US TV End of Season Round-Up

What a year - if you'd asked me this time last year if I thought we were going to be having the best year of television in some time I would have laughed. Thankfully, I was wrong and the 2004/2005 season has seen a healthy mix of new shows and returning favourites. The round-up below isn't meant to be definitive and I can only write about the series I've seen, so you won't be seeing anything about Desperate Housewives or the latest outings of Dead Like Me or Arrested Development...

Lost is easily my pick of this years shows - opening literally with a bang, the series has run on full steam over 24 episodes including the two hour season finale. Rarely do you find a show that is consistently outstanding; there was not one episode that didn't make the grade and the writers showed a maturity that I've never seen in a debut season. As the series progressed, what seemed like a simple survival story has developed in to something that is so much more. There are now dozens of plot threads up in the air and there are dozens of questions left to be answered; for each that's explained we get countless others knawing away.

With another season guaranteed and some of the most impressive ratings of the year, Lost looks set to keep us on our toes for a good few years yet. When it hits our shores later this year, expect the country to go crazy for what is in my view the best television programme currently in production.

After a shaky third year, hopes were high that Alias would return to form with J.J.Abrams back at the helm. Unfortunately, the quest for ratings twisted the show into something that was anything but Alias. The ongoing mythology was out and more standalone and quirky stories were written in an attempt to give the series a new lease of life. The new title sequence is the epitome of the 'new' Alias - all style and absolutely no substance. Thankfully it seems Abrams and Co. saw this themselves and the second half of the year returned to the arcs that won the series so many fans. While it's nowhere near the quality it reached a couple of years ago, I have hope that the fifth season will finally give us what we've been waiting for.

There were a few things that Season 4 did get right: the return of Nadia, Sydney's half-sister, added a new dynamic to the show and Mia Maestro plays the role to perfection; the removal of David Anders' character, Sark, as a regular also helped balance things out and the writers didn't have to think of wierd and wonderful ways for him to appear in every single episode; and finally the end-of-season cliff-hanger was as out of the blue as ever, although I hope this time they actually follow the story on next year rather than doing a hasty and unexplained rewrite...

Manny Coto's take on Enterprise has been patchy, but it is still probably the best season of Star Trek since DS9 ended. That is, if you discount the series finale - These Are The Voyages which turned out to be one of the worst episode of Star Trek I've ever seen. Imagine taking a television programme that has finally found an identity of it's own, and instead of using that identity to give it the send off it deserves make the last episode a storyline set in a completely different time with completely different lead characters. We all knew he would make an appearance at some point having shown his beardy chops in every other Star Trek spin-off since TNG, but who would have though that the Enterprise swansong would be some third rate Next Generation story with Fatty Frakes and a wrinkly Marina Sirtis in their Season 3 Next Generation guises? Rick Berman and Brannon Braga showed an uncanny knack of misunderstanding what Star Trek was all about in their three years guiding the series, and for their return to the helm (wrestling it away from Manny Coto) they wrote the worst 45 minutes of television I care to remember. It's a shame; the last year has given us huge amounts of Vulcan back story, explained just what did happen to those Klingon ridges and even saw a great, fun, return to the Mirror Universe.

24, or more accurately, 24 give or take a few minutes here and there, continues to be a flagship show for Fox, and it's easy to see why. The ratings friendly series is a must watch once you've been drawn in and so much happens in every episode that you can't afford to miss one and keep up with the story. The writers have seemingly ditched the real-time aspect of the show this year, and while each episode is supposed to take place over an hour some suspension of belief is required with journeys around LA taking anything from a couple of minutes to cover 10 miles to 30 minutes for a quick trip around the block. Reality is firmly taking a back seat now, but 24 isn't any worse off as a result.

If anything there does appear to be a bit too much reliance on cast members from previous years and the number of presendential pardons handed out to any old terrorist is frankly disturbing, but if you can look past the cracks in the plot and get carried along as the story twists and turns 24 continues to be a hugely entertaining experience.

The funniest US sitcom continues to impress with another stellar season under it's belt. Zach Braff and co really have got the hang of things in season four to the point that sometimes you feel they may now be just treading water, but when the laughs come as thick and fast as they do here I'm not going to complain. US comedy tends to go one of two ways - either it follows the antiseptic generic route (Friends / Joey) or the quirky route (Arrested Development / Dead Like Me). Scrubs sits somewhere between the two - it's probably the quirkiest show of the lot, but at the same time the core values and relationships are very much out of the Friends mould. These are all characters you care about yet the humour often borders on the bizarre and despite the mismatch it works.

The Office
Funny, but not as funny as the original. Steve Carrel's Michael Scott isn't a patch on David Brent, but such comparisons are misplaced. Instead of going down the expected route of trying to emulate the British incarnation of the show, the US Office has developed in it's own way just taking Ricky Gervais and Steve Merchant's core concept and moulding it into something very American. It's very good, and it's still possible to relate to the characters, but it's not quite in the same league. Reaction State-side has been mixed so the future of this one seems a little to precarious to call at the moment.

The fifth series of CSI is the best so far and has culminated in a fantastic extended episode, written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. Taking more chances with the format than previous years, the writers decided to shake things up a little season by splitting the CSI team we've grown to know over the last four years - but this change worked in the show's favour giving more scope for development. We've learnt more about all of the characters this year than in the previous four combined.

So, how about that final episode? Not only was it one of the highlights of the season, it was also probably the most disturbing episode to date. With one of Grissom's team kidnapped and buried alive, it's a race against time to find, first the kidnapper, and then the shallow grave. Tarantino's touch is very much evident here and there are plenty of scenes that hark back to both previous CSI episodes and also Tarantino's films. The 'autopsy' in the last fifteen minutes will go down in history as one of the most gruesome and daring things in the series' history.

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