Television is a pretty bizarro filter through which to view America, but the schizophrenic nature of TV land feels perfectly in sync with the divided state of the country itself. At one extreme, we have the cheap and nasty glare of reality TV, which continues to exert a stranglehold, although the number of derivative and recombinant shows each season suggests that the formula may finally be burning itself out. Moralists feign outrage about wardrobe malfunctions and swearing Irish rock stars (but Bono’s a Christian!), yet barely bat an eyelash at the overbearing greed and ethical sleaziness (like deliberately lying to contestants) that is now at the core of so many popular reality series. At the other end of the spectrum are programs like PBS’s Frontline and Now, consistently producing great investigative journalism. And though we said goodbye to Sex and the City, Angel, and Frasier this year, a handful of brave writers and producers continued to mess with television conventions, sometimes reaching new extremes while striving for an almost cinematic sensibility. Sure, it often feels like there are 1,000 channels and nothing to watch. But as my annual list of TV treats shows, there are gems out there if you’re prepared to do a little sifting and surfing.
LOST: It bolted out of the gate like a schlocky B movie thriller, but Lost grows more tempting and twisted with every passing week. Overshadowed by Desperate Housewives, Lost nevertheless boasts better writing and a sprawling cast of delicately wrought characters, each with his or her own veiled backstory. The island on which they are all trapped exudes its own supernatural mythology, something that makes sense considering that co-executive producer David Fury is a refugee from the Buffyverse.
‘HO FOR HBO: Last December I excoriated HBO for its two half-baked new series, K Street and Carnivàle. Perhaps they just needed to remind themselves what it felt like to release some stinkers, because this year the network returned with two new instant classics: Deadwood, the most scabrous and intelligent western to hit the small screen, and the affable ensemble comedy Entourage, full of witty riffs on Hollywood decadence. That’s on top of HBO’s usual cornucopia, including more exquisitely subtle narratives from The Wire, another genius run of Curb Your Enthusiasm, and the most devastating season yet of The Sopranos, with its stark termination of Adriana and the ongoing moral corrosion of Carmela.
WONDERFALLS: The one that got away. Only four episodes into its run, Fox canned this sparkling series about a sarcastic underachiever (played to sardonic perfection by Caroline Dhavernas) who works in a Niagara Falls gift shop. One thing sets her apart: The kitschy tourist trinkets speak to her, instructing her to perform random acts of kindness for people she’d rather scorn. Still, we’ll finally get a chance to see the full first series when Fox releases it on video early next year.
VERONICA MARS: Although it pales a bit next to the vivid memory of Wonderfalls, Veronica Mars is a sharp teen noir in the making. Veronica’s life collapsed when her best friend was murdered and her sheriff dad botched the investigation. Now she plays girl sleuth, worming her way through the social hierarchies of her California high school. Tinged with class resentment and nostalgia for Veronica’s lost innocence, this series pulses with promise.
ENGLISH CRUELTY: The Brits really know how to make a viewer squirm. English comedian Julia Davis took the art of excruciating entertainment one step beyond The Office with Nighty Night. Broadcast by a newly emboldened Oxygen, this six-part series let loose a sociopathic hairdresser with a heart of stone who spends her days humiliating her cancer-sufferer husband and torturing her timid neighbors. BBC America’s Peep Show (soon to be remade by Fox) is slightly more subtle than Nighty Night but it’s just as hilariously disorienting to climb inside the alternately vile and pathetic minds of two oddball roommates who think—and do—unthinkable things.
CHAPELLE’S SHOW: This Comedy Central series claims a spot somewhere between Chris Rock’s stand-up act and Ben Stiller’s short-lived sketch show. With his roguish grin and self-deprecating manner, Chappelle swoops over racial humor so gently that you may not even realize you’ve been stung. My fave skit: a draft pick for ethnically ambiguous celebs in which the Jews snag Lenny Kravitz, while the blacks decisively claim Tiger Woods—a mixed blessing, since Tiger gains fried chicken but loses all his endorsements.
ADULT SWIM: Mingle with a glorious assortment of animated weirdos over at Adult Swim, the nighttime block of Cartoon Network. The stars of Aqua Teen Hunger Force (a shake, meatball, and fries) and Harvey Birdman (a winged lawyer who represents old Hanna-Barbera characters in trouble) now have some inventive new neighbors, including The Venture Brothers, a retro space-adventure satire, and the deeply disconcerting Tom Goes to the Mayor, so deadpan and static that it barely merits the term animation.
MR. STEWART GOES TO WASHINGTON: As if I didn’t love Jon Stewart and his Daily Show enough. His controversial Crossfire exchange with Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala (“You are partisan—what do you call it?—hacks”) briefly opened up a portal into an alternate universe where people on TV actually say stuff that is, you know, truthful.
JEWS OR LOSE: Most classic TV families come specially prepared in one flavor only: WASP. So it’s delightful to note that two of the best current series, Arrested Development and The O.C., revolve around unrepentant (if unkosher) Jewish broods. Neither show makes much of it, though Lindsey Bluth’s fundraiser for the anti-circumcision group HOOP (Hands Off Our Penises) got her in trouble with the Jewish Defense League, and the multi-denominational holiday The O.C. invented has caught fire in the real world. Merry Chrismukkah to you.