Thursday, January 11, 2007

Top TV of 2006! At last!

Apologies for the delay...


In between listening to music, working a menial job and going out and getting tore up, I like to watch a fair chunk of television. I'm quite discerning when it comes to what I watch; I try to stay away from reality tv shows, but I do have a hankering for some soaps (namely Emmerdale and Coronation Street). Most of the time, however, I am quite picky about what I watch, sticking closely to intelligent drama series, documentaries and smart comedy shows.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not a pompous, "what can I learn from watching this" type of viewer, who chooses to point my eyes at chin-stroking fare above crowdpleasers. I like a laugh and I like to be entertained, but if I can be enriched along the way, then that is the best kind of television programme.

Right, before I disappear up my own analytical anus, let me first tip my hat to some shows that didn't make the grade, but that I think deserve a mention anyway. First up, 2006's fifth season of 24 was rip-snorting, heart-pumping fun as usual. Never as clever as it thinks it is, but always thoroughly engaging, no matter how thinly they choose to sketch the villains, 24 is superior popcorn; a convoluted thrill-ride with a master sadist (Keifer Sutherland's Jack Bauer, the hardest man on telly) as its hero. A master sadist with a patriotic streak a mile wide, that is. Bauer bullies, tortures and murders his way to the heart of the matter (which normally involves some kind of terrorist plot) with blatant disregard for his own safety and the safety of his loved ones.

This season was no different, with Jack putting his life on the line by coming out of hiding, risking death at the hands of the Chinese (who think he's dead. Yeah, it's confusing), to clear his own name after he is framed for the assassination of Former President David Palmer. Along the way, he gets involved in a believeability-stretching plot to release nerve gas in LA that somehow involves current President Charles Logan (Gregory Itzin, doing his best, "I am not a crook!", spineless impersonation of Richard Nixon) and Robocop (Peter Weller playing the part of disgruntled former CTU agent, Christopher Henderson). It all ends, as it always does, with Jack saving the day, single-handedly before being ignominiously bundled onto a passing cargo ship bound for a Chinese slave labour camp. Nice one!

Lost is another brainless wonder masquerading as highbrow mystery. The real mystery of Lost is why you're still watching when the twists and turns lead you down blind alley after frustrating blind alley, never revealing more than the tiniest glimpse at the big picture. Always offering more bewildering questions than answers, it will only be a matter of time before everyone gets bored and deserts the increasingly nutso adventures of Jack, Kate, Sawyer, Locke and the fat one out of Becker for something where it seems that, y'know, even the writers know what's going on. For now though, the vexing quandaries that Lost throws up, like what's the deal with all the polar bears, how does Sawyer maintain his designer stubble when we never see him shaving, did Michael and Walt row their way to safety and why have the creators summarily killed off everyone who was on the tail end of the plane already are tasking minds all over the country. It's either this or Su-Doku.

The final show in my Stateside popcorn holy trinity is Prison Break, another show which langurously and laboriously takes its sweet time in getting to the big reveal that the title unsubtly hints at. Over the course of 22 long episodes, Michael Scofield (Wentworth Miller) gets put into prison for robbing a bank, purely under the pretence that he can get his brother, Lincoln Burrows (Dominic Purcell), imprisoned for a murder he didn't commit (shadowy g-men framed him for it, you see), out of there. Here's the catch though; Michael was once a structural engineer who helped to build the prison and has the blueprints tattooed on his upper torso, along with other clues as to who to befriend, who to manipulate and how not to get raped in the shower. Along the way, Michael assembles a motley crew of inmates who are either going to help or hinder him in his cause to get big ol' Linc the fuck outta there before they fry him to death, the Texas way.

It's so dumb that it takes a hell of a lot of suspension of disbelief just for you to stop your brain from exploding under the weight of the plot's wilful circuitousness. Plot holes are often so glaringly obvious that they may as well have smacked you one in the mouth, but if you turn off your brain and buy into Michael's ridiculously complex plan, then there's tons of fun to be had along the way, especially from Paul Adelstein's ruthless company agent, Paul Kellerman, Stacy Keach's cuddly turn as the naive, trusting Warden Pope and Peter Stormare hamming it up like a pro as incarcerated Mob underboss, John Abruzzi. Looking forward to season two, which starts next week on Five.

The Americans also supplied us with three of the year's funniest sitcoms, the first of which was My Name Is Earl, starring former pro-skater, Jason Lee as the titular Earl Hickey, a wrong 'un who turns to karma, by way of losing a winning lottery ticket, getting hit by a car and catching an episode of The Carson Daly Show while heavily medicated in hospital. Earl believes that he can right all the wrongs he has committed in the past, aided by his winnings, his dim-witted brother, Randy (a magnificent Ethan Supplee) and foxy, hispanic motel cleaner, Catalina (Nadine Velazquez). The show's concept is a little higher than most sitcoms strain for, but the writers are savvy enough to inject enough kind-heartedness, humanity and laughs into the fabric that you end up rooting for My Name Is Earl's grotesquerie of poor white trash, without ever really questioning the title character's devotion to his grand cause.

One of Earl's major discoveries, alongside Lee and Supplee, is Jaime Pressly's winningly cow-ish turn as Earl's ex-wife, Joy, whose constant endeavours to scupper Earl's good deeds add a bit of tension to the otherwise easygoing nature of the show. Coarse, bitchy, but always watchable, the former star of Poison Ivy: The New Seduction is a complete revelation. Whether My Name Is Earl will run and run will lie with the writers having as much dedication to the concept as Earl does, but as far as good-natured, undemanding comedy goes, this is the current market leader.

Another accessible, whimsical American comedy was launched in the UK in 2006, in the form of Everybody Hates Chris, the supposed origin story of Chris Rock, one of the most prominent comedians in America today. For anyone who's seen the Spike Lee film, Crooklyn, well, it's a bit like that, only funny. It also had some socio-political elements that you don't often get in family sitcoms. In the character of school bully, Caruso (Travis T. Fluro), the writers had a conduit through which to highlight the still evident casual racism of America in the 1980s. Caruso's "nigger" taunts towards Chris (played with disarming pathos by Tyler James Williams) are often met with nothing more than a batted eyelid, rather than Chris making a big deal out of it, which is impressively more sensitive than when The Cosby Show and The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air dealt with such 'issues', as the offhand way that racism is portrayed cuts to the core a lot more than heavy-handed preaching.

Issues aside, Everybody Hates Chris was an often charming, occasionally saccharine treat, with terrific performances from the ensemble cast, most notably Terry Crews as Chris' put-upon dad, Julius, Tichina Arnold as hard-nosed, shrill matriarch, Rochelle and Vincent Martella as Chris' dorky best friend, Greg. Fun, fluffy stuff, with an admirable line in social comment.

This year, the USA's take on The Office really came into its own and, more importantly, came out of the shadow of its still-superior British forebear, by not following its lead anymore. The creation of Michael Scott started becoming more of his own character, rather than a pale David Brent imitation, partly due to the writers and partly down to Steve Carell's pitch-perfect performance. Also, their Gareth, Dwight Schrute (Rainn Wilson) gained more of a human edge than ours ever did and while Pam (Jenna Fischer) and Jim (John Krasinski) will never be Dawn and Tim, their will-they-won't-they storyline was often just as affective. Also, the episode 'Sexual Harrassment' was one of the funniest stand-alone episodes of any comedy series in 2006, with David Koechner's Todd Packer proving himself as monstrously mysoginist as Finchy and just as manipulative towards Michael as Finchy was to Brent. The quality of the writing has started to speak for itself and, if they keep it up, in time, it may well surpass its prestigious predecessor.

But what of British comedy? Well, we had the return of Steve Coogan to the small screen in Saxondale, the, er, return of Jack Dee in Lead Balloon and the, well, return of Graham Linehan with The IT Crowd. In Saxondale, Coogan played an ageing ex-roadie, struggling with the trials and travails of modern life whilst trying to retain a veneer of old school, man's man-style dignity, but often failing. Tommy Saxondale was a hard character to like, but Coogan's eerie inhabiting of him (replete with a constant supply of denim and a full, greying beard) eventually won people round. The show took Curb Your Enthusiasm as its major influence, dealing in the humour inherent in embarrassment, but never stooping to mere schadenfreude and always prodding the audience into feeling Tommy's pain.

It was never completely successful in this endeavour, supposing as it did that we're all ageing rockers at heart, but even if you didn't invest totally in Tommy's plight, the cringeworthy laughs were often of the belly variety. Most sucessful were his foulmothed rages at his anger management meetings which, by and large, ended with Tommy having to leave before he "loses his temper" and blaming a fellow rageoholic of farting. The supporting cast were uniformly excellent, with Rasmus Hardiker staking his claim as a rising comedy star, as Tommy and Magz' (Ruth Jones) lodger, Raymond, who also works as Tommy's pest control apprentice. There's a second series on the way, which shows that the BBC have more faith in it than the ratigns figures suggested they would.

Lead Balloon was another Curb-lite exercise in middle-aged, neo-luddite frustration, this time starring Jack Dee as comedian, Rick Spleen, who's at a bit of a crossroads in his career, lowering himself to corporate gigs while fighting vainly against his own incompetence as a handyman and caring not a jot for social niceties, preferring to lie through his teeth to get out of things. Sound familiar? Yep, Rick Spleen is basically a diluted Larry David for people who haven't seen Curb Your Enthusiasm, but even if you have, there was still some pretty decent laughs to be had. For instance, the first episode in which Rick attempts to promote environmental consciousness, while unscrupulous journalists are going through his bins looking for stuff that could be recycled was a tightly-plotted, smart delight. Again, the BBC have commissioned another series, which is heartening for the future of British comedy.

One show that many critics claimed was everything that was wrong with British comedy was The IT Crowd, but I think it got a rough ride. Given Graham Linehan's past successes (Father Ted, Black Books and Big Train), it was definitely a lesser work, but it wasn't without its charms. Richard Ayoade cemented his position as one of the best young comic actors around with his portrayal of uber-nerd, Moss, while Katherine Parkinson as his reluctant, scatty boss, Jen and Chris O' Dowd as the less-geeky, but still socially-inept, Roy both impressed. The real revelation of The IT Crowd however, was Chris Morris' appearance as Reynholm Industries' nutso manager, Denholm Reynholm; a knowingly wacky turn which Morris seemed to relish. Yes, it was silly and yes, it was slight, but the sight of Morris barking "Hello!" repeatedly at a computer he was duped into thinking was voice-activated was one of the year's funniest scenes.

So that's what didn't make it into the top ten, but what did? Cast your eyes southwards to find out...

Top 10 TV Of 2006
1. The Wire

This year, I discovered The Wire. I had heard of it before, but I thought police procedural thriller, cops against bad guys, yada yada yada. What was going to be anything different about The Wire after the likes of NYPD Blue, Homicide: Life On The Street and Law And Order? Then, after reading a few rave critical notices, I decided to give it a chance. In April this year, I got the first two seasons on DVD, wolfed them down ravenously and caught the repeats of season three on FX. After watching the first three seasons (yes, Americans, we are a little behind you over here, we get season four soon though), I was of the opinion that not only was The Wire the most fiercely intelligent, enriching and enjoyable show on television right now, but that it was also one of the greatest television programmes ever.

A labyrinthine, alowly-unfurling, hyper-realistic treatise on the state of America today, disguised as a.n. other cop show, The Wire has more to say about society than any other television show in the history of the medium. With each season, the net gets cast a little wider and more and more of the big picture comes under scrutiny. Baltimore in The Wire acts as a microcosm of America, indicting everything and everyone from the low-level street drug dealers to the City Hall powerbrokers along the way. The Wire never proselytises or preaches though, allowing the viewer to draw their own conclusions and form their own opinions on the characters on screen. As in life, the characters in The Wire have good and bad in them. Oftentimes, the cops can be as brutal as the gangsters and the politicians as underhanded as the pushers, leaving you with the impression of life as a morally blurred patchwork of fuzzed ideals and admirable ends that are justified by rotten means.

If this wasn't enough, the acting is impeccable, with each character equally served by the clever writing and nuanced performances. In season three (I won't go into the first two seasons, because I'll be here all day), the new additions slotted in perfectly, adding to the overriding narrative, rather than subtracting from it. Robert Wisdom, in particular, as misguided, but good-hearted Major 'Bunny' Colvin (whose idea to set up 'free zones' within Baltimore where junkies can score and dealers can deal without getting hassled by the cops, is the main focus of season three), stands out, with a subtle, almost subliminal turn, but praise must also be heaped on Chad L. Coleman as newly-released street soldier, 'Cutty' Wise, who quickly realises that the game he once knew is no more and Jamie Hector as cold, dead-eyed ambition personified, Marlo Stanfield, an up-and-coming contender to Avon Barksdale's (Wood Harris) shaky throne as king of the streets.

The returning characters all have major parts to play too, especially Stringer Bell (Idris Elba), whose downfall is practically Shakespearean. And has there ever been a better character on TV or anywhere than "homo-thug", Omar, beautifully played by Michael K. Williams with just the right balance of brutality and sensitivity? It's the detail and the absorbing, consuming nature of The Wire that makes it so special. Flawless, blistering, life-changing television. You owe it to yourself to get into it as soon as you can.

The Blind Boys Of Alabama - Way Down In The Hole (Season One theme) (mp3)

2. [adult swim]

Finally, in June last year, we got an [adult swim] programming block in the UK! Thank heavens for Bravo for taking a chance on it and slotting it in around all the soft porn and car-porn that they usually show, because, I'll admit, it isn't to everyone's taste. For the unitiated, [adult swim] is a block of adult cartoons that shows in America on the Cartoon Network and has done so since 2001, steadily gaining a rabid cult fanbase. A fanbase that I joined last year when I did my 'research' (shorthand for illegally downloading episodes of certain [as] shows) and soon became hooked.

I've included it under the broad banner of [adult swim] because, if I didn't, this list would be The Wire on top, propped up by nine different [adult swim] shows. Seriously, anyone with a passing interest in fresh, sharp, often surreal animation (if I was being reductive, I'd say that most of the 'toons they show are like The Simpsons on mescaline) with an occasional satiric bent, but with an astute sense of the silly, then there's really no reason why you shouldn't like at least a couple of [adult swim] shows.

But what are the picks of the bunch? Well, all of the mostly fifteen-minute-long shows have something to recommend, but the likes of Aqua Teen Hunger Force (a meatball, a milkshake and a box of fries live together in New Jersey, often warding off some kind of supernatural or alien force engineered to annoy them, while they annoy the shit out of each other, funnier than it sounds), Sealab 2021 (group of often sociopathic, always borderline retarded fools man a nuclear underwater naval base, which they often manage to explode) and The Brak Show (adolescent space-cat, prone to bursting into nonesensical song, lives with his matronly mother and his miniature Cuban father, his best friend is a sadistic mantis-like creature and his next-door neighbour a twenty-foot Gundam-esque battle driod, called Thundercleese; hilarity ensues) are probably a good place to start your [as] education. These three shows all have in common the neat line in absurdism and dadaism that [adult swim] have as its trademark.

However, the two best cartoons, The Venture Bros. and Perfect Hair Forever are totally different beasts altogether. The Venture Bros. has more in common with the modern, American sitcom than any other [as] 'toons, but is set in the world of supervillains and mad scientists and is, essentially, a postmodern take on Johnny Quest. Perfect Hair Forever, on the other hand, is a spot-on, yet irreverent parody of Japanese anime that, even though it barely makes a lick of sense, due to the knowingness of what it's ripping the piss out of, has a certain internal logic. And it knows the power of having a central character with a funny voice; a lisping, vaguely Cajun-accented, dumb baddie with multi-coloured hair ("Mah fayntaystic doo!") named Coiffio.

If this just sounds a bit too weird-for-weird's-sake to you, then it may not be your cup of tea, but for those who are tiring of the South Park's and Family Guy's of this world, then you may as well give it a whirl. Jeez, you get enough chances seeing as it's on every night!

3. All In The Game

Okay, I'll admit that this probably looks like the most out-of-place programme on the list, but hear me out. All In The Game was a one-off drama that aired on Channel 4 early in the year and it gave us one of the most enduring pieces of acting of 2006 with Ray Winstone portraying Frankie, a loudmouth, all-talk football manager who seems to be a composite of all the worst barrow-boy excesses of the likes of 'proppah' football coaches like Harry Redknapp and Dave Bassett. He doesn't like poncy, Charlie Big Potatoes-like showponies, he likes his players to be real men. Albeit real men who know their place, because Frankie IS the guv'nor, despite the protestations of his backbone-deficient chairman, George (Roy Marsden).

Frankie likes a bung too, because it's bungs wot have paid for his crass, flash digs, wot him and his shrill missus like to deck out like a cross between a Roman bathhouse and Tony Montana's pad from Scarface. As this is a morality play about corruption in the modern game, it's only a matter of time before Frankie's deceit and lies come crashing down around his ears, scuppered by ambitious board member, Paul (played brilliantly by The Wire's Idris Elba) who smells a rat.

If this all sounds a bit rote, that's because it is, but it's compelling stuff, if only for Winstone's vaguely caricature-y, totally hammy shoutfest of a performance. It also gave rise to a couple of 2006's most memorable scenes, like Frankie berating George for not spending enough money on the club whilst stark-bollock-naked in the showers after the game, or Frankie bawling out his spivvy agent son, Martin (Danny Dyer) for having an attack of the jitters during their latest bung-taking escapade (the sight of Winstone, beetroot-red, screaming and spitting, "This is no time for you to go all wibble-fackin'-wobble, wibbly-wobbly, like jelly on a fackin' plate!" into Dyer's face is one that I don't think I'll ever shake). In the grand scheme of things, this was about as realistic as Roy Of The Rovers, but in the field of drama about the beautiful game, it was a damn sight more believeable than Footballer's Wives or Dream Team.

4. Brotherhood

Brotherhood is the latest in the long line of American dramas that put our home-grown shows in the shade. Ridiculously detailed and uniformly superbly acted, the cast treat it like Shakespeare, due to its patchwork of familial loyalty (blood being thicker than water and all that), the personal affecting the political and the human condition's tendency towards double-crossing and treachery.

It tells the story of two brothers, Tommy and Michael Caffee. Tommy (ex-Home And Away actor, Jason Clarke) is a venerable, family man politician with a seat in the house of representatives and noble ideals towards serving the community where he grew up (Providence, Rhode Island), while Michael (Hollywood's current favourite Brit bad guy, Jason Isaacs) is a feared local thug, back from exile after the murder of the man who threatened to kill him seven years earlier. They both want the same thing, to run their town, only in different ways. The pleasure in Brotherhood comes from watching their paths converge in nefarious, often surprising ways.

As with The Wire, each member of the Brotherhood ensemble gets their moment in the sun, with Clarke (playing Tommy as, essentially, a good man, with questionable methods when it comes to getting what he wants), Isaacs (magnetic and frightening like all the best villains) and old hand, Fionnula Flanagan as the Caffee matriarch is a wonderful mixture of street smarts and blind, unconditional love for both her sons, no matter what dirty deeds they get up to, all being dependably excellent. Annabeth Gish is a revelation as Tommy's duplicitous, drug-addled wife, Eileen, a woman whose butter-wouldn't-melt, dutiful housewife exterior, belies her double life as a cheating, drug-taking, drinking wreck. Gish imbues what would be a highly unlikeable character with a sense of sadness and desperation that makes you root for her all the same, even when she dumps the family kitten in the woods because she's sick of feeding it.

The acting laurels, in the end, go to Ethan Embry as conflicted cop, Declan Giggs, who acts as the bridge between the two separate worlds that the Caffee brothers inhabit, torn between wanting to do his job by the book and his allegiance to both Tommy and Michael. This inner tug-of-war ultimately has shocking, bloody reprisals in one of those jaw-to-the-floor moments that you get so rarely on television these days. If you didn't catch this, then you're a fool. Don't sleep on the repeats or the DVDs.

5. Young At Heart

This one might have passed you by (it aired on More4 and Channel 4 in November), but if it did, you missed one of the most genuinely life-affirming docs of the year. Taking a look at a chorus of American pensioners, devoted to reinterpreting contemporary ('60s-'00s) pop and rock songs, with the help of bandleader, Bob Cilman, Young At Heart is a complete joy from start to finish. Watching these septuganerians, octogenarians and nonagenarians take on songs like Sonic Youth's 'Schizophrenia', Talking Heads' 'Life During Wartime', and The Bee Gees' 'Staying Alive' with more energy and youthfulness than any number of X Factor hopefuls just goes to show that you're only as young as you feel.

Two of the highlights were watching Cockney blitz survivor, Eileen coolly speak-sing her way through 'Should I Stay Or Should I Go' with more conviction than Mick Jones ever did and ex-Young At Heart chorus member,Fred Knittle giving a tear-jerking rendition of Colplay's 'Fix You' (originally imagined as a duet with fellow YAH veteran, Bob Salvini, but Bob sadly died in the lead-up to the concert) whilst breathing througha respirator.

Cilman comes across as a bullisg taskmaster and, at points, you feel that he goes a little too far in his cajoling, but it's clear that the chorus love what he's done for them in giving them a chance to relive their youth through singing and, by doing so, proving that it is indeed wasted on the young.

Watch Fred injecting more pathos and soul into 'Fix You' than Chris Martin could ever muster.

6. Arrested Development

So this year we said goodbye to the most consistenly hilarious American sitcom since Seinfeld. Pushed around and messed about by Fox in the States, Arrested Development was never going to bow out gracefully. What it did do in its third and final season, however, was aim parting shot after parting shot at the network that treated it so badly, whilst getting more and more self-referential, callback-heavy, acerbic and intertextual. It was also as reliably funny as usual, with Tobias (David Cross) getting hair plugs that rejected his body (as opposed to the other way around), Michael (Jason Bateman) falling in love with a Mentally Retarded Female (Charlize Theron) without even realising she was one, Buster (Tony Hale) faking a coma to get out of testifying in a mock trial and GOB (Will Arnett) finding out that Steve Holt (Justin Grant Wade) is actually his son (resulting in one of AD's funniest tossed-off gags in Buster's "Hey, possible nephew").

The farce levels were pretty high and the writers were probably guilty of dropping a few balls along the way, but the amount that they actually kept in the air showed that it wasn't running out of steam just yet. In fact, the penultimate episode, 'Exit Strategy', where Buster, GOB and Michael travel to Iraq, finding a house full of Saddam Hussein lookalikes was one of the best they've ever done. So thanks, Fox, for not having faith in the best comedy you've produced since The Simpsons. Come on!

7. Curb Your Enthusiasm

Everyone's favourite grumpy old man, Larry David returned to our screens this year in the fifth season of Curb Your Enthusiasm, which was a return to form after the slack (in my opinion, at least) fourth season. Back then, when he was rehearsing his part as Max Bialystock in The Producers, he got a little too schmucky to side with, which was always CYE's biggest strength. No matter how far-out the storylines got, whenever Lar questioned one of life's silly unwritten social rules, you could always get behind him. That edge was lost a little in season four for me, but it came back in spades this season.

We had LD losing and regaining his tag as a "friend o' lesbians", being conned out of an original Rosetti smoking jacket by Hugh Hefner, pretending to be orthodox Jewish so that he can get Richard Lewis bumped up the waiting list for a kidney operation and having an epiphany of Damascean proportions that leads to the one selfless act he has ever committed in five seasons nearly resulting in his death. Also this series, the celebrity guests didn't seem as incongruous or back-slapping as usual, with Dustin Hoffman, Sacha Baron Cohen, Gary Player, Bea Arthur, George Lopez and Mekhi Phifer (as a Muslim P.I. with a penchant for edible undies) all weighing in.

As usual, there was one self-contained episode that stood head-and-shoulders above the rest (in past seasons, there has been 'Beloved Aunt', 'The Baptism', 'The Special Section' and 'Wandering Bear', respectively). In 'The Seder', Larry and Cheryl host a passover seder, to which Larry invites a known sex-offender. It's a testament to the actors and director (as we know, there are no writers, as such), that Stephen Tobolowsky's rabid conservative comes across as worse for telling his son where Larry has hidden the matzoh bread. Rumour has it that David will do one more season then call it quits. More of the same please.

8. That Mitchell And Webb Look

Having never really been a fan of Peep Show (it went too far into that humour of embarrassment nook for my tastes), I wasn't really expecting too much of That Mitchell And Webb Look. I was one of the people that stayed tuned after Extras and was pleasantly surprised with what I saw. In fact, in the end, I was tuning in for That Mitchell And Webb Look and just happening to catch Extras beforehand. One of the best British sketch shows in recent years (not that there's been much competition; it's all sitcoms round these parts nowadays), it threw up more memorable characters and bits than most, allowing you to forgive the odd one that didn't work (the snooker commentators weren't funny in the slightest, until the final episode's 'Table Of Reds' singalong).

Pick of the bunch was The Curious Adventures of Sir Digby Chicken Caesar, in which a foppish tramp took a romantic, rose-tinted view of his bin-dipping, wallet-snatching escapades, painting himself as a dashing adventurer when this couldn't be further from the truth. David Mitchell cemented his reputation as one of the most likeable sketch performers around, while Robert Webb, whilst often looking one step behind his partner, proved himself as more than a one-note man after all. If nothing else, in "That's Numberwang!", it gave students a new catchphrase to repeat inanely down the union on a Friday night.

9. The Sopranos

A patchy year for The Sopranos this one. The first half of the first half of the final season (do keep up) was heavy on the much-maligned dream sequences, seeing as Tony (James Gandolfini) was in a coma for a couple of episodes, having been near-fatally gut-shot by senile old Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese). This is something that The Sopranos has never done well, choosing to deal in nailbomb-subtle imagery and buddhism references rather than actually do anything that serves the story.

The second half of this sixth season, however, gave way to one of the series' best, most heartbreaking story arcs, involving the involuntary outing of capo Vito Spatafore and his subsequent running away to New Hampshire. Whilst there, his doomed romance with local short-order cook and volunteer fireman, Jim is clouded by the inevitability of Vito's return to New Jersey. When Vito finally meets an undignified end at the hands of Phil Leotardo (Frank Vincent) and a pool cue, it's one of the most shattering demises the show has offered up. Dealing with homosexuality in such a sensitive manner just added another string to The Sopranos' already fulsome bow. David Chase is going to have to go a way to top this when the show finally runs its course later this year.

10. Time Trumpet

Armando Iannucci's latest foray into warped satire, Time Trumpet often felt like a bit of a fevered dream. A richly-imagined future-world, looking back on the not-too-distant future via the medium of the clip show, Time Trumpet elevated Iannucci even further from his one-time standpoint as poor-man's Chris Morris to Britain's most prevalent censurer of human follies. Okay, so it was a bit silly along the way, but then again, isn't the world a bit silly these days?

The pre-supposition that, in the future, a stripped-of-power Tony Blair would be found wandering, dazed and shellshocked around Baghdad in a tattered Man From DelMonte suit, trying to find WMDs was nothing short of genius and there were plenty of laughs to be garnered from the "increasingly unhinged Tom Cruise" too. The devil was in the details though, as the wtf? moments piled up one after another (Why was Stewart Lee bald in some scenes and not others? Why did Matt Holness just have a tea cosy on his head?), showing the cult of celebrity up as the inherently ridiculous endeavour that it is. Brilliant.

Right, check back over the weekend (or maybe before) for my tips for the top in 2007. Then, when that is done, we can all go back to doing whatever we were doing before I started this whole review of the year thing.



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