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Crosstalk: The Best TV Of 2006

Noel: Now that we've wrapped up the year in books, DVDs, movies, and music, we should probably take a moment to acknowledge the medium we actually spent the most time enjoying in 2006: the glass teat itself, television. The big news story of the year in TV is the way new serialized dramas have almost completely failed to catch on with audiences, with the major exception—the one that proves the rule, perhaps—of Heroes.

Heroes definitely qualifies as one of those shows that I jump to watch once it's safely recorded on my TiVo, and while it wasn't my favorite show of 2006—I'll save that revelation until the end—I've mostly been delighted by the way it's played out so far. I was worried at the outset that Heroes was going to be stingy with the actual superheroics, since all these characters are still learning about their powers, but the combination of giddy enthusiasm and cautious horror with which they've been testing their limits has been fun to watch. It's simultaneously true-to-life and fantastic. The story's moving along a fairly good clip, too, though there are a lot of mysteries—ones I don't care much about, to be honest, like the Petrellis' mob ties—that the creators don't seem in any hurry to resolve. And there are definitely some characters I like more than others. But it's no accident that Hiro has become the breakout character of the 2006 TV season: His eager, self-aware-but-not-sarcastic geekiness reflects a lot of what Heroes' fans see in themselves, and hope to see in the series for as long as it runs.

Scott: Screw audiences: Serialized dramas (and comedies) are here to stay, and people will just have to get with the program. I really have no more patience for TV dramas that don't move forward, even as I acknowledge "the perils of serialization," which I'll get to in greater detail when I talk about Battlestar Galactica. Even an otherwise-solid show like House loses me eventually, because rewinding and pressing "play" just isn't enough anymore; like a shark, a show has to keep moving forward, or it will die, doomed to regurgitating the same formula. (In this case: patient comes down with mysterious illness, House and crew nearly kill victim with misdiagnosis/experimental treatment, House has eureka moment and patient is all better within five minutes.) Granted, people have trouble committing to serialized dramas, because if you miss an episode, you lose the thread entirely, but that's all changed in the age of DVRs, and I don't think TV's brightest talents will ever retreat to the old way of doing things.

That said, I applaud Heroes for intrepidly moving forward when other serialized shows, in an effort to pace themselves for runs well into the indefinite future, spin their wheels rather than tie up story threads. (Ahem, Lost, ahem.) But I have a feeling this show is going to make us pay for our devotion in the end, because there are termites eating away at its foundation. First, the things I like: The superheroes generally have interesting powers (Hiro's ability to bounce around the space-time continuum, Claire's indestructibility, and Isaac's gift for drawing the future are particular favorites) and they're made even more interesting by how they work together; the purported villains are either fascinatingly ambiguous (Horn-Rimmed Glasses) or genuinely frightening (Sylar). And we agree that things are progressing at a good clip. My problem is that I'm tired of about 70 percent of the characters. I don't care about the boring Petrelli brothers (though Adrian Pasdar's Nathan could break out of his shell soon), or boring mind-reader Parkman, or boring Niki/Jessica (Ali Larter won't have to do those good-girl/bad-girl mirror images forever, will she?) or the ultimate bore, Mohinder, who's presumably the Professor Xavier of the bunch, but has to go through obscure dream sequences and fits of self-doubt first. (And how about that existential computer prompt: DO YOU WANT TO QUIT?) I find myself hoping that the show's creators, having concocted an irresistible premise and a gratifyingly complex story structure, will just hand the whole enterprise off to Joss Whedon, so we can at least have a little color in the writing. And yet, for all my complaints, there's usually one or two thrilling sequences in every episode that keep me coming back for more. I think I'm going to live to regret it, though.

As I hinted at the beginning, the third season of Battlestar Galactica has lately shown signs of creative exhaustion, but first, it opened with four or five of the best, most politically loaded episodes in the series' history. Life on New Caprica under Cylon occupation has presented a delicious opportunity for allegory that the writers have seized upon with exhilarating verve. Just swap "Iraq" with "New Caprica" and "American" with "Cylon," and viewers are forced into a troubling reversal of identification: Suddenly, we're rooting for the insurgents who plan terrorist attacks and suicide bombings (!) in order to disrupt the occupation, and jeering the traitors who join the police force in a Cylon-led effort to restore order. While you could make the case that the show's creators have other models in mind, including references to the French Resistance, it's the only current American show to empathize with the plight of occupied peoples. Unfortunately, BSG hasn't always known what to do now that it's back in space, and I'm sure that uncertainty is owed entirely to its open run on the SCI FI Channel. If the goal is to defeat (or at least elude) the Cylons and settle on Earth, I'm sure the writers could plan for that goal if they knew the show would end its run in, say, four seasons. But nothing on SCI FI has received anywhere near the attention of BSG, so there's really no saying when the damned thing will end. As a result, you have too many episodes that serve as place-holders, and others that are so self-contained that they don't connect at all to the overarching story thread. Still, these are just a few loose threads in an otherwise impeccable show; here's hoping the writers can keep it from fraying.

Noel: I just finished watching Battlestar Galactica's second season and have all the third-season episodes waiting on my TiVo, but I've been reading the grumblings about how this season has started to roll off the tracks. I'll find out soon enough, I guess, though I've discovered that so-called "disappointing" seasons of cult shows (like The Sopranos and Gilmore Girls) are often much better than I'd heard. Cult shows inspire such intense feelings that fans feel every bump harder than they should. When you're in for the long haul with a series, there's always going to be ebb and flow. (Just ask any fan of Buffy. Or Alias.) That's why I'm wondering if it might be better to start watching—and, for the creators, making—serialized TV in big chunks, to de-emphasize the iffy episodes and keep the arcs clearer. (Although what's lost by that method is the element of surprise. I can't imagine what it was like to watch those jaw-dropping final episodes of BSG season two as they happened. Most of its biggest surprises, I already knew.)

All of the above should lead me to talk about Lost—and Gilmore Girls, for that matter—but neither has really been good enough to bring into a discussion of the best TV of this year. Plus I want to talk about what's wrong with Lost—and why I'm going to keep watching anyway—in more detail, before the show resumes in February.

Instead, I'll talk about Veronica Mars, which inexplicably (to me at least) has been irritating former fans all season. Man, I don't get it. Yes, the third season isn't as good as the first—one of the most unimpeachable runs of series TV in the medium's history—and it may not even be as good as the second, which was hopelessly tangled but still full of angst and wit. But the "more accessible" version of VM has been cracklingly entertaining, week after week, from its sardonic take on modern campus life to its thematically resonant initial mystery, which was all about Stockholm Syndrome and victims becoming as bad as their victimizers. (Patty Hearst may be a lousy actress, but her guest appearance made for great symbolism.) So, yeah, the Logan-and-Veronica romance (known fannishly as LoVe) is making both their characters do some silly things, and it's time to put a moratorium on Veronica getting doped-up by bad guys. But the new mystery introduced at the end of the first arc looks promising, as does the possibility that Veronica can now entertain the romantic attention of floppy-haired emo kid Piz. It's just too bad that we've lost Ed Begley Jr., who was such a delight.

Anyway it's not like the new-viewer-friendly Veronica Mars is any more popular than the old one. It's still only hitting a niche. But at least it's on the air. Which is also the case with one of your favorites of the year, yes? Still holding on in spite of low viewership?

Scott: Yes, things were looking a little rough for Friday Night Lights—by far my favorite new drama of the year—but it's one of those cases where the support of those passionate few who have been watching the show had an impact on a network's decision to keep it. (Why doesn't this ever happen with movies?) Truth be told, scheduling conflicts kept me from watching the show early on, and its absence from NBC's iTunes offerings also screwed me over, since I really insist on watching shows from start to finish now. Thankfully, Bravo ran a marathon last weekend and I blew through all 10 episodes in a day and a half, drawn in helplessly by its unusually somber tone and wonderfully textured look at a small town driven (for good and ill) by its high-school football team. After reviewing all three underdog football movies in 2006—Invincible, Gridiron Gang, and We Are Marshall—it was a pleasure to see the game dramatized as something that's isn't always inspirational. The weight of expectations lies heavily on everyone here: The coach (played with magnetism by Kyle Chandler), who can only disappoint a community that will accept nothing short of perfection; the players, who bow under the pressure of ring-bearing alumni and their dim prospects after high school; and the young women who expect more from their star boyfriends than fate or hormones will ultimately give them.

What I appreciate most about Friday Night Lights is that it's a drama. Not a cop drama. Not a courtroom drama. Not an emergency-room drama. And not even a sports drama, at least under the usual triumph-over-adversity formula. Like the games in Hoop Dreams, the stakes in Friday Night Lights are dangerously out of proportion as far as what they mean to the people involved, which of course makes those fourth-quarter snaps real nail-biters. (Will the timid backup quarterback be able to fill impossibly big shoes? Will the cocky-but-likeable tailback impress the scout whose approval he so desperately seeks? Will one more loss cost the new coach his job?) I suppose you could write off the off-the-field drama as high-school soap-opera material, but I find every key relationship in the show affecting, from teen romances (tentative and advanced) to the nuanced business of a coach and his strong-willed wife battling through a period of extreme duress. Thank goodness NBC ordered the back nine: At least we're assured of one winning season.

So how about you, Noel? Can you keep from getting attached to shows that aren't long for this world? I wish I could, but I'm in love with lost causes.

Noel: This one isn't so much a lost cause as a guilty pleasure, but I'm glad Fox stuck with Justice through its full 12-episode order, in spite of bad reviews and low ratings. I can't pretend that it was groundbreaking television, but it was routinely the most fun hour of TV I watched each week, for as long as it lasted, because it was so preposterous and so clever. I loved the way this high-powered L.A. law firm applied cutting-edge technology and innovative legal techniques to help clients with no money, and I loved the way the Bruckheimer TV team used its best CSI whiz-bangery to illustrate such thrilling stuff as jury selection and precedent research.

But for all its goofiness, Justice also had a sense of humor about itself that wasn't as self-indulgent as what goes on at the increasingly impossible Boston Legal. And it had a simultaneous cynicism about and faith in the legal system that felt very real. Plus, those cases were cool: a paparazzi falling out of a high-rise (or was he pushed?), a woman getting decapitated by a poorly constructed roller coaster (or did she jump?), and so on. And the show's big gimmick—spending the last five minutes of every episode showing what really happened—never failed to send chills down my spine, even though most of the codas only proved that our heroes' theory of the case was right all along.

Anyway, as near as I can tell, Justice is officially no more, and I doubt we'll see a DVD set. Just another piece of TV ephemera, floating around my memory and leaving a hole in my heart.

But enough mourning. Let's talk comedy! Let's especially talk about the return of NBC's "Must-See TV" Thursdays, which was a happy surprise after all the network's claims that it was largely abandoning scripted dramas and sitcoms for game shows and televised pervert-traps.

Scott: I'll have to leave you to talk about 30 Rock, which I skipped to my everlasting regret after early reviews seemed to favor the supremely annoying Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip. (Metacritic.com has the latter beating the former 75 to 67, but I'm guessing the results would be radically different if those same critics were surveyed today.) NBC has finally made episodes available on iTunes, so I'll catch up soon.

But any Thursday with a new episode of The Office is Must-See TV for me, even if NBC decided to surround it with sitcoms built around Pauly Shore, Carrot Top, and Jeff Foxworthy. Much has already been written about how this show has miraculously emerged from the long shadow of the BBC series to become every bit its equal. Still, it has its own special merits, mainly due to an ever-expanding cast of characters (many of them writer-actors) who are all brilliant in their own way: Stanley, whose eternal misery is alleviated only by Pretzel Day; Toby, the sad-eyed H.R. rep whose halfhearted battles with Steve Carell's Michael Scott cost him a plush robe and slippers; and new additions like Ed Helms' Andy, who provides the perfect foil to Dwight and knows all the lyrics to The Indigo Girls' "Closer To Fine."

The third season has handled some tricky issues with great care. The merging of the Stamford and Scranton branches, for one—though the BBC series deserves a hat-tip for providing a partial blueprint—and the Jim & Pam non-romance, which is a far more dangerous proposition given what has happened to sitcoms when unrequited love gets requited. Karen has proven a worthy romantic rival to Pam—smart, pretty, and up for some pranking—and the dynamic between the three of them has made the show funnier. But mostly, The Office has become like The Simpsons used to be for me, a weekly inventory of lines and moments that I find myself quoting back and forth to friends. Some random highlights from this season: "The Schrutes use every part of the goose"; Prison Mike; great Indians throughout history, from M. Night Shyamalan to Apu from The Simpsons; and of course those transcendent Michael/Dwight performances, like "Lazy Scranton" and that weird loose-limbed dance to "Ain't no party like a Scranton party, because a Scranton party don't stop."

So, any favorites for you, Noel? How much should I regret not having seen 30 Rock?


Noel: A lot. But first, can I make one minor complaint about The Office? It's starting to range a little too far into the wacky, and lose that "painfully true" quality that it used to have (and that the British version practically patented). I still treasure it, though. And yes, Prison Mike couldn't have been much funnier.

Similarly, My Name Is Earl has been getting sillier and losing a little of the heart it showed in season one. But it's still very funny too. And Scrubs is, as it always has been, very hit-and-miss, though when it hits, it's ridiculously funny. (Please don't tell our resident Zach Braff-hater, The Hater, I said that.)

So the new Must See TV Thursday isn't exactly seamless, but it's more consistent than the old one (propped up by the likes of Veronica's Closet and Suddenly Susan), and it features my favorite new show of the 2006 season, 30 Rock. Tina Fey's behind-the-scenes-of-sketch-comedy sitcom was merely amusing at first—thanks in large part to Alec Baldwin's sweetly sinister performance as an in-the-wrong-place NBC executive—but over the past couple of episodes, it's been exhibiting all the hallmarks of classic TV comedy. There are recurring jokes (The Beeper King, The Rural Juror), quirky minor characters (Kenny The Page), and a sustainable but not too stressful central conflict between the business-minded Baldwin and the comedy-minded Fey. I predict that by the end of this season, 30 Rock will be giving The Office a run for its money as the funniest show on Thursday night, and Arrested Development a battle for "best single-camera sitcom of the '00s." At least I hope that's what happens. I confess I've kind of got a critic-crush on this show and all the people involved with it.

As for the 30 Rock versus Studio 60 imbroglio, they're such vastly different shows that I can let them comfortably co-exist. Yes, I'm still watching Studio 60. Yes, Aaron Sorkin's not-as-cool-as-he-thinks-he-is preachiness is still annoying. But his show's been less topical and more showbiz-focused lately, and it's been much better for it. Not best-of-the-year better, but better.

Let's leave the networks for a little while, though, and talk cable. Any underhyped cable shows you want to stand up for?

Scott: I've talked it up in these parts before, but High Stakes Poker on Game Show Network is the best poker show around. I often wonder what motivates the average person to watch poker on TV: Are they trying to pick up pointers for their home games? Do they like the drama of hotly contested hands? Or, to paraphrase a cynical executive in Quiz Show, do they just want to watch the money? High Stakes Poker doesn't have the circus atmosphere of World Series Of Poker, but it certainly has all the other bases covered. Unlike other poker shows, HSP follows a no-limit cash game, not a tournament—and though the rules are the same, it plays as differently as checkers and chess, especially when the world's finest poker minds are going at it. All-in confrontations are rare, though when they happen, the pots can grow to hundreds of thousands of dollars in real cash. The table banter is lively and occasionally caustic, Gabe Kaplan's terrific commentary gets right inside the players' next-level thinking, and there are hands that are legendary among poker junkies like myself. (The GSN-deprived can find a few of them on YouTube, including Negreanu/Hanson (ouch) and Negreanu/Hellmuth (ha-haw!).

Just this week, NBC started a nightly show called Poker After Dark, which is a little like a cross between HSP and the poker that people are accustomed to seeing: six pros, each putting up $20,000 of their own money, and vying for a weekly winner-takes-all $120,000 prize. So each week is a mini-tournament from start to finish, and most of the hands make the broadcast, which is really unusual. Like HSP, it relies on the players themselves to provide much of the verbal entertainment, but it goes way too far in this respect; other than a brief introduction from erstwhile World Poker Tour babe Shana Hiatt, and minimal voiceover from a disembodied play-by-play announcer, there's no context to any of the action. (Who knows what they're going to do during a week when they don't have blabbermouths like Phil Hellmuth and Shawn Sheikhan in the game?) And that's ultimately what gives High Stakes Poker an edge: It works as entertainment, not just C-SPAN with hole-cams. And it also provides definitive evidence that the best players in the world are total sickos.

But I'm often lost in the netherworld of expanded basic. Anything I should be TiVo-ing?

Noel: I'm going to keep pushing you toward The Soup, E!'s roundup of each week's TV lows. VH1 has given these kinds of giggly stuff-we-hate-to-love compendiums a bad name, but The Soup handles its business right, zipping through the worst of reality shows and viral videos in a tidy half-hour, with a couple of not-too-painful sketches sprinkled throughout, and some genuinely funny commentary delivered by host Joel McHale. I don't want to go overboard in praising McHale, who as far as I know doesn't write his own lines, and for all I know may be the kind of Hollywood sleaze-in-waiting who'll turn his back on this dumpy cable show as soon as a better offer comes along. But for the 30 minutes a week (minus commercials) that he's standing in front of a green screen in some cruddy E! studio, McHale is the ideal guide through the pop crap that we tell ourselves we don't want to know about, but can't help craning our necks to see. Want to know who took a dump on the floor in Flavor Of Love? Or who Rosie bitched at on The View? Or what Britney's not wearing? McHale will tell you, with a mixture of shameful glee and genuine disgust. (My favorite McHale line of last year, in response to Katie Couric's nationwide tour to find out what people want to see her do on CBS: "I don't know… How about the news?") But the real beauty of The Soup is that while it initially seems like just another sucking-off-the-bloated-pop-teat comedy show, it has a much smarter take, and a sensibility reflected in the at-first-ridiculous/later-sublime segment intros. You'll have to see the "What Your Boyfriend Is Watching" intro a few times to get what I mean.

Speaking of recurring jokes and distinct sensibilities, the cable comedy show of the year is clearly The Colbert Report, which seemed to have a quickly exhausted single-joke premise when it first aired, but has become essential viewing as the host has expanded his "Colbert-verse." No longer just making fun of the bullshit jus'-folks certitude of political pundits, Colbert has increasingly begun mocking his actual self: the Tolkien-loving theater nerd who really does wish he could write a phonebook-thick science-fiction novel, or work in George Lucas' special-effects department, or jam with an alternative rock band. Have you ever noticed the way Colbert's eyes light up and his façade slips a little when he has an actual Nobel Prize-winner or master mathematician on the show? I don't think I've ever seen a comedian happier to have the job he has.

I'm not one of those knocking The Daily Show, which is still relevant even at its most predictable. But when I watch The Colbert Report, I never know what the hell's going to happen. And that's why I'm almost afraid to miss it.

Scott: After The Colbert Report's first week, I started worrying. There were laughs to be sure, and Colbert's Bill O'Reilly-esque gasbag character seemed well-conceived, but I just didn't see how he could sustain it for four nights a week. And how many guests, I wondered, would submit to being questioned by this Colbert character, anyway? Now that the show has found its legs—and boy, has it—I'm convinced that Colbert is capable of doing anything on any night for as long as he likes. Not only has the character expanded, with those hilarious Tek Jansen Adventures and sharp recurring segments (will that "Shout Out" graphic ever stop being funny?), but Colbert has revealed himself to be a true entertainer, capable of stealing "I Write The Songs" from under Barry Manilow's feet. The year-end finale, in which "all-yearist" Colbert (and Peter Frampton) took on The Decemberists' lead guitarist, was the perfect topper, too. (Of course Henry Kissinger would make an appearance. Who else?) And the show itself didn't even capture Colbert's finest moment of the year, which was his now-infamous appearance at the White House Correspondents' Dinner. Say what you will about Sacha Baron Cohen, but for Colbert to eviscerate the President's policies within 10 feet of the man was more courageous than anything in Borat.

My other big cable obsession are those Project Runway/Top Chef shows on Bravo, which easily outclass all other reality shows for me. Why? Two reasons. The first is that skill transcends treachery. No matter how honorable or noxious a contestant's personality, what ultimately counts are the dresses on the runway or the food on the plate. Rarely are reality shows such a meritocracy. The second reason is that artists tend to be colorful, intense characters, which naturally leads to strong bonds and equally powerful rancor when the chemistry isn't right. Yet villains like Santino from Project Runway 2 or Stephen from Top Chef 1 remain compelling for their persistent visions, no matter how ill-conceived (I'd submit Santino's jumper for Kara as the single most hideous garment in the show's history), and the wit that redeems their less-fortunate moments. I'm embarrassed to admit how often I've walked around the house mimicking Santino mimicking Tim Gunn, or repeating Stephen's boast about being "in the top-three percentile of everything I do."

The knock on Top Chef is that it's a cooking competition, and thus we viewers are deprived of that necessary sense (you know, taste) to play along with the judges. But I don't buy it. The way the food looks on the plate, the descriptions of the "flavor profiles" (love that chef lingo), the level of inventiveness in response to a given challenge—all of these things give us plenty to, um, chew on. The personalities on the current season haven't resonated with me quite as strongly as the first one, though you can't help but root for poor Michael, whose total lack of refinement was best described by Anthony Bourdain as "Flintstone-ian." There's a little more suspense in the outcome, however, since no clear Harold-like favorite has emerged from the pack, and a good four or five chefs can come out on top any given day. Heck, even Michael with a pulled wisdom tooth had his day in the sun.

So why are these shows so addictive? And more important, who do you like to take down Top Chef 2?

Noel: I'll go with Sam, who up until his anti-Marcel blow-up this week, has been Harold-like in his decency and his culinary imagination. (He does more with fruit and vegetables than any chef I've ever seen.)

I actually came to Project Runway via Top Chef, which I only watched in the first place because I was looking for a Hell's Kitchen-like buzz—though I quickly found out that Top Chef was infinitely superior to Hell's Kitchen, for all those reasons you mention. Obviously, I see now that Top Chef was only following the pattern of Project Runway, which holds the distinction of being one of the few competitive reality shows where talent matters more than cutthroat scheming. Project Runway had another great season, full of flamboyant personalities and good guys to root for. (Oh Michael, why did you fail us so?) And Top Chef has followed up its stellar inaugural offering with another great season, with the perfect TC/PR-type villain, Marcel: a guy who's not "bad" so much as arrogant and insensitive, and divorced from the spirit of camaraderie and collegiality that makes both these shows such a pleasure.

But if I'm handing out an award for the best reality series of 2006, I'd have to give it to the "race war" edition of Survivor, which featured some of the most likeable players in the show's history, and ended with a string of twists and brilliant maneuvers that left the outcome genuinely in doubt. I hadn't watched Survivor in a while before this season, and I'm glad the race hook brought me back in (even though I thought the producers abandoned it too soon). Next up: Rich vs. poor. I can't wait.

For best comedy of 2006, as much as I love The Office and 30 Rock, I've got to hand the prize to How I Met Your Mother, which showed how to instill a conventional three-camera/studio-audience sitcom with the wildness and invention of a single-camera show. The problem with a lot of sitcoms today is that they prize jokes over character development, which works in the short-term, but makes them hard to care about for long. And when I say "character development," I don't necessarily mean twisty Friends-like storylines and sentiment—though How I Met Your Mother certainly has those—but an understanding of who these people really are, how they live, how and why they interrelate, and how to squeeze a joke out of the way they behave as much as the witty things they say. The How I Met Your Mother writers really got into a groove toward the end of the show's first year, and on into the second so far, and now they're comfortable enough with the characters to build whole lines of comedy out of, say, Barney being sick and still trying to act suave, or Marshall and Lily being stuck in a bathroom together and discovering that their intimacy only extends so far. But this show tops the list for one reason and one reason only: "Slap Bet," the funniest half-hour of TV I saw all year, from the introduction of the "slap-bet commissioner" to the final "Let's Go To The Mall" music video. Better than porn… (wait for it) …ography. ("Yeah, we didn't really need to wait for that.")

Finally, my favorite drama of '06 is another show finding its purpose: The Shield. Always a top-flight, complex policier, The Shield kicked into a higher gear this year by gathering up nearly every dangling subplot of the first four seasons and putting them all on the table when Forest Whitaker appeared as an internal-affairs investigator. Abandoning all pretense of case-a-week storytelling and making the serial story paramount, Shield creator Shawn Ryan gave the show an almost sickening pull from week to week, as circumstances worsened for our heroes (who aren't all that heroic, as eternally conflicted fans well know). Then a cruel, cut-the-Gordian-knot logic emerged in the brilliant, unsettling final episode. Originally, the rest of the story was going to unfold this spring, but this season was so well-received that The Shield has been renewed for 2008 as well. Frankly, that worries me. It was the threat of finality that made the show really start moving. I hope the momentum doesn't stall too much when the story continues in March.

So that's a look at what I watched compulsively in '06. Of course, I don't have HBO, so I missed Deadwood and… what's that other show called again? The one people seem to think is the best ever?

Scott: First off, I'm with you all the way on The Shield, but haven't yet caught up with the '06 Forest Whitaker season, which I trust is as riveting as you say it is. But you're right in guessing that HBO's The Wire, the show everyone thinks is the best ever, did in fact live up to that impossibly lofty billing in its fourth and perhaps strongest season. The show's universe has been expanding steadily from the first season, building into a complete and pitiless (though nonetheless empathetic and heartbreaking) portrait of how a city's institutions affect its people. And none were as cruelly affected as the four middle-school chums introduced this year, whose fates are determined by the streets and the system more than any act of will. In this season especially, the show reveals the lie of the less fortunate somehow pulling themselves up "by the bootstraps"; more often than not, good intentions and nobility are rewarded with further setbacks and hardships, which is why those determined to do good work (like Freamon, the quiet soul of Major Crimes) are viewed as almost comically quixotic. I could go on and on about The Wire—and did a few months ago in a blog post—but suffice to say, there's a reason why many otherwise cool-headed TV critics bust out the superlatives when talking about this show. There's just nothing like it.

Here's to another great year ahead. If 2007 is any better than 2006, I'll need some help getting off the couch.