Let me state this upfront: I enter the realm of top ten lists unwillingly. Composing one makes me feel like a pompous clerk in High Fidelity, and I hate the implied distinctions in the numbering: “Which is better, a slapdash-but-ambitious HBO melodrama, or a supertight, witty network sitcom?” So, since this is my first year as TV critic, I rebelled and made what I fully acknowledge is a random list of ten shows that are excellent, with a bunch of other great shows wedged willy-nilly in the sides, like spare coins stuck in the sofa cushions of my critical judgment.
For those who want some mathematical rigor (or for me to have watched every episode), I apologize. Choices two through ten are arbitrarily ordered — read nothing into their rank! My Number One is a true top pick: Mad Men, we miss you and we love you, all is forgiven, please come home.
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I know, I know, it’s a weird premise, with a lot of cutesy Diablo Cody touches. But like some bizarro Nurse Jackie — a show that started on a high note and then totally dropped the ball — USOT got better and better, not merely because of the excellent performance of Toni Collette, but because the essential concept (a person with multiple personality disorder struggles with her identity) deepened with each episode and became more nuanced, abandoning the “up with freaks!” bumper sticker philosophy for a trickier examination of a family in flux. (And while we’re discussing bad premieres that led to good shows: Bored to Death, HBO’s hoodie-literati sitcom, snuck slowly into my affections for its authentic Brooklyn flavor and Ted Danson’s preening charms.)
To me, this show is at its best when it operates right on the borderline of morality: Is Bill a good and faithful family man, or a sleazy misogynist who has found a way for God to bless his penchant for sexual variety? Is Nicki a snake in petticoats, or an admirable survivor? Barb: saint, doormat, feminist, sellout? But watching Big Love is just as fun for the sheer whack-job chicanery of its ensemble of backwoods schemers, from the late, lamented Roman Grant to Wanda, the poisoner with a heart of crazy.
Dirty, funny, crazy, gleefully inconsistent, and lovably shameless — a narrative about vampires, but in a good way. I’ve never seen more orgies in one season of a show, but even if everyone weren’t bare-titted and black-eyed and pointy-fanged, I’d love it just for the perverse satires of anti-gay fundamentalism.
There’s backlash in the air for the former critic’s darling, but I thought this has been a very good season, what with Muppet and porn versions of the characters, takedowns of NBC, and the usual sharp and wild rat-a-tat jokes (“Drama is like gay-man Gatorade. It replenishes their electrolytes”). Stop watching with shark-jump eyes and enjoy the brilliance! (Another show recovering from backlash: Ugly Betty, which has reinvented itself beautifully this fall.)
The return of the family sitcom! Modern Family is deservedly the critics’ darling of 2009, a witty mockumentary filled with great characters, especially an idiosyncratic gay couple and a wannabe-hip dad (“WTF, why the face?”). But the more old-fashioned, but also funny The Middle deserves attention, too, for its honest presentation of an ordinary working-class family clinging to stability in the center of the country.
The first two seasons of this stylized serial killer oddity were great, then the third fell apart. But this fourth season, in which Dexter became a father and faced off against a truly terrifying family-man murderer (the chilling John Lithgow), ended on a note of pure gothic horror. Not a show for the weak, but the most ambitiously strange series on Showtime.
Dumb fun, in the smartest possible way. This boldly interactive comic book jumped from cliffhanger to cliffhanger, flipping its narrative game board into the future and the deep past, reveling in the lunatic workings of what I personally like to think of as the International Conspiracy of Bad Dads. Bonus points for groovy seventies Dharma flavor and the tragedy stylings of Young Ben Linus.
I’ve come to this show very late, so consider this choice an act of faith based on the fact that every Person of Good TV Taste has begged me to watch old episodes. All signs point to the fact that this is AMC’s second great series, a darkly funny examination of one man’s struggle with morality and mortality, set in Meth-land, U.S.A. (And while we’re taking leaps of faith, here’s another show I’ve watched for only an episode or two, but can already tell is great: FX’s Sons of Anarchy. Oh, and also: season four of Friday Night Lights, which I vow to catch up with by January!)
The two mockumentaries are fascinating mirrors: One is about a bumptious male boss who dreams only of family, the other is about a bumptious female boss who aspires to be president. Both weave cringe comedy with humanistic sweetness, and while Parks and Recreation found its voice this season — especially in the case of Amy Poehler’s earnest clown — The Office also hit some brilliant notes, especially whenever it delved into the sick lunacy of the economic breakdown.
The clear winner, even to a critic who hates top ten lists. This sly and stylish sixties melodrama took bold swerves all season, at one point veering right over the foot of an interloper. The Brits rose and fell, Don and Betty shredded like wet Kleenex, Peggy got stoned, Sally lost her grandpa, and Joan played the saddest accordion solo ever. Easy to relish; hard to summarize. A deep pleasure.