What We Tivoed in 2004

It’s year end and while Will is working on his 37 projects, he takes a little break to chat with Scott about the best shows on TV. No highbrow movies for these two – it’s just what they enjoyed off their respective Tivos this year. If you don’t already have a Tivo, what the heck is your problem?

Will: You said it was a bit of a down year for music, but man, TV was BAD. There’s only two new shows that were worth watching for me and it seems like reality TV is hitting that point where the pendulum begins to swing back. For the networks, this was the year that cable outdid them in total viewers and there’s good reason. Network TV mostly sucked while cable networks as varied as HBO and Discovery put creative shows out there. Someone needs to start taking the risks or at least giving Joss Whedon another show instead of filling a year up between Janet’s boob and Anna Nicole’s latest vicodin bender.

Scott: I’m not as down on the 2004 Television world, as I believe the quality of shows is better than at any other time in television history. Sure the sitcom is dying, but there has never been so many excellent dramas. I don’t have time to watch any of the Law and Order’s or CSI’s, but they are well done entertainment. The one plus of reality shows has forced the dramas to be better, as there are less spots on the schedule.
Let me add that on the comedy front the Daily Show and Late Night with Conan O’Brien are great, but since they are on 5 times a week, I didn’t think they should be on this list.

Will: True enough. What I meant was that there was nothing really *added* to our TV menu. Things that were good, stayed relatively good. I didn’t list a couple shows that people would expect. “24” went far enough downhill that it didn’t make the list. I’ll probably watch the upcoming season still. I didn’t list “The Sopranos” because – this is sad – I still have it sitting on Tivo. I didn’t list “Desperate Housewives” because I don’t like cheese or softcore porn. For those
that like guilty pleasure TV, I’m sure it’s very good. I didn’t list “Charmed” because I fell behind and am still in last season. I didn’t list “Alias” because for some reason, I don’t watch it; it’s one I want to see from the beginning, so I’ll wait for DVD.

Scott: I agree with you on “24”, as the first few episodes of last year were really silly. I also didn’t include “West Wing”, as the show suffered from the absence of creator Aaron Sorkin, though so far thisfall, it has regained some of its quality. I guess I’ve been spoiled by the first 2 seasons of “The Sopranos” that I just feel the show has run it’s course. Desperate Housewives does have all the porn stereotypes (the hunky gardener, the young boy satisfying the wife, while the husband’s at work, etc.). It’s like they combed through all the Skinemax Young Lady Chatterly’s and Emanuelle’s to develop the plots. I’m not watching again until Teri Hatcher and Nicolette Sheridan take a bath together.

Once again, our intrepid bloggers leap into the breach, listing their top ten picks of the TV world (sans cool click-to-Tivo links, which may be on my Top Ten Cool Things list …) after the jump.

Scott’s #10: “Cheap Seats” – ESPN Classic
This show is kind of like a ‘Mystery Science Theatre 3000’ using sports. Led by the Sklar Brothers, ‘Cheap Seats’ skewers archived footage from pro wrestling to spelling bees. Not all of it works, but it’s the one show on ESPN that doesn’t seem to be trying to follow some formula. [Will: I hear this a lot, but don’t have Classic …]

Will’s #10: “Bands Reunited” – VH1
Did I say I didn’t like guilty pleasure TV? This is close. Bad 80’s bands forced back together, showing off the shambles of their rock-star lives? How could this NOT work? Host Aamer Hamed nearly does it, coming off as clueless and cloying, yet somehow the show still works. It’s the type of show where you don’t want to watch … but can’t help watching.

Scott’s #9: “Unwrapped” – Food Network
I can give you no concrete reason I find this show fascinating, but I just love to find out how twinkies or Cheetos were developed and made. The cheap camera work they use to show the food being made in the factory looks like something out of an industrial film. (Actually, it reminds me more of when Mr. Roger’s would visit a bakery or a factory on his “Neighborhood” program.) The host of the show is Marc Summers, the really annoying former host of Nickelodeon game shows. Am I making you clamor to catch this show? Like I said, I can’t explain it, but it wouldn’t be a true list of mine without “Unwrapped”. (I should also mention that on the subject of the Food Network, I have developed a crush on Rachel Ray, who’s Sandra Bullock with 30 minute meals skills.)

Will’s #9: “American Chopper” – Discovery
There’s a fine line between reality TV and documentary. This show rides the line better than most of the “build something” shows because of the dysfunctional interplay of the Teutel family and their employees. I have no business wanting a motorcycle that runs close to six figures, but there’s seldom a show where I don’t ooh and aah at the finished product. Oddly, it’s ne’er-do-well Mikey that comes off as the breakout star of the show. There’s a show later down this list that I’d really like to see a pair of Teutels on.

Scott’s #8: “Six Feet Under” – HBO
Sure, the first 2 seasons were better, but this show still challenges the conventions of how we look at relationships and death. If season 3 was the year Nate (Peter Krause) was given the chance to portray every emotion conceivable, season 4 was David’s (Michael C. Hall) turn. The episode entitled “That’s My Dog” was as gripping of an hour of television I’ve ever seen, as David picks up a male hitchhiker and then proceeds to be held hostage and terrorized by this sadistic man.

Will’s #8: “The Apprentice” – NBC
Reality TV is all about the connection we make to the players rather than the game. “Apprentice” did that better than “Survivor,” “Rebel Billionaire” or “Benefactor.” Season two wasn’t as fun as season one as the interstitial ads got more pronounced and the outcome was nearly pre-determined. (Leaked bets or not, there was a clear division between the finalists and nearly everyone else.) While I vehemently disagree with Trump’s final decision, I’ll still tune in when Season Three starts up with its “Street Smarts vs. Book Smarts” twist. Note to reality TV: men vs. women is played.

Scott’s #7: “My Big Fat Obnoxious Boss” – Fox
First off, no, I’m not kidding. One of the reasons I have it here is so it will slot one higher than Will’s eighth choice, “The Apprentice”, a show that repulses me. Donald Trump is a public relations creation, as he was bailed out from complete bankruptcy after the East Coast real estate bust of the early 90’s, only because he owed his creditors so much freakin’ money they felt it was worth the risk. (Next time you stop paying your creditors see if they will treat you the same way.) He also is currently declaring bankruptcy on his gambling operations.

“The Apprentice” celebrates the completely vacuous nature that the corporate business culture is all about. This is why I love “My Big Fat Obnoxious Boss”, as it exposes the phony-baloney behavior of people who want to be on reality shows, plus has a fictional tycoon named M. Paul Todd (great pretentious name) who is so egotistical that it has to be seen to be believed. This show has been a complete ratings failure for Fox, but I consider it the most real reality show of 2004, even if it’s concept is a complete hoax on it’s contestants.

Will’s #7: “House, M.D.” – Fox
It’s almost too new to make the list, but it’s too original to leave off. The lead character is great, the stories original, and the cast is great. There’s this trend in episodic TV where there’s recurring characters, but nearly self-contained storylines in each show. Instead of telling the character’s stories, they give hints and suggestions about them, leaving it to us to try and put the pieces together. I don’t know what the word is for this, but there needs to be one. House is full of this, giving suggestions about nearly everyone’s emotional baggage, but this technique is definitely in the bag of tricks for the writers of “CSI,” “Law & Order,” and several other shows.

Scott”s #6: “Penn and Teller’s Bulls***” – Showtime
Taking on many phony elements of society like psychics, organized religion, PETA, etc., this show is like the magazine Skeptical Inquirer come to life. The Showtime Network has improved greatly with its original programming. Showtime is starting to approach HBO’s quality of product.

Will’s #6: “Lost” – ABC
The structure still bothers me, but it does keep me interested. Told mostly in flashback, we learn about one character a week. There’s mystery and suspense, very odd and often unexplained happenings – like the polar bear in the premiere that hasn’t been mentioned since – and there’s obviously some big twist coming. I have my own theories about that, but I won’t ruin it for anyone. Evangeline Lilly may have a goofy name, though her Kate Beckinsale-meets-Holly Marie Combs looks help the show with its male 18-35 demo.

Scott’s #5: “Nip/Tuck” – FX
While so many flocked to watch “Desperate Housewives”, the truly great soap opera-style show on television was this show about 2 plastic surgeons. Christian Troy (Julian McMahon) is a morally-corrupted snake, who is so charming he is hard to not like. (like a plastic surgeon version of Arnie Becker from “LA Law”) This season Famke Janssen joined the cast as a life coach/Mrs. Robinson character who just brings more sexuality to a show which oozes it.

Will’s #5: “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” – NBC
Yes, this is my favorite of the current million and one crime procedurals. “CSI” is just too safe (or overplayed with clones?) to make the list. What Criminal Intent has is the amazing interplay of Vincent D’Onofrio and Kathryn Erbe. D’Onofrio is, with Don Cheadle and John Cusack, one of those actors that I don’t think has ever been bad. (Sure, they’re in some bad movies, but they’re always at the very least interesting.) D’Onofrio’s character is a near-autistic mess of tics and mannerisms but he’s also the best TV interrogator since the early seasons of Frank Pembleton. D’Onofrio is rumored to be leaving the show, putting this one in jeopardy … but I’ve said that about L&O before.

Scott’s #4: “Frontline” – PBS
Television’s finest news/documentary program, every week this show investigates topics the major networks are afraid to touch, as these Big 4 have to worry about sponsors, something PBS doesn’t have the concern for. (Though, I’ve never seen PBS attack the Chubb Group. By the way, who and what are the Chubb Group? [Will: Check the link, Sherlock.]) A great 3 week stretch in November, “Frontline” did stories on “The Persuaders”, the marketing gurus who determine the best new ways to push products at us; “Is Wal-Mart Good for You”, which shows how globalization goes hand in hand with the World’s biggest retailer; and “The Secret History of the Credit Card”, a behind the scenes look at how credit cards have evolved over the past 40 years. Plus, narrator Will Lyman has the coolest voice on television.

Will’s #4: “Touching Evil” – USA
Here’s my sleeper show. Jeffrey Donovan plays a brain damaged detective who retained his knack for solving crimes. Call it the dark flipside of “Monk” and you’re not far off. It’s an amazingly atmospheric show with a signature “fog over San Francisco” transition. There’s an “X Files” vibe to it as well, with casting that is just dead on. I’m not sure if it will be back (answer: nope), but some of the best shows never got a chance to see if they’d be great. (BTW, Donovan is a dead ringer and shares mannerisms with “Perfect Tommy” from Buckaroo Banzai. It took me a couple shows to get past that.)

Scott’s #3: Arrested Development – Fox
Television’s best ensemble cast is led by something I thought I would never utter, the very dryly funny, Jason Bateman. This is the most dysfunctional family on television – yes, more than the Sopranos, as the Bluths take on taboo subjects that no other network sitcom would even try. The second season has started a little slow, but I still think it’s the best thing on network TV.

Will’s #3: “The Amazing Race” – CBS
The pitch for this show had to be “interesting people in gorgeous locations.” This imple premise is carried out to perfection each week by the show. It’d be the ultimate show to watch in HD if it weren’t for all the handheld work. (Seriously, wouldn’t you like to know more about the cameramen that go with each individual team?) There’s always a villain team (this season more than the others), a team that you can identify with, and more than any other reality/competition show, who wins matters less than the journey.

Scott’s #2: “Curb Your Enthusiasm” – HBO
This show would never work on network TV, as Larry David is the most unlikable, unattractive person ever to be the star of his own program, but then as Steve Martin once said, “comedy isn’t pretty”. This year’s best episode “The Car Pool Lane”, where Larry is trying to get to a Dodger game on time, so to be able to use the HOV lane, he hires a sassy prostitute, just so he can use the lane. On a side note, the video of Dodger Stadium from this episode was used in court to free a man being accused of murder.

Will’s #2: “The Shield” – FX
This should really be 1a rather than 2; it’s that close. I went back and forth and may have a skewed view since I came late to this party. Catching it in reruns on FX, I’m actually a full season behind. Michael Chiklis is one of the top actors on TV right now, using his conflicted Vic Mackie persona to always take the road we don’t expect. Great writing, great stories, but always a bit tough to watch. It’s a show that makes you want to shower after watching.

Scott’s #1: “Deadwood” – HBO
Writer/Producer David Milch’s latest triumph is this Western set in the gold boomtown of Deadwood, South Dakota in the 1870’s. While all the actors are great, the centerpiece of Deadwood is a character perfectly named Al Swearengen (Ian McShane). The most profane character in television history, McShane’s performance is the most riveting on the tube, since the first couple of seasons of Tony Sorprano (James Gandolfini). This show demonstrates that people who believe the 1800’s were just some kind of absolute moralistic “glory days” are living in a “Little House on the Prairie” delusion. If you missed this show the first time around, pick up the DVD when it comes out in February.

Will’s #1: “The Wire” – HBO
HBO gets credit for every other show – I didn’t get “Carnivale” or “Deadwood” despite great reviews and Scott and the late, great TFD’s recommendations – yet “The Wire” doesn’t seem to get the accolades or attention. Note perfect, risk taking, and powerful, “The Wire” has followed a frighteningly interconnected group of criminals, cops and politicians over three seasons, making them more interesting as we learn more. Season Three spent the year calling the “War on Drugs” into question without ever getting preachy or even judgemental. It’s a show that not only makes you think, but leaves you wanting more.