If you're anything like us, you watch a lot of television, and if you're anything like us you have serious opinions about the things you've watched on TV. Here are the ones we loved (and a couple we hated).
The Walking Dead
It was just six short episodes, but in that brief time I fell under the spell of this "zombie show." More concerned with survival after a plague than with the reanimated corpses it created, The Walking Dead managed to be as touching and morally perplexing as it was grisly and suspenseful. It's the rare sci-fi show that can find just the right balance of genre fare and traditional drama, but this show seems to find it each week. There hasn't been something this dense, compelling, claustrophobic, and humanistic for lovers of fantasy fare since Battlestar Galactica, and that is a high compliment indeed.
Modern Family is always getting the attention (and awards) for being the best quirky family drama, but the wildest family on prime time is on Tuesday nights. What seemed like a silly concept for a show—a white-trash-with-a-heart-of-gold boy who lives with his parents is stuck with a baby after a one-night stand with serial killer who is later executed—has matured into something dependably hilarious. Thanks to a killer ensemble (finally some work that uses the considerable talents of Martha Plimpton and Garret Dillahunt) and parenting situations that would be deplorable if they weren't so damn funny, I look forward more to Raising Hope than I do to Glee, the show that precedes it.
Watching Glenn Close play one of the most monstrous characters on television is the draw, but what really made the third season of this lawyer show the best one yet were the villains. Len Cariou, Lily Tomlin, and Campbell Scott were all amazing playing a Madoff-esque family that would do anything to survive, but it was Martin Short as their conman lawyer who stole every episode. Sure, some of the plot was way too contrived, but there is nothing around that is as uniquely structured or suspenseful. Too bad just as the poorly-rated series hit its stride it was relegated to the wasteland of DirecTV. Personally, I'll follow it anywhere.
Old Reality Shows
Conventional wisdom says that the best season of a reality show is always the first one (hello, Jersey Shore), but there were more than a few old favorites that proved they still had some life in them last year. The Deadliest Catch aired some of its greatest episodes in the wake of Capt. Phil Harris' death and showed us something we rarely see on reality shows: real emotion. The decade-old Survivor (yes, it is still on!) had perhaps its greatest season ever with the unexpected twists and turns of Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains. Even America's Next Top Model got all classy, appointing Vogue's Andre Leon Talley as a judge and signing up with Vogue Italia as a partner. We never thought we'd say this, but we were glad that Tyra's expensive cable access show finally grew up.
Ladies on HBO
Always dependable with their specials, HBO delivered late this year with two spectacular events focused on two amazing women. First was Public Speaking a special about Fran Lebovitz (as directed by Martin Scorsese and produced by Graydon Carter) that captured the wit and wisdom of a woman who both refuses to use a computer but couldn't be more astute about the way we live right now. Next was Wishful Drinking the televised version of Carrie Fisher's funny and insightful one-woman show that ran on Broadway earlier this year. Rarely do we see a celebrity being this candid (or funny) about the ravages of fame and a life growing up in Hollywood and it's probably the best performance of Carrie Fisher's career.
Worst Show: The A-List: New York: Let's just shelf the debate about whether or not Logo's Gay Housewives show was "bad for the gays," this was just a bad show. It looked like it was shot with cameras on loan from the NYU film department, the cast was the most awful kind of fame whores, and their exploits were more often excruciating than they were exhilaratingly awful like the Real Housewives they were so hoping to emulate. However, it sure was a hell of a lot of fun to write about. SNAPS!
Yeah, yeah, this AMC show is always on everyone's list. But it's just so goddamn good, this third season especially. The season's arc showed our now-in-remission cancer sufferer Walter White (Bryan Cranston) delving further and further into the heart of the Southwestern drug trade, a world fraught with both operatic villainy (near-silent, near-unstoppable hitman twins) and terrifyingly banal evil (a Volvo-driving, chicken shack-owning super criminal). Things grew dark and murky in Walter's home life as well, with his wife discovering his secret (well, part of it at least) and his son growing surly and distant. Throw in a few instances of truly shocking violence and you have a heady bit of chemistry indeed — a true crime show that also manages to be a spectacularly moving and terribly believable human drama.
Yeah, yeah, this AMC show is always on everyone's list. But it's so goshdarn good! Abandoning much of the third season's flights of existential fancy, the fourth go-around grounded itself, returning to the typerwiter-scored halls of an ad agency office. As always there was grand and exquisitely thoughtful emotion on display — Don lost a treasured friend, Peggy giddily entered a new stage of liberation, Joan pined for more — but rather than overtaking and overshadowing the show's core, a la the third season's elaborate foreboding, the show's deep ache was used instead to delicately fill in the pores and edges of the office, creating a beautifully resonant workplace drama more in line with the series's first (and best) season. To say Mad Men is tremendously wise isn't really an original assessment, but it is just so, so wise about this thing called living that it bears reiterating. Were he alive today, I think Chekhov would be a fan.
Parks & Recreation
After an unsteady start in its truncated first season, this winsome NBC sitcom blossomed and flourished in 2010. Credit goes to everyone, of course, but the show would be nothing without Amy Poehler's astoundingly layered lead. Poehler is, by my estimation, consistently turning in the best, most thorough comedic performance on television today. Her Leslie Knope has matured from uptight lady Michael Scott impersonation into something far more endearing — a daffy, well-meaning striver with a sharp-but-warm sense of humor. Actually, that describes the show pretty well too, minus the striving part. Quality-wise, they've arrived. If only the ratings would catch up.
The Good Wife
Yes, really! Network television's smartest drama (until the final season of Friday Night Lights airs on NBC next year) just keeps getting smarter. I know this show looks like boring CBS middle-aged lady fare, but it's actually a slick and savvy case-of-the-week lawyer drama chock full of longer-arc mystery and intriguing, sexy characters. Archie Panjabi's Kalinda remains TV's sexiest boot-wearer, growl-voiced Matt Czuchry could czuch me all night, and Juliana Margulies perfectly projects elegant-pretty poise and restraint. Give your mom the season one DVD as a belated Christmas present and sneak a watch yourself. I promise you'll find yourself strangely delighted by this sly reinvention of a well-worn genre.
The problem with comedian Louis C.K.'s 2006 HBO series Lucky Louie was that it recognized that he is smart and different, but it still asked him to smoosh himself into a convention. Not so with this FX show, which gives greatest-working-comedian C.K. free reign to mull over subjects both profane and profound. The bully scene in the episode called "Bully," in which a teenage tough confronted C.K. and a date at a coffee shop, was one of the most horrifyingly uncomfortable things I've seen on television in a long time. And then imagine my teary surprise when the episode ended on a sweet, simple grace note. It turns out C.K.'s sentimental side is nearly as appealing as his "everyone sucks" wit.
Worst Show: ABC needed a filler for their otherwise solid Wednesday night comedy block (genial The Middle, oddly enjoyable Cougar Town, deserved shining star Modern Family) so they came up with Better With You, a monstrously unoriginal sitcom that would hardly seem out of place on an NBC Tuesday night in 1995. Beyond that, Bravo's Real Housewives of D.C. featured not just your typical Housewives idiots and ghouls, they were boring idiots and ghouls. Watching the show was a near-lethal experience.