WHAT a difference a year makes. Or, in a shock new development, not. Twelve months ago in this space, encouraged by some stern words from top television execs, I predicted that the end was nigh for reality shows. Guess how many there were in 2005? That's right - 176.
TV can be a rapid-response vehicle when it wants to be; other times it's like a tanker trying to turn 180 degrees in a typhoon in a tapioca sea. Maybe some of this year's glut were already commissioned and couldn't be cancelled. Look forward, therefore, to STV's biggie for 2009: Toll! Toll! Toll!, a fascinating insight into the lives of the people who collect your money on the Forth Road Bridge.
Of course, I'm making up Toll! Toll! Toll! - at least I hope I am. But according to the documentary I'll Do Anything to Get on TV (C4) there were indeed 176 reality shows and quite a lot of them seemed like dares, the result of ideas meetings disintegrating into pub-games to find the most banal, the most baaa!-like, to drearily follow other more confident programmes round and round the TV pen.
But I must try and be positive; there was some good stuff, too. It was a great 2005 for Chris Langham - pace his arrest last week. He was heroically dim on radio in the mockumentary People Like Us - a gentle send-up of the reality genre - but struggled to find the right thing on TV until this year when he found two: Help (BBC2) and The Thick of It (BBC4).
Help was a gentle send-up of therapy culture. Langham was the shrink; Paul Whitehouse played seven different patients. Following on from his mid-life crisis comedy Happiness, Whitehouse continues to distance himself from The Fast Show, revealing depths to his humour that the catchphrase-based format never hinted at. It will be interesting to see if Matt Lucas and David Walliams of Little Britain (BBC3) can move on from gags about piddling pensioners.
The Thick of It was Armando Iannucci's satire of Blairism, updating Yes, Minister to the age of spin, and it really wasn't a good year for the PM. Besides Bremner, Bird & Fortune (C4) and Dead Ringers (BBC2) being relentlessly on his case as usual, there was The Government Inspector (C4), the David Kelly drama, where James Larkin portrayed him as vain and distracted, and A Very Social Secretary (More4), the David Blunkett comedy, with Robert Lindsay going down the family-sitcom chump route, revealing him as twitchy, bewildered and forever treading on toys.
Quit while you're ahead. Two government terms are enough; the same is true for two series for a comedy. The Little Britain guys failed to heed the lesson of Fawlty Towers; Ricky Gervais didn't. After shutting down The Office, he returned this year with Extras (BBC2), set in the world, just out of shot, of the plucky spear-carrier. It was Aladdin Sane next to Ziggy Stardust, very good, not brilliant, but a long way from the "Meet my new best famous friends" disaster it might have been.
Extras was much-hyped, in the current style. So was Desperate Housewives (C4), which left me cold, and Doctor Who (BBC1), which was great fun. No programme faced a bigger challenge in 2005 than how to "do" the Daleks; Russell T Davies chose opera. With a whoosh of Wagner, the eggbox psychopaths took to the air, finally ridding themselves of all comparisons to Mariah "I don't do stairs" Carey, and there was a strange serenity about them as they croaked their last. Until next time, that is.
Post-golden age, Chris Evans understood the concept of Saturday night family viewing as well as anyone. With Doctor Who, his ex, Billie Piper, nicked his clothes, and while Evans won the How The Mighty Have Fallen Award for OFI Sunday (ITV1), Piper's acting was the year's most pleasant surprise. Now I want to see Cheryl from Girls Aloud play Hedda Gabler for the mall-rat masses.
I had a zillion channels at my disposal in 2005, but the number of shows to which I stayed loyal could be counted on the fingers of one foot. Lost (C4)? I gave up after the first episode, and the first glimpse of the rugged hero's carefully arranged facial scar. Don't tell me I've got more choice now. Just last week, Five screened Perfect Day, a drama starring Kate Ashfield and Claire Goose which featured a dirty rotten scoundrel of Celtic extraction and a wedding from hell. The following night on ITV1 came Secret Smile, starring Kate Ashfield and Claire Goose and featuring a dirty rotten scoundrel etc, etc.
The latter right bad yin was played by David Tennant, Scotland's best-kept acting secret until last year's Blackpool, which he followed early in 2005 with the Carry On-ish Casanova (BBC3, Russell T again). Now he's about to go stratospheric as the new Doctor Who.
THE ARID TV TUNDRA relented for Coast (BBC1) and I also enjoyed The Rotters' Club (BBC2). It seems impossible these days to reference Blue Nun, Austin Allegros and Cadbury's Smash without irony, but Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais - who dramatised Jonathan Coe's novel - chronicle the 1970s truthfully.
Charles Dickens chronicled the 1850s better than most, and Bleak House (BBC1) - adapted by Andrew Davies and sliced into soap-sized chunks to follow Easties - surely marks the start of a worthwhile trend for cut-down classics for this attention-deficient age.
This year I got myself a new telly; the old one was leaning too far to the left and that's not something you could say about Tony Blair, or any of his small-screen incarnations. It's a 30-incher and great for football and films, but the "stars" of those 176 reality shows - all those determinedly lower-case desperate housewives in programmes about naughty children and other domestic dilemmas - fared less well when exposing their D-list skin tone to the cameras.
Of course I didn't watch all 176; of course I enjoyed some of them, including The Apprentice (BBC1) and especially the C4 double-whammy of "torture lite": The Guantanamo Guidebook and Escape to the Legion. (Memo to TV bosses: if you're truly committed to revealing how ordinary people handle extremity, how about a reality show for 2006 set in a reality show ideas meeting?)
Man of the Year? It's a dead heat between Jamie Oliver for Jamie's School Dinners and Julian Barratt for playing the contradiction-in-terms journalist-hero in Nathan Barley (both C4) who wrote an article which sort of summed up 2006 - "The Rise of the Idiots". Jamie wins for rehabilitating both his own persona and something just as vomit-inducing, the school lunch. Truly campaigning television.