2010 has been a fantastic year for television. This year brought us a slew of great new programs and if we include the second halves of all the series that debuted in the fall of 2009 (which I am for these features), we have probably just experienced the best run of newbies since 2004. While we were just getting comfortable with great new series like Justified, Boardwalk Empire and Louie, we had to unfortunately say goodbye to the likes of Lost, 24 and Law & Order. NBC mishandled its attempts to correct its late night situation and continued to dig itself deeper into a primetime hole. Meanwhile, the ever-popular True Blood and a stable of great new series helped HBO regain its early-aughts swagger. 2010 gave us a reborn Coco, awesome Survivor tribal councils, the Rally To Restore Sanity, “The Rocky Horror Glee Show,” the World Cup and even more awesome episodes of Jersey Shore. LeBron made his decision, CNN brought David Blaine on as an analyst during the Chilean Miner Saga, Dancing With The Stars became about politics and President Obama made appearances on more non-news programs than I can even count. Broadcast ratings might be down, but 2010 yet again proved that “television” does not always happen on the big screens in our living rooms. It’s everywhere, it’s everything and this is my celebration of it.
Throughout the next week or so, I’ll be going through all sorts of random categories and giving out fake awards for the best, worst and all that was in between for television in 2010.
It’s time for the biggest (and probably last) Best of 2010 feature: The Best Series list. Unlike my Top Episodes list, this batch of 25 series is ranked in order from top to bottom. I spent a lot of time figuring out where each series went placement-wise and particularly struggled with my last few series. But just like my episodes list, there are a few things to know about the logic and rationale behind this list. First of all, as always it’s nice to remember that I don’t watch everything. So if you’re angry that there is no Good Wife, Doctor Who, Sherlock or Men of a Certain Age on here, it’s because I haven’t gotten around to watching them yet. And secondly, if you’re a regular reader you know this, but just in case you’re not: I try to stay in-step with the biggest and critically well-respected series on television, but I also watch and respect series that not a lot of folks in the overarching critical community discuss. That’s fine, but just know that’s why a few series make this list. Anyway, let’s get to it. Today, I’ll bring you the bottom 15 and tomorrow the top 10. Then Thursday, a few series I wanted to discuss but couldn’t make the list. No need to spread this too thin.
25. Glee (FOX): This is was actually the hardest choice I made on the entire list. I’ve probably had 10 different series in the final slot of the top 25, but I realized that I couldn’t not include Glee. A lot of weeks, I hate Glee. Sometimes, it’s damn insufferable. But the weeks that the series is good — most notably with episodes like “Journey,” “Duets” or even “The Substitute” — it’s just a glorious hour of television. I know the series is wildly inconsistent and sometimes very, very stupid, but it’s just too damn compelling to leave off this list. I’ve certainly discussed and thought about Glee more than any other series this year and when I factor in the fact that I enjoy it so much most of the time, I felt it pertinent to give the series the lowest spot on the list. If I would have finished enough of The Good Wife or Eastbound and Down, Glee probably wouldn’t have made this list, but that didn’t happen and even with all its terrible moments, Glee has still more enjoyable than the series that just missed this list.
Top episodes: “Duets,” “Dream On,” “Journey,” “Grilled Cheesus,” “The Power of Madonna”
24. White Collar (USA): There is a lot to be said for a nice procedural with some good characters, easily-consumed cases and a generally cool aesthetic. White Collar offers all those things with relative ease. After the lame cliffhanger that ended the first handful of episodes in 2009, the USA series returned in 2010 with a much stronger balance of the procedural and the ongoing arcs and it also smartly discarded some of the pretension it had as well. A series like White Collar should almost always be lightweight and fun without becoming too much like fluff (coughRoyalPainscough) and the series has done a nice job of striking that balance this year. Matthew Bomer and Tim DeKay are fantastic together and giving Willie Garson’s Mozzie more to do was the smartest move the production team behind White Collar made all year. This series has replaced Burn Notice as USA’s go-to drama series in my book.
Top episodes: “Withdraw,” “By The Book,” “Front Man,” “Unfinished Business,” “Copycat Caffrey”
23. Parenthood (NBC): Parenthood is a series that I have never written about here at TVS because I typically wait a few weeks and then digest a number of episodes on Hulu at once. This fall, Tuesday at 10 p.m. were all about Sons of Anarchy so I haven’t watched the series live once this year. In any event, my lack of writing about the series has nothing to do with my enjoyment of it because I really, really like Parenthood. It’s a fairly simple series that doesn’t take a lot of chances but instead likes to explore the tensions within its obvious familial framework. Jason Katims has brought a lot of the great things about his other series Friday Night Lights — honest relationships, real, but effective conflicts — to his new one and although Parenthood can’t really touch the heft of FNL, it still tugs at a lot of the same heartstrings. The series kind of feels lost out there on the schedule because it doesn’t have an obvious hook or big angle that can be sold to audiences in 2010, but Parenthood is just a well-written, well-acted television series that nearly everyone could enjoy.
Top episodes: “Orange Alert,” “Namaste No More,” “Happy Thanksgiving,” “Lost and Found,” “Seven Names”
22. Raising Hope (FOX): I have been totally bamboozled by Raising Hope. I never liked Greg Garcia’s earlier attempts at “comedy” in My Name Is Earl and Yes, Dear because it seemed like one tried too hard to make fun of people because they were dumb/poor and the other was just terribly mediocre. I suspected Hope to be mostly the former and perhaps a little bit of the latter, but it has been shockingly and consistently good all throughout its first half-dozen episodes or so. It’s heartwarming without being too overtly so and funny without diving too far into the “They’re funny because they’re poor and stupid!” pool. The pilot wasn’t great, but the series quickly turned into something more when it became more of an ensemble about the realities of raising a child at a young age instead of a random series of baby endangerment jokes. Martha Plimpton and Garret Dillahunt are unbelievably charming and admirable as the new grandparents trying to figure out what this new baby says about how they raised their son all those years ago and Lucas Neff is improving by the episode as their son and newfound father himself. Oh, and baby Hope is JUST SO FREAKING CUTE.
Top episodes: “Dream Hoarders,” “Blue Dots,” “Say Cheese,” “Happy Halloween,” “Burt Rocks”
21. Chuck (NBC): I’ve had my problems with Chuck‘s fourth season and its inability to grasp hold of any stakes or interesting overarching plotlines, but it seems like the series is rounding into shape as 2010 ends. And more importantly, despite a few nagging issues here and there, I found season three of Chuck to be pretty darn good. I’m not sure that Chuck will ever regain the traction it had in the second half of season two, but I thought a number of the arcs in season three were well-done and logical. I know people had issues with Shaw’s use and how Chuck and Sarah’s relationship was portrayed, but outside of the nagging sense that Sarah had little to do, it felt like Chuck underwent a realistic and satisfying transformation in season three from bumbling hero to fairly competent spy guy. And of course, those final six episodes after all the Chuck and Sarah finally got together? Just divine. From fan backlashes to misplaced performances, Chuck has had an interesting year, but the NBC series still remains one of, if not the, funnest hour of television on a weekly basis.
Top episodes: “Chuck Versus The Other Guy,” “Chuck Versus Phase Three,” “Chuck Versus The Honeymooners,” “Chuck Versus The Beard,” “Chuck Versus The Ring: Part II”
20. Treme (HBO): Treme was obviously never going to be The Wire, Part II or something similar, but David Simon and company have still crafted one heck of a story that is so in-tune with its setting. The series obviously took a while to get going and truly define the relationships between the characters in this version of post-Katrina New Orleans, but once it did, the results were satisfying, heartbreaking and a little bit off-center in the best way possible. I’m curious to see if the series becomes something more biting or aggressive in its second season, but I am happy with the first 10 episodes and their ability to step away from most of the political implications and larger issues of the Katrina world and just tell some really compelling stories about the people trying to piece their lives back together in that world. There are so many great performances on Treme, but I’ll have to highlight John Goodman and Khandi Alexander’s work. It’s a damn shame neither were nominated for Emmys.
Top episodes: “Wish Someone Would Care,” “Smoke My Peace Pipe,” “Do You Know What It Means,” “I’ll Fly Away,” “Shame, Shame, Shame”
19. The Pacific (HBO): The Pacific had a lot to live up to considering it was produced from the same team and network that brought the world the fantastically-regarded Band of Brothers and there was a while there where I wasn’t really sure the pacific theater miniseries was going to handle those expectations well. Fortunately, around the halfway point, The Pacific finally let its characters come to life just as the set-pieces became more suffocating, deadly and explosive. By the time The Pacific ended, all three of its lead characters had gone through a hellish ringer that changed them for the worse. Although I don’t think this miniseries is as appealing as Band of Brothers because it is less celebratory and more dirty, grimy and ugly, I appreciate that The Pacific tried something different when most people expected more of the same.
Top episodes: “Part Eight,” “Part Nine,” “Part Ten,” “Part Six,” “Part Three”
18. Modern Family (ABC): I more or less said this in the Top Episodes entry for Modern Family but I’ll repeat here for posterity’s sake: I really do like Modern Family, but I tend to dislike it more when I actually decide to write about it. The series isn’t very complex and I have little interest in writing “Oh, this was funny” each week, so I think I have gravitated towards some harsher criticisms of the series than perhaps I should. Therefore, I’m trying to make up for that harshness just a little bit by giving the series its just due in this list. I still have problems with the series’ portrayal of a few characters, but I could probably make the argument for a lot of comedies. The point is, Modern Family almost always makes me laugh and a number of weeks it makes me laugh consistently. Everyone on the cast is inherently lovable and their chemistry is off-the-charts. Eric Stonestreet, Sofia Vergara, Ty Burrell and Julie Bowen have been really fantastic this year. The second season has slowly backed away from the series’ most annoying element in the cheesy summation voice-over and it’s funny that those episodes end up seeming like the most enjoyable, at least for me. Again, I don’t think Modern Family deserves the kind of credit it gets from critics and mainstream publications, but it’s still a damn fine television comedy.
Top episodes: “Manny Get Your Gun,” “Halloween,” “Hawaii,” “Family Portrait,” “Moon Landing”
17. 30 Rock (NBC): 2010 has been really good to 30 Rock. Though the series has lost some of its critical clout thanks to an uneven season three and the elevation of NBC’s newer comedies Community and Parks and Recreation, 30 Rock quietly got back on track in the second half of season four and came close to its second season heights in the first half of season five this fall. The guest stars can still be annoying and useless in certain cases — Queen Latifah’s appearance this season comes to mind — but folks like Elizabeth Banks, Michael Sheen, Jon Hamm and Matt Damon have done a nice job at becoming actual characters instead of making one-time guest spots that add little to the series. More importantly, it seems like the series has gotten back to its roots by letting Liz and Jack serve as the center while goofballs like Kenneth, Tracy and Jenna rotate around them doing lots of stupid things. The weak third season spent too much time on those three supporting characters and made apparent their faults and flaws when used for more than just a few brief, rapidly-cut moments. Finally, the Comcast-riffing Kabletown nonsense has given the series another real-life media anchor to poke fun at, leading to a more focused and less slapstick-y version of 30 Rock. This is always a good thing.
Top episodes: “When It Rains, It Pours,” “Live Show,” “Anna Howard Shaw Day,” “Reaganing,” “Don Geiss, America and Hope”
16. Rubicon (AMC): Mediocre finale be damned, Rubicon gave us another non-Mad Men series to go bonkers for in the late summer, early fall period before the broadcast networks bring the (lukewarm) heat. The glacial-like movement of the plot has been praised to death, but I have to continue to add to the chorus. Rubicon‘s pacing was its strongest element and though it took a bit to get used to and really enjoy, by the middle of the season, I wasn’t worrying about the ongoing narratives or hoping things would speed up. In fact, I wouldn’t have really cared if the series just flat-out avoided wrapping up any of the four-leaf clover nonsense in season one. Obviously, the series had to because new showrunner Henry Bromell didn’t want to mess with it in season two and the cancellation vultures were circling, but I would have rather just watched Will’s team continue to banter and lose their minds in that poorly-lit, stuffy conference room while Truxton and Kale plotted secretly in the background. Again, the finale totally sullied my view of the series’ overall quality, but as I continue to distance myself from the awful taste that one episode left in my mouth, the more I realize how much I actually loved Rubicon. I’m not overly sad to see it go because I was able to see 10-11 really excellent episodes of television from Rubicon and that’s cool.
Top episodes: “The Outsider,” “Wayward Sons,” “The Truth Will Out,” “Look To The Ant,” “A Good Day’s Work”
15. The Vampire Diaries (The CW): This is one of those choices that will probably get a lot of raised eyebrows, but I freaking love The Vampire Diaries. I, like most of you, expected it to be terrible and watched the first three episodes of season one to confirm my correctness. Unfortunately, it was right after those first three episodes that the series started to get kind of good and once 2010 rolled around, Diaries was a completely different kind of series. It successfully moved away from the high school teen drama tropes and into an interesting exploration of a town’s history without missing much of a beat. Of course, it’s a CW series with a lot of pretty white people — all the minorities are witches or easily killed! — that make out with one another, but Diaries has also executed its big mythological beats without ever holding onto them for too long. No series knows how to burn through plot faster and while I’m sure that will eventually catch up with The Vampire Diaries, for now, it’s a damn fun thrill ride with lots of fun, attractive people doing a good amount of destructive stuff. Nina Dobrev has been stellar in her multiple roles in season two, but the stable of performers is deeper than one might expect. Ian Somerhalder is off-his-rocker insane as Damon, Paul Wesley has transitioned nicely from wet blanket to a slightly rougher and drier wet blanket and every single one of the supporting players, from Candice Accola to Michael Trevino brings something slightly different to the table. Vampires, witches and werewolves are being done to death in pop culture today, but no one is doing it better than TVD.
Top episodes: “Masquerade,” “Blood Brothers,” “Let The Right One In,” “Founder’s Day,” “By The Light of the Moon”
14. Cougar Town (ABC): This is a well-circulated statement in the online TV criticism world, but Cougar Town is actually more enjoyable than Modern Family. Sure, it’s much goofier and more like a live action cartoon, but for my tastes, it’s perfect. The series made a much-discussed transition from an awkward and kind of awful series about Courtney Cox screwing younger characters to a super-fun ensemble about friendship, family and drinking wine. The post-transformation season one episodes I caught last spring were a hoot, but it wasn’t until season two that I really found myself loving Cougar Town. The characters and their relationships with one another have been better defined during the fall run and the series seems pretty capable at subtly building on those relationships without getting too far away from ridiculously stupid and fun drinking games or just plain drinking. Cougar Town still has issues with its lead character and her inherent awfulness as a person, but the supporting cast of goofballs around Cox’s Jules gives Parks and Recreation and Community a run for its money in terms of best ensembles. I’m smart enough to realize that Cougar Town probably isn’t for everyone, but if you’re one of those people who watched the first few episodes of season one and freaking hated it, check out the five eps I list below and see what you think. It will most likely be worth it.
Top episodes: “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” “Finding Out,” “The Same Old You,” “Fooled Again (I Don’t Like It),” “Breakdown”
13. Supernatural (The CW): Supernatural has been something of my baby for a long time now. Throughout my time in college, I wrote countless columns and reviews for the IU student newspaper telling people about what they were missing and though I certainly had nothing to do with it, it’s been rewarding to see that people from all circles have become more responsive and respectful towards the CW series over the past few years. It’s that connection to Supernatural that probably allows it to be this high on the list even though the lead up to the conclusion of its big Lucifer arc was a bit mishandled and the follow-up season has been one compelling mess that may or may not be intentionally messy. Anyway, I still believe that Supernatural has had a rock-solid 2010 because the series has done its best to manage expectations and budgetary restrictions that come with both tackling the Apocalypse and then following it up the following season. Both of those things had high degrees of difficulty, and for the most part, I’d have to say the Supernatural team has handled them nicely. Season six has finally given Jared Padalecki more interesting things to do and Jensen Ackles is always fantastic as Dean. Both performers are underrated for their work and it’s to their credit that the series was so inherently watchable and likable in 2010, despite the narrative flaws.
Top episodes: “Swan Song,” “Two Minutes To Midnight,” “Weekend At Bobby’s,” “Dark Side of the Moon,” “Appointment in Samarra”
12. Louie (FX): Louis CK’s second foray into televisual comedy has resulted in the most interesting project of 2010. Louie is intensely personal, generally hilarious and sometimes staggeringly honest to uncomfortable levels. There are certain episodes of Louie that are laugh-out-loud funny while others are dead serious and even more that somehow walk the tight-rope between those two extremes in a compelling and confusing kind of way. I recently rewatched the whole first season on Hulu just for kicks and I find myself enjoying it much more the second time around, which is always a great sign. Louis CK is more than just a stand-up comic or even a comedy star: He’s an auteur. You never really knew what to expect from Louie throughout its initial 13-episode run and that is an obvious testament to CK’s unique perspective and vision for what television should be and hopefully can be in the future. You might not love every episode of this FX series, but you’ll find something interesting and honest about them and again, that’s not the easiest thing to do in television comedy.
Top episodes: “Bully,” “God,” “Heckler/Cop Movie,” “Night Out,” “Travel Day/South”
11. Boardwalk Empire (HBO): Another HBO series, another round of massive expectations. And much like The Pacific, Boardwalk Empire started great, dipped a little bit in the post-pilot episodes and slowly rounded into form just after the halfway mark of the season. I’ve gone on record before as saying that the narrative was a bit disjointed and hard to follow in the early going, but once roles and characters started to be defined, Empire found a new gear of storytelling that was both enthralling and complicated. There aren’t a lot of people to root for, but the series knows this and more or less wills you to care about Nucky and Jimmy even though they’re mostly terrible people trying to better themselves first and foremost. Obviously, the series is beautiful to look out and continues HBO’s crusade to retell the last 100 years of American history in such a way that people won’t need or want to consult a history book in the future. My feeling on the first season of Boardwalk Empire is that its biggest goal was to set the table for some really compelling stories to come in future seasons. The first 12 episodes had to define all these characters, their relationships and the hierarchies of the operations in Chicago, New York, Washington and Atlantic City and that’s a tough feat while still trying to tell an interesting story as well. Obviously, the biggest goal for any series’ first season is to set the table and define characters, but Boardwalk had so much of that to do that it sometimes got lost, but the last five or six episodes suggests that now that everything is out there in the open in a clearer way, the series is going to even better in 2011.
Top episodes: “Paris Green,” “Home,” “Boardwalk Empire (Pilot),” “Nights in Ballygran,” “A Return To Normalcy”
Alright folks, there you have it, the bottom 15 of my Top 25 Series of 2010. Tomorrow: The Top 10! Thanks for reading.