When it comes to TV, 2010 was really a mixed bag, wasn't it? Yes, it was the year that gave us "The Glades," "Bridalplasty" and scads of fairly worthless freshmen series on the broadcast networks. It was a year when one of the few promising network series, "LoneStar," died a quick death, and when one of the more promising cable series, "Terriers," died a slightly longer death.
It was year when some dear old friends left us, including "Lost" and "24," creating a bit of a gap in the TV landscape.
Yet this was also the year that gave us the best season yet of AMC's "Breaking Bad." It was the year that gave us perhaps the best "Mad Men" episode to date, "The Suitcase." It was a year in which we were introduced to some fine new cable shows, including the nifty "Justified" and the elegant "Boardwalk Empire."
It was, as I said, a mixed bag. But there was plenty to be happy about. Below is my list of the 10 best shows of 2010. Some are what you would expect. Some aren't (I'm as surprised by my number 10 choice as you are). But all represent some of my best TV watching experiences of the year.
1. "Breaking Bad," AMC: Without a doubt, the best season of television I've seen all year. Possibly, the best I've ever seen. In the third season of this darkly funny dramas about a pair of crystal meth cookers in New Mexico, we saw Walt (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse (Aaron Paul) go deeper and deeper into a world of crime and violence. As they descended, "Breaking Bad" brought us one astounding episode after another, from the so-intense-you-can-hardly-breathe "One Minute," to the incredibly well-written and acted two-hander "Fly," to the devastating finale. Cranston and Paul deservedly won Emmys for their work this season, but everyone was at his or her best, including Anna Gunn as Walt's long-suffering wife, Dean Norris as his DEA agent brother-in-law, and Giancarlo Esposito, Bob Odenkirk and Jonathan Banks as his criminal associates. Just amazing, awesome stuff.
And here's one of the season's best moments:
2. "Terriers," FX: Oh, "Terriers." You were just too good for this world.
What more can be said about this delightful -- yet abysmally low-rated -- dramedy about two scruffy P.I.s in Southern California? I don't know, but I plan to try. With sharp dialogue, beautifully constructed stories and a pair of heart-breakingly great performances by Donal Logue and Michael Raymond James, "Terriers" was the year's best new show. So why didn't you watch? Well, no sense worrying about that now. Better to celebrate that the witty, devastating series happened at all, and pray for the opportunity to relive it all on DVD.
3. "Mad Men," AMC:The fourth season of the period drama about workers at a Manhattan ad agency charted the emotional collapse of the once-cool Don Draper (Jon Hamm, whose brilliance now goes without saying), and it was an amazing ride. We saw Don buckle under the loss of his marriage, the pressure of building a new business and the death of his best friend, Anna Draper. His alcohol-soaked suffering brought us perhaps the series' best episode to date, the excellent "The Suitcase." Virtually a two-hander between Don and his long-suffering protegee Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), the episode watched the two as they fought, drank, bonded and, eventually, reached a deeper understanding of one another. Other season highlights include the devastating "Hands and Knees" and the lovely "The Beautiful Girls," featuring an amazing performance by young Kiernan Shipka as Don's daughter, Sally. While the season finale wasn't as good as the episodes preceding it, this was still "Mad Men's" best season yet.
4. "Justified," FX: In all the critical hand-wringing over "Terriers," you might have forgotten that FX launched another excellent -- and successful -- drama in 2010, the crackling "Justified," starring Timothy Olyphant as macho U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens. The show was part serial, part episodic case of the week and worked well on both score, thanks to sharp dialogue and Olyphant's charismatic performance. It also featured great supporting work by Nick Searcy as a Raylan's boss and the always welcome Walton Goggins as Raylan's former friend and current antagonist. With shoot-outs, cowboy hats and surly men aplenty, "Justified" is a riveting modern-day Western.
5. "Lost," ABC: You can hate on the finale if you want. You can say this gripping, complicated show -- which ended after six seasons in May -- was nothing more than a head game with little payoff. But the truth is that "Lost" was arguably the most daring and creative series to air on a broadcast network over the last 10 years. No, it didn't always work. Yes, it always left us wanting more. But it wasn't afraid to take risks. It wasn't afraid to bring in time travel, or monsters or even (gasp!) spirituality. It was, simply, a ballsy show. And whether or not you liked the finale (I did), it should be celebrated for going out on a limb in a way few shows do. RIP.
6. "Boardwalk Empire," HBO: Some people were underwhelmed by this lavishly mounted period drama about gangsters in Prohibition-era Atlantic City. Some wanted more from a show with such esteemed names as Terence Winter and Martin Scorcese attached. To these people, I say "Lighten the hell up." Because, if "Boardwalk Empire" maybe didn't deliver on as huge a level as many people expected, it was still an excellent freshman series. It looked beautiful, and featured some of the best work yet by star Steve Buscemi. And, when it was at its best (the finale, nearly any scene involving Jack Huston's scarred sniper or Kelly MacDonald's semi-reluctant moll), it was riveting. So the naysayers can just put a sock in it.
7. "Friday Night Lights," DirecTV/NBC: While I'm enjoying this fine drama's fifth and final season on DirecTV, this ranking more strictly applies to the fourth season, which ran on NBC over the summer (and, as far as I'm concerned, counts on this list). That was the season that saw one of the series' best episodes -- the heart-breaking "The Son," featuring that great Zach Gilford performance -- and proved that completely re-inventing a show late in its run can work like gangbusters. The creation of a new, troubled team for Coach Taylor (Kyle Chandler) to lead was an inspired idea, and has brought the show some of its best stories to date.
8. "30 For 30," ESPN: Last year, ESPN launched its series of sports-themed documentaries, highlighting some of the most obscure, unusual or just plain interesting stories in history. The series wrapped a few weeks ago, with the typically intriguing "Pony Excess," one of a string of excellent offerings to be aired in 2010. At its best, the series offered a compelling window into the world of sports. And there was plenty of "best" there: the heart-breaking "The Two Escobars," the rollicking "The U," and, my favorite, the poignant "The Best There Never Was." Yes, this year also some quasi-duds like the sappy "Unmatched," but, even at its worst, "30 for 30" represented a laudable attempt by ESPN to try something different.
And here's a promo for the excellent "The Best There Never Was."
9. "Men of a Certain Age," TNT: A true rarity on TV -- a subtle, intelligent show about adults facing everyday problems, like dealing with contractors, going on job interviews and working up the courage to start dating again after a divorce. It doesn't sound that exciting, but when those adults are played by actors as likable and talented as Ray Romano, Andre Braugher and Scott Bakula, it makes for a fine hour of TV. Even it weren't so subtle and smartly observed, "Men" would be note-worthy for two things: proving that former sitcom star Romano can actor, and showing us that "Homicide" star Braugher has a gift for comedy. Oh, and Bakula's pretty good too. (I couldn't embed the clips, so just use the link above).
10. "The League," FX:OK, hear me out: this often coarse, definitely sophomoric sitcom about guys in a fantasy football league might not seem like "best show" material. Yet, in reviewing the year in TV, I realized that no comedy made me laugh as hard as "The League." Not "30 Rock." Not "Modern Family." Not "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia." The truth is, "The League" really found its rhythm in its second season. Its ensemble of fine comic actors finally gelled together to feel like a real group of friends. And nearly every episode included at least one laugh out loud moment. Yes, many of the jokes involved body parts, bodily functions and, on one occasion, a monkey. Not sophisticated. But damn funny.
And here's a list of excellent shows that didn't quite make the list, but are still worth mentioning.
"The Good Wife," CBS: This adult drama is still going strong in its second season, thanks to excellent performances -- including the invigorating addition of Scott Porter as a shady investigator.
"Louie," FX: Louis CK's smart, observant sitcom didn't make me laugh quite as hard as "The League," but was the year's best new comedy.
"The Walking Dead," AMC: This zombie series was a bit uneven but, at its best, it was grisly fun.
"30 Rock," NBC: After an uneven fourth season, this comedy has come back with a bunch of fine episodes, including the uproarious "Reaganing."
"Sons of Anarchy," FX: The third season of this biker drama wasn't as strong as its amazing second season, but its jaw-dropping finale forgave a multitude of sins.