The Top 10 TV Shows of 2010


By: Aleks Chan

1. MAD MEN
2. PARKS AND RECREATION
3. BREAKING BAD
4. PARTY DOWN
5. BOARDWALK EMPIRE
6. FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS
7. COMMUNITY
8. THE GOOD WIFE
9. IN TREATMENT
10. 30 ROCK

You’ve probably been told countless times about how great TV has become in the last few years, that a supposed Golden Age is upon us. Whatever you want to call it, there’s definitely something extraordinary happening in TV right now: In my short experience as someone who writes about the medium, this was the hardest year yet to complete my top 10, there’s so much to choose from. In many ways, my list is rife with clichés: low-rated, critical darlings and niche programs – my completed lineup is made up of Shows You Should Watch, those shows professional critics keep telling you are great, get heaps of ink telling you further, and now here I am telling you all over again.


Then is it really a Golden Age if the same handful of shows gets all the praise? You’ll notice that only new show on my list is HBO’s BOARDWALK EMPIRE, a sumptuous, Scorsesian novelization of 1920s Atlantic City, with the soul-peering eyes of the great Steve Buscemi at the lead. But that has more to do with a weaker crop of new fall shows this year; it’s not like 2010 didn’t have any other great new shows. (TERRIERS, LOUIE, and PARENTHOOD quickly come to mind, but for one reason or another, I just couldn’t bump any of the shows on my list for them. Consider this parenthetical an honorable mention.) Really, returning shows rose to new heights of excellence that overshadowed new shows. It’s the Golden Age of Subsequent Seasons.

Like MAD MEN, my number one pick for the second year in a row (and not just for the cheese), which turned out a nearly pristine fourth season that took the aftermath of the Draper divorce and turned it into a rich meditation of our desires being challenged by outside expectations – we wanted Don Draper (Jon Hamm) to reinvent himself (again), but just as things begin to shift, he marries his coquettish secretary. “The Suitcase” was in many ways the most important episode of the series (maybe even the year), taking the show’s complicated platonic relationship in Don and Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), and bringing them even closer as their lives are at the brink of change.

It’s noteworthy that of the four comedies that made my top 10, three of them air Thursday nights on NBC. They also all famously started out rather weakly, only to blossom midway through their first seasons to become rollicking half-hours: PARKS AND RECREATION is an Amy Poehler comedy extravaganza (if anyone ever does a Lucille Ball biopic, she’s your girl), shrewdly set within the offices of a struggling municipal government of Pawnee, Indiana. COMMUNITY has winningly morphed into a critical examination and send-up of genre tropes and – rather brilliantly – our expectations and understanding of those tropes. 30 ROCK’s meta-media-politico-criticism started to feel too perfunctory, but the back half of its fourth and the first half of its fifth killed. And a brief moment of silence for PARTY DOWN, the tragically misunderstood, barely seen, and swiftly cancelled Rob Thomas comedy about struggling showbiz workers who make ends meet as caterers. Subtle, observational, and squeamishly hilarious, it had a golden cast that included Adam Scott and Lizzy Caplan. 

On the drama side, BREAKING BAD was for a while sitting atop of this list – its third season, where chemistry teacher-turned-meth cooker Walter White (Bryan Cranston) became consumed by darkness, was powerful. As was the penultimate season of FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, which masterfully introduced a new cast of characters worth wrapping our interests in, tackling a tricky abortion storyline maturely and honestly, and never once did it feel like an afterschool special. Elsewhere, THE GOOD WIFE is a sexy legal thriller that artfully delves into the psychosexual machinations of the political arena – and it’s on CBS, of all places. And IN TREATMENT this season was a special kind of great, the first season to not be adapted from the Israeli original; a purely original mental workout mixed with a master class in the nuances of acting.

I won’t go over what shows I didn’t include and why (that would only court madness), just know that this list has been revised, (internally) debated, and picked apart for the better half of a month, narrowed down from a list of nearly 30 shows, compiled over the year just for this finale review. I know in a lot of ways this list is unsurprising and conservative in its choices, but I truly found these 10 shows to be representative of television greatness. Maybe that’s how we know we’re in a Golden Age, when we can’t count the greats on our fingers. 

Aleks Chan is a contributing writer to The TV Addict. He has seen every episode of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER four times, has once referred to his DVR as his “best friend,” and has only seen the pilot episode of THE SOPRANOS — and has no intention to apologize for it. He lives in Austin, Texas. His name is pronounced like Alex. Email him at alekschan.thetvaddict@gmail.com, follow him on Twitter (@alekstvaddict), or his own blog, Screen Reader.

In case you missed it:
Our 2010 TV Year in Review (Part I)
Our 2010 TV Year in Review (Part II)
Our 2010 TV Year in Review (Part III)
Our 2010 TV Year in Review (Part IV)
Our 2010 TV Year in Review (Part v)
The Top 10 TV Shows of 2010

  • bws

    Any top ten list is asking for disagreement so I’ll throw a couple of comments out there. I just can’t abide by any list with Mad Men on top. Is it a top ten show? Sure. However, it was a largely uneven season with some great highs (The Suitcase) followed by unfortunate lows (the next three episodes and the terrible Draper voiceovers, seriously, voiceovers???). More so than any other season, Mad Men felt like it was trying to be a showcase for the individual actors (and get some actor Emmys) and not the overall plot. As a result, the stories seemed less cohesive and more scattershot. Likely, it will pay off for Mad Men as Breaking Bad (my #1 show for last year and this year) will not go against season 4 of Mad Men due to scheduling.

    I’ve watched 8/10 on your list, not getting into the Good Wife or In Treatment. I’d place FNL number two although it’s difficult to place in a yearly list due to its broadcast schedule. I believe most critics put Season 4 on their 2009 “Best of…” and this current DirecTV season 5 on their 2010 “Best of…”

    I would also have LOST on my top ten, probably moving Boardwalk Empire off the list entirely. It didn’t meet expectations for me and seemed to be propped up by scenery and not the actors/writing. HBO had to give it a second season simply because of the large cost involved. They need to use those sets again just as a business case.

  • Raked

    So glad Community made the list! The only thing that I can’t agree with here is Parks and Rec. I just can’t enjoy that show. I find the characters obnoxious, except maybe one or two, and since they’re so minor, they’re rarely featured. I know I’m outside the majority in this respect, but I just had to say it.

  • Dexter didn’t make the list?

    I can only hope it made the top 20. And Fringe too. If there was any year Fringe deserved to break into any kind of list, it was 2010.

  • @bws: We’ll have to agree to disagree about Mad Men. But I do love how much debate it sparks. As for FNL, I put season 4 on my list, having not seen any of season 5, since I don’t have DirecTV. I felt that since a majority of viewers (myself included) didn’t see season 4 until it reaired this year on NBC, I could still place it on my list for 2010.

    And I’ll admit that the final season of Lost, while superbly acted, fell short for me. I wasn’t a fan of the finale. Maybe in a less competitive year it would have made my personal top 10.

    @Sourabh: I only considered shows that I actually watched for my list and unfortunately I have (foolishly) fallen behind on Fringe, which I have nothing but praise for lately so I’m working on a Fringe-binge to rectify this.

  • bws

    Agree with @Sourabh, Fringe did have a fantastic 2010 with a great ending to season 2 and then reaching even new heights at the start of this season. They take big gambles and it’s paying off for their small, but devoted fanbase.

    I would leave Dexter Season 5 off the top ten. More than any other show airing right now, they need an end date. Until then, we’re going to get wheel-spinning finales like the one on Sunday.

    As for Mad Men, it doesn’t really spark a lot of debate about how good it is The message boards are near unanimous love fests.

  • bws

    Agree with @Sourabh, Fringe did have a fantastic 2010 with a great ending to season 2 and then reaching even new heights at the start of this season. They take big gambles and it’s paying off for their small, but devoted fanbase.

    I would leave Dexter Season 5 off the top ten. More than any other show airing right now, they need an end date. Until then, we’re going to get wheel-spinning finales like the one on Sunday.

    As for Mad Men, it doesn’t really spark a lot of debate about how good it is The message boards are near unanimous love fests.

  • Bizarro Pedro

    sorry but Modern Family and Cougar Town have been funnier than 30 Rock this year.

  • I have never seen thes shows so don’t know if they are any good. Parenthood sounds pretty good – I always liked Lauren Graham on Gilmore Girls.