Friday, March 11, 2011

Favorites of 2010: Top 10 TV shows

I love making lists.  Lists of things to do, lists of things I want, lists of the moments in each Pixar movie where I wept openly, you know basic lists.  But most of all I enjoy making favorites lists.  It's as if ranking things and getting them in the correct order somehow gives those things purpose.  As if they were just sitting there being all unranked and complicated, and my agile brain was up to the task of putting them in their proper place.  I even like to pretend that when I'm done they line up to thank me for my service, but that may actually be indicative of a deeper sickness.

Here in order from honorable mention to number 1 are the best TV Shows I saw during the calendar year 2010.  These shows are solely judged on new episodes that aired during the calendar year.

Honorable Mention: 

The Middle - I feel like 2010 ushered in a new era of great comedy TV, which is interesting because there isn't a single new comedy on this list.  But so many of these shows seem to be at the top of their game right now that it feels like a new movement.  The Middle is consistently funny and somehow finds a way to accurately portray life in a real middle America family without being overly condescending or cloying.  It plays it just over the top enough to get the laughs, but keeps it just enough grounded in reality that you feel like this could be your own family.  Though not quite as funny as many of the other comedies on this list, you walk away feeling warmer and more deeply fed after spending time in The Middle.

Parks and Recreation - The Thursday NBC block of comedies all come from the same genetic pool.  It could be the mockumentary style, or the over the top characters, but sometimes it's hard to decide where The Office ends and Parks begins.  This isn't a bad thing.  Parks is a good show on the verge of being a great show, and sticking to the formula is a big reason why.  I should also mention that casting Rob Lowe was a genius move that has given the show some new life and led to some of the funniest moments of the season.

The Event - This is the only show that debuted in 2010 to even make this list and it almost didn't (it's actually the only new show of 2010 that I even still watch).  The Event is a compelling mystery with very interesting plot points that suffers from a stone faced cast and characters that aren't extremely compelling or engaging.  Of notable exception is Jason Ritter, who alone is worth tuning in for, as he walks with us as a man as lost in the mystery as we are.  The problem is that with each new revelation the mystery looks less and less worth looking into at all.  Certainly compelling enough to land an honorable mention in 2010 but I doubt you'll see The Event anywhere on my 2011 list.

30 Rock - 30 Rock is one of the most well written shows on TV, which shouldn't be a surprise with Tina Fey at the helm.  The lines delivered on this show are some of the smartest and most pointed you are likely to hear and yet they are disguised as pure silliness.  It is, however, that same silliness that sometimes over extends its welcome and takes me out of a plot I was previously invested in.  If this show could find a way to ground itself a little more in reality it could be one of the greats.

The Office -  A great show that just had a lousy season.  Still well worth watching and laughing at, but the characters are starting to feel a little stale.  Yet, even if for no other reason than Ed Helm's portrayal of Mr. Andy Bernard, it's a show that still has a strong pulse.  As much as I love Carrel and Michael Scott, I think this show may actually benefit and find a way back to it's greatness with his departure.

So You Think You Can Dance - Nope. I don't. But I think these guys can.  Speaking of shaking things up and taking a risk.  Wow.  The show broke from it's old format and brought back former "So You Think You Can" dancers to partner with the contestants. The result was spectacular.  Even in a season plagued by injury, these guys and gals put in performance after performance that floored me.  This show consistently has solid judging and top notch hosting to compliment these amazing stories in movement, giving it the complete reality package.  

Castle - Nathan Fillion.  'Nuff said.

Survivor - Jeff Probst said in a recent blog post that Survivor has jumped the shark more often than any other show on TV, and he's right.  It's incredible how many times this show has taken a risk that seemed like it would ruin the show only to come out the other side kicking and more alive than ever.  Heroes vs. Villains was one of the most engaging and exciting seasons of all time.  So why, then, is the show only in Honorable Mention?  That would be Survivor: Nicaragua, a rare misfire in casting that left the show without any true stand out stars, and a bit hard to watch.  Still with the capable Probst at the helm and one of the best production teams on the planet, you know no matter how many sharks are jumped the show still has a shot to touch greatness.

The Simpsons - I really don't know what there is left to say about this powerhouse.  After being on the air for 22 seasons I think it's likely all been covered.  Though there is some truth to the idea that the show was at its best in the 6th-9th seasons, there really is a very minuscule difference in quality between then and now, or any season for that matter.  It's exactly that consistency in wit and satire that has woven this half hour of genius into our cultural fabric so completely.

The Top 10

10) The Sing Off - Committed's version of "Apologize" would rank as the biggest moment in television this year for me if it weren't for a certain island farewell.  I think we may have rewound and watched it at least three times (it's all foggy now, I was in some sort of euphoric haze).  Point being, a capella music, when done right, is some of the most powerful and impressive music in existence, and to do it live, and in the pressure of competition, wow, just, wow.  Even without Committed in the competition The Sing Off is still a good show (the best judges on reality TV led by the incomparable Ben Folds), but with them, it's a top 10 show.  I also want to take the time to commend the producers of the show on doing a short run series.  So many of these reality competition shows are packed full of filler (I'm looking at you Idol) that you forget how good something can be when it respects the value of your time.

9) Futurama - So good to have this crew back making new deliveries after several years off the air.  I was nervous that the move to cable would result in more boundary pushing and unnecessary vulgarity (a la South Park or The Family Guy) but the writers seem to be keeping it in check and relying mostly on their wit and intelligence to get the laughs. 

8) Fringe - Some shows, especially the Sci Fi ones, tend to find themselves stretching to remain interesting as the seasons go on, but Fringe really appears to be catching it's stride.  Beyond the monster of the week episodes that make it feel so much like the X-Files (I'm not complaining, I miss the X-Files, it's nice to have it back on TV) the dual universe conceit is providing some of the most compelling drama and thought provoking  stories I've ever experienced.

7) The Mentalist - Ensemble driven procedurals are a thing of the past, now it's the personality driven procedurals that are the template.  It's not just that our protagonist is great at his job, it's that he has so much fun and adds so much improvisation to it with his care free attitude.  And blast those rules,  if they get in his way, he will toss them to the side.  This is the first of three shows in my top 7 that follow that outline to the letter, so I guess that means it works with me.  In this case the underlying menace of the unknown villain Red John adds to the proceedings.

6) Lie To Me - What's amazing about Lie To Me, which is the 2nd of the personality driven procedurals on this list, is that the science of the show is almost as compelling as the stories and characters.  I say almost because of all the shows on this list, I think this one has made the largest strides season over season.  The latest episodes have been intense and compelling in both the way the characters have evolved and the way the stories progress.  If this show grows as much next year as it did this year, it may just be the best show on TV.

5) Community - The thing I admire most about this show is that it is completely fearless, and it requires the actors to be so as well.  Some of these story lines require such a commitment to the bizarre that to see it pulled off is a miracle.  Not to mention the depth of self reference, parody, and tribute that is built into each episode as part of a rif on pop culture tropes and movie genres.  Oh, and did I mention it's like really funny?  It is.

4) Modern Family - But not quite as funny as this one.  Modern Family week in and week out delivers the best guffaws on television.  These characters are so finely drawn and each play such a particular role that the plot lines and joke structures play like a symphony of hilarious.  Also, no character plays to the mockumentary camera better then the one, and the only, Phil Dunphy.

3) Doctor Who - Excuse me for giving into my nerdish tendencies on this one, but this show is pure glee endorphins for me.  Newcomer Matt Smith has embraced the role of the Doctor with such ferver and charm that I almost don't miss David Tennant (almost).  The true genius of this show though is in the newly anointed pen of Stevan Moffat, whose mind bending plot devices combined with the insanity of time travel make for some of the most brainy sci fi this side of the Dharma initiative.

2) House - The granddaddy of the personality driven procedurals continues to be the finest example of why the genre works.  Hugh Laurie's House somehow continues to subtly and genuinely evolve and at the same time remain the cranky amoral MD we've always known.  I'm not sure how long he can continue to misdiagnose patients so often and still be considered a leader in his field, but for however long it lasts I'll be watching. 

1) LOST - I'm on record both in the moment and after deliberation and a second viewing as saying the finale was a spectacular closing to one of the most ambitious and even courageous shows ever to land on network television.  I know, to many LOST failed to live up to its gigantic promise and solve each and every mystery, but for me it tied the story together in a way that was cathartic and emotionally satisfying.  The rememberings in the finale will remain some of the most touching moments I've ever seen on TV, and even now I miss the feeling of anticipating how the island would twist my brain each week.  As Jack's eye's closed for the final time, I felt like and incredible story had been told and I was just glad the storytellers took the time and energy to tell it to me.

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