Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Top 25 from the last 365 Days Part 3

I celebrate the start of my 54th year (Car 54, Where Are You? jokes are appropriate for the next 54 hours only) by ending my look back at last year's best TV shows. As I saw them. They aren't the ones everybody else says are the best. They are the ones I enjoyed more than any others.

Nitpickers will take a look at the two British series that bookend this list and point out they finished just before my birthday LAST YEAR. Ergo, they should not be eligible to hold such exalted positions in the pantheon of television shows. Well, while BOTH did end just before the official year started, I didn't catch them on DVD until just after my birthday. SOOOOOOO, no complaining!!!

#10 Personal Affairs (British)

I believe I've mentioned the admiration I have for the minimal number of episodes in British series, rather than the padded number we often get in American seasons. That number is usually six, although I remember the much missed Crime Traveller ran in four-episode series. Personal Affairs ran for a hectic five episodes and that was the perfect length.

Roughly, if you transplanted the Desperate Housewives into The Office and gave them five hours to tell their whole story from start to finish, you'd end up with something akin to Personal Affairs. It started with five 'personal assistants,' and finished with one less than that (as well as one less boss, than started). It's torture to say much more than that, for fear of ruining YOUR DVD-watching experience.

Three of the five assistants (Annabel Scholey as Midge Lerner, Laura Aikman as Lucy Baxter and Maimie McCoy as the wonderfully-named Nicole Palmerston-Amory) are more or less consistent through the shows, doing their jobs, expressing hopes of moving up and/or out and generally serving as the foils for Ruth Negga as Sid Siddiqi, who's real name is Doris. And yes, Scholey is a smash as the winsome and cute Midge, a far cry from her turn in Being Human as one of the most obnoxious characters you'll ever see.

Now, Doris is a sullen little lass. She's 'undercover' in the office. Not as the company mole, which is a not surprising idea that occurs to her fellow workers. No, she and her idiot boyfriend have plans to rip the company off. That they find their way TO the office on a daily basis creates a sense of wonder. Well, at least him. She's got a sort of sweet nature beneath all the punk exterior that emerges late in the game when she owns up to her inner Doris.

While THAT plot percolates, the office manager/mother hen, Olivia Grant as Grace Darling, goes missing quite early in the first episode, just after we find she's overly-competent and the key to holding the emotionally-fragile group together. Much of the middle three episodes is spent covering up for Grace's absence AND trying to find her. There are caper-like trips to various places looking for her. It's all quite wacky.

Before time runs out, we get an explanation for most things. Grace's is pretty wild. And the best part? It's all over before they've worn out their welcome.

#9 White Collar

This latest smash success from USA (the network AND the country) is my top-ranked caper show for the year. And YES, I'm aware that you could label the sixth-ranked program a caper show, but White Collar, Hustle and Leverage are basically written from the bad guy (or slightly reformed bad guy)'s perspective.

Both Hustle and Leverage are about teams pulling off modern-day Mission Impossible type missions, albeit for personal gain. Mostly. The antecedent for White Collar is It Takes A Thief. It's a lone criminal mastermind played by Matt Bomer being utilized by a lawman with his hands firmly placed around the crook's neck. And to be honest, as suave as Bomer's Neil Caffrey is, it's Tim DeKay as Peter Burke that makes the show for me.

DeKay seems to have been around forever because I thought he was Lance Kerwin. He plays a wearied fed who once caught Caffrey and was given the task of catching him again in the pilot. To his ultimate dismay, he did. And then had Caffrey offer him a deal. He'd 'help' if he could get information about his 'missing' wife and avoid being sent back to hoosegow. As quick as Malachi Throne made the same deal with Robert Wagner's Al Mundy, Burke agrees.

There are differences. Caffrey is more con than cat burglar, which was Mundy's forte. And Throne's Noah Bain never had a babe of a wife. Especially one that looks like Tiffani Thiessen. (And it's Tiffani, not Tiffani-Amber this time around). And, more surprise, I like Thiessen in this role. Given the fact I only ever liked her in non-femme fatale roles, I guess that isn't surprising. She is one of two good secondary characters. Willie Garson continues to be as good as it gets in supporting actors. His Mozzie should have been called Willie Sutton. He steals every scene he's in.

Well, I've thrown out a lot of names from TV seasons gone by. But White Collar feels fresh despite all of that. Very 21st-century.

#8 Chuck (#3)

WHAT!!!!! My beloved Yvonne Strahovski forced to settle for eighth place!!!! This after I'd guaranteed her a top-ten ranking for life last year!!!

The reason? Too much Chuck in Chuck. Not enough romance between AGENTS Bartkowski and Sarah. Too much of the fake Superman, but just about the right amount of Superboy's ex-beau. Who'd have believed Kristin Kreuk could look adorable, come for a visit, and NOT turn out two weeks later to be an agent for the bad guys? Another couple of people we saw too little of: Captain Awesome and Anna Wu.

Now that I've got all that complainin' off my chest, let me point out ... the show is STILL EIGHTH out of the kazillion shows I was subjected to last year (and those were just the dancing reality shows). And that ain't bad. The show's wry sense of humour and the ever-entertaining Morgan and Jeffster, the two-headed attention-diverting co-workers/band, continued to be enjoyable. Plus Adam Baldwin's John Casey simmered and stewed as well as he's ever done. And that bit with his daughter and Morgan? Ahhhh, what goes around ...

At any rate, Zach Levi's safe as long as he keeps squiring Strahovski around the little screen.

#7 Castle

The humour's bawdier than The Mentalist. Stana Katic is the dark-haired version of Yvonne Strahovski. The cute, bright daughter, as played by Molly Quinn, is as good as Hayley McFarland on Lie to Me. While completely different, Susan Sullivan plays as interesting an omni-present mother as Mary Beth Peil does on The Good Wife. And Seamus Dever and Jon Huertas are funny AND competent as the two go-to cops in Katic's squad. Heck, Tamala Jones is the sexiest M.E. since ... well ever.

Plus the star is a Canuck. How can Castle NOT be a top-ten show? Nathan Filion would have to go all Pierre Berton on us before that would happen. Berton was famously forever working on his next book. He wouldn't have had time to flirt furiously with Katic's Kate Beckett. Or as Castle would call her, Nikki Heat. And yes, I read the book. And I enjoyed it for what it was. And it wasn't award-winning, just entertaining.

I make no apologies for enjoying this yuppie Murder She Wrote by way of Moonlighting. Is there a single unlikable character in the lot? Anybody annoy you? Are most of the mysteries frothy fun? That's NO, NO and YES.

And that's why it's the lucky seventh most-entertaining hour this past 365 days.

#6 Burn Notice (#6 LY)

What does a show have to do to get ahead in this ranking? Burn Notice tried. They ditched one of my personal bete noirs in Tricia Helfer. Somebody fed Gabrielle Anwar so her wacko Fiona didn't look so anorexic, in addition to being a former Irish gun-runner. Bruce Campbell shed a few pounds, keeping his cuddly charm but bringing back memories of when he was a leading man (If Chins Could Kill book review coming up before the end of the year). I could almost say the same over Sharon Gless tightening up a little and bringing back memories of when she was the babe in Cagney and Lacey.

Plus, Jeffrey Donovan is one of the hardest-working actors in TV, giving voice to both Michael Westen and the show itself. He does the absolutely vital voice-overs.

With the government thing more a background detail than a plot B in the shows, we got most of each hour devoted to the subject at hand, whatever that was. More time to execute elaborate schemes, more entertainment value for the viewer.

And yet the show STILL can't crack the top five. It's just not right. And no fault of the folks behind this USA tentpole show. Unfortunately a returning great, three rookie shows and a swan song that wasn't, were all just a bit better than a good year of Burn Notice.

#5 New Tricks (British)

Welcome back!! New Tricks (sixth-ranked three years ago) made a triumphant return due to having a bunch of old favourites come back and spend an hour with our old codgers.

The guest star list included the ever-lovely Glynis Barber and Michael Brandon of Dempsey and Makepeace fame, Malcolm Storry from Jekyll and The Knock, Daisy Beaumont of both The Border and Mumbai Calling, Imogen Stubbs who was Anna Lee, Rob Spendlove from The Last Detective and Barbara Flynn of Cracker. And just about the whole guest cast of The Bill over the years. If this was the last season of New Tricks, it was a good one.

New Tricks remains uncopied over here on this side of the pond. We have had shows built around investigating dead cases. But nobody's glommed onto using the senior set as the investigating officers. Alun Armstrong, Dennis Waterman and James Bolam all ended the year better off than they started. Armstrong's Brian Lane dealt with his problems with alcohol right off the bat and he and Esther, played with the ultimate in forbearance by the great Susan Jameson, seem to be on good footing. Bolam's Jack Halford seems finally to have come to grips with his wife's death. And Waterman's Gerry Standing seems to have settled in as father and grandfather to his various girls and their kids. Now he can spend more time singing that infernally-catchy theme song.

Which brings us to the leader of her merry band of men, Amanda Redman as Sandra Pullman. The season ended on a shocker that hit a little close to home for Pullman and could be either a stopping point for the series or the lead-in to a seventh series. I have no idea at this point whether that will be the case.

But, if it IS the end of New Tricks, it's been one heck of a good run.

#4 Drop Dead Diva

This is Being Erica for this year. And, I fear, the show might not have the legs to make it back on this list. It might have already jumped the shark with its second season debut with that opening number featuring 'Judge' Paula Abdul.

But for one glorious season, Drop Dead Diva was a sight to behold.

The conceit in the show places the brain of wannabe model Deb in the body of plus (maybe a bit more than plus)-sized lawyer Jane. The reason for the body-jumping is that Deb, in a bit of "I'm Special" attitude-giving, up at the pearly gates admission office, decides she's not ready to die and wakes up on the operating table, where Jane had just died. Because she didn't complete her processing, a loophole of grandiose proportions, Deb's allowed to keep on keeping on. Albeit with the help of guardian angel Fred.

Still with me? Size zero Deb (Brooke D'Orsay, also of Gary Unmarried this past season), now must make her way through the legal minefields Jane (Brooke Elliott) used to traverse so ably, before sacrificing herself by jumping in front of a bullet meant for her boss. Fortunately, Deb gets to access Jane's smarts, but they come semi-randomly, usually in headache-inducing bursts of insight.

Of course, Deb had a fiancee in the making. David James Elliott-lookalike Jackson Hurst joins the firm because what dramedy doesn't need an unrequitable love, at its core. Hurst's Grayson is the thoughtful kind, giving hope he'll see past external features to see that Jane (We are now going to start calling Deb by her body's name) is (still) a wonderful catch. Instead, he hooks up with nasty office hotty Kim, played by (for the first season only) red-headed Kate Levering. Mix that all up with some great supporting characters, the usual melange of legal cases and the misplaced soul thing and you get a great show.

Let me point out, Stacy (as in Stacy Q?) played by April Bowlby and Fred, played by Ben Feldman, are critical to the show's success. Adorably dopey and insightful Stacy and the basset-hound like Fred are the grounding that prevents Jane from going crazy. Both know 'the secret' and help conceal it. On the old Jane side of matters, a couple of comedic pro's help lots. Margaret Cho is fabulous as Jane's personal assistant and Rosie O'Donnell is very strong as a recurring judge character, who's Jane's mentor.

Elliott has already been a Broadway star, so the girl can act. And sing. She also bears a fairly strong resemblance to a dark-hared Drew Barrymore. The question is, will the public accept a plus-sized star not named Roseanne?

The answer, at least here, is yes.

#3 The Republic of Doyle (Canadian)

I'm half Newfie. And I have no trouble bragging about Newfoundland, God's Little Green Acre on earth. Newfoundlanders are a hard-living, boisterous bunch, adding sea-faring sensibilities to typical Canadian attitudes. My Dad's from Kelligrews, a hop, skip and a long jump from St. John's. Been a long time since I was there, but I still remember that last visit fondly.

So, when the CBC decided to base a detective series out of Canada's most easterly point, I was leery. Afterall, Newfie jokes abound on the mainland. But what I got with Republic of Doyle is a charming show about a family of detectives making do in the province's biggest city. Although who left out the 'The' in the title? Noisome.

Allan Hawco is a creative driving force behind the series as well as starring as Jake Doyle. His accent's a little hit or miss, not nearly as thick as some of the others in the cast. Especially copper Leslie Bennet as played by Krystin Pellerin. And I have to admit, I like the accent, even if impenetrable at times. (My grandmother once told me my father was down by the water, and all I heard was "Down by the by, by." I kid you not!). Pellerin is pretty, and with that accent, pretty irresistible.

Except 'most' times to Jake, who has a zany ex-wife. I'm pretty sure Jake and Nikki, the doctor, go back and forth as to who still loves the ex four times in the show, but that guess could be light. Nikki (Rachel Wilson) is very hard to resist, too. Of course, Jake comes by his manly charms the easy way. Dad Malachy (Sean McGinley) somehow finds himself paired with Linda Boyd, who's a few years his junior and won't marry him. Boyd, who could be Rene Russo's twin sister, turns out to have a past that makes her Rose the not marrying kind. Still, Malachy's got a good thing going with Rose.

And just to confirm this is a family thing, there's Malachy's grand-daughter Tinny, played with adolescent contrariness AND smarts by Marthe Bernard.

I like the look, sounds and feelings this show evokes in me. It's like a trip home without the gas fumes and large credit card bill. Absolutely love it.

#2 The Good Wife

Didn't see that coming a month into the TV season. This was a show that wore down my doubts as the season-long novel played out. I still think star Julianna Margulies should smile more, she looks like a harsh matron most of the time. A beautiful matron, but harsh. I think I saw more of her character of Alicia come through by season's end.

Alicia is the wife of disgraced (and jailed) politician Peter Florrick, played picture-perfectly by Chris Noth. Alicia has to become the family's new bread winner and goes to work at a legal firm run by Josh Charles as Will and Christine Baranski as Diane. The firm isn't exactly thriving and the job opportunity is more of a contest than anything long-term. Alicia and Matt Czuchry's Cary are in a season-long competition for one spot.

That was how things went initially. Then, Peter got out of jail for a re-trial and the show started to improve leaps and bounds. No longer were the kids and Peter's mother, played just as perfectly by Mary Beth Peil central figures. Thus made bit players, the background story of how Peter got convicted became the forestory. Alan Cumming was brought on as a creepy campaign strategizer, shoving Joe Morton's character more into the background. Alicia now had to figure out how to co-habit with Peter, living in a room down the hall in their now claustrophobic apartment, which also passed for his political HQ.

At work, she was succeeding with the help of Kalinda, the investigator. Archie Panjabi managed to make Kalinda a REAL interesting character. You assumed she was on Alicia's side, but changing sides seemed to come natural to Kalinda, in SOOOO many definitions of the term.

In the end, Alicia and Cary, played with that smugness Czuchry seems the poster boy for, each 'won' their little battle to survive. I think there's a good chance The Good Wife will be right back here next year in the top ten. Maybe even the best.

#1 Torchwood: Children of Earth (British)

In a lot of ways, this five-episode mini-season of Torchwood was NOT all that original. Elements of it could be traced back to dozens of SF shows, movies and books. You could even draw on the Pied Piper fable, if you wanted to go back far enough. But then again, there really are only seven stories and everything is just a variation on one of those seven themes.

That said, Russell T Davies made a most interesting melange out of all of the components that made this series of Torchwood the most interesting viewing experience I had over the last 365 days. Just another victory for Brit TV, following up on earlier top-ranked shows State of Play and Jekyll (each short-run one-offs of their own). Guess it's safe to say that I like stories with beginnings, middles AND, most importantly, ends.

The Torchwood team started short-handed and lost from there. No Owen. No Toshiko. Not even any Martha Jones. Just Captain Jack (John Barrowman), Ianto Jones (Gareth David-Lloyd), Gwen (Eve Myles) and her hubby Rhys (Kai Owen). Half-way through the series, even that lot had been reduced by one.

In the midst and destruction that decimated the Torchwood team, Earth faced the threat of a bunch of kid-snatching aliens, who arrive on Earth on a light beam and set up shop on the top floor in a building in London. Of course, accomodations have been built for them, instructions for which were sent on ahead. And, as it turns out, this isn't their first visit. All of which plays into the immortal life of Captain Jack, who was there the first time.

The aliens want Earth's children. Not all. But even one is too many. And they want a heck of lot more than one. And if Earth does not comply, they will take all of them. And they DO seem to possess the means to do so. Politicians all over the world are forced to make some very, very difficult decisions, a rock and a hard place type of decision. And we watch as many of the pols crumble under the strain of doing so. Yet, we understand them all, brave and craven alike.

Captain Jack and Gwen eventually save the day of course. And one of Captain Jack's descendents plays a key part in making that happen. It's a brief exception, it seems, to Captain Jack's ability to remain above relationships, for fear of the foreknowledge that he will outlive them all, EVEN if they go the distance to a natural death of old age.

Still, the heart-breaking scene at the end as Captain Jack leaves Earth because it hurts so much is/was a fitting conclusion to a great five hours.

Torchwood will be back and a new team will have to be built, given the paucity of survivors and the need to fill 13 hours next time around. But try as he might, I just can't see Davies being able to reproduce the special series from last summer.

And there you have my list of top shows from the 365 days spanning my birthdays in 2009 and 2010. Let the comments begin.

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