Thursday, July 16, 2009

TV: The Top 25 from the last 365 Days Part 2

I only had a top 15 last year, but managed to discuss at least another 20. See the full posting here for last year and here for the year before.

Only nine of those shows are back for honouring this year. So let's get on with it and present the second ten of our Top 25.

#20 - The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency (British)

Jill Scott is a star. Not just a great singer, she's sensational as the lead actress in this charming BBC import set in Botswana. The American Scott is completely believable as Precious Ramotswe, the proprietor of the first and best ladies' detective agency in the small country of Botswana. It's also the only ladies' detective agency, a fact not lost on Mme. Ramotswe.

She's ably assisted by the rod-straight Mme. Makutsi, played with admirable stiff upper lip by Anika Noni Rose. She's the complete counterpoint to Scott's Ramotswe and a key part of what makes this show work. She's not a caricature, as we see behind her veil of privacy to moments spent with her ailing brother Richard. He has Aids and is dying, as are too many Africans. Add in Ramotswe's would-be beau, played with stoicism by Lucian Msamati, and you have a little group of people who go around solving problems and mysteries.

It's all very ... gentle. Mysteries unfold slowly and sometimes surprisingly. The case of the man missing after a baptism ceremony certainly had a surprising conclusion. That was the outstanding wpisode of the first season. On the other hand, solving the burglars at the mall where the agency is located took a tad too long.

What makes the show special, beyond the three actors mentioned, is the scenery and the music. It was shot completely in Botswana and features a lot of African music. It all makes for a pleasant time. Author Alexander McCall Smith surely has to be pleased with how his books have been translated to the small screen.

#19 - Doctor Who (British)

Really, there are only two specials to talk about in the preceding 12 months. But that's enough to place Doctor Who on the list and in the Top 20 for this year.

The last two Christmas specials have been crackerjack entertainment in the Doctor Who series. They had to be, after the completely disappointing decision to afford David Tennant some time off to do other projects and turn 2009 into a series of Doctor Who Specials. This past Christmas' entry was The Next Doctor and it was spectacularly humanistic. David Morrissey is the next Doctor of the title and he and Tennant's current Doctor meet during a Christmas in the Victorian age. We all know that Tennant's Tenth Doctor will eventually regenerate into a newer version of himself. Could this steampunk version Morrissey purports to be, be one of his future selves? That's the central issue of the special, which also involves the dire threat of the Cybermen.

In between fighting off the latest attempt by the Cybermen to take over Earth, Tennant's Doctor resolves the mysteries of Morrissey's Doctor. And it's heart-breaking and yet inspiring at the end. A truly great Doctor Who Christmas Special.

The first of the Tennnant 2009 Specials in the spring saw ex-Bionic Woman Michelle Ryan join the good Doctor in The Planet of the Dead. Ryan plays Lady Christina De Souza, cat burglar extraordinaire. While making her escape from her last purloining outing, she, the Doctor and a bus-load of interesting characters end up on a planet far, far away. A dead planet, with no life, save for the visitors on the bus and a stranded starship not too far away. It's a predicament made worse by a horde of mechanical thingies that want to keep the planet free of biological life ... and get through to the next planet to denude of life in the same way. That planet's Earth, of course.

The action and the solutions weren't out of this world, so to speak. But I really liked Ryan's bounce back performance after the dreadful turn as Jaime Summers and I'd welcome her back as a future Doctor companion ... or frenemy. She looks quite fetching in a catsuit, by the way.

About three hours isn't much to claim to be a series. But Russel T Davies has gifted us with as much Doctor Who as Tennant will allow. And that's adequate. Tennant is the best Doctor of all time (I've recently watched some Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker shows. It's true). We'll take what we can get and be happy about it.

#18 - My Boys [#12 LY]

I did a mini-review of this show back in June of last year. See it here. Nothing much has changed in the show since then, beyond Jordana Spiro's character PJ now dating Bobby, played by Kyle Howard. PJ is still girl-next-door sexy and still a Chicago sportswriter (Enough right there to recommend the show). The scoobies are still fun, with PJ's brother, played by Jim Gaffigan, consistently one of the funniest guys on TV. It's just a pleasant half-hour to look forward too. Would it be on the list without the sports angle? Maybe not, there are other good-looking women on TV doing comedies (See Fey, Tina and Marshall, Paula). But the whole melange just works. It comes and goes in eight episode mini-seasons and is always welcome here.

#17 - Cranky Geeks

No, the show is not a biographical look at my life. If that was the case, it would be called The Cranky Geek. And no, you didn't miss this show on your TV. It's an INTERNET show!

Every Wednesday night or Thursday morning, I dutifully go to and download the WMV version of the weekly show about what's going on in the computer world. Hosted by John C. Dvorak and Sebastian Rupley (both of whom are connected to PCMag), the cranks have two well-connected people in the industry on each week to talk about what's going on in the news.

Dvorak is a sort of love-him, hate-him kind of guy. Some in the industry dismiss him. Others follow his every word. He's always making predictions and they can either inform or entertain and occasionally do both. I'm one who enjoys what he says, but I take a lot of what comes out of his many media appearances with a grain of salt. Besides writing for several websites, he does a daily five-minute audio show, has a couple of him-versus-?? webcasts and does this show too. He's certainly not media shy.

But the opinions are mostly informed on this show and that's always good. If you are interested in computers, hard to do wrong by downloading this show.

#16 - Stargate: Atlantis [#8 LY]

I don't watch much live TV other than sports. But Stargate: Atlantis came closest to this mark over the years. It was rare for me to wait longer than a day after, before loading up the show to watch. And that remained true, through this past season, its last. Yes, yet another cancelled show on my list.

The reason for the drop in the rankings this year was simple. The end was coming and everybody on the show knew it. The story arcs were short and sometimes not too sweet. Shutouts to characters past were numerous. It was all a case of winding down.

Right as Robert Picardo joined the team as the new commander. Woolsey, Picardo's character, had been around the Stargate universe for a long time. His officious antithesis of previous commanders Col. Samantha Carter and Dr. Elizabeth Weir worked. And worked well. The scene where he goes off to slip out of a spacesuit into something more comfortable and then shows up in a suit and tie, is one of the funniest throwaway scenes. Ever. And I was a big fan of the humanizing effect love had on David Hewlett's Dr. Rodney McKay. Plus, I thought the pairing of Jewel Staite's Dr. Keller and Jason Mamoa's Ronon was delightful. Joe Flanigan continued to be the very best at being the heroic quipster, Col. John Sheppard.

But a show on a limited life span just never has the energy a bright, positive, forward-looking show has. Stargate: Atlantis was good, just not as good as the previous year's version.

#15 - Being Erica (Canadian)

Last year, CBC hit with The Border and it almost made the Top 15 of Summer 2008. Well, the CBC came right back this past fall and launched a show that charmed the shoes right off me. Being Erica was a chicklit delight, with a smattering of science fictiony time travel thrown in.

Starring as Erica was Erin Karpluk, who's irresistably charming in real life and on this show. Erica doesn't have an easy life, mostly through her own wrong choices over the years. She's been afraid of confrontation and standing up for herself. So, just about everybody in her life treats her dreadfully, blaming their own behaviour on Erica most times? She's more or less a doormat, when she encounters a most-strange Psychiatrist/Shaman played with vigour by Michael Riley. Riley's Dr. Tom seems available just behind any door Erica might want to open. He spouts quotes like a Bartlett's come to life and he can send Erica back into her past.

And here's where the show gets shady. She can and does make small changes. Just nothing major. Especially when it comes to the tragic death of her beloved elder brother some years back. Turns out said brother isn't quite the saint Erica makes him out to be, but that's fitting with the rest of the family. Her adulterous rabbi of a father, her shrewish mother and her little sister with the big chip on her shoulder. She deals with them down through the ages, again and again. All leading to the dreadul moment, the fire that killed brother Leo. Her traipsing through time to that moment leads to a shocker of an ending to the first season.

Riley is spectacularly good on this show (He BETTER be back for season two). Karpluk is a revelation, even though I'd seen her on Godiva's in a not too dissimilar role. It'll be tough to roll the same ideas through a second season. We've seen most of the ugly sides of her immediate family. And the folks at job at a publishing company would be hard to make use out of the time travel gimmick. But if the shocking cliff-hanger has some legs, we might just spend time in a parallel universe this coming year.

#14 - Carla Cametti, PD (Australian)

This is an Italian private detective show set in Australia. Makes for an interesting mix. Carla, played with sultry heat by Diana Glenn, has family issues. One of her uncles is obviously connected, a fact that her chef father, played by Alfredo Malabello knows and tries to ignore. He's busy running the family restaurant with Carla's mom (Dina Panozzo) and trying to get the family together for family meals.

It's not all smooth sailing, especially with copper Luciano Gandolfi (Vince Colosimo) looking to put the uncle behind bars AND make the moves on Carla. Add in Carla's best friend, the bed-hopping Lisa Testro (Nicole da Silva) and her dad Joe the Don (Tony Poli) and things get complicated.

The series took an episode or two to sort out who's who and who's bad and who's good. But once up to speed, this was a delightful romp through the culinary underbelly of Melbourne. Nothing Sopranos-like, but entertaining throughout. The episode where poppa Leo wants desperately to get a birthday present for his beautiful Angela was a highlight.

#13 - The Zoo (British)

Okay, I'm a sucker for zoo shows. I'd put a dozen here at this spot if I could. And, although I hate the transitional music with a passion, I am totally in love with this British show that mostly features the goings on at the Colchester Zoo. Konnie Huq has taken over quite well as presenter from Jayne Horrocks and guides us through the various life and death and birth stories that populate any good zoo. And Colchester is a good one.

If you like animals, this a great show. If you can do without seeing cute little cheetahs and other babies and not ocassionally feel sad over the passing of Scorch the Bear, then pass this by.

Enough said.

#12 - Real Time with Bill Maher [#4 LY]

You have to give Bill Maher credit. He lost the source of immense comedic material when George Bush finally left to the sound of one hand clapping. Uber dunce Sara Palin didn't replace him. All Bill was left with was a President with little to make fun of.

What was he to do?

As it turns out, still run a pretty smart political discussion each weak and take potshots at the President and the gang of tax-avoiding Democrats he's surrounded himself with. That's the job of a comedian. Attack the top and try to do their bit to reign in anybody who gets too big for their britches. I think Maher's been as funny as he's ever been this year, despite the losses of his comedic foils. The foibles of the 'good' guys, while not so frequent, still occur often enough to amuse. And it's not like the Republicans have gone away permanently. They just visit Argentina on secret hiking trips to the mistress' house.

Smarmy and sometime preachy, and with a PETA agenda I disagree with, Maher isn't everybody's cup of tea. But he works for me.

#11 - House [#1 LY]

It was the top of the heap last year. It had only one way to go. And down it went. It just couldn't maintain a crazy level of excellence that saw House run his own reality show, voting off prospective team members each week, while setting the course for destruction that cost his best friend's girlfriend her life when all was said and done. A remarkable year. This past season? Not so remarkable.

Hugh Laurie continues to shine as the emotionally and physically crippled Dr. House. Sometimes, he's so good, you just think they should cast the Emmy trophy in his image and be done with it. From the dalliance with a detective (wish we'd seen more of Michael Weston as private eye Lucas Douglas) to his romantic pas de deux with Lisa Edelstein's Dr. Cuddy, House was the best thing in the show.

The problem this year was the loss of focus amongst the rest. The old team was around in greater amounts this year, with the on-off-on wedding between Cameron (Jennifer Morrison) and Chase (Jesse Spencer) taking away from the new team. The relationship between Thirteen (Olivia Wilde) and Foreman (Omar Epps) had its moments. And certainly, the shocking exit by Kal Penn was as devastating as advertised. Just poorly fore-shadowed.

But the reason I think House faltered this year was the lack of on-screen time for Robert Sean Leonard's Wilson. It was understandable that he'd withdraw from House after the death of of Amber (Annie Dudek reprised the character as a personal ghost, to great effect). It's just that his leavening presence on the show went AWOL. It's not like Wilson is any paragon of mental stability himself. But he served as yin to House's yang in the past. And without that guiding influence, House went completely off the rails.

Into the loony bin. Which is where season six will start in the fall. I hope that phase doesn't last long. He's got some new and old team members to get back to. And a top ten to re-enter.

Tomorrow: I hope, the most entertaining shows of the last year. As I saw them.


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