2010 is almost in the history books, so here are my thoughts on the year in television, beginning with a list of my 10 favorite new scripted shows of 2010. Remember that it’s a list of new shows that debuted this year. So you won’t find long-time favorites like Mad Men, Breaking Bad and Dexter on this list, nor will you see limited-run miniseries like The Pacific and The Pillars of the Earth on the list either.
After that, there’s a list of runners-up and several “awards” of dubious distinction.
My Top 10 New Shows of 2010
10) Outsourced (NBC) - It took a few episodes for this show - about a man who is sent to India to head the call center of his novelty company after the rest of the American employees are fired - to gain traction, but its charm has grown on me. I have problems with the main character, Todd Dempsy (played by Ben Rappaport). He still seems to be completely ignorant of Indian culture (if you were being transferred to another country, wouldn’t you read a few books on it, or at least spend five minutes on the country’s Wikipedia page?). I also think the TV series is a bit more… cavalier and stereotypical than the movie it’s based on. But it’s still worth watching.
9) Human Target (Fox) - This show has the best action sequences on TV, hands down. Many of the show’s first episodes were like mini action films, with a new one beamed into my home each week. But Fox isn’t happy with how the show is doing ratings-wise, and has strong-armed the showrunners into adding needless characters and cutting costs. Indira Varma (Niobe from Rome) and Janet Montgomery are pretty, but not only do they not add anything to the show, they actually distract from the show’s former “cop buddy” kind of theme. I’m not too impressed changes, and if it keeps up I won’t be sad when Fox cancels it.
8) Covert Affairs (USA Network) - Man, does USA have a lock on great light entertainment or what? No one would ever accuse Psych, Burn Notice or Covert Affairs of being “deep” or “meaningful”, but as far as mindless television goes, no network does it better. Affairs has outlandish plots and plenty of deus ex machina endings… but it also has kick-ass action sequences and a pretty blonde lead in Piper Perabo. I’m hooked!
7) The Walking Dead (AMC) - After the disaster that was Rubicon, AMC needed a hit with this show, about a group of strangers who band together after a viral outbreak causes most of the human race to turn into zombies. I initially watched the show just because it was set in Atlanta… in fact, I used to drive on the road seen in the show’s promo poster every day when I worked for my dad. I really came to care about the characters as time went on. But the season finale of this show was just plain awful. It was so bad that it pushed this show several places down the list. It was so bad that I honestly don’t know if I’ll be back when season 2 comes.
6) Sherlock (BBC Wales) - Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat’s re-imagining of Sherlock Holmes as a modern detective was sheer genius. Although longtime fans of Basil Rathbone era Holmes cringed at the thought of Sherlock using a mobile phone, it was refreshing to see a new take on the characters, especially one that has Dr. Watson (Martin Freeman) as someone who is actually smart, instead of the buffoon that Nigel Bruce often played him as. The only problem with this series is that there were only three 90-minute episodes. We’ll have to wait until next spring or summer for the next three.
5) Luther (BBC One) - Idris Elba stars as DCI John Luther, a London cop who is completely and totally dedicated to his job in the Metropolitan Police’s Serious Crimes Unit. After a traumatic experience with a child killer named Henry Madsen, Luther has a nervous breakdown that affects his job, his marriage and his life. Luther tries to work through it all, holding everything together… and fails miserably. He finds platonic solace in Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson), a highly intelligent psychopath who covers her tracks so well after killing her parents that not even Luther can pin it on her. This was a great series, especially if you like the “dark side” of police shows. Although Elba is the star, Wilson almost steals the show as his incredibly sexy, yet absolutely crazy, foil. And yes, she’s sexy because she’s crazy. I can’t wait for season 2 of this show!
4) Boardwalk Empire (HBO) - Brought to you by executive producers Martin Scorsese and Mark Wahlberg, this sprawling, epic period drama about corruption in Prohibition-era Atlantic City features Steve Buscemi as Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, treasurer of Atlantic County, a liquor smuggler and the most powerful man in town. He’s assisted by his brother “Eli” Thompson, sheriff of Atlantic County, and a cast of several underlings. As far as love goes, we first see Nucky with Lucy Danziger (the frequently nude Paz de la Huerta), but he then develops feelings for the strong-willed Margaret Schroeder (played by longtime cutie Kelly Macdonald from Trainspotting). The series was adapted from a chapter in the book Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City and many of the characters existed in real life (including Nucky). Also appearing are Al Capone, “Lucky” Luciano and Arnold Rothstein, the Jewish gangster behind the Black Sox Scandal of 1919, in which the World Series was fixed. I almost hate to rank this show so high, as it’s pure Emmy bait, but it’s just incredible.
3) Archer (FX) - Sterling Archer is a suave secret agent working for ISIS, a privately-owned spy agency. That is, unless Archer is not being a complete buffoon, or on a bender in some glamorous location, or whining to his boss (who is also his mother) about her penny pinching his expense reports. What makes this animated series work are the actors. H. Jon Benjamin (Coach McGurk from Home Movies) plays Archer; Aisha Tyler plays Lana Kane, an impossibly curvy agent and ex-girlfriend of Archer; Chris Parnell plays Cyril Figgis, ISIS’s comptroller and Lana’s current boyfriend; Jessica Walter (Lucille Bluth from Arrested Development) plays Malory Archer, Sterling’s mother and the CEO of ISIS; and Judy Greer plays Cheryl (or Carol, Carina and Cristal.. she changes her name frequently for no obvious reason) plays Malory’s secretary, who has fantasies about being strangled to death while having sex. The show is a mix of anachronisms: clothing styles are from the 1960s (many have commented on Archer’s resemblance to Don Draper), the computer technology seen varies from the mid 80s to the present, and the Soviet Union apparently still exists in Archer’s world. But the show is simply hilarious – a very R-rated version of Get Smart and other spy spoofs… that also plays with our post 9/11 fears at the same time. This show has more funny per 22 minutes than any other new show on TV.
2) The Good Guys (Fox) - Annnnnnnnddd it’s gone already. I’ll admit that the main reason I started watching this show was for the great Jenny Wade (from yet another departed show, Reaper). But once I saw it, I was hooked. Colin Hanks plays Jack Bailey, a young, by-the-book police officer who is paired with Dan Stark (Bradley Whitford), a former big-shot detective who saved the governor’s son from kidnappers back in the 80s and seems frozen in 1985. Jack and Dan have been exiled to the Property Crimes Unit, and while each of their cases starts with something mundane, like a stolen bicycle, you can be sure that jewel thieves or terrorists will somehow be involved before the episode is over. Bradley Whitford simply nails his role as a caricature of an 80s TV cop. The Good Guys is also like Life On Mars in reverse: instead of a character being sent to the past, a character from the past is sent to his future… or, if you prefer, our present. And the show was set in Dallas, which is nice departure from the typical New York\LA\Chicago setting so often seen on TV today, which also gives the show some character. Stark, for example, is able to track down one suspect by identifying the origin of some barbecue sauce left at a crime scene. Mark my words, if this show had been on USA or FX instead of Fox, it would have been a decent hit. But Fox once again ruins a great show.
1) Rake (Australian Broadcasting Company) - My favorite show of 2010 by far. Rake is about Cleaver Greene, a brilliant Sydney barrister who is on an incredible, multi-year bender. Although Greene can seemingly win almost any case he takes, no matter how guilty the client, nothing ever seems to go right for him personally. He’s divorced from his wife, Wendy. His teenage son is dating his English teacher. He’s lived in a run-down, “temporary” apartment for three years. He’s on the outs with his best friend after he drunkenly slept with his wife, an old college flame of Greene’s. The only woman he really cares about, Melissa Partridge, is a call-girl who abruptly quit the business once she’d earned enough money to go to law school. And she’s engaged to David Potter, Greene’s arch-enemy, a government tax lawyer who’s been going after Greene for back taxes for months… which Greene has managed to delay with some spectacular excuses in the courtroom. Oh, and he also owes lots of money to some really shady bookies. It would all be incredibly depressing, save for the fact that Greene (played by Richard Roxburgh) is one of the funniest people on the planet. Greene is drunk and possibly high on cocaine almost any time he’s not on the clock, and when he stands up to make a drunken speech or be hauled away by the cops you turn the volume up, because he’s going to say something funny. The fact that his clients include a cannibal (played by Hugo Weaving), a bigamist, a dog raper (played by Sam Neill!), and a talk show host accused of starting a race riot (played by Rachel Griffiths) should tell you exactly what you need to know about the show. It’s touching at times: although Melissa claims to love David and sees a bright future with him, she always comes running back to Greene when things go wrong. And although Greene and his son have the same strained relationship that most parents and teens do, you can tell they really love each other. But what this show has more than anything is funny. Roxburgh plays the most lovable drunken misfit since Dudley Moore’s Arthur, and despite all the drama, this show will keep you in stitches! Roxburgh is well on the way to making Cleaver Greene a television icon along the lines of Gene Hunt - someone you’re not supposed to like, but just can’t help yourself from loving.
Glory Daze (TBS) - Not as funny or well done as it could be, but strong guest stars and a massive music licensing budget keep my hopes alive for this show.
Identity (ITV) - What could have been a great show about an identity theft group in the Metropolitan Police turned out to only be a good one. Keeley Hawes starred in her first role after Ashes to Ashes, but Aidan Gillen stole the show as DI John Bloom, a former undercover cop who just can’t let go of his secret past.
Hawaii Five-O (CBS) - I didn’t want to like this remake, which can’t hold a candle to the original. But honestly, it’s pretty entertaining… and beautifully shot, too. Question: how does Daniel Dae Kim get two shows in a row set in Hawaii?
Married Single Other (ITV) - It often seems like ITV, the network that had the smash hit Cold Feet back in the late 90s, has tried a thousand different (yet similar) shows, trying to bring back Feet’s ratings magic. This show was just the latest version of that phenomenon. It focused on (wait for it!) a group of friends in northern England who were married, single, or somewhere in between. They laugh and love and fight, but all genuinely love each other. Sound familiar? I don’t want to bash the show, as it was actually pretty decent. But it just seems like ITV is trying too hard to create Cold Feet: The Next Generation.
The Increasingly Poor Decisions Of Todd Margaret (Channel 4) - What could have also been a great show was only an amusing one. David Cross (of Arrested Development) stars as the title character, a nerdy, lonely temp in an office who is overheard practicing some “assertiveness training” CDs by his foul-mouthed boss (Will Arnett). Arnett mistakenly thinks “big balls” Margaret is ruthlessly chewing out a vendor, so he sends him to London to sell “Thunder Muscle”, a North Korean energy drink of dubious origin. The show had its moments - each episode begins with Cross on the dock in a British courtroom, hearing charges read against him (which will show up later in the episode). And each episode ends with a shot of Cross’ quickly abandoned apartment back in the US, and the poor cats he left behind. While the show frequently made me chuckle, I rarely bellylaughed, and can’t remember any lines from it (I can quote Archer, at length, on command). Worst of all, the show relied far too heavily on the “dumb American abroad” trope. It’s all well and good for that to be part of the plot, but when 99% of your jokes come from there… well, that’s just not good.
The Trip (BBC2) - A British series in which comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon play fictionalized versions of themselves taking a road trip to restaurants in northern England as an assignment for a newspaper article. Not the funniest thing ever, but this show makes the list because much of what you see is improvised, and that’s always impressive.
A Swing and a Miss…
Persons Unknown (NBC) - It was supposed to be the show that replaced Lost, only it too got lost along the way.
Rev (BBC2) - Many Anglicans think the show is about a modern Anglican priest, as seen through the eyes of writers who don’t really understand Anglicanism. Yes, the show has a heart, and Adam Smallbone has all the problems that a modern Anglican priest would… but the show still misses the point in so many respects. There were some funny aspects to the show, like Adam’s media-obsessed bishop, and the “stadium seating and coffee bar” Protestant group that temporarily wows Adam after taking over his church building, but the misses far outweigh the hits on this show.
Caprica (Syfy) - This was supposed to be the show that showed us the origins of Battlestar Galactica… but instead we got even more of the tedious monotheism vs. polytheism debate that bogged down Battlestar, more than even hardcore fans could tolerate. Goodbye and good riddance!
Happy Town (ABC) - The Alphabet Net’s attempt at creating a new Twin Peaks failed miserably. But that sad thing is, the show wasn’t all that bad.
The Pacific (HBO) - Fans of Band of Brothers waited a decade for Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg to document the Pacific War, and boy… was it a disappointment. I think this is because Brothers was based on a single book, which itself was based on a single unit in the European theatre. We saw Brothers’ characters from their start as paratrooper recruits in Toccoa, Georgia, all the way to the end of the war. The Pacific, by contrast, was based on books by two different Marines, with the story of another Marine (John Basilone) thrown in for good measure. While the production values were excellent in the series, I had a hard time keeping all the characters and stories straight, as well as keeping track of time (the three Marines were scattered all over the South Pacific). And the series seemed to fiddle with the facts unnecessarily; for example, while Eugene Sledge was diagnosed with a heart murmur in high school, he had recovered fully and was enrolled in the officer’s program at Georgia Tech when he quit school and left for the war (his parents didn’t object to him joining the Marines generally, they just wanted him to complete his degree so he could enter as an officer). The Pacific wasn’t bad, exactly… it just could have been so much more.
Shows I once loved, but are wearing thin on me:
Spooks (BBC) - I used to adore this show, but it’s been run into the ground deeper than an off-shore oil rig. Time to pull it, Auntie.
The Office (NBC) - We shouldn’t have to sit through 17 episodes of crap to get to the 3 or 4 good episodes, and with Steve Carell leaving, I don’t have much faith for the future of this franchise, Jenna Fischer looking hot or no.
Burn Notice (USA) - Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: an innocent person has a problem with some sort of organized criminal conspiracy, and so they approach Michael, Sam or Fiona. Michael infiltrates the gang by adopting a fake accent and backstory, then wiggling his way in with The Boss at a chic Miami nightclub. After two or three days, Michael and his new pal are best friends, and Michael knows all of the organization’s dirty secrets. He then topples the gang by pitting The Boss against a rival gang or ambitious underling. The group then implodes, and Innocent Person gets his pension (or good name, or kidnapped daughter) back. Sound familiar? It should: it’s every damn episode of this show. It was fun and new when it first came out, but now it just seems like the same thing every week. And that’s not even taking into account the fact that Fiona has managed to blow up half of Miami without once attracting the attention of police (save for last season’s pointless cameo by Moon Bloodgood, who played a cop who was “on” to Michael, then disappeared for no good reason).
Leverage (TNT) - See Burn Notice.
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (FX) - Is it just me? Am I getting tired of this show, or is the funny being slowly drained out of this show like a nail in a tire? It’s still funny at times, but the whole thing has gotten so ridiculous these days that I largely just don’t care. They get kudos, though, for working Dee’s real-life pregnancy into the show.
Rush (Ten Australia) - The first episodes of this cop show were really good, as they were apparently based on real-life crimes from Melbourne, Australia. But now the show is sliding quickly into soap opera territory, with all the characters sleeping with each other and having dirty secrets and whatnot. It’s time to right this ship before everyone abandons it.
Most Improved Show Award
The League (FX) - This show is about a group of guys who went to high school and college together and only continue to hang out with each other because of their fantasy football league. It used to be “that show that comes on after Sunny“. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia has always been hit or miss, but the past couple of seasons have been more “miss” than “hit”. And it seems like The League has picked up all of Sunny’s funny mojo. Season 2 was absolutely hilarious, one of the funniest shows on TV… so much so that, in my house, Sunny is now “that show that comes on before The League”.
The “It’s Not You, It’s Me” Award
Desperate Housewives (ABC) - Don’t lie. You watched it at some point in your life. In fact, a giant chunk of American households used to tune in to Housewives each week to see what the ladies of Wisteria Lane were up to. But earlier this year I noticed that I just didn’t care about those old hags any more. It’s been dropped from my schedule… for good.
The Please Please Please Keep It On The Air Award
Fringe (Fox) - It’s not the best show of all time by any means. In many respects, the show is just a warmed-over remake of The X-Files. But what makes this show so great is the alternate universe, which is so much like ours, yet different in so many subtle ways. Watching John Noble battle himself as mad scientist Walter Bishop in our universe and the evil “Walternate” in the alternate universe, and Agent Olivia Dunham going up against “Fauxlivia” from the alternate world is one of the best things going in sci-fi TV right now. Please don’t kill it, Fox!
Thanks But No Thanks Award
Ruth Watson used to host a show on Five (UK) called The Hotel Inspector. She’d go to a different struggling hotel each week and offer advice for making them profitable again, like Kitchen Nightmares does for restaurants. For reasons unknown, Watson quit the show, which continued without a hiccup under hotelier Alex Polizzi. This year, Watson returned to TV with Channel 4’s Ruth Watson’s Hotel Rescue, one of the most boring shows I’ve ever seen.
Please Get Off My TV Award
This year’s “winner” is Gordon Ramsey. I like the guy, but am sick to death of his shows, which epitomize “formula TV”. Hell’s Kitchen is almost exactly the same every season, and boy is it getting old. And while the British version of Kitchen Nightmares portrayed Ramsey as a brash but heartfelt man who genuinely cared about restaurant owners, the crappy American version plays up all the “drama” in a cynical remake. Be gone, you donkey!
Worst TV Moment of 2010
Easy: the Lost finale. I could write 300 flowery words about how the writers betrayed the show’s loyal viewers, but I’ll just say this: the team behind Lost kicked every fan square in the nuts with a mopey, touchy-feeley finale that was less satisfying than a $2 hooker. It was especially galling in light of the Ashes to Ashes finale, which aired a few days earlier and had a similar storyline, but was handled a thousand times better.
Saddest TV Moment of 2010
Could I choose anything other than the final scenes of Ashes to Ashes? I’ll admit that I teared up when Alex turned to walk in to The Railway Arms for one last pint, leaving Gene all alone on a London street… forever. Hell, I’m getting weepy just now thinking about it. Thankfully though, the show’s creators threw us a bone at the very end, and Gene will be a hero for all eternity, even if we won’t be able to tag along.
Best TV Moment of 2010
This is a tough decision. It could be almost any scene from Mad Men, or the death of the Quattro or the “It’s Playtime” scene in Ashes to Ashes (the linked clip cuts off the beginning, with Hunt walking down the hallway of the Fenchurch East police station to the opening bars of U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday”, which is a shame). But I think I’ll go with this scene, the final one from the episode of Breaking Bad called “Half Measures”. As a warning, it’s pretty damn graphic: