By Kati Johnston
Special to MSN Entertainment
By Kati Johnston
As the current TV season hurtles ("24," "Prison Break") or limps ("Desperate Housewives," "American Idol") toward big finales this month, it's time to take stock and look back at the year's achievements -- both real and dubious. Remember the great fanfare accompanying some of the year's new hopefuls ("Head Cases," we hardly knew ye ... )? And the momentum of returning shows that seemed unstoppable? Oh, what innocents we were last fall. Join us, won't you, on this journey down memory lame -- I mean lane -- as we nominate our favorite high- and lowlights of the season.
Best re-creation of Central Perk from "Friends": "Prison Break's" Fox River Penitentiary. So many people are coming and going now (Lincoln's out! Now he's back! The Mafia guy is out! Now he's back, having found both Jesus and a good barber!) that the prison on the FOX show seems less like a place to break out of and more like a place for reunions and long-lost pals to catch up. You know, where everybody knows your name.
Best reminders that sitcoms are alive and well: NBC's "My Name Is Earl" and "The Office" and UPN's "Everybody Hates Chris." Sharp writing, terrific acting and real humanity infuse all three shows, as do honest-to-god belly laughs.
Fresh blood for the "Seinfeld" curse: CBS's "The New Adventures of Old Christine." It's better than Julia Louis-Dreyfus' "Watching Ellie," but that's not saying much. We liked her better as a voice on "The Simpsons." Not that there's anything wrong with that.
Worst secondary sitcom plotline: The affidavit by Denise Richards about soon-to-be-ex-hubby and CBS's "Two and a Half Men" star Charlie Sheen and his alleged offscreen antics, painstakingly detailed on The Smoking Gun Web site. Note to self: Don't come back in the next life as Charlie Sheen's dog. Or wife.
Best suds: Hands down, ABC's "Grey's Anatomy," which weaves its yuks into a great dramatic backdrop but is unapologetic on its main mission: swooning over doctors in -- and out of -- love. Bonus award: star Ellen Pompeo, whose weary, brittle beauty is utterly believable. Who wouldn't want to be the one to light up that face? Dr. McDreamy, are you listening?
Worst suds: How did ABC's "Desperate Housewives" go so wrong? It's hard to tell what role the offscreen overexposure of stars Teri Hatcher and Eva Longoria has had, but the show seems to be treading water, and rather shallow water at that. We're bored with Carlos and Gaby's baby; bored with Bree's family melodrama; wondering why Susan can't find a guy besides her unappealing, lying ex, Karl; and on and on. Lynette's frenetic delivery is starting to feel exhausting. And, hey, whatever happened to Betty, Caleb et al.? Idea for writers: Discover next season that Wisteria Lane is actually a neighborhood in Seattle, and send Susan and maybe Bree to the ER to mix it up with the "Grey's Anatomy" gang.
Best impression of Captain Kirk's evil twin: Is it just me or does sadistic "Prison Break" guard Capt. Brad Bellick (played with nasty relish by Wade Williams) bear more than a passing resemblance to the munificent "Star Trek" leader? Department of Corrections, the final frontier?
Best ripoff of "Lost": "Prison Break's" backstory episode, in which we learn how the lives of the inmates intersected before incarceration and who in Michael Scofield's posse is really a good guy -- and who isn't.
Worst ripoff of "Lost": ABC's "Lost's" own "clip show" catch-up episode. These can be useful and even well done, as the "Grey's Anatomy" one recently showed. But suddenly "Lost" gets a narrator -- who the heck is that? -- and the flat, straightforward reading of events strips the developments of their layers and mystery. And speaking of annoying things about "Lost" ...
Most annoying things about "Lost": Don't get me wrong, I still love this show (Henry Gale is my new favorite creep on TV), but I'm starting to get antsy. Time for some answers -- and some action. These people have been stuck on the island for so long that the show is starting to feel like a slightly stuffy "Gilligan's Island," complete with schemes to build signs visible from the sky. And, creators, kudos for finally killing off Ana-Lucia because of Michelle Rodriguez's offscreen bad behavior. Thank you.
Best villain semiredemption: Santino on Bravo's "Project Runway." He was backbiting, egotistical, sloppy in his design execution, combative, snotty and looked like he rarely bathed. And that was just in the first two episodes. But even as he became The Guy You Loved to Hate, Santino managed to soften his own image in the last couple episodes, in which we learned about his challenging childhood and the true extent of his talent, as exhibited in his line for New York Fashion Week.
Best case for polygamy: HBO's "Big Love," which is as crazy-weird as "Twin Peaks" in its heyday and a deliciously American-Shakespearean soap with fabulous performances by Bill Paxton, Bruce Dern, Chloë Sevigny and Jeanne Tripplehorn. Love this show? Be sure to read the blog by Margene, the doe-eyed youngest wife. Pass the Viagra.
Here's your hat, Luke, what's your hurry? "Gilmore Girls," what's happened? We've loved this WB mom-and-daughter screwball comedy since its launch, but this season it's losing us. Maybe it's the impending departure of creator Amy Sherman-Palladino, but it's running out of gas. Are we to believe that darling, gorgeous Lorelai Gilmore can do no better than the lunkheaded and tiresome Luke, he of the backward baseball cap and secret daughter? And doesn't Rory deserve better than the equally lunkheaded Logan?
Saddest departure: The sudden death of beloved "West Wing" actor John Spencer, whose character, Leo, also died on the show. The show itself is bidding farewell this year, a sad reminder that it peaked years ago -- though the acting, including that of Spencer -- has never been anything but first rate. God shed his grace on thee.
Best ability to milk fame beyond its natural life: No, not the revolving casts of VH1's "The Surreal Life," or even Flava Flav of "Flavor of Love." I'm talking, of course, about the privileged rich kids of "Laguna Beach," who instead of going off to an overpriced college have decided they're entitled to be real denizens of the red carpet. Worst offenders: Talan Torriero (engaged to, and then extracted from, Kimberly Stewart) and Kristin Cavallari (honestly, who cares who this girl canoodled with? And can't "Veronica Mars" use a real casting agent like everyone else?).
Best promotion of a pixie: Katie Couric, to the "CBS Evening News" anchor chair. We're willing to give her a chance, and we don't give a whit about "gravitas." But we do give a whit about whether there's a brain in her head, and the jury's still out. What, Christiane Amanpour wasn't answering her phone?
Blink and you missed it award: FX's flawed but provocative "Black. White." It lasted just a handful of episodes but spawned some good conversations. Now, maybe some producers will really dive into race issues and commit to the "changing lives" idea but on a broader scale -- maybe for a year? That would get America talking.
We'll really miss you awards: FOX's "Arrested Development" and "Malcolm in the Middle." Bob Loblaw, R.I.P.
Kati Johnston is a writer who specializes in entertainment. Send her e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
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