It’s the time of year when entertainment writers around the country begin publishing their “best of” lists for the year, so I’ve decided to throw my hat into the ring with a list of my favorite new shows of 2010. Notice that I say “favorite” rather than “best of.” I cannot do a proper “best of” list without having seen every single new show that debuted in 2010, so if one of your favorite new shows is not on this list, chances are that I haven’t seen it.
There are a few interesting things to note about this list, not the least of which is that three of my top five shows (Caprica, Rubicon, Terriers) have already been canceled, while a fourth (The Event) probably won’t make it to a second season, a trend that does not bode well for quality programming on television. Another thing that stands out about this list is that only two of the shows are on network television (and only one on a “big-three” network), a testament to the fact that most of the best TV can now be found on cable channels like AMC, FX, and USA.
A few other interesting tidbits: only half of these shows debuted in the fall, none of them are sitcoms (unless you count Ugly Americans), and none of them are reality shows (you will never find a reality show in any “best of” list of mine, but that’s a story for another article).
So, without further ado, here are my ten favorite new shows of the year. In parentheses are the time of year they debuted and the channel where you can find them.
10. Ugly Americans (Spring, Comedy Central)
This half-hour cartoon fits right in with Comedy Central’s late night lineup. The premise of the show is an alternate New York where monsters are integrated into society. The main character, Mark, works for the Department of Integration as a support group counselor for monsters, has a zombie roommate who often winds up losing parts of his body, and a half-demon girlfriend with a tendency to flip out, hell-style. Though the gags can be hit or miss, the hits are often hysterical, and the Manbird episode was one of the funniest things I’ve seen this year.
9. Covert Affairs (Summer, USA)
The first of two spy dramas on the list, this started out as one of those guilty pleasure shows that got better with each episode. I almost didn’t watch it because early reviews tagged it as a pale imitation of Alias (one of my favorite shows). This show is definitely not on an Alias level, but it is more grounded in reality (i.e. no Rambaldi mythology), so it has been able to carve its own niche. The always watchable Piper Perabo is surrounded by a strong supporting cast, making this a good hour of escapist entertainment.
8. Nikita (Fall, WB)
The other spy show on my list could have gone wrong in so many ways trying to build another series around the classic La Femme Nikita, but rather than retreading or rebooting the film, the creators chose to set the series after the events of the film with a little twist: Nikita’s lover was murdered by Division and she has made it her life’s work to bring them down. To help her, she has placed a mole inside Division as a recruit, enabling her to stay a step ahead of the organization in a weekly game of cat and mouse. This series is a little weightier than Covert Affairs (a significant death has already occurred), and a strong cast led by Maggie Q make this a solid hour of television.
7. The Event (Fall, NBC)
The Event is one of those mythology shows that require you to pay attention on a weekly basis, ala Lost or Fringe. While not in the same league as those two stellar shows, it nevertheless succeeds in pulling you into the story and making you wonder about the nature of the “guests.” Are they aliens? Time travelers? Something else? Who are the people behind the attempt to kill the president and why? Unfortunately, NBC has done the show no favors by placing it on a long winter hiatus—this is normally a death sentence for a serialized drama (i.e. Jericho, Flash Forward) because many viewers never return. I have a feeling that the run of episodes scheduled to air in late February will be the show’s last.
6. Justified (Spring, FX)
This series was made for Timothy Olyphant. If you were one of the many to lament the loss of his Seth Bullock character when Deadwood was canceled, this is the show for you. Olyphant’s Raylan Givens is arguably the most bad-ass character on television. The series is essentially a modern day western set in Kentucky. Raylan is a U.S. Marshal reassigned from Miami to the district covering his hometown due to what his bosses believe is a tendency to be quick on the trigger. Back in his hometown, Raylan must deal not only with criminals, but also with his estranged ex-con father, his ex-wife, and a witness with whom he begins an affair. The best relationship, however, is between Raylan and Boyd Crowder (played by the excellent Walton Goggins), a childhood friend who grew up to be a criminal. Their confrontation in the series premiere has consequences that last throughout the first season. The second season begins in January; you should check it out.
5. Caprica (Winter, Syfy)
This Battlestar Galactica (BSG) spinoff was a victim of Syfy’s seemingly decreasing tolerance for serialized science fiction (see Stargate Universe, the latest casualty of this unfortunate trend) in favor of lighter fare like Eureka and Warehouse 13. Don’t get me wrong, both of the latter are very enjoyable shows, but I prefer some weight to my sci-fi, and Caprica delivered the goods. Admittedly, the series started off slow and likely alienated many BSG fans expecting something more action-oriented, but, much like a Joss Whedon or JJ Abrams series, it got better as it progressed and rewarded viewers who stuck around. Caprica explored weighty subjects like religious fanaticism, terrorism, racism, coping with tragic loss, and the dehumanization of a technologically advanced society, not to mention depicting the origin of cylons and laying the seeds for the eventual downfall of humanity. One of the coolest scenes happened late in the series when a prototype cylon was used by a mobster to annihilate his enemies before uttering the familiar phrase, “By your command,” in the well-known cylon voice from the original series. The show would likely have gotten even better from there as it moved closer to the rise of the cylons, but alas, we’ll never know. Fortunately, Syfy will be burning off the remaining five unaired episodes in a marathon on January 4th. I, for one, will be watching. Even knowing that the series is not coming back, it will be worth it.
4. Rubicon (Summer, AMC)
Rubicon was one of the more cerebral shows that I’ve seen on television, with a dense, labyrinthine plot—a thinking man’s drama about an analyst for a government think tank who uncovers a vast conspiracy during his investigation into a mentor’s death. Unfortunately, in this age of instant gratification television, Rubicon may have been too smart for its own good. It was the type of series that, had you missed an episode, it would have been very difficult to figure out what was going on. It was also largely devoid of action, which turned off many viewers (the lack of promotion by AMC in comparison to its other shows didn’t help, either). Rubicon may have been mostly dialogue-oriented, but that just served to make the few scenes of action more fierce and jarring than they otherwise would have been. This show made many critics’ year-end top-ten lists, and rightly so.
3. The Walking Dead (Fall, FX)
This has the potential to be the best show on television. The main reason it didn’t rank higher for me was the small sample (only six episodes in the first season). However, The Walking Dead provided more quality television in those six episodes than most shows accomplish in a year. I was originally just moderately intrigued when I first heard about the series, but when I discovered that Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile) was heavily involved (writing and directing the first episode), I became very excited to see it—and it more than lived up to the hype. If you haven’t watched it because you’re not a big zombie fan, I urge you to give it a shot. It’s really more of a morality/survival drama that just happens to have zombies in it. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of gore in keeping with the zombie genre (the episode titled “Guts” is … well, it’s in the title), but overall the show is about the relationships and conflicts among a group of people who have survived an apocalypse, and the choices they must make to stay alive. Television doesn’t get much better than this.
2. Terriers (Fall, FX)
Terriers was the most pleasant surprise (and most disappointing cancellation) of the entire year. This unheralded show quickly became must-see TV (for me and the other two people in the country who watched it). Normally when a series this great fails, I’m quick to blame reality television and the short attention span of the average American TV viewer, but in this case the show’s failure can be attributed to poor marketing and an unfortunate title that didn’t give viewers any idea of what the show was about (hint: it was not about dogs). I almost didn’t tune in myself because the ads made it appear to be just another throwaway buddy detective romp, but I decided to give it a shot because I like Donal Logue. I’m glad I did because this show turned out to be so much more than its billing. Far from the lightweight buddy comedy it was sold as, Terriers (with its gritty realism) was actually more akin to the great noir films of cinema. The entire season with its main story arc and numerous subplots played like a novel with well-drawn characters who you actually cared about. A stellar cast and superb writing set this series above almost anything else on television. Mystery, crime, romance, family drama, comic relief, heartbreak, shocking deaths—this show had it all, and it’s a tragedy that it never found an audience. I saw several columns written by critics throughout the season singing the show’s praises and urging people to tune in—if only FX had been half as enthusiastic in its own promotion of the show, perhaps it would still be on the air. Like Rubicon, Terriers made many critics’ top-ten lists for the year (noticing a pattern here?), and I even saw one critic rank it as the best new show of the year. I was tempted to put it in the top spot myself, that’s how much I loved this show.
1. Boardwalk Empire (Fall, HBO)
With top-notch production values (including dazzling sets that faithfully recreate 1920’s Atlantic City), great writing, and a stellar cast, Boardwalk Empire is like watching a mini motion picture on a weekly basis, but I would expect nothing less from the legendary Martin Scorcese (who directed the opening episode and remains heavily involved in the production of the series). Steve Buscemi is great as Nucky Thompson, the crime boss who runs Atlantic City, while a zealous treasury agent, played with brilliant creepiness by Michael Shannon, attempts to bring him down. What’s great about the show is that it doesn’t just focus on Atlantic City; we also get to visit Chicago, where a young Al Capone interns under Johnny Torrio, and New York, where Arnold Rothstein (performed with great malevolence by Michale Stuhlbarg), runs things while mentoring the likes of Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky, two young gangsters who will one day run the most powerful organized crime organization in the country. While not quite on the level of The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire is nevertheless the best new show on television, and a welcome return of the gangster genre to the small screen.
Honorable Mention: Futurama (Summer, Cartoon Network)
I know what you’re thinking: “This isn’t a new show!” Technically that’s correct, but Futurama deserves special recognition since this was its first new season in seven years. Not only did the writers not miss a beat, but I think the show is actually better than it was during its initial run.
Well, that’s it for 2010. Here’s hoping that the best new shows in 2011 actually survive past a first season. Until then, have fun ringing in the new year, which I’ll be spending the same way I always do: sitting on the couch and watching the Twilight Zone marathon (though I may check in on the Buffy and Honeymooners marathons as well).
Happy New Year!