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TV in the 2000s: The Shows that Defined the Decade

A recent issue of Time magazine has the phrase “The Decade from Hell” emblazoned across its front cover. It’s referring to everything America has gone through in the past ten years, and it’s difficult to argue such an assertion: it’s been a shitty decade on a national level. During such times of stress, people inevitably turn to entertainment as a form of release, and although the methods in which we’ve distracted ourselves over the last ten years have unquestionably diversified, television remains the most easily accessible outlet for most Americans.

Within the format itself, the whole concept of reality TV must surely have been the biggest revolution of the decade. It’s really easy to bag on reality TV – mostly because the bulk of it is so damned unreal – but anybody who spends any time in front of the tube has surely had at least a couple of reality series they consider appointment TV. The two concepts that paved the way for everything else are undoubtedly “Survivor” and “American Idol.” The former, of course, opened the floodgates for the genre, and while it’s seen a considerable dip in the ratings department over the years, 12 million viewers isn’t a viewing figure to sneeze at. The latter, despite all the bitching and moaning and cries of “it’s not as good as it used to be” that accompany each new season, remains one of the most watched shows on the tube, likely due to the fact that it’s strictly a talent competition.

On “American Idol,” the only backstabbers are the judges, and since they aren’t part of the competition, their amusing duplicity is championed. The contestants, on the other hand, are innocents, and once the competition is underway, we’re given no peek into any possible backstage drama, which is a good thing, because by the time the audition rounds are over, we’ve had enough drama to last the whole season. Everything that comes after is all about who can best transfix us for three minutes a week via one pop ditty. It actually says something positive about the U.S. that “American Idol” remains our #1 form of reality entertainment, even if the actual reality is that the vast majority of Americans couldn’t care less about buying the winner’s album six months after they’re crowned.

You might think reality TV is a bunch of crap, and in most cases you’d be right, but the whole idea of it, to my mind, led to an important revolution, and that is serialized nighttime television (the classic “soap” formula notwithstanding). Reality shows taught viewers how to become invested in characters, how to be concerned for their eventual fate, and, most importantly, how to pay attention to an ongoing storyline, and the need to tune in every week. It didn’t take long for the networks to figure out that there was an audience for shows that didn’t continually hit the reset button. “24” must have been the first successful show of the decade to embrace the serial formula, and it embraced it whole hog. It required you to tune in for every episode, because each installment was another hour of a single day in the life of Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer. That “24” premiered less than two months after the terrorist attacks on 9/11 was pure happenstance. That it became enormously popular with viewers? Probably not so much. America needed some fictitious reassurance that there were folks on the job who could get shit done, and “24” filled the prescription.

Strangely, “24” didn’t open the network floodgates for more such programming right away. It took a few years, and then “Lost” made its mark. The number of “Lost” episodes I’ve seen could be counted on two hands, but that’s not because I didn’t like it, but because real life got in the way of it being appointment TV. Yet I viewed the pilot for “Lost” several months before its 2004 premiere, and when it ended I was convinced that I’d seen the second best TV pilot ever made. (“Twin Peaks” stills sits at #1.) The fact that a show as intricate as “Lost” still has a hardcore, central audience is perhaps a testament to that pilot. “24” started a new story with each new season; “Lost” required that you tune in for every episode of every season.

Another sci-fi series that did just that was “Battlestar Galactica,” a show that, due it being on a niche network (Syfy), never amassed a huge audience yet snagged boatloads of publicity and awareness nonetheless. It was no small feat to take an utterly laughable short-lived series from the late ‘70s and re-envision it for modern audiences, but Ron Moore and company did just that…and they did it far more successfully that anyone ever guessed possible. Most amazingly, the show taught us a lot about ourselves, by thoroughly defining what it means to be human, and as the damaged ‘00s dragged on, there may not have been a more important lesson to be learned.

On the same day I saw the “Lost” pilot, I saw another pilot for a completely different kind of series. While I didn’t rank it as one of the greats, there was one thing I was sure of: it would be a massive hit…and it was. “Desperate Housewives” was precisely the sort of vapid, soapy fare that had been absent for far too long on American TV. It clued into the seemingly bland suburban construct which surrounds so many Americans, via the Lynchian notion that “all is not what it seems.” Most anyone who lives a suburban life can no doubt relate to that idea, because wherever there are groups of people, there are bound to be some of them that are fucked up. “Housewives” is littered with fucked up suburbanites of all shapes, sizes and types, but they’re kooky and funny and there’s always some twinkly music playing in the background that in the end makes everything OK. It is not great television, but over the years it has, for the most part, been immensely watchable in the most disposable sort of way.

Around the same time period as “Housewives,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” made some major waves. It’s a series I have never watched and never plan to, but I’d be foolish to omit it from discussion since it brought two annoyingly obnoxious terms to the TV table: McDreamy and McSteamy. I haven’t heard either in a few years, but there was a time when they seemed to define everything that was wrong with television. I assume “Grey’s” fans have grown out of it…or maybe the show killed one of those guys off? I’ve no idea and can’t be motivated to investigate. Presently, there’s a brand new version of it going around, through cinema, via Camp Edward and Camp Nimrod. People can be so easily distracted it makes you wonder why some shows actually try harder.

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Producers of “The Wire” focus on New Orleans

HBO is ironing out the details on a deal for “Treme,” the latest project by “The Wire” producers David Simon and Eric Overmyer.

“Treme” centers on New Orleans residents – including musicians and a restauranteur – living in the city’s Treme district. Show follows the characters as they look to reclaim their lives as the city continues to rebuild.

Simon said he and Overmyer, who lives in New Orleans, had been in love with the city long before the storm — but post-Katrina, knew there was a story to be told.

But, he warned, “Treme” is not “The Wire: New Orleans.”

“We don’t intend to make ‘The Wire’ twice,” Simon said. “This is about people reconstituting their lives after their town was mostly, effectively destroyed… It’s not entirely a political show. We’re trying to be very intimate with people. And New Orleans is completely unique, there’s nothing in the world like it.”

While I’d love to see “The Wire: New Orleans,” I’d be almost as excited about anything this duo produces, especially if it’s on HBO. Production won’t begin until fall, so the network is targeting a spring premiere.

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Seven shows that just don’t get enough love

Unfortunately, I didn’t have the time to put together a list of my favorite television moments before the end of 2008, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t spend an inordinate amount of time in front of the tube. (Come to think of it, maybe my television addiction was the reason I didn’t have the free time to write about the best of 2008. Hmm.)

Anyway, here is a list of seven terrific shows that seem to be flying under the proverbial radar.

1. “True Blood” (HBO)
Alan Ball, the writer of “American Beauty” and the creator of “Six Feet Under,” brings us a series based on vampires in the Deep South. The series is based on Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse series of books and stars Anna Paquin — whom I argued, under the moniker of Eli Cash a few years back, would have made a better Penny Lane than Kate Hudson — as a mind-reading waitress in a small town in Louisiana. The first season was excellent, though it got off to a bit of a slow start. Paquin is the key, but her best friend Tara (played by Rutina Wesley) often steals the show.


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2008: The Year in TV – Jeff Giles

TOP 3 SHOWS

1. “Lost,” ABC

After two seasons of listening to viewers bitch about everything from too many characters to plots not moving fast enough, the “Lost” writers whomped us all over the head with a run of episodes that was better than anything fans had seen since Season One. Many of the show’s most important riddles were answered – or at least what we thought were its most important riddles, because now there’s a whole new list of them to answer. Not even that damn writers’ strike was enough to put much of a dent in this season of “Lost” — and not even the new Fray single playing in the background is enough to keep us from geeking out over the Season Five promos that ABC recently started airing.

2. “The Office,” NBC
Few network shows – and zero sitcoms – have played as fast and loose with their casts as “The Office”; whether it’s Oscar going on “gaycation,” Andy entering anger management counseling, Jim transferring to Stamford, Toby fleeing to Costa Rica, or Pam wandering off to art school in New York, you never know who’s going to move off-canvas for a spell – kind of like your actual workplace environment. It’s this grounding – along with one of the best casts and some of the strongest comedy writing on television – that helps keep “The Office” from getting stale, and allows it to transcend such stereotypically show-killing plot devices as the star-crossed couple (in this case, Jim and Pam) that finally gets together. Of course, it helps when said couple isn’t even the hottest pairing on the show: this season, Dwight and Angela’s secret warehouse liaisons have proven that even a Second Life-playing, beet-farming paper salesman can get his mojo rising every once in awhile.

3. “Friday Night Lights,” DirecTV
Unless you have DirecTV, you haven’t seen any of “FNL’s” third season – and you won’t until early 2009, under the terms of a unique cost-sharing deal that saved the show from cancellation…for now, anyway. It certainly remains to be seen how non-DTV fans of the show will deal with this arrangement – if, for instance, they’ve managed to keep from spoiling the entire season in advance with recaps posted on the Web – or whether NBC will deign to promote content that’s already aired elsewhere. In the meantime, however, here’s what we can tell you: the third season of “Friday Night Lights” packs all of the addictive small-town drama and pulse-pounding gridiron action of Season One, minus the unwelcome addition of stupidly soapy ingredients that weakened Season Two (in other words, nobody’s throwing any bodies off bridges). We’ll be very surprised if “FNL” returns for a fourth season – on any network – but we’ve still got our fingers crossed.

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The Wire 5.10 – 30 – Series Finale

Fans of “The Wire” are no doubt smiling right now. Even though tonight’s episode marks the last time we’ll ever see McNulty in the doghouse, listen to Landsman berate his fellow officers, or even hear Clay Davis say “Shiiit,” I’m more than content with the way things ended. In fact, you could even say David Simon and Co. hit a homerun with the 95-minute finale, addressing all the loose ends and delivering a gift-wrapped ending that you just don’t see in season finales these days.

With news of McNulty and Lester’s shenanigans finally reaching Carcetti at city hall, the governor hopeful is absolutely livid. It’s a lose-lose situation from where he’s standing, and in order to protect himself during the upcoming election, he agrees that burying the dirt is best. Daniels doesn’t necessarily agree, but he doesn’t really have a choice. Pearlman is tied to the wiretap, and if McNulty and Lestor go down, so does she. Of course, that doesn’t mean Pearlman is necessarily accepting of her position, and she makes sure Lester knows about it when they run into one another downtown.

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Lester relays the info to McNulty, who’s busy trying to wrap up his Red Ribbon Killer investigation, and together they map out a gameplan for the future. As it stands, the two aren’t exactly in trouble, and aside from being forced out of actual police work for the rest of their careers, they probably won’t even face a grand jury hearing either. Still, that doesn’t exactly help with McNulty’s guilt when he discovers that a copycat killer is on the prowl, murdering homeless men and tying white (not red) ribbons to their wrists. Surprisingly, McNulty is quick to solve the crime, and though Rawls would love to pin all of the homeless killings on the culprit (a delusional homeless man himself), McNulty is adamant that he only be charged for the last two murders.

Though none of the higher-ups are especially pleased with McNulty and Lester, you’ve got to credit the latter for digging up dirt on Marlo’s lawyer, Levy. Without it, it looked like Marlo would not only be dismissed from his charges, but that Carcetti and the entire BPD would be exposed for McNulty’s big white (or is it red?) lie. Instead, Pearlman uses the information against Levy, scoring Chris a life sentence for all of the vacant murders, and Monk and Cheese up to 20 years for possession/intent to sell. Marlo, on the other hand, is given a slap on the wrist and a warning that if he ever traffics drugs again, he’ll be right back in jail.

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