HBO standout in year of fine TV dramas
By Neal Justin
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
By Neal Justin
The best gift you could have gotten this holiday season is a subscription to HBO. I say this without the slightest prod from Tony Soprano, and with a certain amount of surprise.
Network dramas have never been richer, and as I looked back on this past year, the letters HBO couldn't be ignored, thanks to series and films such as "Walkout," "Mrs. Harris," "Sopranos," "Real Time With Bill Maher," "Assume the Position With Mr. Wuhl" and the raunchfest "Lucky Louie." And these shows didn't even make my final cut.
Only two network series ended up in the top 10 choices, although I gave serious consideration to NBC's "The Office," "Tony Bennett: An American Classic" and "Heroes," and Fox's "Malcolm in the Middle." I was even tempted to include Fox's "American Idol," if only for its ability to create such hoopla out of karaoke.
In the end, though, it was HBO that dominated, starting at the very top:
1. "The Wire" (HBO): It may seem a little premature to anoint this uncompromising series as one of TV's best, but I'm willing to bet that the little green aliens of future centuries will deem this an American classic. Centering a series on big-city bureaucracy sounds about as dramatic as a congressional budget meeting on C-Span, but the series never fails to draw us into its red-tape web — this season took us into the failing Baltimore school system — thanks to impeccable casting and a refusal to paste a big smiley face over dire reality.
2. "Rescue Me" (FX): Denis Leary got his TV start spitting out raunchy stand-up routines through a cloud of cigarette smoke. All these years later, his persona as an uncuddly tough guy hasn't changed, but the depth of that character has. This past series ended on a disappointing melodramatic note — will the unconscious firefighter escape a blazing building? — but it didn't detract from another red-hot season.
3. "When the Levees Broke" (HBO): Spike Lee can be a pretentious director too ready to take the simplest street brawl and turn it into a full-blown opera. This year, thankfully, he crashed back to Earth, both in theaters ("Inside Man") and on the small screen (directing the pilot of "Shark"). His greatest, and most restrained, effort was this moving documentary about Hurricane Katrina's effect on New Orleans, pulling back on his overdramatic tendencies and letting the victims and pictures tell the story.
4. "Entourage" (HBO): The Hollywood life looks pretty glamorous on E!, but it's downright heavenly on TV's feel-good sitcom, where being rich and famous is an all-out romp, complete with all-night parties, luxury cars and Seth Green-bashing.
5. "10 Days That Unexpectedly Changed America" (History Channel): If my high school history classes had been as absorbing as this 10-part documentary, maybe I'd be working as a social crusader now rather than watching "The War at Home" for a living. Better late than never. The course, which includes chapters on the assassination of President William McKinley and the 1892 Homestead Strike, was impossible to snooze through. When was the last time you could say that about a history lesson?
6. "Nightmares & Dreamscapes" (TNT): I'm not a big Stephen King fan, but I was on the edge of my futon for these clever adaptations of his short stories, most notably "Battleground," with William Hurt attacked by military toys. Rod Serling would be proud.
7. "Dexter" (Showtime): The channel that got lost in HBO's shadow finally scores with a dramatic series of its own, with the unlikeliest of heroes: a cold-blooded serial killer. Michael C. Hall ("Six Feet Under") shone in the most compelling sequel to "Silence of the Lambs" yet.
8. "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" (NBC): OK, it's not "The West Wing." It's not even "Sports Night." But creator Aaron Sorkin is still the most creative force working in television, and there are moments in this dramedy — that remind us why network TV still matters.
9. "Grey's Anatomy" (ABC): Even the hardened TV viewer needs his junk food, and this remains an irresistible treat, loaded with sweet kisses, sour-ball affairs and a McDreamsicle cast.
10. "Hustle" (AMC): If you loved "The Sting," you can't miss this nonstop con game that will have you guessing just what happened, all the way through the closing credits.