2010 was one of the best years I can remember for new TV shows, as it seemed like every other week I was welcoming some rookie that I knew (or in some cases hoped) would be in my viewing rotation for a very long time to come. After several years in the wilderness, HBO reloaded with a pair of dramas with links to the channel’s golden period, plus its best miniseries in years. AMC followed up “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men” with two potential-laden new series. FX added a bunch of impressive newcomers to its stable.
The freshman field overall was so deep that even though several shows on my Top 10 list won’t be back in 2011, there’s still an awful lot of good, young TV to enjoy.
1. “Terriers” (FX): So great. So canceled. We can debate for the umpteenth time the reasons why this glorious buddy private eye show was such an utter ratings failure. Orr we can celebrate the sparkling chemistry between Donal Logue and Michael Raymond-James; the crackling dialogue from Ted Griffin, Shawn Ryan, Tim Minear and company; the way episodes could be light and funny one moment and then smack you across the face in the next; the way funnyman Logue proved himself to be a powerhouse dramatic actor; the way Griffin tied together a season-long story arc in a fantastic and satisfying final episode; or any of the other reasons “Terriers” was far and away the best new show of the year. Logue’s alcoholic hero Hank Dolworth would almost certainly focus on the negative. Me, I’m going to remember the joy “Terriers” gave me, however briefly.
2. “The Pacific” (HBO): Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg, Bruce McKenna and company’s follow-up to “Band of Brothers” had a bigger challenge on their hands, because the Pacific theater of World War II was both more wide-ranging and savage than what went on in Europe. So they split the narrative between three Marines – cool veteran John Basilone (Jon Seda), cynical hell-raiser Bob Leckie (James Badge Dale) and shattered innocent Eugene Sledge (Joseph Mazzello) – and tried to convey the intense brutality of the ground war as best they could. There were a few bumps in the early episodes, and the much darker “Pacific” is never going to have the rewatchability factor of “Band,” but the deeper we went into the war of these three men, the more powerful an experience it became. Just a stunning achievement, on both a technical and emotional level.
3.”Louie” (FX): Comedian Louis CK cut a very simple deal with FX: CK agreed to make a show for the dirt-cheap price of a few hundred thousand dollars per episode, and FX in turn agreed to leave him entirely alone to do whatever he wanted. The end result was a fascinating, often-hilarious, occasionally-moving, always-surprising collection of short films tied together only by CK’s worldview as a depressed, self-loathing but oddly non-cynical middle-aged comedian. He could go broad (Murphy’s Law applies to Louie’s first date), uncomfortable (Louie is humiliated by a bully) or incredibly, heart-tuggingly dark (Louie remembers a terrifying Catholic school lesson about the Crucifixion). Even the stories that didn’t work tended to be fascinating for the ways in which they didn’t.
4. “Boardwalk Empire” (HBO): This gangster epic about Atlantic City at the dawn of Prohibition was a stacked deck if ever there was one. Direction from the legendary Martin Scorsese (and then fine approximation of that by Tim Van Patten and company), a writing staff led by “Sopranos” number two man Terence Winter, and a superb cast that included Steve Buscemi, Michael Pitt, Kelly Macdonald, Michael K. Williams and Michael Shannon, among many impressive others? How could this not be spectacular? There were a few brief moments early on when the show seemed to falter under the weight of expectations, or seem as cool and removed as Buscemi’s political fixer Nucky Thompson, but the performances, the gorgeous writing, direction and production design carried the day. Along with the next show on this list, it signaled HBO’s return from the creative wilderness it’s been in for the last few years, and the first season finale promised an even more explosive second year.
5. “Treme” (HBO): How do you follow a work of art that’s considered by many to be the greatest in the history of its medium? Well, if you’re David Simon, you follow “The Wire” with a smaller but no less powerful of angry project: a drama about musicians in New Orleans in the months after Hurrican Katrina. Less overtly plot-driven than “The Wire,” “Treme” got over on atmosphere (I’ve never been to New Orleans but feel that I have by now), intoxicating music, and devotion to its wonderfully-drawn characters, played by a murderer’s row ensemble that included Khandi Alexander, Melissa Leo, Steve Zahn and “Wire” alums Wendell Pierce and Clarke Peters.
6. “Rubicon” (AMC): This conspiracy thriller about an intelligence analyst (James Badge Dale again) started off bumpy, as the creator quit following the first episode. And it ended bumpy, with a finale that did a poor job of bringing anything to a satisfying end. In between, though, “Rubicon” became a terrifically moody, atmospheric, distinctive take on the spy drama, focusing primarily on how this important, oft-dramatized type of work leaves the people who do it lonely, emotional wrecks. And as for that finale, I’m just going to pretend the show ended with its penultimate episode, with its more fitting evil triumphant vibe.
7. “Justified” (FX): The novels of Elmore Leonard are so filled with rich characters, crackling dialogue and exciting incident that it’s startling how often Hollywood has screwed up the adaptations of them. “Justified,” spinning off a character from a pair of Leonard books and one short story, is one of the few to get his stuff right. As Raylan Givens, a modern-day US Marshal who carries himself like a 19th century gunfighter, Timothy Olyphant had swagger, charm and menace to spare. Walton Goggins matched him as Raylan’s born-again adversary, and after the show floundered in the early weeks with too many disposable standalone stories, it got thrilling in a hurry by focusing on the long-reaching consequences of Raylan’s itchy trigger finger and unrelenting moral code, which he sums up neatly as “You make me pull, I put you down.”
8. “Sherlock” (PBS): The movie business had only just tried to modernize Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson to a degree with the hyperactive Guy Ritchie/Robert Downey Jr./Jude Law movie, but TV outdid that gang by literally bringing Holmes (the superbly-named and cast Benedict Cumberbatch) and Watson (Martin Freeman) into the 21st century. Though many contemporary TV sleuths have cribbed heavily from the Holmes playbook, Cumberbatch, Freeman and writers Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss were able to show that the man himself could be just as vital and distinctive in a modern setting as he could in Victorian times.
9. “Archer” (FX): Like “Rubicon,” an unconventional take on the spy genre, but so very, very different in every other way. What if the world’s most handsome, efficient secret agent (played by H. Jon Benjamin) was also a petulant, narcissistic little mama’s boy? What if the spy agency where he worked was a hotbed of office romances, HR complaints, budget reviews and the other weird drudgery we experience at our own far more mundane workplaces? What if the whole story was told as a raunchy, gut-bustingly funny animated comedy? Well, then you’d be in what Archer himself would call danger zone.
10. “Parenthood” (NBC): This adaptation of the old Ron Howard film is one big balancing act, trying to find time for its sprawling cast each week and wavering between the dark and the comic, and between the messiness of real life and the tidiness of hour-long TV drama. That it usually pulls that off is a testament to that great cast, headed by Peter Krause, Lauren Graham and the surprisingly laid-back charm of Dax Shepard, and to a creative team that more often than not finds a way to isolate moments that feel like life and yet advance the familiar stories.
Tough omissions: AMC’s zombie epic “The Walking Dead” was creatively uneven, but when it was good (particularly in its debut episode), it was every bit as haunting and scary as the best of the genre. FOX’s con man soap opera “Lone Star” seemed like it might have had trouble being interesting after half a season, but seeing as it was canceled after only two episodes aired, I can just remember how strong those were and not fret about the problems that might have been.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org