TV Dinners: The Best TV of 2010

It may be tied to the decline in our cinema-going, but we’re watching more TV at this point that any time I can remember. There have been occasions recently when our living-room Tivo has been unable to cope with the scheduling, as we try and record three programmes simultaneously – fortunately, there is also the bedroom DVR which can be used as a back-up. After jump, you’ll find the ten shows which have entertained us most reliably this year – unlike our 2008 listing, we’re just going in alphabetical order this time.

Note: there’s a couple of new shows in the fall season, Nikita and The Event, that have potential, but we haven’t seen enough episodes to be sure. They’ll qualify for next year’s listing (if I do one…).

Burn Notice (right). Now in its fourth season, it took a little while for the series to gain a hold – we might not have bothered, except for the presence of Bruce Campbell as a supporting character (we’ll cut anything with him in it some slack). Its tale of disenfranchised spy Michael Weston, stuck in Miami, didn’t initially seem to have much potential, and it wasn’t until the second season that the four central characters began to take hold. While largely a bunch of misfits, they are now gelling, and the stories are peppered with little nuggets of spycraft, explaining the tactics and procedures being used. The scripts do a good job of combining single-episode stories with the over-riding arc, but it’s the characters that make this addictive.

Caprica. I never watched Battlestar Galactica, so the prequel aspect of this show for that is entirely lost on me, yet that doesn’t impact my appreciation of the imagination on view. What I like is the all-encompassing nature of the universe it depicts, with some thought having gone into every aspect of the alien world from sports to gods – it’s recognizably humanoid, yet distinctly non-human. It does a good job of blending politics and religion, with the “terrorists” beliefs closer to those of Western civilization than those against whom they are fighting. Add in ruminations on what it means to be human, and this is more thought-provoking than I expected it to be. Of course, SyFy cancelled it this week. Bastards.

Dexter. Ok, we may not have liked Dexter’s wife Rita all that much, finding her increasingly whiny and controlling. That said, the end of season four packed an enormous wallop, and the ramifications of that shock are rumbling through the new series, with Dexter having to come to terms with several new roles as a father and mentor. Hall’s performance continues to help take a character who should, by all “normal” standards, be a villain and turn him into someone with whom the audience can sympathize, even as he does things far beyond the pale of acceptable behaviour. Inevitably, claims of copycat killers have already begun to surface

Doctor Who. The news of the departure of David Tennant from the show was greeted with dismay in TC Towers. Who could ever replace, arguably, the finest Doctor ever? And replacement, Matt Smith, was only 26, barely an adult. Tennant signed off at the very start of 2010, in a heartrending episode, as his Doctor had the chance to say farewell before bowing out; we caught Smith’s debut when we were in Scotland in April and… Well, initially he seemed a bit of a young clone of Tennant, but as the series developed, he brought more of himself to the role. The results proved acceptable, even to hardened sceptics like ourselves, and occasionally magnificent, as in Vincent and the Doctor. Smith? He’ll do.

Fringe. Now into its third series and developing nicely, alternating episodes between the two worlds, with FBI agent Olivia Dunham now trapped on the other side, “infected” with the memories of the self from there, while said other Olivia operates undercover on our side.  This duality gives most of the other cast members a similar chance to stretch out a bit, playing two versions of the same character; most notably, Walter Bishop (John Noble), whose alter ego is radically different from the gentle, confused genius we’ve grown to love. Quite some way from the X-Files clone it initially appeared to be.

Haven (left). And similarly, this show has come quite some way from the Fringe clone it initially appeared to be. FBI agent, with a black boss, investigating interconnected paranormal occurrences known as the Pattern, sorry, Troubles? Hmm. Fortunately, the series has found its own path, with Audrey Parker trying to penetrate a close-knit community, and discover the truth about her own past as well. To be honest, perhaps too similar to SciFi, sorry, SyFy shows Eureka and Warehouse 13, but we don’t watch those, so who cares? Certainly, the last scene in the final ep wins “Rug-puller of 2010”, leaving us going, “Whaaaaat?”

The IT Crowd. Creator Graham Linehan has brought much the same quirky, slightly surreal quality to this show about “freaks and geeks,” as he did to Father Ted. But as someone who works in tech support, I can particularly relate [“Have you tried turning it off and on again,” is genuinely how we start troubleshooting customer’s server issues, though we usually put it in terms like, “Have you executed a power cycle?”]. At its best, the show has the same sense of delirious, snowballing chaos as Fawlty Towers, where the best intentions spiral off into unintended consequence

Modern Family. It’ll be ten years come Thanksgiving I’ve been out here, and I finally found an American sitcom that is actually enjoyable. Seinfeld, Friends, Arrrested Development, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia? All left me stone-cold. But the comedy here flows naturally from the characters, who are the disparate bunch of dysfunctional individuals that you find in any…well, modern family. If you can’t find someone in this show that’s a carbon-copy of someone you know, check your pulse. And no longer will Ty Burrell just be, “that jackass from the Dawn of the Dead remake.”

Spooks. PBS have been showing all the episodes (here known as Mi-5, presumably to avoid confusion with Ghost Hunters International), from its beginning, and we’ve grown totally hooked, to the point where “unofficial sources” have been used to obtain the latest series. It’s like 24 on crack, condensing an entire terrorist incident into a single hour, rather than over six months episodes. And having now also condensed so many series into a year, the high fatality rate for which the show is justly famous, makes it seem the average life-expectancy of an MI-5 operative is about four weeks. But who’d win if Adam Carter (below) and Jack Bauer had a fight?

24. And speaking of whom, we bid a fond farewell to Bauer, who finally exited our television screen approaching nine marvellous years after his first “Dammit!” We had our up and downs, didn’t we, Jack, and it’s probably right that the show departed, rather than lumbering on until Special Agent Bauer was pushing himself gamely about on a Zimmer frame. The final series was as solid as ever, with the usual mix of terrorists, slimy politicians, betrayals, Chloe’s furrowed brow and Jack’s not-so veiled threats. There’ll be a gap in our lives next winter that will be hard for any other show to fill.

24: Redemption

Dir: John Cassar
Star: Kiefer Sutherland, Cherry Jones, Colm Feore, Robert Carlyle

Ah, Jack Bauer; how much we have missed you. If it seems like a long time since the last episode, that’s because it has been: due to the writer’s strike, this inter-series special premiered almost eighteen months to the day after Season Six ended with Jack recovering the nukes and preventing war with Russia. Just an average day for our favourite counter-terrorist. Unfortunately, even he was able to do nothing about the writers’ strike, which began in October 2007. Although eight episodes of the seventh series were already in the can, the producers opted to postpone the show. Redemption was chosen to bridge the gap; an early draft of the story for Season Seven had Bauer in Africa, getting caught up in things there, Black Hawk Down style, but the costs of filming an entire 24-episode season there proved prohibitive.

The idea was transformed into Redemption; a two-hour special which explains what happened after the end of the previous series, and sets up the new one, introducing us to a number of new characters. In a significant diversion, Jack (Sutherland) is no longer part of CTU: he has been travelling the work, but seems to have found some measure of peace working at a school in the fictional country of Sangala, alongside another veteran, Carl Benton (Carlyle). However, peace is temporary, as a military coup led by General Juma (Tony Todd) threatens to turn the pupils into unwilling soldiers.

It’s up to Bauer and Benton to get the kids to the American embassy, through the fighting, so they can be sent to asylum in the States. Meanwhile, in the US, a new President, Senator Allison Taylor (Jones), has been elected and is about to be inaugurated. The choice of a woman is interesting; 24 had a fictional black president, David Palmer, six years before the nation elected one, so this must give Hilary Clinton hope for 2016 or thereabouts, even though she seems to be a Republican [assuming the one she replaces President Daniels was a Democrat, as he assumed power after Wayne Palmer – David’s brother, who became President too – was incapacitated by a bomb-blast in Season Six]. Barack Obama, however, will be hoping life is not imitating art, since both black Presidents in the show have met untimely fates.

A friend of her son stumbles across evidence implicating Jonas Hodges (Jon Voight) in the coup, though this thread is clearly designed for much greater exploration in Season Seven. Similarly, more of a scene-setter than anything else, is the angle that Bauer is now wanted for questioning before a Congressional committee, to answer accusations of torture and other un-American activities. He initially has no intention of complying with such a request, but as ever in 24, things have a nasty habit of changing in a flash. I don’t think it’s giving away much to say that Season Seven will find him back on American soil, not entirely at liberty, though I doubt that situation will remain the case for long.

Perhaps as significant as what was in Redemption, was what not in it, most obviously, CTU. This may have been something of a reaction to the sixth series, where it seemed that the writers couldn’t come up with any new threads for the agency [frankly, it seems they ran out of ideas for the show entirely, after the suitcase nukes were recovered, around hour 16] and the department has been disbanded. Fortunately, not all the characters were written out, with abrasive tech goddess Chloe O’Brien (Mary Lynn Rajskub), among the most memorable of the program’s subsidiary characters, still taking part in Season Seven.

So, is Redemption any good? Yes, with some qualifiers: being a reboot of the franchise as much as it is a continuation, it takes quite some time to get going, having to establish an entirely new set of characters and situations: Bauer and outgoing President Daniels (Powers Boothe) are almost the only person you’ve seen before [unless you count Todd, since he played a cop in Series Three!]. It’s almost forty minutes before Jack Bauer kills anyone, f’heavens sake – given the tally was about fifty, one way or another, in Season Six. Normal service is, however, swiftly resumed as he takes out a number of insurgents as they attack the school; while eventually, even Jacks has to succumb to being out-numbered, this is merely a pause in activities, before Bauer takes someone out with the back of his knee. That’s how hardcore a man he is. Chuck Norris wears Jack Bauer pyjamas, as the saying goes.

From there, the film continues in the style to which we have become accustomed; in real time, with cutting between Bauer and the other characters, to cover moments when nothing much is happening. Obviously, in two hours, there isn’t the same scope for plot complexity as in a normal series, and the sequences in the United States are almost irrelevant, little more than place setting for things to come. Their purpose mostly seems to be to allow for some rather heavy-handed product-placement on behalf of sponsoring companies such as Cisco, Nextel and Hyundai – a little harder to do in the African bush, where Jack is stuck, without the ability to reposition satellites or call in backup at a moment’s notice.

Still, that makes for a lean, stripped-down Bauer, who admirably demonstrates that his own resources are more than up to the task. These scenes play somewhere between The Wild Geese and Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, as the hero has to guide his young charges through unfriendly countryside, enemy forces, bureaucratic obstruction and land-mines. [Fortunately, there are no mountain lions to be seen… 🙂 Sorry, inside fan joke] The UN certainly doesn’t come out of this looking very effective: their official is, at best a coward, prompting Jack to taunt him as the soldiers approach the school, “Why don’t you go hide in the shelter with the rest of the children?” He doesn’t get much more impressive from there: meanwhile, the program featured an advert in which Kiefer Sutherland urges you to stop malaria, and the DVD has a documentary on the plight of child soldiers. Hmm. I’m prepared to bet the UN have done more in these areas than CTU ever did.

Mixed messages aside, it might not count as the best 24 ever, but it is still an improvement on 90% of the television out there, and whetted our appetite nicely for the long-delayed Season Seven, finally scheduled to start on January 11. With both Bond and Batman having benefited from a reboot of their franchise, a third B seems intent on joining them. “It’s been a while… It’s worth the wait,” proclaims the trailer below. Having been following Jack’s adventures since all the way back in Series One, let’s hope so. I’ll bring the popcorn.

24: The First Season

BINK-u…BINK-u…BINK-u…BINK-u… Which is, as near as I can figure it, a phonetic representation of the start of 24, with its relentlessly ticking digital clock*. We missed the show first time through, largely because of Fox’s incessant advertising of it during the 2001 World Series. We watched every pitch, since the Arizona Diamondbacks were playing, but this resulted in a steadily-increasing aversion to all the hype. After all, what was the last decent thing Kiefer Sutherland was in? The Lost Boys? [Ok, we might give him Dark City.]

It thus passed us by, but the second season drew us in, and hooked us completely, becoming the most-anticipated show on television. It was no surprise to find the DVDs of the first series in my stocking in Christmas morning, though if we were being honest, I think it was as much for Chris as me – hey, turnabout’s fair play, I bought her Brotherhood of the Wolf! What was a shock was how fast we got through it, especially given the nine months it took to get through the similarly-sized second season of Buffy. We started at 2pm December 29th; by 11pm on the 31st, we’d gone through all 24 episodes, some 19 hours of TV in less than 2 1/2 days.

The gimmick is, of course, that the show takes place in real time. 24 episodes = 1 day, each representing an hour. If someone takes ten minutes to drive from one location to another, that’s how long they take. Fortunately, there are multiple story threads, which save us from lengthy sequences of Kiefer Sutherland picking his nose in traffic. Central to the story is a plot to assassinate Democratic Presidential nominee David Palmer. At first, this seems straightforward – he is the first black candidate for the office – but as things unravel, it becomes clear that there is a lot more going on. People in his entourage are working against him, and his wife is not prepared to let anything stand in the way of her becoming the First Lady.

Leading the hunt is Jack Bauer (Sutherland), agent of CTU (Counter Terrorist Unit) who is equally unwilling to let anything – least of all department protocol – stop him from finding the perpetrators. This is made pretty clear early on, when he shoots his boss with a tranquilizer dart and blackmails him in order to extract information. It also becomes apparent that someone inside CTU is not totally loyal either. Oh, and Jack’s wife and daughter have been kidnapped, to coerce him into assisting the assassination. Are we having fun yet?

It’s weird watching season one, only after seeing a good chunk of season two. In some ways, it does weaken the show, because you know who returns, which removes the sense of threat. But in others, it heightens the tension, providing a sense of futility to the struggles of characters who you know are going to die. We now know who is the mole inside CTU – so, in season one, every time the hero interacts with the traitor, we urge him to pull his gun and pump an entire magazine into the treacherous scum.

Mind you, some things are refreshingly similar. His daugher is still an irritating and stupid bimbo – the sooner she gets reunited with her mother, the better – and Palmer’s wife remains about as trustworthy as a king cobra with a hangover. The greatest joy of the DVDs is that you don’t need to wait a week for the next one, which was a huge relief, because it is genuinely hard to turn off. We inevitably found ourselves watching “just one more episode”, and returning to season two with 167 hours between installments was an immensely painful experience.

The scripting is great, despite an obviously contrived nature – each episode brings several mini-climaxes, building towards a finale of apocalyptic intensity (it’s remarkable how many exciting events happen at 58 minutes past the hour…). Our favourite was probably the end of #23, where the mole is revealed, yanking the carpet out from under you in truly spectacular fashion. We can only imagine how that felt on the first screening.

If there’s a flaw, it’s in the villains’ plans to assassinate Palmer, which are hideously over-convoluted, and more befitting a Bond villain. They have plants working in the power station where the first attempt is made, but rely on Jack to smuggle in a weapon when the security is at its tightest. Their ability to tap into any CCTV system at short notice is remarkable, and they possess so much technology as to suggest assistance from the Rowell aliens. They can infiltrate federal buildings and personnel. One would imagine they could find less complex methods, that are more likely to succeed.

However, the pace is so breathless that such concerns seem trivial, and the acting also helps paper over the cracks too. Special mentions go to Susan Clarke, as the cool, ultra-efficient Nina (who is even better in series 2), Dennis Haysbert as David Palmer (surely heading for a write-in Presidential campaign next year!) and Carlos Bernard as Tony (loyal to a fault, despite his previous differences with Jack). They lend critical support to Sutherland, and help make the show infinitely watchable.

It makes us wonder why there aren’t more films done in similar style – the last one to run minute-for-minute was Nick of Time, an obvious inspiration for 24, with its kidnapped child and omniscient villain. It’s probably a logistical nightmare – imagine the continuity problems of making sure everyone looks exactly the same throughout the months of shooting. But still, suspect we might well now see a slew of them in the wake of this show’s success.

But they’ll be hard pushed to deliver the same amount of excitement and intensity as the first season of 24, right up to the final scene. If the second series can manage to finish on such a high note – well, it was high, unless you were the major character whose cold corpse was discovered therein – we’ll be more than happy.

[* Chris just made it her “You’ve got mail” sound; freakily, guess how many messages she had in her mailbox when she tested it out? Yep – 24…]