December can be such a refreshing month for television, especially the warm-hearted Christmas specials that make the holiday about giving, not mall-emptying materialism. This year, for example, NBC aired a new Muppet special where they helped Santa Claus make children's wishes come true. There's a reason why "A Charlie Brown Christmas" never gets old and "Miracle on 34th Street" remains timeless in its black-and-white glory: They champion the good, and the holy, and the pure innocence of Christmas.
And it's worlds apart in tone from today's usual TV fare. Switch the channel and you'll find a young man coming back to life in the middle of his own autopsy.
That grotesque scene unraveled in December on the new CBS series "Eleventh Hour," which featured two college-aged men who are assumed dead, but find themselves revived in the autopsy room. The one who's not sliced wide open starts yelling at the medical examiner as his friend's heart beats away. No matter. Both soon die "again." The plot is too strange (and lame) to explain.
These two extremes on television are good examples of the best and worst of entertainment in 2008. Here are some other offerings.
Best: The movie "Juno" had all the irony and quippiness of your average art-house film about high-schoolers. But beneath that jokey exterior were real flesh-and-blood characters who struggled with an unanticipated teenage pregnancy by making the mature (if painful) decision to carry the child the term - and then give the child to a woman who yearns deeply for a child to adopt. It was warm, funny, uplifting, and realistic - and it was a surprising hit and Oscar nominee.
Worst: The Fox show "Moment of Truth," which offered contestants half-million-dollar prizes if they would submit themselves to a lie detector as the host asked embarrassing questions certain to break up marriages and ruin families. Take contestant Lauren Cleri, who admitted in front of 8.6 million TV watchers (and her husband Frank) to committing adultery. She later lost the $100,000 she had won by answering yes to the question, "Do you believe that you're a good person?" At least she knew she was lying. Fox exploited the whole sordid wreckage for ratings points. Calling something "a new low for reality TV" might seem impossible, but this Fox spectacle fit the bill.
Best: Ben Stein riled up the secular elites with his documentary "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed," which revealed the dogmatic - even fanatical - views of God-spurning scientists who insist that no one who questions Charles Darwin's theories of evolution should be allowed to teach a science class. One professor lamented that the film would "appeal strongly to the religious, the paranoid, the conspiracy theorists, and the ignorant - which means they're going to draw in about 90 percent of the American market."
Worst: The moral backwardness of the Showtime series "Dexter," whose allegedly heroic title character is a serial killer working as a blood-spatter specialist for the Miami police. (He only kills and slices up bad guys, the producers insist.) The TV writers' strike spurred CBS to put this scummy show on broadcast television, multiplying its disgusting reach by a factor of eight. CBS hoped to make a profit with a show celebrating human butchery with an ironic wink. Thankfully it bombed, and was canceled.
Worst: Fox's "Family Guy" making fun of Jesus Christ as a slacker who works in a record store to get away from the God the Father, allegedly an almighty pain in the rear as he tries to quit smoking. Jesus appears to the masses, quickly loses his morality as he acquires fame and fortune on TV, and is found dead drunk by the cops. He's so pathetic he needs to be bailed out from jail by the dumbest character in the animated universe. The atheist Seth MacFarlane spurns his critics as the ones who are morally obtuse, saying it's "like getting hate mail from Hitler."
Best: Advertisers who really practice corporate responsibility by placing their commercials on healthier television fare, and seeking to avoid subsidizing the vilest corners of the boob tube. Coca-Cola led the list of the Parents Television Council's ten best advertisers, which also included big names like Clorox, Hershey, Century 21, Whirlpool, State Farm, and Hewlett-Packard. At the top of the Worst Advertisers list was General Motors, which adds to the reasons why a GM bailout would be objectionable.
On to 2009, and as Hollywood's political contributions helped remove any Republican leadership in Washington, the level of raunch, like the economy, may get much worse before it gets better.