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2009's killer TV shows

TELEVISION | It never got better than when Dexter met his match

December 30, 2009

There were a couple of times this year I realized that I was witnessing art and meaning while I was watching TV shows. I didn't hold that against them. Most important, I was thumpingly entertained by the following dozen series, and I can't wait until they're out on DVD so I can watch them again.

1. 'Dexter'

I guess I'm writing about "Dexter" first because it was my favorite show of the year, and because watching it was always an event for me. It's perverse and universal at the same time, about a serial killer I feel like I understand better than most family members. This last season, Keith Carradine's Detective Lundy came back and he and Dexter faced John Lithgow's Trinity Killer. But more than any particular plot point, Dexter becomes more real to me every season, and we're lucky to have him around.

2. 'Lost'

Coming up on the last season -- the One That Will Make Sense of It All, Right? -- we need to just say thank you for the top-notch acting, the cryptic writing, the sexy subplots, the sci-fi themes we were actually able to follow, and the brilliant interplay between Hurley and Miles. Just: thank you.

3. 'Weeds'

Yes, it's getting weirder, but I'm going along with it. Guest stars included the wiggy Jennifer Jason Leigh, the strangely grounded Alanis Morissette and some political kingmaker named Pilar that little brother Shane knocked in the head with a croquet mallet and left floating in the pool. At this point, at the end of season five, you've just got to believe it's all going to turn out all right.

4. 'Glee'

This was the series I was more excited about than any other, although it was psychologically unfair of them to employ the anthem "Don't Stop Believin' " in their commercials. I am weak. These shiny-faced, harmonizing nerds had more edge and scandal in them than I could have hoped for. Maybe faking a pregnancy or watching the football team perform "All the Singles Ladies" isn't what you had in mind for the family hour, but this is one genre I'd like to see more of.

5. 'Nurse Jackie'

I'm not sure I would have cast Edie Falco as the corrupt and saintly nurse Jackie, having only seen her as a mafia wife in velour suits. But she's been a revelation, possibly the most flawed person I wish I could be best friends with. Adultery, addiction, forged donor cards, mercy killings -- so she's got issues. But she makes me laugh just as hard as she makes me cry.

6. 'Men of a Certain Age'

Ray Romano, who knew you had it in you? The king of sitcom royalties created a sweetly quiet, modestly hopeful series about a bunch of guys in mid-life and mid-crisis. Never predictable, always told with tender humor, I hope Romano and his pals Scott Bakula and Andre Braugher keep letting me eavesdrop on them at the diner.

7. 'Mad Men'

Holy heck, a lot happened, and that's not even including the runaway office tractor accident. We met Conrad Hilton, found a new fella for Bets, revealed Don Draper's true identity, buried a president, and started the whole darn thing over again in a smoke-filled hotel room. Joan, you were missed. Now guys, get back to work.

8. 'The Middle'

All right, this one's about me. Patricia Heaton presides over the kind of Indiana ranch home that may happen to have the front door off its hinges for a good week or so, and that's OK. And that makes me feel better. Family is all about humiliation in this series, and that's OK, too. Maybe daughter Sue will find success at something -- anything. Maybe son Axl will wear something other than his boxer shorts. Maybe son Brick will stop whispering to his backpack all the time. And if they don't? We'll just have to love them anyway.

9. 'Modern Family'

The tone of this sitcom, right from the start, was just a joy. I love that "Married . . . With Children's" Ed O'Neill has finally found the wife he deserved in Sofia Vergara. I love that Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Eric Stonestreet portray a gay couple with affection, pride and just the right soupcon of misunderstood embarrassment. Ty Burrell is a genius as a dad who stays hip by keeping up with the numbers from "High School Musical." I can't wait to see what the next generation can do.

10. 'Community'

It's sweet to see Joel McHale paired with Chevy Chase in this comedy about a makeshift misfit family that meets to study Spanish. Chase's comedic touch isn't what it used to be, but he lends an air of respect and tradition to what could become a classic of smart- assery. Each cast member is a gem, especially Chicago's Danny Pudi as the surreal Abed. "The Breakfast Club's" got nothing on these newfound friends.

11. 'The Good Wife'

I was not a fan of Julianna Margulies before this series -- there was something a little pursed about her, something standoffish. And that's why she was perfectly cast as a political wife who is not only withstanding her husband's scandal, but going back to work as a lawyer to support her family. Each episode's cast stands on its own, but we Chicagoans are hoping for more of the scandal's backstory. Because frankly, it's more rewarding to see Chris Noth vindicated than Rod Blagojevich.

12. '30 Rock'

It's redundant to include the slavered-over sitcom writer's sitcom here, but there should still be a little love for the kind of show that had Tina Fey wearing such an awkward haircut in last week's episode. This is a show that will never be too slick to laugh at itself. Tina Fey, we love you no matter how many awards you get. Wherever you are, we want to go to there.