When Charles Dickens wrote about the best of times and the worst of times, he must have been thinking of a year like 2008.
On one level, it was a serious bummer for media: starting with a TV industry paralyzed by the Hollywood writers strike, through master political journalist Tim Russert's death, thousands of media worker layoffs and NBC's decision to turn Jay Leno into a poster boy for Giving Up on Prime Time.
But there were more than a few bright spots, too. Online technology made accessing your favorite TV episodes easier than ever (big ups to NBC for putting Saturday Night Live online fast enough to catch the best sketches on Sunday morning) and cable television debuted some of its best series ever.
This is the story of modern media at the turn of the 21st century: increased choice, increased fragmentation and increased disarray.
Here's my list of projects that best took advantage of an exciting, treacherous environment:
10Dexter. If the idea of a serial killer hiding in the Miami Police forensics department seems outlandish, casting Jimmy Smits as a ruthless prosecutor who befriends the guy to learn how to get away with murder felt like a bizarre twist on a macabre fairy tale. Still, the stumbling third season of this Showtime series remained compelling, mostly thanks to Smits and star Michael C. Hall. (Watch sample)
9 The Wire. I'm going to keep lauding HBO's amazing Baltimore police drama — which concluded this year with a fifth season that presciently foretold the crisis in big-city newspapers — until Emmy voters get off their behinds and show some love. I'm not holding my breath. (Watch sample)
8 Lost. Just when you're ready to write off ABC's castaway drama as an endless puzzle of Gilligan-ish proportions, they pull you back in. This year, a time-jumping story line saw six of the marooned airline passengers get off their mystical, unnamed island, only to immediately begin scheming about how to get back. Added points for being the only show to get better during the writers strike. (Watch Season 5 preview)
7 Burn Notice. Not quite an adventure and not quite a comedy, USA Network's cheeky tale about a superspy forcibly stranded in his Miami hometown is funny when you need and thrilling when you want. Toss in a lush, filmed-entirely-in Florida look and B-movie legend Bruce Campbell, and you've got instant action TV heaven. (Watch sample)
6 Sons of Anarchy. On paper, it sounds like a MAD TV sketch — a Sopranos-style take on a family-run biker gang. But this series played more like Macbeth on motorcycles, with Hellboy's Ron Perelman as the ruthless leader and Married . . . With Children's Katey Sagal as his even more ruthless Lady Macbeth. (Watch sample)
5 Craig Ferguson gets serious. Forget Leno's everyman pandering and Conan's relentless silliness; the most compelling late-night act is CBS's Craig Ferguson when he's got something serious to say. Find a YouTube clip of him begging journalists to report real election news or recounting the recent passing of his mother (replaying clips of her trip around Cali with the Wu-Tang Clan's RZA years ago) for serious proof. (Watch Ferguson eulogize his mother)
4 Hulu.com. Someday, all TV will be delivered on demand, every episode of your favorite show available with a mouse click. Until then, the next best thing is this Web site, with crystal-clear streaming of shows from founders NBC, Fox and a lot more.
3 Obama Media. It wasn't just the e-mail networking of millions of small donors or the Web site debunking myths about his life. Barack Obama dominated new media this year by mastering a host of new media opportunities, from creating a super-slick network TV infomercial to placing the president's weekly address on YouTube. (Watch a weekly address)
2 Tina Fey. She made Saturday Night Live politically relevant again (and possibly swung an election) with her spot-on Sarah Palin impression. Then she led her sidesplitting NBC comedy 30 Rock to more Emmy wins than any other show. Can she get on this whole economic crisis thing next? (Watch Fey talk about Palin persona)
1 Mad Men. Sixties-era adman Don Draper is the ultimate distant dad — talented, desirable, remote and full of secrets. Placed in a pathologically detailed re-creation of a 1962 Manhattan advertising firm, he's the James Bond of Madison Avenue. No wonder we, along with every character on the show, were smitten. (Watch sample)
Eric Deggans can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8521. Read his blog, The Feed, at blogs. tampabay.com/media.