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Thank goodness we had cable - and comedies - in 2009

In television, as in other rackets, the last year of this, the first decade of the 21st century, began with gloom.

A worldwide recession had TV networks and production companies terrified. During the early months of the year, U.S. President Barack Obama was on prime-time TV almost as often as were actors, issuing warnings, giving speeches and reminding the United States and the world that the global economy had been taken to the brink of collapse. In Canada, local stations were put up for sale and changed hands for as little as $1. Over-the-air broadcasters went to war against cable and satellite companies, demanding "fee for carriage," and that became the year's most groan-inducing phrase. Eventually, the economic situation drove big, once-brash broadcaster CanWest into creditor-protection proceedings.

And then came the laughs. Turned out, as often happens in times of gloom, comedy flourished. Summer brought the second season of the increasingly smart and funny True Blood . The new fall TV season begat a bunch of comedies with bite: Modern Family , Community , The Middle , Glee . CBS's The Big Bang Theory got better and funnier. People laugh to forget, and this was the year of laughter and forgetting in television. We forgot how good Corner Gas could be, until it ended in April - and then the Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television forgot about it completely when it came time for the Gemini Awards. That wasn't funny at all.

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CBC complained about less and less funding. As it usually does. Then, when it came time to rejig The National and relaunch CBC Newsworld as CBC News Network, it seemed to remember that it had money to promote the change relentlessly. For a few days, as Pastor Mansbridge and his team coped with the new format, things got unintentionally comical. In the United States, meanwhile, Jay Leno, the long-standing, successful joke machine hosting The Tonight Show , was replaced by Conan O'Brien, and NBC gave Leno his own variety/talk show five nights a week. Which O'Brien probably didn't find comical at all.

NBC's decision to abandon 10 p.m. dramas was both a cost-cutting move and a reminder that, in essence, the only really talked-about dramas are on cable, not network, TV. This year it was Mad Men , again, that set the standard. Dexter renewed itself, and millions watched the recent season finale. In October, the cable series Sons of Anarchy (a baroque stew of Shakespearean inspiration and biker-gang drama that airs on F/X in the United States and SuperChannel in Canada) beat The JayLeno Show in the Nielsen ratings. This was the first time a basic-cable program had more viewers than Leno, whose show was already being battered by dramas on other networks. The only laughter came from the drama producers.

Reality TV provided the most sobering elements in 2009. The Balloon Boy fiasco underlined how far some people will go toward achieving the flimsiest sort of TV fame. Ryan Jenkins, a Canadian contestant on the VH1 reality dating show Megan Wants a Millionaire , was charged with the murder of his wife, Jasmine Fiore, whose body was found stuffed into a suitcase. He eventually fled to Canada, where he hanged himself. On Survivor , a 42-year-old lawyer, who had applied seven times to be on the show, collapsed during filming; the cause was given as "severe malnutrition and dehydration."

Even the chat shows turned sombre. Mackenzie Phillips went on The Oprah Winfrey Show and talked about being raped by her father. David Letterman admitted to sexual affairs with junior staff members and to being blackmailed, even as his studio audience tittered. Eventually, he apologized on-air to his wife, who obviously didn't find it funny at all. People got sick and tired of Jon and Kate Gosselin and their fame-fuelled, train-wreck termination of a marriage.

Little wonder we needed comedy. The year also brought the Seinfeld reunion that people really wanted and enjoyed - in the midst of the toxic comedy of Curb Your Enthusiasm . In Canada, The Foundation , on Showcase, proved to be a sharp satire of charity, celebrities and more. The Rick Mercer Report stuck to its formula and drew more viewers than CBC's dramas.

And yet it is for TV drama that the year will be remembered. Locally, Flashpoint 's ratings soared, even without a U.S. simulcast on CBS. Collision , on PBS's Masterpiece Theatre, proved that British TV drama is far from dead. Mad Men , Dexter and Breaking Bad had better storytelling, more substance and a more profound impact than any movie released this year. Comedy may have made a comeback, but it's the dramas that won't be forgotten.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More

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