Following last week's Alternative Ten Best of 2009 list, here are my choices for the Official Ten Best television programs of the year.
Mad Men (AMC) - Series creator and executive producer Matthew Weiner continued to earn his cred as the most gifted creator of scripted television working today by boldly ripping apart the extraordinary narrative canvas he so meticulously crafted during Mad Men's first two seasons, plunging most of his characters into unexpected personal and professional chaos -- especially following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. As this standout season concluded there were emotional upheavals at every turn, some of them loud and destructive, others quiet and thought-provoking, just as there were for all Americans during that tragic time. I can't wait to see what Weiner has in store for everyone as he moves through the tumultuous years that followed.
Breaking Bad (AMC) - This list isn't necessarily in order, though I do think that AMC delivered the two best and most consistently surprising series of the year in Mad Men and Breaking Bad. Mad was epic in its reflection of early Sixties political, cultural and sexual tumult, while Bad was more intimate, sometimes painfully so. Bad executive producer Vince Gilligan delivered several standout episodes, none more extraordinary than Peekaboo, a tour de force for young Aaron Paul as dopey drug dealer Jesse, who got himself mixed up with a meth-ravaged couple and was unwilling to extract himself from a deadly mess without somehow first saving their little boy from a life in hell. Until I saw the Season 4 finale of Dexter last week, I had intended to note that Bad had the most shocking cliffhanger ending of the year, as the private pressure-cooker existence of woeful Walt White (the very deserving two-time Emmy winner Bryan Cranston) literally exploded in the skies above his community. Dexter trumped that, but not by much.
Dexter (Showtime) - Holy shiz! The shocking surprise at the end of Season 4 was beyond all fears and expectations, but then again, John Lithgow's Emmy-worthy guest turn this year as the terrifying Trinity Killer called for something totally shocking at its conclusion, and damned if Dexter didn't deliver! This sizzling series about a serial killer of serial killers is going to be something completely different in its fifth year.
Modern Family (ABC) - ABC's grandly sophisticated single-camera documentary style comedy proved to be that rare television creation - a show that improved week after week on a flawless, fantastically entertaining pilot. It wouldn't surprise me to see every adult member of this cast nominated for Emmys in various categories. There isn't much I can say about Modern Family that other critics haven't been repeating over and over since last summer, except this: Since the early years of television there have been hundreds (or maybe thousands) of situation comedies about families, but when I watch this one I feel like I'm enjoying something completely new.
The Big Bang Theory (CBS) - Everyone is talking about the gleeks over on Fox, but the geeks on CBS are still the nerds to beat for side-splitting comedy. Significantly, Big Bang is served up the old-fashioned three-camera way, proving that the often-bashed format isn't dead after all. Television Critics Association Award-winner Jim Parsons is a comic super-nova as the increasingly high-strung genius Sheldon Cooper, but co-stars Johnny Galecki, Simon Helberg, Kunal Nayyar and Kaley Cuoco are similarly inspired.
Friday Night Lights (DirecTV/NBC) - Still the most stirring drama on television, Friday Night Lights is a quiet powerhouse that pays tribute to and offers an unwavering appreciation of the intimate details of basic human behavior in small town America. Case in point: The recent episode about the death of young Matt Saracen's absentee father and the impact it had on him. The story went way beyond showing what grief is; rather, it revealed what grief does. The revelation continued in the following episode when Matt (Zach Gilford), a former high-school quarterback who has been wasting his time working at a pizza parlor since graduation, abruptly left town in search of his life, leaving his family, friends and devastated girlfriend behind. Members of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences should be ashamed of themselves for consistently failing to recognize the brilliance of this series.
Torchwood: Children of Earth (BBC America) - There were three series this year about shocking events that impacted billions of people: ABC's FlashForward (about a bizarre incident that killed 20 million people around the world), ABC's V (about the arrival on Earth of seemingly benevolent aliens who are anything but) and the BBC's Torchwood miniseries Children of Earth (which was also about malevolent aliens, a nasty species that craved human children as their recreational drug of choice). Thrilling, deeply emotional and at times utterly horrifying (especially when dashing hero Captain Jack Harkness was forced to sacrifice his own grandson), Children did something the two ABC series have yet to do: Create a palpable sense of growing worldwide urgency in the face of an all-consuming crisis. The characters in FlashForward and V act as though mass devastation and giant alien spaceships hovering above cities are relatively minor annoyances, like blizzards or power failures. But throughout Children it really felt as though the entire world was holding its breath while Harkness and his team lost almost everything to save millions of kids from fates worse than death.
Battlestar Galactica (Syfy) -- Syfy's already classic space opera came to a deeply satisfying conclusion with its extraordinary balance of intimate emotion and epic adventure intact. Indeed, its final moments were so sublime in their surprising reflections on all that had come before that I came away wanting to watch the entire series all over again from what would now be an entirely different point of view. I sincerely believe that BSG's unique blend of action, emotion, insight, spirituality and thought leadership will remain as entertaining and thought-provoking in the distant future as it has been since the 2003 miniseries that started it all. This Peabody Award-winner is one for the ages.
Lost (ABC) - It's a sign of how deeply we have all surrendered to the bizarre magic of this boundary busting show that we chose to stay with it last season when the island literally began bouncing through time, adding many queries about the limitations of simple physics to the very long list of questions Lost has generated during its five seasons. Still, it was impossible to turn away, especially after coming so far. It would be nice if the final season of Lost returned its focus to powerful explorations of fate, faith and humanism rather than renegade science fiction. I guess it all depends on Jacob. Meanwhile, I continue to hope that the primary motivation for the actions of the main characters turns out to be something more than the sorry state of their love lives, as suggested in last spring's explosive season finale.
Burn Notice (USA Network) - If there is a sexier, more consistently exciting action-adventure series anywhere on television it has escaped me. 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 the hottest pair on any tube. Bruce Campbell as Michael's capable buddy Sam and Sharon Gless as his tough-talking mother Madeline provide invaluable comic support. With Burn Notice, White Collar, Psych, Monk and In Plain Sight, USA Network has winningly redefined the traditional crime caper genre without being overly graphic or exploitative. Nobody does it better.
Runners Up: True Blood (HBO), Nurse Jackie (Showtime), Big Love (HBO), The Closer (TNT), Damages (FX), The Good Wife (CBS), The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency (HBO), Glee (Fox) and ABC's Cougar Town (simply for the giddy comic chemistry among cast members Courteney Cox, Josh Hopkins, Brain Van Holt, Ian Gomez, Dan Byrd, Christa Miller, Busy Philipps and Carolyn Hennesy). Lastly, I'm adding the terrific JFK: 3 Shots that Changed America (History) to this list because it proved that cable documentaries can offer so much more than talking heads and low-budget re-creations of historic events.