The year in TV

Times’ TV critics love “Mad Men” and “Damages,” but how did “Chuck” rate?

Robert Lloyd: A TV fall to remember

Although it became a kind of journalistic reflex to dismiss the fall season, it says something about the general health of television that this is an exclusionary list -- the hard part was working out what to leave off. (Next year it may not be that hard, if the strike continues.) And so here are some things out of the many I liked on TV this year, with a slight bias toward the new.

Prince at Super Bowl XLI (CBS). "Purple Rain," in the rain.

"30 Rock" (NBC). Nothing on TV makes me laugh harder or fills me with as much admiration. Tina Fey and Co. have rapidly entered their "Revolver" phase, going where they like without fear. And by openly engaging the compromised nature of the business they're in, they've managed to transcend it.

"Mad Men" (AMC). A vision of 1960 (pictured above) as much based on the movies as the reality of the time, ripe with the dreadful thrill of a world on the verge of redefinition. Beautifully designed, with an abundance of fine performances, out of which I am arbitrarily moved to mention Robert Morse as the corporate eminence and Christina Hendricks as a smart woman stuck in an old mode.

"Damages" (FX). Glenn Close has scared me ever since she boiled that bunny, but her harsher qualities are put to good use as a manipulative litigator in this dandy legal thriller. Made with a wit, intelligence and restraint reminiscent of the best of Sidney Lumet or Alan J. Pakula.

"Life Support" (HBO). A beautifully modulated, complex performance by Queen Latifah -- tamping down her natural sparkle as a prickly, imperfect heroine -- is at the heart of Nelson George's quiet portrait of an HIV-positive life.

Donald Sutherland and Jill Clayburgh in "Dirty Sexy Money" (ABC). A solid enough series, but there is a separate pleasure in the mere fact of these performances -- eminent actors in parts that let them use what they have.

"Yo Gabba Gabba!" (Nickelodeon), "Pancake Mountain" (a Washington, D.C.-based cable access show, also available on DVD). That a life in pop means never having to quite grow up is borne out in these two super-hip, music-filled kids shows, not for kids only. Indie stars participate.

"Nimrod Nation" (Sundance). Real people in a real place -- a small town in Michigan's Upper Peninsula -- required only to be themselves, as a high school basketball team drives toward a championship.

"Pushing Daisies" (ABC). A fairy tale for grown-ups, as dark and as light, as desperate and liberating as fairy tales are meant to be.

"Chuck" (NBC). Spies and sales. It may not be TV's most ambitious hour, but I look forward to it in an almost childish way, as once I looked forward to, say, "The Wild, Wild West."

The worst

So much to choose from. But seeing an ad for a DVD of "The Bourne Ultimatum" pop up during a recent episode of "Chuck" was no fun at all, and surely a sign of worse billboarding to come, as media conglomeration is allowed to go its merry way. Your TV screen may soon look as cluttered and incoherent as the average Web page. (Cable news is already there.)

Mary McNamara: season goes where life's more interesting: in the shadows

Every happy family is the same, which is why, the Cosby clan notwithstanding, they don't get television shows. This year, the dark, the damaged and the downright odd brought the most viewing joy, reflecting, perhaps, a pre-apocalyptic foreboding nudging the nation.

"Dexter." Last year, many of us wondered what Showtime was thinking, putting a show about a serial killer for good on the air, but Michael C. Hall's performance as a sociopath struggling to control his murderous needs, a tremendous supporting cast and terrific writing made this season even better than last.

"House." While other medical shows stumbled and fell, Fox's "House" took two Vicodin and punched it up a notch. Forced to choose a new diagnostics team, Dr. Gregory House (Hugh Laurie) turned the application process, and this season, into a quasi-reality show, which was great fun.

"Life." NBC's new show about Charlie Crews, a cop sprung after 12 years in the pen for a frame job, is the best new show of the season. Balancing Zen and vengeful rage, Crews (Damian Lewis) is the most interesting quirky cop since Columbo.

Al Gore. At the Oscars, at the Emmys, on "30 Rock," the former vice president and recent Nobel Prize winner was funny, self-deprecating and relentless in his message to end global warming, single-handedly creating a new template for activism. Turns out Gore, not Bill Clinton, is the love child of politics and pop culture.

"Big Love." From the wool-and-muslin power struggles of Juniper Creek to the superstore-dominated suburbs of Salt Lake City, HBO's tale of a polygamist family remains as strangely insightful and delightful as it was last season. Who wouldn't want to be married to Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloë Sevigny and Ginnifer Goodwin?

"Weeds." What can we say? The Showtime serial about Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker), soccer mom turned drug dealer, went over the top at times, what with brother-in-law Andy (Justin Kirk) dabbling in porn and Doug (Kevin Nealon) sabotaging septic systems. But that's why the top was invented. With her porcelain-doll beauty and steely talent, Parker is impossible to resist, and the cast is the best comedic ensemble on television. Period.

"Mad Men" and "Damages." AMC and FX made big bids for original programming cred and we were the definite winners. Stylish and smart, AMC's "Mad Men" captured the New York ad world, and the country, teetering boozily on the Brylcreemed and still-girdled cusp of change in 1960; FX's "Damages" gave us Glenn Close and Ted Danson in a lethal legal thriller better than any you could find at the multiplex. Summer never looked so good.

"Project Runway." Bravo's reality competition between nascent designers wins best of the breed yet again. Emotional sturm, competitive drang and you get to watch a motley assortment of individuals spin silk purses from sows' ears. Sometimes almost literally.

"Jekyll." The BBC modern reworking of the Jekyll/Hyde tale (shown here on BBC America) was a bit choppy at times, but James Nesbitt's trick of playing the two sides of the split without so much as a messy wig hat was nothing short of miraculous.

"The War." Ken Burns' PBS documentary may not have had the same breakthrough thrill of "The Civil War," but it is still as compelling a narrative of World War II as you're going to find. Though difficult, perhaps, to watch as presented -- in seven two-hour segments -- it is a DVD set worth owning.

The worst

And, of course, there were the disappointments. I don't mean like "Cavemen," which everyone knew would be perfectly dreadful. I mean the shows that seemed so promising and then just fizzled:

"Bionic Woman." NBC had such high hopes, as did we all, for this dark, "Matrix"-y remake of the popular '70s show. But after a slam-bam pilot, it became inexplicably and quite unforgivably boring.

"Moonlight." People keep e-mailing me and telling me this CBS show is actually good, and I keep watching it, and it just isn't. A vampire detective sounds good, but bogging him down with a weird reporter love interest doesn't.

"Chuck." I hate to say it, because it is nice to have something a little sassy to watch with the kids, but again, the A-plot of a computer nerd suddenly infused with the country's top secrets is slowly being choked to death by the silly B-plot of him falling for his fellow spy. The NBC show is far from terrible, but it could be so much better. Which is somehow harder to bear.