- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 1, 2009

The hard reality of 2008 was that reality TV, thanks in part to the writers strike, ruled. Many have been critical of this genre yet still find themselves watching much more unscripted fare than before and discovering happily that several shows actually have been quite good.

In this presidential election year, political humor on late-night TV was at an all-time high, with the best being spoofs of the candidates on “Saturday Night Live.”

As for networks’ scripted offerings, it was an especially intriguing year for fans of “Lost” and “Desperate Housewives,” with the former’s disappearing island and the latter’s jump five years into the future, which delivered a different and decidedly unglamorous Gaby Solis (Eva Longoria Parker).

However, the great majority of shows and movies that sparkled were not on broadcast TV but on cable - and Emmy sure seemed to agree.

A sad reality of 2008? Seeing several top-notch dramas come to a close: “Boston Legal,” “The Shield” and “The Wire.”

That being said, here’s a look at the year’s best in TV:

Mad Men (AMC): The Emmy-winning drama about New York advertising men and women in the 1960s is not only a superb character study acted to perfection and full of subtleties, but a piece of heaven for fans who can’t get enough vintage. Creator Matthew Weiner, formerly of “The Sopranos,” has been unusually meticulous in his re-creation of the period - from hair and clothes to attitudes to the political climate of the Kennedy years. Although season one was an awfully tough act to follow, given the odd back story of Gary Cooper-handsome Don Draper (Jon Hamm), season two continued its exploration of him and other damaged characters with such unwavering finesse that waiting each week for the next installment was maddening indeed.

Boston Legal (ABC): I was a late convert to David E. Kelley’s playful and pondering series about a Beantown law firm. However, the final season was so rife with engrossing stories, theatrical Alan Shore (James Spader) closings, bizarre Denny Crane (William Shatner) moments and fun character interplay that I quickly became a passionate fan. What I’ll miss most: the lawyers’ constant lusting after office maven Shirley Schmidt (a still-seductive-at-62 Candice Bergen), the endearing hops and mouth pops of Jerry Espenson (Christian Clemenson) and, of course, those insightful and silly balcony chats between Alan and Denny, who, in the finale, celebrated their undying friendship by getting married - to each other.

The Shield (FX): The final year of the gritty police drama, which had Detective Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) giving “rogue cop” new meaning, was so intense and upsetting at times that I found myself reaching for the Pepto-Bismol. Yet I wouldn’t have missed one painful minute; the ride was that good. Although it was tough to say good-bye to what arguably was the best copshow ever, the finale, which laid out the horrific consequences of all those evil deeds committed by Vic and his special team, provided such satisfying closure that viewers couldn’t help but smile through their tears.

True Blood and In Treatment (HBO): Leave it to HBO to give us not one, but two of the year’s most addictive and innovative new dramas. In the biting and stylishly executed “Blood,” vampire Bill (Stephen Moyer) and sweet waitress Sookie (Anna Paquin) became the new Romeo and Juliet. Creator Alan Ball cleverly made the vampire’s entrance into human society a metaphor for racism, gay-bashing and, in general, a world eaten up by hatred for those who are different.

Meanwhile, in a world that advocates popping a pill to erase your troubles, “In Treatment” refreshingly brought back the old concept of talking out your fears and woes with a therapist. Each day of the Monday-through-Friday drama brought us a different patient with a different damaged psyche. Gabriel Byrne turned in a moving, at times gut-wrenching performance as the weary shrink who began seeing a therapist himself (Dianne Wiest) in order to cope with his own demons.

American Idol (Fox): Say what you want about the lack of contestant personality on this year’s “Idol.” The emphasis here was the talent. The contestants looked good, moved well and sounded better. Judge Paula Abdul stumbled comically, Simon Cowell scowled gleefully. Right up to the rare guy-guy finale, where the vocally gifted Davids (Cook and Archuletta) battled for the crown, the show remained one of the year’s most entertaining examples of appointment TV.

John Adams (HBO): Who would have dreamed that a sprawling miniseries about one of the least celebrated early U.S. presidents could be this rich? Why, they didn’t even cast a Jonathan Rhys Meyers type as Adams to keep viewers involved. The plain but enticingly expressive mug of actor Paul Giamatti was just fine, thank you, as was Laura Linney, sans any trace of glamour, as wife Abigail. Both more than deserved their Emmys - as did the miniseries.

Project Runway (Bravo): For the first time, the Heidi Klum-hosted reality show, which requires designers to whip up a runway-ready outfit in record time, featured an all-female finale. Winner Leanne deserved the title with her cohesive collection of ethereal frocks. However, runners-up Korto and Kenley may have been just as talented. Even before the final judging, the season demanded our attention, particularly the episode in which contestants were required to stitch up fashions from automobile parts.

Other reality honorable mentions: Culinary shows “Top Chef” (Bravo) and “Bizarre Foods With Andrew Zimmern” (Travel Channel) have been so good this year, I can hardly wait each week for my next helping.

Torchwood (BBC America): As angry as this might make “Battlestar Galactica” fans, this British import deserves the title for best science-fiction series. The adult-targeted drama, which follows Capt. Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) and his Torchwood team as they research, defend and battle alien invaders got even better in its second season. A shocking and courageous finale put a fitting cap to episodes that may not have been as sexy as the first season’s but were infinitely deeper and more thoughtful.

Saturday Night Live (NBC): Tina Fey’s hilariously dead-on, multiepisode turn as Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin was enough to warrant the comedy sketch show a place on this list. Others playing the candidates - Amy Poehler as Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Jason Sudeikis as Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Darrell Hammond as Sen. John McCain - also deserve applause. The one weak link may have been Fred Armisen as Sen. Barack Obama, but no matter - the “SNL” spoofs of the debates all were side-splitters.

Swingtown (CBS): It still remains up in the air as to whether the network will take a chance on a second season of this revolutionary summer series set in 1976 Chicago. However, creator Mike Kelley deserves credit for even attempting to depict the effects of the sexual liberation of the ‘70s on white-collar suburbia. After the initial uproar over the racy first episode, the series settled into an insightful, even sweet, look at relationships and the impact of spousal experimentation on individuals, families and friends.

NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

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