1. Lost
“All of this matters,” is what Jack claimed in Losts’ final season. Ask almost anyone, and they will tell you that Lost was wrong. From the Dharma Initiative, to the polar bears, to the weird lady with the giant swinging thing, there were tons of mysteries in Lost that simply faded away in the series finale, never to be answered (save a lame DVD bonus feature that we will here on out ignore). We doggedly demanded that simply because the characters were surrounded by mystery, and simply because those characters wanted to know answers as much as we did, we deserved answers to those mysteries. After all, this is story-craft 101, right?

Wrong. Lost was self-aware and carefully written to the point that it had the ability to pull off something special. It was the rare television show that actually had the ability to prepare its’ audience throughout its’ season without giving even the slightest bit away about the Great Rug-Pull In the Sky. In the end, while most of us may have responded with an intense frustration directly after the finale, we still talked about it for days and days.

A month after it went off of the air, I was convinced I was over lost. I was pretty sure that the ending was a misstep and that I would be put off the entire series for the remainder of my life. But eventually, as the noise started to quiet down and the final season DVDs were old news, I found that season finale permenantly etched into the back of my mind. It was beautiful there, even if it made no sense. And yes, of course, we have to go back. -Richard Clark

2. Parenthood
Parenthood is not your typical American family drama (miles away from something like Desperate Housewives).  The drama in Parenthood doesn’t feel forced, it feels natural and nuanced and most of it comes from what feel like real parental struggles. Whether you agree with the decisions made by the five sets of parents in the show, you will certainly empathize with them because their struggles are ones every parent faces. The show’s parents clearly love their children and are continually struggling to do what is best for them and, as their children grow, help them make good decisions.  Parenthood deals with making time for your spouse without neglecting your children, protecting your children versus letting them make mistakes, and the tension between sacrificing one’s self for one’s family versus standing up for one’s own individuality.

Now that I am an expecting father, Parenthood feels even more real to me.  Of course I realize that no show can prepare me for what is to come, but nonetheless I appreciate that Parenthood continues to portray parenting as I expect it to be—very difficult and very rewarding and it gets better with every episode. -Drew Dixon

3. 30 Rock
Its no secret that 30 Rock is quite the force in the world of sitcoms.  I was skeptical when I first began watching because I have never thought Tina Fey was as brilliant as everyone makes her out to be, but watching a few seasons of 30 Rock changed my mind.  30 Rock has so much going for it, its hard to know where to start: Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy might be the funniest character on television right now (and yes funnier than Steve Carell’s Michael Scott) and Jack McBryar’s Kenneth Parcell is an under appreciated close second, the rest of the cast is solid, the writing always seems fresh, and the dialogue is brilliantly fast paced making for perhaps more humor per minute than any other sit com.

Perhaps what I appreciate most about 30 Rock is its willingness to make fun of itself.  30 Rock makes fun of celebrity, big corporations, right and left wing politics, and everything in between.  Sometimes 30 Rock trivializes sinful things but rarely without a foil (often Kenneth or Liz).  Well written and chockfull with self-depreciating comedy, 30 Rock is arguably the best comedy on television now as it seems even funnier on the second viewing. -Drew Dixon

4. Conan
The biggest TV story of 2010 was likely the three-way kerfuffle of NBC, Leno, and Conan O’Brien.  Battle lines were drawn.  Brother betrayed brother.  Parents and children turned against each other.  It was like end-times prophecy over late-night TV.  Fans rallied together as Team Coco in an unprecedented demonstration of solidarity.  He was our Tonight Show host but we rallied on principle.  We would not pretend to agree with or approve of these “business” practices or legal maneuverings.  O’Brien emerged from the conflict with bolstered credibility.  He rejected NBC’s offer to push Tonight back half an hour, believing that would damage its legacy.  When in talks with TBS about a new show, O’Brien refused to do to George Lopez what had been done to him.  It took a call from Lopez to convince him to take the deal. The most remarkable thing has been O’Brien’s creative response to disappointment.  O’Brien inspired even after going off-air, first with the launch of his Twitter account and then with his “Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour”.  Since the debut of Conan in November, the host has made clear: we picked the right guy. -Chase Livingston

5. Sherlock
I’m not usually a fan of remakes that take classic works and transport them into the modern era. In the process of updating the classics and make them more relevant, whatever was timeless about the original often gets exchanged for whatever is trendy right now. Not so with this show, which transports the world’s most famous detective into 21st century London. Its whip-smart from the get-go, with intricately plotted mysteries that are consistently entertaining as they’re unravelled. At the show’s center is Benedict Cumberbatch’s wonderful portrayal of Sherlock Holmes as a man who is as brilliant and charismatic as he is arrogant and sociopathic, and who is completely obsessed with his work. The modern setting adds a stylish and hip vibe to the show without feeling trivial, and the inclusion of modern technology — this new Holmes is more likely to use text messaging then a magnifying glass — adds a nicely geeky element that also drives home the idea of Holmes as a purely analytical information-processing machine. My only complaint with the show: it’s going to be another year or so before new episodes make it over to this side of the pond. -Jason Morehead

6. Parks and Recreation
In the beginning, Parks and Recreation was written off as just another Office clone, but that audience forgets that The Office itself was a clone of The Office, the original BBC sitcom that only lasted two seasons. And like the American version of The Office, Parks and Recreation needed a second season to truly find its way. Like the best sitcoms, the show is all about the characters, who are not only likable but truly and substantially admirable. The first season never would give such an impression, but in the second season each of these laughably flawed characters surprise us in all the right ways. The incredibly sharp wit is a reason to start watching the show. The sweetness, boldness and determination of this group of government workers is a reason to stay. -Richard Clark

7. Hoarders
Hoarders is equal parts cultural tour of America, exploration of the human sinful condition, and vomit-inducing reality television.  Each episode tells the story of someone who has an unhealthy addiction to hoarding various possessions to the point where they no longer live in a healthy environment.  Though sometimes the show is awkward to watch, as these people’s dirty laundry is aired for all to see, it is certainly fascinating on many levels.  The show invites a professional cleaning crew and a professional psychologist/organizer to help these people clean up their houses and their lives. The results are varied.  Though the cleaning crews often succeed in cleaning up the houses, it is difficult to tell if any lasting changes have been.  Thus the show illustrates how deeply sin is often rooted in the human heart and how people respond when their sin is brought to light.  The subjects of Hoarders often waver between denial, defensiveness, and despair, but the show is worth watching if even for the one person in 5 shows who seems to understand their predicament and is determined to change.

Hoarders is also fascinating as an indictment on American culture because hoarding is particularly common in America and because the show travels all over the country.  People of all sorts are covered, reminding us that we are susceptible to an unhealthy appropriation of our possessions.  Hoarding may be a particularly American problem because Americans have more stuff than most, but misappropriation of our possessions is human problem.  Hoarders will make you sad, make you cringe, and if watched thoughtfully might encourage us all to clean up our own lives. -Drew Dixon

8. Men of a Certain Age
Ramano.  Braugher.  Bakula.  One of these actors played a favorite character of my young life.  Another was the breakout star in my all-time favorite series.  The other is Ray Ramona who as it turns out is a brilliant writer and producer.  The premise of Men is of three old friends approaching their late forties together.  That midlife setup usually entails grown men attempting to reclaim their lost youth by purchase of a flashy, sports car, extramarital affair, or other reckless escapade.  Here is a new, untold story: one of men gradually coming of age by coming to terms with themselves, their broken lives, and the reality of unmet expectations.  To call this is a testosterone-laden Sex and the City (as some critics have) is lazy analysis.  Terry, the womanizing has-been actor, is the character closest to that description but even he is tiring of his own exploits.  There is an emptiness about Men of a Certain Age that is, like Terry, endearingly promising.  As these men acknowledge their failings, they find new life through humility. -Chase Livingston

9. Dollhouse
What’s that, another Joss Whedon show that was cancelled prematurely?! Seriously, this guy needs to never work with Fox again. But I digress… The point is, Dollhouse, though only lasting two seasons and 27 episodes, managed to cram more into its brief runtime than many shows that run two or three times as long. The show’s truncated nature meant that it was often frustrating, with plotlines and character arcs that should’ve taken a season or two to manifest coming to fruition within only a couple of episodes. But even with all of its flaws and frustrations, I found the show’s primary themes — What defines a person? Are we nothing more than programming? Can we ever truly lose that which makes us individuals? — to be consistently fascinating. The same goes for Whedon’s knack for crafting wonderfully redemptive moments in the unlikeliest of characters, as well as his thoroughly sadistic knack for killing off beloved characters. It’s a testament to Whedon and everyone else involved in the show that, despite getting cancelled early and having to wrap up a whole bunch of material really quickly, Dollhouse still ended with a nice, satisying sense of closure for both its characters and viewers. Unlike, say, Lost. -Jason Morehead

10. The Middle
Patricia Heaton doesn’t get enough credit.  Unless desperate or scandalous, housewives and moms aren’t considered socially relevant or cool.  So maybe that is it.  If her talent was overlooked on Everybody Loves Raymond it may have been because her character was less neurotic than the others.  While her strength as straight man is worth noting, Heaton has in The Middle an opportunity to shine like the big crazy diamond she is.

The cast of The Middle is surprisingly balanced.  Scrubs’ alum Neil Flynn co-stars as the more sensible of the two parents, though that should not deter fans, his comedic timing is as reliable as ever.  The younger actors (McDermott, Sher, Shaffer),who play the Heck children, are no less qualified or enjoyable.  Family programs almost always fail on this point.

A working class family’s struggle to get by is territory so commonly trod in series television that to go there risks banality.  The trick here is that the family operates as a unit of dysfunctional people functioning together; each one’s quirks and weaknesses actually strengthen the unit.  The Middle is a most rare portrait of a healthy, if not perfect, family and one that you can appreciate with yours.  However, my recommendation is not on account of its being “family-friendly”, I recommend The Middle because it is great fun. -Chase Livingston


21 Comments

  1. There goes Rich trying to take credit for our collective efforts again. Don’t worry though, I fixed it!

    @Seth–I can see why a lot of people were frustrated with the ending of Lost–it did sometimes seem like an M. Night Shamalayan (sp?) movie sometimes and “the twist” or “the reveal” never came. I do find it surprising that many people who stuck it out through every episode were surprised by the lack of “reveal” in the end. Many of Lost’s plotlines were a jumbled mess that the writers were never able to control. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t great–I think I had it at #3 on my list, but what made it great were its characters and the way that the jumbled plotlines forced them to come to grips with themselves and grow as a result.

  2. I guess I just found that all the things I cared about were wrapped up satisfaction—and most of them before the finale. I think the only plot point that was left unanswered for me was why Jack and Kate got so much screentime. And also: why anyone else ever liked them.

    What did we need to know?
    • What Dharma was doing there. Check.
    • Who the Others were. Check.
    • Why everyone kept getting marooned on the island. Check.
    • Who was Jacob. Check.
    • Who was Smokey. Check.
    • What the island was. Check.

    And all kinds of other silly little subplots were wrapped up as well. What important thing was left unanswered?

  3. I’m surprised none of you mentioned Glee? For all you talked about it earlier in the year, I expected to see it on here. Not that I’m not quietly pleased that I didn’t see it on the list…

  4. @Seth, I would simply say that a lot of those plot lines you mention being cleared up were not tied up as tidily as you suggest. There were tied up enough for my satisfaction, but I watch a lot of science fiction so I didn’t expect clear answers, but Lost seemed to draw in a lot of people who aren’t accustomed to science fiction and consequently they were waiting for the big reveal which never came–it was advertised quite regularly that all our big questions would be answered etc–so I guess I feel for those who wanted more of that. I am not really wanting to get into a discussion of the merits of Lost, just trying to practice a little empathy for those who didn’t like it. As Rich suggested, I made my peace with Lost–it will go down as one of my favorite all time television shows.

    I do agree with you 100% on Jack and Kate getting so much screen time–that will forever be the great unanswered mystery of Lost for me!

  5. As for Glee, I think most of us find it fascinating and consider it to be a good show, but I certainly don’t consider it great. The show is entirely too inconsistent from episode to episode to make my short-list of favorites, though it very well may have made my personal top ten. Then again, I don’t watch much more than ten recent tv shows.

  6. Chase, I’d like for you to say which actor from “Men of a Certain Age” played your favorite character of your young life and which was the breakout star. I ask this because Braugher starred as one of my favorite characters of all time in one of my favorite shows of all time – Homicide: Life on the Street, and absolutely nobody my age ever talks about or claims to have watched this show. I watched it every Friday with my parents when I was growing up and absolutely loved it. To this day, I still go back and watch episodes and get chills when he’s on the screen. I hope that’s what you were talking about – otherwise I’ll be quite embarrassed . . . . as usual.

  7. Good news, Kiel. Homicide is the greatest show of all-time. Actually, I noticed on FB once that we had this in common. Sadly, you are my only FB friend who “likes” Homicide.

    My goal there with the set up was to be vague enough that the Ray Ramano line had that extra punch. I may have seen an episode or two of H:LOTS when I was growing up. I was too big a nerd for that. Instead, I was watching TGIF! Wasted youth…But I just had to know if Cory and Shawn were going to be BFFs forever!

    Quantum Leap was probably my favorite show when I was 10. I used to wake up at 3 am to watch it on Sci Fi. However, upon returning to it a couple of years ago, I am embarrassed to say it did not hold up as well. Dr. Sam Beckett was my hero then, second only to Alf.

    So, you know, it’s special that we are kindred spirits.

  8. I’m so glad that Parks and Rec made this list! Amy Poehler and all those guys are just so funny! The characters are believable everyday people and it fills that void left by The Office when it decided to become this big plot (not comedy) driven soap opera that it has become! When Parks and rec first showed up I was seriously skeptical, for the same reasons mentioned in the article, but I think it is safe to say that it has “out dead-panned” The Office. It has really come into it’s own and I’m so glad it is back, albeit for a short season starting in January.

    Dan

  9. @Jason – Most of those points are pretty fair. I don’t go in on the whole section suggesting that the wrap-up ran counter to the established mythology, but that’s okay. Here are some thoughts on a couple of your notes:

    In regard to what you refer to as cheap reconciliation, I kind of liked this. It mirrors pretty well the common Protestant understanding of the heavenly afterlife, in which everything is instantly better. No more bitterness, strife , or contention. If Hitler repented before his death, he’ll be there and you’ll be instant pals. This is why I enjoyed that aspect of the Lost afterparty. It breaks the flow of the Western narrative, prompting (perhaps) viewers to ask questions of their own afterlife theories. If Lost‘s afterlife was ultimately unsatisfying and it resembles my own in several important ways, then I have a couple options to believe: 1) the Christian afterlife is narratively poor; 2) the Christian afterlife is narratively rich but my view of the afterlife is mistaken; or 3) my narrative preferences are two biased by a particular Western paradigm and, regardless of my view of the afterlife, I find myself perhaps a little too bound by what my cultural context tells me is Right. I think those are interesting questions and I’m glad that Lost prompts them.

    In regard to the character of the island, I was also satisfied with the show’s explanation of what it was: a natural fortress that built up to protect a magic faery spring. I didn’t feel any greater explanation of the island was necessary. And certainly not its origin, since explaining the origin of magic things only serves to render them Not Magic. Gandalf and Aslan and Dream all work because they remain mysterious and largely unexplored. Their power is mystery. Even Dream, who in Sandman, is explored for thousands of pages still, by series’ end, remains ultimately a mystery. I found it fitting that the island should remain so.

    I can see why some viewers might wish it otherwise. We have a natural desire to unravel mystery, to make natural the supernatural. Theologians spend their lives trying to do this to God (though they might not put it in terms quite so crass.) This is what the Dharma Initiative did when they found access to the island. When confronted with this island suffused with magic, their first response is not awe but examination. They peel back layer after layer of the island’s mysteries, seeking to unmask and unclothe it. They wish to behold it in its nakedness so they might catalogue it and make use of its powers. So of course viewers who approach the island in this way will be frustrated. If Dharma was, then why shouldn’t they as well?

    That said, the Sayid and Shannon thing was stupid. But only because it was stupid in the first place. My one major gripe with Lost has always been the character choices. Obviously not all of them. But by the fact that anyone on the island puts up with Jack and Kate, you can tell that the writers sometimes struggle with crafting realistic character situations.

  10. Chase – So glad that someone else shares my love of that show! I wish more people knew about it. I wanted to add that Andre Braugher also starred in another good show, Gideon’s Crossing, shortly after Homicide Ended. Unfortunately, that show only lasted one season and I’ve never heard about it since.

    I’ve wanted to watch Men of a Certain Age since it began last season, but haven’t because (and only because) I don’t have cable and the show airs on TNT. I do hope to rent the seasons eventually and give it a go.

  11. Jennifer and I started watching Dollhouse recently and I couldn’t agree with you more–the questions the show poses are fascinating, I can already see some of your complaints manifesting themselves but the primary questions the show is asking are so interesting that those things really don’t bother me that much. Aside from the show’s incessant need to push Eliza Dushku’s sex appeal I think its really great. I think I am officially hooked.

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