What a strange year it's been for television.
2010 saw the departure of fan favorites such as Lost and 24, which made way for the arrival of some truly middling programming better to be forgotten. Even such critical hits such as FX's Terriers failed to click with viewers, rendering much of the fall season dead on arrival.
Even in a creatively barren year like this one, there were still some superlative programs that reigned at the top of the heap—shows like Mad Men, Community, Friday Night Lights, The Good Wife, and Boardwalk Empire, to name a few—that challenged the status quo of television or offered imaginative takes on tried-and-true staples.
While it's true that we saw the broadcast networks largely develop this year's programming with a certain amount of fear, that sort of mindset doesn't typically produce creative rewards. The shows here represent what happens when the networks—broadcast or cable—are willing to take risks and ask both themselves and the audience to embrace complexity, ingenuity, and daring.
The flip side is that it was difficult, in a year overflowing with so many terrible shows, to pick the worst of the worst. To that end, I've balanced my picks for the best of 2010's offerings with the five shows from the very bottom of the barrel.
Mad Men (AMC)
Season 4 of AMC's searing period drama began with a simple enough question—" Who is Don Draper?" —but it took an entire season for the answer to that question to materialize. Throughout conflict with his ex-wife, Betty ( January Jones), troubles with fledgling agency Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, strife with daughter Sally (Kiernan Shipka), the loss of confidante Anna (Melinda Page Hamilton), and an unexpected proposal to his secretary Megan (Jessica Paré) during a whirlwind California trip, a magnifying glass was held up to Don Draper (Jon Hamm) as he attempted to regain his inner compass in the midst of life-altering change. Under the watchful eye of creator Matthew Weiner, the show examined the weight of Don's choices, his efforts to come to terms with his past and reconcile his present, even as it offered him a series of options: bachelorhood or marriage. Emotional instability and blackout drunkenness coexisted side-by-side with moments of genuine connection between Don and protégé Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) and potential closure between Don and Betty, meeting one last time in the house they once shared. Poignant, heartbreaking, and surprisingly funny, Season 4 of Mad Men once again affirms that this show is this decade's standard-bearer for quality.
Wildly inventive and extraordinarily imaginative, Community continues to push the boundaries of what is possible within the confines of the broadcast network comedy. While this show could have been standard sitcom fare—it revolves around a group of diverse community college students—creator Dan Harmon and his talented writing team have elevated this concept in unexpected ways, delivering unpredictable and absurd comedy that offers up everything from zombie attacks, outer space missions, paintball wars, conspiracy thrillers, to stop-motion animated Christmas specials. But despite the larger-than-life and out-there adventures, the core of the show lies in the heartfelt and human: connections between individuals, deep-seated emotions, and thwarted dreams. At one moment hysterical, at another heartbreaking, Community challenges the viewer's expectations of comedy and the format itself, layering meta references throughout the narrative and both inverting and embracing comedic tropes. In the end, it's the show's inherent intelligence, gonzo spirit, and beating heart that make Community an utterly irresistible addiction.
Boardwalk Empire (HBO)
It seemed a match made in (television) heaven: Martin Scorsese, Terence Winter, and the birth of organized crime in 1920s Atlantic City. In its freshman season, Boardwalk Empire incisively examined the first rumblings of those mob stories that Scorsese and Winter have both told so well, catching an array of diverse and flawed characters in its glittering net. With Prohibition in full effect, bootleggers, mobsters, politicians, widows, killers, g-men, and soldiers descended on the Jersey Shore for this story of sin, redemption, temptation, and excess. Violent and provocative, Boardwalk Empire's story isn't all sawed off shotguns and brutal beatings. Rather, it's an intoxicating examination of greed, corruption, and vice, exploring just how much sin each of these characters can live with in the end, from the compromising relationship between Steve Buscemi's deep-pocketed treasurer Nucky Thompson and Irish firebrand Margaret Schroeder ( Kelly Macdonald) to war-torn Jimmy ( Michael Pitt), a Princeton dropout-turned-hitman, and his bohemian girlfriend Angela ( Aleksa Palladino), dreaming of a life in Paris. Hearts melt, break, and harden as the characters learn the hard way the true price of a drink. Beautiful and powerful, this is virtuoso television-making of the highest order, a period drama whose impact stretches right into our modern lives.
Ted Griffin and Shawn Ryan's scrappy private investigator drama may have only run for one season but the fact remains that the 13 episodes are pitch-perfect, offering a combination of buddy comedy, conspiracy thriller, cop drama, and relationship therapy. Donal Logue and Michael Raymond-James' Hank and Britt might just go down in the history books as one of television's best rendered partnerships, their "too small to fail" work ethos propelling these two way over their heads into a land-grab scheme that turns their Ocean Beach community into a bloodbath as the bodies start piling up. Its first few episodes were more like a standard crime procedural, and set up an engaging and tense masterstroke of plotting as the clues came together, relationships imploded, lines were crossed, and lives ended. Throughout it all, Hank and Britt—and their families and friends (including Kimberly Quinn, Laura Allen, Rockmond Dunbar, and Jamie Denbo)—continued their downward spiral, even as they attempted to do the right thing. The cancellation of Terriers is truly television's loss; its gritty vision, off-kilter humor, and immense heart will be missed.
Friday Night Lights (DirecTV/NBC)
If you still think that Friday Night Lights is just about small-town Texas football, you're missing out on an emotionally resonant drama about life's passions, the mistakes we make, and the formative experiences that shape us. A portrait of dusty Dillon, Texas, Friday Night Lights continues to mine provocative fare—teenage abortion, criminality, class warfare, drug abuse, race relations—within the context of a sports drama, creating a microcosm with which to explore society at large. At its very center remains the marriage between Kyle Chandler's "molder of men" Coach Eric Taylor and Connie Britton's extraordinary Tami, the most affecting picture of marital life ever to grace the small screen. Just when you think the bond between these two is unbreakable, their resolve is tested by the errors made by their daughter Julie (Aimee Teegarden) and how each of them deals with the fallout. Family, honor, duty, pride, it's all at play within this remarkable and unforgettable drama, which will soon wrap up its fifth and final season.
Parks and Recreation (NBC)
Offering both a love letter and a knowing wink to small town America, Greg Daniels' and Michael Schur's Parks and Recreation delivered a superlative second season that went against conventional comedy wisdom. Broadening the show's focus and creating a true ensemble comedy, the writers eradicated the empty pit that provided the series with its initial plotline, pushed Amy Poehler's Leslie Knope into a series of uncomfortable political and personal circumstances (see: gay penguins), and threw together Ann (Rashida Jones) and Mark (Paul Schneider), only to have them break up by the season's end, all while delivering an unexpected tertiary romance between sullen April (Aubrey Plaza) and loveable doofus Andy (Chris Pratt). Smart, savvy, and containing one of the best all-time characters ever to grace TV in Nick Offerman's Ron Swanson, Parks and Recreation is a comedy at the top of its game that's not afraid to deal with hot-button issues (gay marriage, recession politics) within the format of mockumentary comedy. The result is a winning combination of snark, heart, and nuance that captures the essence of Leslie's hope-springs-eternal optimism.
While Fox's trippy thriller Fringe (sadly, relegated to the Friday night scrapyard come January) started out its life as an X-Files-like procedural, it's transformed into a compelling sci-fi drama that asks tough questions about identity, sacrifice, and sin. In its second season, Walter's quest to save the life of his dying son offered an opportunity to examine themes of forgiveness and grace as a father's love ignited a literal war between two worlds. By offering a glimpse into an alternate universe, the show's writers held up a mirror to the characters, displaying what might have been for each of them. But even with the high stakes and a possible apocalypse looming, the show has wisely focused on the interior lives of its three lead characters, Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv), Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson), and Walter Bishop (John Noble), creating a fractured family of outcasts, united by their attempts to pierce the veil of the improbable and the impossible. The result is a hard-hitting drama that deals with the unknowable impulses of the universe and of the human heart itself.
The Good Wife (CBS)
Disguised as a legal procedural, The Good Wife is a deftly serialized drama that examines societal mores via marriage, technology, politics, and the media. Julianna Margulies' Alicia Florrick, meanwhile, has morphed from the dutiful wife of her scandalized politico husband Peter (Chris Noth) and into her own woman, as she continues to be torn from her vows to Peter and her feelings for her boss Will (Josh Charles). While Alicia might be the titular character and the audience's entry point into the series, creators Robert and Michelle King have given each of the show's sprawling ensemble their own storylines, from the teenage children of Alicia and Peter (Graham Phillips and Makenzie Vega) to sultry investigator Kalinda Sharma (Archie Panjabi), her dangerous rival Blake (Scott Porter), the firm's partner Diane (Christine Baranski), and slick political operator Eli Gold (Alan Cumming). The result is one of the most finely acted and tautly written dramas on television, one with an adult perspective when it comes to relationships and sex. Provocative and thought provoking, The Good Wife proves that the broadcast networks aren't totally out of the quality drama game just yet.
Modern Family (ABC)
Steve Levitan and Christopher Lloyd's family comedy has continued to blossom into one of the year's true joys, a smart and funny comedy that doesn't pander to the audience nor go for the easy gags. Instead, it's a nuanced portrait of an extended and blended family, each with their own trials and tribulations, reinforcing the notion that one needn't be a traditional nuclear family in order to suffer the same traditional humiliations and embarrassments. With such deliciously memorable characters in the mix, the show's talented ensemble cast brings their finest to the screen each week, resulting in a series that's high on heart and humor but connects with each of us in a wholly unique and personal way. We might be a Mitchell or a Claire (or even a Phil!), but we can each sympathize and reminisce with the way in which Modern Family's episodic plots unfold. It's the television equivalent of a warm blanket and a mug of alcohol-laced hot chocolate.
In Timothy Olyphant's Raylan Givens, television has a true lawman on its hands, a cowboy hat-wearing U.S. Marshall who is as quick with his gun as he is with a well-placed quip. Based on novelist Elmore Leonard's character and created by Graham Yost, Justified casts Olyphant as a fantastically anachronistic character, a lawman out of time who would be more at home in the Wild West than battling meth cookers and drug kingpins in Kentucky. Returning to his Harlan County hometown, Raylan has to contend with an ex-wife (Natalie Zea), a career criminal father, and his former best friend Boyd (Walton Goggins), now the town's most dangerous man. Can this lawman save his hide and win the heart of the beautiful Ava (Joelle Carter)? Or does his tin star take precedence over his own personal wants? Brash, violent, and atmospheric, Justified transports the viewer to the hills of Kentucky, a place where lawmen are honorable and soft-spoken but where the justice is swift and unmerciful. This is one show that hits the bull's-eye every time.
Conveyor Belt of Love (ABC)
If you blinked last January you may have missed this one-off reality dating special, which might just represent the nadir of reality television, along with E!'s soul-killing plastic surgery/wedding makeover show Bridalplasty. Taking their cue from Japanese conveyor belt sushi, men were given 60 seconds to make an impression on a group of women before being whisked away on an actual conveyor belt. (See, it's not just a clever name!) This being an ABC dating series, the contestants ranged from the stereotypically "hot" to the transcendently weird and off-putting. Trashy, exploitative, and just downright creepy/gross, this trainwreck of a television show took the dating sub-genre to realms only previously glimpsed on such jaw-dropping shows as The Swan and Are You Hot?. Fortunately, it only took one date for ABC to dump this monstrosity.
Perhaps a controversial choice, Glee represents the failure of a buzzed-about show to live up to its full potential. Glee has complacently jettisoned story, logic, and three-dimensional characterizations while embracing the ADD-like attention span of its adherents, resulting in a show that's frustratingly inconsistent and faux-deep. For all its trumpeted guest stars (Gwyneth Paltrow! Carol Burnett!) and Billboard chart-ready musical covers, the show has yet to provide a real emotional hook, always leaning towards the saccharine rather than merely sweet and treating its characters as archetypes rather than individuals. While the beat goes on for this ratings hit, serious cracks are beginning to form in its sugary façade.
NBC's workplace comedy Outsourced offends on a number of levels: it attempts to mask racial stereotypes in the guise of cheap humor; its placement on the Thursday night schedule bumped the far superior Parks and Recreation from the fall lineup; and, perhaps most crucially, it's just not funny. Based on the adorable 2006 John Jeffcoat feature film of the same name, Outsourced attempts to wring laughs out of Indian call centers, cultural confusion, and spicy Indian food! Perhaps in a more economically stable time, that might be cause for hilarity, but the very real loss of so many American jobs at the moment makes me scratch my head when I think about this insensitive show, easily one of the fall's worst offerings. Fortunately, it's getting bumped to the 10:30 p.m. timeslot come January.
Happy Town (ABC)
ABC's desperate attempt to recapture the magic that was Twin Peaks resulted in this laughably awful nighttime soap that brought a kitchen sink mentality to its plotting, throwing overt supernatural motifs, murder mystery plotting, eccentric small town characters, Grand Guignol horror, and clunky comedy into the mix. The sight of poor Sam Neill mugging it as a creepy movie memorabilia salesman was just one of the atrocities perpetrated by this terrible farce, advertised intentionally as emanating from "the network that brought you Twin Peaks." Any comparisons to David Lynch and Mark Frost's masterpiece is clearly a fever dream brought on by too many dancing dwarves, solemn giants, and hours thinking up the series' "Magic Man." Happy? Not at all, especially as ABC also brought out just as forgettable dramas Scoundrels and The Gates at the same time.
Skating With the Stars (ABC)
ABC's attempt to cash in on the cachet of its reality mega-hit Dancing With the Stars backfired completely with this ice-cold arrival, based on British format, Dancing on Ice. Despite the fact that Fox tried and failed years ago with this very same set-up (that would be 2006's flop, Skating With Celebrities), ABC tried again to resuscitate this format with Skating With the Stars. As viewers fled in droves, stars such as Sean Young, Bethenny Frankel, and Vince Neil continued to skate their little hearts out. Get your skates on for this dull reality series? Thank you, but no.
Jace Lacob is The Daily Beast's TV Columnist. As a freelance writer, he has written for the Los Angeles Times, TV Week, and others. Jace is the founder of television criticism and analysis website Televisionary and can be found on Twitter. He is a member of the Television Critics Association.