TV Feature: 10 Best Shows of 2010

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CHICAGO – Television may no longer be in the golden age of the late ’90s and early ’00s, but the diversity of the current landscape has produced a few notable gems.

While this TV critic is still a bit numb from what could be the weakest network freshmen crop in TV history, a diverse array of new, borderline great shows did pop up on cable — three of which can be found on my ten best list. However, the sliding decline of the broadcast networks continued in 2010 with only two current, still-airing network shows making my top ten this year. More than ever, if you don’t have cable, you may as well not own a TV. Thank God for FX, HBO, Showtime, and AMC.

As for the shows that are no longer with us, we said goodbye to two of the best of the last decade as “Lost” and “24” left the air and “Damages,” after its worst season to date (still good, but no longer top ten material), moved over to DirecTV’s 101 Network for 2011. We also watched once-great shows “Entourage” and “Weeds” continue to free fall, both mere shadows of what they used to be. Thursday nights on NBC continued to be one of the strongest blocks of television, but former top ten programs “The Office” and “30 Rock” could only merit runner-up status and “Parks and Recreation”, while sometimes very funny, just wasn’t consistent enough. Infuriatingly, the best program on the night, “Community,” is also the least-watched.

“Glee” suffered something of a sophomore slump, but it’s still a masterpiece compared to a freshman class that spawned “Hawaii 5-0” as its biggest new hit. No wonder people aren’t watching network TV any more. With twenty shows (ten runner-ups and a top ten) cited below, only about a third appeared on the major five networks, a number nearly matched by HBO ALONE (with 25%), and FOX and The CW couldn’t muster one show to make the cut (although “Glee” would probably be #21). The network percentage of what’s worth watching feels like a number that’s getting lower every year.

A very-important note before the top ten: Believe it or not, DirecTV does not carry AMC in High Definition and I’m too spoiled at this point by HD to watch the network’s beautiful programming in standard-def, which looks particularly horrible through a satellite. And so “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men” are programs I catch up with on Blu-ray. I did spend the money to download every episode of “The Walking Dead” because I couldn’t wait. I also have never had the time to catch up on “Sons of Anarchy,” although I did watch all of the other FX programming.

I have seen and written about literally hundreds of hours of 2010 television, including every single new network program in the fall, and, while I feel qualified to write about the year as a whole, if you think the exclusion of “Sons of Anarchy,” “Breaking Bad,” and “Mad Men” disqualifies my opinions then I don’t blame you. Maybe this year I’ll be more complete. Consider it a resolution. And consider these twenty shows the best of the dozens that I have seen, not necessarily the best of all on the air.

Runner-Ups: “30 Rock” (NBC), “Being Human” (BBC), “The Good Wife” (CBS), “Nurse Jackie” (SHO), “The Office” (NBC), “Sherlock” (PBS), “Southland” (TNT), “Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains” (CBS), “Treme” (HBO), and “True Blood” (HBO).

10. “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” (FX)

It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
Photo credit: FX

Was there anything funnier this year than Mac and Dennis trying to make another sequel to “Lethal Weapon” and learning a lesson about black face in the process? Wait, I take it back. Not the part about it being hysterical. The cast of “Always Sunny” NEVER learn lessons. With its incredibly-loyal fans, “Philly” seems to have the popularity to keep it on the air as long as its talented ensemble wants to continue their brand of over-the-top narcissistic humor, but I still regularly talk to people who have yet to check it out. Don’t miss what has easily become one of the most consistent comedies on television, the heir to the egocentric comedy of “Seinfeld” in that its characters are always thinking me-first with often-hysterical results. And this year featured several series highlights, most centered around Dee’s surprise pregnancy. I’ll miss the gang from Paddy’s Pub until they return in the Fall.

9. “Justified” (FX)

Photo credit: FX

Timothy Olyphant finally lived up to his incredible star potential with the role of Raylan Givens, a part that should have earned him an Emmy nomination (the Academy has long been anti-FX for whatever reason, never giving “The Shield” the awards it so clearly deserved). The perfect blend of suave and deadly, Olyphant has created one of the most fascinating characters on television and the premiere of this show, in which he was so spectacularly balanced by the great Walton Goggins, was easily one of the best hours of TV last year. Olyphant is ideal in the role, but it’s the writing, so perfectly capturing what has made Elmore Leonard a household name in any household you’d want to hang out in, that elevates FX’s best program.

8. “In Treatment” (HBO)

In Treatment
In Treatment
Photo credit: HBO

Character-driven drama is still rare on television, even in the days since cable took over from the networks, and it’s rarely been better than “In Treatment.” I love Don Draper and Dexter Morgan as much as anyone but they are on programs built around hooks, whether they be related to an intriguing time period or literally bloody hooks. “In Treatment” speaks to the theater major in me in that each episode is built purely around dialogue — it’s two people often playing verbal games with each other in terms of how much they’re willing to give up and when they’re willing to reveal their secrets. Gabriel Byrne has given one of the most consistent performances on television over the three seasons of this show, one of the most dramatically and emotionally rewarding on television. Low ratings always keep fans wondering if the show will return. Let’s hope we get at least one more session on the couch.

7. “Boardwalk Empire” (HBO)

Boardwalk Empire
Boardwalk Empire
Photo credit: HBO

One of the most technically amazing productions in the history of television also features one of the best ensemble casts of the year. “Amazing” and “best”… so why not higher up the list? Because while I loved “Boardwalk Empire”, it never had the urgency of the best television of the year. It felt like a great book that I could read whenever, even a few years down the road. Truly spectacular programs demand that you watch them immediately. Think about the shows that you never allow to linger in your DVR, much less build up an episode or two or even five — it’s something I heard about “BE” from at least a dozen people. It seems like a show that people admired more than loved. “Boardwalk Empire” is too remarkable a technical achievement to be ignored and some of the cast members (Steve Buscemi, Michael Shannon, Kelly MacDonald, more) deserve credit in their individual categories come Emmy time, but I hope the next season finds a way for the writing to hook more viewers, myself included.

6. “The Walking Dead” (AMC)

The Walking Dead
The Walking Dead
Photo credit: AMC

We knew it would be good but did ANYONE think it would be this good? When “Lost” and “Battlestar Galactica” went off the air, I think we all assumed that it would be some time before a genre show approached those heights, but there were echoes of those iconic programs just a few months later with Frank Darabont’s masterful pilot for “The Walking Dead,” a show that probably would have topped this list with 3-4 more episodes to flesh out its first season arc. It’s that remarkable. If you have written it off as merely another zombie show that’s as narrow-minded as thinking “Lost” was all about the island. It’s the background. This is a show about the people; about a world of extreme, unplanned bursts of violence and living in fear. More than any other show on television, I can’t wait to see what they do next. In a year with more disappointment than promise, that kind of anticipation is exhilarating.

Click to the next page for the top 5 shows of 2010.

Anonymous's picture

This list sucks! Dexter as

This list sucks! Dexter as No. !? You’ve got to be kidding me. I don’t even see why you’re still employed with this kind of mediocrity.

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