A “best of” list is by definition subjective. That’s why I’m suggesting that these 10 TV shows gave you the most bang for your buck (“in my opinion”) during the 2010 calendar year. Rather than ranked numerically, they are grouped by category. I’ve even handily included awesome episodes for you to check out if you desire.
- The Good Wife (CBS/KMOV 4)
Whoever declared network drama dead forgot about Juliana Margulies. The Good Wife is a richly layered, delightfully dense hour that mixes the personal and the political and isn’t afraid to keep its viewers guessing. The casting is a dream. It’s some of the best writing on TV right now, casting shadows in so many directions that there are no clear heroes or villains. But the creamy center holding it all together is the wife herself. Margulies as Alicia is a tour de force, always leaving me wanting more.
Standout episodes: A babysitter is murdered in “Hi”; wiretaps turn every subplot through “On Tap”; death row episode “Nine Hours” will make you cry
- Breaking Bad (AMC)
I never imagined that I’d buy Bryan Cranston as a dramatic actor. But the past was prologue to a masterfully executed third season of this intensely methodical cable drama about a chemistry teacher with cancer who turns meth manufacturer to provide for his family. As the stakes changed for Walter and everything around him began to slip away, his increasing desperation became fascinating. And I have to acknowledge the awesome additions of villains Gus (Giancarlo Esposito) and Mike (Jonathan Banks), which gave Walt’s criminal world depth and consequence.
Standout episodes: Tense standoff “One Minute”; Game-changer “Half Measures”; Heart-pounding finale “Full Measure”
- Mad Men (AMC)
It took a few years for this show to get going, but season four found momentum as everyone at the new Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce began new chapters. The ‘60s is an interesting arm’s length from which to examine human behavior and social mores. And it’s got that St. Louis connection: star Jon Hamm hails from the area. But it’s the women who stole every scene this season.
Standout episodes: Much ink was spilled in adulation of “The Suitcase,” which was phenomenal in its own right. But my personal fave is “The Beautiful Girls”; the cultural contrasts among those women on the elevator (and Sally) are permanently burned into my brain.
All in the Family
- Modern Family (ABC 30)
Successful sitcoms rely heavily on alchemy, and everything came together for this multigenerational blended family comedy for the 2010s. Everyone has a favorite character or two. Everyone knows someone like all of these people. Universality, humor in specificity, and making Julie Bowen likeable again can take you far.
Standout episodes: “Starry Night”; “Strangers on a Treadmill”
- Men of a Certain Age (TNT)
Another ‘90s sitcom star takes a dramatic turn. This time it’s Ray Romano, whose brooding Joe helps set a murky, immersive mood for this rare take on male inner lives at 40+. Scott Bakula nicely shades his character, a failed actor. And Andre Braugher moves silent mountains in his fight to take over the family business. I wonder, though, how successful this show can be in reaching the demographic it explores so thoughtfully.
Standout episodes: “Powerless”; “You Gonna Do That The Rest of Your Life?”
- Parenthood (NBC/KSDK 5)
Another slow starter, this ensemble explores the less comedic side of dealing with your extended family. Peter Krause somehow makes Adam’s revolving office door of family drama work, despite having a lesser Baldwin as a boss. And the stronger kids—in particular Max (Max Burkholder) and Amber (Mae Whitman)—elevate the others, even ensuring the adults show up to play. Dax Shepard as Crosby is the gift that keeps on giving, so much so that I ended up on Team Braverman after all.
Standout episodes: “Team Braverman”; “If This Boat is a Rockin’”; “Happy Thanksgiving”
Seventh Inning Stretch
Despite showing signs of age, these two turned in some noteworthy moments in 2010.
- Weeds (Showtime)
Taking the family on the road and on the run seemed to be a plan to make good on two stalled seasons at the Mexican border. In keeping everyone in flux, the show demonstrated some of its core beliefs: people don’t change, the world is hypocritical, and white men are running the show. These ugly truths and the show’s plot drift have turned viewers off, but those who stuck around are being rewarded. I can’t wait to see what’s in store for the series’ seventh and rumored-to-be final season.
Standout episodes: “Boomerang”; “Theoretical Love Is Not Dead”
- Grey’s Anatomy (ABC 30)
The doctors of Seattle Grace thrive on extremes, and after some recent lows, the show is finding its stride again after a season finale shooting rampage. Could this finally be the season that Sandra Oh gets some much-deserved recognition as Cristina Yang? Probably not, but I can dream.
Standout episodes: “Sanctuary”; “Death and All His Friends”; “These Arms of Mine”
Wild Card: That Show You Discovered This Year
(May include Terriers, Better Off Ted, Friday Night Lights, Arrested Development)
There’s always one, isn’t there? Among critics this year, it seems to be Terriers, the Donal Logue/Michael Raymond-James P.I. drama FX recently canceled after one barely-watched season. I chose to sidestep that one in advance of such a fate. But I have finally started to catch up on phenomenal small town/football saga Friday Night Lights (no spoilers, please; I’m in season 2), and it’s even better than I’d been told. Maybe this was the year you discovered Arrested Development, but in the 2010 history books, the offbeat Portia De Rossi comedy joining Terriers in the brilliant-but-cancelled dustbin is Better Off Ted.
- Hot In Cleveland (TV Land)
Probably the biggest winner in the Betty White Lovefest that was 2010, this comedy about 40somethings in the Midwest can also take credit for bringing back all the groaner tropes of ‘90s sitcoms, for better or worse. But in the hands of Wendy Malick and Jane Leeves, I’d lean toward better. Valerie Bertenelli, on the other hand, looks and acts exactly as she did 40 years ago on One Day at a Time. Still, three out of four ain’t bad.
- $#*! My Dad Says (CBS/KMOV 4)
Everyone rags on this show for being based on a Twitter feed or starring William Shatner. And while it’s not going to light the world on fire, it does make me laugh a couple times a week. The Mad TV dream team of Nicole Sullivan and Will Sasso are reunited as husband and wife, which is reason enough to watch. But it’s from the producers of Will & Grace, so it was only a matter of time before that wit seeped in. If you panned it before, try it out again before CBS makes it disappear in February.
Let’s hear it. Which of your favorites did I leave off the list? What am I crazy for including? Fire away in the comments.