The Best TV Shows of 2010

TV Show: It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia

Network: FX

Cast: Glenn Howerton, Kaitlin Olson, Rob McElhenney, Charlie Day, Danny DeVito

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List number: 35

Display Width: 200It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
FX

Though difficult to top the viral sensation known as “Kitten Mittens”, the sixth season of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia still provided plenty of dark-hearted laughs for devout followers of Dennis, Dee, Mac, and Charlie. Kicking off the year on the right foot, “Mac Fights Gay Marriage” was one of only a few spoof episodes in 2010, a year in which Sunny was mainly character driven. The show has always balanced social satire with the gang’s personal squabbling, but recently the FX program seems to be becoming more and more fascinated with their character’s wild, often offensive, antics. No complaints here. After 58 episodes, the audience knows these characters well enough to follow them anywhere. Whether it’s Sweet Dee’s mystery pregnancy, Mac and Dennis appearing in black face for Lethal Weapon 5, or Charlie cracking under the strain of his rat-bashing job, Sunny proudly retains its title as the best adult program on television. Ben Travers

 

TV Show: Tosh.0

Network: Comedy Central

Cast: Daniel Tosh

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List number: 34

Display Width: 200Tosh.0
Comedy Central

Cable has been trying to tap into the whole “viral” video phenomenon for a few years now, with everything from VH-1 excellent Web Junk 20 (only when the equally brilliant Patrice O’Neal was host) to the lesser E! sensibilities of G-4’s Web Soup. Thankfully, Comedy Central has decided to go more dark and biting, bringing on acerbic host Daniel Tosh to mock everything YouTube generation holds dear. Riffing unrelentingly on the stupidity of those who would risk life and limb for a few moments of Internet fame, he always finds the right combination of ridicule and rationalize to win over the viewer. That Tosh is also laugh out loud funny helps as well. As long as there are adolescent lunkheads injuring their testicles for the joy of others and fame starved no-talents in need of a reality check/”redemption”, this show will continue to soar — and so will it’s hilarious host. Bill Gibron

 

TV Show: Sons of Anarchy

Network: FX

Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Katey Sagal, Ron Perlman, Mark Boone Junior, Dayton Callie, Kim Coates, Tommy Flanagan

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List number: 33

Display Width: 200Sons of Anarchy
FX

Fully embracing its Shakespearean roots, Sons of Anarchy boldly forced familial secrets and lies to the forefront of Kurt Sutter’s brilliant biker gang drama. Featuring brilliant guest performances by the likes of Hal Holbrook, Paula Malcomson and others, the show’s third season brought most of the cast (including Ron Perlman as the Sons’ pater familias) to Belfast in search of Abel, the abducted son of club Vice President Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam). The series’ unique use of cover songs, most notably series star Katey Sagal’s rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire”, continued to hammer home the dire straits these characters find themselves in week after violent week. Ryan Hurst, as the second-generation Son Opie, shined brightly, especially in the season finale, finally achieving what fans can only hope is a small amount of peace and personal forgiveness. Sagal, as the blunt matriarch Gemma Teller, continues to give the best performance on television. Kevin Brettauer

 

TV Show: Supernatural

Network: The CW

Cast: Jared Padalecki, Jensen Ackles

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List number: 32

Display Width: 200Supernatural
The CW

Supernatural successfully swerved away from the X-Files pitfall, concluding its five-year, Apocalypse-themed story arc without unnecessarily stretching it out (along with the show’s credibility). The Season Five finale saw the Winchester brothers staving off the end times at the cost of younger sibling Sam’s life. Season Six picked up with a new show-runner (Sera Gamble in place of still-Executive Producer Eric Kripke) and a new story arc. The once-grizzled Dean has become a harried suburbanite while formerly sweet Sammy has embraced soullessness upon his surprise return from the dead. Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki display fine acting chops, retaining five seasons’ worth of characterization, while convincingly adapting the brothers to their new life roles as they unsteadily trying to find their way back to who they used to be and deal with the supernatural fallout of an averted Apocalpyse. Despite the change in storyline dynamics, at its core, Supernatural remains centered around the “for-better-or-worse” relationship of two brothers. The well-researched demons, angels, and occasional “monsters of the week” are just an added benefit to drive this relationship forward. Lana Cooper

 

TV Show: Conan

Network: TBS

Cast: Conan O’Brien, Andy Richter, Jimmy Vivino

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List number: 31

Display Width: 200Conan
TBS

Yes, for a few weeks there were lots of jokes, self-deprecating with more than a hint of genuine anger, about our man losing The Tonight Show and shuffling over to the basic-cable home of Family Guy reruns and edited broadcasts of American Pie movies. But something happened as compulsive talk-show host Conan O’Brien adjusted to his new TBS show: he only got looser, funnier, and weirder. A scaled-down set, a more involved audience, and the invaluable improvisations of Andy Richter have given the new show a more intimate, comedy-club atmosphere that leaves Jay Leno’s needy lameness in the dust. Don’t be surprised if the networks start calling back in four or five years — or if O’Brien stays put in his welcome new home. Jesse Hassenger

 

30 – 26

TV Show: Nurse Jackie

Network: Showtime

Cast: Edie Falco, Eve Best, Peter Facinelli, Paul Schulze, Merritt Wever, Anna Deavere Smith

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Display Width: 200Nurse Jackie
Showtime

Showtime’s seriously dark comedy Nurse Jackie picks up a few months after Jackie (Edie Falco) was confronted concerning her “real life.” Last season, her boyfriend Eddie (Paul Schulze) discovered she had a husband and kids and demanded an explanation. Now, Jackie tries to be a better wife and mother while Eddie forces himself into her family life, her daughter Grace (Ruby Jerins) suffers mounting anxiety, and her own access to the hospital’s pain killers is limited. Falco is again perfect as Jackie, and again, surrounded by an equally fabulous cast. Zoey (Merritt Wever) is coming into her own as a nurse, and Sam (Arjun Gupta), whom Jackie once fired for being high on duty early last season, returns to work six months sober and suspicious of her using, soon competing with Coop (Peter Facinelli) as Jackie’s “Most Hated”. What has been ramped up in this season are Jackie’s unexpected kindnesses and cruelties. And this is what makes the show so great. She constantly sidesteps all expectations and usually for the worse. Her addiction is escalating, her behavior increasingly troubling. It’s startling to realize that her issues go deeper than mere denial: she really believes everyone is capable of what she is. Indeed, in a brilliant moment in a late episode this season, Jackie is dumbstruck at the realization that everyone doesn’t think like she does. Renee Scolaro Mora

 

TV Show: Terriers

Network: FX

Cast: Donal Logue, Michael Raymond-James, Laura Allen, Rockmond Dunbar, Jamie Denbo, Kimberly Quinn

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List number: 29

Display Width: 200Terriers
FX

Terriers, sadly, was one of those shows that was difficult to categorize and apparently even harder to market. The usually-reliable FX network didn’t seem to have any idea of how to promote it, so they went with ads featuring dogs and 10-second spots that showed clips from the show with no context. Predictably, audiences failed to tune in and Terriers has already left us after one brilliant season. Those of us who did give the show a chance found a comedic drama about a pair of scruffy private investigators that deftly balanced an overarching story with individual episodes. Even more impressive was the show’s emotional core. Donal Logue, Michael Raymond-James, and the rest of the cast dug deep as Terriers managed to deal with human relationships in a real, affecting way. But tv veterans Shawn Ryan (The Shield) and Tim Minear (Firefly), along with creator Ted Griffin, never let the emotional content drag down the entertainment value. They made Terrriers a rare beast in television: a show that did everything, and did it all well. Chris Conaton

 

TV Show: The Amazing Race

Network: CBS

Cast: Phil Keoghan

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List number: 28

Display Width: 200The Amazing Race
CBS

Casting can dramatically alter the success of a competitive reality series, even a fast-paced one set around the world. There were a few new twists during this year’s two incarnations of The Amazing Race, but those changes require interesting players (and luck) to succeed. The 16th season included the lovable cowboys Jet and Cord, who were fazed by almost nothing, including others’ futile attempts to eliminate them. They fell short in the end, but watching the cowboys roll (with a triumphant signature theme) was a terrific sight. This year also saw the stunt casting of Caite Upton, widely known for a dim-witted beauty pageant gaffe. The arrogant youngster brought out the worst in older racers Brandy and Carol, leading to an awkward verbal conflict at the finish line. Thankfully, the 17th season included more likable teams and the show’s first all-female winners, the doctors Nat and Kat. This show works best during the crazy, unexpected moments, and the premiere had a classic. Watching shopping network host Claire take a watermelon in the face and then keep racing was both hilarious and inspiring, a combination that continues to make The Amazing Race a weekly must-see. Dan Heaton

 

TV Show: Dexter

Network: Showtime

Cast: Michael C. Hall, Jennifer Carpenter, Desmond Harrington, C.S. Lee, Lauren Vélez, David Zayas, James Remar, Julie Benz, Erik King

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Display Width: 200Dexter
Showtime

The fifth season of Dexter picks up directly after the brutal death of Rita at the hands of the Trinity killer. Dexter’s shock and guilt are at the heart of the season’s story, but the series wisely decided not to have Dexter go up against yet another lone serial killer. Instead, as his world is turned upside down and he begins to question whether or not he can ever live a normal life, Dexter actually begins to show some real emotion. By teaming him up with Lumen as they play vigilante to those who brutalized her, he shows a level of feeling that up to now he has had to pretend to show. His relationship with Lumen is complicated, yet almost innocent in bringing out sides of Dexter never before explored. In doing so, he is more than a serial killer with a code, rather now he has a real purpose with real investment behind it. While in the end, there is the serial killer showdown Dexter viewers have come to expect, it’s not necessarily the climax of the season. Instead, Dexter’s newfound connection to Lumen and also to Astor, bring a surprising level of complexity to the character and offers a new angle to explore. JM Suarez

 

TV Show: Party Down

Network: Starz

Cast: Adam Scott, Ken Marino, Jane Lynch, Jennifer Coolidge, Megan Mullally, Ryan Hansen, Martin Starr

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List number: 26

Display Width: 200Party Down
Starz

Two seasons is actually a roaring victory for the aspiring catering crew of Party Down. Ultimately a show about the difficulty of ambition in the face of imminent rejection and indignity (something millions of newly unemployed can surely relate to), Party Down could only be expected to be cancelled as it was finding critical acclaim and small loyal cult. The show had big expectations after an impressive first year and the loss of star Jane Lynch to some other far more successful show (her replacement with Meghan Mullahy more than compensated while tweaking the dynamic appropriately), but the only place it failed to deliver was in the ratings department. Whether dealing with a failed orgy, opening night at community theater, or Steve Guttenberg’s cancelled birthday party, the brilliant ensemble cast and the sharp writing kept the rotating set pieces from shooting too broad. That the series ended with a glimmer, though not a promise, of hope was perhaps as fitting an ending as we could hope for from a show that celebrated honest quiet moments even as it catered to and auditioned for loud and disingenuous parties. Timh Gabriele

 

25 – 21

TV Show: Rubicon

Network: AMC

Cast: Miranda Richardson, James Badge Dale, Arliss Howard

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List number: 25

Display Width: 200Rubicon
AMC

Rubicon is a throwback to a simpler time for conspiracy theories. Or so it seems. AMC’s new series is set in the present, but its heart is in the ‘70s, having more in common with the political paranoia of Three Days of the Condor than The X-Files or Lost. The conspiracy here is grounded in human activity and ambition, rather than aliens or supernatural forces. Like so many Cold War era thrillers, Rubicon opens with a suicide. As Katherine Rhumor (Miranda Richardson) plays outside with her children, her husband (Harris Yulin) shoots himself in the study of his mansion, where the décor is ornate but hardly warm. The gunshot is heard, but not seen; the shock is delivered in Katherine’s face rather than a gory corpse. This, along with a credits sequence over crossword puzzles and numbers, is an early sign of Rubicon‘s emphasis on enigmas and ideas rather than visceral effects. These mysteries are presented and potentially solved by decidedly unusual characters, introduced in their workplace, the innocuously named American Policy Institute. Rubicon draws attention to the actual labor of intelligence workers. It also suggests that the staff at API is particularly adept at spotting patterns and codes. API means to catch what no one else sees in the most mundane sources. But its members are also a collection of misfits and neurotics, displaying personality traits that make them basically unfit for social situations, but perfect for solving puzzles. Michael Landweber

 

TV Show: Louie

Network: FX

Cast: Louis C.K., Nick DiPaolo, Todd Barry, Jim Norton, Robert Kelly, Rick Crom, Eddie Brill, Ted Alexandro, Chelsea Peretti

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List number: 24

Display Width: 200Louie
FX

Most standup comedians aim to saturate their routines with the most laughs possible, maximizing the amount of enjoyment that can be had at a night out on the town. Louis C.K.’s standup isn’t much different than this; he packs in the side-splitting, admission-fee-compensating laughs and makes them count. It’s to his infinite credit though that his show for FX, though largely composed like a standup comedy sketch, contains large stretches of unfunny material. It’s not that Louie‘s dour material didn’t provide some of the most hilarious moments of 2010, but its nomadic fragments achieved something far better in its ability to find comedy in circumstance rather than invent narratives ripe for comedy. Whereas most comedic shows feature ensemble casts, Louie centers on its amiable protagonist as he wanders a broken planet alone, worried about aging, unable to relate to the strange messed up people around him, unlucky in love, in increasingly deteriorating health, and being mocked at every turn by hecklers, bullies, and a sadistic doctor played by Ricky Gervais. The show entitled “God”, which addressed an adolescent Louie’s religious confusion, was perhaps the most moving episode of television all year, whereas a sketch featuring Louie’s attempt to ask out a black cashier at the grocery store turned into a pivotal piece on race relations, with Louie’s fundamental misunderstanding underscoring the most succinct explanation for why the liberal fantasy of racial harmony is still a long way away. That the latter sketch appeared directly after a lewd bit involving a hallucinogenic trip to a perverted dentist shows how carefully Louie teeters between poignancy and vulgarity (this is the rare basic cable show to earn its TV-MA rating). Louie defies expectation at every turn, in exactly the way life does. Timh Gabriele

 

TV Show: Chuck

Network: NBC

Cast: Zachary Levi, Yvonne Strahovski, Joshua Gomez, Ryan McPartlin, Mark Christopher Lawrence, Vik Sahay, Scott Krinsky

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List number: 23

Display Width: 200Chuck
NBC

Television experts obsess over ratings, with even minor drops raising warning bells about cancellation. What they sometimes miss is the effect a devoted audience can have on a series’ continued survival. Chuck is one of those rare wonderful shows with a limited, but very enthusiastic following. Still thriving in its fourth season, the spy romp balances ridiculous plots with strong relationships and lovable supporting players. Even characters with limited screen time like Big Mike, Jeff and Lester (Jeffster!), the General, and Awesome deliver great crowd-pleasing moments. This season’s main arc (the search for Chuck’s mom) has been sort of a dud, but inspired guest stars and the continued fine work of the lead actors makes each story fun. Timothy Dalton was a highlight as a bumbling CIA handler who turned out to be a scenery-chewing psychopath. Chuck has also found a way to avoid the trap of lost tension when its leads become a full-time couple. Chuck and Sarah might be together for good, but they still have issues to work out while jetting across the globe. “Chuck Versus the Other Guy”, where their relationship officially begins, is one of the most rewarding TV episodes of 2010. Dan Heaton

 

TV Show: How I Met Your Mother

Network: CBS

Cast: Josh Radnor, Alyson Hannigan, Jason Segel, Cobie Smulders, Neil Patrick Harris

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List number: 22

Display Width: 200How I Met Your Mother
CBS

At it’s best, How I Met Your Mother is one of the most intelligently written shows on TV, and has the most intricate and innovative narrative constructions of any sitcom since Arrested Development. Even at its worst, the show still functions as a solid romantic comedy, following hopeless romantic Ted Mosby’s (Josh Radnor) quest for true love. A tight-knit core of friends, including Jason Segal, Alyson Hannigan, Cobie Smulders, and Neil Patrick Harris, accompanies Ted on his journey through New York’s dating scene. Season five of How I Met Your Mother is admittedly the weakest, straying from the continuing story lines that form the emotional core of the show. Still, there are still some great standalone episodes, like “Girls Vs. Suits” and “Perfect Week”, that hold up to the standard set by earlier seasons. Thus far, season six has picked up the pace nicely, and the show has returned to form. Brent McKnight

 

TV Show: Caprica

Network: SyFy Channel

Cast: Eric Stoltz, Esai Morales, Paula Malcomson, Alessandra Torresani, Magda Apanowicz, Sasha Roiz, Polly Walker

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List number: 21

Display Width: 200Caprica
SyFy Channel

If the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, Caprica, the now-canceled Battlestar Galactica prequel, proves that the road to immortality is paved, simply, with misplaced trust. We all know that the story ends with the near-genocide of the human race. Seeing how it gets there, well…that’s part of what made Caprica so fascinating. The cast, anchored by the Emmy-worthy Eric Stoltz as Dr. Daniel Graystone, is full of inherently fascinating people making poor decisions, unfortunate allegiances and biting off more than they can chew. Of course, as in the great tragedies, plagues will sweep onto all their houses, setting off acts of vengeance, sparking further violence, and so on until the end of time. Never has “All of this has happened before, and all of it will happen again” been such an apt phrase to describe the flaws of humanity — and the basic tenants of a great television drama Kevin Brettauer

 

20 – 16

TV Show: Archer

Network: FX

Cast: H. Jon Benjamin, George Coe, Judy Greer, Chris Parnell, Aisha Tyler, Jessica Walter

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List number: 20

Display Width: 200Archer
FX

The smart new animated series by Adam Reed and Matt Thompson (the creators of Frisky Dingo and Sealab 2021) follows the exploits of an international espionage agency. Jon Benjamin takes the lead as a playboy spy who is famous for being the world’s greatest secret agent but is in actuality totally lazy, prone to stupid mistakes and obsessed with sex. With a supporting cast including Aisha Tyler, Jessica Walter, Chris Parnell, Jeffrey Tambor and Judy Greer, the only character I find to fall flat is the one-note overweight secretary. Otherwise, with its snarky dialogue read as though improvised and its inventive and surprising story lines, this series could even be the spiritual successor to Arrested Development we’ve all been waiting for. Jenn Misko

 

TV Show: The Office

Network: NBC

Cast: Steve Carell, Rainn Wilson, John Krasinski, Jenna Fischer, B. J. Novak, Ed Helms, Melora Hardin, David Denman, Leslie David Baker, Brian Baumgartner

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List number: 19

Display Width: 200The Office
NBC

The Office, now in its seventh season, has lost some of its cultural cache as network sitcoms have improved, and the exit of Steve Carell’s Michael Scott this May will surely bring more unproductive charges of shark-jumping, irrelevance, and other stuff you shouldn’t care about if you’re actually watching The Office and enjoying how well it continues to use a large, eclectic ensemble of Dunder Mifflin/Sabre employees. This year, the show has made particularly good use of corporate flunky Gabe (Zach Woods), earnestly ditzy receptionist Erin (Ellie Kemper), and harried parents Pam (Jenna Fischer) and Jim (John Krasinski), along with weird yet perfectly mundane riffs on Pretty Woman, Glee, and Sweeney Todd. Carell is always terrific, but whenever the writers focus on a supporting player, or bring out one of their bravura set pieces where the entire office bounces off each other, they illustrate just how strong the show can be without its anchor. Jesse Hassenger

 

TV Show: Friday Night Lights

Network: DirecTV

Cast: Kyle Chandler, Connie Britton, Gaius Charles, Zach Gilford, Minka Kelly, Adrianne Palicki, Taylor Kitsch

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List number: 18

Display Width: 200Friday Night Lights
DirecTV

Despite being cut from the regular NBC lineup and now appearing first on DirecTV, the continuously overlooked drama set in Dillon, Texas only seems to be getting better with age. The writers’ gutsy call to move Coach Taylor to the opposite sideline of the state title contender he had helmed for three seasons paid off big time in season four and beyond. The Cat Classic showdown between the Panthers’ preppy squad of spoiled hooligans and the Lions’ scrappy underdogs from the wrong side of town was easily the most exciting hour of television this year, and it could not have been built up to any better. Developer Peter Berg has pulled together a dream cast whose members continue to grow, but the program’s ability to keep its focus on the two main players, Coach and the affectionately labeled Mrs. Coach, is what drives Friday Night Lights to greatness. Ben Travers

 

TV Show: Sherlock

Network: BBC America

Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman, Una Stubbs, Zoe Telford, Rupert Graves

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List number: 17

Display Width: 200Sherlock
BBC America

It turns out that unmooring Sherlock Holmes from his ubiquitous late 19th century milieu was the best thing that could have been done for the great sleuth. This witty, intelligent and enormously entertaining BBC/PBS co-production drops Conan Doyle’s deathless master detective into fashionable and diverse 21st century London and, wouldn’t you know it, he feels right at home. Played as a “high-functioning sociopath” by the blade-sharp Benedict Cumberbatch, this tech-savvy modern Holmes (“I prefer to text.”) fits as snugly into a fast-paced, impersonal society as his earlier iteration stood out from his mannered and respectable Victorian surroundings. The world, it seems, has come around to his perspective. Grounded but also abetted by the rumpled, solid Dr. John Watson (the ever-reliable Martin Freeman), Holmes deduces his way through breathless conundrums that are simultaneously canonical and dizzyingly original. I, for one, am just as breathless in anticipation of further mysteries to come.

Ross Langager

 

TV Show: 30 Rock

Network: NBC

Cast: Tina Fey, Jane Krakowski, Tracy Morgan, Alec Baldwin, Jack McBrayer, Scott Adsit, Judah Friedlander

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List number: 16

Display Width: 20030 Rock
NBC

Some of 30 Rock’s thunder (and a few of its awards) was stolen in 2010 by Modern Family (no faint praise intended in calling it a poor man’s Arrested Development), but Tina Fey’s endlessly creative series remains the most brilliantly anarchic comedy on television. If her Liz Lemon has no glittering vices, neither does she have any unfunny ones; and the show continues to milk Liz’s seemingly endless capacity to make a titanic ass out of herself. Alec Baldwin continues to be the most gifted comic actor on television. At some point we need a serious debate about where Jack Donaghy ranks among the great comic creations in TV history. The real star of the show remains the unceasingly brilliant writing, which generates more jokes in 30 minutes than any other comedy manages in a half season, some in a full season. Only repeated viewings allow one to grasp just how many truly funny moments fill each episode, and just how many of them manage to drive — cruelly, inexorably — home. Robert Moore

 

15 – 11

TV Show: Men of a Certain Age

Network: TNT

Cast: Ray Romano, Scott Bakula, Andre Braugher

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List number: 15

Display Width: 200Men of a Certain Age
TNT

As Season Two of Men of a Certain Age opens, a new day is dawning. Literally. An immaculate golf course, the central image of Joe’s (Ray Romano) future hope, is watered and mowed at sunrise; Terry (Scott Bakula) arrives, rumple-suited and riding a bicycle, at the car dealership where he’s working; and Owen (Andre Braugher) wakes up, still wearing his oxygen mask, but no longer needing daily insulin injections. The men are moving forward, after spending so much of the first season struggling with mid-life and its attendant reality checks. The stasis of Season One’s multiple identity crises seems finally to have given way to action. Its layered and nuanced analysis of male identity makes Men of a Certain Age worth watching. It’s an intelligent and thoughtful departure from the glorified perpetual adolescence that has plagued characterizations of men in movies over the last few years and in television for the last few decades. While Joe, Terry, and Owen suffer the same sorts of anxieties as these counterparts, the difference here is resistance. Though Men surely is not absent of men’s infantile behavior, they are markedly troubled by it. Renée Scolaro Mora

 

TV Show: Parks and Recreation

Network: NBC

Cast: Amy Poehler, Rashida Jones, Aziz Ansari, Nick Offerman, Aubrey Plaza, Paul Schneider, Chris Pratt

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List number: 14

Display Width: 200Parks and Recreation
NBC

30 Rock has bigger laughs and more jokes per minute, The Office set the deadpan-workplace comedy template for years to come, and Community has that hipster pop culture confidence. Yet the least flashy of NBC’s best comedy stable in years, maybe ever, may also be the flat-out best: there is no television ensemble I flat-out enjoy more than the cast of Parks and Recreation (set to return to air in January after a too-long fall break). Likability has been threatened with obsolescence as scripted cable shows compete to create the most abrasive or shocking antiheroes, but Parks and Rec maintains it the same way other shows get away with murder: sheer believability. Deputy director Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), her boss Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman), colleague-on-the-make Tom (Aziz Ansari), surly assistant April (Aubrey Plaza) and all the rest of the Pawnee Parks Department are written and performed so well that they feel like real people at work, not comedians at play. Jesse Hassenger

 

TV Show: Justified

Network: FX

Cast: Timothy Olyphant, Nick Searcy, Erica Tazel, Jacob Pitts, Joelle Carter, Natalie Zea

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List number: 13

Display Width: 200Justified
FX

Justified is ostensibly the story of Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant), a U.S. Marshal transferred from glitzy Miami to his home town in eastern Kentucky after a (justified) shooting of a criminal. But it’s Givens’ chief antagonist in Kentucky, Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), who really runs away with the series. Taken from the textured world of Elmore Leonard’s short stories, there are few characters like Crowder on television. He’s certainly the villain, but one whose motivations are constantly hazy: Is he sincere and delusional, or faking it and sly? Puzzling it out is the main pleasure in watching the first season of Justified. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that, while pursuing Crowder, Givens sure looks great in a cowboy hat. Marisa LaScala

 

TV Show: Real Time with Bill Maher

Network: HBO

Cast: Bill Maher

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List number: 12

Display Width: 200Real Time with Bill Maher
HBO

Leave it to the expert in political incorrectness to deliver the kind of sharp political dialogue that few in the “regular” media seem incapable of even considering. Maher may have his faults (his love of marijuana and hatred of religion being two enigmatic ones) and his intolerance of the moronic can be abrasive. But in a real of comedy where few dare venture, his continued support of all sides of the issue — no matter how partisan or nonsensical — makes him a far better jurist than the rest of the right/left debaters. Now if only the clueless members of Congress would adopt some of his “New Rules”. As usual, Maher manages to be the light in an often dark and deliberately dumbed-down tunnel. Bill Gibron

 

TV Show: Luther

Network: BBC America

Cast: Idris Elba, Ruth Wilson, Steven Mackintosh, Indira Varma, Warren Brown, Saskia Reeves, Paul McCann

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List number: 11

Display Width: 200Luther
BBC America

Luther is one of the most schizophrenic drama series in recent years. The first three episodes offer standard psycho-of-the-week plots, in which an off-the-rails policeman, John Luther (Idris Elba), simultaneously dazzles his colleagues with his genius and terrifies them with his impetuosity. In response, his boss, Detective Superintendent Rose Teller (an underused Saskia Reeves wielding a wobbly Cockney accent), calls Luther’s presence on her team “nitroglycerin.” But this formula gives way in the last three episodes to riveting drama. These start with the horrifying disintegration of a lower-middle-class working man into the madness of serial murder and end with a tangle of corruption and killing that recalls the stomach-churning violence of classic crime movies of the ‘70s. The pay-off for persistence with Luther is so rich that it is worth suspending judgment on the show for its first episode, and even for its second and third. Summon your patience and settle in for the long haul. By its end, the series’ exploration of how ordinary human fallibility is transformed into shocking human depravity is compellingly inventive. Lesley Smith

 

10 – 6

TV Show: Fringe

Network: Fox

Cast: Anna Torv, Joshua Jackson, Lance Reddick, Kirk Acevedo, Blair Brown, Jasika Nicole, John Noble

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Display Width: 200Fringe
Fox

Fringe avoided being the X-Files rip off that it initially looked like, to become one of the best shows on television. Somehow creators J.J. Abrams, Alex Kurtzman, and Roberto Orci brought together outlandish bits of theoretical science, combined it with a collection of well-rounded characters, and made it work. Who thought you’d care about a show starring Joshua Jackson? The heart of Fringe is Dr. Walter Bishop (John Noble), who is charming, hilarious, and heartbreaking all at the same time. In 2010 he stretched himself even further, playing the brilliant, though befuddled Walter, who viewers have come to love, as well as version of himself from an alternate universe, a cold, calculating politician bent on causing a full-scale war between realities. Hopefully Fox’s decision to move Fringe to a Friday night time slot (beginning in January) is not the death sentence it was for other beloved shows, like Firefly. Brent McKnight

 

TV Show: Damages

Network: FX

Cast: Glenn Close, Rose Byrne, Tate Donovan, Campbell Scott, Martin Short, Lily Tomlin, Lou Cariou, Ben Shenkman, Keith Carradine

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Display Width: 200Damages
FX

Along with its riveting melodrama, Damages also raises thematic questions that underscore its interplay of ambition and desperation. Patty and Ellen’s complex relationship as mentor and protégée exposes the emotional and physical extremes of a rite of passage (for the less experienced) and exercise of power (for the more experienced). In the opener to this third series, Patty and Ellen enacted the ambiguity of separation. Ellen acknowledged her loss, even as that loss was empowering. And Patty seemed reconciled to her erstwhile student’s apparent independence, even as that independence marked the triumph of the mentor’s training. Their now longstanding relationship merges both parental and sexual intensity, hinted at in each woman’s dogged persistence and curiosity about the other, while the script leaves open spaces for viewers to indulge their own emotional legacies. On a much broader palette, Patty’s actions, rather like those of Jack Bauer in 24, dramatize the fundamental contradiction at the heart of any democratic society. When one’s enemies will play every single dirty trick possible, how does one win without transgressing familiar moral imperatives? Both shows peddle a brutal realpolitik of necessity in the pursuit of the greater good (and personal survival, of course). But they also force audiences to confront their own complicity in accepting the benefits of such actions without acknowledging responsibility for their execution. “Behind closed doors” operates as a convenient fiction for both those who take action and those millions more who benefit from it. The selective blindness that saves human beings from acknowledging barbarity is rarely more visible than it is in Damages. Lesley Smith

 

TV Show: The Walking Dead

Network: AMC

Cast: Andrew Lincoln, Jon Bernthal, Sarah Wayne Callies, Laurie Holden, Jeffrey DeMunn, Steven Yeun, Chandler Riggs

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Display Width: 200The Walking Dead
AMC

Despite airing only six episodes in its first season, The Walking Dead, AMC’s new drama about a plague that turns most of the world’s inhabitants into zombies, gained immediate acclaim as perhaps the finest new series of 2010. Frank Darabont’s adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s critically-acclaimed comic is not really about monsters, but is instead a profoundly intelligent and compassionate exploration of what it means to remain human in a world where being human has become impossible. There are some truly astonishing action sequences, but the show is at its greatest when it brings human experience to the breaking point; no show on television features so many emotionally naked moments. If you don’t cry two or three times an episode, you aren’t paying attention. Great direction and superb acting was mildly hampered by mildly inconsistent writing, but a revamp of the writing team should help. Along with its AMC stable mate Mad Men, this could well be one of the three or four best shows on TV. Robert Moore

 

TV Show: Community

Network: NBC

Cast: Joel McHale, Gillian Jacobs, Danny Pudi, Yvette Nicole Brown, Alison Brie, Donald Glover, Ken Jeong, Chevy Chase

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Display Width: 200Community
NBC

For all the much-deserved attention Dan Harmon’s imaginative series gets for “big” episodes like the paintball-filled “Modern Warfare” or the aptly-named “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas”, it’s the wholly believable characters that populate the world of Community that make it such a unique treasure. The characters themselves, as season two’s “Cooperative Calligraphy” easily proves, are like a well-made chain: they support each other, yes, but would fall apart if one link in the chain was cut. Recent episodes, showcasing life-altering moments such as the death of Pierce’s (Chevy Chase) mother, the extremes Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) will go to in order to defend her faith, Troy’s (Donald Glover) 21st birthday realization that he’s just as much an adult as the rest of the gang and Abed’s (Danny Pudi) discovery of the real meaning of Christmas (“Thanks, Lost”), demonstrate how these characters need each other, because together, they really have created a community. Kevin Brettauer

 

TV Show: Lost

Network: ABC

Cast: Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Sam Anderson, Naveen Andrews, L. Scott Caldwell, Nestor Carbonell, François Chau, Henry Ian Cusick, Jeremy Davies, Emilie de Ravin, Michael Emerson, Jeff Fahey, Fionnula Flanagan, Matthew Fox, Jorge Garcia

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Display Width: 200Lost
ABC

The end of season five set up a huge cliffhanger going into Lost‘s final season. That cliffhanger wasn’t really resolved until the final moments of the series finale, a source of frustration to many. Really, two big questions dominated season six of the show and threatened to overwhelm the wonderful main story and character development that was going on. But if you were one of the people who was able to avoid getting bogged down in “What the hell IS the Sideways World?” and “Are we ever going to get ALL the answers?”, then Lost provided a hell of a lot of thrills. The sideways stories gave the show the chance to re-examine its characters in a different context, while the main storyline gave us the gradual redemption of Jack Shepherd, the story behind Jacob and The Man in Black, and the final battle between the forces vying to control the Island. In the end, producers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse got to wrap up the show the way they wanted to, on their own terms. That alone makes Lost a towering achievement among long-running serialized television, but it helps that the show was pretty awesome from the beginning right through to the end. Chris Conaton

 

5 – 1

TV Show: Modern Family

Network: ABC

Cast: Ed O’Neill, Sofía Vergara, Julie Bowen, Ty Burrell, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Eric Stonestreet, Sarah Hyland, Ariel Winter

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Display Width: 200Modern Family
ABC

Closing its delightful first season and transitioning into its promising second, ABC’s Modern Family deepened and strengthened its ongoing rehabilitation of the family sitcom. No other American network comedy coaxes out cathartic laughs so consistently from such well-drawn and evolving characters without turning them into caricatures. Even when their traits threaten to slip into the cartoonish, the team of writers is just smart enough to tug them back to reality with some well-placed self-awareness: witness Gloria (Sofia Vergara) chafing at the mockery of her comically-thick Colombian accent in the hilarious Halloween episode, or the overconfident doofus Phil Dunphy (Ty Burrell, still owning the show) facing up to his limitations after being bested by incessantly chirping smoke detectors. Sharp without being arch, emotionally-attuned without being cloying, current without being trendy, Modern Family maintains balance and delivers the laughs, week after week. Ross Langager

 

TV Show: Mad Men

Network: AMC

Cast: Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss, Vincent Kartheiser, January Jones, Christina Hendricks, Jared Harris,, Aaron Staton, Rich Sommer

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Display Width: 200Mad Men
AMC

The fourth season of AMC’s excellent Mad Men begins with the newly established Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Although outward appearances would suggest otherwise, the agency is already experiencing financial difficulties and a recently divorced Don Draper is living the life of a bachelor, seeing multiple women and drinking too much. While both the new agency and Don both project an air of confidence and freewheeling risk-taking, they are equally unsettled and in danger of falling apart. Meanwhile, the office dynamics continue to serve as a boys club of sorts despite the increased job responsibilities for both Peggy and Joan. Their seemingly parallel professional lives are explored in more detail and as with many things in the series they aren’t always what they seem to be. Don’s relationship with Peggy is given more import and their mutual secrets create a bond that has them on more equal footing. Don’s journey and that of the agency are both in exciting and scary places and this uncertain time is played out beautifully throughout the season. JM Suarez

 

TV Show: Treme

Network: HBO

Cast: Khandi Alexander, Wendell Pierce, Clarke Peters, Rob Brown, Kim Dickens, John Goodman, Steve Zahn

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Display Width: 200Treme
HBO

The chopper noise is one of those details that Treme gets so exactly right. New Orleans remains unsettled after the storm, everyone feeling simultaneously surveilled and abandoned, always uneasy. Toni’s husband, Tulane English professor Creighton Bernette (John Goodman), voices his rage and distress to whoever will listen. Introduced as he’s instructing a TV reporter (“The flooding of New Orleans was a manmade catastrophe,” he pronounces, “It was decades in the making”). When the reporter provokes him, wondering aloud why the “nation” should pay for local rebuilding, Creighton gathers and launches, his 11ish daughter Sofia (India Ennenga) ready to be entertained. “You go, daddy,” she whispers to herself as he grabs up the crew’s camera and tosses it into the canal. Sofia, like Alcide, is suffering her own post-Katrina fallout. She’s unhappy with the school she’s attending in Baton Rouge, but Sofie’s bothered by her route back to school in New Orleans. When Creighton explains that a public school will be refitted for charter students, like her, Sofia exclaims, “That’s not fair!” That’s right, her dad nods, and that’s how she’ll be able to go to school in New Orleans. Sofie’s consternation reflects a general worry about how politics and money are changing New Orleans after the storm. While individuals deal with lost property and argue with insurance companies, neighborhoods are in flux, prey to corporate schemes and losing hold of traditions. Music shapes all in Treme, experiences as well as ideas and themes. When Delmond (Rob Brown) contributes to a recording session, the camera cuts back and forth between the booth and the musicians, the soundtrack bouncing from what each artist hears in his headphones to the combinations the engineers are manipulating. Brief, sinuous, and resonant, the scene is a terrific evocation of how music — or art or life — is made and understood, at once elegant and precise, fragmented and thrilling. Cynthia Fuchs

 

TV Show: Breaking Bad

Network: AMC

Cast: Bryan Cranston, Anna Gunn, Aaron Paul, Dean Norris, Betsy Brandt, RJ Mitte

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/b/breaking-bad-poster.jpg

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Display Width: 200Breaking Bad
AMC

Breaking Bad is a series that has never shied away from the bleakness of Walt’s desperation and Jesse’s self-destructiveness. The third season, however, certainly takes it to a whole new level. At this point, Walt is dealing with the consequences of his responsibility for an airplane crash and Skyler’s reluctant yet unquestionable involvement with Walt’s drug money, along with the threat of Hank discovering that Walt is the elusive Heisenberg, all led to a tension-filled season that had threats of death and discovery coming from all angles. As Walt is living his two lives, Jesse is struggling with rehab and the death of his girlfriend, Jane. Their renewed partnership in working for Gus leads to more conflict and greater danger for the two, ratcheting up the pressure for all involved. It’s a season of consequences played out in an unapologetic fashion with irrevocable effects felt throughout. Jessica Suarez

 

TV Show: Boardwalk Empire

Network: HBO

Cast: Steve Buscemi, Michael Pitt, Kelly Macdonald, Michael Shannon, Shea Whigham, Aleksa Palladino, Michael Stuhlbarg, Stephen Graham, Vincent Piazza

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Display Width: 200Boardwalk Empire
HBO

In the beginning, HBO’s breakout hit The Sopranos was a series about the effects of a resentful mother on a damaged son. The dysfunctional relationship between Nancy Marchand’s Livia and James Gandolfini’s Tony provided a familial foundation for the show’s nexus of crime dynasty and psychotherapy. The Sopranos eventually found several other dramatic situations to explore, but its first two seasons established a template that Boardwalk Empire successfully fulfills. This time, though, the series is all about fathers and sons. The recreation of 1920 Atlantic City is laudable. However the impeccable production design and costumes form the backdrop for fascinating “father figure” relationships between Treasurer Nucky Thompson and surrogate son Jimmy Darmody, New York Boss Arnold Rothstein and liege Lucky Luciano, and Chicago’s Johnny Torrio, who exercises a shaky hold over young Al Capone. These mentor/protégé relationships are accompanied by the drama of actual fatherhood, as Darmody, Capone, and the powerful Commodore Louis Kaestner all struggle in their paternal roles. Thompson is markedly childless. Most interesting is hidebound Agent Nelson Van Alden, whose moral crusade against alcohol and organized crime manifests in his misguided attempts to serve God the Father. All of these relationships develop along the tale’s two timeless impulses, which are often directly opposed: to be a good man and to advance professionally. Thomas Britt

 
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