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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

1. Outstanding Moment of Live Television

Rick Santelli’s shout heard ‘round the world (CNBC)

Santelli’s rant against mortgage subsidies and for a “tea party” revolt triggered a movement. CNBC regulars Larry Kudlow and Charlie Gasparino also provided insightful analysis and support for free markets in a year when American capitalism was under siege.

2. Best Series Finale

Monk series finale (USA Network)

Not only did the obsessive-compulsive detective finally track down his wife’s killer, he also found her daughter so he could live happily ever after. Monk’s series finale generously rewarded its audience with happily-ever-after endings for all the series regulars.

In a decade rife with graphic violence, tabloid scandal, young lust, and dark pessimism, shows like Monk and CBS’ #1 hit NCIS won audiences with a traditional tone and worthy themes.

3. Outstanding New Comedy Series

Modern Family (ABC) updated the domestic comedy and restored not only the genre itself, but also the fundamental decency needed in a family show.

Writer-creators Chris Lloyd (Frasier) and Steve Levitan (Just Shoot Me) have given us a series with heart, but not schmaltz. A deft mockumentary format keeps it fast-paced but not manic, and the stories are character-driven and without predictable contrivances.

This modern family of eleven adds up 5+3+3. Julie Bowen and Ty Burrell head a funny family of five at the center. Bowen’s character, Claire Dunphy, has a gay brother and a re-married father, who add two trios in the extended family orbit.

Eric Stonestreet (Cameron Tucker) and Jesse Tyler Ferguson (Mitchell Pritchett) are a very human pair of adoptive parents who both happen to be men. Stonestreet is hilarious, an Oliver Hardy to Ferguson’s Stan Laurel, and his future will be golden with awards for his work in this show. If you must, find a political subtext to this duo. I’ll just enjoy the laughs.

Got some kind of problem with gay couples? Your unease is also represented fairly by the family patriarch played by Ed O’Neill. Discomfort like this is new for a network family comedy, and Modern Family plays it well in both directions, with both laughs and feeling.

The rivalry between Claire and her gorgeous stepmother Gloria Delgado-Pritchett (Sofia Vergara) is another comedic lode which the show will mine for a long time. Gloria’s son Manny has a unique comedic persona as well, seeing himself as a romantic lead and action hero despite his diminutive stature.

Modern Family airs Wednesday at 9:00 p.m. on ABC. Episodes I most strongly recommend include “The Pilot,“”Coal Digger,” and “Fizbo.”

4. Outstanding New Dramatic Series

The #1 Ladies Detective Agency (HBO)

For several years HBO has struggled to recapture the magic of its original programming of a decade ago. In 2009 the network revisited innovation by setting aside its hip, edgy mentality for The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, based on Alexander McCall Smith’s popular mystery novels.

Never before has HBO done an episodic hour with such traditional values, including respectful language, a gentle sense of everyday justice, deference to the small business work ethic, and a refreshing absence of irony. Turns out you don’t need sex or vulgarity to create exotic, one-of-a-kind television.

The series is the first ever shot in Botswana, and it’s a lyrical, visually ambitious, and captivating yarn with an immensely likable lead character played by Jill Scott. While not exactly a globalized Murder, She Wrote, the series is a sharp turn away from the cynical, elitist posture we’ve come to expect recently from HBO.

Extraordinary visuals depict a culture where an auto mechanic is still the respected local techie, and wild animals haven’t conceded the landscape to wireless networks. An energizing African score intones the series with bounce and optimism. Unfortunately, two key partners behind the scenes have passed away, making continued production difficult. The DVD set of its remarkable first season is all that we have, for now.

5. Outstanding Long Form Original

Into the Storm (HBO)

Previously reviewed here on PJM, Into the Storm (about Winston Churchill) is a work of drama and history deserving of close study by our statesmen, their spouses, and anyone with questions about the stakes and requirements of warfare. Brendan Gleeson won an Emmy for his portrayal of Churchill. The film is a great choice on Netflix if you’re not an HBO subscriber.

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.

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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