The election had one bipartisan benefit: it covered up the fact that there was not much else to watch on TV last year. Though the writers' strike was resolved in February, it pushed back production of new shows. Ratings dropped; NBC handed a third of its prime time to Jay Leno; it seemed as if TV itself were petering out.
But now hope is on the way! Also change--at least in the changing-channels sense. On top of the usual crush of midseason events (Fox's revamped American Idol) and cable debuts (Sci Fi's Battlestar Galactica), there's a rush of strike-delayed shows. If the TV waters of 2008 were becalmed, this month they've become a giant tsunami about to crash onto an island.
In one of the most anticipated shows--ABC's Lost, which returns for Season 5--that island disappeared last May. Having crashed on a mysterious isle, the survivors of Oceanic Air Flight 815 are learning ever more about the local weirdness, the legacy of an experiment aimed at manipulating space-time. At the end of Season 4, the island's Einsteinian juju caused it to vanish, taking most of the castaways with it, while six escapees realize they have to return--along with a villain now allied with them, plus a dead guy--to prevent a catastrophe.
In the two-episode premiere (Jan. 21, 9 p.m. E.T.), the survivors try to determine where (and perhaps when) the island has gone. The debut adds a mind-bending twist to the show's time-jumping narrative that I won't spoil, while keeping its head of steam from Season 4. Lost has a pulp streak--the premiere doesn't just use but also conspicuously repeats the line "God help us all!"--yet it's leavened by humor and performances that ground the bizarre events in a plausible humanity. (Especially Jorge Garcia as sweet, afflicted Hurley, the world's unluckiest lottery winner.)
If you prefer your drama less quantum-physics-based and easier to follow, NBC returns Friday Night Lights for Season 3 (Fridays, 9 p.m. E.T.). Calling FNL a high school football drama is a disservice, though it is one; it's really a drama about small-town life. FNL's Dillon, Texas, is a microcosm of America--overextended, burdened at home and at work but still undyingly willing to have faith and hope. Shot intimately with handheld camera, it's a moving but unsentimental celebration of community, of pulling together not just because it's right but also because it's necessary. The show's moral center, coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) puts it best when a former player asks him why he insists on trying to help him get his life together: "Because I need something good to happen." Is there anybody in America who disagrees?
Lies, Damned Lies and Matrimony
Just as Zeitgeisty but less uplifting is Fox's Lie to Me (Wednesdays, 9 p.m. E.T.), which may be the most cynical TV drama ever made. That's not an insult; it's a tribute to how well the show executes its purpose. It follows Cal Lightman, an expert on "microexpressions" who reads blinks and grimaces to catch deceptions and solve crimes. Lightman is played pugnaciously by Tim Roth, who expands on the successful Fox philosophy, embodied by Simon Cowell and Gordon Ramsay, that Americans long to be judged by crabby Brits.