TV Surveillance’s Best of 2010: The 25 Best Series, 10-1

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 WifeDoctor WhoSherlockor 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.

In case you missed yesterday’s first entry in this list, check it out. It includes series 25-11.

Alright folks, here we are. The top 10 series of 2010 in my humble opinion.

10. Justified (FX): From the stellar adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s story in the pilot to the exciting finale, Justified provided solid drama throughout its 13-episodes. Because the series is on the same network and has a similar small town, big stakes-vibe, Justified reminds me a lot of Terriers. Since it aired way back in the first half of the year, it seems like people are talking more about Terriers than they are Justified, even though 1.5 million more people watched the latter than the former. That happens, but I found myself enjoying Justified almost as much as I did Terriers. The emotional stakes aren’t as high with this series, but the intriguing identity of the setting and its various inhabitants create a compelling place for Timothy Olyphant’s Raylan Givens to try to simultaneously escape and save. Everyone on Justified seems just crazy enough that they could do anything at any moment, but at the same time, they also feel like real people who would actually live in Kentucky. The first season has a really great arc and never steps outside itself or extends to an unbelievable direction while still remaining compelling.

Top episodes: “Fire in the Hole,” “Fathers and Sons,” “Veterans,” “The Hammer,” “Bulletville”

9. Friday Night Lights (DirecTV/NBC): I understand Friday Night Light‘s weird scheduling where season four aired on DirecTV in 2009 but on NBC in 2010 and now season five is airing on the former as we speak, but won’t come on NBC until summer 2011, but I’ve been watching the series in such a weird way that it’s hard to distinguish all that in my mind. I think I watched the first 5-6 S4 episodes on DirecTV last year, but then re-watched them, along with the rest of the season on NBC. And now I’m trying to keep up with S5, but haven’t really been able to on a regular basis, so I might just wait for the NBC airings again. In any event, that means that I’m considering both seasons four and five in this ranking, but it wouldn’t really matter what I did because FNL has been pretty damn good throughout 2010. Season four was the big transition year and for the most part, the series pulled it off. By the end of season four, I really did care about Vince, Luke, Jess and even Becky and the four of them have done a nice job of carrying the teenage weight in season five as well. And of course, the goodbyes to Matt and Landry were hard to deal with, but handled as well as they could have been. But as usual, it’s the Taylors and the Riggins that have made this series so great in 2010. Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton finally got their well-deserved Emmy nominations and have followed that up with even better work in season five while Derek Phillips’ Billy Riggins has become the series’ secret weapon. It will be sad to say goodbye to Friday Night Lights in 2011, but for now let’s just celebrate the greatness.

Top episodes: “The Son,” “Swerve,” “Thanksgiving,” “Kingdom,” “East of Dillon”

8. Party Down (Starz): Oh how sad it is to no longer have another season of Party Down to look forward to. The little-seen Starz series had a somewhat rocky start to its second season in the summer of 2010 thanks to some cast changes and new positions, but by the time the Guttenberg episode rolled around, Party Down was back to its season one heights — which makes the cancellation hurt even more. The people who do know of the series would probably discuss its biting humor and intelligent commentary of those just outside of Hollywood and they should. Party Down nails those things. However, what I always enjoyed about it was how it sneakily had a whole lot of interesting emotion behind it. Henry and Casey’s relationship is surprisingly honest and realistic, even for two people who have been inside some cool Hollywood circles and are different journeys because of that. In general, Party Down could have been just like Entourage, only more depressing for the people in the series (and probably for us at home as well), but instead, it was always interested in exploring the reasons for why these people hadn’t made it big or were stuck in this weird liminal stage between stardom and failure. Of course, it’s also hilarious and quippy and just generally awesome. But there is definitely a little heart in there too.

Top episodes: “Steve Guttenberg’s Birthday,” “Cole Landry’s Draft Party,” “Party Down Company Picnic,” “Joe Munt’s Big Deal Party,” “Not On Your Wife Opening Night”

7. Lost (ABC): A controversial storytelling framework, an even more controversial series finale and a whole lot of angry message board folk are some of the main things we tend to remember in reference to the final season of Lost, but I’m going to choose to remember the good times. As the final season of Lost began to unspool, I realized — like a lot of critics — that the series just wasn’t interested in giving us didactic answers to all the questions it raised over the years, particularly ones from the first three seasons before the agreement with ABC was made to end it all. After I let all of that go, I enjoyed things a hell of a lot more. When the finale came around and really just relied on the fans’ personal affinity for all the characters and the experiences they’d had with them, it was obvious that Lindelof, Cuse and the rest of the Lost team always wanted Lost to be about the ride instead of the destination. Of course they couldn’t say that so explicitly in season three or four; They needed the mystery of Lost to be a driving element while the characters were what really kept a lot of us coming back. When I think about Lost in 20 years, I’ll certainly remember the Frozen Donkey Wheel, DHARMA and whatever it is that happened to Sayid in season six. But most of all, I think I’ll remember Jack and Locke’s epic conversations, Ben’s ever-shifting allegiances, “The Constant” and Sawyer and Juliet. I could spend a lot of time being frustrated that season six sometimes felt like it lacked forward momentum or real stakes or even more time concerned about the answers I didn’t get, but I’d rather just remember that there has never been nor will there ever be anything like Lost on television.

Top episodes: “The End,” “What They Died For,” “The Candidate,” “Dr. Linus,” “Happily Ever After”

6. Fringe (FOX): With Lost leaving the airwaves, JJ Abrams has another mythology-heavy series to take its place as the best broadcast drama. Fringe became a brand-new animal in 2010 thanks to the writers’ decision to dive full-bore into both the mythology and how that mythology affects the relationships between its lead characters. The Fringe team smartly realized that the audience for the series was the audience so there was really no reason not to give them the big answers and revelations they wanted and it’s worked out beautifully. The second half of season two shifted the focus to the Bishops and raised the emotional stakes immensely, making one of the biggest science fiction story beats of the year an intensely personal situation about loss, love, control and confusion. And then this fall’s third season has circled back around to Olivia, who once was the weak link in a great cast of characters but now has become the heart and soul of an inter-universe war where identities and loyalties are blurred. Throughout 2010, almost every episode of Fringe raised the stakes and continued to craft stories that were always important to the characters experiencing them. Olivia, Peter and Walter are no longer just investigators or (pardon the pun) observers to the world changes around them. They are the crucial links to the two universes we’ve seen and in 2010, the series made them feel all the weight of those links.

Top episodes: “Peter,” “White Tulip,” “Olivia,” “The Plateau,” “Marionette”

5. Mad Men (AMC): I’m still not sure how I feel about that odd finale, but up until that point, Mad Men turned in its best season to-date. Obviously, this season is all about Don Draper trying to figure out who he is, which leads to a lot of drinking, confusion, desperation, more drinking and a whole lot of identity blurring. This is the season we have been waiting for since the beginning of the series, one where the characters realize that getting what you want doesn’t actually mean you get what you really want. Don can’t decide who he wants to be: Don, Dick or something in between. Betty discovers that Don wasn’t the only reason she was miserable. Peggy realizes that getting a comfy job in creative doesn’t mean people will start respecting her or recognizing her talents as a woman. Season four of Mad Men featured a number of episodes that slid all around the tonal map, but with little exception, the series nailed it every time. Certain episodes played it slow and had countless depressing and bleak moments, while others were rapidly-paced and upbeat. And most importantly, the best episodes somehow combined both of those within in one hour-long effort. It’s a testament to the greatness of television in 2010 that Mad Men is all the way down here at number five, but just know that the placement is far from a knock on the series. Mad Men had its best season ever in 2010.

Top episodes: “The Suitcase,” “The Beautiful Girls,” “Waldorf Stories,” “The Summer Man,” “Hands and Knees”

4. Parks and Recreation (NBC): Like everyone else, I thought season one of Parks and Recreation was generally terrible. Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope was an insufferable clone of Michael Scott and the rest of the supporting cast didn’t have defined enough personalities or roles to be appealing. It was easy to write off as another stupid decision by NBC, who has gotten pretty damn good at making stupid decisions over the last eight years. Thankfully, Michael Schur and Greg Daniels recognized these problems just as we did and they were able to recalibrate Parks and Rec in such a way that it quickly became the most likable of NBC’s Thursday night comedies. Though Leslie is the obvious center of the series, Parks and Rec is much more of an ensemble than The Office, as it features at least six or seven great primary characters and a number of other hilarious and important goofballs that fill out the world of Pawnee, Indiana. From Andy and April to Jerry and Jean-Ralphio, the series’ cast is deep and oh so awesome. And apart from the deeper focus on the characters and their inherent chemistry, the Parks and Rec team made a smart decision to let the series be more optimistic and positive than the cynical Office viewpoints. Season two Leslie Knope is idealistic, but not stupidly so and the series’ biggest cynic, Ron Swanson, became less so when it seemed pertinent for him to support his friend over his personal beliefs. If there is any justice in the world, this series will become a major hit in 2011 when it finally airs behind The Office.

Top episodes: “The Master Plan,” “94 Meetings,” “Telethon,” “Sweetums,” “Leslie’s House”

3. Terriers (FX): The best new series of 2010 finds itself into a cozy third place finish. Terriers figured out how to balance audience expectations for a cable drama by focusing fully on the characters. By doing that, there wasn’t as much crying for more “mythology” episodes in the early going — as opposed to the angry outcry against the standalone episodes of Justified — because the audience was fully compelled by Hank, Britt, Katie, Mark and Gretchen so it didn’t matter what the framework of each episode was. With a great amount of time invested in character work in the early going, Terriers was able to punch the audience in the gut on a weekly basis once the big arcs came more into focus. From episode three onward, nearly every episode of the series featured a heartbreaking or gut-wrenching moment that I wasn’t sure it would be able to top in the coming episodes. Until it of course did. Hank and Britt quickly became the most likable duo on television and a lot of that likability came from the series’ desire to show all their faults. Hank and Britt make countless mistakes across Terriers‘ 13-episode season, but that makes them real and relatable. Hank’s drinking and Britt’s past don’t just come up when the plot dictates it, those character traits fuel every single decision they make, every word they say and every plan they scheme. It’s so sad to see them go, but like I said the week of the finale, the 13 episodes we were given were damn good and more importantly, created a nice completed story. Sure, I would have enjoyed 60 more episodes of their hair-brained plans and less-than-perfect relationship, but I’m just glad to have gotten these 13.

Top episodes: “Sins of the Past,” “Change Partners,” “Quid Pro Quo,” “Manifest Destiny,” “Ring-A-Ding-Ding”

2. Community (NBC): I’ve been gushing all over Community since I started this website and throughout these Best of features and so it should come as no surprise to you folks that it is this high on the list. Admittedly, I’m right in the series’ wheelhouse. I have way too much pop culture knowledge and therefore find myself laughing at the series’ reference humor more so than anyone else I’ve ever watched it with. But as I have said over and over and over, what is so great about Community is that beyond the pop culture riffing and the high-concept episodes, the series is really about a group of misfits that can’t really cut it in the outside world but have found safety within the walls of Greendale. The study group is more than a study group, more than just a community, they’re a family. While they are fighting off a zombie virus, Troy can recognize that his changing personality and relationship with Abed makes him a better person and friend. While they are in the middle of the greatest paintball game ever completed, Jeff and Britta can recognize that their sexual tension is undeniable. And while Abed’s mind cracks just a little bit and he begins to see the world in Christmas time claymation, the whole group can help him recognize that although his mother no longer wants to be a part of his life, they do and they are here to support him. Community is almost always hilarious, but the episodes where it takes the biggest risks and attempts something more than just humor is what makes it one of the best television series around. Being funny is easier than it looks. Actually saying something while being funny is much, much more difficult and Community has been able to accomplish both of things in 2010, especially this fall with the beginning of its second season.

Top episodes: “Modern Warfare,” “Mixology Certification,” “Epidemiology,” “Contemporary American Poultry,” “Cooperative Calligraphy”

1. Breaking Bad (AMC): As if there were any question. Breaking Bad‘s third season is not only the best season of television that aired this year, it’s most certainly near the top of the list of best ever seasons. From start to finish, season three of Breaking Bad subverts expectations but still sticks within the logic and universe that Vince Gilligan and his team had already created in the previous 20 episodes. The first six episodes of the season feel like one long therapy session for Walt, Jesse and everyone else around them and there is little meth cooking involved. The consequences are obvious, lives are wrecked and it seems like that Walt can’t really bear to have anything as awful as Jane’s death happen again. Well, until he can. Starting with “One Minute,” the second half of the season explodes into one thrilling episode after another where it seems like both Jesse and Walt have no other choice but to do what the scary Gus says. Well, until they do. Time after time, Breaking Bad puts its characters in an awful situation and just lets them stew there until they do something even worse to get themselves out of it. There are no easy breaks in this world, there are no small choices. Every decision, every move, every thought has major consequences for Walt, Jesse and everyone in their lives. Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul rightfully deserved their Emmys, but Anna Gunn, Dean Norris, Giancarlo Esposito and Jonathan Banks should have been right there with them. There is a lot of great acting and writing on television, but nowhere else is there a greater concentration of both than on Breaking Bad. And that’s why it’s 2010’s best.

Top episodes: “One Minute,” “Fly,” “Half Measures,” “Full Measure,” “No Mas”

And there you have it folks! My best series of the year. Your thoughts?

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