The 25 best television series of 2010
2010 saw the departure of scene-changing institutions like Lost, the maturation of in-progress shows like Mad Men, and the arrival of widely hyped newcomers like Boardwalk Empire. But even without those landmarks, it would still be another remarkable year almost overstuffed with good television. The A.V. Club’s TV Club critics had a hard time narrowing our best series list down to a mere 25, surely a sign that the medium’s renaissance continues to roll on. But through polling and discussion, a consensus emerged. Here are the shows we decided reached for and achieved greatness, week-in and week-out. (Tomorrow, we'll feature the standout episodes of 45 shows that didn’t make the list.)
25. Doctor Who (BBC America)
Taking the reins of Russell T. Davies’ celebrated and popular run, ace veteran Steven Moffat pared away Davies’ more melodramatic tendencies and kept his focus on the Doctor and his new companion, Amy Pond, who explore the universe’s past and future in a season that lacked a truly weak episode. Matt Smith and Karen Gillan, in the key roles, had a wonderfully comedic, sexy chemistry, and the season’s arc, in which the universe collapsed around the Doctor’s ears, rewarded a loyal audience. But each standalone story offered different tones to enjoy, from the suspenseful return of the Weeping Angels to a melancholy visit with a suicidal Van Gogh to the Doctor rooming with an unlucky-in-love sad-sack.
Best episodes: “The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone,” “Vincent And The Doctor,” “The Lodger”
24. United States Of Tara (Showtime)
In its first season, United States Of Tara was about a normal family affected by a most abnormal problem: the family matriarch’s Dissociative Identity Disorder. When the show returned, the Gregsons thought drugs had enabled Tara (Toni Collette) to control her condition, allowing them to achieve the normalcy they so craved. Creator Diablo Cody, meanwhile, had other plans. Delving into the futility of normalcy, the second season pulled few punches. Collette, whether paired with the great Viola Davis or with versions of herself, was fantastic throughout, and Keir Gilchrist did comparably strong work as teenage son Marshall, who searched for normalcy in an attempt to define his sexuality. While the family members’ collective abnormality brought them together in the end, the investigation of their identities transformed a solid show with a great lead performance into Showtime’s finest series.
Best episodes: “Torando!” “Explosive Diorama,” “To Have And To Hold”
23. Eastbound & Down (HBO)
A true second act to the Kenny Powers (Danny McBride) saga, the second season of Eastbound & Down jettisoned most of the characters from season one (save for Steve Little as the indispensable Steve Janowski, the sublimely pathetic Powers disciple) and sent the washed-up fireballer to Mexico, where he attempted to rebuild his career. The culture clash brought out the best in McBride, who has developed Powers into a masterful comic creation, a self-deluded, self-absorbed, destructive force who’s just sad enough to love. (Or at least fragile enough to wring the maximum pathos and comedy from a line like “Hey, Kenny, you’re from America. You probably have a printer.”)
Best episodes: “Chapter 7,” “Chapter 10,” “Chapter 11”
22. Archer (FX)
The world didn’t need another James Bond parody. By now, super-spydom’s general proximity to douchebagginess has been well established. And Archer doesn’t feel fresh, exactly; after Adult Swim, the animation style and ensemble of selfish lunatics wandering through a web of global intrigue is standard stuff. But Archer works, often amazingly well. H. Jon Benjamin leads a voice cast stuffed with ringers (including Aisha Tyler, Judy Greer, and Chris Parnell) as Sterling Archer, espionage expert and self-centered ass. As head agent for the security firm Isis, Archer supposedly travels the world stealing briefcases and killing bad guys. Mostly, he just screws the help, acts oblivious, and drinks too much. Jessica Walters voices Sterling’s mom, and Archer sometimes recalls Walters’ last big project, Arrested Development, with its consistently driven characters and increasingly absurd setting. It’s been done, but it’s seldom been done better.
Best episodes: “Diversity Hire,” “Skytanic,” “Dial M For Mother”
21. It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia (FX)
Television’s most loveable sociopaths continued to give bad taste a good name in the hilarious sixth season of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. The season got off to a bumpy start, but by the time the gang decided to film its own homemade version of a Lethal Weapon sequel in “Dee Reynolds: Shaping America’s Youth,” an episode that wryly referenced both the die-hard fans of Insane Clown Posse and the soft-focus love scenes of The Room, the series was firing on all cylinders. God bless these horrible, horrible human beings and their complete lack of shame.
Best episodes: “Mac’s Big Break,” “Mac And Charlie: White Trash,” “Mac’s Mom Burns Her House Down”
20. Huge (ABC Family)
It must be tough to launch yet another series about teenagers in a media environment that seems to green-light nothing else. But ABC Family’s late, lamented Huge managed to make the genre seem fresh by filtering the perennial problems of growing up through a group of teens with one problem that trumped all others: their weight. Set at a summer fat camp and starring a wonderful ensemble of kids whom viewers wouldn’t normally see on television, Huge was touching, brave, funny, and unfortunately too hard to market. But while it lasted, viewers in the know followed Will (Nikki Blonsky), the rebel; Dorothy (Gina Torres), the food-addicted camp director; Amber (Hayley Hasselhoff), the pretty girl; Alistair (Harvey Guillen), who wanted to be called “Athena”; and half a dozen other unforgettable characters through the tribulations and solidarity of being too much of a good thing.
Best episodes: “Talent Night,” “Spirit Quest,” “Parents’ Weekend: Part I”
19. 30 Rock (NBC)
One knock against 30 Rock is that it leans too heavily on guest stars, but when the guest casting is so good, why not milk it? From Buck Henry as the club-hopping father of Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) to Elizabeth Banks as the crafty, perfect companion to Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin), the quality of the featured players has kept some sparkle in the show, as did the year’s biggest stunt, a live broadcast that was more fun and rewatchable than it had any business being. The show’s ability to find new permutations of the sweet, complex Liz-and-Jack friendship has really driven things this year. Fey and Baldwin are a virtuoso double act, one where the roles of straight man and goof constantly switch.
Best episodes: “Anna Howard Shaw Day,” “Live Show,” “College”
18. Childrens Hospital (Cartoon Network)
Riffing on the self-righteousness and hyperbolic drama of medical shows like ER, Scrubs, M*A*S*H, and Grey’s Anatomy, this Rob Corddry-created Adult Swim comedy features veterans of The State, Human Giant, Arrested Development, Party Down… just about every funny actor in Hollywood, really. Childrens Hospital was funny enough as a five-minute web series, but it really hit its stride in Adult Swim’s 12-minute format, which lets Corddry and company expand their parody to target movies and non-medical TV. Along with Community, Childrens Hospital is as dense and clever as contemporary TV comedy gets.
Best episodes: “I Am Not Afraid Of Any Ghost,” “Hot Enough For You?”, “The Sultan’s Finger: Live”
17. Sherlock (PBS)
The concept of a 21st-century, cell-phone-using Sherlock Holmes could have gone extremely wrong, but Sherlock, imported by PBS from the BBC, not only pulled off the conceit, but quickly built a cult fan base thanks to good casting and clever production. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes is weirdly compelling, one part sociopathic awkwardness, one part Withnailian haughtiness, one part diva nerd. Martin Freeman, sporting a crown of gray hair as Watson, does what he does best, playing a likeable, exasperated everyman to Cumberbatch’s much more intelligent but just as antisocial superhero. Holmes fans enjoyed the series’ faithfulness to Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories, while crisp gothic settings, a creepy, delicate circus-like score, and tastefully utilized technology brought a new freshness to the tales. But most of all, Cumberbatch and Freeman have real chemistry—sometimes bitchy, sometimes affectionate—that keeps the series from feeling like a retread.
Best episodes: “A Study In Pink,” “The Great Game”
16. Boardwalk Empire (HBO)
Few shows can live up to the kind of expectations raised by Boardwalk Empire’s pedigree. But while it never became the Prohibition-era Goodfellas that Martin Scorsese’s bombastic pilot suggested, Terence Winter’s portrait of 1920s Atlantic City has its own unique charms, plus a bevy of astonishing performances. Through the eyes of Jersey power broker Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) and young gun Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), Boardwalk Empire follows the birth of modern organized crime while keeping a tight focus on its sprawling ensemble, ranging from assorted bit players to better-known names, including a young Al Capone (Stephen Graham). A contemplative tone soured some viewers’ interest, although bursts of violence and stunning setpieces kept the pace from getting too glacial. And as the season wound to a close, the many plot strands began to wind together in a manner reminiscent of the last show Winter worked on, that little cult favorite The Sopranos.
Best episodes: “Anastasia,” “Nights In Ballygran,” “Home”