There may be no more frustrating time for fans of great television than right now.
As you read this, three of TV's best series are wrapping up landmark seasons: AMC's The Walking Dead and HBO's Boardwalk Empire, which air finales tonight, and Showtime's Dexter, which concludes next Sunday.
When they end, a vast wasteland of reruns, reality TV and holiday shows stretch to the year's end, relieved only slightly by the return of TNT's two best series, The Closer and Men of a Certain Age.
The moral? Enjoy these succulent morsels of fine programming while you can, before hibernating through the rest of December with your Netflix subscription or a pile of DVDs from Blockbuster.
In case you haven't been paying attention, here's a look at TV's cool endings . . .
Boardwalk Empire (Season finale airs at 9 tonight on HBO.)
Critics have groused about this gangster story's slow pacing. But this tale of a 1920s-era crooked politician prodded into becoming a ruthless gangster has mesmerized me, like a grand Prohibition-set novel. Steve Buscemi is a ball of exasperation and steely-eyed ambition as Nucky Thompson, a thinly fictionalized take on a real politician gangster who ran Atlantic City for 20 years. As tonight's finale looms, viewers have learned his friend and mentor the Commodore (a powerfully crusty Dabney Coleman) has been poisoned by an unknown; the religious zealot of a Treasury agent pursuing Thompson has killed his own partner, who was secretly on the take; and Thompson has revealed to his free-thinking Irish girlfriend that he had her abusive husband killed. The only question left, as in all good gangster stories, is who gets killed at the end.
The Walking Dead (Season finale airs at 10 tonight on AMC.)
It sounds like a one-note idea — tough-guy sheriff wakes from a coma to find flesh-eating zombies have taken over the earth and his family is missing. But AMC has turned one of the comic world's most ambitious graphic novels into an unpredictable meditation on what happens to people when an apocalypse wipes away all the trappings of civilization. Yup, Walking Dead is a MacGuffin of a title; this show is really about the frightening choices left for the living. In tonight's season finale, Sheriff Rick Grimes has led his now-found family and a hardy band of survivors to the Centers for Disease Control in a last-ditch effort to get answers about the plague. What they discover is an answer to the series' core question: When surrounded by death, destruction and hopeless odds, do you accept the inevitable, or fight until your last breath is gone?
Dexter (Season finale airs at 9 p.m. Dec. 12 on Showtime.)
Hard to believe a season kicked off by the death of hero Dexter Morgan's wife could be considered a slow start. But this latest batch of episodes began with Miami's favorite serial killer mired in guilt over his spouse's slaying by another murderer, John Lithgow's mesmerizing Trinity Killer. The emotional void left him vulnerable to the plight of Julia Stiles' willful Lumen Pierce, a woman sexually abused for a long period by a group of men who, it turns out, killed a dozen other women the same way. As Morgan joins her in tracking down the other men and killing them, she sees more sides of him than any living person ever has — a surprisingly tender bond you just know will end in tragedy. In tonight's episode, she confronts the ringleader of the rape gang, a famous self-help guru. Knowing Stiles is a guest star this season, three questions loom: Will Lumen be killed, or give herself up to the cops to save Morgan? And how will the ringleader meet his maker — because Morgan's enemies always do.
. . . And new beginnings (TiVo or Ti-NO?)
'The Hasselhoffs,' debuts at 10 tonight on A&E: Remember when so-called "reality TV" shows were more than employment programs for D-list celebrities and their questionably talented offspring? Then you may want to skip this misguided mess of a series focused on 50-something ex-Baywatch and America's Got Talent star David Hasselhoff wrangling his daughters Hayley and Taylor-Ann. You may show up hoping for tidbits on how Hayley reportedly drove her father to a hospital for alcohol poisoning, or details on how that infamous video taken by Taylor-Ann of the Hoff drunkenly fumbling with a hamburger landed on YouTube. Instead, you will see the Hoff riding his past fame and claims of being the "German Elvis," while Hayley frets over telling her sister, who quit college for their singing group, that she landed a career-making part on ABC Family's Huge instead. How Hoff-ed up is that? Ti-NO