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There are now so many television channels – and so much programming – that Sturgeon’s Law [‘90% of everything is crap’] may apply, but it’s no longer relevant! Now, with hundreds of channels to choose from, it’s virtually impossible to not find at least thirty or forty really good programs. I know because I watch about that many on a semi-regular to regular basis – and there are many more that I check in on from time to time.
Here then, are my favorite shows of 2010:
15. Covert Affairs [USA Network]: spy tales are currently really popular, so it makes sense that USA would add a second spy series to their schedule. Covert Affairs is a vehicle for Piper Perabo, who plays rookie CIA agent Annie Walker, whose language skills and a past relationship get her pulled out of the academy early. Christopher Gorham [Odyssey 5, Jake 2.0] is Auggie Anderson, the blind tech whiz who befriends her – and has her back as we learn that there is more to her being activated than just her ability to speak a half dozen languages fluently.
The series is generally very well written and full of big [for TV] action set pieces. It is witty and smart enough to have attracted a stellar cast that also includes Kari Matchett, Peter Gallagher, Anne Dudek [House] and Sendhil Ramamurthy. The series, from creators Chris Ord and Matt Corman, is also executive produced by Doug Liman [The Bourne Identity] and the result is a fast-paced show that uses authentic details to ground its episodes in reality even as the series builds a mythology that is something else, entirely.
14. Tower Prep [The Cartoon Network]: The X-Men meet The Prisoner. The series is centered around four students at a seemingly inescapable, mysterious prep school that is an island entire of itself – three of whom are there with their parents’ knowledge. Each of these students is ‘different’ – they each have an extra ability [the ability to mimic any voice/sound; hyper-effective persuasion; the ability to read body language to an extent that seems like telepathy; the ability to sense what’s about to happen and use it to one’s advantage] – that makes them unique. The purpose of Tower Prep is supposedly to train the leaders of tomorrow to use their abilities to the fullest, but why, then, are there such obstacles to leaving – even for a weekend?
The series deals with subjects like individuality, free will and more. As a series for kids and young adults, it certainly goes beyond the call. It’s better than many network and cable shows that get a great deal more press – and it’s the second live action show on The Cartoon Network, which is serving notice that they are players.
13. Doctor Who [BBC America]: The Eleventh Doctor [Matt Smith] began his run as a weird echo of Doctor Ten [David Tennant] before smoothly evolving into his own man… er… Gallifreyan. From his relief, upon emerging, that he was neither a girl nor ginger [a redhead], right up until the season finale – which felt a bit like The Marx Brothers Meet Tex Avery, by way of Robert A. Heinlein – Smith’s Doctor felt like a cockeyed force of nature.
Amy Pond [Karen Gillan] was suitably unimpressed, most of the time, and either rescued The Doctor – or inspired his actions – enough times to make her one of his most interesting companions, ever – and she’s a redhead [they had to get ginger in there, somewhere]. Amy’s boyfriend, Rory [Arthur Darvill], added something unique to the show when he became an Auton – and a regular – towards the end of the season.
New showrunner Stephen Moffatt bright back all of The Doctor’s toughest foes for the first part of the season finale, but rather wasted the Weeping Angels [from ‘Blink’] in their return engagement – otherwise, the series would have ranked higher on this list.
12. Leverage [TNT]: Mix a grifter, Sophie [Gina Bellman], a hitter, Eliot [Christian Kane], a hacker, Hardison [Aldis Hodge] and a thief, Parker [Beth Reisgraf] with a mastermind and former insurance investigator, Nate [Timothy Hutton] and stir well. Now fold in capers that rival the best heist flicks – and crazy improvisations when plans fail [as they often do] – with a Robin Hood sensibility. Let the ingredients simmer gently over the course of an hour and you have Leverage. Sometimes the best good guys are bad guys.
The concept of bad guys turned good is not new; neither is the basic heist flick conceit. The trick is in the telling – and Leverage excels in the telling. Mixing in classic cons with various types of bad guys who exploit the weak – and writing to the strengths of the diverse and not completely compatible cast of characters – give the series plenty of ideas. Whether standalone episodes or season-long arcs, the writers of Leverage do a great job of balancing character development with action.
Leverage is another series that doesn’t pretend to say stuff but just provides a hugely entertaining hour – and does it with panache.
11. Pretty Little Liars [ABC Family]: The four best friends of a murdered girl start receiving text messages from someone with her first initial. Pretty Little Liars is a hugely entertaining [there’s that phrase again] teen soap that swings for the fences in terms of both mystery and soapiness. It is sexy, quick witted and subversive. The secrets that slowly reveal themselves are usually doozies and the cast is pure primetime soap gorgeous. The only thing ‘family’ about this series is that it’s on ABC Family. More entertaining than the rapidly dulling Greek or the recently canceled 10 Things I Hate About You, Pretty Little Liars is to its genre what Kyle XY and The Middleman were to theirs. If you like darkly twisted fun, with a dash of sexiness and melodrama, check this one out.
10. The Good Wife [CBS]: Alicia Florrick [Julianna Margulies] builds a career as a defense attorney after her husband is sentenced to jail for political corruption – on top of cheating on her! From that base, The Good Wife has taken an interesting tack on the traditional lawyer series. With husband Peter [Chris Noth] now out of jail and running for office again, the series moved into soapier realms without ever seeming tacky [though Peter frequently does]. With the addition of Alan Cumming to the cast as Eli [Peter’s political advisor/campaign manager] and Michael Ealy as a new partner in the firm, the series has exceeded the quality of its first season by becoming edgier and more dangerous – emotionally and otherwise.
9. Burn Notice [USA Network]: What do you get when you combine Jim Rockford with MacGyver? Burned spy Michael Westen [Jeffrey Donovan], who finds himself stuck in Miami with no visible means of support and a lot of enemies anxious to remove him from their memories by removing him, period. Determined to find out who burned him, and clear his name, Westen takes on odd jobs helping people who have been victimized by various types of criminals. He is aided by ex-Navy Seal Sam Axe [Bruce Campbell] and ex/future girlfriend and former IRA explosives expert Fiona Glenanne [Gabrielle Anwar], fellow burned spy, Jesse Porter [Coby Bell] – who was actually burned by Westen] – and, occasionally, his manipulative mother, Maddie [Sharon Gless] and grifter brother Nate [Seth Petersen].
Westen’s dry and very witty narration provides insights into spycraft and, occasionally, what he really thinks about his family and the people he works with. The show is moderately fast paced and frequently features movie quality action set pieces and stunts – plus, Miami!
Considering the situations in which Westen frequently finds himself, I find myself wondering just how dark a show has to get before it’s no longer considered part of USA’s ‘blue sky’ tone – but then Sam has another mojito and gets another land-bound yacht of car from an admiring middle-aged woman and…
8. Dexter [Showtime]: Before I’d read the first Dexter novel, I heard about a strange new series that Showtime was developing – about a serial killer who worked as a blood spatter expert for the Miami-Dade police and only killed serial killers. I was both intrigued and repulsed. Then I read Jeff Lindsay’s remarkable Darkly Dreaming Dexter and became a fan. Now my only fear was that Showtime wouldn’t do the book justice. My fear was unfounded.
Dexter has been one of cable’s strongest series for its five-season run and season five may have had the hardest act to follow in trying to come up with a story to match season three’s Trinity Killer [John Lithgow]. Instead of trying to match that brilliant arc, the show’s writers dealt with Dexter’s reaction to losing his wife and having to be a single dad to three children while working a full-time job and answering the call of his Dark Passenger [as he refers to the part of him that makes him kill].
The introduction of Lumen [Julia Stiles] gave him a protégé and provided the unique situation of Dexter having help in his nocturnal adventuring. The season also put him in the position of suspect [in Rita’s death] and, more or less, resolved that, as well. Michael C. Hall has continued to be excellent as self-proclaimed monster Dexter throughout.
The Batiste/LaGuerta marriage was a bad idea, but a minor inconvenience in the grand scheme of things. Dexter is still the best series on Showtime.
7. Nikita [The CW]: Seriously. The series as a kind of sequel to the movie/previous TV series, with Nikita [Maggie Q] now a rogue agent who escaped the top secret government agency Division [itself gone rogue] and working to bring them down. In order to do that, she has enlisted the aid of Alex [Lyndsy Fonseca], a street kid of dubious background. Alex has been ‘recruited’ by Division and is in place to provide Nikita with intelligence about Division’s operations.
Division is run by the amoral Percy [Xander Berkeley] and his key personnel are the stoic Michael [Shane West] and uber-geek tech whiz Birkhoff [Aaron Stanford]. Nikita was Michael’s first protégé and they became lovers, which makes things awkward for both when they encounter each other in the course of various ops. Michael looks at Alex as his chance for a redo – minus the emotional entanglement.
Nikita is currently the best series on The CW and would be at home on any other network.
6. NCIS [CBS]: My favorite procedural, NCIS is a show that I try to catch in real time as much as possible. Why? Because the characters are interesting – and much better developed than on most other procedurals. Plus, the reliance on forensics is leavened by an equal reliance on experience and instinct. It’s also a show that features two very strong female characters in forensics expert Abby Sciutto [Pauley Perrette] and former Mossad agent/probationary NCIS agent Ziva David [Cote de Pablo]. Also, NCIS is not the best known alphabet agency in the world [possibly ranking ahead of The Mentalist’s CBI for recognition]. Plus, NCIS investigates crimes that involve/relate to the Navy and Marines but is a civilian agency – not a military one].
5. Rubicon [AMC]: The ultimate conspiracy series, Rubicon was richly layered and probably too complex to survive. It didn’t help that the show was deliberately paced and took its time to carefully layer its plot arcs and develop its characters. The cast was ridiculously good – especially James Badge Dale and Arliss Howard – and the writing demanded that the viewer paid attention throughout.
In a world where most successful TV series move at a pace that is guaranteed to hold the worst sufferer of ADHD, Rubicon must have driven a lot of potential viewers crazy.
4. Breaking Bad [AMC]: This season, Walt White [Bryan Cranston] finally reached a point where he could no longer rationalize his criminal activities and admitted to his wife, Skyler [Anna Gunn] that he was making crystal meth to provide for his family once his terminal cancer removed him from the scene. His partner in crime, Jesse Pinkman [Aaron Paul], took control of his life and acknowledged he was ‘the bad guy.’
Characters who had been developed at a slower pace – like Hank Schrader [Dean Morris] and Skyler – finally blossomed into the complex and interesting people they were meant to be.
The writing sharpened even more [if that’s possible] and new regulars – Gus [Giancarlo Esposito], Saul Goodman [Bob Odenkirk], Mike [Jonathan Banks] – made it possible for the show to veer in unexpected directions, leading to an explosive final shot for the season.
3. Boardwalk Empire [HBO]: Lust, greed, treachery – these are the prime motivation behind the unlikely protagonist of Board walk empire, Nucky Thompson [Steve Buscemi]. Nucky has Atlantic City in his hip pocket: by day appearing at gathering of the women’s Temperance League to decry the evils of booze, while being a nightclub going, bootleg booze provider at night [and on the days when he’s not being accosted by member the League]. He is also lord of all criminal activities in town including gambling and prostitution.
The series, which claims Martin Scorsese as an executive producer [and director of the pilot], is an example of what HBO does best: a cinematic series revolving around characters of unsavory background/activities in a real world where they, too, are subject to the problems that arise in anyone’s life.
Buscemi makes an unlikely crime kingpin – at least in a hit TV series. Truth to tell, the show might be even more popular if there was someone of equal talent but better looks than Buscemi but then, even with everything else remaining exactly the same, Nucky’s life would seem less of a challenge – less requiring a keen intellect and less intriguing.
2. Lost [ABC]: The six season serial came to a close in 2010 and left most of its audience giddy with delight at the show’s final revelations – a sizable portion, though? Not so much. No matter how you look at it, though, Lost is a remarkable achievement: a novel for television – and only second to actual tell its complete story [Babylon 5 was both the first story to attempt this – and the first to succeed].
From its opening shot, to its final, mirror shot, Lost wove a complex story that asked big questions – about the nature of good and evil; do we have free will, or is everything predestined; what is it with those numbers, anyway? To make us care, the show presented us with beautifully developed characters whose flaws and strengths made them unique among ongoing shows.
Over the course of its run, Lost answered many of the more prosaic questions it asked, but left more than a few unanswered – kinda like life. Unless a particular combination of circumstances – amazing concept; brilliant writing, acting, directing; and an open-minded audience – come along again, we will probably not see as grand an experiment as Lost on television again.
1. The Walking Dead [AMC]: Funny thing – AMC’s new series, about the survivors of a zombie apocalypse, manages to be more about living life well – and what kind of life can be lived in a zombie apocalypse – than about zombies eating the living [though there’s more than enough of that – in graphic detail].
Deputy Sheriff Rick Grimes wakes up in a deserted hospital and staggers home to find his family gone and bodies everywhere. He learns that the dead have begun to get up and stalk the living. He finds his family and a small group of other survivors and they try to stay alive. That’s pretty much it for plot.
The rest of the series is in the questions. What does it mean to be human? Is there a point at which abhorrent crimes [like murder] can be justified when every living person could be crucial to the survival of the group? Is there, in fact, such a thing a good, or evil?
In its first six-episode season, Frank Darabont [The Green Mile] has brought to life a series that is unique and absorbing. It is never less than smart, but most often, it’s brilliant. The zombies stand in for all sorts of things: disease, lack of civilization, elemental appetite and so much more.
It may never be another Lost [Robert Kirkman, creator of the comic book on which it is based, says he has no planned ending], but it is already something as special: a series that Says Stuff without really seeming to, while entertaining up a storm.
Honorable Mentions: The Big C [Showtime], Chuck [NBC], The Event [NBC], Justified [FX], Louis FX], Mad Men [AMC], The Mentalist [CBS], Rescue Me [FX], Supernatural [The CW], True Blood [HBO], and White collar [USA Network].