon. So naturally the dippy Hollywood Foreign Press Association snubbed it with the Golden Globes nominations. There are (very few) better things on television, but none that represent the medium quite as well.
  • 2. Dexter. Michael C. Hall does an amazing job of balancing the dichotomy of Dexter and its title character. Scenes play out like a CSI with humans instead of zombie actors in the main roles, with an analytical mind that's funny and charming, almost lulling you into complacency... then Dexter has his monotone voice-over and all of a sudden, you're reminded that the show's about an emotionally vacant psychopath. Maybe Dexter's serial killer code — he only kills criminals beyond the reach of the law, which, between this show and Nip/Tuck, Miami is apparently teeming with — is a bit of a cop-out with the character's development, but his murders are only a conceit. Dexter is perfect as a tragic hero when it's the mundane, obvious stuff that hits a chord for him, and his futile struggle to at least appear normal when he's too emotionally stunted to realize there is no such thing is heartbreaking.
  • 3. 30 Rock. It won't substitute for Arrested Development, but 30 Rock is the season's only funny new comedy, thanks not only to Tracy Morgan's total commitment to his outlandish character, but the entire cast's total commitment to their less outlandish characters. A lesser series would've focused the humor on Tina Fey's straight woman... and probably included a laugh track, too.
  • 4. Kidnapped. A little too self-righteous, a little too over-the-top, and a little too scrubbed and polished, Kidnapped was like reading The Corrections on a long plane trip while the fat slob sitting next to you was engrossed in whatever Dean Koontz novel he picked up at the airport bookstore, i.e. FOX's totally unnecessary Vanished. What could've been pablum rose above its irritating characters and unfortunately baroque dialogue through absolutely perfect plotting and pacing. Someone in serialized television actually remembered that it helps to pay attention to your characters (Are you listening, producers of Heroes?) and to move them towards an end (Are you listening, producers of Lost?).
  • 5. Nothing. Sorry, but there weren't a whole lot of good ideas that blossomed into well-made new shows this year.
  • Farther down the list, maybe 8 or 9. Ugly Betty is amusing and cute and totally not ugly. Which is a bit of a problem since she's supposed to be, well, ugly. I'm looking forward to the future spin-off Not Gay Nephew Justin.
  • 10. Heroes. The most bipolar show on television, Heroes would strive for mediocrity if not for two things. First, it has the most gripping plot of any of the new series, even if its unfolding is lumbering, meandering, and framed by the most pretentious voice over ever. And second, the rest of the cast is pedestrian at best, but Masi Oka rules! I thought he was a grating dork during his early scenes in Tokyo, but his ingenuous demeanor really shines when he's out of his element in America.
  • 11. The Nine and Daybreak. Two more useless shows formed in the mold of Lost, predicated on holding back information from the audience. The Nine looked promising at first, but the characters failed to develop and I couldn't care what happened to them after the bank robbery until I found out what happened to them during the bank robbery.
  • Even farther down the list, like 20. Men in Trees, What About Brian, Six Degrees, and Studio 60. Shows for people who watch Grey's Anatomy now and watched Dawson's Creek ten years ago. I guess advertisers like them.
  • Huge gap of nothing.
  • 2000. Jericho. This is the show that makes me sad Mystery Science Theater 3000 is dead. You've got a nuclear holocaust and a town full of the dumbest people God ever created, who go around asking each other, "Did you notice anything strange happen lately?" Dude, the world freaking ended! That doesn't strike you as a little strange??? I don't like to think too much about Jericho because it just makes my head hurt.
Throwing in the returning series, The Wire is, without question, the best show on television. The HFPA seems to be unaware of its existence, which I guess is only fitting for a show about how society marginalizes good people and their struggle to find dignity within their larger institutions' indifference. The Wire is too convoluted and sprawling to grab a new audience in the middle of the five-season arc, and I applaud HBO for keeping it on the air nevertheless. Also strong was the first nine-episode arc of Veronica Mars, which I'd rank up on the list right below Dexter. The beginning episodes of the season worried me a little, as they seemed like the kind of scatterbrained pacing that characterized the second season's overly-ambitious mystery, but it turned out that the story had the economy I came to love in the first season and some nice, subtle misdirection, too. Well done, writers.

NBC's new Thursday night "Must See TV" lineup is funnier than the original, even though I'm not a fan of Scrubs and I don't lose any sleep over missing My Name is Earl. I still prefer the British version of The Office and its tragic anti-hero to the American counterpart, but Steve Carell and company are still damn hilarious, plus Ed Helms as Michael Scott's new sycophantic best friend always gets laughs. The comedy pickings on TV are slim — I like Weeds, for example, but it's about as funny as Desperate Housewives — but The Office and 30 Rock make a nice Thursday night combination.

I didn't get to watch CBS's Smith, but it got extremely mixed reviews. And the CW's Runaway was off to a promising start until some producer decided the family's three kids should have the collective IQ of a brick.