Last year, when I did my top 10 list for 2009, I also listed a lot of honorable mentions. I didn't realize how many -- 20 -- till an online editor gently chided me about it. What can I say. Last year was a good year for TV, and it carried over into this year -- but not all the way.
The new crop of fall shows on broadcast TV was especially lackluster, with the most promising show (Lone Star) getting zapped after two episodes and the second-most-promising (The Event) coming close but never quite living up to its promise. Hawaii Five-0 was a hit, Raising Hope and Detroit 1-8-7 started getting some buzz (which didn't always equal ratings), but otherwise, most of the fall excitement came from cable shows such as The Walking Dead and Boardwalk Empire, both examples of shows I found myself liking, not loving, even though both are landing on year-end lists elsewhere.
Still, there's a lot of good stuff out there (there's a lot of junk, too) -- way too much for a top 10 list. This list represents shows that kept me coming back for more, either sustaining or creating their creative momentum.
Friday Night Lights, NBC
1 A strange case, because some Season 4 episodes originally aired in 2009 on DirecTV. But I'm convinced that most people who watch this drama, which had its best season yet, watch it on NBC, where they got to see stories that tackled racial issues, abortion, sacrifice, finding your way after high school and the young-adult realization that you can love a place, even though you've spent most of your life looking forward to leaving it. Available on DVD.
Mad Men, AMC
2 Mad Men's writers found new life in the series by coming up with the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce agency, a scrappy startup made up of Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and his colleagues from the larger, more corporate advertising world. This season saw a lot more holes in Draper's cool armor, climaxing with an impulsive decision that's sure to drive Season 5, as well as maturing of upstarts Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) and Pete (Vincent Kartheiser), who are becoming the most grown-up members of a firm known for bad behavior. Kudos also to young Kiernan Shipka, who gave the child performance of the year as Don's messed-up little girl.
Breaking Bad, AMC
3 Bryan Cranston continues to deserve his Emmy wins for playing Walter White, the chemistry-teacher-turned-meth-maker who continued to go down darker roads in the show's third season. The rest of the cast -- fellow Emmy-winner Aaron Paul as Walt's partner in crime, Anna Gunn as his estranged and increasingly steely wife, Dean Norris as his blind-spot DEA agent brother-in-law -- keeps raising its game to Cranston's level. And the direction of TV's most cinematic show is worthy of comparisons with the vibrant visual styles of the Coen brothers and Sergio Leone.
The Pacific, HBO
4 More disorienting and bleak than its companion miniseries, 2001's Band of Brothers, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks' latest World War II miniseries illustrated how war is often about fighting for small strips of otherwise godforsaken land, and featured terrific performances from Joseph Mazzello (all grown-up from Jurassic Park), Jon Seda and James Badge Dale (who was also excellent in AMC's Rubicon). Also deserving of note is Rami Malek, who gave the year's most undersung good performance as "Snafu," a Marine with a really twisted sense of humor. On DVD
5 Donal Logue (who deserves, but won't get, an Emmy nomination) and Michael Raymond-James had great buddy-movie chemistry as two-bit private investigators in this far too-little-seen noir drama, which also had a great female supporting cast (most notably Laura Allen as Raymond-James' girlfriend), a creepy bad guy (Michael Gaston) and a plot that rivaled Chinatown and Raymond Chandler for complexity. This was the best of this year's one-season wonders, although Syfy's Caprica and AMC's Rubicon weren't slouches, either.
In Treatment, HBO
6 Ordinarily, the self-consciousness of this drama -- about a self-doubting therapist (Gabriel Byrne) who is as troubled as his patients -- would bother me: Every eye movement and preposition seems too meticulously planned out. But this isn't an ordinary show, and despite its dialogue-heavy scripts, it manages to show more than it tells, thanks largely to Byrne's marvelous slow-burn performance and the lovely acting of guest stars Irrfan Khan, Debra Winger, Dane DeHaan and, especially, Amy Ryan, as Byrne's own therapist.
7 Even though Elmore Leonard's novels seem ready-made for screen adaptations, most movie and TV versions haven't been able to get his tone down right. But this one, adapted from a Leonard short story, does, thanks to Timothy Olyphant's performance as laconic hero Raylan Givens, a modern-day quick-draw lawman trying to keep the peace in Kentucky coal country, and to the producers' and directors' ability to give the show such a strong sense of place. It doesn't hurt that Leonard is an executive producer or that The Shield's Walton Goggins is on board as a bad guy who discovers that there are people much more evil than he is. On DVD
8 This X-Files descendant -- about FBI agents investigating fringe science and getting mixed up with a parallel universe -- can be low-key to the point of solemn, which belies how much fun the writers are having with the alternative-universe plotline (fall episodes alternated between "over here" and "over there"). Star Anna Torv's formerly chilly performance warmed up a lot as she got to play good and bad versions of herself, and John Noble deserves an Emmy nomination for playing a haunted mad scientist who has a past -- and a more imperious, not-as-nice alternative version of that scientist.
9 Yes, the final season was erratic, and the show's philosophical bent could get murky, as could its world of flashbacks, flash-forwards and flash-sidewayses. But the show maintained its ability to be mind-blowing and moving to the very end, especially in the death scenes of ... Um, I won't spoil it for those of you who still want to catch up. All six seasons are on DVD.
Project Runway, Lifetime
10 After Lifetime managed to grab this show from Bravo, it went through a couple of lackluster seasons -- and then it got to this one, where it actually benefited from expanding to a 90-minute format, giving us closer looks at the contestants rather than using the extra time for mere padding. No, I don't agree with the judges' choice for the winner, either, but the series' reality-show drama -- including one contestant's disclosure that he is HIV-positive -- was at a new peak this year. Due on DVD Feb. 8.
Robert Philpot, 817-390-7872