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Picks and Pans Main: TV

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FOX’s high school musical comedy-drama flows and sparkles like a river of sequins. The most original prime-time series of 2009, it’s a savvy, loving feat of pop synthesis, bringing together American Idol, Disney’s High School Musical, possibly a touch of the old Fame and flecks of the dark humor you’d expect from Ryan Murphy, who also created Nip/Tuck. And the musical numbers are a hit on iTunes! Jane Lynch, as a loathsome cheerleading coach, is now officially television’s funniest actress.


NBC canceled this outstanding L.A. crime drama, which rolls along with the gritty rumble of a squad car on the mean streets, just before it returned for a second season. Man! Luckily, TNT will air all the completed episodes, with a possible commitment to producing new ones. That gives fans the chance to see more of Regina King, understated but rock solid as a cop.

The Good Wife

The most accomplished network drama of the fall. Julianna Margulies (who also has the most accomplished hair—a brunette cascade) plays a political spouse who returns to work following her husband’s disgraceful downfall. The cases are all involving, but what carries this CBS freshman hit is its backstory. Was her husband (Chris Noth) set up? What allegiance does she owe him? Major asset: Archie Panjabi’s supporting turn as a tough, tightly coiled investigator who likes to do the dirty work.

The Real Housewives Of New Jersey

Bravo’s guilty-pleasure reality franchise keeps topping itself—or more accurately, over-the-topping itself. The fact that several of the Jersey wives were related gave the season more cohesion, and authenticity, than usual. Undisputed high point: the season finale’s notorious banquet scene, which ended with a table overturned and hysterical screams. It made The Sopranos look like 7th Heaven. On to The Real Housewives of D.C.!

Harper’s Island

Give CBS credit for trying something new. Island grafted the teen-slasher movie formula onto a weekly series format. The result was a terrific thrill ride, flinging out severed body parts as it whipped along. It didn’t make a great deal of sense by the end, no, and it was a loser in the ratings. The lesson is that gore, like junk food, has to be bolted down in gulps, not slowly savored like a tasting menu.

Grey Gardens

A major surprise, and the best TV movie in ages. Based on the punishingly bleak documentary film about Edie Beale, her dilapidated old ma and their codependent misery in a trash-filled Hamptons house, HBO’s dramatization managed to be ever-so-gently uplifting. That’s because of two equally touching, essentially sweet performances by Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange.

Nurse Jackie

Edie Falco landed her own Showtime series, and it’s a beaut. She plays a bleary but no-nonsense ER nurse with a perverse streak of recklessness: She cheats on her husband and sneaks pills on the job. Combine Falco’s unflinching honesty as an actress with Jackie’s moral messiness, and you have one of the year’s most compelling characters.

Modern Family

Thank you, ABC, for introducing the best comedy of 2009, and possibly the new benchmark for network sitcoms. The outline is routine enough—interrelated suburban families bickering and bonding—but the writing has a natural sophistication rare to TV, and the large cast fuses into one perfect whole. Standout performance: Ty Burrell as a desperate-to-be-hip dad who thinks “WTF” means “Why the face?” More like “Watch this Family.”

Parks and Recreation

Amy Poehler’s modest NBC sitcom about a dim bureaucrat with Hillary Clinton-size ambition—when clunkers fly, lady—clicked in its second season. Parks has a fumbling, silly charm that’s close in spirit to a Christopher Guest movie.

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia

Five seasons in, the FX sitcom remains puerile, cruel, vulgar—proudly beyond redemption and absurdly funny besides. Know what else? There’s room in the world for both this and ABC’s Modern Family. That’s what makes TV such a glorious adventure.