Best of 2008

31Dec08

One of the great gifts of having a blog is the opportunity to spout off opinions as if they are truth. And the end of the year is the time for bold opinions that quantify the previous year, often in multiples of ten. I thought about offering a TV Top Ten for the year, but I realized that ten is a totally arbitrary number, and there are other media that I have opinions about, but not to the power of ten.

So, bucking the trend of doing year-end lists in mid-December, instead I offer a last-minute, non-numerical, medium-independent, highly subjective (but clearly true!) list of the Best Things of 2008, presented in alphabetical order, which makes it seem extra-arbitrary:

Amy Ryan on The Office: if anyone out there knows Amy Ryan, please forward her this message: “Amy, I understand that the Oscar nomination suggests that you’re too big for TV. But you own the small screen – you’ve already had a role in the medium’s greatest show (see below), and this year you drifted into one of the great sitcoms of the era and stole the show. You’re never going to find better writing or co-stars than on The Office, and film has scant parts for women approaching 40. Come back to Scranton, and in 2 years you’ll be poised for your own leading role on a TV series. We need more Holly Flax!”

The Bad Plus live (2007): Technically, I saw the jazz trio The Bad Plus live in Boston in November 2007, but since I caught no live music in 2008 (yes, I live in a small town and have little kids), I wanted to include one concert on my list. After the show kicking my ass, I downloaded a bunch of Bad Plus albums (I particularly recommend Prog) and kept them in heavy rotation throughout the year. So they’re definitely a key part of this year’s soundtrack.

Battlestar Galactica: we only got a half a season this year (thanks, writers strike!), and it wasn’t as consistently strong as it could be. But the climax to the mid-season finale was spectacular (no spoilers here, but it’s the type of payoff that only longterm serialized storytelling can offer), I found Gaeta’s song mesmerizing, and I particularly enjoyed the continued transformations of Tigh and Baltar.

Bryan Cranston on Breaking Bad: I always loved Malcolm in the Middle, in large part because Bryan Cranston’s ruthless ability to abandon all shame in the service of comedy. Breaking Bad, while not a great show, is a showcase for Cranston, portraying an emotional implosion in the wake of terminal cancer – and he’s finally gotten long-deserved recognition as a major actor of the small screen.

Chuck: Pure goofy fun that revels in its own silliness, and a series of wonderful guest stars to compliment its great cast (especially Adam Baldwin, of course). It may have trouble surviving the strike gap, but NBC is desperate and would be stupid to kill one of its best shows. That said, giving Jay Leno a stripped primetime slot suggests that NBC has no issues with being stupid.

The Dark Knight: I see very few movies in the theater, as I live in a small town with an inadequate, poorly programmed theater; the bulk of what I see in the theater are kids’ movies (and I luckily enjoyed this year’s offerings of Wall-E, Kung Fu Panda, and Horton Hears a Who). I believe the only grown-up movie I saw in the theater this year was Dark Knight – at least I picked a good one. I think it’s the first superhero film I’ve seen that stands apart from its genre – it’s ultimately a compelling action film with superb performances, perfect pacing, and interesting intellectual resonances, where some characters happen to wear costumes. Too bad nobody saw it…

Death Cab for Cutie, Narrow Stairs: I’m just a sucker for Ben Gibbard’s voice.

DJ Earworm: After a recommendation via Facebook, I got hooked on this mashup artist’s incredible mixes. If you’ve found mashups to be primarily novelties (as had I), check out “Together as One” or “Stairway to Bootleg Heaven” for a demonstration of how recombination can create something new and beautiful. As this article outlines, there are rival aesthetics in the world of mashups, and I’ll side with Earworm over Girl Talk anyday.

Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog: Whether it delivers on its potential to show the world a viable business model for independently-distributed television or not, it’s simply a hoot. Bonus points for the Evil League of Evil applications to take it into user-generated content – I vote for Tur-Mohel!

Dustin Pedroia, John Lester and Kevin Youkilis: As a long-time Red Sox fan, I have enough history of failure and recent redemption under my belt to be able to still enjoy a season that falls short of a Championship. This year was particularly fun, in part due to the collapse of the Yankees, but mostly because as our high-priced stars aged, got hurt, underperformed, and got shipped out of town (see ya, Manny!), this trio of home-grown players became top tier stars, with a fun intensity that helps make up for the team’s failure in the free agent market this winter.

Facebook: Yes, I’m addicted, but it highlights of the joy of loose connections – minimal effort to maintain marginal links to many people.

Fivethirtyeight.com: Like most net-savvy Obama-philes, this website was required obsessive reading for the fall, but I was particularly hooked by the ability of Nate Silver to translate his baseball statistical mojo onto the elections, suggesting one positive way that the sports/politics parallel can play out better than the typical horse race coverage of major media. Let’s see if a upstart senate campaign hires Bill James as a consultant in 2010.

Friday Night Lights: I finally got to it this year, watching seasons 1 and 2 (or at least we’re midway through the second season right now) via reruns (I love Universal HD!) and DVD. What strikes me most about the show is the dialogue – it feels the least written of any show I watch, flowing out of characters mouths with a rhythm completely unlike what normally appears on the page. Add Connie Britton as the best performance of an overwhelmed parent I’ve seen since I’ve had kids – and thus can truly appreciate the dual horrors of raising an infant and (at least in anticipation) a teenage girl.

Gail Collins: During this year’s electionmania, the New York Times editorial page was my morning reading ritual. While Rich, Krugman, and Kristof delivered quite often, nobody was more spot-on and hysterical than Collins. Every time she mentions Mitt Romney’s dog strapped to the roof of his car, it fills my heart with glee.

Grand Theft Auto IV: My summer gaming project was to play through this game, and I fully intended to write up a full blog post on its narrative and characterization innovations. Real life took hold, however, so I’m left with only this: I’ve never played a game in which the world and the people in it feel this vibrant, fleshed-out, and alive, and there are few media texts in any format that had as much of an impact on me. So don’t believe the haters who portray the GTA world as one of mindless debauchery and mayhem (although that is a choice you can make), and invest 50+ hours of your life into the tragic tale of Nico Bellic and a thwarted attempt at the American Dream.

HBO & Starz in HD: As mentioned above, I see few movies in the theater, but this year I leveraged my plasma TV & HD TiVo to watch a number of fairly recent films via premium cable. The highlights were The Prestige, The Darjeeling Limited, Knocked Up, and Children of Men, all of which looked beautiful in HD as well as being excellent films.

Joe Posnanski’s blog: One of my favorite blogs to follow is this KC sportswriter’s – in part because he’s a truly wonderful writer, and his sheer range of interests and ability to wander from subject to subject seamlessly is impressive (along with the “Posterix,” a bloggy-footnote inspired by the late great David Foster Wallace). But ultimately I’m simply awed by his prolific ability to crank out words that consistently engage – quantity and quality in remarkable amounts, whether you care about the team & sport he’s talking about or not.

Lost: This might have been the show’s best season, taking full advantage of the planned end date and the strike-shortened compression. Certainly “The Constant” was as good as TV gets, reminding us fans that at its core the show has a sincere romantic streak to ground the sci-fi mischief.

The Middleman: A summer delight that seemed horribly out-of-place on ABC Family, but a giant hot-fudge sundae of reflexivity for geeks everywhere. Keep hope alive for a season two & DVD release of the year’s best new series.

The Onion: Most satirical magazines seem to be tied to their initial eras, and then fade into irrelevence: Mad Magazine, National Lampoon, Spy Magazine. Somehow, The Onion has not only managed to maintain a consistency in humor and relevance, but to extend across media into the Onion News Network. My faves that come to mind for the year: in print and video.

Planet Money podcast: I’m a long-time This American Life fan, and few episodes can match their accounts of the mortgage crisis and September financial meltdown. The latter yielded its own spinoff into the daily podcast Planet Money, which provides Economics 101 for inquisitive people with no financial knowledge whatsoever (a demographic I fit well into). It’s my lifeline in the economic crisis, making me feel somewhat in the know.

Portal: Not a 2008 release, but I played it after finishing GTA4, and it’s a great companion piece – the pleasures of a puzzle game with a FPS interface, with the greatest narrative twist I’ve encountered in a game. If you don’t have 50+ hours to kill and want an exceptional gaming experience, Portal is it – plus a brilliant theme song to boot!

Presto: I did enjoy Wall-E quite a bit as one of my infrequent theatrical outings, but I liked this opening short even more. Pixar has never been able to capture the manic mayhem of classic WB/MGM cartoons, until this short tale of a rebellious magician’s rabbit. It showed how CGI can be used to create a tone other than hyperrealism, and hopefully starts a new trend within Pixar.

Pushing Daisies: I’ve rhapsodized and mourned about this show at length already, but for one last time: sigh. Too beautiful to live.

The Rachel Maddow Show: Keith Olbermann threw down the gauntlet in 2006, showing that there was a way to present a passionate and intelligent mode of televised political commentary from the left – and that there was a market to be served. But while Keith’s righteous indignation is a bit too singular in its tone, Rachel offers the perfect combination of snark, outrage, and intellectual sophistication, a formula previously unseen on TV and catapulting this unlikely pundit into a top tier political player.

Radiohead, In Rainbows: I loved it first for its distribution system; then, after repeated listens and a couple of downloaded live shows, I came to adore the music too.

Stephen Colbert & Jon Stewart: Both made the election bearable throughout the year, and it’s hard to identify the comedic highlights. But the two lasting moments for me were Stewart getting choked up after calling the presidency for Obama on their live special, and the heart-warming rendition of “Peace, Love & Understanding” on Colbert’s Christmas special (followed closely by Willie Nelson’s pot-delivering 4th wiseman!).

Summer Glau on Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles: As I’ve said before, this show is erratic overall; but Glau’s Cameron is a consistent marvel, as she manages to create a sense of mystery as to what’s happening in her robotic brain without expressing emotion. Plus she has killer comedic anti-timing.

30 Rock: Not the strongest year for the show, but there were some beautiful characters on the margins, like the Republican operative Cooter and the astounding Kathy Geiss, not to mention the excellent meta-show MILF Island.

The 2008 Presidential Election: The year’s best reality show, with an unlikely happy ending. Now we’ll have to see whether the sequel can meet the high expectations and high-stakes cliffhanger of this fall’s numerous crises.

True Blood: It’s still a bit rough, as a number of characters and threads are erratic. But the show has a lot of promise, and embraces its southern trashy gothic feel enough to keep me tuned in. It’s certainly not a return to the early-2000s HBO, but it’s a fun lark that’s worth watching.

TV on the Radio, Dear Science: I’d previously found this band’s name more compelling than their music, but this album is sublime – an uncategorizable original mixing prog, hip-hop, funk, and art pop that just demands to be listened to.

The Wire: Sure, season 5 was not as strong as the previous two, but this televisual masterpiece ended on its own terms. I particularly liked the season’s reflexivity on the process of storytelling itself, how many of the dangling threads came back to the show (if not resolution), and how the series managed to create something of a hopeful ending despite its harsh cynicism toward the urban condition. American television’s crowning achievement (thus far).

The World Champion Boston Celtics: My first fandom was for the Celtics, growing up in 1980s Boston with Larry, The Chief, DJ, and the rest. I grew tired of the NBA in the 1990s, shifted more toward baseball and football for my sports fix. But this Celtics team reminded me why at its best, pro basketball is unparalleled in its ability to sweep you into a rally and feel like part of the team. Plus KG is simply the most intense athlete I’ve ever seen.

You Suck at Photoshop: This web series represents a truly original storytelling format – the how-to tutorial/serial drama hybrid. The comedy sometimes skews too scatological for my tastes, but it manages to create a wonderful character portrait solely through voiceover and dramatized tutorials – plus I actually learned a lot about Photoshop!

Sadly, there are no books on this list. Clearly my media tastes and consumption patterns are skewed away from books at the moment, as my reading is primarily done on screens. And there are a number of “to do” items in my queue that I hope will make next year’s list, including Dexter, the original Life on Mars, and Generation Kill.

Happy new year, and I’m hoping we might end 2009 with the world in a much better place than it stands today.

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6 Responses to “Best of 2008”

  1. Great list, Jason. A couple of notes:

    Dexter – looking forward to your response. Have only done s1 here.

    The Wire – just finished s3. Any spoiler-free notes on s4?

    I’m looking forward to more BSG and Lost, and to Dark Knight.

    Agreeing and cheering you on with Presto, You Suck at Photoshop, In Rainbows, Portal, The Onion,

  2. No room for Mad Men, or just don’t find it to be among the best? I strongly recommend the original Life on Mars. The American adaptation has its charms, but one choice that I think was very wrong was shifting to a major city instead of staying in the provinces (Pittsburgh would have been a perfect match for Manchester, I think). The producers could have finessed the decision to set the show in NYC if they had committed to an outer borough, but what we get is pretty generic 70s New York. I found myself preferring Reaper to Chuck last season, but maybe I should reconsider. In any case, The Middleman does a lot of what Reaper tries to do, but much better.

  3. Ah, Mad Men belongs on my “need to catch up on” list. We watched the first two episodes when they debuted, and didn’t get into them, but I want to give it another go.

    Wire s4: just be prepared to have your heart broken.

  4. Great list, and I love the sports shout-outs as well! I just caught The Dark Knight, but still need to do The Wire and Terminator: SCC. I’m with you with the kids as well: I saw exactly one film in the theater this year, and it was a free screening of The Tale of Desperaux! That’s my lowest theater attendance since probably 1973.

    I just put my 2008 list up as well, as an all-star team.

  5. 5 samford

    lad to see that someone else has been journeying through my favorite show (Friday NIght Lights). Your comment about the show feeling so unwritten is spot on. Have you read much about how the scenes are shot, etc.? See this:

    http://featuresblogs.chicagotribune.com/entertainment_tv/2007/03/kyle_chandler.html

    I agree that Connie is spectacular on FNL and perhaps my favorite actor on the show (not to take anything away from Kyle, who is also superb…), but Brad Leland’s Buddy Garrity is such a beautiful character, and Zach Gilford’s Matt Saracen and Jesse Plemons’ Landry Clarke are two of the best teen characters I’ve seen.

    What sets FNL apart, though, are the nuanced and tremendously acted smaller (in particular, I’m thinking of Louanne Stephens’ Lorraine Saracen; Liz Mikel’s Corrina Williams; Blue Deckert’s Mac Macgill; Kevin Rankin’s Herc; Derek Phillips’ Billy Riggins; and Dana Wheeler-Nicholson’s Angela Colette).


  1. 1 The Chutry Experiment » Media Favorites 2008

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