The Wire (HBO)
This sprawling social drama has dozens of characters and, really, only one Baltimore, Md. The fourth, finest and most heartbreaking season focused on four inner-city schoolboys, serenaded by the drug trade, failed by every institution meant to protect them and facing choices that will make or doom them for life. Meanwhile, it expanded on the show's novelistic tapestry of cops, politicos, junkies, bureaucrats, ministers and hustlers. The Wire does something that should be the death of good character-based drama: it is unapologetically a social critique, and its own creators admit that they prioritize the story designed to dissect a different social ill each season over character development. But because they are also passionately devoted to realism, what could have been a preachy TV editorial is instead a story of real people in all their unpredictable messiness.
The Office (NBC)
It's not just the other office anymore. The remake of the great British sitcom has found its own voice, satirizing the culture of coffee, cubicles and Chili's with heart and laser precision. The deep bench of its cast provides a pointillistic taxonomy of American office life (who doesn't work with an Angela, a Kevin or a Stanley?). Steve Carell's Michael Scott is not the tour de force performance that Ricky Gervais' David Brent was, but perhaps in part because the writers needed to make him believable for more than 12 episodes he's become a more-rounded person: an ass, but also sympathetic, and occasionally even competent. And the wistful Pam-and-Jim almost-romance all together now: Awww! threatens to give the Sam-and-Diane saga a run for its long-unconsummated money.
Friday Night Lights (NBC)
Call it an underdog, a dark horse, a seventh-round draft pick just don't ignore the fall's best new series (based on the book and movie) any longer. This high school football drama is a moving, warts-and-all portrait of life in hard-up Dillon, Texas, nailing the fine points of small-town politics and faith that TV too often romanticizes or ignores. It's the best TV treatment of high school life since Freaks and Geeks, and it does for jocks and cheerleaders what that show did for burnouts and dweebs; it makes them into fully realized people. With an acute sense of the stakes that ride on a kids' game in a town with few opportunities and few other sources of hope, this is a poignant picture of what a championship team means to a town that can't afford to wait till next year.
TV's most philosophical entertainment or most entertaining work of philosophy piled on plot curlicues like the toppings on an oversize novelty sundae. While I had to demote this series a few places for the lackluster six-episode appetizer that began Season 3, Season 2 closed with a rush of complications, feats of storytelling brio and out-and-out holy-crap moments (don't even tell me you knew Michael was going to shoot Libby) that would have placed it a solid #2 behind The Wire. Maddening as its mystery could be (O.K., so the smoke monster was set up by the Others who live by the four-toed statue and hang on, let me grab a pencil ...), great writing, tantalizing details and ever richer characters made it a yarn worth getting more deeply entangled in.
The only thing wilder than the Wild West, it turns out, was the appetite of civilized capitalism. Gerald McRaney was a captivating villain as George Hearst, the mining magnate and misanthrope who brutally assimilated the gold-rush camp in this expertly written work of sagebrush Shakespeare. (No other TV show is so wonderful just to listen to, swear words and all.) Season 3, like Lost, fell a few places in my ranking for some narrative wanderings; I still could not tell you what historical or dramatic purpose the theater troupe served. But when the action focused on the inexorable "civilization" of the mining camp by Hearst's money-making machine, Deadwood's vision was clear-eyed and terribly beautiful. Backstage dealings have apparently denied the series a fourth season an epilogue has been promised but it rode into the sunset memorably.
Big Love (HBO)
Come for the polygamists, stay for the thespians! The story of a Salt Lake City man (Bill Paxton) and his multiple wives was a surprisingly sympathetic treatment of religious fundamentalism and a master-class acting showcase. Ginnifer Goodwin, Chloλ Sevigny and Jeanne Tripplehorn portrayed a complicated "sister-wives" dynamic, while Harry Dean Stanton was supporting character of the year as a deliciously snaky cult leader. The series tended to get overshadowed by HBO's other dramas, frankly, I suspect, because critics found marriage-and-family themes a little froufrou next to the drug murders, mob whackings and Western shootouts of the rest of the roster, but at heart the show was a sharp treatment of the trials of faith in the modern world.
Battlestar Galactica (Sci Fi)
A high-minded war turns into a brutal quagmire. Terrorist sleepers turn the public paranoid. And the victims of an attack find themselves sacrificing liberty to defend it. Sound like any planet you know? The topical parallels became deeper and more chilling in Seasons 2 and 3 of this thinking viewer's space opera. It's like the Iraq Study Group report with starship fights and hot-looking robots. What's more and what's not as often noted BG is a pretty mind-blowing work of straight sci-fi, and Season 3's exploration of the mysterious culture of the quasi-human, deeply religious Cylons may be even more compelling than the show's politics.
No capes, no masks, no problem. The live-action comic book about ordinary folks discovering extraordinary powers transcended geek appeal with a crisp, focused plot and a dose of humor. Special honors go to Masi Oka, who, as time-traveling cubicle jockey Hiro, stood in for every kid (and grownup) who has ever wished he could close his eyes, squint really hard and save the world. Early episodes suffered from trite dialogue and sketchily drawn characters, but as the show has delved into its character's backstories, it's gotten deeper without getting too confusing. Maybe the writing staff could get some dialogue lessons from the crew of Lost, in exchange for a lesson in how to wrap up a damn story without dragging it out for three years.
Justice is murder for Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall), a part-time sleuth and oh, yeah serial killer who learned young to put his deadly urges to productive use by slaughtering only bad guys. Hall's composed, self-aware performance is flat-out stunning, and so is the treatment of this psychoprocedural's central idea: Is it a man's thoughts or his actions that make him good or evil? The Season 1 series finale in which Dexter chose his adoptive sister over his also-murderous biological brother raised the disturbing possibility that Dexter may actually have a real, rather than manufactured, sense of morality. I'll be waiting for Season 2 to learn more. The suspense is killing me.
Bleak House (PBS)
Charles Dickens' greatest novel yielded Masterpiece Theatre's greatest co-production in years. The adaptation captured the disparate tones of the sprawling legal tale satire, romance, melodrama and deftly handled its numerous stories. Even at eight hours, it flew by, lofted by Gillian Anderson (The X-Files) as an aristocrat nursing a secret heartache. And the adaptation managed to avoid the twin pitfalls of modern re-creations of classics: it was neither a stuffy costume drama nor a flashy for its own sake; instead, it used elements of both styles to serve Dickens' multifaceted story. Bleak, yes, but brilliantly so.
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