Things have been mighty meshugua these last couple of weeks, what with trips to Bakersfield and L.A., job shadows in Sausalito and Vallejo, and most of my literary efforts being spent on something called a “talent profile.” I haven’t had a whole lot of time to write about TV, but I can’t let the year end without bringing you my picks for the Top Ten Shows of 2010:
1) Mad Men, AMC
Things were looking up for Don Draper and company; the heady days of 1964-65 were in full swing and the new Sterling-Cooper-Draper-Price agency was awash in clients and Clios. But soon we learned it all meant nothing as Don’s soul was dead, and hookers, a sad trip to L.A., and a river of Canadian Club did little to fill the void. To save his increasingly troubled agency, Don had to gut it by dropping cigarettes as its chief account (although he still smoked his usual fifty packs a day, ‘cause hey, he’s still Don). And in a twist that stunned both Don’s coworkers and viewers, our unknowable hero dropped the wise and sexy female doctor he’d been successfully wooing, so he could rashly propose to his young secretary instead. “I hope she knows you only like the beginning of things,” Hot Doctor warned Don in their breakup phone call, but Mad Men once again knew how to conclude a season that was its most challenging to date. Special props to Kiernan Shipka, the phenomenal young actress who plays Don’s daughter Sally. Her growth as a character is nothing short of breathtaking, and show creator Matt Weiner has used her to full potential.
2) Justified, F/X
At first glance, it looked like Tim Olyphant was just gonna bring his Deadwood persona into modern times; Seth Bullock with a Glock. But this wry drama, based on the writings of Elmore Leonard, takes Olyphant’s leading man charm (which has never really translated to film) and pours it into a character more likable and more self-aware than Bullock, although just as deadly with a gun. As Raylen Givens, a U.S. marshal reassigned to rural Kentucky, Olyphant gets to be equal parts bad ass, gallantly romantic, and deadpan hilarious. Equal kudos to Walton Goggins as his former best friend/current nemesis Boyd Crowder, who’s spiritual reawakening after taking a bullet left Raylen and us guessing until the cap bustin’ finale appropriately titled “Bulletville.”
3) Community, NBC
While the second season has gone for more experimentation over just being funny, this is still the best written comedy on the air with an ensemble cast only matched by Modern Family and Cougar Town. In my longform write-up earlier this fall, I neglected to mention Donald Glover’s standout work as ex-jock Troy, so let me do so now. Clearly his growth as a character is an on-going and surprisingly moving theme of season 2, especially the episode where the study group takes him out for his first drink and he learns how truly miserable they all are.
4) Archer, F/X
Sterling Archer is a super spy. He’s got the dark good looks, the tailored suits, a penthouse, and women aplenty. He routinely saves the free world while dispatching dozens of bad guys, and looks good while doing it. He’s also the world’s biggest ass, his every utterance dripping with syrupy sarcasm, racism and, misogyny. Of course, he’s mother obsessed. Speaking of, it’s his mom who runs ISIS, the extremely dysfunctional spy agency which employs Archer and a host of equally horrible espionage types. The only animated show on this list, the artwork is a standout. Every stitch of clothing, every firearm, every classic car, every luxurious apartment, is lovingly drawn down to its smallest detail. H. Jon Benjamin leads a brilliant cast including Aisha Tyler, Judy Greer and the always great Jessica Walter. After Community, this is pound for pound the sharpest comedy on the tube.
5) The Walking Dead, AMC
Zombies have taken over the world, and a handful of survivors depend on each other to survive another day. That’s all you need to know. Veteran screenwriter-director Frank Darabont adopts the popular graphic with no small amount of heart or brains. Speaking of, this is easily the most graphically violent show EVER, rivaling even The Pacific for pure on-screen carnage. But it earns these visceral moments by letting us get to know the characters and allowing them to earn our sympathies before the “walkers” come a-callin’. This was the best new drama of the fall season, hands down.
6) Modern Family, ABC
Still funny as all hell, thanks to an ensemble that’s grown even stronger in its second season. I’ll admit, I wasn’t sure if I liked Rico Rodriguez’s work as Manny when the show first started, ‘cause how many precocious sitcom kids do we need? But damn, that boy knocks it out of the park every ep. Loved his birthday party episode where he looks at his dull-witted cousin Luke putting straws together to make one big straw. “Luke,” Manny smiles, “never change.”
7) Cougar Town, ABC
Okay, where do are all you Modern Family viewers go when this show comes on? ‘Cause I gotta tell you, you’re missing one hell of a funny follow-up. Truth be told, there are some weeks where Cougar Town is actually the better of the two. There, I said it! Anyway, forget the crummy title (which itself is a joke in the opening credits this season) and just give a chance to Courtney Cox as a high-strung realtor and her razor witted friends who want nothing more out of life than to just drink heroic amounts of wine and snap insults. Dude, that’s my retirement plan right there. Seriously, catch this before ABC puts it on hiatus in February.
8) Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains, CBS
Boston Rob…Scerri Jerri…Parvati…Rupert…Coach…Russell. And all at the top of their form. A true masters course in how to play this game, the ever-changing machinations and strategies were often things of beauty, none more so than when Parvati simultaneously deployed two Immunity Idols. Want a hot girl fight? You’re not gonna do any better than Amanda and DDanielle wrestling for an idol clue. And for sheer gut busting hilarity, nothing – I mean, nothing – will ever match JT giving Russell his Immunity Idol, complete with condescending letter on how it should be used. Oh, just thinking about it makes me hate the draining ordeal of Survivor: Nicaragua even more.
9) Human Target, Fox
The second season has been weakened by two new worthless chick characters and a network note to ratchet down the body count by, oh, a few dozen. But those first twelve episodes from last winter/spring were one sustained high of testosterone, feature-level direction and knife sharp writing. Mark Valley plays bodyguard Christopher Chance as an amiable James Bond for hire, while Jackie Earle Haley’s shadowy Guerrero is both one of the more menacing and amusing characters in all TV.
10) The Pacific, HBO
As a huge fan of Band of Brothers, this sequel ten part mini-series wasn’t really doing it for me – it all felt too familiar – until episode five when the action shifted to PFC Eugene Sledge, beautifully underplayed by Joseph Mazzello, and the ferocious battle of Peleliu. This was also where we met Sledge’s comrade in arms, the soulful but intensely messed up Snafu, in an Emmy worthy performance by Rami Malek. For almost the remainder of the series, Sledge and Snafu were our two guides through a hell even us WWII nerds barely comprehended. The stunningly recreated battles were as graphic and chaotic as a filmed drama could make them, but what really packed a punch was the final episode, entitled “Home,” where the war’s psychic and spiritual cost finally hit full force. It was purely devastating television that even outdid Band of Brothers for sheer impact.