OK, here are TV's 10 best

The best thing about 10-best lists is that they let us fume, fret and argue -- to ourselves, to anyone nearby or to whoever created the offending list.

With that in mind, here's the story I just sent to papers, with my picks for the 10 best shows of 2010. Fell free to commence griping, by posting a comment here or simply upsetting your neighbors:



Amid the cascade of 10-best lists,
there's an annual trend:

Critics fill their TV lists with HBO
and other cable shows. I promptly grumble and argue that many of the
best moments are still on the big broadcast networks.

So now it's time for the best of 2010.
Topping my list are … well, an HBO movie and an HBO series.

Hey, forgive me; those people do great
work. Here's my list, with notes about the shows still airing:

1) Temple Grandin, HBO. An autistic
genius, Temple Grandin struggled to exist in social settings – then
became an international leader in livestock handling. Claire Danes
portrayed her brilliantly.

2) “Boardwalk Empire,” HBO. Here is
the ultimate canvas – Atlantic City, as Prohibition begins. With
alcohol outlawed, the outlaws are getting rich. Trying to control the
profits is Nucky (Steve Buscemi), a gentle and fragile-seeming man
who has others do the killing for him. Surrounded by people who are
good, bad and in-between, he provides TV's richest character since …
well, Tony Soprano.

3) “The Big Bang Theory,” CBS.
Nothing slows this daftly wonderful comedy. Not the move to Thursdays
… or the over-the-top moments (Sheldon as computer) … or the new
characters. Wolowitz got a girlfriend, Sheldon got a
sorta-girlfriend, a great comedy just got better. (8 p.m. Thursdays)

4) “Murder on the Orient Express,”
PBS. Agatha Christie's finest story has been remade often, but this
new production was stunning. David Suchet was perfect, as usual, at
Hercule Poirot; director Philip Martin provided a rich look and a
finale that needed few words to show Poirot's deep dilemma.

5) “Doctor Who,” BBC America.
Steven Moffat had already proven himself a master of comedy (the
original “Coupling”) and fantasy (a modern “Jekyll”). Here he
combined the two perfectly. (Season finale reruns at 8 p.m. Dec. 25,
followed at 9 p.m. by a new Christmas special)

6) “Fringe,” Fox. Yes, Americans
can do fantasy, too. This series hit its peak when it created
alternate worlds – each with a different version of Walter (the
Emmy-ready John Noble), Olivia and Broyles. When the wrong Olivia
made it back to this side, the plot got thicker and better. (Some Fox
stations are rerunning the pivotal Olivia episode at 11 p.m. Dec. 25)

7) “House,” Fox. Like “Big Bang
Theory,” this show thrives amid change. The spring finale and the
fall opener tore Dr. House (Hugh Laurie, still waiting for his Emmy)
apart and finally linked him with Cuddy. A young genius (played by
Amber Tamblyn) arrived, offering a fresh moral voice. And amid it
all, the medical mysteries remained great. (8 p.m. Mondays)

8) “American Masters,” PBS. This
show picks wonderfully complex lives, then views them with depth and
detail. It's final one for this season (Glenn Gould) is “Masters”
at its best; so were the ones on Merle Haggard, Sam Cooke and John
Lennon's New York years. (Gould episode is 9 p.m. Dec. 27)

9) “The Daily Show,” Comedy
Central. In the year's final new episode, Jon Stewart raged at
Congress' failure to provide health care for the first-responders of
Sept. 11. It was powerful and involving; other moments are simply
hilarious. (11 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, plus many reruns)

10) “Masterpiece,” PBS. Like
“Masters,” this series saved one of its best episodes for the end
of the year. “Framed” is a neatly comic tale of art masterpieces
hidden near a Welsh village. It wrapped up a year in which
“Masterpiece” had one awful moment (“Lennon Naked”) and many
splendid one – “Return to Cranford,” “Emma,” “Wallander,”
“Sherlock” and the previously mentioned “Orient Express.”
(“Framed” is 9 p.m. Dec. 26)

Also: Many other shows rank right
alongside these. They include ABC's “Modern Family,” Fox's
“Glee,” AMC's “Mad Men,” DirecTV and NBC's “Friday Night
Lights,” Comedy Central's Bo Burnham debut, FX's “Justified”
and “Rescue Me,” HBO's “The Pacific” and “True Blood,”
and PBS' “Circus,” “Frontline,” “POV” and “American
Experience.” It must have been a fine year, after all.


Carrie Fisher: A busy life, well-told

If you're reading this Sunday night, you're probably sulking (properly) about the fact that "Boardwalk Empire" has ended its season. It was the season's best new show, maybe the best new-or-old show.

Don't sulk right away, though. Tonight's HBO special -- Carrie Fisher's one-woman show, "Wishful Drinking" is a delight.

And it you're reading this later, don't worry. It repeats Tuesday and two other times. Here's the story I sent to papers:


Long ago, Carrie Fisher realized her
world isn't the usual one.

“My whole life is … one long joke,”
she said. “So I'm waiting for the punch line.”

It's a joke many people have heard.
From her first days – alongside photogenic parents Eddie Fisher and
Debbie Reynolds – she's been famous. “I do feel a lot of times
like a reality show,” she said.

So she took control of her story, doing
a one-woman show. Then HBO's Sheila Nevins intervened.

“A group of us went to see Carrie
Fisher in 'Wishful Drinking,'” Nevins recalled. “We came back and
said ..., 'We want people to see this great creature.'”

The result is HBO's film of the show.
Meanwhile, Fisher, 54, has dandy stories about:

– Reynolds, with a formal style at
78. “My mother says, 'Hello, dear. This is your mother, Debbie.'”

– Fisher, a man of endless charm and
endless bad decisions. “You would love my father,” she told
reporters prior to his death (in September, at 82). “He smokes pot
…. We call him 'Puff Daddy.'”

– Her childhood, in a home with three
pools and eight pink refrigerators. That changed when her dad had a
notorious affair with Elizabeth Taylor, who then had a more-notorious
one with Richard Burton.

– Her introspective nature. “Reading
was my first drug, because everything worked out in a book.”

– The fact that she was nudged into
performing anyway. “It's like I'm being dropped in the middle of a
Moliere play, and I don't have my outfit.”

– Her sudden success in the “Star
Wars” movies, followed by a combative marriage to singer-songwriter
Paul Simon, whom she describes fondly. Then came the pill addiction,
the mental institution – and a new life as a novelist, screenwriter
and humorist.

Now the shy, internal person is talking
to large crowds. That was hard to avoid.

“I prefer writing and the sort of
solitariness of it,” Fisher said. “It took getting older to
realize that I was sort of a spectacle anyway.”

– “Wishful Drinking,” 9 p.m.
Sunday (Dec. 12), HBO

– Reruns include 11:15 p.m. Tuesday
(Dec. 14), 9:30 p.m. Thursday (Dec. 16), 11:30 a.m.Saturday (Dec. 18)


"Terriers" canceled: "Subtle charm" fails again

One of the best surprises this summer was "Huge," a show with subtlety, charm and flawed characters. It won't be back for a second season.

One of the best surprises this fall was "Terriers," with subtlety, charm and flawed characters. It won't be back next season.

Yes, there's a trend here.

Maybe the shows failed to get viewers because they lacked the usual sleek, attractive central characters. "Huge" was set at a teen fat camp; "Terriers" had Donal Logue as a weary private-eye, showing the pain of his divorce, unemploynment and alcoholism.

Or maybe they failed because they are fairly subtle, in a crowded and noisy cable world. That's one of the thoughts that emerged today, when FX chief John Landgraf talked about the "Terriers" cancellation. Here's the story I sent to papers:



This is what you'd call a mixed
weekend. “Terriers,” the cable show, got:

– Another rave. A magazine put it at
No. 3 on its list of 2010's best TV shows.

– Canceled. The FX network won't
bring it back next season.

“There's a relatively poor
correlation between excellence and commercial success,” John
Landgraf, the FX president, said Monday. FX has found both with
“Rescue Me,” “The Shield” and “Sons of Anarchy”;
“Terriers” – a private-eye drama with bits of humor – missed
commercial success by a mile.

Consider the ratings for five dramas FX
has canceled: In total viewers (during their prime showing), they
ranged from 2.46 million for “Damages” to 1.53 million for “Over
There”; “Terriers” averaged 746,000. In ages 18-49, they went
from 1.6 million for “Dirt” to 1.1 million for “Damages”
(which is moving to DirecTV); “Terriers” had 509,000.

In short, “Terriers” had only half
the audience of other canceled shows. It dropped off 47 per cent from
its movie lead-in; then ratings fell another 16 percent during the

Why? Some people have blamed the awful
title and billboard campaign, which showed a snarling dog. Landgraf
granted that the show might have done better as “Terriers, P.I.,”
but didn't blame the billboards; they were only in New York and Los
Angeles, but “Terriers” failed everywhere.

“It was a little less edgy, a little
less sexy” than other FX shows, he said. “It had a subtle charm.”

And he doesn't see a lot of subtlety,
he said, “when I look at 'Jersey Shore' and 'The Kardashians' and
'Sons of Anarchy' and 'Walking Dead,'” all commercial hits.

(Shortly after he said that, the ratings arrived for the season-finale of "Walking Dead," a well-crafted and un-subtle tale about surviving amid zombies. Its main airing drew 6 million viewers, 4.1 million of them 18-49; that's eight times as many as the typical "Terriers.")


That doesn't mean he's abandoning
subtle shows. FX is bringing back “Justified” – with its slow,
droll dialog – and is introducing the understated “Lights Out.”

Those shows, however, have unique
concepts – a modern federal agent with a cowboy persona, a retired
boxing champion considering a comeback. “Terriers” had subtlety,
obscure stars (Donal Logue and Michael Raymond-James) AND a familiar
concept. It drew many raves and few viewers.


– The finale of the 13-episode season
has its final scheduled FX showing Tuesday night at midnight
(technically, 12 a.m. Wednesday).

– Also, episodes are at


Kids' theater time: "Puss in Boots" fun

OK, enough talk about TV for a while. (Trust me, I'll be back to TV in the next blog.) Let's talk about the pleasures of children's theater -- or, at least, the good kind of children's theater.

Tonight, Riverwalk Theatre -- in Lansing, Mich. -- starts the second half of its two-week run of "Puss in Boots." Last week, I had the pleasure of seeing it through the eyes of its prime audience: Kasia, 6, was at her third annual Riverwalk show on a Thanksgiving week; she was mesmerized again and got everyone's autograph afterward. Lon, 3, was at his first full-length play.

They had a great time, but so did the five grown-ups who came with them. That's the secret of these shows.

It was 20 years ago that writer Stan Gill set the tone: A children's show should have enough silliness for kids -- complete with audience participation and a chase scene -- but it should also include enough wit to please their parents. And it should be performed by adults who are serious about their craft.

Riverwalk has done many of the Gill shows since then and has also branched out, writing its own shows in a style referred to as stangillian. That's true of "Puss in Boots": Bill Helder and Jane Zussman wrote this clever script 14 years ago; Zussman directed this one, making a few tweaks. Doug Austin wrote the music and works the keyboards for the incidental background music; he also tolerates the show's one snipe at lawyers, which is his day job.

Yes, these silly roles are filled by people with serious day jobs. Bob Murrell is a psychologist; here, he's a delight as the donkey. Evan Pinsonnault is the morning and noon news anchor for WLNS (Channel 6); he's also a superb actor-singer who flourishes as Maurice, the king's brown-nosing aide. Donna Green is a music teacher with an operatic voice; here, she's lean and lithe and cunning as Puss, the kind of cat who would also make a great political advisor.

You can catch it at 7 p.m. today, 2 and 4:30 p.m. Saturday or 2 p.m. Sunday, with tickets at 482-5700 or at www.riverwalktheatre.com. If possible, it would also be good to have a child accompany you. 


Too much country? Too much everything

I really do think Alan Jackson was telling the truth when he sang: "No such thing as too much fun."

Still, we get pretty close to it sometimes. Right now, TV almost has too much of everything.

Too many new shows? At least, too many on the same night. I'm actually sending papers four stories with Monday time factors. That's when two things debut (American Country Awards on Fox, "Big Cat Week" on Nat Geo Wild) and two return ("Sing-Off" on NBC, "Men of a Certain Age" on TNT).

Too much country? Almost. Monday's award show will be the third country show to debut in the past eight days; it follows the terrific "CMA Country Christmas" and "CMT Artists of the Year."

This one has all the biggest stars (vertically speaking) in country, including Trace Adkins (the host), Toby Keith and, of course, Jackson, who gets a career award. I'll plunk that story here, because of one time factor: Fans still have until Saturday to vote in the top category, entertainer of the year. Here's the story:



Imagine a TV world with Trace Adkins on
every show.

Consider “Survivor,” for instance:
“That'd be the shortest show in history,” he said. “I'd get a
big stick and say, 'Everybody get off my island.'”

And they would. Adkins– 6-foot-6,
sometimes topping 260 pounds – is the biggest guy in country music,
with one of the deepest voices in show business. “I smoked for 30
years and drank a lot of whiskey to get it this way,” he said.
People pay attention.

They'll have to on Monday, when he
hosts the first American Country Awards, on Fox. “I'm gonna run a
tight ship,” Adkins said. “Not gonna let people do those long,
drawn-out acceptance speech.”

Adkins isn't one for excessive
verbiage. In his book (“A Personal Stand,” 2007, Villard), he
said he and his dad got along fine and “would go weeks without
speaking, while living in the same house.”

He also doesn't like punch lines. He
describes phone conversations with the show's writers: “It's
basically gone like this: 'That's not funny; you'll have to write
something better than that.'”

First was the call in which producers
asked him to host. “I said, 'Really? Another award show?'”

Many people have asked that. “We
think country's one of the most vibrant areas of music in America,”
Peter Rice, the new Fox Networks chairman, said this summer.

Rice – whose precise British accent
offers no hint of a drawl – isn't a a country expert; Adkins is. He
grew up in Sarepta, a Louisiana town of 925 – and has done all the
country things – football, gospel music, alcoholism, serious
accidents (two in his truck, one on an oil-rig) and the time his
then-wife shot him through the heart.

He survived and, at 48, is a
non-drinker, married, with five daughters, lots of charity work and a
hosting chore. “This may be my first and last hosting gig ever; I
hosted a party at my house once.”

Adkins tends to dominate. Producer Thom
Beers, who hired him to sing the theme song for “Black Gold,”
said his own voice drops down when he's near Adkins. Blake Shelton –
who linked with Adkins for “Hillbilly Bone” – said being near
him “makes me feel like I'm still a kid and he's the grown-up.”

Adkins rumbled a laugh and said anyone
is a grown-up next to the free-spirited Shelton. “Miranda (Lambert,
his fiancee) is the grown-up in that relationship. He's like herdin'
a child around.”

He said that in his wry, country way.
It's a style that should work for him Monday.

– American Country Awards, 8-10 p.m.
Monday, Fox

– Adkins hosts; Alan Jackson gets a
career award. They perform, along with Toby Keith, Rascal Flatts,
Keith Urban, Reba McEntire, Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, Josh Turner,
Steel Magnolia, Uncle Kracker

– Voting has concluded in most
categories. For entertainer-of-the-year, however, fans can still vote
online until 11:59 p.m. PT Saturday; that's 2:59 a.m. Sunday, ET.
It's at www.theacas.com;
nominees are Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert, Lady
Antebellum and the Zac Brown Band