Forget "Best Show of 2010." Try No. 1 of all time. No season of any show I've seen — and yes, I've seen the Wire — has ever come close to this season on Breaking Bad.
Many shows have achieved greatness by following TV's rules and creating beautiful narratives within those rules. But Breaking Bad doesn't succumb to the whims of necessity. After Season Two ended, TV rules dictate that Walt would go straight back to cooking meth. Because that's the premise. Instead, it spent the first half of this season exploring the soul-sapping pain of a collapsing marriage.
And it did so ruthlessly — each episode depressed me for most of the next day.
Even better: The show had the guts to focus an entire episode around two main characters trying to swat a fly. But it's not just swatting a fly! It's symbolic of perfection and flaws and frustration and the need for control.
The suspenseful action sequences, especially in the episode "One Minute," are as hold-your-breath brutal as anything on television. And the nonviolent domestic sequences are even more hold-your-breath brutal than the action sequences.
At first, people compared Community to NewsRadio. But critics are now (timidly) making a new comparison — to The Simpsons, seasons four through eight.
Blasphemy? Perhaps. But I can see it. The variety of the episodes — some zany ("KFC Space Simulator"), some emotional (a night out drinking
makes everyone depressed.) The elaborate jokes and callbacks. The attention to detail in the background. (Yes, if you freeze the frame,
you can see the thief steal Annie's pen.)
It's the back and forth between cartoon style (zombies at a community college or an out-of-control monorail) and that of a more grounded sitcom (a young student worries she'll lose the friends she made if they don't have classes together, or a dad worries about dental insurance for his daughter).
And if you think I ranked Community too highly, well, New York magazine rated Community the top show of 2010. So did Salon.
3. Friday Night Lights
If my dad, a high school track coach, was writing his "Top TV of 2010" list, it would be composed entirely of Friday Night Lights. After all, it's the only show he watches.
That's because Friday Night Lights gets it. It gets what it's like to be a coach, an athlete — what it's like to have boosters pissed at you, parents furious and your star athlete on academic probation. It gets what it's like to feel trapped in a small town, or to be poor, or privileged.
And, perhaps most impressively — in a way that no other show has done — it gets what it's like to be happily married. Coach Taylor and Mrs. Coach have fights and frustrations, but they're always about little things — real things, not sitcom things — and they always end up holding hands again. You see a love shine through their arguments: a real, mature love, not the puppy-love banter you see on most every other television show.
Maybe it's the improvisation, or the handheld camera, or just the sheer quality of acting. But no drama on television I've seen continues to feel as real as this one.
The Good Wife is, in so many ways, a mash-up. It's one of those mash-ups that shouldn't ever work -- the types of music are too different -- but, once you get listening to it, your foot starts tapping and you can't help but hum it for days.
This show produces the same effect. It's a legal procedural, a serialized drama, and a
schlocky soap opera, all in one. It's a serious look into the aftermath of
betrayal. And though its viewership is one of the oldest on television, it has
the most up-to-date understanding of Internet culture.
Somehow The Good Wife makes it all work. Like a Frosty and fries, it's a contradiction that's deliciously addictive.
Terriers improved as it went on, growing from a scruffy light-hearted detective show into a dark and gut-wrenching drama, TV's best foray into noir since Veronica Mars. But to get the full impact of those last great episodes, you really need what came before. This is a 13-hour self-contained movie. The change in tone — the fall from silly banter to deep tragedy — is one of its greatest strengths. The gut-wallop that the show builds up to in the final episodes is brilliant.
Terriers did not get renewed for a second season. But isn't it better, in a way, for a show to have one stellar self-contained season, instead of tarnishing its legacy when subsequent seasons don't live up to the potential of the first?
If you've watched The Daily Show at all since 2004, it shouldn't surprise you that perhaps the biggest rally on Washington this year came from a cable comedy show. Jon Stewart not only runs the funniest, most insightful late-night show, but this year — thanks to stellar new corespondents Wyatt Cenac and Aasif Mandvi (Team Jesus and Team Muhammad, respectfully) — it's been in top form. The Daily Show still puts political rants above comedy, but it continues to invigorate the form of political satire in ways that have a real impact. The sheer quantity of top-shelf quality these writers produce weekly is incredible. They're showing SNL that it can be done.
Boot off Olivia Munn, and you'll move up a rank, Daily Show.
|The Daily Show With Jon Stewart||Mon - Thurs 11p / 10c|
|Extremist Makeover - Team Mohammed vs. Team Jesus|
7. Parks and Recreation
I like Parks and Recreation more than I think I do. Let me explain: When I'm faced with shows to watch on Thursday night, Parks and Recreation is rarely my first choice. But whenever I actually watch it, I fall in love with it all over again.
The easiest comparison to Parks and Recreation is The Office, of course, since they're both mockumentaries set around, well, offices. But Parks is better in almost every way. Where The Office wants you to mock the characters, Parks and Recreation wants you to love them. While The Office sneers at Michael's idealism, Parks and Recreation roots for Leslie's idealism.
The strongest moments come from the relationship between liberal, bright-eyed passionate governmental employee Leslie Knope and her cynical, mustachioed, small-government, gun-shooting, wood-crafting, bacon-loving boss. Politically, they're diametrically opposed. But there's also grudging undercurrent of love and respect. On television, only the mentor relationship between Jack and Liz on 30 Rock is this adorable.
8. Doctor Who
Yes, this is a British show. Yes, it's a science-fiction show. And yes, it's goofy and silly and, occasionally, aimed at kids. But none of that matters when you combine the unstoppable forces of Stephen Moffat and Matt Smith. Sci-fi writer Moffat sets up fascinating rules for monsters, worlds and timey-wimey time travel. He relies on creativity — not technobabble — to resolve cliffhangers. His plots are woven in Mobius strips but never hard to follow.
Smith, as the 11th iteration of the Doctor, meanwhile, is effortlessly, naturally, everything the Doctor should be: alien, quirky, giddy, passionate, dark, fearless, glib and — this is key — deluded into thinking that bow ties are cool.
As I've said before, this is the anti-Battlestar Galactica. Its whiz-bang lightheartedness brings much-needed balance to the sci-fi force.
Aside from the character of Walter Bishop (played with a stammering mix of fluster, insanity, grief, glee and childlike innocence by John Noble) your average Fringe episode isn't anything remarkable. (Usually you find that The X-Files has done it before — and better.) But sometimes the greatness of a show should be measured by its peaks, not its plateaus. And "White Tulip" — a stand-alone episode from this spring, about a time traveler leaping back in time (at horrible cost) to find his wife before she dies in a car accident — is the best non-Breaking Bad television episode of the year.
In the intersection of science-fiction and emotion, only Lost's "The Constant" stands a chance of competing. And "White Tulip" is not only a meditation on guilt, it's a ballet between science and faith more poetic than any of Lost's musings on the subject. That's why Fringe is on this list and Lost isn't.
Wildcard choice! The pure spoof is a genre so unconnected to plot and character that it's impossible for it to ever truly obtain any true greatness. Breaking Bad, this ain't. But Childrens Hospital has — in hilarious, often inspired fashion — rejuvenated the spoof genre, which had had its honor besmirched by the likes of Epic Movie and Meet the Spartans. The show proves that spoof doesn't have to be lazy.
"Wait," you say as you read through this list. "You put Childrens Freakin' Hospital on your best TV of 2010 list but left off Mad Men?"
Absolutely. And I'd do it again.
Read our "But you left off ..." defense to find out why.