In advance of next week's column naming the Ten Best Television Programs of 2010, here is my third annual Alternative Ten Best list, featuring noteworthy shows that likely won't land on many such lists but still deserve special recognition.
Spartacus: Blood and Sand (Starz) -- So ultra-violent that it cannot be categorized with anything else on television, Starz' grandly graphic sword-and-sandal adventure was pulse-pounding entertainment far more adult than most of the uncensored R-rated movies on pay cable channels. The powerful performances by its uniformly able-bodied cast, including Andy Whitfield, Lucy Lawless, Manu Bennett, John Hannah, Viva Bianca and Jai Courtney, were fearless, ferocious and flawless.
Doctor Who (BBC America) - When you consider that most scripted television franchises don't last a season, and that truly successful ones last between five and ten years, the longevity of Doctor Who, which debuted in November 1963, is somewhat unfathomable. Beginning in 2005 and continuing through 2009, the creative genius known as Russell T. Davies did such a phenomenal job redefining this ancient franchise for a new generation of viewers (while remaining mindful and respectful of the generations that came before) that his would seem to be an impossible act to follow. Ditto the work of David Tennant, a fine actor who inhabited the title character so completely it was as if nine men hadn't preceded him in the role. But new show-runner Steven Moffat and new leading man Matt Smith masterfully assuaged all fan fears and quickly exceeded all expectations. Together they repositioned Doctor Who all over again, in the process delivering one of its most deliriously entertaining seasons ever.
Archer (FX) - A sleek, stylized and seductive animated series about hot blooded, ruthlessly competitive secret agents, Archer is the best new comedy series of 2010. What's not to admire? Its look is martini-cool retro. Its vocal performances (especially those of H. Jon Benjamin, Aisha Tyler, Jessica Walter and Chris Parnell) are first rate. Its sense of humor is one of naughty sophistication. And its stories are great grown-up fun. In fact, Archer may also be the sexiest animated series in the history of the medium.
The Soup (E!) - E!'s weekly take on the highs and lows of reality television and pop-culture jaw-droppers is still the funniest show on television. That has a lot to do with the talents of indefatigable host Joel McHale; if anything, his sublime comic timing has improved since he took on the lead role two years ago in the NBC sitcom Community. In an unexpectedly great development, The Soup this year was finally paired with a similarly funny and timely series in Fashion Police, making for a great hour of unforgiving comedy Friday nights beginning at 10 p.m. Let's hear it for Joan Rivers; as the high-energy host of Police she has finally found the perfect television vehicle for her particular talents.
Pretty Little Liars (ABC Family) - One of the most engrossing scripted series of the summer, Pretty Little Liars - a mesmerizing mystery about four teenage girls haunted by increasingly intimate and potentially explosive messages seemingly sent from their dead friend - proved that a good mythology can pull in even the increasingly fickle tween and teen audience and keep them enthralled for months. Liars quickly eclipsed The Secret Life of the American Teenager as the most talked about series on ABC Family. When it returns on January 3, expect this show to hold its own against all that first run broadcast programming coming in the New Year.
Burn Notice (USA Network) - Currently finishing its fourth season, USA's high-octane spy series is still the best crime caper on television, and Jeffrey Donovan and Gabrielle Anwar as the mysteriously terminated (or "burned") former government agent turned freelance spy Michael Westen and his bad-ass former girlfriend (and ex-IRA operative) Fiona Glenanne are still the hottest pair anywhere. Bruce Campbell as Michael's capable buddy Sam and Sharon Gless as his tough-talking mother Madeline provide invaluable comic support. Coby Bell has been a terrific addition this season as Jesse Porter, an agent Michael accidentally burned.
America's Got Talent (NBC) -- American Idol, Dancing with the Stars and Survivor this year remained the most talked about reality competition series on television. But NBC's underappreciated America's Got Talent was more entertaining than any of them, thanks to its hugely talented final four: Flamboyant musical performer Prince Poppycock, dazzling performance artists Fighting Gravity, preternaturally talented ten-year-old opera singer Janet Evancho and disarming folk singer Michael Grimm (who won the top prize). In fact, each act in this year's top ten was extraordinarily gifted. Much as NBC might benefit by moving this show into the formal broadcast season, I hope it remains a summer staple for years to come.
Attack of the Show (G4) - G4's live, daily no-budget wonder Attack of the Show remains the coolest show on any screen, even after the departure of its hugely popular co-host Olivia Munn. As I've said many times before, the AOTS team does so much with so little it puts to shame the many television productions that do so little with so much. Even when the unthinkable happened - that would be the departure of the luminous Ms. Munn (soon to be seen in the new NBC sitcom Perfect Couples) - co-host Kevin Pereira and various guest co-hosts (especially Alison Haislip and Morgan Webb) kept intact the show's signature blend of entertainment news, tech reviews, celebrity interviews, viral videos and nerdist humor.
The Fourth Hour of the Today Show (NBC) - What the heck is this show doing on a top ten list, you ask? It's here because the fourth hour of Today is the most enjoyable and viewer friendly live program on daytime television. Live with Regis and Kelly is too rigidly structured to permit true spontaneity, The View is just too distressing to sit through (it went fantastically off the rails when co-hosts Joy Behar and Whoopi Goldberg gave in to their tempers and huffed off the set because guest Bill O'Reilly made a remark they objected to) and The Talk has yet to become anything special. In contrast, sparkling, self-deprecating co-hosts Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb took the tail end of Today and turned it into an hour of fresh, fast-paced, irresistible fun.
The Bold and the Beautiful (CBS) - In a dark year for soaps that included the unceremonious demise of CBS' As the World Turns the same network's Bold and the Beautiful did something hugely hopeful and impressive: It took on the challenges faced by the homeless and the disenfranchised and worked them into the very fabric of its canvas, not as a soapbox sermon but as an informative story that also entertains as it goes. Several soaps, including this one, have in the past featured brief stories about homeless people, but that isn't the case here. B&B is reportedly going to keep this issue in play for a long time to come. Meantime it is still delivering all the sex, romance and overdone relationship drama that soap fans crave. This is how it's done!
This column was first published at MediaBizBloggers.com.