Best TV of 2010: The Top Tier

19Dec10

Last year, I skipped my annual Best Of list for a collection of decade-bests. Since we’re arbitrarily back to thinking annually this year, here’s a look back on the TV highs of 2010.

I’m not interested in forcing everything into clear rankings, so like my decade lists, I’ll divide it into tiers – the Top Tier would probably be my top five were I to numerate, but each wins their own unique category. Then the Second Tier consists of the many shows that would battle for a place on the latter parts of a top ten (or twenty) list.

Best in Show (aka #1 with a Bullet): Breaking Bad

When I preemptively placed Breaking Bad in the top tier of my Best of the Aughts list, I was taking a leap of faith that the third season would match the greatness of season 2, and not slide back to the simply “very good” levels of season 1. Instead, season 3 raised the bar yet again, and now after only 33 episodes, Breaking Bad stands as one of the all-time greats of the television medium.

What impressed me most about season 3 was how the show treated its own past. Often times, highly serialized programs suffer from memory loss, with its characters seemingly forgetting the highly dramatic events we’ve witnessed in their lives in the name of moving the drama forward. Such forgetfulness doesn’t have to be overt in its ret-con rebooting as with Friday Night Lights, but is more commonly just a consequence of forward momentum – that which seemed monumentally important within one episode will often have little active resonance in later seasons, a criticism that could be leveled against many classic contemporary series ranging from Battlestar Galactica to The Sopranos.

Not so on Breaking Bad season 3, where the past returned to the foreground in surprising ways that highlight the show’s spectacular use of psychological serialization: Walt’s old job at the car wash, Jesse’s purchase of the RV, Tio’s quest for revenge, Walt’s secret about Jane. These memories often resurfaced within the show’s always impressive cold open sequences, with powerful flashbacks to Jesse and Jane, the cousins’ upbringing with Tio, Walt and Skyler purchasing their house, and Jesse’s early con of Walt with the RV purchase. The best example of such resurfacing is Combo’s murder, which was treated as a throwaway plot device in season 2, but remained an unhealed wound for Jesse that triggers season 3’s sensational endgame.

And then there are the individual moments that are seared in my mind: the cousins crawling to the shrine in the season opener. Walt unknowingly taking what might be his last shower while the cousins wait in the bedroom. Walt’s hilariously awkward speech at the school assembly. Jesse’s chilling speech from his hospital bed. The pizza on the roof. “I.F.T.” Hank and Marie’s conversation in the car in “One Minute” (one of the best uses of shallow focus I’ve ever seen in television). The actual One Minute. Gus & Walt in the hospital. Walt shimming the table in the hospital. Walt and Jesse both trying to avoid their delicately stacked lies crashing down in “The Fly.” Gale singing in his apartment. “Run.” Mike’s balloon attack. (Yes, I could go on…)

No show I’ve ever seen is more effective in its use of visual style, sound design, performance, and pacing to create these moments that imprint on my memory, and then use those memories to deepen the characters and small-scale vision of its storyworld. Although its ambitions are quite different than other all-time greats, I’d have to say that as of now, no show in television history is quite as good at consistently delivering what it sets out to do than Breaking Bad. If you read this blog and don’t watch it, what are you waiting for? Seasons 1 and 2 are out on DVD, and AMC is rerunning the whole series Wednesday late nights.

Best Comedy: Parks & Recreation

Speaking of television history, let’s take a moment and look at the comedy line-up NBC offered in Spring 2010 (and then screwed up in the Fall): Community, Parks & Recreation, The Office, 30 Rock. The last two had off-years (with some great moments, like Holly Flax’s return to The Office in “Classy Christmas”), but certainly belong in conversations of all-time great sitcoms. The first two hit their stride in 2010, with Community figuring out how best to use its ensemble and sensibility, and P&R nailing its tone and subtle vision of small-city government. Is this the best comedy line-up since the all-time murderers’ row of CBS Saturdays in 1973 (All in the Family, M*A*S*H, Mary Tyler Moore Show, Bob Newhart Show)? Perhaps the mid-80s NBC Thursday of Cosby Show, Family Ties, Cheers, and Night Court comes close, but I certainly think Community and P&R show more long-term potential for historic greatness than the now mostly-forgotten but then-beloved Family Ties and Night Court.

Community may have had the more ambitious and perhaps best overall year, but in its shortened schedule of Spring 2010, no show made me laugh more than Parks & Recreation. My best measure is once the kids are in bed and lunches are made, which of the Thursday night comedies will my wife & I watch first from the DVR? Always Parks & Recreation. There were no let-down episodes in the second season, and in a stellar era for network sitcoms, P&R stands out as the most consistently enjoyable.

The show has created a distinctive universe of small-town politics – that damn library! – and stand-out characters large and small, and while there’s a lot of mockery, there’s also a sense of affection for characters that is rare among mockumentary-style programs. Thus far, P&R has found a balance between the wacky and the grounded in a way that The Office never quite achieved, featuring no totally normal or over-the-top characters, as with Jim and Dwight respectively – instead, everyone lives in the balance between human and cartoon, prompting simultaneous sincere investment in character happiness and lunatic comedy. And the late-season additions of Rob Lowe and Adam Scott suggest the show has a rare ability to grow and change to avoid complacency and staleness.

And then there’s this, a monument to Ron Freakin’ Swanson:

Best Sneak Attack: Terriers

I’ve already written about this show in a valiant but futile attempt to save it from its inevitable fate. But the stellar season-turned-series finale capped a remarkable transformation.Terriers started as a breezy, shaggy lark, focused on buddies who enjoyed scraping by as low-rent PIs, and seemed to foreground case-of-the-week over some character stories. Then it turned dark and dire, as both Hank and Britt dealt with personal demons and higher-stakes cases. And then by the end, it turns out the whole season was a tightly serialized arc, with Mickey’s death in the pilot boomeranging back to reveal the man behind the curtain in the overarching real estate plot. This should be a great strategy to hook viewers – lead with tone & characters to draw viewers, and then hook them in to an intricate plot. But too few people watched at the start, so attempts to try to draw in viewers into an increasingly dense story proved impossible – and thus Terriers will join the ranks of Freaks & Geeks and Firefly as one-season masterpieces.

Since I probably won’t have opportunity to write more about it, let me relive a few lingering moments: Hank’s choice to forge the mortgage. The madwoman in the attic. Mikaela’s words of comfort to her friend’s parents in “Pimp Daddy.” Britt and Katie’s fight at Gretchen’s wedding. All the fluid flashbacks in “Sins of the Past.” Every time Britt smiles. Every time Hank looked at Gretchen.

Damn, I’m going to miss this show.

Best Total Original: Louie

Television is a medium of imitation, formula, and established conventions, with most innovations coming from imaginative recombinations or variations on a theme. Given those traditions, no series felt more like a truly original vision than Louie, the not-quite-sitcom from comic genius Louis CK. While every episode combines hysterical stand-up footage with scenes of Louie’s life, the tone ranges from realistic family scenes to surreal drug humor to pointed social critique. The style is consistently inventive and daring, matching the risky (and risqué) content. The best parallel I can think of is imagine a TV series directed by Annie Hall-era Woody Allen starring George Carlin (but very contemporary in tone).

Like anything this risky, not everything works – but when it hits, there’s nothing on television quite like it. My favorite episode might be “God,” which focuses on a young Louie’s horrifying religious education with an electric guest performance by Tom Noonan, but all the episodes of Louie offer something distinct and impressive, and suggests how a unique vision can poke through the rigid conventions of television, as Louis CK stars, writes, directs, and edits every episode.

Best Thing on my TV That Wasn’t Television: Red Dead Redemption

While I’m most focused on television programming, we need to remember that our TVs are used for more than just watching series. And this year, I spent more time immersed in the fictional storyworld of Red Dead Redemption on my television than any other fiction, and found it as satisfying as any other narrative experience. I’m not a huge gamer, but RDR hit my sweetspot: it offers genre revisionism, with a storyworld that feels both authentic to the Western genre but unlike anything you’ve seen. It offers such visual splendor that the time spent riding a horse from destination to destination is rewarding on its own. It’s an open-world game without annoying completist quirks (like GTA‘s pigeon-collecting) or pointless to-and-fro, with a world so enjoyable to spend time in that I was inspired to reach 100% completion. It delivers a compelling core story about redemption, morality and vengeance, with some of the most robust and engaging characters I saw on-screen all year, regardless of medium. I’m apt to agree with this excellent conversation on Slate that RDR is not only the game of the year, but deserves consideration as an all-time masterwork for its medium.

And then Rockstar doubled-down by releasing Undead Nightmare, a downloadable expansion to RDR or available as a stand-alone disc; this expansion is more than just some additional content, but a thorough reinvention of the storyworld with 10-20 hours of new gameplay. The premise is that a zombie scourge has taken root in RDR‘s old-West world, and John Marston needs to discover the cure to save his wife and son. The genre mashup is perfect, allowing the hyperviolent possibilities of old West gunslingers to aim at the cannon fodder of endless zombies in Western garb. It’s fascinating to revisit the world and characters recontextualized into horror, but the effect is an interesting form of serialization, where my past experiences working with, saving, and fighting side characters are mapped onto my interactions within the undead-plagued world. The first 15 minutes of the game are a more compelling entry into the canon of zombie fiction than any moment in the overhyped Walking Dead series – a comparison that rears its head every time I see the season finale of Walking Dead collecting dust on my TiVo and choose to play RDR: UN instead of watching televised zombies, with RDR‘s dialog and characterization consistently trumping WD.

I’m not sure how accessible RDR would be to non-gamers, but I can say it is one of the few games that my non-gaming wife has ever enjoyed watching me play, as the landscape and cut-scenes are spectator worthy. It’s certainly a vital entry into the genre canons of both Western and zombie fiction, and belongs on any year-end round-up, regardless of medium.

Click for the second tier of shows that belong on my year’s best list.

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