I’m going to leave rating the best new shows to someone who gets to watch all of them for a living—I feel like I missed some potentially good new television shows simply by having to make choices between one show and another on any given night (or given DVR capabilities, choosing four shows to record out of the best possible dozen on a given night). So instead, some thoughts on the nine best seasons of television of the year—whether a show is in season 1 or 12, it could make this list if it gave viewers a season to remember or relish this year.
Justified (returns to FX in February)
If you didn’t catch the first season of Justified, you missed some of the most surprisingly good television of the year. I was going to say the show quietly revealed itself as the best law-enforcement show you’ve never heard of, but a little bit of internet research reveals that the show’s pilot actually drew in an FX-record audience of 4.9 million viewers. So I guess it revealed itself fairly publicly.
Timothy Olyphant is captivating here as Federal Marshall Raylan Givens, a “peace keeper” with old-west sheriff sensibilities (he IS in many ways Seth Bullock from the excellent Deadwood but the character here has his own nuances and more of a sense of humor about the world he’s trying to threaten into submission at gunpoint). The show is sharply written and sports an excellent supporting cast, but the best choice on the part of the writers was to center the season’s story arcs around Givens’ struggles with a long time friend and nemesis, Boyd Crowder, played by Walton Goggins so perfectly that you root for him to escape the law’s clutches just so he won’t be written out of the show (which doesn’t look likely based on the clever twists lying in wait for you at the end of the first season).
Almost every episode of this show sports a fun gunfight, and even the handful that don’t offer such sharp dialogue that it feels like you’ve witnessed an exchange of gunfire anyway. The show also deftly balances independent episodes with compelling master storylines; the first season had outstanding episodes which focused on both (the chase to hunt down a violent philanthropist dentist [yeah, you read it right] is a fantastic self-contained hour of television while the final three episodes are a compelling ongoing storyline revolving around the ways in which characters change and yet remain the same and the prices to be paid for both. If season 2 continues the trend, this could become the best underwatched show on television.
Fringe (returns January 21st on Fox—moving to the Friday time slot)
It’s still surprising to me that this show is struggling with the ratings—it’s a J.J. Abrams creation, it has cinema-quality special effects and some of the best characters on television (including THE best character currently on TV in the form of Walter Bishop, thanks mainly to the personality nuances and ticks that John Noble lends brilliantly to the character), and even when its freakish plotlines stumble in execution, they represent some of the most unusual storylines and offbeat concepts since The Twilight Zone (go sit on an alien probe, Outer Limits). But struggle it has, and now many are speculating that the move to a Friday time slot is the doctor shaking his head at the nurse just before calling the time of death.
However, as pointed out in The AV Club’s most recent review, the show probably snags pretty big ratings when DVR numbers are factored in, and perhaps Fox is willing to let the show fill that Friday time slot long-term (if no one is watching then anyway, whatever DVR viewers are along for the ride will continue to watch, and they have to run SOMEthing there anyway). If it is cancelled, it will be one of the great tragedies not only for science fiction television, but for television drama in general.
The show follows a team of “Fringe Division” government investigators who are in charge of finding answers when something inexplicable, paranormal or supernatural occurs. If that sounds too X-Files to you, then rent season 1 and see where the similarities end. For one thing, the X-Files was mostly cold and humorless where Fringe often wears its heart on its sleeve, and offered genuine laugh-out-loud moments to cut the tension of even its darkest episodes. Consider also the pleasure of the x-factor of Noble’s Walter Bishop, a man who spent 12 years in the looney bin, prior to which he was a modern-day mad scientist who developed (mostly successful) methods for everything from interrogating dead bodies to transporting people between two universes. He’s the loose cannon centerpiece which allows Fringe Division to get anywhere with any case, but he also sets in motion the phenomenal multiple-episode cat-and-mouse game between the two universes which has highlighted this season.
Without revealing endless master story points, it’s hard to convincingly sell the latest season of this show (which technically spills over into 2011). Instead I’ll make you a promise about this show: I promise it’s the only place where you’ll find a mad scientist who keeps a cow in his lab just because he loves a fresh glass of milk now and then, a love triangle that spans two universes, a gruesome dance-of-the-dead performed by a soon-to-be-reanimated corpse, an alternate universe where zeppelins roam the skies and unstable regions lead to the implosion of entire city blocks, a savant who can cause complex catastrophes using a mind manipulated to become a supercomputer, and a secret radio broadcast which occasionally blasts a frequency causing amnesia in any listener. Keep in mind that all of that is happening beyond the harrowing main plotline this season.
Before you accuse me of shilling for FX on this list, let me come right out and say that the show preceding The League, the inexplicably popular It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, was terrible for the 3-4 episodes I watched it. It featured leads who clearly found themselves much funnier and more likeable than they actually are and really didn’t do much for me that other “oh my God, they just said that!?” shows in the past had already done—it’s a concept that’s past its prime. But I suppose I owe it a debt of gratitude because I have no doubt that its strong viewer numbers leading into The League have everything to do with its success.
The League is also a somewhat raunchy comedy; much of the humor comes at the expense of one character or another and the best exchanges of dialogue are splatter-painted with savagery and every nickname you can think of for genitals and the things you can use them for (including a few things you probably never thought of). It also truly is a show about a fantasy football league—this isn’t just a backdrop. Their discussions of teams and players are accurate and lend a very specific brand of humor to a lot of the show’s best sequences (possibly the best being in the season premiere when Ruxin “rosterbates” while smack-talking the draft board about how smart each of his draft picks was and in the process refers to Eli Manning as a “God damn mouth breathing idiot” which, again, I told you this show knows football).
The show is full of talented comedians and from week to week it’s hard to say who will steal the best moments. Nick Kroll as Ruxin has the most consistently funny moments, but Paul Scheer as Andre gets a ton of mileage out of his sad sack character. Mark Duplass and Stephen Ranazzissi carry their share of the load as well, and the interactions (some seemingly only semi-scripted) between them from week to week often have to be rewound after the first round of laughter subsides. Taco, played by Jonathan LaJoie, of internet song fame, is a nice off-kilter touch who lets the show roam away from football and into more surreal places.
This season saw improvements in almost every area, and any given episode would probably sell you on the show (or at least convince you to watch a couple more episodes), but if you only get one chance, check out the second episode where Ruxin interrupts a bondage session with his wife to try and complete a draft trade that would make his fantasy season. To stop the unethical trade, Pete and Andre break into his bedroom and steal his computer and the three of them argue silently and vehemently while his wife lies blindfolded on the bed asking Ruxin what’s taking so long. The silent comedy here is phenomenal and the scene escalates to a climactic moment that had me as close to tears as anything I’ve seen in a comedy all year. It’s a great moment that puts on display the strength of the show’s devoted balance of realism and utter ridiculousness and the multitude of talent on display from the entire cast.
Friday Night Lights (NBC/DirectTV—it’s complicated)
The complex network dealings that allowed FNL to survive past its first couple seasons are a testament to its quality. There have been many critically acclaimed shows with highly devoted fan bases which major networks have canceled without flinching. FNL continues to suffer from poor ratings and a fan base which is microscopic in the TV landscape. Unlike many great-but-doomed shows though, FNL found some of its strongest fans inside of the studio—NBC seemed hesitant to cut short such an outstanding human drama, especially knowing that anyone who gave it a chance would A. realize it’s not really a drama about football at all, even though the sport matters to the characters and B. continue to tune in religiously because the show is too good to turn away from once you meet the characters (ANY of them—and the show has featured a couple dozen in its first few seasons). The result was an unprecedented compromise (that will hopefully become the precedent for saving future series which fail to find an immediate audience): DirectTV bought the rights to air each season first, presumably to draw the biggest fans into changing cable servers, and NBC would air the “reruns” in their normal Friday time slot for the show the summer after it completed its “original” run. Though its days are now numbered (in a literal sense—the show runners know their end date and are planning down to a proper resolution accordingly), the plan has allowed for the show to build one fantastic season on top of another, each following, loosely, the football seasons at East Dillon High School.
This season is not a standout from the show’s other excellent season runs, but as usual it builds upon strong character relationships (there has never been a more realistic married couple than Coach Eric Taylor and his wife Tami in the history of television—I’m more certain of this with every episode) and long-view storylines. This past season (not the currently airing one if you’re a DirectTV viewer) saw the gorgeously tragic end of several compelling relationships and friendships, as well as the redrawing of boundaries between friends and rivals (Coach Taylor running the new football team at a rival school being chief among them). On top of that, it continued to exemplify what FNL’s writers are best at: creating new and compelling teenage characters with real lives and problems and embedding them in a town that feels so lived in that you might drive through it the next time you take a road trip (I’d never leave if I could find this place, but that’s partially because I have a huge crush on the coach’s wife). Among this season’s standouts was the addition of the excellent Michael B. Jordan (you should know him as Wallace from The Wire) as Vince. The season doesn’t flinch at several difficult controversies and devastating moments and balances them with some of the show’s best emotional highs to date (which I won’t spoil here, but Buddy is involved in one of my favorite moments EVER this year). If the show can maintain this pace and degree of excellence through the finality of its run, it will be the most tragically under-seen drama in network television history.
Mad Men (AMC)
The return of Mad Men this season was the most anticipated return of any show for me—the core characters had left us reeling last season with the decision to break ties with their agency and start up their own upstart ad agency. Despite the fact that they brought Pete along (pause while I grumble under my breath about that sonuva…), the move was a phenomenal cliffhanger and a logical maneuver based on the crossroads these characters found themselves at. For me, this show’s best moments have always revolved around the goings-on inside the world of advertising during these golden years. This season more than delivered on that front, mixing sharp tongues, clever humor, and absolutely nasty in-office scuffles to create a cocktail of tension, careening momentum and levity that left you hung over through most of the week leading up to the next episode (which made it hard to get through any of Roger Sterling’s vapid biography during the week…).
The unexpected and exquisitely handled secondary storyline this season followed Don Draper’s sense of self-discovery, or re-discovery, or other-self-discovery or something to that effect. Jon Hamm has always played Don with a firm tone and a singularity of purpose, but this season his hints at more nuance beneath the surface lent a lot of credibility to the moments where we witness not only chinks in his armor but genuine vulnerabilities we might have guessed at but never got to see. In perhaps the season’s best episode, Don and Peggy discover much about one another’s modi operandi while locked in Don’s office working on a deadline (and to the show’s credit there’s a constant edge of sexual tension to the episode which is never acted upon but soaks every frame anyway—most shows can’t accomplish that when they’re TRYING to do romance).
The season was full of surprises and unexpected turns, which, for better or worse, were part of what made the season so successful. Many viewers vented frustration about one issue or another, but ultimately that, too, is a measure of a show’s quality. We can debate and diverge in opinion on Don’s romantic choices, Peggy and Joan’s (poor Joan this season!) methods of survival in the office and Betty Draper’s ongoing sophomoric shenaniganery, but that’s because this season saw change, growth, setback and triumph for a full cast of characters so fleshed out as real people that their decisions and actions took on weight and consequence that was hard to shake off, especially on a Sunday night.
Community (8:00 Thursday nights on NBC—returns in the new year)
For outright success, I’d actually argue that the first season of Community was slightly more impressive. After three or four shaky episodes, the show took off and showed a confidence in its characters that other comedies might never establish. The crispness of dialogue and surprisingly successful warmth and sincerity of character moments contributed to the overall success of a very young and ratings-challenged show. Whether all of that played a role in its renewal (for a full 24-episode season, no less) is difficult to say, since NBC certainly doesn’t have a very deep bag of tricks to pull from. If Outsourced came out of that bag, then I think they need to burn the bag and give up magic entirely.
So why is this season of the show making this list? One word: Ambition. There have been a couple episodes of this season which have only been marginally successful (the space-simulator-KFC-winnebago gambit was mostly a stumble, for example), but the fact that the show has aimed so high is impressive. In one season they’ve parodied zombie and horror films, pulled off a “bottle episode” where the five main characters spend an entire episode in a single room, dropped a dead-ringer of a Rankin & Bass holiday episode on us, and found ways to develop character relationships more deeply on top of it. And oh yeah, Betty White talking about urine. If you type “ambition” into Google, I wouldn’t be surprised if it asked “Did you mean Betty White + urine?”
The show has polarized NBC Thursday comedy viewers to some extent; many just don’t seem to “get it” and find the show annoying. With its amped up pop-culture sensibilities and constant meta-humor at the expense of all things sitcom, it clearly isn’t for everyone. But in its attempt to be and do so many things, it has also grown to embody that cliché of having “something for everyone”. If you’ve only seen the show once, you probably haven’t seen enough episodes to get a feel for it, and if you’ve watched it more than once, you’re probably already hooked.
Boardwalk Empire (HBO)
Steve Buscemi has deserved this role for a long time. He has lent the color and personality to films which would have otherwise fallen flat and been the spark of unnerving oddness in otherwise mundane stories. At his best, he represents the perfect marriage of well wrought character and nuanced, unique acting. But for all of the pleasures of watching him comfortably inhabit the outcast, marginalized figure (Ghost World, Fargo, pretty much everything else he’s in), it has been wonderful to watch him inhabit a confident, empowered, central figure in this series. To his credit (and no one’s surprise) he has inhabited the role gracefully and effortlessly. Scorcese’s casting of the lead here is the entire key to the show’s success (in fact, it covers for a mixed bag in terms of supporting cast—while seeing Omar of The Wire inhabiting a likeable if not-to-be-screwed-with role again is a joy, some of the younger cast members are trying too hard and their baby-faced glowering gets old).
Besides Buscemi, this show’s real draw is the richness and depth of Scorcese’s locations and underworlds. The street scenes in Chicago and elsewhere are worth rewatching: The details of authentic shop fronts and vistas are a marvel to behold (and shot with an expert eye for aesthetic appeal) and the dark, lush richness of speakeasies and excessive décor of the rich and powerful drench every frame. It lends weight to the world of the storyline and if it over-glamorizes the 1920s and the life of bootleggers and gangsters, it does it in a way that seems easily forgivable. In fact, the first few episodes of the show were burdened with heavy exposition and the introduction of minor characters whose faces we’d need to recognize later. While some of this was compelling, it’s fair to say that what kept the intrigue alive for the first few episodes was not the goings on of seedy underworlders or the innocents caught up with riff raff, but rather the beautiful world they inhabited; a backdrop which was quickly (and properly) put in its place by compelling story and a wealth of interesting characters as the season wore on.
Parks and Recreation (NBC)
Parks and Recreation was a marvel in its second season. Though not the best comedy on television, it became appointment DVRing (who shows up at scheduled time anymore?) for those Thursday night NBC fans who stuck out the first season. Unfortunately, that demographic represented a miniscule portion of the viewership the show might have had if it hadn’t stumbled so immensely in its first season. What the show’s writers should’ve known from the starting gate (especially with the once-stellar The Office as a simple model and lead-in) is that for a show like this to function and be consistently funny (which is to say, a show about a group of people confined to an office space and therefore joined together by circumstance as opposed to choice) it requires the main characters to like and respect each other at some level. Instead, the show inexplicably portrayed an office setting where the likeable-if-annoying Leslie Knope was constantly hassled by her libertarian boss and openly derided by her underlings (none of whom demonstrated much in the way of appealing personality in season 1). The show faltered and the standout character became the goofball boyfriend of a minor character (that’s right, a minor character’s infrequently featured boyfriend).
To the show’s credit, EVERYTHING reversed course in the second season. Knope continued to be a plucky do-gooder, but her boss suddenly had a soft spot for her idealistic development projects and general eccentricity (and in a master stroke we got an ingenious peek at why: He himself has a few eccentricities of his own, most hilariously his octogenarian-melting alter-ego moonlighting gig as saxophonist “Duke Silver”). Of equal importance, Knope’s underlings and the office in general suddenly seemed to develop the ability to care about something besides their individual interests. As it turns out, a cheesy sitcom trope was the key to resurrecting the show’s off kilter humor and oddball characters. April, Andy, Jerry and the rest of the office each got moments to shine in every episode of the season, highlighted by a hunting trip that stands alone as an exemplary episode of what this show is capable of doing on a consistent basis now that it’s found its legs. The question is whether it can recover from the poor ratings it has slumped into—and it probably isn’t a great sign that NBC relegated its new season to January, replacing it in the lineup with the despicable and truly horrific Outsourced. Consider this if you’re on the fence: The show brought on Rob Lowe as a cast member this season and despite his charms (which I’m told he has, apparently) the show would do best to jettison the recognizable face in order to allow more screentime for the new faces who have improved upon their characters so completely that the camera seems to search for them any time Lowe or other non-essential characters take up the frame.
Despite the naysayers who found David Simon’s new project rudderless in the early going, Treme represents another impressive success for the creator of The Wire. I’m tempted to say the two shows share a formula, but there’s really nothing formulaic about Simon’s work. He simply has an uncanny ability to cram cameras into every crevice of a subculture and locale and make it all crackle and hum with energy and authenticity. On The Wire the result was thought provoking and devastating to watch. Here there are equally devastating moments (the imagery of post-Katrina New Orleans speaks for itself, but Simon’s choice of shooting locations certainly lends a hand). But where The Wire betrayed a sense of hopelessness in the face of social oppression, Treme is a show about hope, resiliency and a culture that refuses to drown even after its only home is bathed in a filth that destroys many of its most beloved haunts.
Simon wisely brings aboard the best of The Wire cast to play the most notable roles on the show—Wendell Pierce (Bunk on The Wire) is a natural here as a trombone player/philanderer who seems especially displaced by the “new” New Orleans and Clarke Peters (the inimitable Lester on The Wire) fully embodies the old soul of a New Orleans native here. The rest of the cast is equally up to the task, with John Goodman and Steve Zahn stopping just shy of sinking their teeth into the scenery.
The show’s imagery and music are so constantly the centerpiece that the character arcs seem like a bonus (which is why complaints of a “rudderless” beginning seem frivolous—who needs a rudder when your boat is floating through such an astonishing lagoon? Enjoy the damned view!). There are beautiful moments sprinkled throughout, most of them tied deeply to the music of the city. The soundtrack is carefully chosen and simultaneously presents an accurate cross section of the musical flavors of the region while highlighting songs with enough mainstream appeal (you won’t recognize most of it if you aren’t a jazz aficionado, but you’ll be checking for the song titles and artists in the closing credits). For an hour of television highlighting a region devastated in a manner unparalleled in modern US history, it’s incredible that all of my memories of the first season are of warm hues, up-tempo music and vibrant characters. It’s an achievement worth witnessing.