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The Best of 2008, 1: Television and Reading

December 30th, 2008 | Jonathan Gray

Inspired by Mike Newman’s fantastic and highly recommend Faves, 2008 list, and as a pale imitation, here are some media highlights from 2008, in installments.

First, though, a word on categorization – if I saw it in 2008, it’s on this list, even if it came out earlier; and if I saw it on the Internet, it’s web video not television.

Television

10. Chuck. The show is infinitely silly, but that’s the point. Like Pushing Daisies, it kept me sane in hard times. Adam Baldwin, Awesome, Lester – fun stuff.

9. Food Network in HD. I knew when I got my HDTV that I’d love travel shows all the more, and nature shows. But I didn’t count on how much food porn I could stomach on a daily basis, and how that threshold would increase with HD.

8. Obama’s DNC Speech. Quickly forgotten because of the rise of Palin, it was excellent and worthy of greater remembrance. It began with meat and potatoes, then rose to his characteristic rhetorical heights at the end. I watched it in Canada and felt hopeful that with someone like this as President, I wouldn’t need to flee to Canada.

7. The Daily Show’s interview of the sitting mayor of Wasilla. The interview was strong satire, easily proving how woefully unprepared a Wasilla mayor would be for the vice presidency, let alone the presidency. But above and beyond the content was the fact that TDS scooped the mainstream news. This was a moment that proves why America needs TDS and Colbert – since the press is largely lazy, flabby, and inept. Why did we need a comedy show to tell us what the mayor of Wasilla or a community organizer actually does? For all those who worry about an America that gets its news from TDS and Colbert, look no further than this incident for evidence of why such worry is displaced when the press can hardly tie its shoelaces on a good day.

6. Stephen Colbert’s election coverage. I like Colbert, but am much more of a Stewart man. That said, Colbert soared in the election, with deep, cutting, Juvenalian satire at its best. On many a night, he really showed how satire is meant to work. I especially loved his interview of the actual Socialist Presidential Candidate in a week when the Republicans had spuriously decided that Obama was a Marxist. For an entertainer whose act is occasionally mistaken as the real thing, his bile was palpable these last few months, and I love me some good satire.

5. Man vs. Wild. I discovered this show late this year, and fell in love. Bear Grylls is hilarious, an amusing paragon of the British, “oh well, let’s give it a go, lads” attitude, and the show does a lovely job of balancing cringe-TV, travel TV, educational TV, and comedy.

4. Pushing Daisies. I don’t know if I could take more than two episodes back to back, but this show is so delightful, so refreshing, and so fun, all things that I really needed this semester. It was a balm, and ABC’s cancellation of it is a crying shame. One of my fellow Extratextuals ain’t a fan of whimsy, but when it’s done right, I sure am.

3. Lost’s 4th Season. This was a great season for the show. After “tapdancing” for the last two seasons, this one really got down to business. Half of what they’re doing is completely stupid in the abstract, but most of it is really working in practice. And I like shows like Lost or The Wire where I love enough of what’s going on that I can have long discussions about what’s not working without losing my love of the show.

2. Obama’s Victory. Jesse Jackson’s tears were a poignant reminder of the historical resonance of the moment. And the press were, understandably, quick to tout the first African American president angle too. But even without the older history, this was an important victory. When the McCain/Palin strategy devolved to the worst form of fear-mongering that has been the hallmark of Bush’s scourge of a presidency, surely I wasn’t alone in feeling that voters were determining the very soul of the nation, and the tenor of public discourse for years to come. Obama will no doubt disappoint me (which is why it’s #2, btw), but that night offered at least the hopes of an antidote to an eight year-old sickness. Hearing my neighborhood erupt as Pennsylvania, Ohio, and eventually the nation were called, too, made it all the more magical. Serial television comes no better than this year’s election campaign, and what a great ending!

1. The Wire’s penultimate episode, “Late Editions.” Season 5 wasn’t as great as it could’ve been, but this episode was the best hour I’ve spent in front of a television. Ever. Granted, it had to work to get me to this point. So, for instance, I’m sure Bubbles’ speech, Marlo’s monologue, or Dukie and Michael’s exchange wouldn’t mean much to non-Wire fans, but for those of us who were there for the whole ride, all three were remarkable, and devastating. As was Snoop’s last scene. The final episode wasn’t anything special, but this episode was pure beauty, television writing and acting at its best.
Honorable Mention – Hole in the Wall. This show must have been made for very drunk and/or very high people, since it’s completely whacked. But how can one not laugh at a show that announces to a full arena audience, “It’s time to face the hole!”?

Reading

In terms of leisure reading, I don’t tend to read many books anymore, odd since I love lit. For academic stuff, 2008 was mostly a year for writing, without as much reading outside my duties as co-editor of Popular Communication, or as reviewer for various presses and journals. So I apologize for the lack of books. Also, I won’t count academic articles, only books and websites.

10. Mike Newman’s Faves 2008. The list to end all lists. Love it. Thanks Mike.

9. Metacritic.com. A review aggregator, for movies, film, and games. Very helpful.

8. Andrew Sullivan. Sullivan’s an odd creature politically, but that’s why I like reading him. DailyKos and HuffPo can only go so far before one wants to rattle the cage. Sullivan makes me miss British Tories – people whose politics are quite opposed to mine, yet who I can have a discussion with that doesn’t begin and end with the note that I’m going to Hell and am enabling the terrorists with my beliefs.

7. Better Living Through Reality TV, by Laurie Ouellette and James Hay. Excellent analysis of reality television as a tool of neoliberal governance. I hate the word “neoliberal” (because nobody outside academia gets it, and so I question its utility), and thus for Ouellette and Hay to make me override my dislike of the word for the duration of the book is testament to how it is composed.

6. The Chutry Experiment. Chuck Tryon’s blog is great. I’m a waffler, as you’ve no doubt seen if you read this blog. So my posts are long. But I really like how Chuck’s stubs point me towards all sorts of things. And when he does extend a post, the analysis is reliably strong.

5. Heartland TV, by Vicky Johnson. This book is really good, mixing television history, textual analysis, policy discussion, and good, revelatory cultural analysis. It captures brilliantly the odd paradox whereby American transform the “Heartland” into the site of authentic, warm, (white), honest American virtue, while also making it a backward hinterland.

4. Great Lies to Tell Small Kids, by Andy Riley. Riley’s Bunny Suicide books are hilarious, and so too are these. Well worth the read, especially if you have friends with kids, and you want to mess with them.

3. Ethan Thompson’s What Me, Subversive? Television and Parody in Postwar America. Okay, so I’ve only seen the manuscript, and it’s early days yet, which means it may not be out till late 2009 or possibly 2010, and it may be even better when it’s out, but let me be the first to hype the thing. It’s very easy to fall into the trap of thinking that South Park, Jon Stewart, and Dave Chappelle were the first to find inappropriate, edgy, smart humor a home on American television, but Ethan’s historical look at subversive comedy in postwar America shows the lineage with great skill. When released, it will be a major work of comedy studies, and of television history. Keep your eyes open for it.

2. Facebook status updates. I know what 200+ nice people are doing with ease. How cool is that?

1. FiveThirtyEight.com. Nate Silver probably had as much of my time as did my wife between August and November, as I checked his stats and analyses about twenty times a day. Addiction doesn’t come close to characterizing my relationship to this site. In Winnicottian terms, it was a transitional object to beat all transitional objects.

Back later with more …

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  1. December 30th, 2008 at 21:03 | #1

    Thanks for the nice words about the blog. I’m hoping to devote more energy to longer entries this year–sometimes we can benefit from a little more waffling.

  2. February 18th, 2009 at 08:22 | #2

    I found your blog on google and read a few of your other posts. I just added you to my Google News Reader. Keep up the good work. Look forward to reading more from you in the future.

  1. January 3rd, 2009 at 11:52 | #1