As we face our first winter without the prospect of a new season of 24 and Lost to look forward to — and debate — here's my list (expanded somewhat from the magazine version) of the shows, and in some cases networks, that made 2010 a TV year to remember.
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1. MAD MEN
"It's a business of sadists and masochists, and you know which one you are." So says the eternal Ida Blankenship before dying at her desk. The hilarious grizzled secretary was the most notable casualty in an emotionally harrowing fourth season, arguably the best yet for AMC's moody classic about the dark side of the American dream. The agency rebuilds (but loses its top client), Don Draper rebounds from divorce (and impulsively proposes to his younger, prettier secretary!), heartbreaking little Sally Draper rebels (but gets to see the Beatles) and Peggy Olson asserts herself as a proto-feminist career woman in the revolutionary mid-'60s. Peggy's 26th birthday, spent in the office with Don in an all-night psychodrama of booze-soaked sorry and fury, was the finest hour of TV all year, a tour de force for Emmy-worthy stars Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss. (Seriously, if not now, when?)
Flanked by the underrated The Middle and the raucously enjoyable Cougar Town, ABC's Emmy-winning masterpiece of frazzled family dynamics anchors TV's best night of comedy. There's not a wrong note or a wasted look in this dynamite ensemble, from goofy little Luke to cranky old Jay. Even the sitcom staple of a Hawaiian family vacation becomes sweet comic gold in this group's company. "What's this called?" the uptight Mitchell wonders when he finally lets himself relax. "Happiness," says Cam. Yes, that's Modern Family in a blissful nutshell.
There will never be another show like Lost, because how could there be? Blazingly and defiantly original to the end, Lost's final season was, at turns, exasperating (the flash-sideways gimmick), thrilling (the Richard Alpert saga) and, by the end, unbearably moving: the watery sacrifice of Sun and Jin, the climactic reawakening and reconnecting of characters as they gathered to say one last metaphysical/spiritual goodbye. Watching Lost required a leap of faith and rewarded it in ways we'll never forget — or maybe even ever fully understand.
Good? That doesn't do justice to network TV's best drama. It's simply great, a refreshingly grown-up entertainment that transcends the CBS procedural formula. Julianna Margulies simmers marvelously as the wronged wife juggling office intrigue and local politics, adolescent kids and a tricky love triangle, caught between a repentant philandering husband and her smitten boss. As her firm's femme fatale investigator, Archie Panjabi's sexually ambiguous Kalinda adds a dash of dangerous spice to the already heady Chicago brew.
5. THE HBO MOVIE/MINISERIES
Without HBO, the ambitious and culturally significant TV-movie/miniseries would be a lost art form. This year's deserving Emmy champs were especially memorable: the insightful biopic Temple Grandin, starring a transcendent Claire Danes as the autistic visionary; and the shattering WWII epic The Pacific, which re-created the graphic horrors of combat against the relentless Japanese enemy almost too authentically.
Pure artful intensity is this network's trademark. Mad Men (see above) led the way, but it hardly stops there. Breaking Bad, truly edge-of-the-seat TV, reaped Emmys for Bryan Cranston (his third) and Aaron Paul in an unsparingly suspenseful third season of moral contamination as the consequences of their drug trade grew deadlier. The "One Minute" episode, when the avengers from across the border nearly kill Walt's DEA brother-in-law in a terrifying parking-lot ambush, was the most gripping episode of anything I saw all season. The theme of contamination was illuminated in the brilliant "Fly" episode, a dark Looney Tunes war that pits Walt against a fly trapped in the lab. And breakout hit The Walking Dead proves, perhaps for the first time since The X-Files, that horror has a place on the top shelf of TV, and that apocalyptic terror can draw an audience, and earn respect, as this bleak and gripping series finds existential poetry in the eerie silences between grisly zombie attacks.
Sing out! Fox's pop-culture phenom is an erratic but irresistibly excessive ode to self-expression, tolerance and outrageous showmanship. Also tops on my playlist: BBC America's soul-stirring docu-reality series The Choir, as earnest and boyish choirmaster Gareth Malone unites downtrodden schools and communities through classic harmonies. Music to our ears.
Dazzling to behold, HBO's Prohibition-era saga of debauchery and corruption teems with fascinating eccentrics, led by Steve Buscemi's cock-of-the-boardwalk Nucky Thompson, whose sphere of bootlegging influence reaches to New York (Arnold Rothstein) and Chicago (a young Al Capone). The mingling of historical and fictional characters is reminiscent of Ragtime, but with its own decidedly quirky tang. "We all have to decide how much sin we can live with," Nucky tells the Irish immigrant (the magnificent Kelly Macdonald) who is drawn to him but repelled by his actions. Sin never looked better.
Some icons are truly timeless. PBS' Masterpiece Mystery! introduces a 21st-century Holmes, played with mercurial panache by Benedict Cumberbatch, in a delightfully clever series of films by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, the men responsible for this year's equally delicious reboot of Doctor Who. This Sherlock texts and Googles addictively, while his droll Dr. Watson (Martin Freeman) chronicles their adventures in a blog, but his mad genius goes beyond high tech. He's one for the ages. (Kudos as well to BBC America's scorching crime miniseries Luther, with The Wire's Idris Elba as a tormented detective drawn into an unhealthy but riveting battle of wits with a ravishingly enigmatic female psychopath, unforgettably played by Ruth Wilson.)
Cable's edgiest network lightened up with two appealingly offbeat capers that were highlights of my TV year. Justified, a whiskey-smooth blend of sexy, dry wit amid brutal danger, channels Elmore Leonard through wry Timothy Olyphant (the epitome of cool) as a U.S. marshal with tangled Kentucky roots. He is matched every step of the way by Walton Goggins as a boyhood friend gone bad, a zealot who converts from psycho to prophet behind bars, his lethal behavior always keeping us off guard. And Terriers was a terrific buddy noir about lovably scruffy PIs (Donal Logue and Michael Raymond-James, who ace the chemistry test) unearthing dirty deeds in a San Diego beach town. Deeper than it looked, like Chinatown interpreted by Ross Macdonald by way of Robert Altman, Terriers never clicked in the ratings and was put down too soon. Can't win 'em all, but thanks to FX for trying (and to the creators for shaping a season that didn't leave us unnecessarily hanging).
Honorable mention as well to FX's crackling third season (and last on FX) of Damages, telling a suspenseful and fatalistic story of a Madoff-like family financial scandal, with sensational performances by Campbell Scott, Lily Tomlin and Martin Short as adversaries caught in Patty Hewes' cross-hairs (costing poor Tom his life). And let's not forget Louie, the mordant slice-of-laugh summer comedy built around the melancholy worldview of stand-up star Louis C.K. Painfully acute and unapologetically bawdy, Louie nails the daily frustrations of the urban jungle, while finding a dark cloud of humor to see its hero through.
Just missing the cut: Promising comedies like Community, which has come into its own lately with a run of adventurously surreal episodes, and Raising Hope, the recklessly rude bright spot of a flaccid fall TV season; and various reality competitions that raised their games, including So You Think You Can Dance and the all-star seasons of Survivor and Top Chef. Now on to 2011, and there are already some early best-of-year contenders in January (Showtime's Episodes, FX's Lights Out, PBS' Downton Abbey a centerpiece of Masterpiece's landmark 40th season). Enjoy the break while it lasts. It's going to get busy again soon!