The Top 25 TV Shows of 2010

2010 was a year full of disappointment and mediocrity in television: the failure of "Treme," "Boardwalk Empire" and "The Walking Dead" to live up to their next great cable drama hype (and the renewals for 2nd seasons they all got anyway), "100 Questions" and "Gravity" competing tenaciously for the title of worst show I've ever seen, and the crushingly awful final season of "Lost" managing to be almost as bad as new "Lost" knockoffs like "The Event" and "Flash Forward." But there was also a lot of good and great TV this year, a lot of the shows from my 2009 list are still at the top of their game, and there was a whole lot of promising new stuff. And as I spent all year at home raising my son, I saw quite a lot of it, and feel pretty qualified to give my take, although of course taste is a subjective thing and there are a lot of well regarded shows I just don't particularly like (by which I mean: don't look for "Mad Men" or "Friday Night Lights" here). I'll be posting one entry of the list at a time over the next two days, the first 15 on Tuesday and the top 10 on Wednesday, and you can follow me on Twitter to get updates every time I add a new entry:

25. "Haven" (SyFy)
Outside of "Battlestar Galactica," which I haven't been able to get into, original series on the channel formerly known as SciFi never get much love or attention, and indeed dull writing and cheap-looking special effects tend to hold back most of their shows from being as fun or entertaining as they probably could be. But the first season of "Haven," based on the Stephen King novel The Colorado Kid, showed some pretty serious promise, partly by focusing more on atmosphere and mystery, and managed the rare feat of being about an FBI agent investigating unexplained events without feeling like any kind of "X-Files" knockoff. And the finale left things off on such an intriguing note that I can't wait to see the show come back for a second season next year.

24. "The Kids In The Hall: Death Comes To Town" (IFC)
I wasn't sure what to think about the news that my favorite sketch comedy troupe of all time would finally be returning to TV with a murder mystery mini-series. And while "Death Comes To Town" was often more bizarre than it was funny, it proved to be kind of a shrewd middle ground between the sketch-driven work they're known for and the more sustained narrative that proved ill-fitting in their one feature film, Brain Candy. You simply can't get these 5 guys together without ending up with a few lines that make me double over with laughter and quote them obnoxiously for months.

23. "The Music Video Exposed" (VH1 Classic)
I started watching MTV religiously in the early '90s, around the time they started putting director's credits at the bottom of the screen and video directors started becoming name brands unto themselves. So it's refreshing and illuminating to see this series spotlight the guys who helped create the whole visual language of music videos in the '80s, guys you've probably never heard of like Steve Barron or Kevin Godley whose work you've nonetheless probably seen hundreds of times.

22. "Rubicon" (AMC)
Between this and the HBO WW2 mini-series "The Pacific," James Badge Dale was kind of the kind of slow moving, mildly underwhelming cable drama this year. But "Rubicon," as much as it kind of feels like a failure now, both because of its cancellation and because of its deeply unsatisfying finale, did have a few real moments of intrigue and excitement here and there, spread throughout a season that was actually kind of likable in how oddly paced it was. And it didn't hurt that Jessica Collins, Annie Parisse and Lauren Hodges were nice to look at.

21. "The Big C" (Showtime)
I've always had a vague distaste for Showtime's original programming, which tend to have likable casts and interesting premises but end up kind of hollow and poorly written ("Weeds," Californication," etc.). At times, "The Big C" felt a bit like that, or perhaps like a lower stakes version of "Breaking Bad" (which would probably be on this list if I wasn't still catching up on DVD and haven't seen any of this year's episodes yet). But over the course of the season, I've really started to enjoy watching Laura Linney and Oliver Platt play their characters, and the great offbeat supporting cast, like the homeless brother and the neighbor with Alzheimer's, whose storyline's end was probably the most heartbreaking moment in a show that never tried too hard to go for the big emotional moments that could've come easily to them.

20. "Raising Hope" (FOX)
There have been a lot of mildly enjoyable new sitcoms premiering this fall that I've been watching faithfully and hoping they improve ("Mike & Molly" and "Better With You" in particular), but so far "Raising Hope" is the one that I've really gotten stuck on immediately, and just has a great cast with a great indefinable chemistry together, and a comic sensibility that veers wildly between dry and dark or heartwarming.

19. "Futurama" (Comedy Central)
"Futurama" may not have gotten quite as triumphant a rising from the dead as "Family Guy" did, returning with new episodes on basic cable with fewer episodes a season and sometimes visible lower animation budget, but the show still looks better than just about any cartoon on TV, and is just about as funny and clever as it ever was.

18. "Sons Of Anarchy" (FX)
This would probably be higher on the list, if I hadn't begun watching the 3rd season of the bleak biker drama just after binging on the superior first 2 seasons on DVD. The new season hasn't really been a fall off, but I do have to admit that the whole babynapping Irish adventure thing is getting a little old and is just not as compelling as earlier storylines. Still, an incredibly addictive show with some great acting.

17. "Lay It Down with Cee-Lo Green" (Fuse)
Cee-Lo's been an amazing rapper and singer for a long time, but I have to say I've been less than thrilled with his musical output in recent years, particularly with most of his current fame coming from a Bruno Mars-penned novelty song. But he's still a really smart, fascinating musician and Fuse had the brilliant idea to give him an interview show where he gets to interview people who influenced him (Public Enemy) and who he's influenced (T-Pain, Ludacris). The tone is remarkably low key, almost like a hip hop version of the Charlie Rose show, and the conversation is always interesting and insightful.

16. "The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien" (NBC)
So far, "Conan" on TBS has gotten off to a good start and I look forward to Conan staying on that show for years to come. But so far it hasn't quite eclipsed the entertainment value of those insane last 2 weeks of his aborted run hosting "The Tonight Show," as NBC's whole ridiculous mishandling of the situation with Jay Leno and Conan played out in the newspapers and Conan just decided to make the best of it and go nuts on TV every night until they finally took him off the air.

15. "Childrens Hospital" (Cartoon Network)
I'm not one of those people that still bitches about MTV not playing videos, but seriously, everytime I see a non-animated show on the Cartoon Network, I'm automatically annoyed. But Rob Corddry's hysterical satire of nonsensical medical dramas like "Grey's Anatomy" is just too great for me to deny on mere principle, and boasts an all-star cast of marginally famous people who are really funny.

14. "The Soup" (E!)
Even though Joel McHale is currently entertaining me more on "Community," the show that launched his career is still essential viewing for wringing that little bit of entertainment and WTF value out of every shitty show on TV that isn't worth watching itself. It's the reason I can fill this list entirely with shows I admire and respect and not include any shitty guilty pleasure shows; "The Soup" processes them into something actually well written and funny on purpose. And the spinoffs like "The Dish" and "Web Soup" and especially the offbrand knockoff "Tosh.0" are all worth watching too.

13. "Modern Family" (ABC)
I wasn't totally sold on "Modern Family" as the big breakout sitcom of the 2009-2010 season and its mockumentary style has been kind of stale and overused for a while now, but it's been hitting a pretty enjoyable groove and is starting to feel like a suitable flagship for ABC's slowly rising comedy block.

12. "Parenthood" (NBC)
When it first debuted as a mid-season replacement early in the year, I thought most of my enjoyment of "Parenthood" was coming from the inevitable resonance of me just having become a father a few months before, and my residual affection for various cast members' previous roles and the 1989 movie the show is based on. After all, the stories were kind of cliched most of the time and sometimes its humor was a bit obvious (which is why for a while it felt like "Parenthood" and "Modern Family" were using identical gags on a regular basis). But as it's settled into an involving 2nd season, I have to admit this has become one of my favorite shows to tune into every week.

11. "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" (Comedy Central)
Year after year, "The Daily Show" is something I can't live without. Sometimes, like after Stewart softballs a potentially big interview, or that whole pointless rally thing, it feels a little less urgent to tune in for every new episode, but I have to admit, I'm one of those twentysomethings who gets a lot of their news from Comedy Central.

10. "The Colbert Report" (Comedy Central)
Colbert and the show that launched his career have been kind of dancing up and down this list and taking turns being higher or lower every year that I've done it, and although I'll ultimately always hold "The Daily Show" in higher esteem overall, this year I think "The Colbert Report" really killed it with funnier broad humor and that sharper, meaner satire that only Colbert can sneak past you so well with a shit-eating grin.

9. "Men Of A Certain Age" (TNT)
Ray Romano, Andre Braugher and Scott Bakula are kind of an odd trio of TV vets to headline this meditation of middle-aged manhood, but they ended up being perfectly cast as their own minor and major personal crises played out over the first season earlier in the year, and look to be gearing up again as the 2nd season begins this week.

8. "Last Comic Standing" (NBC)
This year was a great one for TV if you really enjoy watching comedians practice their craft and talk about it -- in addition to the great Showtime panel discussion show "The Green Room with Paul Provenza" and Louis C.K.'s FX show "Louie" (which I was less than enthralled with but enjoyed the standup parts), the long-running comedian version of "American Idol," which has had a pretty up-and-down history, had probably its best season ever, with a new host, an almost shockingly great lineup of competitors, and a judging panel that included the underrated Greg Giraldo, who sadly died a few months after wrapping the season.

7. "Bored To Death" (HBO)
When it debuted last year, "Bored To Death" got dangerously close to its title being unironically appropriate. But I did a total 180 on this show with its 2nd season, and I'm still not really sure if it got way better or if I just like it more. But where before it felt dry and quirky to a fault, now the show feels more like a sitcom, almost as much a satire of its generation of neurotic New Yorkers as "Seinfeld" was for its generation. It's still behind "Cheers" and "Damages," but this show just leapfrgged ahead of "Becker" to become the third best series of Ted Danson's career so that's...something.

6. "How I Met Your Mother" (CBS)
I've been a faithful watcher of this show since the first season and haven't remotely been motivated to sound the shark-jump alarm, but I have to admit there have been times when my interest in the show has wavered, including this year. But the show going into syndication this fall has made me appreciate how good it can be all over again, and occasionally great new episodes like last month's "Natural History," perhaps one of the most perfect episodes in the show's 6 year history, have affirmed that they can still hit all the right notes of hilarity and sentiment now and again.

5. "The Venture Bros." (Cartoon Network)
"The Venture Bros." is 2nd only to "30 Rock" as the most tightly scripted comedy on TV, nearly every second of every episode packed with devastating one liners, slow burning obscure references, and nuanced, character-driven subtext. It just happens to be an animated show about super scientists and costumed villains on Adult Swim, and makes nearly every show it shares airtime with seem puerile and inane by comparison. The second half of season 4 that just wrapped up with the show's incredible first hourlong episode, "Operation P.R.O.M.," was something of a refreshing return to the show's classic form after the last couple years leaned a little too heavy on origin stories and action outside the Venture compound.

4. "Party Down" (Starz)
"Party Down" was my favorite new show of 2009, and it had a rough 2010 that it ultimately didn't survive; before the second season even began, one of the standout cast members, Jane Lynch, had been plucked from the show for the biggest new network hit "Glee," and within a few months another, Adam Scott, had moved onto another network show, "Parks & Recreation." And even by the standards of Starz, a movie channel that most people don't even know has original programming, the ratings were abysmal, so it was no surprise when it was soon cancelled. But the second season was still frequently hysterical and only a slight dropoff from the near perfect first season, and it'll be interesting to see what co-creator Rob Thomas of "Veronica Mars" has in store for the two network shows he already has in the works next.

3. "30 Rock" (NBC)
It's really just insane how airtight the writing and performances on "30 Rock" have been for going on 5 straight years now -- even at its weakest it's still one of the funniest shows on TV, and memorable guest spots (Matt Damon and Elizabeth Banks in particular) have helped make 2010 an especially exciting year for the show.

2. "Terriers" (FX)
The reasons that barely anyone watched "Terriers" and its cancellation was officially announced on Monday are many and obvious, particularly the misleading name and the lack of a big enticing conceptual hook or movie star lead that most of FX's other gritty dramas have. But this unpredictable and brilliantly plotted private detective noir set in a sun-soaked California beach community is by far my most exciting television discovery of 2010. Comcast has been putting FX shows OnDemand a week after airing, so I’m still waiting for the finale to become available and watch it in the next day or so, like a gift waiting to be opened. I mentally prepared for the inevitable cancellation a while ago, so at this point I'm just anxious to get this on DVD and rewatch and pore over these 13 episodes again and just be thankful they were made at all.

1. "Community" (NBC)
"Community" was my favorite new show of the fall season on last year's list, but I really had no idea how quickly or how hugely it would grow and mutate and improve and top itself with the second half of its first season and the first half of its second season in 2010. Yes, I refer mainly to the high-concept movie parody episodes (the Goodfellas chicken fingers saga, the incredible paintball episode, the Apollo 13 homage, the zombie Halloween episode and this week's Christmas claymation episode), but in between those great, creative one-offs, the relationships between the characters and the huge stockpile of running jokes that accumulate along with them, have continued to evolve in hilarious, unexpected ways, as Joel McHale and Danny Pudi and Alison Brie and Donald Glover have helped make "Community" one of the sharpest comedic ensembles on TV.
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