Best TV of 2010: The Second Tier


In my last post, I offered my Top Tier TV for 2010, roughly serving as a top 5 (with one of those taken by a videogame). So the following shows could be seen as residing in the bottom half of my Best Of list, but I refuse the arbitrary limit of 10 or the time it would take to rank these any way except alphabetically. So feel free to pick your favorite and call it my #6.

Children’s Hospital: One of the reasons I wait to do my lists until late-December is that I often discover shows at the last minute that deserve a spot. Such it is with this Adult Swim parody of hospital melodramas created by Rob Corddry, as I first learned about it from other earlier year-end lists. It’s not driven by subtle characters or elaborately plotted scenarios, but simply delivers gag after gag by a stable of top comedic talent. Quick 12-minute episodes are great to binge on, such as this parody of live stunt episodes that concludes with an homage to one of my all-time favorite films:

Community: In Fall 2009, Community seemed like a promising sitcom with a talented ensemble and clever hook, but I rarely found it living up to its promise. The spring episodes were a step forward, with a better balance of pop culture homage (not quite parody) and character-driven humor. And season 2 has continued that forward momentum, deepening the characters and creating sublime moments balancing goofiness and pathos. “Conspiracy Theories & Interior Design” might be my favorite comedy episode of the year, and “Mixology Certification” showed the depth of character drama buried beneath the comedic shell. Definitely one of my two favorites of all the great new shows that debuted in Fall 2009.

Cougar Town: If you’d have told me this show would appear on one of my best-of lists in Fall 2009, I probably would have done a spit take. I watched the first two eps of the series upon its debut on the basis of my longtime love of Scrubs from the same creative team, but found them both unfunny and aggressively offensive in their worldview. But the critical tide turned in the Spring, as the show shifted gears into a hang-out comedy with the Cul de Sac Crew rather than focusing on Courtney Cox’s quest for young tail. And I’ve come to really enjoy the show in its second season, as the ensemble offers a utopian vision of middle-age: hang out with friends in an upper-middle-class milieu and give each other shit over copious amounts of wine. It’s not deeply funny and doesn’t offer the blend of wacky humor and emotional payoff that Scrubs did at its best. But it’s a really good time hanging out with folks I enjoy spending time with – and the self-mocking title cards each week are wonderful winks at the show’s failed first incarnation.

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart: At this point, TDS is practically a hall-of-fame default member of annual best-of lists, and any list that doesn’t include it seems like there must have been an oversight. This year, Stewart and company went open-air with the Rally to Restore Fear and/or Sanity, an imperfect but impressive take-down of the self-aggrandizing tendencies of today’s pundits and a reminder that Stewart’s real target is not the political establishment, but the news media that encourages and sustains the low-level of American political discourse. Few moments on television this year gave me more pleasure than whenever Stewart got out his glasses and chalkboard, channelling Glenn Beck’s fanatical incoherence and creating satire so spot-on that it produces more fear than laughter.

Dr. Who: Matt Smith is my Doctor. I’d never gotten into the Dr. Who cult before, as my impression of the show was based solely on my occasional viewing of 1970s-era episodes on PBS, and I tend to like my sci-fi a bit less cheesy than that. But after being won over by last year’s brilliant Torchwood: Children of Earth, I gave series 5 of the new Dr. Who a try and was instantly won over. Smith nails a blend of goofiness and wisdom that carries the show despite frequently ludicrous situations and contrived plot resolutions. I love the dynamics between Smith, Karen Gillan’s Amy, and Alex Kingston’s sublime River Song – while someday I’ll go back and give the 9th and 10th Doctors more of a try, right now I’m fully on-board with #11.

Friday Night Lights: I don’t have DirectTV, so for me all of season 4 was new this year, and that season delivered most consistently of any season since FNL‘s stellar debut. While the show still suffers from major leaps of plausibility and lack of inter-season plot consistency, season 4 made me suspend those judgments for the most part, buying into the newly established East/West Dillon divide and rooting for Coach’s ragtag bunch of outcasts. The aspect of the show that has never wavered in quality is the portrayal of the Taylor family melodrama, and this year certainly delivered in those storylines, especially concerning Matt Saracen’s relationship to the Taylors. “The Son” might be the most heart-wrenching episode of television I watched this year.

The Good Wife: A complex cable drama masquerading as a CBS procedural, The Good Wife delivers an impressive blend of stand-alone legal cases, ongoing political serial, melodramatic relationship and family melodrama, and a dose of wit. It quickly went from being a show that we’d catch up on when we got a chance to an eagerly awaited weekly ritual, riding the strongest dramatic ensemble on network television and a great stable of guest stars – and thanks to the New York shooting locale, this season has turned into The Wire Cast Bingo, with recurring and one-time appearances from many familiar faces. I’ve turned a number of people onto this show, and not had anyone come back to say it doesn’t work for them, so definitely give it a shot if you’ve been put-off by thinking it was typical CBS fare.

The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret: Among comedy geeks, Running Wilde was a much-anticipated new sitcom from the cast and creators of Arrested Development, but it was a huge disappointment. Instead, this obscure IFC 6-episode series created by David Cross was a much better bearer of the AD legacy, with Cross’s title character combining pathetic inadequacy and an instinct for self-aggrandizing lies that gets him into untenable situations trying to sell toxic energy drinks in London. While inconsistent, Todd Margaret delivered a blend of complex plotting and over-the-top performances that few shows can match.

Justified: FX had a phenomenal year, with excellent new series Louie, Terriers and Archer joining its still strong stable of original series. While I found Terriers to be the year’s best new drama, Justified comes close with slightly lower ambitions – it captures the shaggy tension of Elmore Leonard novels better than most screen adaptations, and subtly develops an excellent arc that paid off in a stellar finale. While the cast is uniformly strong, I found Waylon Goggins’s portrayal of Boyd, a murderous psycho who may or may not have found religious redemption to be one of the year’s best performances.

Lost: I’ve written thousands of words about the final season of Lost, both here and on the Antenna blog, so let me just say this. Seven months later, I don’t think about it much, but when I do, it’s always with fondness. And watching this clip of the show’s final two minutes, I still get verklempt.

Men of a Certain Age: I love shows that capture the feeling of friends hanging-out with a loose tone and sharp dialog, a feature shared by Terriers, Cougar Town, Louie, and this new TNT drama from Ray Romano. The situations and plots are underplayed, and the comedy is never forced, so it’s easy to overlook the charms of Men of a Certain Age, but it captures texture of everyday life better than nearly every other show out there, especially when Romano, Scott Bakula and the always great Andre Braugher are shooting-the-shit while eating or hiking.

Modern Family: Perhaps it’s a bit over-hyped and it’s certainly is less innovative and risk-taking than most of the other comedies on my list. But I find Modern Family to be consistently funny and charming, with a uniformly great cast, a solid blend of physical and verbal humor, and tight plotting. And as a parent, I find its family-centered humor to resonate a bit too frequently.

Treme: No show had a tougher pair of hurdles to clear. Among Wire-philes, could David Simon’s new series match the heights of what many consider the medium’s finest drama? And among the majority of HBO viewers who’d never watched The Wire, why should people care about a slow-paced drama about post-Katrina New Orleans that fits no typical television genre? It took awhile to get its hooks into me, but by the end I was completely won over by Treme‘s charms and was able to see it outside of the context of The Wire (although Wendell Pierce is and shall always be The Bunk), and recognize its unique approach to urban drama. The show featured stellar performances, fabulous music, an unparalleled sense of place, and a slow-burn narrative momentum that hit hard by season’s end. It also answered a lingering question from The Wire: can Simon write good female characters? On Treme, the women offered uniformly fantastic characters and performances, with more room for growth in the upcoming second season.

2010 World Cup: This summer I joined in the millions of Americans whose interest in soccer ends at their kids’ school fields and got hooked into the World Cup action. While I haven’t become a die-hard fan of the professional sport yet, I found the televised games so compelling that they pretty much ruined baseball for me this year – the anxious tension of a soccer game which might result in a score at any moment was so much more compelling than the endless downtime of my traditional standby summer sport. I think the HDTV format is essential to soccer’s appeal, with the widescreen and sharp details capturing a sense of action from afar. The test of my soccer interest will be when I’m in Germany next year – will I become a full-fledged Fußballfan?

Potential additions once I watch themSherlock, Boardwalk Empire, Party Down, Dexter, Sons of Anarchy, United States of Tara, Eastbound & Down, The Boondocks, In Treatment

Critical favorites that I’ve seen enough of to know they don’t rank here: Walking Dead, Mad Men, 30 Rock, Glee, Fringe, Chuck, Rubicon

3 Responses to “Best TV of 2010: The Second Tier”

  1. 1 jasoncgutierrez

    i started watching men of a certain age recently and am very happy that i have. despite not being of that certain age i still feel a kind of solidarity with these gently aging men. and you’re right, andre braugher is spectacular. his few guest spots on house’s sixth season we’re the best things on house in a long time.

    have you seen party down? i was disappointed to see that starz canceled it, but losing your star to parks and recreation is a big blow. either way, it’s been one of the comedic highlights of my tv viewing year. if you haven’t seen it i’d definitely look around for it.

  2. Community’s adventurousness in form and genre is what won me over to it. It ranges from slapstick to satire to meta to post-apocalypse to stop motion animation effortlessly. It’s never going to do well if we judge it on the basis of depth of characterization or intricate plotting. I’m glad to see it on this list.

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