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The Runners Up: More of 2010's Very Good, Pretty Good and Decent TV Shows

by Maureen Ryan, posted Dec 9th 2010 4:00PM
And now, may I present: The Runners Up.

These are shows that, for whatever reason, didn't make my Top TV of 2010 list. Some were in contention for that roster, but below, you'll actually see a few different categories:

  • * The Best of the Rest (shows that were, at one point or another, in contention for my Top TV of 2010 list)
  • * Honorable Mentions (shows that weren't in contention for my Top TV list yet have much to recommend them)
  • * Shows that were on my Top 10 lists in previous years but which didn't make the cut this year
  • * Shows with good elements, episodes and/or casts which were, at times, intensely frustrating
  • * Shows I occasionally watch and enjoy to some degree but don't seek out every week

Hopefully this doesn't come off as a case of "Everybody gets a trophy" gone amuck, but rather, a way to commemorate a wide range of shows that had my attention at various times in 2010. Quite a few of you, in the comment area of my Top TV post, shared your own Top 10 lists (thanks for that!), and also wanted to know why certain shows weren't on my list.



I'm not sure I can reply to or address every comment, beyond saying that everyone's tastes are different and every TV viewer will have their own take on what worked (or didn't) this year. In any case, here are short assessments of a few dozen additional shows that I thought were worth a mention of one kind of another.

The Best of the Rest (shows that were, at one point or another, in contention for my Top TV of 2010 list):

'Archer,' FX:
This comedy developed into one of the most joyously surreal, smutty and intelligent comedies on television. Those three adjectives don't often go together, but this witty spy spoof has an addictive and unique voice all its own. I can't wait until it returns Jan. 27.

'Ashes to Ashes,' BBC America:
This British spinoff of the UK 'Life on Mars' is an affecting meditation on memory and loyalty and an exciting cop story too, and the chemistry between the leads, the terrific Philip Glenister as Gene Hunt and Keeley Hawes as the scrappy out-of-time cop Alex Drake, is off the charts.

'Doctor Who,' BBC America:
New head writer Steven Moffat's antic imagination and new lead actor Matt Smith's rubbery versatility were a lovely match in their first season of 'Doctor Who.' Add in the ace support of Karen Gillan (Amy Pond), Alex Kingston (River Song) and Arthur Darvill (Rory Williams), and you have a recipe for sci-fi fun of the highest order. (Don't forget, a 'Doctor Who' Christmas special airs Dec. 25.)

'Friday Night Lights,' DirecTV and NBC:
This lovingly made, well-acted chronicle of life in a small Texas town takes time to build up its stories each season, but I can be sure of one thing: It will make me cry. Anyone who saw Zach Gilford's astonishing episode, 'The Son' will agree about the show's ability to earn profound emotional moments.

'In Treatment,' HBO:
Self-absorbed, neurotic and depressed New Yorkers have never been more fascinating than they are on this show, and every season Gabriel Byrne offers a master class in the nuances of thoughtful reactions.

'Justified,' FX:
U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens is an old-fashioned man in a new-fashioned world (he wears a big hat and looks at Blackberries as if they carry communicable diseases). It makes sense that 'Justified' was a celebration of old-fashioned storytelling as well -- meaty plots, excellent dialogue, relationships and story lines that took time to pay off but were highly enjoyable along the way.

'Louie,' FX:
Louie C.K. is endlessly curious about why life works the way it does, and the places he follows that curiosity, in the short films that make up this show, often end up being surprising and very amusing. Plus the standup scenes that punctuate the show often have me doubled over with laughter.

'Men of a Certain Age,' TNT: A shaggy yet eminently enjoyable chronicle of new chances and old habits colliding in middle age. Worth watching if only for the diner scenes, which the terrific cast plays like a great jazz band.

'The Pacific,' HBO:
A harrowing examination of war and the costs paid by the men who fight it, and also an old-fashioned, big-ticket spectacle, the kind that nobody in the TV business makes anymore. Nobody but HBO, that is. A moving, well-made tribute those who survived the hell that was World War 2's Pacific Theater.

'Sherlock,' PBS:
A whizbang, intelligent re-imagining of the classic detective tales, with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman perfectly cast as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.

'Supernatural,' CW:
As I said in one of my first long pieces about the show, this is a show about feelings. Say what? It's not about ghosts and vampires and menacing fairies? Well, yeah, sort of, but 'Supernatural' uses all those critters to examine knotty questions about family, love, devotion and, this season, what it means to have a soul. This funny, smart, impressively acted show successfully deploys the conventions of the supernatural genre but also flips those constructs on their heads in a (usually) successful effort to create a well-crafted character drama with real depth.

'United States of Tara,' Showtime:
This underrated Showtime program offered some very pleasing character drama in its second season. Not many shows care about depicting women's domestic lives with any kind of depth, thoughtfulness or emotional accuracy, but in its second season, 'Tara' was the exception to that rule.

'The Walking Dead,' AMC:
The first six episodes of this zombie drama felt like a tasty appetizer course. More, please. As a non-horror fan who is not steeped in zombie lore, I nevertheless found myself reeled in by this tale of apocalyptic survival, thanks to the humanistic themes the show examined within sturdily plotted stories.

Honorable Mentions (shows that were not in contention for my Top TV list yet have much to recommend them):

'Big Bang Theory,' CBS:
There's something to be said for reliable formulas executed very, very well. A solid, well-made slice of traditional comedy that rarely fails to supply a few laughs.

'Chuck,' NBC:
Oh, 'Chuck.' The NBC show is capable of sensational episodes like 'Chuck versus the Beard' and 'Chuck versus Phase Three' (how I loved both of those episodes), but it's also, at times, sloppy, repetitive and frustrating. Yet the good outweighs the bad, so I'll never quit the Buy More. When this show is cooking, it's very tasty indeed.

Conan's final 'Tonight Show' episodes, NBC:
The whole 'Tonight Show' kerfuffle put a fire in Conan O'Brien's belly and he came out swinging; his final hours on NBC were electric and extremely enjoyable.

'Damages,' FX:
An old-fashioned, noir-flavored melodrama, classed up to the nth degree by a fabulous cast and swank New York locations.

'Dollhouse,' Fox: The last episodes of this Joss Whedon drama aired in 2010, and what trippy, interesting outings they were. On my fantasy television network, which exists only in my brain, Whedon is adapting 'The Hunger Games' for a really good cable network. I know, it's just a dream, but isn't it an awesome one?

'How I Met Your Mother,' CBS:
A show that has had its share of ups and downs, yet the new season has demonstrated renewed vigor, there's more 'HIMYM'-ish creativity afoot and the cast is still very enjoyable. But bring back Robarney!

'Human Target,' Fox:
A fun action-adventure hour, which is finally deploying its terrific cast in ways that show off their many enjoyable qualities.

'Law & Order: UK,' BBC America: This British chip off the old 'L&O' block understood that the whole thing doesn't really work unless the cast is outstanding. Between the classic old-school scripts (adapted for London use) and this show's top-shelf cast, this was the thinking person's procedural and definitely my cup of tea.

'Lone Star,' Fox:
RIP. Don't stop swinging for the fences, broadcast television. Please.

'Luther,' BBC America:
A terrific cop show that perhaps went a bit over the top near the end of its first season, but what a ride it turned out to be. Highly addictive, and not just for Idris Elba's galvanizing performance.

'RuPaul's Drag Race,' Logo:
There's a lot of serious TV on these lists, and serious TV is fab, when done right. But sometimes, the drama created by Ru and her fabulous drag queens is wonderful antidote to all the dark doings on other cable networks. It's not just good, old-fashioned reality-TV fun: There's a surprising amount of heart in 'Drag Race.'

'Warehouse 13,' Syfy:
It's not rocket science (they leave that to 'Eureka'), but this show about a secret warehouse and the strange objects and ragtag team inside it is frequently a lot of zippy fun.

Shows that were on previous years' Top 10 lists but which didn't make the cut this year:

'Nurse Jackie,' Showtime:
It still has a terrific cast, headlined by the ever-wonderful Edie Falco, and it got a better grip on what works about certain supporting characters in season 2. But by not paying off season 1's finale in any meaningful way and by continuing to let Jackie get away with substance-abuse murder for most of the season -- well, it just seemed as though the show was committed to not taking its lead character anywhere new and different, and that proved frustrating. Let's hope that isn't the case in the show's third season.

'Sons of Anarchy,' FX:
'SOA' tried a very different story line this season, and if it fully worked for you, that's fabulous. Though there were scenes, moments and performances I liked, and though I'm all for shows not resting on their laurels and repeating themselves, for me, too many of the Season 3 story lines felt extraneous or mechanical. But the season finished in a generally strong fashion, and where things are headed in Season 4 looks interesting.

'True Blood,' HBO:
Where to start with where this show went wrong? It'd take less time to enumerate the things that worked (Denis O'Hare, Joe Manganiello. See, that didn't take long). What didn't: Overstuffed, repetitive plots that went nowhere fast, characters and stories that took the train to Crazy Town (with little dramatic payoff in the end), a complete lack of any kind of identifiable reality, and an almost humorless approach to what should be soapy fun. This is the season in which 'True Blood' crossed the line from overwrought to frustratingly overdone, and if the show continues in this hyperspastic direction, color me done.

Shows with good elements, episodes and/or casts which were, at times, intensely frustrating:

'The Big C,' Showtime:
Laura Linney is an incredibly gifted, warm actress, and this new iteration of Showtime's "woman in crisis" formula had some nicely calibrated elements, especially Cathy's relationship with her cancer doctor (an effectively understated Reid Scott). So many other elements of the show, however, felt forced, grating and awkward that I gave up around the season's halfway point. Maybe I missed out on good stuff later in the season, but no show with this many flaws deserves endless patience. I'll check back in when it returns, but with a wary eye.

'Glee,' Fox: Every time 'Glee' gets nominated for something or wins another award, I wince. Every awards-giving body out there appears to be determined to reward one of the sloppiest, most slipshod and self-indulgent shows on TV. Yes, I'm hard on 'Glee,' because when it takes the trouble to be mildly coherent (and that's really all I ask), it can be quite wonderful. But given that the show frequently seems to content to throw character, story, snark and some musical selections into a blender and hit "Frappe," I find myself less and less willing to put up with its tiresome chaos and unearned self-regard.

'Treme,' HBO:
This show's rigid obsession with getting every detail "right" often derailed the dramatic momentum, and that's pretty ironic for a show about a city (New Orleans) that prizes improvisation. There were also some characters and story lines that never pulled their weight, and the stilted preachiness of certain aspects of the show was a turn-off. Yet the performances of Khandi Alexander, Clarke Peters and Melissa Leo made sticking with this show worthwhile, as did the vivid, heartfelt celebrations of New Orleans' culture and creativity.

Shows I occasionally watch and enjoy to some degree but don't seek out every week:


'Bones' (Fox):
I've warmed up to this Fox procedural, but it's on a killer night and I don't see it often. These days, I have more of a sense of what its fans see in it, more than I did in the past, but I'm not an addict. Still, 'Bones' hits the procedural spot every so often (quite often in the summer, when I am more able to catch cable reruns of it).

'Castle' (ABC):
The Fillion! I need a few fixes every year, and this fun (but very slight) show provides them.

'Community' (NBC):
On my Top TV of 2010 list, no show provoked more "Why?" questions in the comment area. Look, I completely understand being in love with a show and wanting to others to love it as much as you do. I find myself in that position all the time. And while I appreciate that many find comedy nirvana in 'Community,' for me it goes into the "sometimes mildly amusing, sometimes not so much" category. The mega-meta pop culture references, the show's hyper habit of pointing out what it's doing every few minutes and the characters' lack of depth -- all these things hold me back from truly embracing 'Community' and digging it as much as, say, 'Parks and Recreation.' As Ryan McGee said in a recent post, when it comes to 'Community,' "I don't enjoy being unable to un-see the marionette strings at work." But I appreciate the verve with which it's made, and I check in on 'Community' regularly, because sometimes it makes me laugh. And that's a good thing.

'It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia' (FX): Twisted, wrong and idiosyncratic, this show isn't consistently hilarious but it's often good, unclean fun.

'White Collar,' USA: USA's formula-driven shows can seem very same-y and eventually unsatisfying, but this show's deft cast (and especially Matt Bomer's irresistible eyes charm) make the formula go down easier.

Update added Dec. 10:

'30 Rock,' NBC: Once I know what's in a show's bag of tricks, and the charm of those tricks starts to fade, it's easy for a show to fall off my weekly viewing schedule. I check in on '30 Rock' every so often, and usually find it amusing, but it hasn't been a must-see for me for a while.

Shows I used to love that have fallen off my radar and aren't likely to get back on it:

'Dexter,' Showtime:
You can tell me all day long that Michael C. Hall is a great actor. And I will agree with you. But this is a show that needed an end date even more than 'Lost' did, given its plausibility issues, and it seems content to cycle through the same few stories every season. If it still works for you, great, but I've simply reached my limit with 'Dexter.'

'Grey's Anatomy,' ABC: Yes, I heard it is having a good season. Sorry, but once it fell off my viewing roster, I just found it hard to get Seattle Grace back on my TV rotation. I've added 'Grey's' to the long list of shows I feel guilty for not watching.

'House,' Fox: Love Hugh Laurie. Love Robert Sean Leonard. But the show evolved into something I'm not interested in, and if that new formulation floats your boat, awesome. For me, I'm content to recall the old-school 'House' I used to love and give the new version a pass.

Favorite Web series:


'The Guild' Season 4,
watchtheguild.com: Another satisfying season of the Web's funniest and best-written online series.

'Childrens Hospital'
(formerly online, now on Cartoon Network): A vociferously silly parody of medical-show cliches with a very skilled cast of comedy veterans.

'Backwash,'
Crackle.com: A funny, slapstick-y road-trip comedy with a great cast (including Josh Malina) and a series of amusingly annoyed narrators.


Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.

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Melanie

Most of my top ten is here -- the ones that made it onto your top 10? Not so much. To each his own, right?

Have a great holiday, Mo! I always enjoy your take on TV, whether I agree with it or not. :)

December 19 2010 at 4:29 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Kimmer

I agree with a lot of those.

I love RuPaul's Drag Race! You're right. It is full of heart. Glad to see it on your list.

I dropped my pay channels this year, so am behind on Dexter and True Blood. I've heard questionable things about both shows this past season, so am cautiously waiting for the DVDs.



December 17 2010 at 10:30 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
yimhappy

OMG - A reviewer spoke the truth about Glee!! And Dexter!! Now I'm a fan of Maureen's for life. :-)

December 17 2010 at 2:50 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
rah

Bored to Death!? Great cast, original ideas, and pretty much hilarious!

December 17 2010 at 1:04 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Caterina Pryde

I can't believe you reference Eureka, just a great SF show, and then it doesn't end up on any of your lists!! pout.

December 17 2010 at 10:14 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
yousillygoose

BLAST YOU.

Whedon + Hunger Games = Epic Television

And now I have to mourn the fact that this will never happen.

December 14 2010 at 8:08 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Grand Sophy

What a delightful roundup of the year's television in these two columns. Please don't feel guilty for not watching any one particular show; karmawise, it's more than balanced by your thoughtful and heartfelt comments on the shows you do watch. Here's to a great 2011!

December 12 2010 at 3:27 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Amber

I was sad that Supernatural didn't make your top TV for 2010 this year but I am very glad it was in contention at one point. As for Grey's I've seen some episodes from this season. I've also managed to see some last season. In all honesty it's a show I end up seeing on DVD.

As for Bones it ended up moving into the position of watching every Thursday night if possible. So I suppose it'd be okay to do my own belated top tv for 2010 in these comments? Yes great...

Supernatural
Bones
Fringe
Leverage
Ice Road Truckers

Uh...I guess I have a short list. Then straight on to ones I see on DVD especially for 2010.

Grey's Anatomy
House (when I am in the mood)

Yep, that's everything. No wait ones I don't watch anymore.

CSI
Smallville
Vampire Diaries (a small possibility I'll watch again)

Now, that's all I've got for the shows. Thanks for your lists Mo.

December 10 2010 at 8:22 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Lisa

LOVED [H]OUSE from the very first episode. Do I enjoy 'Huddy'? No. But I stay with the show for one reason, and one reason only, and that is for HUGH LAURIE. BRILLIANT, AMAZING, actor that I just can't take my eyes off when he is on screen. I feel very blessed to be able to partake of his gift. I feel sorry for those that are missing out.

December 10 2010 at 6:19 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Stacy

Wow, you really seem to dislike Community since you have way more negative things to say about it then positive. Can you just do us a favor and just stop watching it. I'd rather you not watch it then watch and and feel superior that you can see the strings working that all us fans are to stupid to see.

And by the way you are just WRONG about the chacters lacking depth.

December 10 2010 at 6:13 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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