Catching up with TV in 2007

I enjoy TV a lot. I love having something to look forward to in the week. Just knowing a new episode is coming instantly makes a day brighter. Maybe I should put more stock in actual human interaction, but TV doesn't expect anything in return. This year I caught up with quite a few shows in DVD form or on the internet. It's not as exciting as a once a week show since you can watch a new episode anytime, but it's still a good way to waste some time.

Ugly Betty was one I caught up with towards the end of its first season. It's about an"ugly" lower-middle class Betty, who takes a job at a high class fashion magazine. Almost all the characters in the office are caricatures with few redeeming qualities, but that have just enough humanity to make you care. The family and few friends Betty makes in the office actually do have redeeming qualities but have just enough caricature to make you laugh. The show exploits all cliches from the rich vs. poor, to ambitious and heartless career women, to soap opera drama (comas, transsexuals, and so many secrets).

The first season was excellently executed; its second is a wearing a little thin, but still manages to be entertaining. I would really only recommend it to people who relish in how awful most pop culture is and love it anyway. It is a conglomeration of everything that makes up American pop culture today from its dramedy format to its reflection of America's obsessions. I was very young in the early 90s, but I recall fashion being very cool and kind of respected, or at least as respected as fashion can be. Fashion has taken a turn for the camp: you can track it with each subsequent season of America's Next Top Model. Ugly Betty's camp and drama fit right into the self-awareness that the 2000s have brought to popular culture (primary blame can be placed on VH1 and its I Love the... and several "celebreality" series). The show also uses the being-different-and-maybe-a-little-fat-and-ugly- is-okay that seems to have started to crop up big time in the 90s (think My So-Called Life and The Practice's Camryn Manheim). Also, the fact that its based on a telenovela and features a cast filled with latino actors proves that it is a thoroughly modern show representing the largest minority population in America. I guess my point is the show is so early 2000s. If you love that, you'd probably enjoy this show.

I also started to watch TBS's My Boys. I remember all the advertising for the show when it first started to air, but it wasn't until a bored summer's evening that I sat down and watched an episode and thoroughly enjoyed it. I credit that to Jim Gaffigan's presence on the show and the fact that I'm a lot like the main character sometimes. This caused me to check out the series from the beginning online and get won over by the chemistry between the cast. It's not particularly original (a group of friends who hangs out in a bar and at weekly poker games), but it's just different enough to distance itself from being a Friends ripoff. This sitcom features PJ, a woman in her late 20s, who mostly hangs out with a group a guys (including her brother played by the wonderful Jim Gaffigan) and works as a sportswriter in Chicago. There are a lot of almost hook-ups with the guys and the token girlfriend who tries to make PJ more girly which could be characterized as cliche, but the execution is hilarious. I credit this to the cast's interactions.

My favorite episode centers around the fact that one of the guys, Brenden, is included on a Chicago's hottest bachelors list that skyrockets him to quasi-rock star status and turns him into a douchebag. The rest of the gang decides to have a douchebag intervention to save their friend. Honestly, I have never heard the word douchebag so many times in a half hour, but nor have I heard it used so creatively. I know I'm not doing this any justice. Trust me when I say it is hilarious. If you give this show a chance, it grows on you and you begin to love it. Sometimes My Boys gets a little schmaltzy, but there are worst things than leaving a TV show with a smile on your face.

Another sitcom also caught my attention, and I give snaps to Pajiba's Dustin Rowles for convincing me to watch it in his loving review of How I Met Your Mother. There's not much I can add to his ode, except to say, it's way funnier than Friends. I'll qualify that by saying I never did like Friends based on my prejudice against things that are "too popular" (you can include Titanic, Grey's Anatomy, and Ugg Boots into that category as well). But How I Met Your Mother is just under the radar enough that I feel okay about liking it. Like all sitcoms, it has to grow on you before you give your heart and soul over to it. Give it a shot.

This Christmas my sister converted me to the fan base of Flight of the Conchords. I had seen some of their stage show online and thought they were pretty funny, but never been exposed to their HBO series. The television show isn't everyone's cup of tea, but for anyone who enjoys drier, British-like humor and silly songs, they'll probably enjoy this show. It's about a two-man band from New Zealand trying to make it in the States. At least twice an episode we're graced with a musical numbers that usually involve a fantastic music video. A favorite of mine is "Inner City Pressure" that sound of 80s talking songs (think "Bangkok, oriental city...") and the look of very serious 80s social awareness. It's a show that grows on you, mostly through the music, but the stars, Bret and Jemaine, also start to grow on you as you notice their weird quirks within their non-acting/Jerry Seinfeld acting style. The humor is based on awkwardness and just plain absurdity. Really, I'm a child of the Weird Al era, so I love funny songs, and that's what makes the show great.

The last show I'm going to talk about is the best, not just of what I've seen this year, but possibly of all time. The West Wing is amazing. It's really that simple. Aaron Sorkin is a genius, and the actors that put his words into action do it brilliantly. In a time where politics are so cynical, Sorkin created a show that is hopeful, inspirational, and patriotic. As cheesy as it sounds, it's done in all seriousness and without triggering gag reflexes. Usually we're fed stuff that is supposed to be inspiring, but really just makes you feel manipulated (Oliver Stone's World Trade Center comes to mind). What makes this actually inspiring is that it shows very smart characters doing their business. Good intentions and patriotism are assumed in the job positions that these characters fill.

Taking place in the fast-paced world of the West Wing of the White House, the President and his senior staff take care of business. Military, moral, constitutional, and personal issues are dealt with in this show with such fluidity. It's hard to convey how good this show really is. Aside from the early season 5 transition from Sorkin to other writers, the show never fails to be engaging and almost cinematic in its weaving story lines. Crises last for several episodes while new ones crop up giving the show a sense of realism within its way-too-witty-to-be-real-repartee-filled world. It's smart and assumes the audience will catch on, making this much more than a way to waste an hour. It feels like you're learning something.

So there was my year in new shows. The West Wing is already finished airing, but I hope the writers' strike ends soon so the rest of these shows can go on because nothing is better than a good TV show.

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