It’s nearing the end of another year, so media attention turns to Top 10 lists in all their many forms. So, I thought I’d offer my own rundown of the top TV shows that have entertained and delighted me this year, drawn from the well of UK and US offerings. I’m only human, so I didn’t see absolutely everything that aired this year, so apologies if there are any glaring omissions in your eyes.
And it’s worth keeping in mind that my Top 10 is ranked by a combination of quality and entertainment-value, which may explain some of the more “unusual” choices and positioning. There are a few quality shows that didn’t make my list because, while I appreciate their many virtues, they just weren’t “appointment TV” for me every week, which is surely what matters the most.
Anyway, on with the countdown, in ascending order:
10. SPARTACUS: BLOOD & SAND, season 1. It’s a familiar précis of this swords n’ sandals series: a terrible opening salvo of episodes that morphed into an emotive, enthralling spectacle. The green shoots of recovery were evident in episode 5, and shortly after the series became must-see TV and stormed to a blood-soaked finale. The reason it became so compelling? Simple: it wasn’t afraid to take risks. Characters died unexpectedly (in often shocking ways), while the violence started to really mean something, as the human drama and political maneuvering came into sharp relief. It was a show that took awhile to find its feet, but I’m so glad it did. After the six-part prequel series Gods Of The Arena airs in January on Starz, the show will resume with a new lead actor (owing to star Andy Whitfield stepping aside due to cancer), but I hope this won’t cripple the show’s future. BRAVO/STARZ.
9. DOLLHOUSE, season 2. Eyebrows were raised when Fox gave Joss Whedon’s sci-fi drama a second season, given its dismal ratings. And, while the show’s cancellation was announced weeks after its return, this early heads-up gave the writers time to adjust the remaining episodes and condense five year’s worth of ideas into several jampacked, creative episodes. Consequently, while often hectic and hurried, Dollhouse’s second year was a sugar-rush of twists, shocks, deep themes and big ideas. They simply did everything the mind-boggling premise allowed for, and managed to bring the show to a worthy conclusion. It was creatively unstable in its first year, partly owing to studio interference, but this became an underappreciated sci-fi delight. FOX/ITV2.
8. DEXTER, season 4. It’ll never achieve the raw impact and unpredictable smarts of its first two years, but Dexter bounced back from a terrible third season. The success of season 4 can be laid at the feet of John Lithgow, the ever-brilliant Michael C. Hall, and the unfolding of a mystery that filled a dozen episodes well. Lithgow, playing a veteran serial killer and unsuspecting mentor to Dexter, was a particularly fascinating ghoul to watch, and the season benefitted from the fact it could switch between Hall and Lithgow, as both actors can overcome blotchy writing. The constant problems of Dexter were still present (the supporting cast and subplots are mostly a washout), but when it has a decent masterplan and Emmy-winning actors at its disposal, it can overcome its weaknesses. FX.
7. BOARDWALK EMPIRE, season 1. A prestigious HBO series, with a phenomenal pilot directed by the legendary Martin Scorsese (Goodfellas, Casino), starring Steve Buscemi as Nucky Thompson, the treasurer of Atlantic City in the 1920s, who starts to use his position to turn a profit during Prohibition. It’s a beautifully-crafted series with excellent performances, particularly from Kelly Macdonald as sweet Irish immigrant Margaret Schroeder, whose life becomes entangled with Nucky’s. It’s a little slow after the crackerjack pilot, and requires some viewer commitment in the first half, but things pick up in the second-half (helped by the fact the large ensemble become easier to identify), and it escalated into a great finale. HBO.
6. MISFITS, series 2. The second year of this teen superhero drama continued the excellent work of its first year, but had the extra confidence to go deeper with a compelling mytharc. The secret to Misfits is that it takes hoary comic-book ideas and gives them a contemporary urban spin, in a gritty style you just don’t see on US TV. It’s rude, profane and violent, but also tender, clever and funny. The performances of the four leads are brilliant (particularly scene-stealer Robert Sheehan as Irish gobshite Nathan), while the camerawork, pulsing soundtrack, and snappy visuals belie the low budget. The fact there are only 6 episodes ever year means it moves with incredible speed and purpose, too, although series 2 somewhat dropped the ball in its finale this year (which directly resulted in this appearing relatively low in my Top 10.) But forget Heroes, this is a superhero TV show that truly speaks to a contemporary audience. E4.
5. DOCTOR WHO, series 5. This was a year of huge change for the grandaddy sci-fi series: a new showrunner in Steven Moffat, a new Doctor in rubber-faced Matt Smith, a new companion in leggy Karen Gillan, and plenty of behind-the-scenes changes. It was still the show everyone had fallen in love with (again) in 2005, but with a “dark fairy tale” feel. However, it wasn’t the homerun everyone was expecting, as series 5 had a number of failings and disappointments. These generally stemmed from the sense that Moffat’s gifts as a writer don’t quite translate to that of a showrunner, with a few decisions causing ire (the hunchbacked “i-Daleks”, sub-par mid-year episodes, the eroding success of Amy Pond’s character). The reason Doctor Who is still so high on my list is because, well, it’s still enormous fun to watch and truly spellbinding at times. Matt Smith was excellent (stepping into big shoes vacated by the beloved David Tennant), the aesthetic of the show was much improved, the two-part Weeping Angels storyline was a highlight of the year, and the climax packed some punch. BBC1/BBC AMERICA.
4. SHERLOCK, series 1. The prospect of a modern update of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic Victorian sleuth Sherlock Holmes could have been a monumental embarrassment, but instead the BBC had a surprise summer hit on their hands. The involvement of Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss (both prominent writers on Doctor Who), is half the reason this reinvention worked, as both men are passionate fans of the detective and knew the secret to a triumphant comeback: focus on the characters and their relationship, not the iconography. The other half of its success was perfect casting in Benedict Cumberbatch as the obsessive investigator, with Martin Freeman as his even-tempered assistant John Watson. There were only three episodes in this miniseries, and episode 2 is widely considered a misstep, but the bookending installments were deliriously entertaining and gripping miniature movies. BBC1/PBS.
3. MAD MEN, season 3-4. I’ll be honest; I’m not quite so captivated by Mad Men these days, because it’s been around long enough for me to start taking its acting and writing for granted. That’s only natural. However, season 4 made a move to keep things fresh, with the interim divorce of the Drapers and the creation of a new upstart ad agency. It was a year of big, refreshing changes, but maintained the core qualities that everyone enjoys about Mad Men, while also disposing of the glacial pace some detractors hate. Everything about this series continues to reeks of quality and beauty, even if it’s overall direction is sometimes frustrating. BBC4/AMC.
2. LOST, season 6. It’s been my absolute favourite show since it began in 2004, but it didn’t quite manage to deliver a smooth landing. Ironic for a show that started with a plane crash! Even more ironically, for a sci-fi mystery partly influenced by the work of Stephen King, Lost mirrored the horror author’s tendency to write weak endings. However, let’s not bash Lost over the head with a brick too much, because the final season was still very entertaining and a good ride.
It’s just a shame only 50% of the questions the series raised were answered satisfyingly, although from a character perspective it was strong to the end. The divisive feature-length finale has its problems, but it was still the biggest TV event of 2010 for me, and six years of build-up increased the potency of its beautiful closing sequence with Jack and Vincent the dog in the bamboo field. I cared about these characters, so seeing their story conclude (no matter how imperfectly) still really meant something to me. It could have been better, sure, but it could also have been a lot worse. ABC/SKY1.
1. BREAKING BAD, season 3. The third season of this phenomenal drama was superb television, despite a slight dip in its third-quarter batch of episodes — because nothing could best the splendor of episode 7′s climactic sequence, where Hank was attacked by twin Mexican drug cartel hitmen. That moment was easily the most intense, edge-of-your-seat moment on television this year. In fact, I can’t even think of a movie that came close to delivering that kind of tension.
The rest of the show benefitted from Breaking Bad’s slow-burn style that ratchets the tension and then explodes in regular, controlled bursts. Compelling performances from Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul, as always, but it was also nice to see Anna Gunn getting some better material in the first-half of the year. The only concern with Breaking Bad is the fact the writers half-improvise so much of the storyline; which means it can be amazingly unpredictable, but can also hit dry patches when you sense the writers scrambling to reverse from a dead-end they’ve wandered down. But despite its few faults, this is by far the most gripping and dazzling drama on television right now. AMC.
- Being Human (series 2)
- Community (season 1)
- Justified (season 1)
- The Good Wife (season 1)
- Fringe (season 2-3)
- Peep Show (series 7)