10. Boardwalk Empire—HBO’s much-hyped new series started out with a thud: The show’s Martin Scorsese-directed premiere felt bloated, overeager and directionless. From there, though, Boardwalk Empire’s trajectory was consistently upward; by season’s end, the show was nothing short of thrilling.
9. Sons of Anarchy—Their time in Ireland was initially confusing and counterintuitive, but when Kurt Sutter’s Sons of Anarchy kicked it into gear, the show once again proved why it’s one of TV’s best and most beloved dramas. The acting was, of course, magnificent throughout, and Sutter’s twisted storylines untangled in a truly shocking, wholly unlikely and utterly satisfying finale.
8. Louie—The inaugural season of Louis C.K.’s Louie bore more than a passing resemblance to Seinfeld—from its Manhattan setting to its standup segments to its existential emptiness—but its brutal awkwardness and single-camera style owed more to Seinfeld co-creator Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm. Uproarious and uncomfortable, Louie was justly rewarded with a second season.
7. Community—NBC’s Thursday night critical darling may actually fall short of the praise being showered upon it—it’s a great show, but it’s not even the best comedy on NBC on Thursday night (see below)—which isn’t to detract from what it is: um, a great show. Its meta-sitcom structure aside, Community succeeds because its characters are wonderfully drawn and perfectly rendered by a remarkable ensemble cast (even if Donald Glover’s Troy brings in the lion’s share of the laughs).
6. Work of Art—Work of Art doesn’t do anything new, exactly: It merely applies the Project Runway/Top Chef template to the contemporary art world. Yet the first season of Work of Art was addicting, intelligent, thought-provoking and fun television, supplemented by the blog of the show’s excellent judge Jerry Saltz, who wrote each week about the process of making a reality show from the perspective of a newcomer, and about the process of appreciating art from the perspective of an art critic.
5. Treme—In some ways, David Simon’s first post-Wire series faced impossibly high standards, but really, the man behind the greatest drama in the history of television had nothing to prove: The only way Treme could have been a letdown is if it were somehow…conventional. It wasn’t. It also wasn’t a continuation of The Wire, except in its obsession with urban America. Buoyed by its music—the show served up blistering performances by New Orleans locals and legends—Treme looked and felt immediately more honest, more relaxed and more real than TV as we know it.
4. Breaking Bad—AMC’s calling-card drama offers so much that it sometimes defies any sort of categorization. It is a show about mortality, disease, drugs, family and fear. It can also be riotously funny. Bryan Cranston is indeed a force to be reckoned with—his performance, as Walter White, is stunning and note perfect—but too often, the critical praise of Cranston robs the rest of the cast of their due, particularly Aaron Paul as Walt’s hapless sidekick, and RJ Mitte, who plays the cerebral palsy-afflicted Walt Jr., arguably the most well-drawn special-needs character ever on television.
3. Mad Men—It ended with a great shock, which led to much consternation among fans, but Mad Men’s fourth season was also its best, or at the very least, it was as good as its best, which is to say, the season was exceptional in every regard. Jon Hamm has developed Don Draper as perhaps the most complete and complex character on television, but this was the season Elisabeth Moss’ Peggy Olsen emerged as the show’s central character. And while segments of the fan base may have disagreed with the conclusion, Matthew Weiner has left us all in a state of rapt anticipation for what comes next.
2. Parks and Recreation—The best comedy on TV—indeed, the best comedy since Arrested Development—Parks and Rec was not included on NBC’s fall 2010 schedule (its third season was held back, and will air in winter 2011), but the 13 new episodes that aired in the first half of 2010 were enough to earn it the No. 2 slot on this list. Parks and Rec is simply superior to and unlike everything else around it—it is orders of magnitude better than The Office (of which it is an indirect offshoot with many shared tonal qualities) and 30 Rock (whose Liz Lemon bears a slight resemblance to Parks’ Lesley Knope). The ensemble cast has no weak links, but also, no ball hogs: Everyone here is a superstar, and they’re all playing at Hall of Fame levels.
1. Terriers—When Terriers was canceled by FX after abysmal ratings, a question arose among armchair pundits: Was the first and only season of Terriers the best first-and-only season in the history of TV, or simply the best first season of any show, period? Either way, it stands up among the all-time greats. Terriers was blessed with two charismatic leads—Donal Logue and Michael Raymond-James—playing a pair of private dicks chasing an assortment of random cases around sunny San Diego, while a bigger mystery was slowly building in the background. The noir storylines dovetailed with those of the leads’ domestic lives—equally shattered, optimistic and ambivalent. Over the course of Terriers’ 13 perfect episodes, a world was created, and in it, characters whose stories demanded to be told. That we will not hear from them again will be a source of genuine heartbreak for many, but the truth is, we were lucky to be introduced to them in the first place, lucky to get with them what little time we got.