Saturday, December 18, 2010

Best Television Shows of 2010

There was an abundance of good programs on the tube this year, particularly on cable which has now set the standard for most original and engaging programming on TV, in both comedy and drama. Of particularly note is the success of the channel FX, which launched three superb shows this year (though not all were lucky enough to get renewed).

There were so many good programs, in fact, that I couldn't quite keep my list to 10 and instead decided to expand it to 15. Seven of those are shows that premiered either at the end of 2009 or in 2010, which gives you a sense of how strong the new crop of shows were this year.
Now without further ado, my 15 favorite TV programs of 2010:

15) Cougar Town (ABC)
Cougar Town abandoned its initial premise somewhere midway through season 1, when Courtney Cox's character Jules became less concerned with dating younger guys and more with being the ringleader of one of the funniest cast of characters on TV, the neighborhood cul-de-sac crew -- comprised of her son, her ex-husband, her age-appropriate boyfriend, her next door neighbors, and her younger colleague -- who are always finding new and unusual ways to appreciate, ridicule, and embarrass one another. The show shares many of the same stylistic traits as creator Bill Lawrence's previous show, Scrubs, with lots of insular jokes and absurd sight gags. But the whole enterprise is done with a great deal of heart and if you dig the show's particular vibe (and can forgive the title), it can be very funny, even more so than its more popular channel-mate Modern Family.

14) Archer (FX)
Raunchy, vulgar, and hilarious, FX's adult animated comedy Archer is about a narcissistic spy with callous disregard for everyone he works with, including his overbearing mother (brilliantly voiced by Arrested Development's Jessica Walter) and spy ex-girlfriend (Aisha Tyler). Featuring a fantastic cast of animated voices like Chris Parnell, Judy Greer, and, as the title character, a delightfully belligerent H. Jon Benjamin, Archer is the edgiest comedy on TV, using the animated format to break taboos in much more intelligent ways than any of Seth MacFarlane's Fox cartoons.

13) 30 Rock (NBC)
After a middling 4th season that saw the show overdoing it with guest stars and poorly constructed plotlines, 30 Rock rebounded in a big way this fall, finding new and inventive stories for its over-the-top characters, from Tracy's inability to recite a simple line for a commercial to Jenna's romantic relationship with a transvestite celeb impersonator to Jack's desire to go a single day without making a bad decision (a streak called "Reaganing"). Tina Fey's satire works best when the rapid-fire jokes are in the service of the story and the characters, and after a down period it appears the show is back in fine form.

12) The Good Wife (CBS)
When it first premiered, I initially dismissed The Good Wife as being too much of a legal procedural despite its serialized elements. But in its second season, the show has found what is probably the perfect balance for a broadcast program, coming up with compelling case of the week stories while developing regular characters with deep back-stories and constantly changing motivations. Moreover, the show wisely uses its Chicago-politics backdrop to continually examine our technology-driven lives, peppering its storytelling with social media, cable news, and viral videos cast as both invaders of privacy and essential tools for discovering and manipulating the truth. Not to damn it with faint praise, but The Good Wife is the best drama on broadcast television.

11) Men of a Certain Age (TNT)
Ray Romano says he created this show (with former Everybody Loves Raymond writer Mike Royce) because his wife wanted him out of the house, but he clearly needed to express some of the more serious, contemplative ideas he couldn't share on his old sitcom. Focused on a trio of high school buddies in their late 40s, Men of a Certain age is essentially a show about dealing with life's small challenges and the aspirations we either hold on to or give up as we grow older. It has an appropriately laid-back tone and its stories are never very large in scope, but the characters are more relatable and the show more effective as a result. It's a small scale drama with strong performances and good writing that hopefully will start drawing the bigger audience it deserves.

10) Justified (FX)
Based on an Elmore Leonard short story, Justified features a magnetic Timothy Olyphant playing a modern variation of his Seth Bullock character on Deadwood, a US Marshal named Raylan Givens who is forced to return to his native Kentucky after being a little too quick on the draw in his prior assignments. Givens is a terrific character, but what makes Justified work so well are the people he's surrounded by, such as his straight-talking boss, his wary ex-wife, and, most notably, a slippery born-again adversary played with impressive gusto by Walter Goggins.

9) Boardwalk Empire (HBO)
Boardwalk Empire has such an impressive pedigree -- created by former Sopranos writer Terrence Winter, produced and directed by Martin Scorsese, with a star-studded cast led by Steve Buscemi -- that I couldn't help being slightly let-down initially as the first few episodes suggested a show with a great deal of surface detail but not much depth. I think that criticism still holds a bit -- the show can sometimes rely too heavily on plot and production at the expense of character development -- but by the end of the season, Winter and company had told a multi-layered story about Prohibition-era Atlantic City with so many compelling elements that it could easily be forgiven for falling a little short of expectations. Impressively tying together early mafia stories stretching from New York to Chicago to New Jersey, Boardwalk Empire was nearly as ambitious and captivating as its main characters.

8) Treme (HBO)
Viewers who came to David Simon's new HBO series about post-Katrina New Orleans expecting a Big Easy version of The Wire were likely sorely disappointed with Treme, which was less The Wire 2.0 and more a distinct work of art with a different set of intentions. The first half of the season was less concerned with complicated stories and more interested in recreating the atmosphere of New Orleans, featuring everything from the city's talented, work-a-day jazz musicians to its colorful Mardi Gras Indians. Treme's unusual pace -- it feels more like a documentary than a scripted program -- and difficult characters took some getting used to, but towards the tail-end of the series it became apparent that Simon was once again creating a multi-layered, thematic piece of work, demonstrating yet again his singular ability to capture a city's unique virtues and its frustrating challenges.

7) Community (NBC)
Community has made a name for itself with its expert pop-culture parodies, such as its fantastic action-movie homage set in a school-wide paintball tournament or its touching Christmas episode filmed in Rankin/Bass-style stop-motion. But all the parodies would fall flat if creator Dan Harmon and his writers had not so expertly crafted a setting and characters that come off as authentic. Set in a Los Angeles community college, Community uses its familiar setting to play with its character archetypes -- the self-centered jerk with a sensitive side (a charming Joel McHale) the nerdy, pop-culture obsessed social outcast (standout Danny Pudi), the insecure overachiever (winsome Alison Brie) -- and push them into situations that are sometimes ridiculous but usually revealing. It's telling that the best episode of Community this year wasn't one of the parodies, but rather the one episode that locked the characters in a room and forced them to interact only with each other. Hilarious as always, it demonstrated yet again that behind the jokes Community has a surprising amount of depth.

6) Party Down (Starz)
The second and sadly final season of Party Down continued the first season's model of having each episode take place at a different party being catered by the Party Down crew, a group of aspiring actors and writers forced to rely on catering as a day job as they try to make it in Hollywood. The loss of Jane Lynch to Glee -- she was a regular on the first season -- was felt at first as Megan Mullaly's new stage-mom character didn't quite fit in at the beginning, but it didn't take long for the show to revert to being one of the funniest things on television, with the party catered at Steve Guttenberg's house a particular highlight. Like most good things on television, Party Down was canceled this year due to poor ratings, but Netflix has all of season 2 available on instant streaming. It's well worth your time.

5) Terriers (FX)
Canceled after one season, this FX show about two down on their luck, goodhearted detectives never got the audience it deserved, but I hope people catch it on DVD because it is rare to find a show debut with such a strong handle on the story it's telling. As the two damaged detectives trying to help their clients while often sabotaging their personal lives, Donal Logue and Michael Raymond-James gave two of the best performances of the year in the service of scripts that demonstrated incredible range, oscillating between dark humor and heartbreaking emotion. Don't let its cancellation prevent you from checking out Terriers -- even in one season, the show managed to tell the kind of complete, satisfying story it takes most shows years to pull off.

4) Parks and Recreation (NBC)
The geniuses at NBC decided to put their best comedy on the shelf for the fall season, so it's been awhile since Parks and Recreation has been on the air. The show's return cannot come soon enough (it comes back in January!) because by the time it ended its second season it had become the best comedy on broadcast television, a wonderful demonstration of how the funniest shows are not only hilarious but imbued with heart (much like its sister-sitcom, The Office, used to be). Set in a parks department in small-town Indiana, Parks and Recreation features the best comedic ensemble on television, led by Amy Poehler as the ambitious but caring deputy Leslie Knope. Nick Offerman as her boss Ron Swanson and Chris Pratt as lovable lunkhead who works in the building are two standout performers, though the whole cast is fantastic. Here's hoping NBC gives the show the promotion and support it deserves.

3) Mad Men (AMC)
Mad Men began its fourth season with the ominous question "Who is Don Draper?" In past seasons the answer would have been complicated but ultimately flattering, but this season seemed intent on un-romanticizing Don (the always brilliant Jon Hamm, in his best season yet), as he became an alcoholic mess who struggled to deal with his post-divorce life and the effect it was having on his start-up ad agency and his troubled young daughter. Meanwhile, the dramatic 60s roared on, as Peggy Olson (Elizabeth Moss) became further swept up in the counterculture and even seemingly stodgy Lane (Jared Harris) displayed a rebellious side. Don, however, proved himself a traditionalist, ending the season by clinging strongly to a romantic ideal that may never truly exist for him. It was an unusual season, with some incredible high points, such as the Peggy-Don pas de deux in "The Suitcase", and though it didn't quite live up to some of the previous seasons for me, it demonstrated yet again that few shows are as courageous or as eminently watchable as Mad Men.

2) Louie (FX)
The best new show on television this year, Louis CK's very funny comedy was a deeply personal examination of the themes that make his stand-up act so memorable -- mortality, privilege, entitlement, responsibility. The deal CK made with FX, which gave him total creative control in exchange for a modest budget and the promise of a season's worth of episodes, is now the envy of every working comic today, but it only works because CK's vision is clear and his execution pitch-perfect. Louie is essentially a series of vignettes, strung together by interspersed bits of CK's stand-up act, each varying in tone and theme but unified by his interest in finding the humor in the strangest or most common of situations. The show veers from dark to hilarious to sweet to strange, but it's always interesting and always original. Louis CK's comedy is grounded in self-loathing, so there's probably no point in praising it too much -- hopefully he'll just find a way to turn all the critical acclaim he's getting into new material.

1) Breaking Bad (AMC)
I was late to Breaking Bad, catching up on its three seasons only this summer after the latest had completed. Watching all the episodes continuously without any seasonal breaks helps you appreciate what an incredible accomplishment creator Vince Gilligan and his writers have managed to pull off with their series about Walter White
(the inimitable Bryan Cranston), a cancer-stricken high school chemistry teacher who starts cooking crystal meth as a way to take care of his family and take control of his life. In its third season, the show made White's transformation into ruthless criminal complete, as he went into business with a drug lord and put his DEA agent brother-in-law's (Dean Norris) life in danger. But the most compelling storyline belonged to Jesse (Aaron Paul), Walt's original partner-in-crime, newly sober and clear-eyed about his role in the game. Paul gave the performance of the year as he breathtakingly showed how Jesse was the ultimate victim of all of Walt's selfish actions, an innocent spirit drafted into a world he never had the stomach for. The show ended with a nerve-wracking cliffhanger, the apotheosis of all of Walt and Jesse's wrong decisions and the culmination of the best season of television this year.

Honorable Mention: ABC's Lost ended this year with a season I ultimately found disappointing, primarily because the creators chose to go out on a treacly note rather than offering any real resolution to the numerous plotlines, characters, and mythology the show had laid out from the beginning. Still, Lost was an impressive achievement that, despite the best efforts of TV producers everywhere, has yet to be reproduced and I will miss its presence on the tube.

HBO's In Treatment is a similarly challenging program, but for entirely different reasons. This is the first year I really watched a session in full and found myself entirely enraptured by the storyline focused on Irfan Khan's Sunil, an Indian immigrant forced to live with a son he doesn't understand anymore and a daughter-in-law he both covets and resents. Khan and Gabriel Byrne's therapy sessions were an actor's showcase, a riveting demonstration of how captivating something as simple as a conversation between two people can be.

Finally, HBO's Bored to Death didn't do anything new in its second season, but it always makes me laugh and smile for its bold embrace of its characters' self-awareness and grandiosity and its distinctly New York sensibility.


  1. I definitely think "The League" should have been on this list in the top five. The second season really hit it's stride and my roomates and I agree that we think it's the funniest thing on TV these days.

  2. No Sons of Anarchy? or Friday Night Lights? Both those shows have some of the most compelling characters in my opinion.