Television is almost certainly in the midst of it’s Golden Age. It was easy, in the mid 90’s, even after the turn of the millennium, to look back at The Honeymooners and I Love Lucy with fondness; maybe TV’s infancy had really been it’s brightest moment. But we’re quite possibly staring into the sun. Television is quite simply kicking ass right now. Though 2010’s batch of new shows was a little lackluster, we did get at least a handful of brand new shows to savor (plus the introduction of two of network’s finest comedies to basic cable) as we continue to witness TV become the medium du jour–not just a mind-melting box.

1. Tremé (HBO)
From the creator of The Wire and one of the show’s consulting producers, comes Tremé. Like The Wire, Tremé concerns itself with a community, but instead of investigating and mapping the way an entire community, the city of Baltimore, is part of or complicit in degradation of a population in the community or beyond, perhaps Baltimore’s destruction. Tremé concernes itself with rebuilding a community, New Orleans, after the fallout of Hurricane Katrina. Also like The Wire, Tremé is not as simple as anyone’s distillation. Tremé is alive. The music,

2. Louie (F/X)
Louis C.K. already had one ill-fated outing on TV–his HBO show, Lucky Louie, failed to connect with audiences and critics, but this time around, C.K. has found a successful formula. The gritty, low-budget show follows a character who amplifies most of C.K.’s worst qualities as he balances his recent divorce, two young daughters, and his comedy career. Comparisons to Seinfeld are apt, if not a bit lazy, since the comedian spends a portion of each show in front of a brick wall performing material which usually ties into the theme or action of the episode. However, even though there are flights of farcical fancy (a helicopter rescues one of his dates from humiliation in the first episode), because C.K. balances real problems–raising a family, dealing with divorce, and the absurd, there’s more of a connection with the character but his streak of surrealism keeps viewers on their toes and also means the heaver or headier moments don’t become too pummeling.

3. Archer (F/X)
The secret agent spoof was already an old idea when Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery hit theaters in 1997, but it hasn’t been done so well in a long while, if ever. Archer follows a secret agent named Archer Sterling who’s job in his mom’s spy agency has left him as one of the most effective spies in the world and one of the world’s biggest spoiled brats. Archer has all the poise and talent of a Bond or a Borne, but he also has all the pop culture knowledge and snotty attitude of an [adult swim] hero. At the helm of this animated spy show is the amazing voice actor H. Jon Benjamin. Benjamin’s bizarre delivery has been an asset to many shows (Home Movies and Lucy: The Daughter of the Devil utilized his talents best and most regularly), and is absolutely indispensable here, despite the amazing supporting cast–including half of the Arrested Development roster. The show starts its second season on January 27th; there’s time to get caught up and follow this outrageous comedy.

4. The Walking Dead (AMC)
Zombies seem a bit over-done lately–so do a lot of other monster movie staples too, for that matter, but The Walking Dead isn’t so much about zombies as it is about how human beings function under extreme duress. The first two episodes of the initial seven episode run concentrated on the survival and some of the rules which are always doled out in monster narratives, but once the show’s hero, Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), finds himself amongst a group of survivors, human drama takes center stage. The way different individuals weigh decisions and measure the importance of their own lives or the lives of others; zombies become the instigator for a human experiment, rather than the focal point. Strong performances bolster amazingly well paced television. The pacing of The Walking Dead is probably it’s strongest asset. When you have a show trading in so many clichés or archetypes (zombies, survival, dystopic worlds, marital difficulties, racist v. black guy, etc) how you present them and how they unfold is almost more important than how believably the performances are delivered.

5. Conan (TBS)
While Conan O’Brien hosting a late night talk show hasn’t been a new idea since the beginning of the first term of the Clinton Presidency, O’Brien’s move to basic cable after the brew-ha-ha over The Tonight Show on NBC, has given a slightly new feel to a familiar scene. His new show, Conan, is without long-time bandleader, Max Weinberg, and the awkward charisma he had, but there are some other changes that, while small, add up to a different feel for the lanky red head’s capers. O’Brien and side-kick, Andy Richter get a few more curse words, a new network punching bag (Tyler Perry, Ted Turner and TBS are all viable hands for biting), my new favorite bit, episode titles in the vein of radio serials (e.g. “Dead Men don’t Wear Spanx,” “A Jeff Bridges too Far”), but the manic tenacity O’Brien has to prove that his talent was mistreated at NBC (something that would have added a charge to the show no matter which network carried the show). The show’s deliciously absurd Christmas decorations were an affront to the classy restraint O’Brien had displayed in his role hosting Late Night and The Tonight Show. Plus, O’Brien no longer has to carry the torch of the legends before him, he gets to be a part of a new tradition (potentially).

6. Boardwalk Empire (HBO)/ 7. Rubicon (AMC)
The biggest difference between the prohibition era drama, Boardwalk Empire and the contemporary espianage thriller, Rubicon might possibly be their networks. If a more daring network, one like HBO which seems to rely as much, if not more on DVD sales than subscriptions, Rubicon, and it’s meager fan-base may have a second season. A few things both shows have in common: both are genre exercises, both hope to delve deeper into their respective genres, both shows have/had a scope too big for their respective britches, however, both seem(ed) to have intentions of tightening their focuses and “accomplish” something.

Honorable Mentions

Running Wilde (Fox)
In a move that surprised no one, and that’s becoming old hat to show creator Mitchell Hurwitz (Arrested Development), Running Wilde has been pulled from it’s Tuesday night slot with no word on when or whether the remaining episodes will air. That is a crying shame. While Running Wilde lacked a some of the manic energy of Hurwitz’s previous embattled show, it held so much promise. And unlike a lot of sit-coms out there with promising concepts and creative teams, Wilde was at least offering minor, pleasant returns on your investment. The show, almost completely stolen by Will Arnett, was (I’m already referring to it in the past tense…sigh) a slow burner. Like AD and many of the finest network sitcoms out there (30 Rock and Community) it walked a fine line between the classic wholly contained episode and a serialized story (i.e. a single episode could be appreciated on it’s own, but the quality is only heightened if you’ve been keeping up). It’s sad that there is so little patience left in network television.

Children’s Hospital ([adult swim]/Cartoon Network)
The shows on the [adult swim] roster tend to lack a cohesive center, relying on surprise, shock, and the abstract for laughs. The problem that many shows, Children’s Hospital included, can run into, is that this gag gets tired. When Children’s Hospital is commenting on television tropes and poking fun at convention, it’s a success, however, when it stretches out for left-field laughs, it tends to feel forced or too eager.

Benson Interruption (Comedy Central)
A fantastic concept either hobbled by poor execution or bizarre demands from Comedy Central. For Benson Interruption, comedian Doug Benson invites three fellow joke slingers on, each performs a set, all the while, Benson interjects with his own perspectives, ideas, or questions for the comic. Comics riffing is wonderful to watch, especially if they’re both or all game, however, what’s gone awry, thusfar, on the show is that there is only 21-22 minutes to showcase three comics being interrupted. Cutting down already fractured and more free-flowing material is difficult and the show has been filled with awkward transitions which appear to be due to editing not the format. Add to this a tweet-off, in which the comics pick a few Twitter highlights to share with the audience. This eats up precious minutes of the show’s run time. This all that more egregious because we can keep up with their tweets on our own time, and we could be blessed (especially those of us outside the LA area) with this cool comedic experiment. Here’s hoping the show gets an uncut DVD release soon.

Futurama (Comedy Central)
This truly is an honorable mention. Little has changed, unlike some of the “monumental” moves which have occurred with Conan’s new show. The biggest thing, as I understand it, is that the show has less money so guest stars are, more or less, a thing of the past (ha, get it? Past!). Regardless, it’s on a new station, one which relies on smaller, (potentially) more dedicated audience. Renewal is pretty secure on Comedy Central and, unless things turn dire, the show is likely to have a good run with a smaller focus–which proved beneficial once the writing staff got in the swing of things. By midway through the sixth season* of Futurama, we were blessed with some of the finest episodes in the show’s embattled run: “The Prisoner of Beda” and “The Late Philip J. Fry” easily rank among the series’ top 10.

*The most recent season is being sold as the 5th Volume; seasons 4 and 5 were packaged on DVD as volume 4.

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