Other mediums lend themselves to the tidy confines of a calendar year. A book makes it debut once. A movie premieres on a specific day. Music albums drop as completed works.
However, the serial nature of television shows don't fall neatly on the calendar. A lot of network offerings are still on a schedule that mimics the school year, and so a show that starts off strong this fall (Modern Family, for example) could end up eating it by March. Therefore, it's a mistake to stick any show on a best-of list until you've seen how a season plays out. In addition, since TV series are comprised of multiple seasons, there's always the question of whether or not any series deserves to be listed when it's having an off year, and the corresponding question, do you reward a show when it's outkicking its coverage? What one can do at the end of a year, however, is take a look at which television phenomena made them sit up and take note over the year, and why. Without further ado ...
Stealth feminist female ensemble of the year -- Big Love (HBO). This show has a formidably deep bench of acting talent -- Tripplehorn, Chloe Sevigny and Ginnifer Goodwin play the wives of polygynist* Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton, doing the Bill Paxton thing) and each of them is breathtakingly good at conveying volumes of tumultuous inner life with a glance or gesture. As if that wasn't enough, Amanda Seyfried as a furious and questioning daughter, Melora Walters as a fragile plural wife, Grace Zabriskie as deposed fundamentalist royalty and Mary Kay Place as the plural wife who "keeps sweet" as antifreeze are all tremendously skilled and lively presences.
The stealth feminism in Big Love comes from how the show demonstrates the way proscribed gender roles warp everyone who subscribes to them, and Big Love does so in a way that lets the viewer have compassion for the people who can't think their way out of the box into which they've been crammed.
At long last, dignity for the under-40 professional set -- Regina King as Detective Lydia Adams on Southland. Adams is calm, competent and compassionate without being clumsy, or adorably clueless about boys, or constantly stuffing chocolate in her maw. In other words, nobody making Southland saw a professional woman as a threat to anyone's masculinity. So Adams was allowed to have her authority and her struggles with the same matter-of-fact respect that male professionals routinely get on cop shows throughout the ages.
Naturally, NBC decided they couldn't be having with this, and that is why Southland is going to be airing on TNT as of January 12, 2010.
Best embrace of terror as an authority tactic -- a tie between Sue Sylvester (Glee, FOX) and Veronica (Better Off Ted, ABC). The characters Jane Lynch plays on Glee and Portia de Rossi plays on Better Off Ted have a few significant commonalities: Both recognize that fear is an excellent substitute for respect, both don't care what other people don't think of them, and both embrace their appetites and ambition without guilt. Perhaps I bear disproportionate scars from the Ally McBeal/ER/West Wing era, but I got tired of seeing women feel all guilty and conflicted over wanting authority and success. So it is tremendously refreshing to see two characters who can't even see what that would be a problem. It is also refreshing to see the idea of "Ambitious woman as something to be feared!" to be so relentlessly parodied via these extreme characters; it will, one hopes, lead to a broader cultural understanding that there is nothing frightening about a woman in authority.
Best female characterization of the year -- Season two, Sons of Anarchy. The season started off rough with a very, very brutal act specifically designed to make the alpha female on the show, Gemma Teller Morrow, feel completely demoralized and powerless. It was horrific to watch (I admit, I had to mute the TV after about 30 seconds) and it was infuriating to a viewer to see the character targeted thusly. But watching Gemma pull herself back together again was a gratifying, 13-episode arc. Katey Sagall was robbed of a Golden Globe nomination.
Best breeding ground for female-friendly roles -- sci-fi shows. Seriously. When it takes shows explicitly set on other planets, in other universes and in alternate realities to consistently bring us complex female characters not hemmed in by sexist narrative conventions, it is time to take a look at what's going on in shows set on this planet. Oh, BSG, you will be missed. (On the other hand, Stargate Universe is shaping up nicely.)
Best reminder that really, things have improved -- Life on Mars. The ABC show was criminally underwatched, and there were two great reasons for tuning in: the reminder that the workplace is a lot less demoralizing for women than it used to be, and the sweetly resilient performance Gretchen Mol produced in her role as aspiring cop Annie. Mol imbued Annie with a touchingly steely determination and the rueful understanding that she'd have to keep that iron will under wraps most of the time.
So what shows and characters made your personal list for the year? I'd love your suggestions below.
*Note: I make the distinction between polygyny, the taking of multiple female partner, and polygamy, which is the taking of multiple partners, period, because I think the patently sexist practice of taking multiple wives without offering them the same options deserves the term that accurately describes the gender dynamics going on.