'Tis the season to make a list and check it twice in the entertainment review. The year has featured some memorable moments, for better or worse, on television. I'm doling out some stocking stuffers to various elements -- good and not-so-good -- that found their way onto screens this year.
Candy -- Conan O'Brien's final nights on "Tonight." O'Brien's turn at the helm of NBC's long-running "Tonight" was shockingly short, whether you were a fan of his version of the program or not. Given the fact that he'd rejected multiple big-money offers from other networks for the opportunity to do what O'Brien often called "every comedian's dream job," it was understandable that he would refuse to go quietly when the network decided to try to bump his show back half an hour a night in order to return Jay Leno to the 10:35 p.m. time slot.
The final two weeks of O'Brien's tenure at "Tonight" were possibly the strongest, sharpest and most creative time he and his fiercely loyal writers, staff and crew had ever put in front of the cameras -- including the peak of his "Late Night" efforts during the writers' strike a few years ago. The raw emotions backstage were filtered and distilled into inspired comedy that had a razor's edge; indeed, it drew attention and applause from critics and fans who had drifted away (many complaints centered on the idea that he'd gone soft, or -- at the minimum -- too far to the middle, on "Tonight"), as well as more than a few harsh words from NBC. But when it came time to drop the curtain on the last night, O'Brien gave a simple, heartfelt speech from his desk, acknowledging and thanking NBC for giving him the opportunity to do what he loved, then praising the fan base that had swarmed to support him (whether in the studio, at gatherings across the country, or on social-networking Web sites such as Facebook), while he implored them to reject cynicism. It was a clear and powerful statement of appreciation for the people who had given him his career.
O'Brien may not have been the right man for "Tonight," frankly speaking. Leno is a far more populist option, plus has the successful ratings history to boot. But the personal and professional mileage O'Brien got out of the unceremonious way his former employers handled the situation that their own shortsightedness had caused was astronomical. O'Brien took a live music and comedy show on a wildly successful cross-country tour while he considered new television offers; after weighing an offer from FOX, O'Brien made a deal with basic cable's TBS. His new hour-long talk show, "Conan," debuted in November -- it airs Monday-Thursday nights at 10 p.m. and midnight.
Coal -- NBC's self-destructive decisions. Trying to retain both of their top-tier late night stars -- and the public relations debacle that followed -- is merely the latest headache for the television network as it struggles to reclaim viewers and discover an identity in an increasingly complex and difficult business. The 2009 decision to hand over 5 hours a week to Leno (all of them in the last hour of prime time) led to stunted scripted series development in 2010. An attempt to launch expensive dramas from big-name producers like J.J. Abrams and Jerry Bruckheimer have not yielded success. The lone bright spots on the schedule, ratings-wise, are Sunday Night Football (which is due in no small part to the National Football League's intense popularity), Tuesday night reality show "The Biggest Loser," and Thursday night comedies "The Office" and "30 Rock," which still draw solidly among the demographics that advertisers covet. NBC, now in the midst of attempting a merger with cable powerhouse Comcast, is undergoing turnover in the executive ranks, likely meaning that any recovery at the network is most likely still some distance away. At one time or another over the past 30 years, NBC was home to such award-winning and highly-viewed series as "Hill Street Blues," "L.A. Law," "St. Elsewhere," "Homicide," "ER," "The Cosby Show," "Cheers," "Frasier," "Seinfeld" and "Friends." With the right program development, it can be again.
Candy -- scripted series on basic cable. Strangely enough, NBC's parent company (NBC-Universal) is also the owner of USA Network, which is enjoying tremendous ratings success with lighter hour-long dramas such as "Burn Notice," "Psych" and "Royal Pains." Other channels are seeing success by filling certain niches. AMC, which at one time was a destination for old movies, is now better-known as a risk-taker when it comes to original programming, with the Emmy award-winning "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad," which again are dominating year-end "best of" lists, along with "The Walking Dead," a buzzed-about horror-drama. FX, which once made do with "X-Files" and "NYPD Blue" reruns, now skews toward younger adult audiences looking for edgier programming and has two of TV's funniest and most irreverent half-hours in "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" and "Archer." Right now, much of the best and most creative work on television is happening far, far away from the networks.
Coal -- the unscripted rip-offs. Cloning is fairly commonplace in all corners of the business world. Whenever a hit is born -- good, bad or ugly -- it's soon followed by knock-off after knock-off. ABC's "Dancing with the Stars," for example, has just finished its most-watched competition yet, growing in popularity (and near-exploding with controversy and conspiracy theories) in its sixth year on the air.
But someone needed to stop ABC from picking up "Skating with the Stars," no matter how good the pitch was. (Perhaps the cautionary tale of FOX's "Skating with Celebrities" was simply ignored, since it happened in 2006.) Even though it's from the same producers, who based it on a 2004 Christmastime special that aired on British television, it doesn't have the same spark as "Dancing" does -- or any spark, for that matter. The pros look bored, the "stars" are wobbly and the host is overbearing.
This isn't the only example, of course; there are at least two different programs on two different channels that feature people who own pawn shops, there are a pair of shows on as many stations that proclaim that they will provide the definitive answer to such eternal questions as who really serves the best cheesesteak in Philadelphia, plus innumerable efforts about aging celebrities desperately clinging to the fringes of the spotlight (though not necessarily on ice).
And the less said about Bravo's perpetual "Real Housewives" cloning machine, the better.
Candy -- the "Lost" finale. If you would have told me six years ago that I'd get as emotional as I did about the end of this series, I'd have said you were wrong. All the elements came together (well, maybe not all of them, but enough for my tastes) and produced a rich, satisfying finish to a series that will stay with me for a long time. Instead of blinking out, the final "Lost" was a typically twisty affair, with plenty of the show's trademark mystery and action on display, especially in a climactic hand-to-hand fight that rivaled the best big-screen bouts.
It was also a satisfying episode in terms of catharsis. As the final moments of the last "Lost" unspooled, I found myself remembering little moments from the very first episode, as well as other episodes, remembering how I felt when I first experienced them. I thought of the characters, how they grew and changed as the story grew more dense and complicated. Most of all, I felt a great sense of relief about the conclusion to the journey itself. During the closing credits, I could almost hear the rumbles of discontent from viewers worldwide. It was likely unavoidable that a lot of people were never going to be satisfied with it, but I definitely was. At the end of it all, "Lost" was a popular entertainment that was not only spectacularly produced, but had at least tried to posit the Big Questions, to engage the audience and push a few buttons (no pun intended). That's the show's legacy -- for me anyway.
Coal -- the "Lost" finale. It's over. So what am I supposed to obsess about now?