Top Ten TV Shows

First off, here are the top ten things (in no particular order) to keep in mind before commencing with this countdown.

  1. In none of its 32 small-screen incarnations will CSI make an appearance on this list.
  2. Nor will any other absurd crime or medical or crimedical dramas or comedies. This includes House, Bones, Law and Order, Boston Legal, Dexter, ER, NCIS, Grey’s Anatomy, Cold Case . . .
  3. Lost will not be found here.
  4. Any show featuring the bald head of Howie Mandel will be considered an affront to the taste of this reviewer and subsequently not found on the list.
  5. I really, really wish I could put Heroes on the list. But this season, it stinks. Hey Kring, how many plots does it take to make it seem like you have any idea what you are doing with this show? (And yet, I still TiVo it.)
  6. Any and all shows currently or formerly connected to or associated with MTV, VH1, MTV2, E!, Spike or Carson Daly are also terra inconcessus.
  7. No “real” news shows. (Though Rachel Maddow gives one hope that intelligent news reporting might still exist.)
  8. No game shows (see #4), no talent shows, no reality shows, and definitely no soaps, daytime or nighttime. (Yeah, I’m talking to you, Desperate Housewives.)
  9. Since I don’t subscribe to them, there won’t be any shows from premium cable channels on the list. Tough crap Californication.
  10. I do have a life, and as result of this fortunate situation in which I find myself, I have not seen every TV show that deserved to be watched, nor have I seen all the episodes of the shows on the list.

All that said, here goes.

10. Spongebob Squarepants
Not since George Carlin‘s seven words has potty humor been this funny. I dare you to watch this show and not find in it at least half the people you work with and half the people you are related to. Zany, slapstickian comedy with a touch of good ol’ childhood morality. Plus, it’s on at least seven times a day, so it’s impossible to miss.

9. Mad Men
Mad Men places just above the animated yellow sponge, not because I think it is only slightly better than Nickelodeon’s offering, but because – honestly – I haven’t seen it. “How,” do you protest, “dare you put a show on your TOP ten list that you haven’t even seen?”

“Well,” I reply, “let’s just say that my hippest, savviest, designy-est friend – who doesn’t ever watch TV – loves Mad Men.” And that, dear readers, is enough of a reason for me to put it on the list. And I wager that, indeed, it does belong above the slightly less sophisticated Mr. Squarepants.

8. 30 Rock
Unlike Mad Men, I have seen 30 Rock; but, I usually only see the first five minutes or so that TiVo records after The Office ends – which is more than enough to put this comedy romp into position number eight. I have no doubt that I would love the remaining 25 minutes (minus the crappy commercials of course) as much as I do the first five. So be sure to watch and let me know how much funny I missed.

7. SportsCenter
I think all news programs should approach their subject with the same verve, intensity, and honesty as SportsCenter does sports. I mean, for crying in a bucket, they take sports news and events more seriously than all the major and cable news networks do “real” news and world events combined. Here there is a clear distinction between what is fact and what is expert opinion. No such distinction remains in “real” news. Fact is either a dirty word or a simple tool to convince simpleton tools that what they are watching is even slightly objective – which it is not. SportsCenter is as timeless as a show can be in our age of volubility. (100 points to the first person to guess the origin of the preceding sentence.)

6. The Daily Show/The Colbert Report
To me these two are inseparable. Like Clinton and Clinton. Or Huckabee and Norris. Or Stevens and felony counts. They’re consistently funny, and often a better source for news than the networks. Somehow in the midst of the satire and silliness there are meaningful interviews, with the likes of Tony Blair, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton. There’s disagreement (see Tony Blair), and yet, civil discourse. There’s outright lampooning, and serious questions. Once again, “real” news programs, with your marshmallow journalism and Nerf questioning, take a long hard look at what you look like to the rest of us.

I was worried about the future of these two shows with the coming administration, but thankfully, there’s Joe Biden.

5. Ben 10: Alien Force
Cartoon Network delivers again. From the network that gave me years of immeasurable, childlike bliss with Samurai Jack, Dexter’s Laboratory, Powerpuff Girls, Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends, and the original Ben 10, comes the latest installment in our protagonist’s journey.

Love it, love it, love it. I mean, what’s not to love. Kid finds a watch from outer-space that lets him turn into unstoppable alien superheroes in order to battle DNAliens bent on “cleansing” earth of the filthy humans and moving onward to universal domination. Pure and beautiful entertainment. As Dana Gioia might say, it’s a predictable pleasure in a predictable medium – but once again, chock full of life lessons, action, adventure and just enough Looney Tunes-esque satire and insider sci-fi homage to keep it interesting.

4. Battlestar Galactica (BSG)
I’ve clearly showed my hand as an out-of-the-closet sci-fi nerd. (I grew up on every type of Star Trek, and even as recently as the day after Christmas, watched a half-day’s worth of episodes of Star Trek TNG.) So, it should be no surprise that I’ve got BSG near the top of the list.

Now, I would LOVE to make it my number one. But, sadly the execs at Sci-Fi seem to think that airing six new episodes every year is sufficient to continue to be considered one of the great TV shows of all time. Which it would be.

Seriously. It’s that good. The cable lines are full of programs that present themselves as having something distinct to say, but most are just a retreading of the same played-out plots and ideas. BSG is actually different. Few shows dare tackle the science/religion question with such honesty, and even fewer tackle hyper-nationalism, suicide-bombing, genocide, human depravity, power, love, commitment and truth. I don’t think I am overstating the case here. It is worth every minute you’ll spend catching up on what you’ve missed.

3. Chuck
I’ll admit I was a sucker for Alias in its prime: the twists, the turns, the love triangles. But Chuck has taken the spy drama to a new and much more enjoyable level. With the overblown seriousness of 24 dominating the genre, Chuck comes along with a really fresh variation on what could be considered a tired theme. Equal parts unrealistic spy drama and bumbling idiot retail comedy, the writers continue to weave two very out-of-sync elements into an exciting, entertaining, and cohesive whole every week. (The addition of Tony Hale as the overzealous assistant store manager was a stroke of comic brilliance.) And, the love saga is getting to be as compelling as the Jim/Pam affair of early The Office seasons.

2. The Office

Ah, The Office. It should be number one. It really should. It just doesn’t get old. That’s what makes it so good. This show could have been a one-trick pony that breaks its leg in season three and has to be put down, but it remains fresh. I, for one, am quite glad that the writers didn’t draw out the love drama year after year, and instead have focused on what my wife would call “the adventures of Jim and Pam.” I must admit that I thought going down that road would lead quickly to the “final episode” where they get married and ride off into the Scranton sunset. But the comedy rolls on. This show is passing Seinfeld in my book for most re-watchable TV program.

1. Jamie at Home

What’s that? You’ve never heard of Jamie at Home? I can’t say I’m surprised, because unless you find yourself glued to the Food Network every Saturday morning, I am not sure how you would have heard about it. Jamie Oliver, of Naked Chef fame, invited viewers each week to his home outside of London to explore a fresh and seasonal ingredient or type of food every week. Eggs, onions, broad beans, wild game, fish, pizza, tomatoes, just about everything. Of course that’s not much of an argument for this being the number one show of 2008.

So, I’ll start with this: the cinematography was groundbreaking and beautiful. Usually, food on TV looks fake, and you rarely get to see the food other than at the very end when it’s swapped out for a plastic counterpart. But Jamie at Home plopped you right into the midst of the chopping, rolling, grilling, pouring, and serving. Every element of the show was given the highest level of care and it showed. The food was art, the show was art.

Jamie’s show was unlike any other ever on Food Network. His cheekiness, his excitement, and his ease in the kitchen (or woods, backyard, or garden) drove this show to convince you that you can cook. And not simply “cook,” but cook like a chef and learn to savor, smell, taste and feel your way around food. Not find a recipe, disinterestedly slop ingredients together and slavishly follow instructions. He made you believe that it isn’t an unattainable, culinary Mt. Everest to become a better cook; to make food that is fresh and delicious; to make food that stops you from settling for second-rate flavors when it comes to what you eat and instead grab the reigns of your diet and savor every bite.

I think, though, what brings it to the top of this list, is how much it has actually changed my life. Really. TV isn’t supposed to change you. It’s supposed to entertain you just long enough to hear from advertisers. It has rarely been about art and often been about commerce. But this show has the power to affect the decisions you make daily about how and what you eat. Everyday I live out a new food paradigm I was blessed to inherit from having watched every single episode. It was like going to food church.

Fifty years from now, I’m quite uncertain I will not remember or care much at all about these shows – except for Jamie at Home.

So, there you have it – what I believe to be the top ten TV shows of 2008. Well, at least the top ten that I “watched.” Bob’s your uncle.

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