2010 saw the departure of scene-changing institutions like Lost, the maturation of in-progress shows like Mad Men, and the arrival of widely hyped newcomers like Boardwalk Empire. But even without those landmarks, it would still be another remarkable year almost overstuffed with good television. The A.V. Club’s TV Club critics had a hard time narrowing our best series list down to a mere 25, surely a sign that the medium’s renaissance continues to roll on. But through polling and discussion, a consensus emerged. Here are the shows we decided reached for and achieved greatness, week-in and week-out. (Tomorrow, we’ll feature the standout episodes of 45 shows that didn’t make the list.)
25. Doctor Who (BBC America)
Taking the reins of Russell T. Davies’ celebrated and popular run, ace veteran Steven Moffat pared away Davies’ more melodramatic tendencies and kept his focus on the Doctor and his new companion, Amy Pond, who explore the universe’s past and future in a season that lacked a truly weak episode. Matt Smith and Karen Gillan, in the key roles, had a wonderfully comedic, sexy chemistry, and the season’s arc, in which the universe collapsed around the Doctor’s ears, rewarded a loyal audience. But each standalone story offered different tones to enjoy, from the suspenseful return of the Weeping Angels to a melancholy visit with a suicidal Van Gogh to the Doctor rooming with an unlucky-in-love sad-sack.
Best episodes: “The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone,” “Vincent And The Doctor,” “The Lodger”
24. United States Of Tara (Showtime)
In its first season, United States Of Tara was about a normal family affected by a most abnormal problem: the family matriarch’s Dissociative Identity Disorder. When the show returned, the Gregsons thought drugs had enabled Tara (Toni Collette) to control her condition, allowing them to achieve the normalcy they so craved. Creator Diablo Cody, meanwhile, had other plans. Delving into the futility of normalcy, the second season pulled few punches. Collette, whether paired with the great Viola Davis or with versions of herself, was fantastic throughout, and Keir Gilchrist did comparably strong work as teenage son Marshall, who searched for normalcy in an attempt to define his sexuality. While the family members’ collective abnormality brought them together in the end, the investigation of their identities transformed a solid show with a great lead performance into Showtime’s finest series.
Best episodes: “Torando!” “Explosive Diorama,” “To Have And To Hold”
23. Eastbound & Down (HBO)
A true second act to the Kenny Powers (Danny McBride) saga, the second season of Eastbound & Down jettisoned most of the characters from season one (save for Steve Little as the indispensable Steve Janowski, the sublimely pathetic Powers disciple) and sent the washed-up fireballer to Mexico, where he attempted to rebuild his career. The culture clash brought out the best in McBride, who has developed Powers into a masterful comic creation, a self-deluded, self-absorbed, destructive force who’s just sad enough to love. (Or at least fragile enough to wring the maximum pathos and comedy from a line like “Hey, Kenny, you’re from America. You probably have a printer.”)
Best episodes: “Chapter 7,” “Chapter 10,” “Chapter 11”
22. Archer (FX)
The world didn’t need another James Bond parody. By now, super-spydom’s general proximity to douchebagginess has been well established. And Archer doesn’t feel fresh, exactly; after Adult Swim, the animation style and ensemble of selfish lunatics wandering through a web of global intrigue is standard stuff. But Archer works, often amazingly well. H. Jon Benjamin leads a voice cast stuffed with ringers (including Aisha Tyler, Judy Greer, and Chris Parnell) as Sterling Archer, espionage expert and self-centered ass. As head agent for the security firm Isis, Archer supposedly travels the world stealing briefcases and killing bad guys. Mostly, he just screws the help, acts oblivious, and drinks too much. Jessica Walters voices Sterling’s mom, and Archer sometimes recalls Walters’ last big project, Arrested Development, with its consistently driven characters and increasingly absurd setting. It’s been done, but it’s seldom been done better.
Best episodes: “Diversity Hire,” “Skytanic,” “Dial M For Mother”
21. It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia (FX)
Television’s most loveable sociopaths continued to give bad taste a good name in the hilarious sixth season of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. The season got off to a bumpy start, but by the time the gang decided to film its own homemade version of a Lethal Weapon sequel in “Dee Reynolds: Shaping America’s Youth,” an episode that wryly referenced both the die-hard fans of Insane Clown Posse and the soft-focus love scenes of The Room, the series was firing on all cylinders. God bless these horrible, horrible human beings and their complete lack of shame.
Best episodes: “Mac’s Big Break,” “Mac And Charlie: White Trash,” “Mac’s Mom Burns Her House Down”
20. Huge (ABC Family)
It must be tough to launch yet another series about teenagers in a media environment that seems to green-light nothing else. But ABC Family’s late, lamented Huge managed to make the genre seem fresh by filtering the perennial problems of growing up through a group of teens with one problem that trumped all others: their weight. Set at a summer fat camp and starring a wonderful ensemble of kids whom viewers wouldn’t normally see on television, Huge was touching, brave, funny, and unfortunately too hard to market. But while it lasted, viewers in the know followed Will (Nikki Blonsky), the rebel; Dorothy (Gina Torres), the food-addicted camp director; Amber (Hayley Hasselhoff), the pretty girl; Alistair (Harvey Guillen), who wanted to be called “Athena”; and half a dozen other unforgettable characters through the tribulations and solidarity of being too much of a good thing.
Best episodes: “Talent Night,” “Spirit Quest,” “Parents’ Weekend: Part I”
19. 30 Rock (NBC)
One knock against 30 Rock is that it leans too heavily on guest stars, but when the guest casting is so good, why not milk it? From Buck Henry as the club-hopping father of Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) to Elizabeth Banks as the crafty, perfect companion to Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin), the quality of the featured players has kept some sparkle in the show, as did the year’s biggest stunt, a live broadcast that was more fun and rewatchable than it had any business being. The show’s ability to find new permutations of the sweet, complex Liz-and-Jack friendship has really driven things this year. Fey and Baldwin are a virtuoso double act, one where the roles of straight man and goof constantly switch.
Best episodes: “Anna Howard Shaw Day,” “Live Show,” “College”
18. Childrens Hospital (Cartoon Network)
Riffing on the self-righteousness and hyperbolic drama of medical shows like ER, Scrubs, M*A*S*H, and Grey’s Anatomy, this Rob Corddry-created Adult Swim comedy features veterans of The State, Human Giant, Arrested Development, Party Down… just about every funny actor in Hollywood, really. Childrens Hospital was funny enough as a five-minute web series, but it really hit its stride in Adult Swim’s 12-minute format, which lets Corddry and company expand their parody to target movies and non-medical TV. Along with Community, Childrens Hospital is as dense and clever as contemporary TV comedy gets.
Best episodes: “I Am Not Afraid Of Any Ghost,” “Hot Enough For You?”, “The Sultan’s Finger: Live”
17. Sherlock (PBS)
The concept of a 21st-century, cell-phone-using Sherlock Holmes could have gone extremely wrong, but Sherlock, imported by PBS from the BBC, not only pulled off the conceit, but quickly built a cult fan base thanks to good casting and clever production. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes is weirdly compelling, one part sociopathic awkwardness, one part Withnailian haughtiness, one part diva nerd. Martin Freeman, sporting a crown of gray hair as Watson, does what he does best, playing a likeable, exasperated everyman to Cumberbatch’s much more intelligent but just as antisocial superhero. Holmes fans enjoyed the series’ faithfulness to Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories, while crisp gothic settings, a creepy, delicate circus-like score, and tastefully utilized technology brought a new freshness to the tales. But most of all, Cumberbatch and Freeman have real chemistry—sometimes bitchy, sometimes affectionate—that keeps the series from feeling like a retread.
Best episodes: “A Study In Pink,” “The Great Game”
16. Boardwalk Empire (HBO)
Few shows can live up to the kind of expectations raised by Boardwalk Empire’s pedigree. But while it never became the Prohibition-era Goodfellas that Martin Scorsese’s bombastic pilot suggested, Terence Winter’s portrait of 1920s Atlantic City has its own unique charms, plus a bevy of astonishing performances. Through the eyes of Jersey power broker Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) and young gun Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), Boardwalk Empire follows the birth of modern organized crime while keeping a tight focus on its sprawling ensemble, ranging from assorted bit players to better-known names, including a young Al Capone (Stephen Graham). A contemplative tone soured some viewers’ interest, although bursts of violence and stunning setpieces kept the pace from getting too glacial. And as the season wound to a close, the many plot strands began to wind together in a manner reminiscent of the last show Winter worked on, that little cult favorite The Sopranos.
Best episodes: “Anastasia,” “Nights In Ballygran,” “Home”
15. Fringe (Fox)
Though Fringe was often entertaining in its first season and a half, it was never essential. That all changed abruptly in early 2010, as the show finally grounded its freak-of-the-week weirdness in deep sadness. In season one, the series introduced the idea that something unusal was going on with one central character, but the season-two episode “Peter” finally dramatized the moment that changed his life, giving the series’ overarching storyline a devastating emotional core, based in a father’s love instead of in theoretical concepts. It only got better from there, as the series expanded its world by further making those concepts concrete. Fringe is that rare blend of inventive ideas, wild ambition, and unexpected soulfulness.
Best episodes: “Peter,” “White Tulip,” “The Plateau”
14. Justified (FX)
Adapting Elmore Leonard for the small screen has its challenges, not least of which is reproducing Leonard’s distinctive voice week after week, long after the source material has dried up. With Justified, creator Graham Yost smartly chose a character from a couple of Leonard stories with a big enough hook to build a series around: a U.S. Marshal who operates like an Old West gunslinger and has simmering conflicts within himself and with various parties in his native Kentucky. As Raylan Givens, Timothy Olyphant brings the full force of his charisma to bear on a man who’s magnetic, quick on the draw, and filled with a well-concealed, frighteningly inestimable anger. Throughout the first season, Yost and his writers did a fine job crafting a show for casual viewers and devotees alike, with satisfying standalone hours and relationships that developed over time, especially Raylan’s cat-and-mouse game with a slippery crook played brilliantly by The Shield’s Walton Goggins. It’s the rare show that’s simultaneously rich and easy to digest.
Best episodes: “Pilot,” “Long In The Tooth,” “The Hammer”
13. Modern Family (ABC)
Part of what makes Modern Family so charming and lovely is how mightily its characters strive to build and strengthen relationships with people they could easily keep at a respectful distance. Viewers got to see the fruit of that labor in 2010, as those relationships started to live and breathe on their own. With so much groundwork laid in the series’ terrific, Emmy-winning first season, the currently airing second season has been able to relax into a rhythm that’s just as likely to explore the dynamics within each household as those between them. But even as the three linked families at the show’s center live their separate lives, they deal with the same challenge: how to stay connected with the people you love, even as distractions—dog butlers, cell phones, earthquakes, cute boys—abound.
Best episodes: “Fifteen Percent,” “Truth Be Told,” “Halloween”
12. The Daily Show With Jon Stewart (Comedy Central)
2009 definitively silenced anyone who thought The Daily Show couldn’t be hilarious during the Obama administration. 2010, however, proved transcendent. As pundits amped up their desperation, Stewart relentlessly mocked them, armed with some of the finest fact-checking on television. In the August 23 episode, for instance, Stewart noted that criticism of the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” pointed to a shady financier—the same financier who owns the second-largest number of shares of Fox News. Stewart also spent much of the year savagely mimicking Glenn Beck, while his band of correspondents, as always, argued over inanities. Stewart and Stephen Colbert rounded out the year with the Rally To Restore Sanity, an epic, moving pageant on the National Mall. The media may claim to speak for the people, but through comedy, The Daily Show actually does it.
Best episodes: The April 20 episode stands out from the rest. Nothing ends a critical volley like a gospel choir singing “Go fuck yourself.”
11. Friday Night Lights (NBC/DirecTV)
Never a highly rated show, Friday Night Lights enjoyed an unusual extended life, thanks to a deal between NBC and DirecTV. It used those extra years to reach beyond merely being one of television’s best shows, and became one of its most daring. Since shifting the focus to East Dillon, the school on the wrong side of the tracks in its fictional Texas town, Friday Night Lights has dealt with race, economic divides, and abortion, all with the same warmth and close-to-the-ground immediacy that characterized the show from the start. The show’s fourth season—some of which aired on DirecTV in 2009—could stand up proudly next to its justly revered first season, even with the difficult task of introducing a handful of new cast members to replace graduating seniors. Its in-progress fifth season, which will sadly be its last, shows no sign of faltering.
Best episodes: “I Can’t,” “Thanksgiving,” “On The Outside Looking In”
10. Cougar Town (ABC)
Cougar Town isn’t for everyone. While some shows succeed based on universality, Cougar Town succeeds because it’s willing to annoy the hell out of people who want nothing to do with its central Cul-de-Sac Crew. While some shows retool by reaching out to new audiences, Cougar Town retooled by becoming even more insular, letting its running jokes run amok and indulging in some legitimate absurdity. Instead of off-putting, this often feels liberating. The show gets its heart—its wonderful central mother-son dynamic, for instance—from the same store where it gets its talking toilets, and its most broadly drawn characters—Busy Philipps’ Laurie and Brian Van Holt’s Bobby—are often its most appealing. Cougar Town has become ABC’s smartest sitcom by staying true to itself, no matter how ridiculous that self may be.
Best episodes: “Letting You Go,” “Finding Out,” “You Don’t Know How It Feels”
9. The Good Wife (CBS)
Proving that procedurals don’t have to begin and end with “ripped from today’s headlines,” The Good Wife delivered up-to-the-minute court cases—based on everything from newspapers that publish cartoons about Muhammad to a superstar liberal politician sexually assaulting his masseuse—along with some of the juiciest prime-time soap-opera plots around, involving infidelity, boardroom power-plays, and the bare-knuckle world of Chicago politics. The second season has been a little subplot-heavy so far, but it’s largely maintained the momentum the show built up in the stellar back half of its first season, when nearly every episode tied a genuinely tricky case-of-the-week to Alicia Florrick’s (Julianna Margulies) growing awareness of the moral complexities of politics and law. Not since The West Wing has a TV drama been so frank about the compromises of public and private life, and few shows on the air today are as plugged in to the way we live right now, with text messages, social media, cable news, and viral videos redefining the boundaries of our personal space. Add to that an all-star cast of guest stars and supporting players, and you’ve got one of the most reliably entertaining hours on network television each week.
Best episodes: “Bang,” “Mock,” “VIP Treatment”
8. Lost (ABC)
Going into its final season, Lost had a lot of expectations to meet if it wanted to please all its fans. It failed, which is probably to be expected. Given how much time the show gave over to the inexplicable, the convoluted, the narrative dead-end, and simple, flat-out stalling, there was no real way to come up with a conclusion that would somehow justify every dropped question. Instead, Lost delivered the broadest possible conclusions to its mythology, allowing plenty of room for interpretation and infuriating the portion of its audience who believed they had a right to something more satisfying than “Well, see, there’s this magic pool…” Given the way the series played with audience expectations, it’s hard not to sympathize with the disappointment, but for those less interested in the concrete, Lost’s final bow was thrilling, moving, and at times even transcendent. Shifting the show’s traditional time-jumping structure into a mysterious “sideways” universe allowed characters a chance for a grace note before the end, and the last episode provided emotional closure with a powerful, melancholy dignity. All in all, Lost’s final season wasn’t perfect, but it sure was grand.
Best episodes: “Happily Ever After,” “Across the Sea,” “The End”
7. Terriers (FX)
In a network landscape cluttered with high-tech investigative masterminds, we need more shaggy private investigators who drive around in battered pickups and try to concentrate on solving other people’s problems, even as they can’t stop themselves from making their own problems worse. We need Donal Logue wearing a flannel shirt and obsessing about his ex-wife as she plans her dream wedding, and we need a thoroughly convincing Michael Raymond-James as a bad boy turned good. Produced by Shield mastermind Shawn Ryan and created by Ted Griffin, Terriers boasted the catchiest theme song, the scruffiest heroes, and the most unfortunately obscure title on television. A tiny but passionate cadre of fans tuned in for great, mumbly dialogue and comic misadventures, then got hooked on wrenching plot twists that had them on the edge of their seats, begging these perennial screw-ups to hold it together for one more hour. Since the show was cancelled, we won’t even get that.
Best episodes: “Fustercluck,” “Agua Caliente,” “Quid Pro Quo”
6. Party Down (Starz)
There have been remarkably few comedies about what it means to simply give up on the American dream. The second (and sadly final) season of Starz’s Party Down fit that description even more fully than its first, throwing the failed Hollywood dreams of the waiters and bartenders at the Party Down Catering Company into even starker relief via a blend of pathos and cringe-inducing comedy. Over the course of the season, Henry (Adam Scott) slowly worked his way back toward the acting world, Roman (Martin Starr) learned the importance of rewrites, and romances sputtered almost before they’d begun. Set against a former co-worker’s wedding—the season finale, not intended as a series finale, but forced to become one—left the characters in a place of open-endedness that nonetheless feels like closure. In the world of Party Down, the mere act of trying again, of putting your hat back in the ring, is the bravest step anyone can take.
Best episodes: “Steve Guttenberg’s Birthday,” “Party Down Company Picnic,” “Constance Carmell Wedding”
5. Mad Men (AMC)
Mad Men has rarely allowed protagonist Don Draper (Jon Hamm) to fail, yet this year, the master pitchman’s creative glow dimmed, replaced by boozy self-pity. That sense of transition permeated much of the show’s searching fourth season, which found one of its most enjoyable threads in the story of young Sally Draper’s coming of age. Sally, portrayed with precocious talent and nuance by Kiernan Shipka, became the ultimate foil for the adults around her. Her blossoming maturity played against the childish tantrums of mother Betty (January Jones), and her visits helped moor the increasingly adrift Don. Don also formed a deeper bond with protégé Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) in one of the series’ finest episodes. But by the season finale, Peggy was back at arm’s length, as was the deliverer of this line: “I hope she knows you only like the beginning of things.” It captured Don perfectly, and suggested that the arc of his latest chapter—Don Draper as ordinary man—had already begun its decline.
Best episodes: “Waldorf Stories,” “The Suitcase,” “The Beautiful Girls”
4. Louie (FX)
Our choice for the best new show of 2010, FX’s Louie is the closest thing television has to a true auteur project: It’s a deeply personal half-hour comedy written, directed, and edited by creator Louis C.K., who also stars as himself. Chasing away the ghosts of HBO’s Lucky Louie—C.K.’s overly aestheticized (but still underrated) attempt to update The Honeymooners for the darker world of modern domesticity—C.K. converted a modest budget and total creative freedom into a rich, ever-evolving product of his life, his city, and his comedy. Though built around acrid bits of his stand-up comedy—and in one hilarious scene, a bracing takedown of a heckler—each episode of Louie finds C.K. reinventing himself, fiddling playfully with tone and structure, with themes as particular as raising children post-divorce and as broad as the existence of God, and with aspects of himself most artists would be too timid to reveal. It’s a funny show, but it’s a surprisingly beautiful and touching one, too, centered on a man who insistently looks for truths in comedy and in himself.
Best episodes: “Poker/Divorce,” “Bully,” “God”
3. Parks And Recreation (NBC)
Parks And Recreation’s first season radiated boundless potential. The premise, cast—headed by the always-winning Amy Poehler—and creative staff all promised greatness. Yet it underperformed creatively. In its oft-transcendent second season, the former redheaded stepchild of The Office evolved from underachiever to spectacular overachiever with arguably the strongest, funniest ensemble cast on television. Aziz Ansari continued his unstoppable ascent to stardom as a pop-culture-warped Manhattan baller trapped inside the body of a diminutive provincial bureaucrat. But the season’s real MVP was Nick Offerman, whose Ron Swanson, a strangely dignified, Reaganite boss, has quickly become a cult icon. Alas, NBC inexplicably felt the need to punish Parks And Recreation just as it was beginning to gain momentum, thanks in part to high-profile additions Rob Lowe and Adam Scott, by pulling the series off the air to make room for (ugh) Outsourced. It’ll be back in 2011, however, and hopefully stronger than ever.
Best episodes: “Galentine’s Day,” “Summer Catalog,” “The Master Plan”
2. Community (NBC)
The premise is better suited to a 90-minute Adam Sandler movie than a TV show: A jerk lawyer, shamed into attending community college after it’s discovered he never earned a proper degree, tries to impress a hottie do-gooder by hanging out with a bunch of losers. General heartwarming ensues. It’s a limited narrative, and one Community largely abandoned by the midpoint of its great second season. But the idea still speaks to the series’ central theme. The show’s seemingly boundless inventiveness and its ability to embrace parody, drama, meta commentary, slapstick, and sentiment, are rooted in a refreshingly honest take on the lies we tell to become who we wish we could be. The jerk who dreams of heroism; the snob who wants to save the world; the Disney princess who yearns for three dimensions; the detached observer longing to be a real live boy; the goofball maturing into adulthood—these are familiar archetypes, but in the hands of television’s strongest comedic ensemble, given voice by a writing staff that hands out punchlines and heartbreak with equal panache, these parts add up to a warm, ridiculous, rewarding whole.
Best episodes: “Modern Warfare,” “Cooperative Calligraphy,” “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas”
1. Breaking Bad (AMC)
The best TV of 2010 took big chances, whether by going to deeply personal or deliberately obscure territory for laughs, or by deploying well-timed plot twists or character developments that were seasons in the making. None, however, took as many big chances or succeeded as often as AMC’s Breaking Bad, which improbably topped its remarkable second season with 13 episodes full of men losing their souls, twin assassins, and a professional hitman able to take his victims out with a shoe and some balloons. The series expanded a world that never felt insular to begin with, deepening characters like seemingly mild-mannered drug tycoon Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) and shady lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), while adding layers to characters who’d been there from the start, like Skyler (Anna Gunn), who spent the third season torn between doing the right thing and considering the big duffel bag of money her husband toted around, or DEA agent Hank (Dean Norris), who battled his demons and the men bent on killing him. And at the center of it all were the two best-performed characters on television, Bryan Cranston’s Walter White and Aaron Paul’s Jesse Pinkman, two men who began producing meth almost on a whim, but who now find it defining their lives, dragging them deeper and deeper into all-consuming darkness. Creator Vince Gilligan was open about the fact he and his writers made up much of the season as they went along, but when they can improvise as successfully as they did here, there’s no need for extensive planning.
Best episodes: “One Minute,” “Fly,” “Full Measure”