Mr. TV: Best, Worst of ’08

Let’s be honest, 2008 will not be remembered as one of the better years of television. If anything, there will be an asterisk in the TV history books that reads: “Year of the three-month writers strike.” Needless to say, no one benefited by the walkout—and no one will again if the Screen Actors Guild makes the same mistake next year. Don’t these unions (or studios, on the other side) ever learn?

But since there is a lot to be negative about, let me start with the biggest winners of 2008. By far, that would be NBC’s Saturday Night Live, care of its spot-on political parodies, and the star that ignited the show to its best ratings in 14 years, Tina Fey. Three more Emmy wins for Fey’s 30 Rock, plus her uncanny resemblance to vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin made her a double threat on TV. But will viewers expecting Fey to end every sentence with “you betcha” be disappointed now that she has put the Palin impersonation to rest, at least until 2012?

SNL may be the toast of late night, but two shows in prime time that deserve to be touted are CBS Tuesday dramas NCIS and The Mentalist. While they may not be magnets for young viewers, NCIS is now the third-most-watched program in prime time and lead-out The Mentalist, the perfect counterpart, is the highest rated new series of the year. Also building momentum on CBS is Monday anchor The Big Bang Theory, which has made it cool to be a nerd, and Friday staple Ghost Whisperer, which continues to deliver on a night marred by decreasing HUT levels.  

Elsewhere, ABC’s still watercooler-worthy Lost deserves accolades for switching from flashbacks to flash-forwards of the “Oceanic Six.” The network’s morning coffee-klatsch, The View, continues to thrive minus Rosie O’Donnell, who recently bombed as host of variety special/backdoor pilot Rosie Live on NBC. Ed Sullivan she is not. And grande dame Glenn Close may be 0 for 5 in her bid for an Oscar, but Emmy No. 2 came calling last fall, this time for Lead Actress in a Dramatic Series for Damages on FX. I also think two successful ongoing hosting gigs for Tom Bergeron (Dancing With the Stars and America’s Funniest Home Videos) make him one of the most-watched personalities on television.

But, as always, the year was marred by plenty of mediocrity. Had there not been the aforementioned writers strike last spring, viewers may not have lost interest in the once-promising Pushing Daisies and Dirty Sexy Money on ABC. And we might have had better options to choose from this fall than freshman clinkers like ABC’s Opportunity Knocks, CBS’ The Ex List, NBC’s My Own Worst Enemy, Fox’s Do Not Disturb and that deadly trio Media Rights Capital leased out on Sunday on The CW—In Harm’s Way, Valentine and Easy Money.  As much as The CW is touting its growth among young females, this is a network that is now filling Sunday with repeats of Jericho and a B-level movie. Other than Monday’s combination of Gossip Girl and One Tree Hill, there are potholes all over The CW’s schedule.

Fading NBC, meanwhile, is now home to what I think is the weakest prime-time schedule in the history of the network. There is not a single breakout hit (sitcoms The Office and 30 Rock are only core favorites), and viewers have not embraced any of its new series, full-season-renewed Kath & Kim included. The aging Law & Order franchise continues to erode, and the one show that recently held promise, Heroes, is sinking faster than the Titanic. Once the home of “Must see TV,” it could literally take NBC years to rebound from these setbacks.