Zombies, meth dealers and a smoke monster: My list of the best TV in 2010
If there's a downside to this year's boom in quality TV it's this: Now television's wealth gap is larger than ever.
Once upon a time, the most popular TV shows were also among the best; these days, quality television is increasingly the province of cable and premium cable outlets, drawing a smaller, select audience while the masses line up mostly for football and broad-based so-called "reality" shows such as Dancing with the Stars and American Idol.
The good news, is that TV has never been better for those who can afford access to the best platforms, as refugees from the film world and television veterans push the form to new levels.
In Sunday's Floridian, I listed the biggest trends in TV and media for 2010; here's my straight up list of the best shows this year had to offer. Here's hoping 2011 finds quality making a comeback in places everyone can access.
10) The Good Wife - CBS turned its own populist dramas formulas on its head for this series, which gave ER alum Juliana Marguilies a complicated, layered character in Alicia Florick, the cuckolded wife of a powerful Chicago politician struggling to rebuild her life as an attorney, post-scandal. As Chris Noth's remorseful Peter Florick tries winning back his old D.A.'s job, the intrigue has only gotten deeper, boosted by ace supporting actors Alan Cummming (as Peter Florick's manipulative campaign manager) and Archie Panjabi (as the dangerous, connected , sexually ambiguous investigator for Florick's law firm).
9) The Pacific -- A grand, sweeping epic of a miniseries about the one leg of World War II combat which hasn't gotten the Spielbergian modernization treatment. Producer Tom Hanks obliged with a dense, detailed story marrying modern gore and sex with old school themes of honor and valor.
8) Lost -- Forgotten on many year-end lists because its finale came in May, this is the series that spoiled viewers forever on serialized dramas. Now that we know these complex mysteries can last six years, who wants to sign up for a ride that long right now? But the fact that this ABC finished such a long story with such a moving and well-told conclusion must count as the trick of the decade.
7) Temple Grandin -- It is hard to understand how completely Claire Danes captures the powerful spirit of autistic genius Temple Grandin without hearing or seeing Grandin herself. But Danes nails the unique perspective and attitude which allowed Grandin to become a best-selling author and animal expert, anchoring a touching HBO production which proved why the premium cable giant annually rules the TV movie category.
6) The Daily Show -- Even before shaming Congress into approving benefits for 9/11 first responders and creating a satirical rally which dwarfed Fox News charlatan Glenn Beck's Restoring Honor gathering, Jon Stewart's Daily Show stood above all other late night comedy shows, taking on the hypocrisies of news networks fudging facts and politicians turning on their own values while also being the funniest game in town. Let's see Bill O'Reilly or Rachel Maddow try something like that.
5) The Walking Dead -- Already known as a home for the best TV dramas no one watches, AMC now has one of the most popular shows on cable TV as well, turning ace adapter Frank Darabont (Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile) loose on a revolutionary zombie graphic novel. The result was six episodes of gripping, gory drama that focused way more on the people left standing after a mysterious virus turns dead people into flesh-craving carnivores.
4) Modern Family -- The best comedy on network TV only got better this year, as the three families anchoring this oddball story only got quirkier, welcoming ace guest stars such as Nathan Lane and thumbing its nose at critics who complained that the show's gay couple never kiss.
3) Boardwalk Empire -- Steve Buscemi delivers the performance of his career as the unlikeliest gangster ever -- a corrupt Atlantic City politician with a heart, pulled into becoming the town's most ruthless criminal by the profits and promise of prohibition. A reinvention of the gangster story and thinly-disguised argument for drug legalization wrapped up by an alum from the Sopranos, Terence Winter, for HBO. Pure TV heaven.
2) Breaking Bad -- I always thought AMC's vibrant series about a high school teacher turned meth dealer was a parable on the curdling of a good man's soul. But creator Vince Gilligan told me in July that the series is more about transformation; Bryan Cranston's Walt White is becoming the man he always was inside, as the niceties of middle class life a stripped from him by circumstance and his own twisted choices. As we left him this season, he had killed two people himself and seemingly convinced his partner to take out a relatively-innocent man to save their own skins. Which raises the question: How deep does Walt's hole go?
1) Mad Men -- It may feel like old news by now, but AMC's reinvention of the '60s-era adman universe just keeps getting better as producers dig deep into the psyche of lead character Don Draper. This year, he journeyed from a divorced, regretful man flirting with losing himself at the bottom of a bottle to a hopeful romantic engaged to his second wife. That he seems poised to make all his old mistakes again was the single, disappointing coda to a powerful season.