With so many top quality programs on so many networks these days it has become darn near impossible for critics to narrow the choices for their Best of the Year lists down to a mere ten. If anything, the difficulty of this annual challenge points to the fact that people who complain there is nothing worth watching on television don't know what they are talking about.
Consider this: My list of the ten best programs of 2010 does not have room for ABC's Lost (a hot contender until Mother and purgatory came along) and Grey's Anatomy (another very near miss); HBO's True Blood and Treme; FX's Damages and Terriers; AMC's The Walking Dead; BBC America's Luther and The Choir; Showtime's Nurse Jackie; Starz' Pillars of the Earth; PBS' Sherlock; Discovery's Life or CBS' The Big Bang Theory. (Fortunately there was room on my Alternate Top Ten of 2010 to show some love for such noteworthy efforts as Starz' Spartacus: Blood and Sand, BBC America's Doctor Who, USA Network's Burn Notice and FX's Archer.)
And now, here is my official Top 10 list, beginning with the year's two best programs. The remaining eight are listed in no particular order.
Mad Men (AMC) - Series creator Matthew Weiner shredded the narrative canvas of his much-honored period drama toward the end of its third season, ending the marriage of advertising executive Don Draper and his wife Betty and taking Draper and his closest associates out of the firm they had worked at for years and into a start-up agency, leading viewers to expect that Mad Men's fourth season would be all about rebuilding. Just the opposite: The newly single Don struggled with growing alcohol abuse, mounting difficulties with his daughter Sally (Kiernan Shipka in one of the true standout performances of the year) and major losses at his surprisingly fragile new business. Like the show itself, Jon Hamm has been outstanding from the start, yet gets better every year. Elisabeth Moss and Christina Hendricks also outdid themselves this time around.
The Pacific (HBO) - The Pacific wasn't simply another landmark television miniseries - it was one of the finest productions of any kind in the history of the medium. This seemingly insurmountable World War II saga about three real-life soldiers who fought in devastating land battles across the Pacific Theater from 1941-45 was so emotionally impactful that viewers could feel the loss of each and every Marine who died in them. The state of the art battle sequences were just as unforgiving and intense as the opening half-hour of Saving Private Ryan. Now that they have so thoroughly covered World War II with Band of Brothers and The Pacific, I'd like to see executive producers Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman develop a similar epic about World War I before it completely recedes from memory.
The Good Wife (CBS) - This intoxicating legal/political drama has consistently disproved the prevailing industry theory that scripted broadcast hours can't be as bold and boundary pushing as those on basic cable because of certain content restrictions, not to mention an unapologetic determination to target grown up viewers with storytelling carefully crafted to appeal to smart people. In other words, Good Wife is a ground-breaker. The performances by series lead Julianna Margulies and the rest of the cast are flawless, and the writers' canvas-wide attention to human detail, particularly among its supporting characters, is extraordinary. The last episode of 2010, about the Lockhart Gardner Bond team's collective effort to stop an execution with only nine hours to spare, was the series' best yet.
Breaking Bad (AMC) - This series about a desperate high school chemistry teacher with a gift for cooking high grade meth and a former student who sells the stuff has delivered more singularly sensational stand-out episodes than any show since The Sopranos. This season was no exception, offering up the series' most jaw-dropping hour to date. In the pulse-pounding final sequence of One Minute, Walter White's brother-in-law and DEA agent Hank Schrader, who had just been relieved of his badge and gun, was targeted in a sun-splashed shopping center parking lot by two murderous emissaries of a drug kingpin who wanted Walt eliminated. Hank took four bullets while crushing one of his attackers between his SUV and another vehicle and blowing the other's brains out. Dean Norris, the actor who plays Hank, rose to the level of his Emmy winning co-stars Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul, whose estimable talents were also on spectacular full display in the episode titled Fly (in which Walt became crazy obsessive about an insect in his state of the art meth lab) and the breath-taking season finale. Series creator Vince Gilligan moves these guys from one fresh hell to another with a storytelling style that can only be described as fearless. Under his wise guidance, Breaking Bad does more to illustrate the consequences of bad choices and vile behavior than any crime drama on television.
Dexter (Showtime) - I've heard some grumbling of late that Dexter's recently concluded fifth season wasn't as good as its fourth. That may be true - how can you top that terrifying (and Emmy winning) turn by John Lithgow as Arthur Mitchell, the Trinity Killer, who murdered lovely Rita before becoming Dexter's latest victim? But Dexter this year still belongs on any list of television's top shows, if only for its unequaled ability to create and sustain moments of almost unbearable tension in almost every episode. Like Lithgow before her, I think Julia Stiles will take home a Guest Emmy for her riveting performance as Lumen, the victim of a savage group assault who sought deadly revenge, in the process briefly becoming Dexter's soul mate. I'd love to see her return next season. (Incidentally, I would also like to see the writers do more with Mitchell's widow and teenage children. They don't know Arthur is dead, and they don't know their friend Kyle was actually Dexter, but you would think they would have seen some of the media coverage surrounding Rita's murder. The Trinity Killer case remains unsolved, but it cannot be forgotten, because Arthur hit the Miami-Dade Police Department way too close to home.)
Modern Family (ABC) - Modern Family is still the freshest and funniest situation comedy on television and it just keeps getting better. One has to go back to Seinfeld and Friends - and before that way back to All in the Family and The Mary Tyler Moore Show - to find other sitcoms that consistently showcased each and every member of their casts (including supporting and recurring players) in such grand, award-worthy fashion. I'm okay with the fact that the characters on this show never seem to have serious money problems, which would suggest they aren't all that modern or contemporary, because that might compromise the giddy escapism of it all.
The Closer (TNT) - Kyra Sedgwick this year finally received a long-overdue Emmy Award for her sparkling star turn as Deputy Police Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson, one of the most entertaining television characters to come along in years. There are more procedural crime dramas on television than shows of any other genre, but Sedgwick's charming, disarming, powerfully quirky and deeply heartfelt performance elevates this one above the rest. The ensemble around her is pretty terrific, too, and together they make The Closer as much fun in reruns as it is the first time around. (That's great news for its syndication sales.) What a bummer it was to learn that the next season for this show will be its last, reportedly because Sedgwick, a New Yorker, wants to stop commuting to Los Angeles, where The Closer is filmed. I wonder if anyone discussed the possibility of having Brenda Leigh and her husband relocate to New York or New Jersey? Failing that, couldn't they all agree to produce two or three Closer movies a year?
Justified (FX) - Though not unexpected, the cancellation of FX's Terriers continues to hurt. Fortunately we still have Justified, the network's other new outstanding drama of 2010 and a strong contender for best new series of the year. It's a gritty, witty, gripping crime drama about an amiable Kentucky lawman named Raylan Givens, a character featured in several stories by legendary crime writer Elmore Leonard brought to life in a career-making performance by series lead Timothy Olyphant. As Boyd Crowder, an old friend of Raylon's gone very, very bad, Walton Goggins is so scary good he's reminding us all over again that he should have won an Emmy for his work as psycho cop Shane Vendrell on The Shield.
Boardwalk Empire (HBO) - Several episodes into its first season I was beginning to think that HBO's richly detailed take on life in Atlantic City during the Prohibition Era wasn't going to make this list. The story was moving too slowly and I simply didn't care about any of the characters, even personable crime boss Nucky Thompson (the always fascinating Steve Buscemi) and the lovely Mrs. Schroder (Kelly Macdonald). Then Boardwalk Empire began to pick up its pace and excitingly reveal the dark and twisty innards of several people on its canvas, in particular bizarre federal agent Nelson Van Alden. Michael Shannon, the actor who portrays Van Alden, is already a front-runner for an Emmy next year as Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series.
Glee (Fox) - I was tempted to leave Glee off this list because of its unfortunate proclivity to overshadow the development of its regular characters in favor of shameless star-worship, to frequently veer from the absurd to the ridiculous (Carol Burnett as a freakin' Nazi hunter?) and, most of all, to slide from smart snark into lazy nastiness. But I caved in favor of the things Glee does so well: showing young viewers the benefits of inclusive social interaction, celebrating love and friendship, producing extraordinary musical sequences the likes of which have never been seen in scripted television entertainment. I can't help but wonder, how do the producers of Glee continue to find so many unknown young performers of outsize vocal talent (most recently the remarkable Darren Criss) while American Idol has so much difficulty identifying three or four singers per season that don't make viewers' ears bleed?