Friday, September 10, 2010

Best TV Shows of 2009-2010 Season

On the eve of the new television season and a full summer under my belt to catch up on some shows, why not take a look at the best TV shows from 2009-10. I mention it every year I do this list, but I never understand why critics do a best of television list at the end of year in December when a lot of the shows have not completed their seasons. I take into account shows that premiered from June 2009 and wrapped up by May 2010.

10. Archer (FX)

Animation is the perfect medium for pushing the boundaries that live-action television shows are usually confined to. Years after the heyday of Beavis and Butthead and South Park, it's nice to know that it's still finding ways to appall and offend while still making you roar with laughter. Archer, FX's first serious venture into animation, is centered around the title character who is an immature yet seemingly capable secret agent and the rest of the employees at the agency, which includes his overbearing mother, who also happens to be his boss. The retro visuals give the show a flashy old-school feel and the scripts are filled with raunchiness and sharp one-liners, but the main appeal to the show is the excellent voice cast they have, which includes H. Jon Benjamin, Jessica Walter, Chris Parnell and Judy Greer. It's some of the best comedic talent currently gathered on basic cable today.

9. Community (NBC)

Being someone who was born in the early 1980's and developed a huge love for pop culture while growing up, I get joy from the many references that Community throws in. Luckily, the show is more than just winking nostalgia and derives most of its laughs from the smart fast-paced jokes and the zany energy that the cast brings to each episode. Joining a season with a fairly strong slate of new shows, I felt that Community sometimes slipped under the radar since it lacked the ratings and any nation-uniting zeitgeist moments, but as the season went on, the episodes became more audacious and Danny Pudi gave one of the most enjoyable comedic performances on TV from week to week as Abed, an off-kilter pop culture savant/film student. The rest of the cast is no slouch either and given some time I'm sure they'll be universally recognized as one of the funniest on television. Those who watch on a regular basis already know this to be true.

8. Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains (CBS)

Twenty seasons on and the show that ignited the reality TV craze had one of its best editions ever. The last time I included Survivor on my list was for Micronesia which brought back fan favorites and pitted them against superfans of the show. By once again bringing back some of its most memorable contestants, Survivor became mandatory viewing on a weekly basis. The concept of putting the show's "heroes" against the "villains" put an interesting psychological spin on the game since contestants bought into those roles while others fought against them and added new elements of strategy. Just about everything worked for this season, including the all-star cast, the clash of personalities and the always exciting blind side. I can barely recall a dull moment and as it is with the best seasons of Survivor, this season was wildly unpredictable.

7. The Good Wife (CBS)

Sometimes it's easy to overlook how good a show is when it's so consistent. The Good Wife breaks no new ground and seems out of place in a television landscape that includes more ambitious offerings from cable, but the quality of a piece of art should not be undermined simply because it doesn't follow current trends. Starring Julianne Margulies as the wife of a disgraced district attorney caught in a public scandal while also balancing a return to practicing law herself, The Good Wife is a throwback to the kind of dramas that used to close out weeknights for a network. There are continuing storylines, but one could just as easily find something to enjoy on any given episode, which is how most dramas used to approach things before they became the heavily serialized affairs they are today. I used to often give a disclaimer when discussing this show saying that it didn't do anything new, but looking back it was probably unnecessary. Shouldn't a show with superb acting and writing simply be worth anyone's time?

6. Lost (ABC)

Past seasons have been more insane as far as the reveals and there have certainly been bigger emotional pay-offs, but the final run of one television's most discussed shows still went out as a winner in my opinion. Throughout this season, Lost continued to do what it's always excelled at: balancing action with intriguing character development. There isn't much that I can say that I haven't already said about past seasons, but I will say that I was pleased with how it all ended. Of course, Lost has had more intense endings to seasons, but the show stuck to its guns by still having people ask questions even after the show was done. Lost has always purposely been a show that's been open to multiple interpretations, so it would make sense that things didn't end in an exposition heavy manner. Sure, the journey was exciting, but it was the journey of the characters' inner strife which has been the focus from the first episode. I've always felt that discussion about the arts is healthy and it's not too often we come across a piece of popular work that incites so much debate. We've come to expect so many things to be explained to us as a culture that if a series or film does not make things clear, we think it has failed us, but we should never be afraid to be challenged and use our independent thoughts. Lost was one of the rare pieces of work that got masses of people to do that and for that it should be commended.

5. Parks and Recreation (NBC)

The problem I had with the first season of this show was that it simply wasn't funny. It wasn't depressingly unfunny the same way that Kath & Kim was, but with the potential involved on the show, it should have been better. During its second season, Parks and Recreation fulfilled that promise. While it still shares the same beats and style of its cousin, The Office, P&R staked out its own individuality by making Leslie Knope, the lead character played Amy Poehler, less of a Michael Scott-type and more of a naïve, ambitious go-getter and letting the rest of the idiosyncrasies of the supporting cast shine. A full twenty-two episode season allowed for characters to be developed more as individuals and the show became smarter overall. While 30 Rock and The Office are showing signs of fatigue, Parks and Recreation quietly became the funniest show on NBC's Thursday night line-up.

4. Southland (TNT)

Poor NBC. The Jay Leno Show experiment nearly killed the network and stalled any chances for properly developing the rest of their fall line-up. One of the casualties that doesn't get talked about as often is how Southland, which I felt was one of the best shows last season also, was canned by the network before even airing an episode of their second season. It made it to the fall schedule, but NBC felt that they would be better served by keeping Dateline NBC in that Friday timeslot. With limited space available to move around Southland, it simply met an untimely demise until TNT stepped in and aired the six episodes that were already filmed. As a mid-season replacement in the spring of 2009, Southland only aired six episodes in its first season as well, so it will be interesting to see how they develop their plots over the next ten installments when it returns in January. While I'm positive the show can still be powerful with a slightly longer season, I can't help but feel that six is its lucky number. With such a limited amount, Southland was able to deliver a strong impression with each new hour without once feeling like it lost steam. The more I watched it, the more it felt like one of the most distinct cop shows currently on television. There is a tone of tension hanging in the air throughout each episode until it all boils over in an intense scene that either makes your heart race faster or completely breaks it. It's an exercise in how to capture a consistent mood and smartly place climaxes. Southland is simply one of the best at doing that. NBC's loss has been TNT's gain and ours.

3. Dexter (Showtime)

One of television's most addictive shows took its thrills to new heights in its fourth season. In other hands, this show could easily be simplified and run the motions a standard procedural, but one of the things that's so great about Dexter is its ambitious storytelling aspirations. There have definitely been more highbrow ideas on television than having a serial killer who kills nothing murderers, but with a heavy focus on the title character's constant inner turmoil and tightly written plotlines, Dexter is that rare show that turns entertainment into an art. Each twist that came was shocking, but it was logical and set up beautifully with care and detail. This season also benefited from the presence of John Lithgow, who turned in a fantastic performance as a methodic serial killer and Dexter's rival and reminded us that once upon a time he made a great living off playing creepy bastards.

2. Mad Men (AMC)

At this point in Mad Men's run, the characters are so perfectly developed and detailed that with almost each gesture or line of dialogue they make, I can't help but smile sometimes and be impressed because it's such a Don thing to do or a Pete thing to say. The reason it makes me smile is because the simple details go a long way to breathing life into the characters and making them feel like actual beings and not something designed solely for our entertainment. Mad Men has always been a show with a strong voice and tone, but it's now working at a point where everything is so finely tuned that's it's easy to lose yourself in the show because the world they've created is so realistic yet poetic. While JFK's assassination predates me by a couple of decades, the fear, anxiety and despair that the characters go through made me feel that things would have played out in a similar fashion if I had ever been unfortunate enough to live through such an event. Characters responded in ways that were natural to them and even if they immediately seemed shocking to the viewer, it nevertheless felt appropriate. Just how good is this show? As much I adored the JFK episode, it wasn't even close to my favorite from this season (that would be the season finale, "Shut The Door, Have A Seat").

1. Modern Family (ABC)

The best comedies are usually the ones with the most well-rounded characters and not simply with the best gags. Think of how a lot of the jokes in The Office are purely reaction shots to how characters respond. If you see Stanley rolling his eyes or Creed looking bewildered at something in particular, it's hilarious because you're familiar with the character, but to someone who's never seen the show they might not get what's so funny. Modern Family works in much the same way where responses and reactions deliver a good deal of the laughs—which is impressive for a freshman show to accomplish so quickly—but whether you joined in on the pilot or midway through the season, the one-liners were always sharp and delightful. The combination of smart writing and a strong sense of the characters keeps Modern Family ahead of other TV shows because it does not require you to know a ton about the characters beforehand to appreciate it, but if you do, it is that much more enjoyable. And why wouldn't you? The family sitcom—all of us have loved at least one at one point or another—has been dying a slow death for the past decade, but this show has somehow managed to reinvigorate the genre by updating it for the 21st century by shooting in a docu-style, using a diverse cast and borderline offensive jokes. That right there is a big enough accomplishment, but context aside Modern Family still delivered more big laughs than any other show I watched during the season.

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