On the Last Day of the Year: The Best Show of 2010 and Nine Other Good Ones

Unbelievably, we’re about to enter our third calendar year in existence.  It seems like just yesterday we were scrambling to put together our best of the decade lists (which makes sense, because we didn’t actually post one of those until this week).  In 2011 we hope to be even more timely, on-point and just plain better.  Until then, let’s try to end 2010 on a high note with our not-at-all anticipated Best Shows of the Year:

1. Community: This was an absolute no-brainer.  Far and away Community was the most original, ambitious, rewarding, warm, funny, creative, fearless show of 2010.  It was just a little over a year ago when the show delivered its holiday episode, “Comparative Religion” (featuring mustachio’d Anthony Michael Hall), and we began to feel then that the show was truly building towards something special.  When Community returned in January of this year it began what should be considered one of the greatest runs of any comedy series in television history, playing “can you top that?” with itself from week to week.  Solid episodes like “Investigative Journalism” with Jack Black,  “Physical Education” with a nearly naked Joel McHale, and the truly superb Goodfellas tribute “Contemporary American Poultry” culminated in the single best episode of 2010 across the board, the paintball-splattered, action movie homage masterpiece “Modern Warfare” (we know that we’ve already proclaimed the greatness of this episode, but it’s worth doing over and over again).

There was a danger of every week being a let down after that monumental achievement.  But Community refused to rest on its laurels and went on to basically deliver two excellent season finales, as NBC had previously added additional episodes to their original order (it’s worth noting that this spectacular debut season was spread out of twenty-five episodes, two or three more than the normal order, and yet the quality never seemed to suffer, never seemed watered down.  Just the opposite, in fact, the show appeared to grow stronger and more confident every week).  The twist in the official finale, “Pascal’s Triangle Revisited,” was especially brilliant, as the show continues to play with, abide by and simultaneously defy sitcom convention.

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What we learned from Community in 2010 is that it’s the show that Glee and Modern Family aim to be, but, when you peel back their outer layers, are not.  When those two shows premiered in the fall of 2009 we had every intention of writing a post expressing our disdain with the former and indifference to the latter.  To us Glee was a clumsy, sloppy, superficial, melodramatic mess that only had value in its musical performances.  And Modern Family was nothing more than a conventional family sitcom disguised in the mock documentary format, not really offering anything novel or original.  What really bothered us about those shows was how deliberate their choices of characters seemed.  For Glee it felt as if when brainstorming the characters they said “give us one of everything,” a jock, a cheerleader, a Black guy, an Asian, a gay, a kid in a wheelchair.  How progressive!  For Modern Family the process was a little more subtle, but similarly heavy-handed and disingenuous, “Let’s put together the ‘modern family,’ so we’ll have the normal mom-dad-3-kids family, and then the old patriarch with the hot young wife, and then a gay couple.  Never been done before!”  But, to us, it all feels very hallow and forced, with the archetypes taking precedence over the organic characterization.  Whereas with Community they’ve allowed the characters to develop, to become three-dimensional.  You could argue that they started in similar fashion as the two other shows, peppering the cast with such familiar stereotypes as the jock, the cool guy, the tough chick and the school girl.  But as the show progressed they allowed the characters to evolve beyond their labels.  The best example is Troy, who started as a dim-witted former high school football star, but, when the show recognized Donald Glover’s immense talent, transformed into a much more interesting, entertaining, and original character.  And you could make the same case for the other members of the study group.  In the pilot Abed was just a socially awkward weirdo, who might have as well have had “I have Aspergers” spelled out across his shirt.  But the show has done a tremendous job demonstrating why he is the way he is, and that, in many cases, he’s the sanest one of the bunch.  And, like Glee, Community has a multi-racial, multi-generational cast.  Except, in their case it feels like they chose the best actors first, whereas with Glee you get the impression that having a colorful cast was of greater import than finding the right actors.  In the end though, Community boasts the most talented, diverse, wholly unique cast on television today.

And since this list is about the best shows of 2010, not just the first half the 2010, we should emphasize that Community only continues to improve in its second season.  A drop in quality might have been understandable, even expected, but it continues to astound and delight, presenting some of its strongest episodes from either season.  And what’s so enjoyable about Community is that you never know what you’re going to get from week to week.  Whereas The Office mastered doing one thing really well (and hasn’t even done that lately), Community has attempted and succeeded in many different genres.  From just this season alone we’ve had the action movie homage (“Basic Rocket Science“), a Zombie apocalypse, (“Epidemiology“), surreal fantasy (“Aerodynamics of Gender“), a meta-religious parable (“Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples“), an introspective bottle episode (“Cooperative Calligraphy“) and a stop-motion Christmas special (“Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas“).  But in the end our favorite episode from this season is probably its darkest (and not because it took place in a dimly lit bar), “Mixology Certification,”   What we loved about this episode is that it proved that Community can be effective, entertaining, moving and brilliant without the bells and whistles and pop-culture references and meta-commentary.  This episode, taking place on the eve of Troy’s 21st birthday was a showcase for the characters, and, more than anything, a showcase for their flaws and fears.  It’s easy to win us over with Apollo 13 parody, but it’s much more impressive, and rewarding, to leave us satisfied with an authentic, challenging, and even maudlin story.  For a show that trades in pushing the limits of reality,  Community stands out as one of the most grounded shows on television.

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2. Parks and Recreation: The second season of this NBC sitcom rode shotgun with Community on Thursday nights, and while we disagree with most critics who think it was the strongest show of the night, it certainly seemed to surpass The Office, it’s de facto progenitor.  Improving off an uneven, but promising, first season Parks and Rec more than came into its own, developing one of the best ensemble casts on television and establishing itself as a consistent source for hilarity.  (which we predicted well over a year ago).  Most importantly, they figured out how to play Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope, giving her a bit more dignity and smoothing out her more cartoonish edges.  Now if they could just better utilize Rashida Jones.

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3. Party Down: When you look back, it’s a wonder that we even got a second season of this show (the fact that there was a first season is perhaps just as impressive).  As dark as dark comedy gets, and yet had an optimistic spirit buried deep beneath its morose, life is a dead-end exterior.  Another incredible ensemble cast, bolstered by pitch-perfect guest stars in nearly every episode (most notably Steve Guttenberg), basically a “who’s who” of who we adore in comedy (Tom Lennon, Kerri Kenney, Rob Huebel, Dave Allen, to name just a few).  This show was our saving grace during the summer when we were without cable.  Without it we’re not sure we would have made it through those boiling summer nights.

4. NFL Hard Knocks: Training Camp with the NY Jets/24-7 Penguins-Capitals: The Road the NHL Winter Classic: Granted, we were biased towards Hard Knocks because it featured the Jets, our hometown team, but both of these HBO series are probably the best docu-sports programs we have ever seen.  The former, airing in late summer just before the start of the NFL season, presented as much drama as any scripted show, and as many colorful characters as any show on the list.  The latter, which will finish its four episode run next week, reveals the beauty and brutality of hockey in gorgeous and often grotesque fashion, while taking pains to highlight the personalities of the players and their lives beyond the rink.

5. Survivor: All-Stars/Nicaragua: Obviously this was going to make our list, but we’re not just playing favorites.  All-Stars was as thrilling and unexpected as anything we saw on TV this year, offering up what amounted to Shakespearean drama in the guise of a reality TV competition, with the battle for power between Boston Rob and Russell serving as one the series’ defining moments.  What Nicaragua lacked in star power and player prowess, it made up for in surprises and stupidity, and was highlighted by perhaps Jeff Probst’s finest season yet.

6. Childrens Hospital: Just flat-out deranged, but also flat-out brilliant.  In its first season on Adult Swim, Childrens Hospital proved that hadn’t lost any of the bite is exhibited as a web series.  A phenomenal cast anchored by Ken Marino and Rob Corddry, it’s like a twisted, perverted bloody version of Party Down, using many of the same actors but in a decidedly more broad, sick fashion.  It’s hard to push the envelope at midnight, but they do it.

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7. Lost: You can read our thoughts on the finale, and by extension the final season, here, but this season probably suffered because it had to live up to what came before it, and it was subject to unreal expectations for neat resolutions.  To be honest, we were somewhat pleased for it to end, as we already felt exhausted.  We’re not fully sure we had the energy to completely commit to another season, so we’re content that Lost ended when it did.  And we’ll certainly argue that the show went out on a hell of a run.  The mythology might have been lacking, but there were just as many awesome, fist-pounding, heart-pumping moments as any other season.

8. Boardwalk Empire: Kind of boring in its consistency and excellence, but still as well-produced and well-acted as advertised.  It loses points because it feels so much like a Sopranos retread set in 1920s Atlantic City, but it’s another example of fine, if somewhat expected, HBO programming.

9.  The Soup: Another great year for this show, which, instead of suffering from Joel McHale pulling double duty with Community, only got better with its host’s increase workload.  Despite being the star of a network sitcom, McHale refused to file down his claws, and we found extra satisfaction in his takedowns of the medium that hosts his day job (and pays his bills).

10. Top Chef D.C./All-Stars: Also helped get us through the summer.  The DC iteration featured a relatively weak and unlikable cast, and an especially underwhelming winner, but still managed to captivate.  We’ve already talked about how much we love All-Stars, and it’s a giddy thrill to watch those talented chefs go head to head (Go Professor Ricky Blaise!).  Top Chef finally wrestled the reality show Emmy from The Amazing Race, and it was a well-earned award.

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Honorable mention:

Friday Night Lights: The show weathered a significant cast turnover and still turned out its trademark mix of drama and heart.   However, it often felt like a remake of Season One, just with a new setting and new actors filling the familiar roles.  Much like Saved by the Bell: The New Class.  Still, as we’ve said before, there’s no better duo on television than Coach and Tami Taylor.

Terriers: We’re only halfway through its first (and only) season, but we’re confident that had we gotten to the finale than this one would have made our list.  Donal Logue turned in the best work of his career, and it was like a slightly darker, grittier, male-driven Veronica Mars.

Lone Star: Two solid episodes with lots of potential and then axed.  What could have been.

What did we miss? (keeping in mind we’ve yet to see the latest seasons of Mad Men, Breaking Bad and Dexter, and have yet to complete the first seasons of Treme and Caprica)

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