Tuesday, March 26, 2013


Of all the horrors mankind has unleashed upon our fragile planet, perhaps nothing is worse than the dread spectre of climate change. You can't turn on the news these days without hearing disturbing tales of melting ice caps, changes to the jet stream, and an upswing in damaging storms around the world. It's scary business. But now something's come along that might even be more terrifying than the prospect of global warming, and we're equally responsible.

I speak, of course, about global flavoring.

Dateline: Scotland. Two weeks ago, it was revealed that a series of heavy storms along the Scottish coast have washed up at least four large lumps... of antique lard.

According to the Scottish Office of Natural Heritage, the lard lumps are suspected to be from the wreck of a merchant vessel sunk during World War II. Back then, the lard was being transported in large barrels. Eventually the barrels rotted away and this year's storm season was enough to raise the lard and deposit it on the beach in big barrel-sized goobers.

Kinda gross and disturbing, sure, but not as gross or disturbing as the quote from Therese Alampo, manager of the St. Cyrus Natural Reserve where the lard washed up:

"It's given us some interesting sights recently on the reserve," she told the British press. "I'm sure there have been people wondering what on earth has washed up on the beach. Animals, including my dog, have certainly enjoyed the lard, and it still looks and smells good enough to have a fry-up with!"

That's funny, because "good" is never a word that I've ever associated with the smell of lard. Not once have I cracked open a tub of Crisco and gone, "Mmmm!" Last I checked, "aged lard" is NOT a top-selling Scentsy fragrance. Then again, no slight against our vast contingency of Scottish readers, but I find it dubious at best to trust the olfactory opinions of a culture that invented haggis.

And I do not own a dog, ergo I'm fairly unqualified to speak of the average canine's skill sets. That said, if I were walking along the beach and came across a barrel-sized pile of gelatinous ick, would my initial reaction be to hand the investigation over to my beloved Fido for a taste-test? Not so much.

How dumb must dogs be? I've seen my share of nature documentaries. All you need is one night of Shark Week to know that marine biologists have frequently sliced open the innards of sharks to reveal everything from tin cans to Doc Martens. There are entire species of fish that live on the backs of other fish and survive off their crumbs. A surplus of snails, slugs, and undersea creepy-crawlies hang out on the ocean floor and survive by hoovering up barely edible bits of slime and filth.

An entire ecosystem of marine life survives on finding whatever food it can -- yet apparantly all of nature's undersea wonders have swam on by these piles of lard for decades and gone, "Naw, that's not food. I'm good." But kick it onshore after 70 years and dogs go wild for the stuff. I always knew cats were smarter.

Why do we care about land-roving lard in the first place? What it is about aged food that we as human beings find so exciting? As I type, you might be aging wine in your basement. Caves in France and Italy are full of cheeses ripening away. In Scandinavia, fish are buried and left to ferment for upwards of a year to give it that extra tasty zing (which hopefully isn't botulism.)

But here's the thing that's always amazed me about aged food. If you think about it, in order to discover that certain types of cheese taste best after sitting around for a year, some dude in history must have left some cheese out for a year to see what would happen. Does this mean that ALL food has, at one time or another in history, been left out for a year and then taste-tested? And did the guy who tried a year-old hot dog live long enough to tell others that it's not so much a delicacy as it is poison? And why is it that a hot dog turns green after a short time yet lard can be submerged for 70 years to make a delightful pet treat? And does the threat of global flavoring end with four hunks of ocean lard? Hardly.

Dateline: the Pacific Northwest. Researchers at Portland State University recently sampled ocean water drawn from various points along the Oregon coast and have discovered the ocean water to be laced... with caffeine. Et tu, Starbucks? If nothing else, this clearly explains why the crabs on "Deadliest Catch" look so jittery.

If you haven't done the math, it's as gross as you'd expect. Remember that latte you had an hour ago? Well, an hour from NOW you're going to flush away some of that latte, and apparantly septic tanks aren't so perfect after all. High rainfall equals sewer overflow equals groundwater runoff equals ocean contamination and THIS is why we never see dolphins taking a nap.

This all seems like an absolutely horrible... waste of caffeine. Caffeine that I need to function on a daily basis. This isn't a pollution issue or an environmental issue -- this is a human internal effiency issue. Clearly we need to train our bodies to consume and utilize every drop of caffeine we put into them. When I slam an 8-Hour Energy, I want all eight hours, not six for me and two for some lucky catfish swimming by. I need to have a serious productivity seminar with my kidneys.

So the bad news is that we're awful polluters slowly destroying our precious oceans with lard and caffeine. The good news is that lard and caffeine are two of my five major food groups, so I'm kinda okay with it. If we could only figure out a way to start polluting our seas with bacon, tacos, and chocolate, I might consider moving to the coastline.


There are many things in life that I will never fully understand:

The origin of Man. The meaning of life. The appeal of Tom Cruise. Basic algebra. Rugby. Nickelback. How to flip an egg without breaking the yolk. The ending to "Donnie Darko." The ending to "Lost." The middle part of "Lost."

And more than anything, I will never fully understand women. How their minds work, what they prioritize, how best to interact with them, why they like what they like, and why they hate what they hate. Lord knows I've tried -- I've actually made it through ENTIRE episodes of "Sex and the City" with little more than a puzzled look on my face.

I spend forty hours a week working in a room full of women. This experience has opened me up to an exciting world of girldom, and I've gained insightful knowledge over the years about everything from childbirth to gynecologists to basket parties. I'm pretty sure I could be declared an honorary female at this point. Still, by and large, I don't get you estrogenny people.

However, I can now rest assured in the knowledge that women apparantly have NO clue about men, either.

I consider myself one of the world's leading authorities on wasting time, and there's no better timewaster on Earth than the internet. Every night, I'll log on to do a quick e-mail check or scan news headlines. Next thing I know, I'll come up for air and realize I've spent 45 minutes watching videos of dancing cats or confirming the current whereabouts of Lindsay Lohan. I am a master web surfer.

It was during one of these epic surf-a-thons the other night that I took a really wrong turn. I was browsing some news, saw a link to an article that looked entertaining, and clicked away. Little did I know that it would transport me to a world that men dare not enter. A world that answers SO many questions while introducing a million more. A world that makes "Sex and the City" look like an afterschool special. I had entered the world... of Cosmopolitan.com.

When I was in college, I had ONE friend who never held back when it came to raunchy storytelling. If there was a sexual conquest to be had, he quested it, more often than not conquered it, and more always than not reenacted it for everyone in our fraternity to enjoy, complete with hypergraphic play-by-play detail, visual aids, hand gestures, and occasional souvenirs. I'm pretty sure this is what women think ALL men act like.

But even my friend's WORST stories couldn't hold a candle to the content of Cosmopolitan.com.

Cosmo is an international magazine for women. It was first published in the U.S. in 1886, has 64 international editions, is printed in 35 languages, and boasts a current U.S. circulation of 3,032,211. Oh, yes, and I almost forgot: it is filthy naughty sex-manual smutty smut smut for ladies. Fellow men of Earth, you can now read Playboy without shame or guilt. Read away, because the articles on Cosmo's website are by and large raunchier than anything I've ever seen in that fine upstanding men's magazine.

I'd give you examples, but I'm pretty sure I'd get fired or run out of town on a rail by the morality police were I to reproduce some of the juicier tidbits currently residing on their site. Worse yet, a good portion of these articles attempt to inform or instruct women on what guys want when it comes to love, dating, and assorted boudoir-related activities. After perusing a good chunk of this cutting-edge journalism, I'm now convinced that either (1) I am a very weird representation of the modern man (admittedly a distinct possibility), or (2) Cosmo has it ALL wrong.

One of the pieces on their website is tastefully entitled, "Naughty Role Play Ideas You've Never Tried Before." Know WHY you haven't tried them before? Because they're RIDICULOUS, that's why. Every guy knows that there's a time and place for role-playing, and that time is 8th grade when you are holding 20-sided dice in your hand. We didn't want girls playing Dungeons & Dragons with us THEN, and we don't want them playing it now in our bedroom.

Okay, maybe some guys are into that kinda thing (I wouldn't know. Know why? Because WE DON'T TALK ABOUT THAT KINDA STUFF.) The article goes on to say that one of the recommended techniques is to pretend that you and your mate are "a lion and lioness out in the savannah." Really? Well, let's just add that to my OKCupid profile and see how many bachelorettes line up, shall we? Maybe I'm weird, but I'm pretty sure that if a girl ROARS at me, I'm either outta there or I'm busting up laughing, and I don't think that's what the editors of Cosmo had in mind.

Yet 3,032,211 U.S. readers of Cosmo probably take this stuff to heart. Let's see, there are roughly 150,000,000 women in the United States. That means 1-in-49 women that I pass on the street might be going home and roaring like a lion because a magazine told them to. And now of course, every time I pass a woman on the street, I can't help but wonder if she's the lucky lioness.

But it doesn't stop there. Another headline reads, "Makeup Men Freaking Love!" Ladies, I'm pretty sure there's only one man on the planet who "freaking loves" makeup, and his name is David Bowie. I've never been out with the guys and heard one of us go, "Yo, check out that girl's... rouge."

Cosmo wants to take relationships and turn them into some epic struggle of mind-games, one-ups-manship, and constant maintenance. I take a simpler approach: If I like somebody, I like them. If they like me back, all the better. No one needs to roar like a lion or apply face paint. If Cosmo REALLY wants to know what men like, just ask us. By and large, the answers are: Large televisions, ESPN, Halo 4, fast cars, and corn dogs.

We're the EASY ones to understand.

COLUMN: Fortune Cats

Okay, folks, this is taking way too long.

The plan was simple: Procure a weekly newspaper column. Use said column to create an army of devoted fans. Let the money roll in. Commence lavish and extravagant lifestyle of dreams. Party with Olsen Twins and Donald Trump. Kick Lindsay Lohan and Charlie Sheen out of said party when things get freaky-deaky. Retire early and perhaps buy small island nation over which I can rule with cold hard iron fist.

C'mon, that's not asking for TOO much, is it?

My plan had one fatal flaw. Incredulous as it seems, it turns out that newspaper columnists -- despite having a job satisfaction level on a 1-to-10 scale of roughly 1,000,000 -- are, by and large, NOT multi-millionaires. Nobody told me this when I signed up. Well, maybe they did. But I wasn't listening. I was too busy designing my line of poseable Shane Brown action figures -- which your kids will LOVE, by the way. You can dress them in a variety of cargo pants and faded concert t-shirts and they'll come with real remote controls in their little hands that change all the TV channels in the Shane Brown Vacation Dreamhouse (sold separately.)

But I'm tired of waiting for millionaire status. The time has come for me to start living high on the hog. And thanks to ABC, I may have figured out how to do it.

Ever seen the show "Shark Tank"? It is a network TV show which, presumably, people must watch. From what little I've seen, it works like this: An assortment of crazy people are paraded into a room and allowed to make a crazy sales pitch about some crazy invention that they've crazied up in their brains. A group of crazy investors then throws a crazy amount of money at them and everyone leaves insanely wealthy.

Don't believe me? Ask Dr. Floyd Seskin, inventor of The UroClub. The UroClub was a product successfully pitched on "Shark Tank" and is now available via infomercial or UroClub.com. What IS UroClub, you ask? Why, it's an invention that I don't know how I've lived without prior to now. The UroClub might just be the most exciting technological innovation of the century. The UroClub is a golf club... you can pee in.

"How many times has this happened to you?" asks the UroClub website. "You're playing 18 holes with your best buddies. You're coming up to the third hole with no rest room in sight. There are no trees or bushes around and you just have to go."

Okay, so that's never happened to me since I'm not a golfer, but it sounds like a wicked awful situation. Well, now, thanks to modern innovation, you can just grab your UroClub (which disguises itself as one of your golf clubs,) discretely unscrew the cap, and do your business right there on the fairway.

What a genius idea. Not only is this a sexy and stylish new way to commit what I'd reckon to be a misdemeanor in most states, but who among us hasn't yearned for a convenient excuse to wander around an 18-hole golf course lugging a bag sloshing to and fro with your own urine? Genius, I tell you. But at the end of the day, I'd also reckon that Dr. Floyd Seskin is making more money selling UroClubs than I am by making fun of it in print.

Ergo, I need to invent something on the double. And while it might not be as revolutionary, ground-breaking, or pee-soaked as the UroClub, I think I've done it. Investors, take note:

The other morning, I was fresh out of the shower and getting ready for work when my cat Isobel sauntered into the bedroom. As I reached down to put on my socks, I caught a glimpse of her face and what appeared to be a small piece of paper sticking out of her mouth. Now, I have two cats -- one of which is a smart and intelligent example of feline evolution; and then there's Isobel, who I love dearly even if she's a little... special. Let's just say that confusing paper for food is the least of that cat's problems.

I sighed and pulled the paper out of her mouth, which grossly unrolled as I pulled, revealing itself to be about three inches in length and already halfway down Isobel's esophagus. I looked at the paper and realized it had writing on it:


They say a picture's worth a thousand words. But if someone had taken a photo at that moment of me, wet-haired and sockless, holding a soggy piece of paper with a puzzled look on my face, the only words of value would have been "What the...?" It wasn't until I walked into the living room and saw the decimated bag and strewn-out remains of the previous night's Chinese takeout that it all made sense. I'd left an uneaten fortune cookie in the bag, and little Izzy had made quick work of it.

And, in doing so, created the greatest idea the world has ever known: FORTUNE CATS.

Who needs their fortunes dispensed via weird little cookies that taste like cardboard when you could receive them daily from a cute, fuzzy kitty cat? It would especially soften the blow should you receive a poor fortune, no? If I'm about to be told that my life is in danger or that I'm going to lose all my money, it might be handy to have something in the near vicinity with sad eyes that purrs.

I'm convinced that the advent of fortune cats could very well be the ground-breaking, money-making idea that the world's been waiting for. All I have to do is find an army of cats and train them to hack up fortunes on a timely basis -- and anyone who lives in Rock Island knows that an army of feral cats is one public bowl of Meow Mix away from my back door. Of course, my friend Jason reminded me that Step One will be to somehow ensure that the fortunes are dispensed exclusively from ONE end of the cat and not the other, so I've got my work cut out for me.

Still, a fella's gotta dream. And my dream is to one day make loads of money by going on "Shark Tank" and introducing the world to Fortune Cats (TM). After all, I'm pretty sure that even if it's covered in cat vomit, my bank will honor a million-dollar check. Wish me luck.

Monday, March 25, 2013

COLUMN: Old Lady Fight

I don't know about you, but I had a pretty decent holiday season. After a relaxing Christmas with the family and a joyous New Year spent among friends, I faced 2013 with renewed optimism. With so many warm fuzzies in my heart, I wondered how long it would take for the idiocy of life to crush my soul and bring me back down to cynical reality.

I now have my answer: 13 days. That's how long it took in 2013 for a little old lady to try and beat me up.

Have you guys ever heard of the new age notion of spiritual vortices? Some people believe that the earth is covered in ley lines that zip spiritual energy from hither to thither. Occasionally these ley lines converge in random spots across the globe, and this supposedly causes a spiritual hot spot where you can recharge your creative chakras or whatever. Of course, these are the same folks that sleep with crystals over their beds and somehow find the music of Yanni appealing.

I dunno if I buy into spiritual vortices, but I'm a firm believer in the notion of comical vortices: random places on Earth where funny weird stuff is just bound to happen. I've spoken at length in older columns about one such vortex: the Taco Bell drive-thru lane. In that tiny slice of real estate, I've had strangers sing to me, witnessed people strip naked, debated politics with restaurant workers, you name it. And now I can add another such vortex to my life: the interior of pretty much any Walgreens.

This is not a slight against either business. I'm a fan of both. If you ever wanted to meet me in real life, you stand a better chance by loitering at Walgreens than you would the front door of the Dispatch office. Anything you need in life can be found at Walgreens, and if you CAN'T find it at Walgreens, you don't need it. The fact that it's a breeding ground for comedy is just a bonus, really. Walgreens can't deny its inherent comical value -- this is, after all, a place that unabashedly sold a stuffed duck in a Santa hat that, for no good reason whatsoever, sings "Freebird" when you push its foot.

I shop at Walgreens so often that I'm even starting to understand the employee codes that get announced over the intercom. Have you ever been inside a Walgreens and heard "I.C.3"? This, apparantly, is Walgreens code to open a second checkout register. I believe it literally translates to "I see 3"-people-waiting-in-line. And it was in one of those lines that our story begins.

I had dashed into my local Walgreens to grab a bag of cat food. With precious little time to get to a meeting, I hustled down the aisle, grabbed the Cat Chow with grace and precision, spun towards the registers, rounded the corner, and... let's just say someone should have called an "I.C. 8."

The line was epic, all due to a woman with a shopping cart full of after-season Christmas-themed stuffed critters. They were half-off and she was clearly stocking up for one heck of a "Freebird" jam session. Worse yet, none of the things were ringing up right, and I could see the poor cashier on the verge of a nervous collapse when she finally grabbed the mic and yelled, "I.C. 3!"

Within a flash, the second register was open and we were moving. The single-file line remained single-file until you got to the registers, where folks were splitting off to whichever cashier was open.After a nearly interminable wait, I was next in line when I suddenly felt a hard jab at my side as a scowling, hunch-backed, grey-haired little old lady shoved me out of the way and guided her cart up to the second register.

"Excuse me," I said incredulously. That's when she spun.

"WHAT did you say to me, BOY?" she barked.

"Umm," I said to a few chuckles behind me. "I said 'Excuse me.' I may have accidentally bumped you while you were cutting past all of us in line just now." That's when she started screaming.


But I didn't care about her words as much as her HAND, which she held up and cocked back as if she was seconds away from slapping me.

"No, ma'am," I said, "I'm NOT disrespecting you, but you'd better put that hand down."

I expected some backup from the folks behind me in line. Instead, I only heard ONE thing from behind me: a single hushed voice going, "Ooooh." The kind of "ooooh" I don't think I'd heard since junior high. The kind of "ooooh" that's usually only followed by ONE word: "Fight! Fight! Fight!"

Now, as best I can recall, I've only been in a situation like this TWICE in my life, and neither time was my adversary collecting Social Security. In grade school, little Robbie McElroy pushed me into the dirt afterschool. I had no response to that, because my mom saw the whole thing and was out of the car yelling at poor Robbie before I even knew what had happened. Another time, in college, my roommate got fed up by my procrastination in dishwashing duties and chucked a bottle of Palmolive at my head. I had no response to that, either, mostly because I deserved it.

And that right there is my entire lifetime history at hand-to-hand combat. Nowhere in there was any experience, training, or advice on how to properly conduct a slap-fight with an 80-year-old woman. You know how they say there's no such thing as bad press? In THIS case, I would beg to differ. "BELOVED LOCAL COLUMNIST ARRESTED FOR ELDERLY ABUSE" is not what I meant by wanting to advance my profile in the newspaper.

Thankfully, it didn't come to that. A fast-thinking Walgreens clerk stepped in and guided the old lady away before I had a chance to properly knock her dentures out. As if I would. Or, heck, even could. Between my physical prowess and years of training, I've got the agility of Ed Asner and the machismo of Richard Simmons, so an 80-year-old lady might have been a fair fight. Even I had to laugh at myself for cautiously checking out the parking lot in fear that she'd be lying in wait for a street-rules grudge match.

I just hope she was having a REALLY bad day, because I'd hate to think this poor sweet-looking old lady goes through life a hair-trigger away from slapping strangers. Still, it infuriated me to think that someone could be SO rude as to blatantly shove through a line of people and THEN become indignant when someone calls her out.

So I'll admit it -- at that moment, a tiny part of my brain spent a tiny amount of time being a tiny part entertained by the fantasy of decking a little old lady flat on her little old hunched back. And that, my friends, is the precise moment when you realize you've just run out of warm fuzzies, renewed optimism, and holiday spirit. December can't get here fast enough.

COLUMN: "Family" Reunion

So how's your 2013 going? Mine's been pretty weird.

Let me set the stage. It was New Year's Eve, err, Eve. I was having a small shindig at the International House of Shane the next night, so I'd just tidied the place up and decided to spend a few relaxing minutes before bed trolling around Facebook. I'd only been logged in for a second before a chat request came through from a girl whose name I didn't recognize.

"Are you from Galesburg?" asked the girl innocently.

"Sure am," I typed, "but I don't brag about it. Who's this?"

Maybe it was someone I went to high school with. Maybe it was someone I worked with. Maybe it was a super cute girl who just happens to be into chunky newspaper columnists who hail from the same hometown as three-time Pulitzer Prize winner Carl Sandburg. Who knew?

"Well," came her reply. "I'm pretty sure I'm your sister."

Umm. Happy New Year?

My dad, as I have said many a time in this column, is amazing. He is the rock of our family, capable of almost anything, and probably the greatest living human being that I've ever known. My dad can take a tree and turn it into a living room set. He built the house I grew up in from the ground up. He spent his entire adult life working a thankless job to provide for my mom and I. He is my support, my coach, my biggest fan, and I'm blessed beyond words to have a father as good as him to share my life with.

There's just one thing we don't happen to share: DNA.

See, before my dad came along, my mom was married to another guy. He's not worth mentioning by name, so let's just make one up - I'm gonna go with Sammy Stupidhead. Sammy left right after my mom found out she was pregnant, and this was shortly after she also discovered he was cheating on her. Classy guy, that Sammy. My mom calls it her period of temporary insanity. I'm not that regretful; it may have been insane, but the end result was ME, so the good win out. A few months after I was born, my mom met my dad. Marriage and adoption came soon after, and we all lived happily ever after. I've never met Sammy Stupidhead and he remains little more than a sperm donor in my world.

I am proud to be an only child. That wasn't the original gameplan, but I caused so much damage on the way out that I ensured no future sibling rivalry, and I like it that way. I get all the love, all the attention, and all the presents. In MY re-enactment of my birth, I came out "Highlander"-style, an ovary in each hand, screaming "There can be only one!"

What I never thought about all these years, though, was Sammy Stupidhead, who headed down south on what was apparantly a mission to impregnate a measurable percentage of southern Illinois. As it turns out, I have no fewer than SEVEN half-siblings running amok out there somewhere. And now the halflings have found me. And I have NO idea what to do about it.

I guess I always assumed that he MUST have had other kids. I just never realized that they'd all be dead ringers for me. I've now seen the pictures, and yep, they pretty much all look like me with a variety of wigs on. I've always joked about my aspirations to one day take over the world; I just never thought I'd be accomplishing it through a vast, big-eared, big-nosed bloodline army.

For what it's worth, the three biological half-siblings that I've chatted online with seem to be really nice people, and, while this whole thing has me totally freaked, I'm happy they made the effort. My mom's convinced that there must be some sort of nefarious intent to their contacting me, but I truly think it was just out of curiosity. They've always known about me, and apparantly finding me was "on their bucket list." I get that, and I think it's cool. After all, I'm pretty awesome. I'd like to get to know me, too.

But waking up the next morning to a half-dozen Facebook friend requests from strangers saying things like "HI UNCLE SHANE!" was almost enough to do my head in. I never even got to torment any of my little "sisters," but some of them now have kids who have kids of their own. Apparantly I'm a great uncle. I didn't know I was a good one.

Now that I've had a week to soak up this new branch of my family tree, I'm still weirded out, but slowly realizing some advantages to their existence.

For one, I'm thinking I can now throw that exercise bike away and get as morbidly obese as I fancy. After all, I've got a fresh crop of potentially matching organ donors at my disposal.

I can also sleep well knowing that, at least thus far, no one on that side of the family has been struck down by any rare genetically-passed illnesses. I've always had a secret worry that maybe Sammy Stupidhead gave me some genes wherein I turn 42 and suddenly my spleen stops working.

Best of all is that I've now seen a recent picture of Sammy Stupidhead himself, and I now have a pretty good idea what I'm gonna look like 25 years down the road. I have ZERO interest in ever meeting the man, but I kinda want to hug his hair -- it's still there and it hasn't even turned totally grey yet.

So at the end of the day, I'm kind of excited about the Great Halfling Invasion of 2013. I set some immediate boundaries: My dad is my dad and my ONLY dad and it stays that way. I'm happy to be their Facebook buddy and a small part of their lives, but don't expect me to show up at the next potluck. And, seriously, I'm never giving any of them one of my kidneys. I'm pretty sure I need them both.

In all honesty, I'm glad to make their acquaintance, learn about their lives, and fill in some small question marks that I guess I've always had in the back of my head. But I still feel like an only child, and that's because I AM the only child of a fantastic set of parents, and that's never changing.

COLUMN: Best of 2012 - TV

I watch a lot of TV. An unhealthy amount. I figure there are two things I could do about it: (1) Immediately change my habits, start getting out of the house, and bettering my life both physically and socially, or (b) justify my countless hours of TV watching with my annual list for the top shows of the year. Guess which one I picked. And while you're guessing, here's my picks for the best TV of 2012:

10. Pretty Little Liars (ABC Family) - Once upon a time, networks thought night-time soaps were just for adults. "Beverly Hills 90210" changed all that, but the problems of Brenda and Dylan seem like "Leave It To Beaver" compared to the four "Pretty Little Liars," who spend every episode being routinely blackmailed and tormented by an unknown evil genius classmate named "A," who must be the greatest criminal mastermind of all time. Ridiculous and over-the-top? You betcha. But addictive as chocolate and a guilty pleasure I don't feel too guilty about.

9. Destination: Truth (Sci-Fi) - Intrepid explorer Josh Gates and his team of supermodels -- I mean, "paranormal experts" -- travel the world in search of ghouls, yetis, and all things that go grrrr in the night. Do they ever find anything? Not so much, other than creepy noises conveniently before every commercial break. But Gates thankfully doesn't take himself too seriously, and watching his team stumble through foreign lands conquering language and social barriers is the real payoff.

8. American Horror Story (F/X) - How could a show THIS unsettling come from the producer of "Glee"? "American Horror Story" follows in the grand tradition of "The Exorcist" and "The Omen" by being creepy without the pointless hack-and-slash. And faced with the dilemma of how to continue the story from Season 1, the producers showed real genius by abandoning everything but the cast and rebooting with an entirely new plot, setting, and characters. Genius stuff, but NOT for the weak of heart.

7. The Voice (NBC) - Dang it, just when I was all set to bury the singing competition genre for once and for all, NBC figured out a way to freshen it up. Let's be honest, no one cares who wins "The Voice." The FUN part is watching the judges. It's their good-natured bickering and genuine love for the contestants that makes "The Voice" destination viewing. That and Melanie Martinez, who is awesome.

6. Fringe (Fox) - The greatest sci-fi show on TV bids farewell this season, and all I can do is thank Fox for giving fans one final go-around of this low-rated but highly-awesome series. What started as a monster-of-the-week procedural has evolved over five seasons into a world of parallel universes, psychic abilities, time travel, aliens, and enough weirdness to out-geek even the nerdiest of viewers.

5. Girls (HBO) - It's hard to judge this show; it's clearly not written for me. Early critics dubbed "Girls" a "Sex and the City" for the next generation. This didn't bode well for me, since I'm pretty sure "Sex and the City" gives me cooties. But in Lena Dunham, "Girls" has perhaps the most gifted writer in all of television, and Dunham's New York City is far removed from the glamour of Carrie Bradshaw. They'd probably hate each other, but Dunham would probably go to dinner with her if it meant a free meal. "Girls" speaks to the jaded post-hipster sect like few others. Lena Dunham, will you marry me? Not kidding.

4. The Vampire Diaries (The CW) - Nothing to see here, folks. Just your usual vampire-girl-vampire love triangle. Oh, what's that, you say? (Spoiler Alert!) Now the GIRL is a vampire, too? I don't care that it's a show written predominantly to give attractive actors the opportunity to "vamp" for the cameras. You just have to believe me that there's a whole lot more to "Vampire Diaries." Like attractive vampire GIRLS, for instance. Oh, and compelling plotlines overseen by the creator of "Dawson's Creek" and the "Scream" franchise.

3. Parks and Recreation (NBC) - When I was in my rebellious teen phase, I didn't hesitate to tell anyone within earshot how evil and bland and boring the Midwest was and how I couldn't wait to leave. These days, the only place I want to be more than here is the fictional town of Pawnee, Indiana. Why? Because it's the home of what might just be the funniest sitcom in history. "Parks and Rec" may be Amy Poehler's show, but its the entire cast that makes it golden -- and watching them rally around Leslie Knope's run for city council last spring was the feel-good storyline of the year.

2. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (Comedy Central) - 2300 episodes, 18 Primetime Emmy Awards, and the Daily Show shows NO signs of getting complacent in its old age. In fact, during an election year, we expect MORE of the show, and it delivered in spades. After a non-stop daily barrage of political ads, pleas, and speeches, I needed my nightly dose of the Daily Show to cut through the muck and point out just how laughable our political process really is.

1. Homeland (Showtime) - I've had this document open for an hour on my laptop now, and I haven't been able to write a single word about "Homeland." Know why? Because as I'm writing this, I'm watching the Season 2 finale and my hands are shaking too hard to type. Some critics have claimed that "Homeland" went off the rails a little this season with unrealistic plotlines. If "Homeland" were "real," we'd probably have multiple episodes of watching security agents file paperwork and analyze data. Instead, we have THE best thriller on TV -- even if I wanna take Brody's teenage daughter and lock her up in the Orphanage of Annoying TV Characters. But it takes a great show to make me hate something THAT much, and "Homeland" is about as great as a show can get.

That's it. 2012: It's a wrap. Next week, we return to pressing matters like cats and houses and annoying people and girlfriends and the lack thereof.