Saturday, December 19, 2009

IScreen's Top 10 Shows of 2009

Putting together a list of this year's top 10 shows proved harder than I anticipated. While last year was a relatively spotty year for TV (with the exception of excellent final seasons for "The Shield" and "The Wire"), 2009 offered a lot of reasons to love the boob tube. Several returning shows had particularly strong seasons and there were some truly smart and imaginative new offerings.
To accommodate all the year's notable programming, I present not only the traditional top 10 list, but also an honorable mention and a list of runners up. Do you have a problem with that?
I didn't think so. On to the list.
1. "Breaking Bad," AMC: After a strong, but uneven, first season, AMC's wrenching drama "Breaking Bad" blossomed into a devastating, much-watch series in its sophomore outing. With the initial exposition out of the way, the tale of drug-dealing chemistry teacher Walter White (Bryan Cranston, whose brilliance goes without saying at this point) and his slightly more seasoned sidekick Jesse (Aaron Paul) went into overdrive. The guys got deeper and deeper into the drug biz. They built up a crew, acquired a lawyer (the excellent Bob Odenkirk) and unleashed a whole lot of hell. At its best, "Breaking Bad" is smart, darkly funny and deeply unsettling. It's the year's best show and, along with "Mad Men," cements AMC's reputation as the new home for great drama.

2. "Lost," ABC: Yes, I know the new conventional wisdom is that cable is king and broadcast is yesterday's news. But this year, the networks offered a lot of top-notch programming, including the best season yet of ABC's fascinating sci-fi drama "Lost." This was the show's penultimate season, and it was a doozy. We had time travel, the surprisingly touching romance of Juliet and Sawyer and perhaps the year's most shocking finale. What if, it proposed, everything we'd been watching these five seasons could be undone? The show's final season will, presumably, provide the answer. I can't wait. In the meantime, check out one of the season's funniest moments here.
3. "Big Love," HBO: How does "Big Love" do it? How does it manage to make a drama about a polygamist family seem like just another family drama (albeit an incredibly well-acted and well-written one)? Three seasons in and I'm more hooked than ever on the story of Bill Hendrickson (Bill Paxton) and his three wives, played wonderfully by Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloe Sevigny and Ginnifer Goodwin. This season, everyone shone but Sevigny was a particular highlight as her increasingly unstable Nikki Grant battled her daddy issues, her insecurities and a host of secrets.
4. "Mad Men," AMC: Granted, this season of the period drama "Mad Men" was a little slow. There were too many episodes focusing on adman Don Draper's (Jon Hamm) home life, particularly his increasingly dreary wife Betty (January Jones). But the season's best episodes were so phenomenal, they made up for any lags. How can you deny the brilliance of "My Old Kentucky Home," which includes the now-classic line "My name is Peggy Olson, and I want to smoke some marijuana?" Or the visceral shock of the lawn mower scene from "Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency?" Or the devastating genius of this scene, in which Don finally reveals the truth about his past?
It all led up to the unforgettable, game-changing finale, "Shut the Door, Have a Seat," in which the "Mad Men" world we knew unraveled, and morphed into something new and exciting. Truth is, I'm willing to put up with this show's slow spots, because it delivers the goods more often than not. And when it delivers the goods, few shows are better.
5. "Friday Night Lights," NBC/DirecTV 101 network: Sadly, many people still haven't seen any of the fourth season of the wonderful drama "Friday Night Lights." That's because you can only watch it on DirecTV's 101 channel. The season won't air on the show's other home, NBC, until the summer. That's a shame, because this is possibly the show's best season since its first. The series reinvigorated itself with a brilliant story about Coach Taylor (Kyle Chandler) being forced to helm the football team at East Dillon High, a hardscrabble school far less well-off than his former home, Dillon High. The show has also successfully introduced new characters and started to close out stories for some of its returning characters. These include tortured good guy Matt (Zach Gilford), whose character has been through the ringer this season. It's disappointing that this series has to fight to be noticed (to even be seen, in fact), because it's easily one of the most moving, intelligent shows on TV.
6."The Good Wife," CBS: 2009 presented a bunch of promising candidates for best new show, but CBS's "The Good Wife" gets my vote. "ER" vet Julianna Margulies plays a familiar type -- the betrayed wife of a scandalized politician. Left behind to raise her family after a dalliance with a prostitute lands hubby in jail, Margulies's Alicia Florrick returns to her legal career -- as a junior associate. Turns out, she's pretty good at her job. The show manages to be both procedural and compelling character drama, with Margulies giving a brave, powerful performance. Bonus: the husband, played by Chris Noth, is portrayed not as a complete jerk, but as a flawed guy who still loves his angry wife. Good, adult entertainment.
7. "Nurse Jackie," Showtime: The next best new show of the season, "Nurse Jackie" stars Edie Falco as the title character, an excellent nurse who is also a philanderer, drug addict and general rule-breaker. But you kind of love her anyway, thanks to Falco's spot-on performance. Bonus: Merritt Wever's performance as newbie nurse Zoe, maybe the year's funniest new character.
8. "True Blood," HBO: A surprise hit in its first season, HBO's vampire soap "True Blood" got even better in its second season, thanks to some truly insane plotlines, the deepening of several characters and LOTS of sex. Yes, the storyline involving Michelle Forbes's quasi-demoness Maryann was uneven, but it was never boring. And all the show's supporting characters were in top form this season, especially Alexander Skarsgard's Eric, Ryan Kwanten's Jason and Chris Bauer's hilarious Andy Bellefleur (I chuckle every time I think of Bauer's reading of the word "pizazz"). With so many elements clicking, there's only one thing I can say: bloody good show!
9. "Modern Family," ABC: Imagine if the Bluth family of "Arrested Development" was made entirely of well-meaning, decent people instead of self-centered brats. It sounds awful, doesn't it? Well, ABC's new sitcom "Modern Family" isn't awful. Not even a little bit. The show has the dry wit, wacky characters and mockumentary format of "Arrested," but has something else, too: a heart. This family isn't stabbing each other in the back. They love each other. And you know what? Loving families can be funny, too. Especially if the family members are played by deft performers like Ed O'Neill, Sofia Vergara, Ty Burrell and Eric Stonestreet. Don't believe me? Take a look at this.
10. "Dollhouse," Fox: Yes, I know that Geek Nation is up in arms because Fox didn't renew its challenging sci-fi series "Dollhouse" for a third season. But come on! It's a show that deals with heady topics such as personal identity, exploitation and our culture's growing dependence on technology. We should be happy it even got two seasons. Particularly since the show's second season has been nothing short of excellent. The show centers on a company that imprints mind-wiped humans, or "dolls," with new identities to meet the needs of clients. This season, doll Echo (Eliza Dushku), has developed a personality and free will. Other characters have deepened as well, including Dollhouse tech Topher (Fran Kranz) who has gone from a smarmy geek to a truly complex, compelling part of the show. So yeah, I'm sad this is the last season. But I'm glad we got to see "Dollhouse" at all.
Honorable Mention -- ESPN's "30 for 30": Technically, this isn't a TV series but a series of occasional specials ESPN is running to celebrate the network's 30th year on the air. But it's too good not to mention. Each special focuses on a different story or personality in sports history. Each is helmed by a different director (Peter Berg and Barry Levinson are among the contributors). And each provides a truly fascinating look at the world of sports. Well-worth watching.
Runners up:
1. "Dexter," Showtime: For John Lithgow's awesome performance as the season's chief villain, Arthur Mitchell.
2. "White Collar," USA: For being one of TV's most entertaining new shows, and providing a star-making role for the charming Matthew Bomer.
3. "The Closer," TNT: For being one of the few procedural dramas with a sense of humor that goes beyond darkly comic puns about body parts.
4. "30 Rock," NBC: For Alec Baldwin's continually great performance as Jack Donaghy
5. "Glee," Fox: For proving that a scripted series with musical numbers can work (take that, "Cop Rock!"). Also for Jane Lynch.


Bill Scurry said...

I wish I could share your enthusiasm regarding "Big Love," but it's hard -- aside from some top-notch performances, chiefly by Chloe Sevigny, much of this show seems campy and overheated.

I do enjoy it and have never missed an episode, but I think the writers room gets so lathered in soap opera-ness (Weber Gaming, the Margene/Ben attraction) that it loses sight of the fact that these people are the worst parents on Earth.

It doesn't help that the most logical conclusion for the series (i.e. everyone finds their happiness) leads to a dissolution of the series' central unsustainable premise, the "plural marriage."

TV Writer said...

See, it's never seemed campy to me. It's always seemed like they've taken the issues that every family has (waning passion in a marriage; rebellious kids; in-law tensions) and grafted them onto to this highly unconventional way of life.
That's why the show's seemingly inaccessible central premise -- the plural marriage -- has always kind of worked for me. It's basically just a drama about a dysfunctional family, but their problems are WAAAAY more intense than that of a typical family.
And yes, the business aspect does get a little muddled at times, but I disagree with you about the Ben/Margene relationship. I think a conflict like that would absolutely happen in a home where youhave a hormonal, confused teenage boy with a young mom or stepmom. I liked that, this past season, we saw Margene trying to confront the issue in an adult way, by telling Ben that she's his mom -- and that's all.
In the end, I guess the characters and the acting carry the day for me, though I am curious as to how long they can keep it up.