2008’s Best Programming on Cable TV

So 2008 might not go down as a great year. (Stupid economy!) But at least our TVs paid huge dividends with plenty of great entertainment. As we get close to closing the book on 2008, we pick the 29 best programs, people, networks, moments and more from the year in cable TV.

29. Guilt Trips

The wide range of cable networks, like a good menu, has something for everyone — including that tantalizing dessert that you know you should stay away from, but sometimes just looks too good. So occasionally we may find ourselves straying away from the likes of History or National Geographic Channel and wandering on over to E! to partake in something like Sunset Tan. Yes, it’s not the most nutritious — but it’s pretty tasty at the moment. We can always go back to the healthy stuff tomorrow, right? Er, right?

28. Sideline Siren Song

ESPN’s sideline reporter Erin Andrews sparked controversy at a Cubs vs. Brewers game when she wore a slightly slinky dress and was allegedly getting too chummy with the Cubbies, even causing Cubs skipper Lou Piniella to ask, “Are you doing a baseball game today or a modeling assignment?” But we applaud Andrews — if you’re going to tell us about pulled groins, you should look really good doing it.

27. Sex, Drugs And Birthday Cake

A hard-rock Flight of the Conchords, IFC’s Z Rock presented an interesting dichotomy between Brooklyn band Z02’s rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle and their day job as a Wiggles-esque kids party band. It also featured lots of non-PC humor, great guest spots by the likes of John Popper and Dave Navarro, and an alarming number of cameos by bassist David Z’s bare buttocks.

26. Redefining Body Image

Women sick of thunder thighs and tiny breasts embraced Lifetime’s series How to Look Good Naked with host Carson Kressley. With some attitude adjustments and sizzling makeovers, he turned self-loathing wallflowers into confident women willing to bare all to prove it.

25. Fangs For The Drink

With billboards proclaiming, “Real Blood Is For Suckers,” hilarious online video ads and a realistic blog that features exposes on vampires living among us, HBO’s hype for True Blood threatened to eclipse the series itself. An idle threat, since Alan Ball’s new drama was such a fang-tastic hit that HBO renewed it for a second season soon after the September premiere.

24. Smithy & Nessa

Much like the show’s title characters were with one another, we were instantly smitten with the BBC America comedy Gavin & Stacey — particularly with series creators James Corden and Ruth Jones as Smithy and Nessa, whose reluctant hookups provide a sour complement to Gavin and Stacey’s sweet love story.

23. Ring Leaders

For our money, the best wrestling entertainment on TV this year came not from WWE or TNA but from old AWA matches on ESPN Classic and Hulk Hogan’s Celebrity Championship Wrestling on CMT. If only we could arrange a Sgt. Slaughter vs. Frank Stallone steel cage match to determine the undisputed champ.

22. “Anarchy” Reigns!

Ever wonder what The Sopranos would look like in leather? Sons of Anarchy continues FX’s string of hard-hitting dramas by delving into the violent world of California bikers and the unique type of family they form. Among other highlights, it shows that Ron Perlman looks just as scary out of his Hellboy makeup, and makes us all but forget that Katey Sagal once played the bonbon-chomping Peg Bundy.

21. Starz Makes A Splash

HBO and Showtime have set the standard for original drama series on premium networks, but Starz showed it’s serious about stepping into the fray with Crash, a gut-wrenching series based on the Oscar-winning film. Even Dennis Hopper, who’s been known to play a nutball or two, says his character is the craziest he’s ever played.

20. The Real MTV

With MTV long since abandoning its original MO to follow rich kids around with cameras, shows such as CMT’s genre-bending CMT Crossroads, Sundance Channel’s Live From Abbey Road and upcoming Spectacle: Elvis Costello With…, and Austin City Limits and Soundstage on PBS HD have become the best sources for “music television.”

19. Believe In Magic

ESPN scored in March with its most-watched documentary, Black Magic, which studied the legacy of basketball players and coaches from historically black colleges and universities who played, lived and persevered in the age of segregation — brilliant coaches such as John McClendon, Ben Jobe and Clarence “Big House” Gaines, and pioneering players like Dick Barnett, Cleo “Skywalker” Hill, Richard “Pee Wee” Kirkland and Earl “The Pearl” Monroe.

18. Seven Words You Can Always Say On HBO

The world of comedy lost a giant when iconoclastic comedian George Carlin passed away in June. Carlin, who did 14 original solo HBO standup comedy specials in his career, his last being It’s Bad for Ya in March, got a fitting tribute as 11 of his comedy specials aired back-to-back on HBO2.

17. TCM Lives Up To Its Acronym

Some networks, after establishing an identity and cultivating an audience, go in search of larger audiences — and end up losing what made them successful in the first place. Not so at TCM. Still putting the “classic” in Turner Classic Movies, TCM will bring families together in December with its celebration of Disney’s classic live-action films from decades past, including The Parent Trap, Swiss Family Robinson, Old Yeller and more.

16. See Jane Play

As fans of Malcolm in the Middle, we were naturally thrilled to see Bryan Cranston return to series television in Breaking Bad. But when Jane Kaczmarek then returned in TNT’s Steven Bochco-produced Raising the Bar, well, we were giddy. With the series averaging 5.5 million viewers a week, Jane, along with Mark-Paul Gosselaar and Gloria Reuben, have secured themselves another successful series and some happy TV viewers to boot.

15. We Probably Shouldn’t Bring This One Up Just Now …

Or maybe we should. In May, when folks were already desperate for relief from the most protracted political season ever, HBO and first-time screenwriter Danny Strong managed to spin Recount — a stunning, star-studded reminder of 2000’s post-election debacle that landed “hanging chad” in the lexicon and Dubya in the White House — into a ratings hit and a veritable Emmy-winning machine.

14. “Starter”ing Fresh

We’re loyal to you, Starter Wife! Our love is true! We made USA Network’s winning mini our No. 6 pick on last year’s Best Of list. This year, we’re celebrating its return — complete with cast members Debra Messing, Judy Davis and Joe Mantegna — as an equally saucy series that needs a laugh track like Molly Kagan needs a husband.

13. Cable Gets Greener

The launch of the Earth-friendly network Planet Green, along with Sundance Channel’s continuing eco-programming block, The Green, called attention to our need to change our ways. Discovery Channel’s Project Earth, with its radical ideas of covering glaciers with insulation and changing weather patterns, was as troubling as it was hopeful. Meanwhile, cable providers walked the walk by cutting energy use in everything from cable routers and set-top boxes to the vans their service people drive.

12. Personal And “Confidential”

WE tv’s High School Confidential gets straight A’s in proving that one unflinching study of 12 ordinary Kansas classmates as they face family upheaval, pregnancy and even a brain tumor can be as mesmerizing as all the Gossip Girls, 90210s and other fictional lives of the American teen combined. We wonder even now how the girls are faring, a situation made all the more poignant when you know exactly what’s next for most TV teens. Another fashion spread. Another red carpet. Another day of being nothing like a real American girl.

11. “Clearing” The Airwaves

Remember when digital cable was the new technology on the block, and it seemed so different and exciting? Now it’s the standard. The same thing is happening with high definition, and we couldn’t be more excited. For years we knew the technology was there, and in 2008 the programming has finally caught up, with an explosion of HD simulcast networks including Cartoon Network HD, Bravo HD, Spike HD and Disney Channel HD, followed by a sharp increase in sales of HD sets. Let’s face it, non-HD nets have become the exception, not the norm.

10. Rock Your Body Politic

We herald Colbert and Stewart’s collective reign as cable’s kings of political discourse. But we’re just downright giddy that cable-net coverage of the political conventions — the conventions! — knocked even the WWE and SpongeBob clean out of the Nielsen Top Ten. And as this season of historic — and occasionally histrionic — political firsts soldiered onward, voter intellect and the cable news nets continued to blossom: FOX News’ weekday prime-time audience shot up 14 percent, CNN’s spiked by 40 percent and MSNBC’s rose a whoppin’ 41 percent.

9. And It’s Cheaper Than Marriage Counseling

Owning a DVR not only helps your enjoyment of television, but a recent study by NDS shows that it can help your love life, too. Among DVR users with a significant other, 79 percent said that their DVR has actually improved their relationship with their partner — that is, until it’s time to argue about which shows to delete.

8. Out Of The Strike Zone

Jay McCarrol was the first winner of Project Runway
While the writers strike crippled production on new scripted TV shows and left the broadcast networks airing nothing but reruns and reality filler, viewers turned to the cable networks in record numbers this past winter. In the first three months of 2008, 20 of the top 25 cable networks’ ratings were up as viewers watched new episodes of their favorite shows (Bravo’s Project Runway) and checked out new cable original series offerings (History’s Ax Men).

7. VOD Killed The DVD Star

Like many people, we dread the trip back to the video store to return a DVD. And, between you and us, we’re also kinda lazy when it comes to even packing up that DVD and walking it up to the mailbox. That’s why we got excited this year as more and more top movie titles became available on VOD the same day they were released on DVD (like Fred Claus this month). This is a trend we can get off the couch and jump for joy over.

6. Tiger And Rocco Slug It Out

The thrilling 19-hole playoff between gimpy-kneed Tiger Woods and underdog Rocco Mediate at the U.S. Open in June was one of those rare moments that had people riveted to the TV at homes and offices across America on a Monday afternoon. Woods prevailed in what would be his final tournament of 2008, and ESPN scored the highest cable TV golf rating ever.

5. We Liked It, We Really Liked It — JoBros’ First Movie Rocked!

Kudos to the Mouse Ears once again for recognizing upcoming talent and booking the Jonas Brothers in their first movie before they became international sensations. Their music-inspired summer blockbuster Camp Rock was the No. 1 cable telecast this year with 8.9 million viewers, and it also spawned a chart-topping soundtrack, merchandise galore and promises of a sequel. And, there’s more. The JoBros will star in a new Disney Channel scripted series, JONAS, as three extraordinary musicians (Kevin, Joe and Nick Lucas) trying to live normal lives. The series will debut mid 2009.

4. Super “Bad”

Yeah, yeah, Mad Men. Yes, we really love it that much. Yes, it really is that good. But this winter we were all about the BadBreaking Bad — AMC’s sophomore series that’s as grimy as MM is glossy, as gritty as Don Draper is smooth, and as awesome as any series on the nets you have to pay for. If you’re put off by the show’s meth-makin’ rep, get over it. The pitch-dark, pitch-perfect comedy is really about Emmy winner Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul’s glorious pas de deux as a cancer-stricken milquetoast and his wiseass former student who helps the dying man make some killer cash — and finally grow himself a set — moonlighting as the underground’s most sought-after “chemist.”

3. John Adams Was A Wild & Crazy Guy

HBO’s Emmy-winning John Adams was a six-week course in early American history that didn’t put us to sleep. (Well, neither did David McCullough’s award-winning biography on which it was based.) Credit goes to Paul Giamatti, who described and portrayed his character as a “Lunatic … hypochondriac … and a really weird guy.” All key ingredients of good TV.

2. It’s Good To Do Nothing

You know all that stuff you’ve been seeing and hearing about the digital TV transition happening in February 2009? Coupons and converter boxes and obsolete TVs? Fortunately, you can ignore it and rest easy. Because you’ve got cable, you don’t have to do a thing to your TV. (And if you’ve still got other TVs using rabbit ears, now’s a great time to get them hooked up to cable before the DTV switch.)

1. Gold Medal Coverage

When NBC Universal hyped its coverage of the 2008 Beijing Olympics as the “most ambitious single media project in history,” we were skeptical. But we quickly found ourselves hooked by the incredible drama, the unique sports not often televised and the amount of live coverage (albeit often at 2am) spread across the various networks. So did a lot of other folks, with ratings for the opening ceremonies alone at 18.8, the highest in 12 years. Even cooler was the fact that most of it was in HD, with the Universal HD network in particular devoted to nonstop coverage. Phelps, fencing, field hockey, fake passports — what more could you want?

Michael Phelps made Olympic History