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Top 8 of 2008: Television

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TV and horror haven’t always been a perfect match. For every Twilight Zone or Night Gallery, we’ve seen countless misfires and failed attempts to generate thrills or suspense between ads for fabric softener. That’s why the shows which do succeed must succeed very well indeed, and rival the best in horror movies. Here are our picks for this year’s best…  

8.  Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog

This internet sensation from Buffy the Vampire Slayer guru Joss Whedon ought to hold over fans until Dollhouse makes it to television next year.  Written and filmed during the 2008 writer’s strike, it was equal parts filler, mid-life crisis, and “Look what I can do without a studio!”  Neil Patrick Harris plays the title character, a mad scientist who sings his own video-blog while fighting archnemesis Captain Hammer (Firefly’s Nathan Fillion) and trying to win over his love, Penny (played by geek-goddess Felicia Day).  It’s not particularly scary, but it is kitschy and funny and just plain odd – all qualities we’ve come to expect and love from Joss Whedon.  And it shows how the web is increasingly becoming the place to view fresh offbeat programming.

7.  The 2008 Scream Awards

There have been a variety of genre-specific awards shows over the years, but none were greeted with much respect outside the genre.  Spike TV’s Scream Awards seems poised to change that.  Genre favorites such as Rob Zombie, Wes Craven, Marilyn Manson, and Shawnee Smith were on hand, but a surprising number of  A-list “mainstream” celebs, like Kate Beckinsale, Smashing Pumpkins, and Sir Anthony Hopkins, turned out too.  Throw in Tim Burton flying in inside a Burton-esque hot air balloon, and George Lucas making an appearance with a stage full of Storm Troopers, and you had one helluva party.

6. Criminal Minds – “Masterpiece”

Criminal Minds is probably the darkest, most disturbing show on television right now.  Going beyond the typical Law & Order or CSI procedurals, Criminal Minds follows a team of FBI behavioral profilers as they track down some of the most brutal criminals every imagined.  One episode, “Masterpiece,” stands out.  Jason Alexander (a.k.a. George Costanza) is especially disturbing as a quiet, long-haired serial killer who turns himself in – but only after imprisoning a woman and four children in a Saw-style trap.  The team has ten hours to break their suspect and save the victims.  Plot twists and mind games abound in this particularly twisted episode of a twisted show.

5.  Bill Hader as Vincent Price on Saturday Night Live

SNL is well past its prime.   But one of the  bright parts of this last season was Bill Hader’s portrayal of Vincent Price.   He hosts a Halloween special that brilliantly reproduces the variety specials of the 1950s and 1960s.  Price’s “guests,” include an over-the-top Gloria Swanson (Kristen Wiig), a swarthy and drunk James Mason (Jon Hamm), and a flamboyant Liberace (Fred Armisten).  Price tries to play the straight man amidst a collection of nutcases who don’t give a crap that it’s Halloween.  Six-and-a-half minutes of laugh-out-loud, non-political SNL humor.

4.  True Blood

HBO’s True Blood is the epitome of gothic southern vampire fare – but with a modern twist.  Vampires are undead and well, walking amongst the living.  Thanks to a synthetic blood, the vamps have assimilated into human society – more or less.  Most vampires have sworn off humans in favor of the fake stuff, but there are a few that still hunger for fresh authentic blood.  Conversely, the hottest new drug on the street for humans is V – vampire blood.  It’s like the Crips and the Bloods.  Issues of race are thinly veiled behind the human/vampire dynamic.  The show focuses on Sookie (played by X-Men’s Anna Paquin), a young waitress who falls for a rugged vampire, to varying levels of approvals from her friends and family.  Of course she’s not exactly normal herself – she can hear people’s thoughts.  True Blood offers a heady mix of societal metaphor, sex and bloodlust. 

3.  Friday the 13th: The Series on DVD

Friday the 13th: The Series had nothing to do with the movies of the same name.  This syndicated tale of terror ran for three seasons in the late 1980s and was second in the syndication ratings only to Star Trek: The Next Generation.  Now, twenty years after its initial broadcast, Friday the 13th: The Series is finally available on DVD.  The saga follows two cousins who inherit an antique store from an uncle they never knew.  Turns out the uncle made a deal with the devil to sell cursed antiques.  When the cousins find out what happened, they begin the arduous task of tracking down and retrieving the antiques, with the help of an old friend.  The show was pretty damn graphic for its time, and despite some hokey graphics (which leads to some hokey reactions), it holds up pretty well today.  So well, in fact, that even though it’s a DVD release and not a new program, we couldn’t resist slipping it onto our list.  The season 1 DVD is bare-bones – no special features, not even a remastering – but it’s definitely worth picking up.  Season 2 will be available in February 2009.

2.  The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horrors XIX

I am fully aware that Treehouse of Horrors hasn’t been scary for… well, ever.  But you can’t make me stop loving The Simpsons  This year’s Halloween trilogy opens with a weak segment – a Simpsons-ized version of Transformers, with the two alien robot races putting aside their differences at the behest of Marge – only to team up and enslave the human race.  “How To Get Ahead in Dead-Vertising” fares better, opening with a Mad Men-esque title sequence, but this original story has Homer taking a job killing celebrities for an ad agency, so the celebrities’ likenesses may be used without paying royalties.  Of course, the celebs get pissed off and take revenge on Homer.  Stand-out moment – when Golda Meier attacks Homer with a Jewish samurai star. Finally, we have “It’s the Grand Pumpkin, Milhouse,” a wonderful homage to It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.  It somehow manages to be faithful both to the original holiday special and the spirit of The Simpsons – especially when the Grand Pumpkin comes to life and takes revenge on those who kill and consume pumpkins.  Sense a theme here?  Despite the weak Transformers segments, this is easily the strongest Treehouse of Horrors in recent memory.

1.  Dexter

Not necessarily scary, but still creepy enough to entertain horror fans, and easily one of the best shows on television – and it stars a serial killer!  Michael C. Hall (Six Feet Under) is Dexter, a Miami PD forensics analyst who specializes in blood spatter patterns by day.  At night, however, he’s a cold, calculating serial killer.  But he lives by a code – the cardinal rule being that he only kills those who have killed.  Dexter wrapped up its third season this year, and it’s already been picked up for two more.  Unlike many shows, it’s managed to maintain a high standard of quality over the years.  A perfect blend of absorbing characters, near-flawless acting, scripts beyond compare, unflinching (yet never obscene) violence, and a healthy smattering of humor make this one of the top shows of the year in any genre.

That’s our list for this year, folks. Let’s hope 2009 is as rich in dark television fare. It will, of course, continue to have stiff competition. After all, in the end, horror TV can never be as terrifying as the news!

Couldn't find your favorite show up here?  Give your own Top 8 TV Shows of '08 down below...

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