In advance of next week's column naming the Ten Best Television Programs of 2009, here is my second annual Alternative Ten Best list, featuring noteworthy shows that likely won't land on many (if any) Top 10 line-ups but still deserve special recognition.
American Idol (Fox) - The producers of American Idol made many major bone-headed decisions this season (that judges' vote thing, ceding so much power to Simon Cowell, the addition of a fourth judge), but even their suicidal tendencies couldn't kill this mighty franchise. Outside of a few football and baseball showdowns, the final round of competition between Adam Lambert and Kris Allen was the most exciting television event of the year.
The Middle (ABC) - Forgive me if I'm forgetting one, but I don't think there has been a genuinely funny, down-to-earth, timely broadcast sitcom that dared to focus on a cash-strapped working class American family since Roseanne at its peak. (No, I haven't spaced on Malcolm in the Middle, a personal favorite of mine. Malcolm was a bit "out there" and made no claim to realism.) So here's three cheers for the harried Hecks of small-town Indiana: Car-salesperson mom Frankie (Patricia Heaton), quarry manager dad Mike (Neil Flynn), dim teen jock and horn dog Axl (Charlie McDermott), socially awkward outcast Sue (Eden Sher) and bizarre little Brick (Atticus Shaffer, an instant scene-stealer). I hope they stay with us for years.
The Soup (E!) - E!'s weekly take on the highs and lows of reality television and pop-culture jaw-droppers is still TV's Funniest Show. That has a lot to do with the talents of host Joel McHale, who lost none of his comic timing (despite losing a lot of sleep) after adding a lead role in the new NBC sitcom Community to his workload. (He still plays club dates, too.) Executive producers Ed Boyd and K.P. Anderson have also proven tireless, taking on three additional shows on E!'s sister networks (Web Soup on G4, The Dish on Style and Sports Soup on Versus) without letting The Soup slip. Should McHale need to lighten his load next year with an occasional guest host, E! need look no further than Web Soup's agreeable Chris Hardwick, another effortlessly funny fellow.
Attack of the Show (G4) - G4's live, daily no-budget wonder Attack of the Show remains the coolest show on any screen. There is no more entertaining rundown of the day's technology and entertainment news in any medium. Co-hosts Kevin Pereira and Olivia Munn and their team do so much with so little, they put to shame the many television productions that do so little with so much. My thanks again to the good people at G4 who managed to slip me into the raucous AOTS presentation at last summer's Comic-Con; only a few hundred fans got in while thousands who had come to worship geek god and goddess Pereira and Munn were turned away. Here's hoping they get a bigger room next year.
The Real World: Brooklyn (MTV) - There is very little of any real interest on MTV these days, and that includes the godfather of modern observational reality shows, The Real World. (Its most recent cycle, set in Cancun, was a sweaty dud.) But TRW's surprisingly effective twenty-second season, set in Brooklyn, proved to be the most profound since its third, which was set in San Francisco and chronicled the personal heroism of the late Pedro Zamora, a young man who was HIV-positive at the time of the program's production. (Interestingly, in one episode of Brooklyn the kids attended a private screening of Pedro, a made-for-MTV movie written by Oscar winner Dustin Lance Black about TRW legend Zamora.) Among other memorable young people, Brooklyn introduced viewers to good-natured guitar player Ryan Conklin, an Iraq War veteran coping with post-traumatic stress who was called up for a second tour while the show was being filmed. The fear and heartbreak that filled the house was palpable. In another first for this groundbreaking franchise, Brooklyn also featured a transgendered woman (Katelynn Cusanelli) who was still adjusting to her new life.
Sons of Anarchy (FX) - It didn't make much of a splash during its first season, but FX's blunt, blistering, violent and sometimes lunatic biker drama became a sensation during its sophomore year, often earning higher ratings than some of its broadcast competitors among male demographics. Attention Emmy: Katey Sagal, as nail-tough motorcycle mama Gemma Teller Morrow, deserves to be included alongside Glenn Close, Kyra Sedgwick, January Jones, Juliana Margulies and Holly Hunter when next year's nominees for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series are announced. Remember that!
Supernatural (The CW) - Now in its fifth season, this multi-layered weekly monster movie about two brothers battling external and internal demons with equal heft might give Lost a run for its money as broadcast television's most ambitious series. That's because its current story arc finds self-sacrificing bros Sam and Dean Winchester (strikingly well played by Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles, respectively) caught in the middle of the Apocalypse. Satan is already on the canvas, and while God has been missing in action it wouldn't surprise me at all if genius executive producer Eric Kripke - who often works moments of grand humor into the grim goings-on -- figured out a clever way to get Him involved, as well.
Skins (BBC America) - The first two seasons of this BBC drama about contemporary teenagers made the top of my official Ten Best list last year, largely because they made for the best and most realistic series about kids in the history of the medium. Season 3 is still a cut above the rest (in part because of its sublime production values), but I'm sliding it from my official list to this one because even though the drama of it all remains painfully real, there is a new emphasis on rude and raunchy comedy that sometimes reminds me of Porky's. I also miss the original cast, which was eliminated in its entirety in favor of a new group. I understand MTV is producing an American version of this show. How I wish HBO or Showtime or AMC were doing so, instead!
Any Dream Will Do/How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? (BBC America) - It seems to me that the increasingly clumsy producers of American Idol would do well to study these delightful two-year-old British singing competition series. The brainchildren of musical theater legend Andrew Lloyd Webber, who appeared on both as overlord and master judge, these shows were talent contests that offered as grand prizes starring roles in the recent West End productions of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and The Sound of Music, respectively. Most of the young men and women who made it to the finals on these shows could readily out-perform the average Idol contestant, while the smart and articulate judges could easily kick their Idol counterparts to the curb. So what if Dream and Maria were old? Who cares that the identity of the winners was just a Google away? Lively, colorful, well-produced and thoughtful entertainment is timeless.
The Secret Life of the American Teenager (ABC Family) - I'm reasonably certain that the hormone-driven teeny-something drama Secret Life won't show up on very many (if any) Top 10 lists this year, but I'm including it here for three reasons. First, it's an effective bridge between the kid-targeted scripted series on Disney Channel and Nickelodeon and the more adult scripted fare on so many other networks (especially The CW), and as such may be the best effort by any network anywhere at keeping young teenagers interested in television programming outside of the reality genre. Second, for all the talk of sex, breasts and unplanned pregnancy, the crucial message of this show always comes through without being preachy: Parents should talk to their kids about sex, or at least provide an environment in which their kids can broach the subject with them. Third, even with all the teen promiscuity and sex talk, which can be numbingly repetitive at times, Secret Life reminds me of the family friendly television series I grew up watching. Simplicity still counts for something, especially when so many things (including television) are so complicated.