2007 was a wacky television year. How wacky was it? After calling for a mandatory boycott of AMC several years ago — something about their pan-and-scan butchery of movies and their callous disregard for the word "classic" — I was forced to crawl back to the network for Mad Men, perhaps the season’s finest new scripted drama.
Even before the Writers Guild strike hit and threatened to jeopardize scripted television for much of 2008, it was a year of uncertainty. Aided by what ought to have been a breakout turn from Autumn Reeser, The O.C. returned to creative form for 16 episodes that nobody watched, before vanishing. Gilmore Girls and Veronica Mars, two of my favorites at one point, were snuffed out after seasons where they rarely approached their former glory (though the Veronica Mars finale was stark and outstanding). CBS didn’t do its homework and cancelled Jericho only to realize that the people who liked the show *really* liked it and that they had plenty of discretionary income to spend on nuts, causing the network to reconsider, setting a precedent that’s bound to lead to many years of food-related Save-our-Shows campaigns. Entourage aired a whopping 20 episodes in 2007 and finally pushed the already thin premise past the self-absorbed breaking point. Heroes capped off a superlative first season with a finale so anti-climactic it took the producers six episodes into the new season to recover. Prison Break and 24 reached the stage where only the most dedicated, Kool-Aid-sipping fans were still able to suspend their disbelief. Plus, any year without new episodes of The Wire leaves us all the poorer.
But I dwell too much on the negative. Let’s talk about some of 2007’s television highlights, beginning with my defense of several of the year’s most controversial small screen moments.
The Sopranos Finale. Want to know the big difference between TV and movies? The Sixth Sense reaches a cheat of an ending where Bruce Willis’ sled is named Rosebud and everybody hails it as a miracle. St. Elsewhere reaches a cheat of an ending where the whole thing took place in the mind of autistic kid and everybody’s outraged. Because movies run two hours, they’re destination-driven and conclusion-centric. Because TV shows ideally run for five or 10 seasons, they’re about the journey, about following the progress of a set of characters through a variety of adventures. The idea that a series creator owes a conclusion to fans is beyond ludicrous. It’s almost offensive. Never for a second did I watch The Sopranos expecting finality, much less expecting a cookie from David Chase as my reward. It was a show about a man whose life was ever in flux and it ended with his life in flux. I don’t believe that Tony Soprano *did* get whacked in the series finale. I believe that sometime in the future, he probably *will* get whacked, but I don’t need to see it. Reality TV hasn’t completely drained my imagination, after all. The construction of the finale, leading up to that notorious hard-cut to black, was perfect. And in the end, reflecting on it for six months, I can’t think of anything ending I’d have preferred.
The Nikki and Paulo Episode (a.k.a. "Expose"). Hi. I’m Daniel and I’m the only person you’re gonna meet willing to defend Nikki and Paulo, and that includes the creators of Lost. To the fans of the show, they were two annoying castaways who were awkwardly thrust into one or two episodes and then were killed off, having frustratedly amounted to nothing. To my mind, Nikki and Paulo were the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of Lost Island, two bit players whose individual, personal tragedy was hardly a footnote in a far bigger drama. For three seasons, we’ve heard Matthew Fox’s Jack rant about the choice between living together and dying alone, even though the show’s action has focused on only a quarter of the Oceanic survivors. Nikki and Paulo wanted to be part of that core group of castaways, the group always having adventures and flashbacks. They wanted to hang with the cool kids, to be part of the A-Plot, but as viewers will attest, they never fit in. Their punishment was beyond harsh — because they weren’t important enough to tag along with Charlie or Sayid or Hurley, they were allowed to spiral out of control with their own greed and obsession, which ultimately killed them. And nobody really cared. If you ask me, their blood — like that of the other casualties we’ve barely met — is on Jack’s hands. I ranted more on this over at my alternate blog, but I stand by it.
Kid Nation. Televised child abuse? Televised child abuse with CBS reaping the financial benefits? Folks were up in arms for weeks before the premiere of CBS’ new reality show, though their Chicken Little fears mostly proved unfounded. The infamous bleach-guzzling incident never appeared on TV and the prematurely notorious example of grease spattering turned out to be beyond innocuous. There were more than a few problems with the show, from its forgettable host to its contrived Pioneer Diary to its food-wasting and arbitrary challenges to the sense of exploitation that lurked around every corner. But Kid Nation was far more successful than the latest installments of Amazing Race or Survivor when it came to delivering heroes (Sophia, Laurel, Hunter, Morgan) and villains (name one reality star this year more fun to hate than Taylor). The children of Kid Nation may not have actually done a bit to probe they were capable of building a better society, but enough provocative issues were raised to keep this from becoming an Old West version of Kids Say the Darnedest Things. I’d like to see them tinker with the formula and come back with another season, but maybe I’m the only one.
Not all my favorite TV moments of the year are tough to defend, of course. Some are pretty clear-cut.
The "Mud Bowl" episode of Friday Night Lights. In retrospect, nearly everything that’s been so erratic (and frequently disappointing) about the second season of FNL was telegraphed in the show’s first season finale, including the inexplicable decision to have the Dillon Panthers win State, the inexcusable choice to have Coach Taylor decide to leave his wife behind for a new job in an arrangement that was never going to work and the improbable hints at a Landry-Tyra relationship that never made sense for a second. But "Mud Bowl," the first season’s third-to-last episode, was remarkable. By the end of the episode, as Coach Taylor’s plucky Panthers battled for their postseason lives in the middle of a sludgy cow pasture, I was so worked up that when the final touchdown scored, I raised my arms in spontaneous celebration. So. Very. Great.
Jack and Tracy in the therapist’s office on 30 Rock ("Rosemary’s Baby"). This is Alec Baldwin’s Emmy episode for next year. It has to be. I can’t find a good clip from the episode — which also features guest star Carrie Fisher and Kenneth’s Page-Off — but no scene all year has had me rewinding my DVR as much as Jack Donaghy joining Tracy Jordan in therapy and impersonating his star’s father. We knew Baldwin was funny, but who knew he did such a killer Red Foxx? Give the guy his Emmy now.
Watchmen Babies in "V for Vacation." There’s the annual nattering online about how The Simpsons has "jumped the shark" (my least favorite phrase in all of pop culture vernacular). While the show’s 19th season has featured its share of duds, the Nov. 18 episode — titled "Husbands and Knives" — featured my favorite oddball guest voicing this side of Ernest Borgnine, George Plimpton ("And a hot plate!") and Thomas Pynchon. The scenes with Alan Moore, Art Spiegelman and Dan Clowes signing at a rival comic book store were just about the most insularly geeky thing the show has ever done and I loved it.
Other 2007 highlights: The brief-but-daffy run of Andy Barker, P.I., Michael C. Hall on every episode of Dexter, ditto with Damian Lewis on the underviewed Life, that one episode of Bionic Woman where they let Michelle Ryan speak with a British accent, the field hockey cat fight on Gossip Girl, "You Just Got Slapped" on How I Met Your Mother, "Hip-hopopotamus vs the Rhymenocerous" on Flight of the Conchords, the Reaper pilot, every gloriously twee moment on Pushing Daisies, "Chuck versus the Sandworm," the loveably hateable Hung and Marcell on Top Chef, the steady improvement and satisfyingly unintentional finale of Journeyman.
I could go on… But I’ve got to go back to my screeners of the new season of The Wire, which prove that strike or no strike, 2008’s gonna get off to a great start.
Happy New Year, y’all…