Tom Shales | Television

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Best New Programs

Ebb was a more powerful force than flow on TV in 2008; splendid, seductive new shows were scarce if not nonexistent. Networks took risks on goofy premises and departures from the norm, but the departures were mostly quick to depart. The whole idea of a "TV series" in the old sense -- 24 weeks on, some reruns, then a return -- may be dying. NBC gave credence to that thesis at the end of the year when it announced that when Jay Leno leaves as host of "The Tonight Show" (to be replaced by Conan O'Brien as long ago agreed), he will headline a nightly prime-time comedy-and-music hour, thus removing five slots where scripted dramas might have gone. · The great shows this past year were mostly one-time specials or such spectacular events as NBC's high-def Beijing Olympics. Once again, HBO put the networks and basic cable to shame with all manner of programming, including the breakthrough series "In Treatment," a nightly session with a shrink and his patients. And yes, "Morning Joe" came on the air in 2007, but in its first full year it has blossomed as a provocative, alternate-universe newstalk show -- anchored by Joe Scarborough but energized by the brilliantly versatile co-host Mika Brzezinski (daughter of Zbigniew).

1. "John Adams," HBO.

2. "In Treatment," HBO.

3. "The Black List," HBO.

4. "Morning Joe," MSNBC.

5. "Crusoe," NBC.

Breakout Performers

The biggest splash made on cable this year was by Rachel Maddow, whose rise has been breathtakingly fast and whose nightly talk hour on MSNBC has been known to beat the long-dominant Larry King on CNN among the desirable set of 25-to-54-year-olds. Maddow is an immensely attractive figure who, unlike many TV pundits, doesn't rant, roar, shriek or freak. · Tina Fey blossomed this year by adding to her Emmy-winning comedy "30 Rock" with return appearances on "Saturday Night Live" as a remarkably rollicking comic clone of Sarah Palin, a portrayal so rich and gratifying that the audience couldn't get enough of it. · Three Australians, coincidentally or not, were among the men making the strongest impressions: Chris Lilley, a down-under Ricky Gervais, not only created and wrote the tour de force "Summer Heights High," imported by HBO, but also played the three principal characters, one of them a teenage girl who called herself Ja'mie. Meanwhile, on broadcast network TV, Simon Baker greatly elevated a routine crime drama, "The Mentalist," which premiered in the fall on CBS, with a suave but self-mocking style reminiscent of the original Bond, James Bond. Ryan Kwanten, third of the trio, stole scene after scene of "True Blood," the HBO comedy-drama about vampires of the 21st century, managing the neat trick of macho boyishness.

1. Rachel Maddow, MSNBC's "The Rachel Maddow Show."

2. Tina Fey, NBC's "Saturday Night Live," "30 Rock."

3. Chris Lilley, HBO's "Summer Heights High."

4. Simon Baker, CBS's "The Mentalist."

5. Ryan Kwanten, HBO's "True Blood."

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