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TV’s Top Ten of 2009

Television’s outstanding moments, programs, and performers of the year.

by
Jim Kearney

Bio

December 30, 2009 - 12:00 am
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6. Pundit of the Year for 2009

Charles Krauthammer (Special Report with Bret Baier, Fox News)

Recognized with a cover piece at National Review, the brilliant political analyst and unlikeliest of television stars has become a central figure in our national dialogue.

Krauthammer’s weekday appearances on television’s top daily political news program compress his big ideas into cogent quips and incisive analysis, delivered with sly but gentlemanly gravitas.

7. Prime Time Star of the Year

Julie Bowen, Modern Family (ABC)

Every decade has its defining television mom: June Cleaver, Claire Huxtable, Jill Taylor, Debra Barone.

Finding the female lead in a family series is no easy task. Beautiful actresses with comedy chops who are identifiable to a mass audience are difficult to find. Best practices based on hard experience also advise against employing psychopaths. The stakes are high, many audition, few are cast, and even fewer wind up anchoring hits. This year a new star appeared: Julie Bowen, Modern Family’s Claire Dunphy.

Claire has a husband who wants desperately to be a hip dad, three quirky kids, a grumpy dad (Ed O’Neill, the actor formerly known as Al Bundy ), a young and sexy Colombian stepmother, a stout but romantically inclined young teen stepbrother who “wears cologne and dresses like a count,” and a neurotic gay brother with a fabulously funny man in his life. Try being hilarious in a motherly way in the middle of all that! Julie Bowen pulls it off smoothly.

Prior to Modern Family, you may recall Ms. Bowen from Boston Legal, where she was occasionally given a scene between writer David E. Kelley’s polemical left-wing rants on policy, law, and morality. Her role here is more central, and the writers behind her have a gracefully light touch, so this smart actress is positioned to be the defining TV mom of the decade ahead.

8. Outstanding Television Documentary

WWII Behind Closed Doors: Stalin, the Nazis and the West (PBS)

This well-researched and visually powerful three-part documentary is a forceful denunciation of Stalin. Now available on DVD, the documentary effectively uses recreated scenes with Russian actors, enhancing its drama. And that’s no typo — it actually aired on PBS.

9. Emerging Talent of the Year

Monica Crowley, The McLaughlin Group (syndicated) and Fox News

Impeccably prepared, Crowley knows how to get the maximum impact from the fewest words. Politicians (and lip-glossed pundits who wish to be taken seriously) should study Ms. Crowley’s work, which shows that she understands not just the issues, but also the language of television. You’ve heard Bill O’Reilly command his home correspondents: “Be pithy!” I’m sure that instruction goes double to his on-air guests. No one does brevity better than Monica Crowley.

10. Most Outstanding Television Program of 2009

Season three of Mad Men (AMC)

Matthew Weiner’s masterpiece Mad Men gave us several memorable episodes in 2009, notably the final two. This year the Kennedy assassination jolted all the characters in Episode 12, and set up a powerful and unpredicatable season finale which will change the program’s direction for next year.

John Meroney’s fine Wall Street Journal article, “Hollywood Discovers a Real Businessman,” noted how showrunner Matt Weiner integrated Conrad Hilton’s persona and conservative beliefs into the plot this season with integrity and dramatic purpose.

Unlike ad man Don Draper (Jon Hamm), the Conrad Hilton we meet has honestly integrated his humble origins into a self-made man’s identity. Draper is a work in progress. The brilliant season finale triggered by a message from Hilton tests Draper’s impulse for independence and invigorates his business life. Their journey over the season is built on a joint recognition of how the American Dream is available to all willing to make the effort. Draper also learns the value of a colleague who feels the tie between self-esteem and consumption. Leave it to this once poor ad man to remind us how consumers benefit when free markets flourish.

Mad Men is television’s most impressive business drama ever. Unlike the megahit Dallas, which depicted the oil industry in broad strokes, Mad Men gets into the details of what makes advertising such a fascinating arena. The sexual infidelities (often with serious consequences) rivet your attention, but the pitches for new client business are an equally compelling seduction.

As a famously accurate period piece, Mad Men is free from the intrusions of 21st century music, manners, and verbal shortcuts. Its portrayal of male-female relationships, race relations, smoking and drinking is observant, but never loaded with obtrusive lessons. You can tell that Matthew Weiner doesn’t think much of polemics. If you haven’t seen Mad Men, you have a treat coming. Start by cashing in a gift card for the Season One DVD.

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Jim Kearney, a television critic for PJ Media, teaches Mass Media and Television Programming at Loyola Marymount University. A former TV critic for KPCC-FM and The Hollywood Reporter, he has also worked as a TV executive and consultant. He is on the web at TVCriticism.com.
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