Hot damn, but this was a great (if busy) year to be a TV critic. One of the best dramas on television had its best season yet, and its closest competitor may have also had its strongest year to date. There are some hilarious young comedies that will hopefully be with us for a long time, and the year was so good that a lot of usual suspects could only make the honorable mentions.
Elsewhere you can find my list of the best new shows of 2010, as well as my overall Top 10, and after the jump are my 10 favorite returning series:
1. "Breaking Bad" (AMC): A year ago, I wavered mightily on whether to put this show's second season atop my list or go with "Mad Men" season three. "Mad Men" just barely won that vote, but this year there was no question. "Mad Men" delivered one of its best seasons, while "Breaking Bad" delivered one of the great seasons ever produced by any TV drama. As bickering would-be kingpins Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) burrowed ever deeper into the drug game, the sense of impending doom grew exponentially, as did the sense that Walt is poisonous to everyone in his life. Creator Vince Gilligan and company could do high-octane suspense (a shoot-out between Walt's brother-in-law and a pair of superhumanly capable Mexican hitmen) or jaw-dropping intimacy (Walt tells his estranged wife what he's been doing) and had such great command of Walt and Jesse that they were able to do an entire episode about the two of them trying to kill a fly in their lab and make it one of the year's most fascinating dramatic hours. While drama fans often demand that their shows have (or claim to have) a meticulous long-term plan for where the story is going, nearly all of this incredible "Breaking Bad" year was crafted by the seat of the writing staff's pants, and was a reminder that spontaneity can be a writer's best friend.
2. "Mad Men" (AMC): What a very strange, memorable year for Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and friends, as the new agency provided major, jarring breaks from what "Mad Men" had done in its first three seasons. Don spent most of the year a drunken, sloppy, embarrassing shadow of himself, and just as he seemed to be turning back into the master of the universe we knew so well, he jumped recklessly into an engagement to his pretty but enigmatic new secretary Megan (Jessica Pare). Don was so preoccupied with his own doom spiral that it was protege Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) making all the memorable ad pitches, his ex-wife Betty (January Jones) was reduced to an occasional supporting character, and suddenly the most sympathetic character on the show may have been Pete (Vincent Kartheiser). But when your show is about the tumultuous '60s, extreme change can be a fascinating, necessary thing, and if season 4 wasn't quite the "Mad Men" we knew, it was no less compelling. In particular, the episode "The Suitcase" - in which Don and Peggy unloaded five years of shared history, secrets and resentment upon each other, and came out the other side closer than ever - was as good an acting duet as you'll find.
3. "Parks and Recreation" (NBC): It's been seven months since the last episode aired, so it can be easy to forget how wonderful "Parks and Rec" season two was - and what a massive improvement it was over the show's brief debut season. Amy Poehler's civil servant Leslie Knope went from a delusional object of pity to a go-getter whose unflinching optimism was viewed (by the show and its characters) as an admirable thing, and her friendship with Nick Offmeran's uber-masculine boss Ron Effing Swanson became a masterclass on how platonic male/female relationships on TV can be simultaneously sweet and funny. By the end of that season - which featured the seamless arrival of new castmembers Adam Scott and Rob Lowe - "Parks and Rec" had essentially become the show that "The Office" used to be and only occasionally manages to be these days, and NBC will wisely pair the two when "Parks and Rec" returns in a month.
4. "Community" (NBC): Because the characters and writers of "Community" so frequently reference pop culture - most famously in the spectacular action-movie parody about a campus-wide paintball tournament gone awry - some people dismiss it as a snarky, ironic work that uses the references as a way to distance the characters from any real emotional stakes. From where I sit, the opposite is true. Though there are definitely episodes aspiring to little more than goofy riffs on old movies and TV shows, few comedies on TV are as sincere, heartfelt or honest as "Community," with a cast of versatile, appealing and gut-bustingly funny performers who find ways to take their characters seriously even as they're fending off a zombie attack or going crazy trying to identify a pen thief. And no comedy is more ambitious in the breadth and depth of stories it tries to tell. When you aim as high as "Community" does, occasionally you're going to miss the target, but the effort and courage are always appreciated.
5. "30 for 30" (ESPN): 23 of the sports documentary series' 30 installments aired in 2010, including many of its best entries: Jeff and Michael Zimbalist's "The Two Escobars" (a haunting look at the relationship between soccer and drug cartels in Colombia), Dan Klores' "Winning Time" (an exuberant recap of the rivalry between Reggie Miller and the '90s Knicks), Steve James' "No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson" (a thoughtful look at the controversial hoops star's childhood), Steve Nash and Ezra Holland's "Into the Wind" (the tragic, inspiring story of one-legged Canadian runner Terry Fox) and Jonathan Hock's "The Best That Never Was" (a step-by-step account of how football phenom Marcus Dupree's career never worked out). There were a few duds (notably John Singleton's love letter to Marion Jones), but the ambitious series deserves credit for elevating interest in the form from viewers and filmmakers alike, and for showing just how many types of stories and storytelling were possible within that form.
6. "Men of a Certain Age" (TNT): Only four episodes aired in 2009, so I could arguably stretch and put it on the new shows list, but it'd be pretty high up on either version. This dramedy about three buddies (Ray Romano, Andre Braugher and Scott Bakula) in their late 40s was a low-key, surprisingly effective treat, featuring revelatory dramatic work from Romano as a neurotic gambling addict, wonderful comedy chops from Braugher as a frustrated salesman and fine bridging work from Bakula as an aging actor wannabe. Like its three aging heroes, the series is keenly aware of its limitations and operates with in a very narrow range of stories and tones - A Very Special "Men of a Certain Age" would involve the guys meeting for dinner instead of breakfast - but has nailed the truth of its small, simple, sweet stories.
7. "Friday Night Lights" (101 Network/NBC): If we go by the DirecTV schedule (which is what I've used when considering "FNL" for this list the last two years), then roughly the second half of season four and the first half of season five aired in this calendar year. And though there have been bumps along the way, there's the usual superlative acting by Kyle Chandler, Connie Britton and company and a fascinating final huge arc as Coach Taylor's once-ragtag East Dillon Lions are turning from plucky underdogs into a genuinely, dangerously good team. Based on most recent handful of episodes, I imagine the closing chapters of this great series are going to find a place on next year's list.
8. "Lost" (ABC): By the time the island thriller entered its sixth and final season, it had spun so many disparate story threads and developed so many subsets of fans, each with their own desires for what they wanted to see in a final year, that there was no way these 16 episodes could satisfy everyone - or avoid angering many. (I'm sure some of you are beyond irked that it's on this list, even relatively low.) But if the final season failed to bring closure to many pieces of the story, and also featured detours (the pit-stop in The Others' temple, or most of the stories set in the sideways universe) that ultimately didn't feel necessary, I still found plenty to enjoy. There was the usual great acting from Terry O'Quinn and Michael Emerson, but also shockingly effective work by Matthew Fox and the writers in making Jack likable again. There was the riveting flashback episode about how Nestor Carbonell's Richard came to the island. There was crackerjack suspense like the submarine explosion that claimed a good chunk of the surviving characters. And there was a final episode that, in its mix of action and comedy and tragedy and grand imagery, evoked everything that was so magnificent about the series, even as the revelations about the sideways universe evoked the parts of the show that could be so frustrating. Not the perfect ending, but maybe the most fitting one.
9. "Cougar Town" (ABC): Like "Parks and Rec," here's a comedy that took a half-dozen or so episodes to realize that what it was doing - in this case, stories about Courteney Cox freaking out about a succession of younger boyfriends - wasn't working, and managed to reconfigure into something far more pleasing and funny. In this case, creators Bill Lawrence and Kevin Biegel recognized that they had a cast of funny performers who got along well together, and began writing stories that were little more than excuses for the ensemble to sit around, drink wine and act silly. If you happen to be dialed into the show's strange little wavelength (which I most certainly am), then it's one of TV's most consistently satisfying comedies.
10. "Party Down" (Starz): The comedy about a team of bumbling cater waiters on the outside of showbiz looking in took a few episodes to find itself again at the start of its second and final season, thanks to the departure of Jane Lynch to "Glee" and a few season one cliffhangers the writers struggled to undo. But once things more or less reverted to the status quo, "Party Down" was again the funniest show that absolutely no one was watching - broad and vulgar but also capable of surprising depth, like an in episode guest-starring Steve Guttenberg, of all people, who gave main character Henry (Adam Scott again) a chance to show off what a great actor he was before he crash-landed into this outfit.
Tough omissions: NBC's "30 Rock" had a mostly terrible spring but has been pretty terrific this fall, which averages out to just short of making the list. ABC's "Modern Family" has an Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series and a terrific cast, but only sometimes seems to live up to its full potential. In the spring, NBC's "Chuck" dragged its heels a little too long on the nerd/spy romance we all knew was coming, but since then the show has found its fun footing again. The third season of HBO's therapy drama "In Treatment" felt at times like variations on familiar themes from the first two years, but the acting - particularly by star Gabriel Byrne and patient number one Irrfan Khan - remained extraordinary. "United States of Tara" deftly incorporated a new alter ego for Toni Collette and remains far and away the best of Showtime's female-centered dramedies. The most recent season of BBC America's "Doctor Who" offered up both a new showrunner (Steven Moffat from "Coupling") and star (Matt Smith, the youngest Doctor ever) but kept the mix of brains and heart that's made the relaunched sci-fi series such a beloved phenomenon in England. And like "Party Down," ABC's corporate satire "Better Off Ted" was much, much funnier than its pitiful ratings might have suggested.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com