I posted my TV Top 10 for 2010 in video form yesterday, one day after the list made its actual debut as part of the Monday podcast.
As promised, here's my Second 10-ish, a list of 12 shows that would have filled the next 10 slots had I been doing a Top 20 for the year.
It's here that I observe that much as I loved the No. 1 and No. 2 shows on my countdown, my top TV viewing experience of 2010 was actually the four months it took me to run through the complete series of FX's "The Shield," which the entire universe took me to task for excluding from my Best of the '00s Top 31 series last December. If I had my Top 31 to do all over again, "The Shield" would be in my Top 5, I suspect (for the decade, that is).
Now on to my Second 10-ish, after the break. That's 12 shows for the 10 slots between 11 and 20. And they're IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER...
"Better Off Ted" and "Party Down" - These two comedy gems both aired short seasons in the spring and the ratings were almost mind-bogglingly low, drawing the sort of numbers I've dubbed OMTFWW -- Only My Twitter Feed Was Watching. But both shows at least got second seasons and, as we like to say of shows cancelled this hastily, they'll find audiences on DVD and then people will be grumpy they missed out. Both comedies, among the smartest on TV and featuring impossibly high joke-per-minute rations, boasted phenomenal ensembles and every actor involved with either show is automatically golden for their next two or three roles, achieving the sort of "I'll give you the benefit of the doubt" carte blanche I give "Friday Night Lights" or "Veronica Mars" veterans.
"Carlos" - I don't quite understand the intellectual reaction that caused several critics groups to hail this six-hour Sundance Channel miniseries as the year's best feature film. But I do know that "Carlos" is as conflicted and pragmatic a portrait of political extremism and revolutionary iconoclasm as one could hope to see, but it's also a kinda terrifically tense action movie boasting a dozen top-notch set-pieces. The whole thing is held together by an award-worthy performance by Edgar Ramirez, who acts in a half-dozen languages, gains and loses weight and carries almost every frame on his back. I finished my marathon viewing partially eager to write a grad school-style essay on "Carlos" and partially wishing for a weird-ass James Bond film directed by Olivier Assayas.
"Chuck" - On last year's list, "Chuck" rated a good deal higher. Oh well. I still love the show and there were periods of 2010 where "Chuck" was hitting on all levels. I loved the wish-fulfillment resolution of "Chuck Versus the Other Guy" and the "Watch us have fun with our new status quo" joy of several subsequent episodes. I loved Timothy Dalton's hilarious and unexpected lack of ego. I loved kickboxing Sarah and the new team of Morgan and Casey. If "Chuck" has had problems with story pacing, I don't hesitate to blame NBC, which keeps realizing that the show's dedicated fanbase may be tiny, but it's better than most of the alternatives. It would have sounded bizarre to say this in April or September, but I'm optimistic about an extra-long fourth season of "Chuck" and I can even imagine us getting a fifth season. Huzzah!
"Cougar Town" - Over "Modern Family"? Are you crazy? Kinda. Certainly "Modern Family" had a significant advantage over its Wednesday comedy partner all through the spring, but more and more this fall, "Cougar Town" has been the show I liked more, the show that generated the most warmth for its ensemble. I still have plenty of admiration for "Modern Family," but "Cougar Town" has somehow become the more consistent show, a baffling fact for a comedy that has always been intentionally rough around the edges. What began as a star vehicle for Courteney Cox has instead become a place to watch career-best work from Ian Gomez, Brian Van Holt, Dan Byrd, Christa Miller and especially Josh Hopkins. I only left Busy Phiipps out of that previous list because Kim Kelly will always be my friend, but she's tremendous as well. Perhaps the best thing about "Cougar Town" is that I wouldn't know how to begin to describe the *real* show to people scared off by the dumb title. I guess I could either go with "A group of friends get drunk and torment each other, always with love" or else "funny."
"Fringe" - Sadly (or happily), "Fringe" went through an evolution that isn't all that uncommon. With one-and-a-half season of sometimes freaky, sometimes dull episodes that awkwardly combined procedurals and mythology episodes, "Fringe" managed to scare off or alienate all but the most devoted of fans. Having shed that fat, "Fringe" promptly found its footing with a strong conclusion to Season Two and an even better start to Season Three. From "Peter" on, "Fringe" became richer, more complicated and a better showcase for stars John Noble, Joshua Jackson and Anna Torv. FOX is now counting on that condensed, but devoted audience to keep "Fringe" afloat on Friday, a gambit that just might work. I hope it does.
"The League" and "Louie" - In 2011, both NBC and ABC are going to experiment with comedy programming in the 10 p.m. hour and both networks are so darned proud of this innovation, you'd think they were looking for a pat on the head and a treat. Meanwhile, FX is all, "Yeah, we've already got two ridiculously funny comedies that air in the 10 p.m. hour and we *also* have TV's most innovative and format-bending comedy and we air that s*** at 11." In a somewhat uneven season, "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" just missed out on my Top 20-ish. If I went to Top 30-ish? It would have made the cut. Instead, I want to honor "The League," which made a tremendous leap in its second season, finding new and consistently risque ways to utilize one of the best improvisational comedy casts on TV. As I mentioned in the Best Episodes podcast, the "Ghost Monkey" episode of "The League" may have made me laugh harder than any single 2010 TV half-hour. As of the time this post was being written, FX had yet to renew "The League." I hope that's just the function of ongoing negotiations. Meanwhile, "Louie" came even closer to making my Top 10, driven by one-man-band Louis C.K., who was bold enough to write, direct, produce and edit a comedy that didn't care about conventional narrative or characters or almost anything recognizable. It just managed to be daring, sometimes hilarious and sometimes provocative, standing out as an amazing achievement for an experimental show in its first season.
"Lost" - Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse were doomed. They could not possibly have delivered a final season that would have satisfied 100 percent of the show's fanbase. Or even 75 percent. And I was among the kvetchers, throughout the season. The Sideways took too long to gel. There were too many dead-end arcs -- The Temple? Really? -- for a show with a finite conclusion on the horizon. And that episode with Allison Janney? Ugh. But throughout the journey, there were beautiful episodes and even more beautiful valedictory moments for an ensemble cast which, if anything, proved too deep at times. "Lost" provided some stupid answers, some profound answers and, in the balance, did just about as well as it possibly could have to conclude one of TV's great journeys.
"Rubicon" - Let's forget the last episode existed, shall we? Let's ignore the key plotpoints that came together -- or failed to come together -- in the most contrived and disappointing way possible. Let's concentrate on the first 12 hours of what was one of the most uniquely and rewardingly paced thrillers on TV. Let's concentrate on James Badge Dale and Arliss Howard and Michael Cristofer and Dallas Roberts and and Jessica Collins and Lauren Hodges and the rest of the amazing character actor-heavy cast. Let's concentrate on all of the little details of a show that subverted every viewer expectation about spies and espionage. "Rubicon" reveled in the methodical banalities of the intelligence trade and the job's toll on its practitioners. That probably doesn't sound particularly sexy, do it? I guess it shouldn't be surprising that it became AMC's first one-and-done drama of the current era. Like "Terriers," this is one that should reward viewers on DVD for years to come.
"Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains" - You'll often get a split amongst dedicated reality fans as to whether or not All-Star seasons are "real" seasons. Yes, the characters are familiar and usually well-selected by a savvy producer, but the strategy takes on a different tone. The players know each other and know how their rivals play. They know who is to be trusted and who isn't, who can be manipulated and who is likely to become a manipulator. "Survivor" had one so-so All-Star season, but both "Fans vs. Favorites" and "Heroes" vs. Villains" have been amongst the show's best installments. Yes, "Heroes vs. Villains" was a second consecutive season dominated by Russell's cult-of-personality. And yes, Boston Rob was sent home far too easily. But how can you beat J.T. handing an Immunity Idol to Russell? How can you top Amanda and Danielle having a catfight for an Immunity clue. How do you get better than Parvati turning the game upside down by handing over two Immunity Idols at the same Tribal Council in a stroke of genius? And how can you not admire Sandra Diaz-Twine, previously among my least favorite "Survivor" winners, manipulating Russell and flying under the radar to become the show's first two-time winner. "Heroes vs. Villains" was followed by a lackluster Nicaragua season, but that doesn't take away from its shine.
"Treme" - David Simon's follow-up to "The Wire" was simultaneously more accessible and less embraceable than "The Wire." It welcomed viewers with a more recognizable narrative and a more recognizable cast, but for the first four or five episodes, it maybe didn't have that compelling, breathless hook that some viewers were demanding. By the end? That hook was definitely there, as Simon and Eric Overmyer delivered a remarkable portrait of Post-Katrina New Orleans, a sensitive and humane look that could alternate between celebratory and tragic in the blink of an eye. I might want a tiny bit more finesse in the articulation of the show's grander themes, but when it comes to attempting to discuss and embrace race, class, gender, the arts and the entire urban experience, few shows TV reached wider and succeeded more often.
Some Additional Perfectly Honorable Mentions: "Justified," "Modern Family," "Luther," "30 Rock" (especially the fall episodes), bits and pieces of "Sons of Anarchy" (the premiere and finale, mostly), the "Walking Dead" pilot (and little else), "Weeds," "The Good Wife" (sometimes), "Top Chef" (mostly just for the current "All-Stars" season), "Dollhouse," "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" and probably two or three shows I'm forgetting.
[Side Note: Somehow this year, I ran out of time to regularly watch any of my favorite late-night shows. I still love Jon Stewart and Colbert, but I mostly watched both shows in clips online. And although Jimmy Fallon's show featured some of the year's best viral moments, I didn't come close to watching enough full episodes to include it on a formal list.]
A long-time member of the TCA Board and a longer-time blogger of "American Idol," Dan Fienberg writes about TV, except for when he writes about movies or sometimes writes about the Red Sox. But never music. He would sound stupid talking about music.