TV Dinners: The Best TV of 2008

We spent most of the week emptying TV off the Tivo – hence the lack of movie reviews on the site this week. We don’t watch much television, generally. Well, actually we do, but in terms of series we actively follow, rather than randomly pausing on while channel-surfing, there aren’t that many. [A fondness for Discovery Channel’s Destroyed in Seconds – a title presumably used because “Shit Getting Blown Up” was deemed inappropriate – hardly counts] Here are the five shows which were put on permanent record as far as our Tivo was concerned in 2008.

5. The Unit. I am not quite sure how we managed to miss the first three series, but then, we managed to ignore 24 on its initial screening. Life’s too short to watch everything, I guess. It was the realization that David Mamet was the creator which finally lured, first Chris and then me, in: while somewhat variable in the quality of the individual episodes, it has a good enough hit-rate to keep us interested. It’s centered on a special forces group under Col. Ryan (Robert Patric), which engage on covert missions of counter-terrorism, etc. around the world, with all knowledge officially disavowed.

This bears some resemblance to 24, not least the presence of President Palmer (Dennis Haysbert) as the sergeant-major in charge of one of the squads. While some of the stories are rather silly [the one about escorting an Afghani bride to her wedding was not the writers’ finest hour], when they get a good topic, they can generate a degree of tension rarely seen on television. It does an admirable job of generally avoiding stereotypes for ‘the enemy,’ even if there is little or no doubt who the good guys are. If you’re looking for hidden depths, this is probably not the show, yet as straightforward action-adventure in a post-9/11 world, it’s well put-together and executed.

4. Life on Mars. I never saw any of the British version, so I can’t say whether the American remake is better, worse or basically the same. On its own merits, however, it works very nicely, though it did take a couple of episodes for me to warm to the show. Cop Sam Tyler (Jason O’Mara) is in an accident, and wakens to find himself apparently back in 1973 – he’s still a policeman, but it’s a very different world under his new boss, played by Harvey Keitel, in an interesting echo of his Bad Lieutenant role. Tyler has the chance to revisit his own childhood, and address some unresolved issues from his past, but is he really alive in the 70’s or is it all just some kind of hallucination?

Initially, this seemed not much more than an exercise in unabashed 70’s nostalgia, with a soundtrack apparently designed to sell CDs as much as anything. However, Tyler is an endearing character, and it’s easy to see why he behaves the way he does – he loyally refuses to deny the future, causing his colleagues to regard him as eccentric, at best. It’s an interesting study in how much our society has changed over 35 years, in almost every way, and one suspects this holds true for Britain, just as much as America.

3. Fringe. JJ Abrams has a somewhat spotty track record: Alias used to be a favorite, before imploding spectacularly in the last couple of seasons, and we never got into Lost at all. However, with Fringe, he seems to have returned to form, with a nicely-layered tale of conspiracy, which owes more than a little to early X Files. FBI agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) is assigned to a special group investigating a series of unexplained events, apparently connected in what’s called “The Pattern.” This brings her into contact with mad scientist Dr. Walter Bishop (John Noble) – and I mean ‘mad’ literally, since he has to get bailed out of the mental hospital by his son. There’s also a mega-corporation, Massive Dynamic, who may be responsible for The Pattern, and certainly know more than they’re admitting.

This kind of thing is better suited for a TV series than a movie, where everything has to be wrapped up in two hours. The authors can dole out information more slowly, keeping the paranoia bubbling. Of course, this can’t be sustained forever: eventually, they have to resolve things – that’s where Chris Carter went wrong in The X-Files, and he’s never really recovered. Fringe is no different, but if anyone can pull it off, Abrams probably can. We’ll cross that when we come to it, and in the meantime, just enjoy the show [while looking over our shoulders] and Dr. Bishop’s endearing line in comments: after two decades in the loony-bin, he’s fascinated by the most everyday things, and has little sense of the social niceties. Here’s a typical example: “Oh! I just got an erection… Don’t worry, it’s got nothing to do with your state of undress. I simply need to urinate.”

2. Primeval. Ah, BBC America, how do we love thee. Well, actually, the bulk of the programming appear to involve interior decoration, antiques or Monty Python re-runs [not that there’s anything wrong with the last mentioned, of course], but occasionally there’s a gem, such as this Stargate-like show, in which portals open up, allowing creatures from other times to enter the modern world. Curiously – and presumably due to budgetary restrictions – these only ever seem to appear around the Home Counties of England, but such artifice aside, you can hardly do anything but love a show in which an ancient elephant rampages its way up and down a motorway. Gives new meaning to the phrase “mammoth traffic jam”, I guess…

The idea is broad enough to give an almost infinite range of possibilities, with the animals covering a range from the cute [a flying lizard called Rex, and a flock of dodos] through to the seriously nasty, perhaps most memorably a predator from the future, though the carnivorous worms that appeared in a tower-block also merit consideration there. The creator has compared the show to The A-Team – a curious parallel, yet one I can see, based on the disparate backgrounds of the characters. We particularly love Sir James Lester (Ben Miller) who may be the most sarcastic git on television.

1. Dexter. I read the book on which the series was based a little while back; it’s radically different, with Dexter being a much colder and distant character. I don’t think they could really do the show that way, and the lovable guy we see here perhaps makes things even more subversive. He’s charming, witty, personable… and just happens to have this overwhelming need to kill people occasionally, though has successfully channeled this so that he only kills those who have slipped through the nets of justice. Michael C. Hall is perfect in the title role – I can’t imagine anyone else playing Dexter – and the raft of supporting characters behind them help craft the most unmissable show of the year.

The second season did veer off into some questionable territory, but its third year has returned to full strength. There’s an intriguing premise of a partner in crime for Dexter – and it’s the Assistant DA Miguel Prado (Jimmy Smits), whose brother Dexter killed, albeit in self-defense. While Dexter operates strictly under his self-imposed code, only targeting those where evidence of their crimes is impeccable, Prado doesn’t have the necessary restraint, and is much more volatile, inevitably transforming him gradually from an ally into a threat. The last episode of the series is on Sunday night, and as Showtime have already contracted for the fourth and fifth seasons, it looks like we’ll be following this for some time to come.