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Best of 2010: FX Is the Network of the Year

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Looking back over the last eleven months it is clear that FX deserves recognition as the network of the year.

Consider: FX started 2010 with the best new midseason series -- Justified, a colorful, character-rich crime drama about an amiable Kentucky lawman -- as well as the best new midseason comedy -- the adult animated spy caper Archer. It ended 2010 with the best new series of the fall in Terriers, a disarming drama about two scrappy San Diego detectives. In between it delivered the riotously rude yet uncommonly insightful Louie, the funniest comedy of the summer season. That's four new series that deserve to be keepers.

FX in 2010 also gave us the third (and best) season of the sophisticated legal thriller Damages, featuring Emmy worthy performances by series star Glenn Close and guest actors Martin Short and Lily Tomlin. That was followed by the sixth season of Rescue Me, a comedic drama about New York City firefighters that should have worn out its welcome long ago but proved as vital and entertaining as ever. (I particularly admire its approach to the subject of alcoholism and its impact on wickedly flawed fireman Tommy Gavin and his family and friends. Most series would give so important a character one bad year followed by several seasons of sobriety, but Tommy's issues continue year after year and threaten never to end, as is true for many real-life alcoholics, but rarely for the fictional variety.)

This year also brought with it the third season of FX's Sons of Anarchy, a hard-edged serial about biker gang culture that defies easy categorization. It's too successful to be labeled a cult hit, but too defiant for mainstream consumption -- a powerful, unflinching mix of gang violence, relationship drama, dark humor and graphic sex unlike anything else on advertiser-supported television. Season three felt unfocused at times, bogged down by a related yet removed storyline that saw most of the main characters travel to Belfast, where they piled up plot improbabilities like used tires. (I know very little about Belfast, but I have to wonder if a young middle class couple could be brutally gunned down in their room at an upscale hotel and their newly adopted baby stolen from same without the entire city going on some kind of lockdown.) Even if it wasn't Anarchy at its best, though, Sons was still a showcase for the consistently stunning lead performance of Katey Sagal as Gemma Teller Morrow, matriarch of the local biker community, and striking guest turns by Hal Holbrook (as Gemma's aging father, fighting a losing battle against the advances of Alzheimer's disease) and Ally Walker (as a federal agent driven to homicidal madness by her lust to succeed).

Last, but certainly not least, the network's long-running signature comedy It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia lost none of its deliriously offensive charm.

Not all of FX's creative successes were ratings hits. But the network consistently delivered distinctive new and returning original series throughout the year, continually daring to try new things. FX was also impressive at the winter and summer Television Critics Association tours, filling the better part of a day at each with press conferences on behalf of its shows. (In contrast, some cable networks don't even appear at TCA.)

While FX outdid itself overall, there are several other networks that deserve extra praise as 2010 comes to an end.

At a time when all of the broadcasters are struggling to maintain or reinforce their identities, CBS remained a rock solid example of what a network should be with a slate of new fall offerings designed to appeal to its core viewers and encourage audience flow (which still counts for something, even in the DVR era). It also favored daredevil scheduling maneuvers that boosted its overall ratings in a number of critical time periods.

AMC stumbled a bit with the slow-moving mystery Rubicon but rebounded in spectacular fashion with the awesome horror epic The Walking Dead. Meantime, Mad Men and Breaking Bad -- arguably the two best dramatic series on television -- continued to improve on perfection and remained triumphant at the Emmys.

HBO emerged from its post-Sopranos coma with three extraordinary new productions: The World War II miniseries The Pacific and the historical drama series Treme (about life in New Orleans in the years following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina) and Boardwalk Empire (Martin Scorsese's richly detailed take on life in Atlantic City during the Prohibition Era). Also, the campy supernatural drama True Blood in its third season hit new heights of inspired insanity, becoming a bit of a circus with so many vampires, werewolves, shape-shifters, witches and fairies careening into each other. But it was more fun than ever.

Lastly, Starz stepped up -- way up -- with the fantastically violent and outrageously entertaining action-adventure Spartacus: Blood and Sand, a series way more graphic than many of the R-rated movies that run uncensored on pay cable networks. It also delivered a mighty fine miniseries adaptation of Ken Follet's challenging historical epic Pillars of the Earth. This network is going to explode next year with a prequel to Spartacus titled Spartacus: Gods of the Arena, a continuation of the BBC science-fiction adventure series (and Doctor Who spin-off) Torchwood and another drama series that takes a fresh approach to a historical classic, Camelot.

This column was first published at MediaBizBloggers.