Tricks up their sleeve
Television can still shock, so instead of a recap of the year’s best and worst, here’s a sampling of the year’s surprises: a pair of trendlets that injected novel twists into hidebound genres, comedy and reality, and a handful of performances and moments that upended expectations.
Not the type
First, there was playing against type: actors accepting and occasionally excelling at roles that challenged their public perception. But on television this year, especially in comedy, actors moved to the next step: playing to type, through the delicate art of playing themselves, as if the holy grail of comedy writing had suddenly become “Being John Malkovich.”
Appearing as oneself isn’t the simple validation of one’s celebrity it used to be. Instead, it’s a rejoinder to the meta-narrative of one’s own fame. Sometimes it’s a knowing embrace, sometimes it’s a refusal of the terms. In either case, it’s a disruption.
“Entourage,” of course, is ground zero for this phenomenon. Though it notably has failed to make its blithe star, Adrian Grenier, as famous as the character he plays, it has long exploited the fame of others -- Jason Patric, Mandy Moore, James Cameron, Gary Busey, James Woods, Martin Scorsese -- to create a credible Hollywood universe. Short of, say, “The Larry Sanders Show,” no program has ever allowed the famous such a prominent platform to toy with public opinion of them.
This year on “Entourage,” Seth Green, actor, reprised his role as Seth Green, imbecile, continuing to try to stonewall the managing career of Eric Murphy (Kevin Connolly). For Green, playing himself as so loathsome (and so well, at that) is a trick, though it should be said it’s one that does him no favors.
During Oprah Winfrey’s stunt turn on “30 Rock,” she was clearly taking aim at herself, telling Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) about a few of her trademark (and sometimes preposterous) “favorite things”: calypso music, sweater capes, etc. But it’s hard for Oprah to be anything other than Oprah, so what was meant to be a comedic riff played as an only slightly exaggerated version of the real thing; “30 Rock” barely nudged her.
On “The Game,” Robin Givens played a publicity-hungry version of herself, marrying star quarterback Malik Wright (Hosea Chanchez) in order to improve her fading fortunes. Haughty and entitled, she was compelling, right up until she delivered a sermon on the plight of black actresses in Hollywood that might have been righteous had it not been so ham-fisted. It felt like a position paper, inspiring more ire than sympathy, except on the part of Malik, who decided to play along with her scam.
But the year’s most radical reinvention was, once again, thanks to “Entourage.” Since the conclusion of “The Sopranos,” Jamie-Lynn Sigler has remained largely off the radar. Brief appearances on “Saturday Night Live” and “How I Met Your Mother” helped raise her public profile, but it was her unlikely sexually provocative and blue-streak-cursing turn on “Entourage” that suggested something greater than Meadow Soprano. In getting romantically involved with Turtle (Jerry Ferrara), she was so blatantly dating below her station that it became a running joke on the show. But when Sigler reportedly began dating Ferrara off screen, the semi-fictional Sigler transcended fiction and cycled back into real life, taking Ferrara with her. Kudos to him. Not even Grenier has figured out how to switch back and forth between two dimensions and three.
A new age for age
For illustration of the crisis in this nation’s Social Security system, one needed look no further than reality television this year, where white hair rivaled plunging necklines and alcohol poisoning as contestant must-haves.
Most noble were Bob, the winner of “Survivor: Gabon” (and, at 57, the youngest of this bunch), and Bill, 60, on “Greatest American Dog.” Hailing from East Texas and sporting an ever-present camouflage baseball cap, Bill was notably gentle with his dog, Star, a purebred Brittany, and his awww-shucks demeanor made it seem possible to be a dog person and not be unstable, unlike his fellow contestants.
Less compelling as a father figure was Jerry, 75, from the 10th season of “Big Brother.” A former Marine, he often thrilled at shouting down his younger competitors, though at times he’d let his brute facade drop to reveal something softer within. (The realities of participating in one of these shows are different for older contestants; both Jerry’s and Bill’s wives were home with serious illnesses as they competed.)
Doing a weekly disservice to the elderly was Cloris Leachman, 82, who on “Dancing With the Stars” threatened the very idea of partner dance with her manic, often stupefyingly poor performances. Yet and still, with people like Warren Sapp treating the competition like the Super Bowl, Leachman’s grotesque outfits and emotionally violent antics were as close as prime time came this year to absurdist theater.
Unexpected reality finale nail-biter: The last episode of the uncomfortably titled “Legally Blonde The Musical: The Search for Elle Woods” made Broadway theater seem like it belonged in the ABC Sunday-afternoon sports lineup. It was well contested between the two finalists, Bailey and Autumn, beautifully shot and, for once, actually tense.
Unexpected sex symbol: The worst hair on television -- thin, greasy, molded -- belonged to Donal Logue’s Capt. Kevin Tidwell on “Life,” but the actor seemed to take that as a challenge, quick-talking his way into the affections of fellow cop, and bombshell, Dani Reese (Sarah Shahi). When she donned boy shorts, a tight T-shirt and high boots, straddled him in bed, and took a pair of scissors to his dome, it was erotic, sure, but also a little disappointing.
Unexpected goober: As if “The Wire” weren’t already dead, Tristan Wilds put the final nail in its casket with his portrayal of Dixon Wilson on “90210,” the most edgeless character on a show full of them and a missed opportunity to give this show complexity more substantial than Brenda versus Kelly 2.0.
Unexpected example of the continuing relevance of Britney Spears: “Gossip Girl” has become little more than a showcase for Ed Westwick’s wicked, lovable Chuck Bass, and what a relief that is. In a widely disseminated promo this fall, Britney’s “Womanizer” played as a greatest-Chuck-sound-bites montage whizzed by: “Twins find me.” “If you wanted to play rough, all you had to do was ask.” “I’d love to give you a ride.”