I have to say that despite my lack of time this year to watch a whole lot of television -- or perhaps because I didn't have time to waste it on guilty pleasures that have populated my lists in years past (The Real World/ Road Rules Challenges, The Hills), this has been one of my favorite television seasons in recent memory. I'm pleased with every single one of the shows in my top 10 and would recommend them to anyone, even as the season winds up in the coming weeks. I had a hard time even keeping my list to a recommended 10 as there were a couple shows that had solid seasons (The Office, The Big Bang Theory, South Park, 30 Rock) that didn't quite make the list. In fact, I also excluded HBO's The Pacific, a great 10-part miniseries on World War II, mostly because I've only made it through 3 or 4 episodes so far, but also because I didn't want to bump any of the following shows from the list. The top 10 has comedies, dramas, reality shows, and several shows that seem an oddly wonderful combination of the three. There are network shows, cable shows, and pay cable shows. But mostly, it was just a great season for television. Maybe it's good that I couldn't watch more of it.
1. Nurse Jackie (Showtime)
No contest for #1 this year. Despite the wonder of this season in general, one show stood head and shoulders above all the others, with one of the great seasons in recent memory, season 2 of Nurse Jackie, which isn't even over yet. The show debuted at the end of last summer and I guess season 1 officially is included in this assessment, but what was a really great opening season of a show has really hit its groove and I'm amazed week in and week out by how much drama, comedy, and perfect storytelling can be wrapped into a single half hour a week.
Edie Falco plays Jackie, a nurse at All Saints, a hospital in New York City, and her flaws are more than enough for multiple shows. She's a prescription drug addict with a penchant for doing anything to get her fix, she's a bully, she's cheating on her husband with the hospital's (former) pharmacist, and she also has two young children at home. She's also, of course, a great friend, a great nurse (although far from perfect, she's the "go-to" nurse for everything in the ER), and eminently likable, played to perfection by Falco. She's so believable, so wonderful, so perfect, that you almost forgive her for her many indiscretions, but the show never lets you forget them. In last week's episode, she tries to comfort her close friend Dr. O'Hara after O'Hara found out her girlfriend was cheating on her, by comparing her girlfriend's situation with her own -- her husband Kevin and her boyfriend Eddie.
Jackie: "For what it's worth, it is possible to love two people at the same time."
Dr. O'Hara: "I'd rather be dead than be Kevin or Eddie."
It was just a shout-out amazing line from her best friend, who for the first time on the series, tells how she really feels about Jackie cheating on her husband and Jackie reacts the only way she can -- she doesn't. Which is her typical reaction to most of her life's decisions, she doesn't deal, she can't deal, it's all too much to deal with so she hits the drugs and hopes for the best. And the best is our delight as viewers.
Jackie's character has been strong throughout the series, but it's the supporting cast this season that has grown and made the show so perfect. Dr. O'Hara has had several storylines (her mother's death, her jealousy of Coop over the magazine thing, her lesbian foray) and Eve Best has knocked them all out of the park. I'm a sucker for a British accent (who isn't?) but she is just a wonderful sidekick to Jackie's character, amazing in every single scene. Merritt Wever as young nurse Zoey has grown from annoying "candy striper" to a wonderful, confident (sort of) character of her own, especially after her pregnancy scare, while Anna Deavere Smith's hospital administrator has gone from comic relief to a wonderful character in her own right. The male characters on the show are less well developed. Peter Facinelli's Coop remains somewhat one-note and Jackie's husband is a little underdeveloped, but Paul Schulze's Eddie has taken a much darker tone this season after Jackie broke up with him (sort of) and his sinister presence this season has given consequences to Jackie's actions that threaten to overturn the life she has managed so far to hold onto. It's really wonderful. All of it is wonderful, and I've gone on and on I know, but it's the best show on television. Nothing else is close right now.
2. Lost (ABC)
The final season. Finally. The show definitely threatened in recent seasons to follow the same path as The X-Files -- by the time that show started to finally reveal the secrets in its ultra-confusing mythology, I couldn't really remember which questions were getting answered and I wasn't sure why I should even care anymore. But while Lost came close -- I actually don't remember which questions are getting answered at this point -- I do still care, at least about the characters, if not necessarily why they ended up on the island in the first place (they were "candidates" in some chess game between Jacob and the Smoke Monster? -- that's just silly). The final season's episodes have been largely well-crafted and entertaining and the show has managed to keep my interest through the entirety of its 6 year run but I'm still shocked at how well it has done in my year-end post for a show I claim with all sincerity that I hate. I guess maybe despite its frustrating nature I did kind of like it.
Since I started doing these lists for Vague Space in 2005 (the season Lost began) here's where Lost has ranked.
2004/05: NR (I didn't watch the first season). #1 show, The Amazing Race
2005/06: #4 for Lost. #1 show, Arrested Development
2006/07: #2 for Lost. #1 show, The Office
2007/08: #1 for Lost. #1 show, Lost
2008/09: #1 for Lost. #1 show, Lost
2009/10: #2 for Lost. #1 show, Nurse Jackie
Before Vague Space began, I don't have a record of my seasonal favorites, but I can say with some certainly that Seinfeld dominated my favorite shows list in the first half of the '90s, The X-Files took over in the middle part and Buffy the Vampire Slayer dominated it in the latter half and start of the '00s. I'm not sure what my favorite shows were after Buffy season 5 (2000/01) -- probably Survivor won one year, maybe Angel in its season 4 (2002/03), but it's been a much more disjointed affair, as you can see, with the exception of Lost, which has fairly dominated the latter half of this decade. I just didn't realize.
3. It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia (FX)
It's a show that is incredibly hit-or-miss. Season 1 was short and they were trying to find their footing and Danny DeVito wasn't in the cast but it had its moments. Season 2 was one of the greatest collections of hilarious episodes any show has done. Ever. We're talking Season 4 of Seinfeld great. It didn't win any of the above lists because I didn't watch it during that season. Season 3 was bad, a huge fall off from the 2nd season and then season 4 was fairly bad, at the start, but turned into something really great by the end, with the entire musical episode finale one of the highlights of the entire series. Season 5 continued the season 4 resurgence and was really wonderful, up there (nearly) to the season 2 joys. The beer pong episode was an instant classic. "Mac and Dennis Break Up" was brilliant. And "Kitten Mittens" were hilarious. The best episode, though, was "The Gang Hits the Road", a road trip out of Philadelphia that doesn't get very far, but was just laugh-out-loud funny throughout.
4. True Blood (HBO)
It's last episode was in August, but that counts for the season in my mind, so here's my recap from September:
My 2nd favorite show from last year's season has had a strong run this summer, but not quite at the level of their first season. There were two distinct storylines, the first involving Sookie and Bill in Dallas, trying to locate Eric's "maker" Godric, who happened to have voluntarily been kidnapped by the Fellowship of the Sun, a freak scene of religious nuts who -- despite being super-religious wackos (isn't that redundant?) -- were kind of right to fear vampires. The second story line was the increasingly bizarre and highly sexual storyline involving Maryanne and her bacchanal celebrations back in Bon Temps, which by the end of the season, had turned into an orgy of human zombies in service to her, a Maennad (sp?) trying to make a sacrifice to her god Dionysus by using Sam's body. Yeah, it was a little ridiculous, and while I loved the buildup of the Maryanne storyline, I didn't like the conclusion, when every single person in the town except Sam and a returning Sookie and Bill, were under Maryanne's evil spell. The trick that Sam and Bill play to end up killing her was mildly clever, but I saw it coming a million miles away, and the damage had sort of already been done. It took Buffy until season 5 to have a storyline about a scary female "god" who couldn't be killed, so while this True Blood subplot was probably a little better, it was still a minor disappointment. The first storyline in Dallas, though, was much more enjoyable, probably because hanging out with Eric and the other vampires was just a lot more fun than the white trash Bon Temps people. The suicide death of Godric was very well played and a highlight of the season. The final episode, in the post-Maryanne part, had Eggs getting killed (thankfully, I hated his character and his effect on Tara), Bill proposing to Sookie, and then Bill getting captured by a vampire obviously working for Eric, which will hopefully lead to a great season 3. The only downside -- I think we have to wait until next summer for that to happen.
5. Big Love (HBO)
The fourth season of the Mormon masterpiece wasn't quite as good as a third season that was the first I'd ever watched, but it was quite good at times. The thing I love most about this show is its treatment of religion... the characters are so staunchly religious that it warps their minds and they do all sorts of horrible, or more frequently, downright idiotic things in service of their religions (the multiple wives thing is just a minor subset of what goes on in this show) but the show is shown largely in their points of view, without judgment, letting a viewer come to his own conclusions about the tragic consequences of such fealty toward religion. To me, it's pretty obvious that the religious beliefs espoused by the Mormons on the show are ridiculous and extreme, but to me all religion is ridiculous and extreme. I just wish people who might come to that conclusion about Mormonism or Islam or Scientology would take a half-second to think about their own Christianity and its beliefs and practices (and societal evils) and think "hey, maybe it's religion in general that's the problem, and not a specific one". But I know that's a lot to ask. For now, I guess I just wish more people watched this show (although it did have its highest ratings ever this year).
6. Weeds (Showtime)
Another show from last summer. Another recap for you that I wrote already...
Not their best season. Not their worst. Somewhere between the peaks of seasons 1 & 4 and the low point of season 3, this year showed a lot of promise for Nancy as she broke out of the controlling influence of her Mexican drug runner boyfriend early on, at great risk to herself and her family, and planned to raise their baby on her own (with Andy's help). But then she kind of went right on back to her stupid Nancy ways and dumped Andy to return to baby daddy's house and world. So that was disappointing in the arc of Nancy's redemption, which never really got started, but to be honest, it's exactly what Nancy would do. Subplots about Doug and Celia and Silas all trying to become drug dealers didn't really work very well, except as comic relief, but I enjoyed the introduction of Alanis Morrissette as Nancy's doctor/Andy's lover. I also enjoyed the conclusion of the season, when Nancy tries to fight back against her now husband's puppet-master, Pilar, and especially the dramatic murder of her rival in the final scene by... wait for it... Nancy's 14-year-old son, Shane. Yeah, that was pretty awesome. I can't wait for another season.
7. Parks & Recreation (NBC)
There are four comedies on NBC Thursday, and their overall ratings are very sketchy, even though the 18-49 ratings of The Office and 30 Rock remain high (the former often in the Top 10). But the two veterans are definitely dragging a little, in quality, and in performance, and it definitely seems like the "Must See Thursday" days of Seinfeld and Friends are long, long gone. But in the middle of this block of programs is a single show that no one ever watches that is one of the funniest programs on television. It's in its second season and the first season was kind of sketchy at best, with Amy Poehler trying to emulate the worst of Steve Carrell's character in The Office. But this year, Poehler has found a nuanced way for her dumb manager to be incredibly endearing and it has changed the whole dynamic of the show. In addition, each of the supporting characters have become well-rounded in what is an actually brilliant cast (Rashida Jones, Aziz Azari, Chris Pratt, and the guy who plays Ron Swanson are all wonderful). The show is just consistently funny, consistently entertaining, and is everything The Office was in its first couple seasons of brilliance. Nobody's watching this, but it's been miraculously renewed for next season, so hopefully a slow build will grow its audience. It's one of the best comedies on television.
8. The Amazing Race (CBS)
It's still the best reality show on television, in what was its 15th and 16th running of the series. I don't really remember what happened in the fall, except that I liked it, but this spring was pretty exciting with a whole group of equally matched teams racing for the finish. The cops were a fan favorite who were dominant at times but got dumped out in 4th. The lesbians were more generally hated, but got U-turned by the beauty queen and dumped out in 5th. Which left the Cowboys, the Brothers, and the Models fighting for the title, and while the Cowboys were definitely favored, you had the feeling that with this show truly anything could happen. And that's what did happen. The young Brothers (one gay, one straight) sweet-talked a flight attendant to get them to move up to empty Business Class seats with an hour left in the opening flight to San Francisco, which gave them a 20-30 minute lead on the other racers in the last leg, a lead they never relinquished. In retrospect, maybe the last leg was a little too easy, or maybe the Brothers just ran it too well, but it was an exciting finish, an exciting Race, and another great season for a venerable show.
9. Modern Family (ABC)
This new sitcom from ABC is getting the ratings that Parks & Recreation should be getting, but this show about three related families is both laugh-out loud funny and endearing, and I'm glad it's doing so well. "Regular" sitcoms on major networks just aren't generally funny, or haven't been in a decade, and this show does use the overused device of "reality" show illusion, with the characters talking to the camera, but it's pretty traditional otherwise, and just downright hilarious.
10. Friday Night Lights (DirecTV, NBC)
The NBC version of season 4 is just now appearing on television, but the DirecTV season came on last year and was good enough to sneak into the top 10. The show made major changes in its cast, due to budgetary constraints, and the loss of several great characters (Lila, Tyra, Matt a few episodes in) was definitely felt by the show, which struggled to find its footing early in the season. The new characters -- and actors -- weren't nearly as good, and the storyline -- Coach moving to the African-American populated cross-town school East Dillon after getting forced out of his old job by the quarterback's coach -- seemed forced at best. But Coach and Mrs. Taylor were still there and any show that has the two of them at its center can't be bad. The pregnancy/abortion storyline that Mrs. Taylor got unwittingly involved in was handled with absolute brilliance and was a highlight of this television season. I'm not sure if the program will be back next year, but if it's not I will miss it.
Big Bang Theory