Most of you probably think this entry has got to be a joke. The rest of you have actually watched the show. Adapted from a cheesy '70s Star Wars clone of the same name, Galactica (returning in January) is a ripping sci-fi allegory of the war on terror, complete with religious fundamentalists (here, genocidal robots called Cylons), sleeper cells, civil-liberties crackdowns and even a prisoner-torture scandal. The basic-cable budget sometimes shows in the production, but the writing and performances are first-class, especially Edward James Olmos as the noble but authoritarian commander in charge of saving the last remnants of humanity. Laugh if you want, but this story of enemies within is dead serious, and seriously good.
Last year I put the finale of the BBC's The Office on my top 10 list, after putting the original series on my list in 2003. "NBC is working on an adaptation for next year," I wrote. "If they can find the American equivalent of this comedy of quiet desperation, it'll be welcome on next year's list too." They did, and it is. Naysayers who complained that this version wasn't as dark as the British one, or that Steve Carell's boss wasn't as tragicomic as Ricky Gervais', missed the point. Producer Greg Daniels created not a copy but an interpretation that sends up distinctly American work conventions (the staff party at Chili's, the mandated diversity seminar), with a tone that's more satiric and less mordant. We Americans are different that way; sorry if that bugs you. The new boss is different from the old boss, and that's fine by me.
When you're slinging pot in your suburban neighborhood to support your kids on your dead husband's meager insurance payout--that's when you can call yourself a desperate housewife. Mary-Louise Parker gave a performance so human and conflicted, you could practically see the needle of her moral compass spinning. Creator Jenji Kohan's writing put the new in nuance, as she drew not only Parker but her various upscale associates (including a surprisingly appealing Kevin Nealon as a stoner accountant) in a way that neither judged nor let them off the hook. The best comic suburban soap on TV, ounce for ounce.
Sometimes in April
Next time someone tells you TV is a poor cousin to the movies, show them Hotel Rwanda, then this harrowing, complex story of the same genocide--if they can stand it. Don Cheadle's performance notwithstanding, Hotel Rwanda ultimately fell back on the Schindler's-List template of one-good-man-against-the-world Hollywood uplift. April was unsparing, without being gratuitous, in showing how horrific yet casual the violence was, and Idris Elba (The Wire) was stunning as a Rwandan officer who came to see the light too late to save his mixed-ethnicity family. Equally important, this movie explored the important -- if sometimes impossible -- process of reconciliation and justice in present-day Rwanda. I doubt I could bear watching this movie a second time, but I'm grateful to have seen it once.
One of the hardest things to portray in fiction is the creative process; it's more interesting to watch, say, Jackson Pollack empty a whiskey bottle than a tube of paint. But somehow, this gimmicky, bitchy, wonderful reality show pulled it off, by challenging a set of aspiring fashion designers to do things like make a garment out of products from a grocery store (the corn-husk dress won). Unlike so many reality game shows, Runway actually cast intelligent, interesting creative people interested in doing good work in their field rather than media whores out to become future Style channel hosts. If you missed the first season, the second is just getting started. As model/host Heidi Klum would say, this show is een.
What does it take to get a person on the street to tell a cute hand puppet to ____ off? This and other imponderables were answered by this twisted kids'-show parody, inexplicably relegated to MTV's satellite channel, orbiting the frozen outer reaches of digital cable. From man-on-the-street interviews by an obnoxious puppet to an adorable child asking a butcher, "Who's going to pay for these steaks... I mean, spiritually?" this show is a hilarious, disturbing trip far away from Elmo's World.
The Colbert Report
By rights, this spinoff of Stephen Colbert's supercilious Daily Show correspondent character should have have one good week in it, two, tops. But sharp writing and Colbert's wholehearted inhabiting of his blowhard alter ego showed that there's as much potential in mocking cable opinion shows as in the news itself. Like The Daily Show, the show is uneven -- between the pair, you've got 14 minutes of solid comedy every night -- but it's worth catching for Colbert's nightly editorial, "The Wrd," in which his bluster is counterpointed by commentary from the on-screen graphics. This is a worthy second half to a media-savvy Daily Double.
How I Met Your Mother
Five witty, good-looking young people dating, hanging out and trading quips in Manhattan. It's a revolutionary idea for a sitcom--in 1994. Overshadowed by more distinctive sitcom debuts this fall (see #10), Mother does for the young-urbans comedy what Everybody Loves Raymond did for the bickering-in-laws genre: proves that originality isn't everything. The gimmicky hook--narrator looks back on his courtship from 25 years in the future--is a distraction; what stands out is the crackling dialogue and rapport among the ensemble cast. (When Neal Patrick Harris isn't slipping the show into his tailored breast pocket, Jason Segel and Alyson Hannigan are so cute you could sprinkle powdered sugar on them and pop them in your mouth.) Mother feels like it's been on for years, and I mean that in a good way; you sense that, just a few epsiodes into the show's run, the writers know these characters inside and out. I can't pretend this is anything but a well-executed Friends ripoff. But I'll be there for them anyway.
Breakout drama, indeed. The most addictively cockamamie new show of the year, this thriller is paranoid and far-fetched enough to make 24 play like the 9/11 commission report. Combining an old-fashioned escape story with a timely story of oil, lies and conspiracy in the government, Prison Break takes your sense of skepticism and plunges a shank into it. The drama knows how to build and maintain suspense, and nowhere is that better embodied than in star Wentworth Miller--an inmate with his escape plan tattooed in code on his torso--who after 13 episodes seemed tense enough to crack walnuts behind his ears. With the titular breakout under way on the show (it returns in March to resolve its cliffhanger ending), it's unclear where it can go in a second season. But for now I'll follow wherever Miller's tattoo leads.
Everybody Hates Chris (UPN) & My Name Is Earl (NBC) [tie]
Why a tie? Because I don't have 11 slots and can't make a damn decision. But also because these sitcoms deserve to be considered together (as I did in this feature in September). Both shows proved a network sitcom could be both good and popular. Each show had a distinctive voice: on Earl, that of a good-at-heart petty crook (Jason Lee) trying to make his life right, on Chris, the hard-edged nostalgia of narrator Chris Rock, looking back on his childhood in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. They share another, less fortunate attribute: neither show has developed its characters much beyond their hilarious but cartoony pilots, and if they had, they'd be higher on this list. But after years in which sitcoms have been either bad or cancelled, I'll take my laughs however I can get them.