December 21st, 2009
When you’re selecting the Top 10 shows of the year, you reach the point where you have to ask yourself: what would the year have been like if this show hadn’t been on the air?
And this criteria oddly kept a few shows off this list that I thought would have been here, shows which felt like they made a fairly substantial impact at the time but eventually felt defined more by a single episode than by the season as a whole, or by a single performer rather than the entire ensemble. And then there were shows which I love, shows that hold a special place in my heart and held special places within my End of Decade retrospective, but delivered seasons this calendar year which felt as if they were relying on rather than building on previous success. And then there were shows that I know are objectively better than some of the series which are on this list, but yet never felt integral to the year in television as we know it, that never felt as if they had made an impact on my experience with this medium over the past twelve months. Throw in the shows I just don’t watch, and those which just barely missed the cut despite meeting my criteria, and I’m sure there’s plenty of shows which you would contend should have a place on this list.
However, the shows on this list are a reflection of what was a really great year in television, a year where shows with intense fan support proved to withstand critical scrutiny and where shows with strong reputations delivered seasons that demonstrated intense control over their characters and their journeys. It was also a year where we recognize the joys of the Sophomore Season, where a network shows enough faith in a series to give it a second kick at the can and is rewarded with a creative explosion impossible to ignore. And it was also a year where, according to the list below, the network with the worst track record somehow managed to be affiliated with five of the best shows on television, demonstrating that there are some shows capable of transcending industry finagling to simply be great television.
Yes, the revolution of Chuck’s second season took place primarily in 2008, but the tail end of Chuck’s second season was, if less polished, deftly in control of its destiny. While some shows which balance procedural/serialized elements have trouble fitting everything together, Chuck became an expert of bringing the spy game, the Buy More and Chuck’s family into the mix. And by having Chuck’s estranged father bridge the different worlds, and by having the Buy More spawn the wonder of Jeffster, the show delivered a second season conclusion worthy of legend and a spot on this list.
While Modern Family is getting more critical hype, I just like Community more. There is a self-awareness to the show where it understands when it’s stretching its characters, and where its characters understand they’re being stretched, and the result has been a sort of scrappiness (to use Alan Sepinwall’s term) that’s endearing even if at times uneven. It is a show that, even with a pretentious lead character, lacks any fundamental pretensions, and feels creative and spontaneous without sacrificing the sort of character development I value in a comedy series, and without its humour feeling overworked.
Friday Night Lights (NBC/DirecTV)
In January, no one expected Friday Night Lights to survive, but a two-season reprieve and a fantastic third-season finale which launched an intelligent fourth-season see the show at its peak as we close out 2009. Returning to its underdog roots, the show has introduced a new generation of football players who are much more than quarterbacks or running backs, and has kept Eric and Tami Taylor (Kyle Chandler, Connie Britton) around to anchor a community that remains as compelling as it was three seasons ago, even when from some new perspectives.
Inconsistent and in some cases misguided, Glee may seem like a poor choice for a list of this nature. However, if we consider Glee as a gymnastics routine, its degree of difficulty is enormously high, and when it hits those jumps (primarily when it stops joking around and dials in on its characters) it scores and scores big. As a fan of musicals, I love seeing the writers experimenting with how music works towards building story and character, and how that same music can work to create a consistent online presence for the series through iTunes downloads that extend the show from a flawed teen drama into a cultural phenomenon.
With nothing to lose, as its sixth season order was confirmed over a year before the season began, Lost threw away any attempt at appealing to casual audiences by fully embracing its science fiction roots with a time-fractured narrative that could have been a disaster. Instead, it crystallized the themes of time and fate, creating new relationships alongside new theories on the island’s mysterious origins. The result was a season with an immense scale that nonetheless felt decidedly grounded in human emotions and desires, further cementing Lost’s legacy as a truly fascinating character drama.
Mad Men (AMC)
It’s the most complex drama on television at the moment, and its third season demonstrated that its pacing is not to be questioned: a slow burn led to a complex web of interactions which exploded by season’s end, and the show continues to deliver both long-form stories and small vignettes that capture the decade’s anxieties in a way that never feels so far removed from their characters to become simply period fluff. At this point, the show is so much more about Don, and Peggy, and Joan, and Betty than it is about the decade, and that’s a sign of Matthew Weiner’s skill and the show’s future longevity.
The Office (NBC)
The Michael Scott Paper Company arc was one of television’s high points this year, a story that offered both a welcome shakeup of the natural order of the series and actually created long-term ramifications. Sure, Pam as a salesperson never quite gelled, but Erin has become an integral part of the show and the reminder that Michael is actually capable when he applies himself was an important beat for the show to hit. It was perhaps the most consistent the show had been since its second season, and the sixth season has brought enough highs (Jim and Pam’s wedding, for example) to keep the momentum going.
Parks and Recreation (NBC)
Everybody loves a good underdog story, or so I would tend to argue, and there were few better than the turnaround experienced by Greg Daniels and Mike Schur’s Pawnee-set comedy. It was not until the sixth and final episode of the short first season where the show started to click, and like The Office before it the show returned with a confidence that never feels like swagger, remaining down to earth while delivering some truly delightful bits of over the top comedy. Strong with stories both small and large, collective or divided, it is a show that is firing on all cylinders at just the right time, proving that it, like The Office before it, could go on to become a cornerstone of NBC’s future lineup.
Party Down (Starz)
Like Greek, The Middleman and even Mad Men before it, Party Down is a fantastic show on a network that people don’t realize makes good original programming. Starz isn’t known for comedy, but Rob Thomas and John Enbom brought together a stunning ensemble cast and a wealth of guest stars and built around them a hilarious comedy series that not nearly enough people have experienced. As out of work actors cater parties to make ends meet, what we witness is how people react when their subsistence is a constant reminder of their failure, and how darkly funny that reality is for us as an audience – combine with Kristen Bell, J.K. Simmons and Steven Weber, and you have the surprise of the year.
Sons of Anarchy (FX)
Like two other shows on this list, FX’s biker drama series had a solid first season that was in some instances heavier on potential than on execution. But that potential proved portentous, and in its second season Kurt Sutter’s vision exploded in a way that no one expected, both in terms of ratings success and dramatic weight. With fantastic performances across the board and a relentless story that never lessens the pressure on its gun-running heroes, the show utilized its concept to the absolute best of its ability, setting enormously high expectations for Season 3 and beyond.
Your Turn: There’s one omission from this list that was tough for me (you’re welcome to guess what it is), so feel free to share your own favourites in the comments below.