South Park -- This isn't the friendliest show on television -- it's an equal-opportunity offender that tries to push every cultural, political, and sexual button possible. A kid dies in each episode. Children discuss sex with a wit that belies their innocence. The animation is less sophisticated than you'd find in an episode of Scooby-Doo. Nevertheless, because it's animated, the writers are able to take their cast of characters into satirical situations that wouldn't be possible on a live-action show. The fact that the characters are kids allows them to have a naive -- and refreshing -- perspective on whatever current topic the show is skewering. And because it makes a joke out of being relentlessly crude, it's easy to eventually give in to idea that it's not violence and sex on television that causes children to misunderstand the world around them; it's our inability to talk about those things freely and comfortably that causes the problem.
Monster House -- The Discovery Channel seems to be the place to find real reality TV. Don't look for elaborate contests involving exotic countries or stranded socialites. On the Discovery Channel, they do things like kick families out of their houses so that they can challenge a team of honest-to-God contractors to build them one-of-a-kind theme homes. There are similar shows on other channels, but this is the only one where the contractors heft tools more than they confess to the camera, and the drama comes from watching a team figure out how to work together rather than tearing itself apart. And the final houses are always amazing.
Queer Eye for the Straight Guy -- Five gay men swoop in on an innocent straight guy -- usually a wreck of a person -- and remake him into the kind of stylish, coherent man that women desire. They teach him how to cook food -- or at least shop for it in the right kind of store -- and help him redecorate his home. They clean out his medicine cabinet and closet, making snarky jokes about everything they find, then fill them with products that happen to be sponsoring the show. It's superficial and laden with built-in advertisements, but it's one of the friendliest shows on TV. Instead of belittling the clich & eacute;s of the hetero world, the Fab Five toss them out the window with a one-liner, instead urging everybody to spend a little time and energy finding their own style. The final sequence is brilliant: we watch a reality show about a group of gay friends hanging out in a loft, watching a reality TV show about a straight guy taking their advice. Maybe somebody will film us watching them watching them; it's as good an image as any I've seen for representing the state of television.
The Shield -- I knew that if I was going to spend a month watching TV, I would have to watch my share of crime dramas. I figured I probably was due to watch a few. (Most of them are so bad, we should share the burden.) But I wasn't expecting to find one that I liked enough to seek out reruns whenever they were broadcast. On The Shield, everything is amped up, which is probably necessary in a world where COPS has reduced real police work to nothing more than channel filler. The extreme tactics and intense emotions these fictional officers bring to their work in a surreally criminal version of Los Angeles puts the tension back into what is clearly a dangerous and touchy job. Each character is bracingly complex, and the actors are fearless in exploring their roles. The new season starts in March, and I've considered keeping cable at least long enough to see where it's going.
Curb Your Enthusiasm -- For a few weeks, this HBO series confused me. It's a surreal sitcom about the life of Larry David (co-creator, director and writer of Seinfeld), seen here as a balding, past-middle-age man living in Los Angeles who can't seem to come to grips with the world around him. He's unintentionally rude and unkind to other people, and he seems determined to make sure that he never enjoys something so much that he forgets to be miserable. But tucked in among the celebrity cameos and angst-jokes (most of which seem like old Woody Allen material) are some very bold interactions with racial, sexual, and health topics. In the end, David always moves on with his life, just as in any other sitcom. But it's the way that he seems so willing to move on even while he's unsatisfied that make the show more than just a cultural corrective. Larry David's sense of perpetual dissatisfaction may be the most realistic thing on TV.