On the occasion of being surprised to learn there were 10 shows I actually enjoyed this year.

10. “Project Runway,” Bravo. Still television’s best “reality” show.

9. “90210,” CW. I wasn’t a huge fan of the original, but the revival is my guiltiest pleasure. Memo to the producers: Your main cast is beginning to click, but please don’t forget about Shannen Doherty, whose guest appearances as Brenda remain the best reason to watch this show.

8. “CBS Evening News with Katie Couric.” Yes, Couric’s interviews with Sarah Palin were devastating, but that wasn’t the only reason this was the newscast to watch in 2008. Her “Presidential Questions” interviews were revealing, offering the kind insight into the candidates’ thinking that voters couldn’t find anywhere else.

7. “True Blood,” HBO. We don’t have HBO (long story), but I saw the pilot on DVD. That was enough to earn it a place on this list.

6. “Saturday Night Live,” NBC. Tina Fey’s cold openings are deservedly rave-worthy, but don’t overlook Kristen Wiig, who almost single-handedly kept the show alive for the remaining 85 minutes each week.

5. “30 Rock,” NBC. The last great sitcom?

Swingtown4. “Swingtown,” CBS. The cancellation of this prime time serial – which played more like a gauzy memory of suburban America in the ’70s than a soap opera – was the greatest TV crime of the year. “Swingtown” was the spiritual descendent of my beloved “Knots Landing,” boasting a triumphant triumvirate of women characters – Susan, Janet and Trina – that recalled Karen, Val and Abby in their heyday. If CBS’s suits were smart – heavy emphasis on the “if” – they’d keep “Swingtown” alive, making the show a summertime tradition.

3. “Battlestar Galactica,” Sci Fi. Not its strongest season, but even on a bad day it’s better than almost anything else on television.

2. “Lost,” ABC. After all this time, “Lost” continued to confound and compel in 2008. One of television’s all-time great shows.

1. “Mad Men,” AMC. The period setting and costumes mask this show’s greatest strength: its utter weirdness. Every character is at least a little strange, and you never know what kooky thing they’re going to make next. That, more than anything else, is what kept me coming back week after week.

On the occasion of President-elect Obama almost completing his real one.

cliff-barnes-28. Cliff Barnes, energy czar, “Dallas.” In the prime time soap’s 14th and final season, the failed congressional candidate revived his political career with an appointment as the president’s “energy czar.” (It was never made clear how energy czar differed from energy secretary. Oh well. Let’s assume it wasn’t a case of government redundancy.) What I want to know is what kind of president gives Cliff (Ken Kercheval) a job. During the course of the series, Cliff: was twice arrested for shooting members of the Ewing clan, acquitted for accidentally killing a New York mobster, accused (and not without merit) of using various government posts he held to pursue personal vendettas, carried on multiple extra-marital affairs, fathered an illegitimate child, almost ran his mother’s multi-million dollar oil company into the ground, attempted suicide and was embarrassed by the revelation that a girlfriend died after aborting his child. In the real world, this guy couldn’t get appointed assistant deputy dog catcher.

karen-hayes17. Karen Hayes, national security advisor, “24.” You can’t always count on this character to do the right thing, but she’s pretty good most of the time. As I recall – and “24” is so convoluted, you can’t blame me for having a spotty memory – Hayes (Jayne Atkinson) was at first suspicious of super agent Jack Bauer, but ended up becoming one of his most valuable allies. Her Wikipedia entry says she once fired her husband to save her own career. Come on, Karen! You know better than that!

 

 

 


james-heller26. James Heller, defense secretary, “24.” I love this guy for so many reasons. He’s an unabashed nepotist (his staff includes his daughter, Audrey Raines, and her boyfriend, Jack Bauer), his fathering skills are questionable (his son, Richard, is an anarchist who frequently participates in government protests) and he’s indestructible (after apparently dying in a car wreck on day five, he returns in fine form in day six). William Devane, my favorite actor from “Knots Landing,” portrays Heller with the appropriate combination of grit and humanity. He’d make a fantastic president in the “24” universe.


 

 

lewis-berryhill55. Lewis Berryhill, secretary of state, “24.” Hey, look! It’s William Devane again! He’s pretty much wasted as Berryhill – the character made just two appearances on “The West Wing” – but I so love the idea of him as secretary of state that I’m giving him a fairly high spot on this list. Aside from Martin Sheen, no one plays politics better than Devane. Both have dashing, Kennedy-esque looks, so it’s no wonder both have played JFK: Sheen did it in the miniseries “Kennedy – The Presidential Years,” while Devane did it in the made-for-TV movie “The Missiles of October” (which featured Sheen as Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy!) In addition, Devane portrayed a U.S. Senate candidate on “Knots Landing,” the patriarch of a Kennedy-esque dynasty on “The Monroes” and an evil presidential campaign manager in the awesomely named TV movie “The President’s Child.” If Sheen hadn’t been available to play Josiah Bartlet on “The West Wing,” I think Devane would have made a fine second choice.

nancy-mcnally34. Dr. Nancy McNally, national security advisor, “The West Wing.” Tina Fey once said Condoleezza Rice speaks like she’s making a hostage tape, perhaps the most fitting description of Rice I’ve ever heard. Her nervous, halting cadence wasn’t very comforting during the first Bush administration, when she served as national security advisor. So it was nice to imagine stern, decisive McNally (Anna Deavere Smith) was really in charge of keeping the country safe.

catherine-walker23. Catherine Walker, chancellor of the exchequer, “The Amazing Mrs Pritchard.” Andrew and I were hooked on this BBC miniseries when it aired on American public television last year. When supermarket manager-turned-political phenomenon Ros Pritchard becomes Britain’s prime minister, Catherine Walker (Janet McTeer), a senior member of the Conservative Party, joins her team as chancellor of the exchequer, roughly the British equivalent to the U.S. government’s treasury secretary. Catherine is one tough broad, but McTeer makes her vulnerable – especially when she becomes pregnant after having an affair with a young aide. Go Catherine!

leo-mcgarry22. Leo McGarry, labor secretary, “The West Wing.” OK, we never actually saw McGarry (John Spencer) as labor secretary. When “The West Wing” debuted in 1999, it was explained his character – President Bartlet’s chief of staff – had served as labor chief in a previous Democratic administration. Still, you just know our beloved Leo was an awesome cabinet member.

 

 

 

 

 

laura-roslin41. Laura Roslin, education secretary, “Battlestar Galactica.” You know how one member of the cabinet stays behind when the president gives his State of the Union address, just in case some calamity strikes the Capitol and wipes out the entire administration during the speech? It’s a horrific thought, I know. But if it were to happen, you’d hope the person picked to stay behind would be someone like Laura (Mary McDonnell). Yeah, I know. She isn’t perfect. She’s a little too eager to toss Cylons out the airlock, and her whole preoccupation with religion is a little creepy. But you gotta give her credit: When the Cylon attack wiped out most of humanity – including President Adar and the rest of his cabinet – Roslin rose to the occasion with graceful determination. Thanks to flashbacks, we also know she stood up to Adar when he tried to fire her for being too chummy with the teachers’ union. She’s wonderfully human (or is she?), and the fact that McDonnell doesn’t have an Emmy by now is a frakkin’ shame.

On the occasion of yesterday’s declaration that the U.S. economy is in a recession:

daisy-duke110. “The Dukes of Hazzard” (1979 to 1985). I don’t remember the Dukes talking about it much, but I don’t think Uncle Jesse would be in the moonshine business if the family wasn’t as poor as church mice. Daisy couldn’t even afford pants.

9. “The Waltons” (1972 to 1981). Another series that looked at economic hardships in a rural setting. By the way, I really didn’t intend to clump all the rural shows together (see next entry); that’s just how it worked out.

8. “Little House on the Prairie” (1974 to 1983). I didn’t watch this show closely, but Andrew persuaded me to include it. He recalls an episode where the Ingalls were bouncing off the little house’s walls because they could afford sugar and flour after making more money than expected on their crops. Sounds pretty poor to me.

7. “Battlestar Galactica” (2004 to 2009). Go ahead and make fun of me for including a science fiction show on this list, but I can’t think of another series that’s done a better job exploring class differences. Remember, the humans on this show are survivors of genocide. We regularly see refugees wearing little more than rags. That’s real poverty, even if it is in outer space.

all-in-the-family6. “All in the Family” (1971 to 1979). Like many shows on this list, “All in the Family” portrayed working class people, but that’s as close as you’re likely to come to poverty in prime time television. Archie and Meathead were more likely to clash over social injustices than economic ones, but the Bunkers were clearly a family of modest means.

5. “The Honeymooners” (1955 to 1956). I haven’t seen a lot of this sitcom (which continued for years as a series of variety show sketches after its cancellation), but I know Ralph and Alice Kramden regularly argued about money – or their lack of it, to be more precise.

4. “Roseanne” (1988 to 1997). For many, no show better epitomizes the plight of the American working class. The Conner household always seemed one paycheck away from complete economic collapse. What I liked about “Roseanne” is how it got the smallest details right, from the open pizza boxes on the kitchen table to the no-frills afghan draping the faded sofa in the living room.

3. “Good Times” (1974 to 1979). But only the early episodes, which chronicled the struggles of James and Florida Evans to provide for their children. I can recall a scene in which neighbor Willona Woods teaches Florida her complicated system of evading bill collectors – not the kind of thing we’ve seen a lot of in prime time. “Good Times” devolved into self parody after its first season, but those early episodes were an interesting attempt to mine humor from topics like unemployment, welfare and inner city schools.

2. “The PJs” (1999 to 2001). A spiritual descendent of “Good Times,” “The PJs” was a stop-motion animated series about life in a Detroit public housing complex. The broad comedy was tempered by the economic plight of the characters, which included a crackhead and a social worker from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Perhaps one reason for the show’s short life – it ran just three seasons – is that it debuted at the height of the nation’s Internet boom, when everyone was seemingly flying high.

the-wire1. “The Wire” (2002 to 2008). The cops on this show were working class Joes (and Janes), but “The Wire” also had its fair share of honest-to-goodness poverty. The low-level drug dealers seen on this series offered a rare glimpse into the desperate choices made by the impoverished. In fact, I’d say “The Wire” demonstrated the tragic link between poverty, urban decay and the American drug trade more effectively than any documentary or feature film.

On the occasion of my wanting to impress Robin.

 

paul-campbell5. Paul Campbell (Billy Keikeya). The sweetest baby face in outer space. Campbell makes me wish I had breasts, just so I could nuzzle him in them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

jamie-bamber4. Jamie Bamber (Captain Lee “Apollo” Adama). Possibly the most flawless physical specimen in prime time. He doesn’t rank higher because he’s almost too perfect.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

michael-trucco1

3. Michael Trucco (Ensign Samuel Anders).  As “The Chris Show” regular viewers Andrew and Robin know, I used to look at Trucco and think, “Eh. He’s OK, but he’s not all that.” Then I began rewatching “Battlestar’s” third season, in which he spends a lot of time grimy and glistening. Yum. Plus, he sports a shitty goatee this season, and I’m always a sucker for a shitty goatee.

 

 

 

 

 


 

aaron-douglas12. Aaron Douglas (Chief Galen Tyrol). I love the big boys. Like Trucco, he’s at his best when he’s scruffy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

tahmoh-penikett1. Tahmoh Penikett (Captain Karl “Helo” Agathon). Not only is Penikett the most exquisitely beautiful member of the cast, he’s also the most smolderingly magnetic. He enters a scene and you feel the electricity. It doesn’t hurt that his character is such a standup fellow. Good guyness is always swoon-worthy.

 

 

On the occasion of my thinking this would make a fun list.

10. Gary’s in jail, “Knots Landing,” March 10, 1983. Unlike other prime time soaps of the era, “Knots Landing” rarely ended a season with a splashy action sequence. That was the beauty of the show – its characters were so strong, their stories so compelling, that producers didn’t need to shoehorn them into artificial, life-or-death situations to keep viewers hooked during the annual summer hiatus. Nothing illustrates this better than the fourth season finale, in which ne’er-do-well Gary Ewing (Ted Shackelford) is jailed following the murder of his mistress, Ciji Dunne. Joan Van Ark shines in the scene where her character, Valene, confronts ex-husband Gary to persuade him he’s not guilty, but the emotional high point comes in the montage that punctuates this episode: Gary’s wife, Abby (Donna Mills), contemplating the situation from the deck of her glamorous beach house; Val sitting in the darkened living room of her suburban home; and an embittered Gary stewing in his jail cell. It was all we needed to keep us hanging on until the new season began in September.

9. San Francisco Bay plunge, “Falcon Crest,” May 15, 1987. This marked the conclusion of my favorite season of “Falcon Crest,” which featured Kim Novak’s season-long guest stint as mystery lady Kit Marlowe. (The character’s name was an inside joke: When Novak was a Hollywood ingénue in the 1950s, studio bosses wanted her to change her name to “Kit Marlowe.”) I love how this episode uses sepia-toned footage from an old Jane Wyman movie as a flashback to reveal her “Falcon Crest” character, Angela Channing, was actually the birth mother of her stepson/archenemy Richard Channing. (If you’re not a fan of the show, trust me: This was a stunning twist.) This season was produced by the team that went on to produce “24,” and you can see their flair for action in the final scene, which ends with five characters (including a baby!) under the murky waters of San Francisco Bay. The audio in this clip is screwed up, which is too bad, because one of the nice touches of the finale is how the sound of police sirens continue after the freeze frame and producers’ credits appear on screen.

8. Enter: Locutus, “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” June 1990. Captain Picard is Borgified! Dr. Crusher’s horrified reaction when she first sees the “altered” Picard is priceless (nicely done, Gates McFadden!), but if you ask me, this scene belongs to Jonathan Frakes, perhaps the most undervalued member of this show’s great acting ensemble. If there’s any anguish Commander Riker’s dramatic order in the final scene (“Mr. Worf, fire.”), it isn’t evident here, an indication of the character’s resolute stoicism and the quiet authority Frakes brought to his role.

7. Showdown at the Belmar Hotel, “Knots Landing,” March 29 1984. Oh how I love this one. After ending the fourth season on a quiet note (see entry No. 10), the producers really amped up the melodrama here. Gary’s torn between rescuing imperiled loves Val and Abby, while good guy Mack finally gets the bad guys, but seemingly at the cost of his wife Karen’s life. (Look for a pre-“Twin Peaks” Grace Zabriskie as Karen’s apparent assassin.) “Knots Landing’s” Wolfbridge Group storyline was insanely convoluted, but who cares? This is still great fun.

bobby-ewing-in-the-shower16. Bobby in the shower, “Dallas,” May 16, 1986. One year after his Bobby Ewing character died, Patrick Duffy pops up in the shower of his ex-wife Pam (Victoria Principal) in the closing moments of “Dallas’” ninth season finale. Was it Bobby? An imposter? A hallucination? In the 10th season premiere, viewers would learn, of course, that it was indeed Bobby, and that Pam had dreamed his death and the 31 episodes that followed. For me, the most frightening moment of this cliffhanger comes immediately before Pam wakes up, when Sue Ellen (Linda Gray) is blown up during a visit to Ewing Oil. “Dallas” without my beloved Sue Ellen? Now that’s scary!

5. The assassination attempt, “The West Wing,” May 17, 2000. This frightening action sequence is wildly out of sync with the literate tenor of the series, yet it’s so dramatic, I had to include it. President Bartlet is working the rope line after a town hall meeting in Rosslyn, Va., when two skinheads open fire on the presidential entourage. Viewers see almost all of the show’s main characters crash to the ground. (Just why is the entire senior West Wing staff accompanying the president to a routine town hall meeting?) Who lives? Who dies? An unexpected and suspenseful conclusion end to a solid freshmen season. The best touch: Viewers hear a Secret Service officer’s desperate plea (“Who’s been hit? Who’s been hit?”) after the screen fades to black. Shades of the 1987 “Falcon Crest” finale!

4. The flash forward, “Lost,” May 23, 2007. For three seasons, “Lost’s” trademark was its flashbacks showing the lives of its characters before they became stranded on a David Lynch version of “Gilligan’s Island.” The third-season finale seemed to incorporate flashbacks to the life of lead character Jack Shepherd (Matthew Fox), until the closing moments of the episode, when we learned we had been watching flash forwards to Jack’s life after he escaped the island. In a show known for its twists, nothing was more stunning than this. A good show can get away with manipulating its audience from time to time; it takes a great show like “Lost” to do it consistently and leave the audience begging for more.

3. The flash forward, “Battlestar Galactica,” March 10, 2006. Another stellar season of televison’s consistently best drama ends with a bang: a nuclear explosion wipes out a major civilian vessel in the colonial fleet, handing Gaius Baltar his first crisis as the newly elected weasel in chief. In a moment of despair, Baltar buries his head on his desk as the final scene of the season closes. But wait, there’s more! It turns out the season isn’t over. The show flashes forward a year (!), showing us life on New Caprica, immediately before a Cylon invasion. Frakking brilliant.

2. Who shot J.R.? “Dallas,” March 21, 1980. The granddaddy of all TV cliffhangers, included here not so much for nostalgia, but for its elegant simplicity – it’s a classic, well-constructed whodunit, with almost every major character a suspect. This is the moment that turned “Dallas” into a worldwide phenomenon, but I was already a fanatic by the time this episode aired. (Yes, I was 6 at the time.) There are family photos of me wearing my prized “I Shot J.R.” t-shirt during our trip to the Kings Dominion amusement park during the summer of 1980. (Where did The Moms find a “Dallas” shirt in a child’s size?) Shockingly, there isn’t a good version of this on YouTube. The one linked here is the best I could find.

bobby-ewing-on-his-death-bed1. Bobby dies, “Dallas,” May 17, 1985. My all-time favorite. This wasn’t a cliffhanger so much as the denouement of the show’s central narrative – the Cain-vs.-Able-style conflict between the good Ewing brother (Bobby) and the evil one (J.R.). Even though Bobby’s death didn’t really happen in the “Dallas” continuum (the death was the beginning of “Dallas’” infamous “dream season”), this scene still packs a punch, ranking as perhaps of the greatest deathbed farewell in TV history. (Maybe James Caan’s in “Brian’s Song” was better, but I’ve never seen it.) Steve Kanaly (Ray), Larry Hagman (J.R.) and Patrick Duffy (Bobby) really shine here, but in my mind, this is Victoria Principal’s greatest “Dallas” moment. I still get chills when her character, Pam, flinches at the moment Bobby flatlines. This is everything a season finale should be. Watch it and weep. (Chris Baker trivia: I made an armband out of black construction paper and wore it around the house the day after this episode originally aired.)