You've got to laugh to keep from crying, and in 2009, as bad news streamed constantly on the cable news channels, I valued sitcoms more than ever.
Thank God there were comedies worthy of our time. Although none of the following sitcoms ended up on my Top 10 list, they deserve a shoutout for lightening a tough year: Bored to Death, The Middle, 30 Rock, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Glee, The Daily Show, Community and, as always, South Park.
Of the new shows that were wheeled out this season, Modern Family, Community and CBS's legal drama The Good Wife show signs of sticking around, and deservedly so. Once-promising newbies, like ABC's Cougar Town and Showtime's Nurse Jackie are "hits," I suppose, but in my household they were "hit it and quit it" after a few episodes. Tired premises, I suppose. Also, tired characters.
Despite the strengths in the sitcom department, dramas still, mostly, ruled—one in particular. Guess which one.
Mad Men (AMC) But of course. I mean, if you weren't watching this series every Sunday night, what the hell else were you talking about on Monday morning? Your weekend with the spouse and kids? Yawn. [Warning: Those who are waiting to catch up with this season on DVD had best skip to the next paragraph.] And speaking of boredom, detractors of the show who complain that nothing ever happens on it were proven wrong this season. Handsome advertising maverick Don Draper's secret identity was discovered by his wife, Betty, which ended their marriage and gave him a renewed sense of what-the-hell, as he bolted his old firm with a handful of renegades to form a startup. Included in that group were insecure Peggy and sexy Joan, both now asserting their equality and indispensability, in ways that probably weren't possible at the old company. All this happened against the backdrop of the Medgar Evers and John Kennedy assassinations, and those ramifications resonate through this era's defining show.
The Colbert Report (Comedy Central) As I recently watched an episode wherein Colbert donned a hoodie and rapped along with musical guest Alicia Keys—and wasn't bad at it, either—it cemented an opinion I had been forming for a long time: Stephen Colbert is our greatest living entertainer. He sings, he dances, he entertains the troops in Iraq, he finds delightful oddball news stories, he satirizes cable news blowhards and skewers bullshit politicians unmercifully, all with a smile. And he puts on the most amazing show, four nights a week.
Dexter (Showtime) I'll admit it: Back during season 3, I pretty much gave up on this series starring Raleigh boy and Ravenscroft alum Michael C. Hall as a blood spatter expert for the Miami P.D. who moonlights as a serial killer who hacks up other serial killers. By that time, the barely-getting-way-with-it implausibilities were annoying, and the miscasting of some young cutie as a tough-ass IA officer dogging Dexter's cop sister Debra (Jennifer Carpenter, who's always good) was a real shark-jumper. (She would have seemed fine as, say, an Ugly Betty cast member.) So I hung back when season 4 premiered, but thanks to instant Facebook reviews ("TV crack" and "Dang, Dexter" read two typical Dexter-related status updates) I found myself scrambling to catch up. After about three episodes, this was not a chore. Exquisitely plotted and acted, this season saw Dexter Morgan facing an adversary much like himself: a family man (John Lithgow) acting out old traumas by murdering. The much-talked-about ending was a real stunner, too.
Big Love (HBO) It was a tough year for Utah polygamist Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton). His battle with father-in-law and sect leader Roman Grant (Harry Dean Stanton) consumed too much of his time, and betrayals by wife No. 2 Nicki (Chloe Sevigny) didn't help. The surprise ending set up a new chapter in which Roman's creepy gay son, Alby (Matt Ross), will figure prominently. It begins in January, and I can't wait.
Battlestar Galactica (Sci-Fi) The final season didn't reach some of the previous heights, as writers had the unenviable task of trying to wrap a storyline in which the last members of the human race come to a peaceful accord with Cylon enemies to find a destination called Earth. Still, it remained one of the very best shows on television and the best sci-fi series of all time. So say we all.
The Office (NBC) Jim and Pam's wedding was a fall TV highlight, of course. But the real pleasure of this season's Office was Steve Carell as man-child boss Michael Scott. There are too many Emmy-caliber moments to mention in this space, but my favorite "Michael Scott" episode was the one where he had to revisit underprivileged students whose college tuition he had promised a decade earlier to pay if they graduated high school. Needless to say, he had to renege, and it was painful (and yes, very funny, in that cringe-y way) to watch. Also poignant, as he finally explained to the angry kids: "I thought I'd be a millionaire by the time I was 30." Damn it, you clueless little bastard, stop making me love you!
Modern Family (ABC) What a nice surprise—ABC came up with TV's two funniest current family sitcoms this year (the other is The Middle, which took time to win over this viewer). By "modern," the title means "mixed," and this family fits the bill. At the top of the tree, there's family patriarch Jay Pritchett (a never-better Ed O'Neill) and his hot young Colombian second wife Gloria (Sofia Vergara), whose sensitive son Manny (Rico Rodriguez II ) presents a big step-fathering challenge. Jay's grown daughter Claire (Julie Bowen) is married to the hapless Phil (Ty Burrell), who tries to play the "cool dad" to their three kids. Claire's brother Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) is gay, and his partner Cameron (Eric Stonestreet) is a big ol' loud-and-proud teddy bear who likes to dress up their adopted Vietnamese baby daughter, Lily, as his favorite divas. Mitchell and Cameron are the best. My favorite sitcom moment of 2009 occurred when Cameron, in full clown makeup and costume, threatened to beat up a bully at a gas station if he didn't apologize to "my boyfriend." Stand up and cheer!
The Rachel Maddow Show (MSNBC) As I watched blowhard MSNBC host Dylan Ratigan make a rude ass of himself last week while shouting at guest Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) about the compromised health care bill, I appreciated Rachel Maddow even more. Sure, Ratigan was right: The insurance lobby won. But if I wanted to watch Bill O'Reilly tactics, I'd watch Bill O'Reilly. In an age where TV talking heads are vying with politicians to see who gets to be this week's angry populist hero, Maddow is a real hero. She doesn't shout, doesn't talk over guests, and she doesn't ask long questions so she can answer them herself. She investigates, reports and very calmly and politely takes down scoundrels, often to their faces. By doing so, she creates more than her share of eternal YouTube moments, such as when she sat across the table from Tea Party propagandist Tim Phillips and called him a "parasite" after proving that he is. Then she thanked him for appearing on her show. Brilliant.
Breaking Bad (AMC) Bryan Cranston's two-time Emmy-winning portrayal of cancer patient, family man and meth producer Walt White continued to earn rave reviews. The story was as nail-biting as it was morally instructive, by the tragic chain of events set off by White's attempt to do the right thing for his family and his young meth-cooking partner Jesse (Aaron Paul). Breaking Bad is darkly funny, violent, timely and often too scarily real.
Men of a Certain Age (TNT) The "certain age" is late 40s in this new comedy-drama, and the three men are longtime buddies going back to college days, played by Ray Romano, Andre Braugher and Scott Bakula. Braugher, best known for his work on Homicide: Life on the Street, has fattened up—man-boobs and all—to play a diabetic husband and father in a car sales job he hates. Bakula plays a bachelor actor who's unable to connect with women his age (a role custom-made for Bakula). The revelation here is Romano, who also co-created the show. He plays Joe, a gambling addict, mild OCD sufferer and party store owner who's separated from his wife and struggling to stay connected to his kids. These are all well-drawn characters, and maybe that shouldn't be a surprise. Romano, after all, gave us Everybody Loves Raymond, one of the best family sitcoms ever. He achieves his most recent success for the same reason. He really gets people.