Nominees for Best Drama Series:
Starring Kiefer Sutherland as Federal Agent Jack Bauer, this series incarnates a Red America vision of a hero: the agent who uses big guns and quick thinking to stay one step ahead of the terrorists. Jack Bauer must navigate a maze of nefarious characters, government conspiracies, and international criminals while still keeping up relationships with his family and girlfriend. Each episode covers an hour of one fast-paced and exhausting day in Jack Bauer’s life. Because the series is so convoluted and fast-paced, missing an episode or two puts the viewer out of the action. This season’s day involved a terrorist takeover of an airport, terrorists with nerve gas, Jack’s hijacking of an airplane and a helicopter, and the exposure of a presidential conspiracy. Jack Bauer may be a fantasy, but he is a larger-than-life treatment of some genuine ideals: that America is worth fighting for, that peace is attained through strength, and that the bad guys always lose in the end.
Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) has a difficult life. His marriage to Carmela (Edie Falco) is on the rocks. His bright college-coed daughter, Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler), dates a series of men unworthy of her. Son Anthony Jr. (Robert Iler) fails in his high-school studies and smokes pot. Alzheimer’s has claimed his Uncle Junior, making it increasingly difficult to care for him. Added to all this, job stress is causing him to have anxiety attacks. Tony Soprano is Everyman trapped in America’s rat race. Except, of course, he isn’t: He’s a mob boss, a murderer, and a wanted man. His professional activities cast shadows on all his fairly typical family problems. Meadow’s boyfriend winds up dead. Uncle Junior, in a fit of Alzheimer’s dementia and paranoia, shoots Tony. Even his separation from Carmela could turn into a bloody murder. The combination of the humanity of Tony’s problems and the inhumanity of his brutal work has made this drama TV magic for six seasons and winner of 17 Emmys in the past. Foul-mouthed and brutally violent, this cable show nonetheless captivates the audience as powerful acting brings the well-developed characters to life. No matter how many people Tony blows away, betrays to the FBI, or simply fails to protect, he cannot escape his basic human emotions. He loves his family, fears for his safety, and, deep down, feels aversion to the violence that surrounds him.
The West Wing
If 24 is a fantasy from Red America, The West Wing is Blue America’s wishful thinking. President Bartlet (Martin Sheen), a liberal with a strong backbone, is the president they wish they had. The show hits all the left-wing touchstones: the characterization as religious “extremists” of those who believe in intelligent design and/or the sanctity of human life; praise for any reluctance to use military force; and even warnings about the danger of nuclear power. This final season of the series focused on an election between Texas congressman Matthew Vicente Santos (Jimmy Smits) and California senator Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda) to determine who will replace President Bartlet. While the show is liberal in slant, the writing is excellent, the characters strong, and the acting effortless.
This is a different kind of medical show. Dr. House (Hugh Laurie) is a caustic and drug-addicted—but brilliant–doctor specializing in diagnosing difficult cases. In each episode, House and his team track down the rare condition that is threatening the life of a patient. Often the patient actually dies, temporarily, before being treated properly. In most shows, the crusty doctor would reveal a heart of gold. Not House: He’s as nasty as a spinal tap. House takes perverse pleasure in destroying happiness. When he proves that a seemingly loving wife has been poisoning her husband, or that illness in an apparently happy married couple can only have been caused by cheating, he reveals his knowledge with glee. He is a cynic, a man who believes that happiness can only be a result of self-deception, that everyone is hiding a secret, and that life ultimately has no meaning. However, he is also an inherent contradiction: As a doctor, he heals people because, simply, they are human and have inherent value as such. Ultimately, his desperate attempts to save each life trump his cynical view of life.
PREDICTED WIN: Grey’s Anatomy
What is it that makes the combination of hot doctors and hot-button medicine a perennial TV hit? This new ensemble series features surgical interns who find time amid crushing medical pressures to hop in and out of bed with one another. Meredith (Ellen Pompeo), the hot honey-blonde doctor, has an on-and-off affair with married-but-separated Dr. Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey). He also happens to be her boss. However, he breaks off the affair to try to fix his marriage with his hot-redhead doctor wife (Kate Walsh). The more traditional among us are rooting for his marriage to succeed. A second plot arc involves Izzy (Katherine Heigl), the hot bright-blonde doctor, who overcame a childhood on the wrong side of the tracks to become a sassy (and hot) surgical intern. In one episode, she reveals to a pregnant patient from the same trailer park (what are the odds?) that she, herself, also faced an unplanned pregnancy. She delivered the baby and allowed her to be adopted. This selfless choice did not stop her from becoming the hot doctor she is, indeed may have given her the impetus to work harder. The series also features Dr. Bailey (Chandra Wilson), an intern director who has her child during the first season and struggles with the division between work and family, even attempting to attend surgery with the newborn strapped to her chest. Somehow finding time in all this personal drama for medicine, the characters deal with highly improbable hospital situations, such as the guy who somehow ingested a live hand grenade. Although characters are quick to sleep together, the series deserves credit for exploring the suffering caused by this behavior, whether it be fallout from the affair, the bittersweet pain of placing a child for adoption, or the severance of friendships.
Nominees for Best Comedy Series:
Curb Your Enthusiasm
Seinfeld creator Larry David turns the camera on himself, starring in a realistic-style show that blends reality and fiction. Cheryl Hines costars as his loving but exasperated wife. True-life celebrities make appearances as themselves as Larry gets himself into one trivial embarrassment after another. He obsesses over a sandwich named after him, accuses an old lady of fixing a bingo game, and suspects a Korean bookie of kidnapping a dog. He worries about his reputation in the eyes of his maid as well as in the celebrity-infested bistros of Hollywood. In the same mold as Seinfeld, which made an entire episode out of the petty annoyance of waiting for a table at a crowded Chinese restaurant, Curb Your Enthusiasm highlights the fact that most of the energy of modern living is expended on trivialities. While we aspire to poetry, peacemaking, and passion, we waste mental energy wondering what the kid behind the Starbucks counter thinks of us. Curb Your Enthusiasm takes this all-too-human frailty and helps us laugh at it.
Two and a Half Men
What’s funnier than watching Charlie Sheen behave badly, ogle women, drink to excess, use people, and be consistently selfish? Why, watching him do it in the company of a pre-adolescent boy! After a nasty divorce, Alan Harper (Jon Cryer), brother to Charlie Harper (Sheen), moves himself and his son into Charlie’s house. Angus T. Jones plays Jake, Alan’s son, who gets to ogle the scantily clad bimbos his uncle brings into the house, learn new words from his uncle, and learn how to manipulate others into meeting his selfish desires in just the way his uncle does. The writing can be very funny, which makes the tawdriness of it even worse: This is a show that thinks it’s funny to have Charlie’s one-night stand come into the kitchen, dressed in only a T-shirt, while the little boy is eating his cereal, have her reach way, way up into a cabinet, showing off her shapely derriere, and have the little boy visibly check out the goods. The laugh track goes crazy, but we parents side with his mother, naggy Judith Harper, played with sneering disdain by Marin Hinkle: Send him away from that house, somewhere he can catch tadpoles and play soccer, play video games even, and be a little boy. As it stands, he’s nothing more than a lecher in training, more pitiful than funny. That this show is nominated for an Emmy–that it is on the air at all–is a sad commentary on American society.
Medicine meets whimsy in another show about residency, this time in an ER. Zach Braff plays Dr. Dorian, a daydreamy goofball doctor. Eliot (Sarah Chalke), his neurotic occasional girlfriend; Dr. Turk (Donald Faison), his best friend; and Dr. Cox (John C. McGinley), his reluctant mentor, round out his world, along with sassy nurse Carla (Judy Reyes). In the hospital halls lurk evil hospital administrator Dr. Kelso (Ken Jenkins) and a sinister figure known only as The Janitor (Neil Flynn). While still addressing the serious medical dilemmas that make medical shows so gripping, Scrubs takes time to explore the lighter side. The viewer gains access to Dr. Dorian’s daydreams, which might include a disco-style dance party, monkeys in suits, or talking appliances. The Janitor is always around the corner with some scheme to humiliate Dr. Dorian. Although the single characters treat sexual relations lightly, the show features a strong marriage between Turk and Carla. The friendship between Turk and Dorian is a refreshing take on racial relations. Turk doesn’t try to be white, Dorian doesn’t try to be black, yet they find common ground. Any character’s attempt to take himself too seriously is always thwarted by circumstances. The theme song’s words are “I’m no Superman,” which fits perfectly with the show. Life can be hard, nasty, brutish, and devastating. Doctors are supposed to be able to fix things, but are drifting out of control in their own lives. Finding ways to laugh, friends to love, and opportunities to help others brings meaning to life. This is a M*A*S*H for a new generation.
If you’ve ever worked in an office, you’ll recognize The Office. They’re all here: the kiss-up, the blowhard, the intern, the bitter black guy, the HR guy. Brought together for 40 hours (37 if you’re really counting) each week for the purpose of selling copy paper, they’re each trying to survive until retirement or until something better comes along. Regional Manager Michael (Steve Carell) careens through their world, digging out racist stereotypes in “diversity training,” making the employees sing karaoke as a “teambuilding exercise,” alluding to bonuses that never materialize, occasionally firing people while congratulating himself for keeping up morale, and generally keeping the workers from their work. A true dimwit, he always manages to incite the already seething tensions. Dwight (Rainn Wilson), his insufferable sidekick, views the paper-selling world as survival of the strongest, with himself the strongest. The only normal people in the office, salesman Jim (John Krasinski) and receptionist Pam (Jenna Fischer), try to relieve the monotony by encasing Dwight’s stapler in jello, convincing him that Thursday is Friday, or sending him to speak at the regional sales conference with a speech borrowed from Mussolini and adapted for paper sales. Their mutual desire for camaraderie develops into a romance. Shot in the style of a documentary, The Office features commentary from the characters. Making the audience squirm with discomfort and laugh with recognition, this show is for anyone who has ever convinced himself he was just passing through a job and that a brighter future lay ahead.
PREDICTED WIN: Arrested Development
The critics’ darling, Arrested Development, is the funniest show no one ever watched. It’s quick and boundlessly creative: One episode contains more funny than an entire season of some comedies. Jason Bateman plays Michael Bluth, the sanest of the Bluth family. After patriarch George Bluth Sr. (Jeffrey Tambor) is arrested and sent to prison, Michael must help his wealthy family deal with the crumbling of the family business and the sudden limits on their expense accounts. Michael’s mother, Lucille (Jessica Walter), manages to be both coldly uncaring and wildly overprotective to undeveloped son Buster (Tony Hale), unsuccessful magician son Gob (Will Arnett), and cause-addicted fashionista daughter Lindsay (Portia de Rossi). Michael’s dutiful son George Michael (Michael Cera) and Lindsay’s attention-starved daughter Maebe (Alia Shawkat) team up to rebel in any way they can, but are rarely noticed by Michael, Lindsay, or Lindsay’s husband Tobias (David Cross). Packed with unforgettable characters, ongoing gags, and brilliant guest-star roles (including Henry Winkler as incompetent attorney Barry Zuckerkorn), the show is hilarious. Whether it’s Tobias’s nearly fatal hair transplant, the stupefying dullness of George Michael’s girlfriend Ann that results in no one ever remembering her, or the persistent splotches of blue fingerprints all over the walls that are evidence of Tobias’s failed attempts to join the Blue Man Group, the comedy is fresh and clever. You won’t hear the same tired jokes on this show. It’s a show you want to rent on DVD and watch with remote in hand, so that you can pause it; you don’t want to miss anything while laughing. Arrested Development is evidence that there is still creativity in the world. Too bad it’s been canceled.
— Rebecca Cusey writes and watches prime-time TV from Washington, D.C.