We’re finally here, boys and girls: the moment at least seven of you have been waiting for. It’s my Top 5 shows of 2010! Earlier in the week I outlined my Incompletes/Near Misses, then dropped Number 10 through 6 on you soon after. But today? It’s The Final Countdown. But we’re not leaving for Venus, though we are leaving 2010 behind. Will 2011 be as solid a year as this one for television? Let’s hope so.
In the meantime, here are the Top 5 shows of 2010.
When “Fringe” first appeared on the scene, I was a bit deflated. A new show by the mastermind of “Lost,” and it was essentially “Law&Order&Weird Science”? Not exactly what I expected. But then Mr. Jones arrived on the scene, the show finally stuck to a singular mythology, and most importantly, didn’t shy away from telling a big story while not forgetting to tell small but vital ones about the people at the center of it all.
Learning about Peter’s true origin at the end of Season 1 gave entirely new context to the show, essentially making every mystery of the week part of the overall story, no matter how tangentially. That let an almost Greek tragedy to the proceedings as Peter grew closer to the truth. Once that bomb dropped, the show took things up another notch creatively, fashioning an alternate dimension that avoided the usual tropes of the sci-fi- staple and turned in a compelling world that evoked as much pity as wonder, as much pathos as horror.
Our time Over There might be done for the moment, but will no doubt resurface in 2011. Will “Fringe” survive the Friday FOX death slot? IF it doesn’t, it won’t be due to lack of quality, that’s for certain. You don’t have to love science fiction to love “Fringe”: you just have to love stories about makeshift families trying to make sense of their place in a much larger picture.
4) Cougar Town
If “Fringe” is about people banding together to fight a world-spanning threat, than “Cougar Town” is about people banding together in the face of a world that would be terrifying without each other. There are no crazy medical maladies in this sleepy Florida clu-de-sac: just people celebrating the fact that they managed to find a group of kindred spirits amongst a sea of people that couldn’t possible understand them.
The goals of “Cougar Town” are small, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t vital. Trying to relate to events in a parallel universe in “Fringe” might be difficult, but Jules and Co. inhabit a parallel universe of their own: one with its own rituals, language, and hierarchy separate from normal society. These people don’t shun the world per say: they just have found a little slice of physical and social real estate that provides as much warmth, stability, and love that they could ever need out of life. Don’t we all want that?
I know I do, and it’s why I love hanging out with these people on a weekly basis. This show doesn’t operate on everyone’s frequency, but when it connects with someone, it connects almost completely. So I raise an enormous glass of red wine to you, “Cougar Town.” No need to slap me out of my love for you.
Maybe you’re surprised this isn’t Number One on my list. Maybe you absolutely hated Season 6 and can’t believe it made the list at all. Maybe I don’t care either way. I’ll just be over here, teary-eyed, watching Vincent lay down next to Jack one last time.
I will have a LOT more to say about “Lost” in an upcoming retrospective of the show, but sufficed to say that while the season wasn’t perfect, it was far, far better than many claimed in the hours/days/weeks after “The End” aired. I keenly await a fresh set of viewers to approach this show in the years to come, starting with the pilot episode and carrying on through the 121.5 hour journey without the six-year wait, without the constant online theorizing, without trying to dissect each Darlton interview like it was the Zapruder film.
“Lost” ultimately worked on the level on which I wanted it to work: the emotional one. The statue, the hatches, the hieroglyphics: they were all ornamentation to a very simple message about the meaning of sharing one’s life with others. Everything else boiled down to trivia. Compelling trivia, to be sure, and trivia that dared to let the audience make up its own mind and its own theories without leading them down a finite path to a singular answer. But trivia all the same. Learning the show’s answer to the smoke monster’s origin? A letdown. Learning the show’s answer to the way to a meaningful life? Impossibly moving.
The showed took a slightly rocky road to get there, not unlike the one to Jacob’s cave. But once there, I felt gloriously lucky that I got to take the journey.
2) Mad Men
In our weekly podcasts about the show as it aired, Mo Ryan and I kept wondering if we were in fact watching the best season of “Mad Men” to date. And while there’s always a tendency to romanticize initial seasons of certain shows (see, “Lost”), the fourth season of “Mad Men” paid things off that started in those few episodes with such subtle power that it proved beyond a shadow of why long-form television narration can produce moments that strike the viewer in ways no other form of pop culture can.
The one that comes closest? Novelized series such as “Harry Potter”, “The Dark Tower”, and a host of others too many to mention here. But even those fall short, due to the collective, social nature of millions of people watching the next “chapter,” if you will, at the same time every week. And while novels allow the reader the luxury of filling in the scene with their mind, there’s something to be said about watching a master series of craftsman build a world and present it to an audience with this amount of confidence, skill, and audacity.
Above all, the fourth season of “Mad Men” was its most approachable, a word that sound disparaging but really isn’t. Its often glacial pace at points throughout the first three seasons was largely absent this year, as the everyday pressures put upon Don and others to keep their business afloat didn’t afford any of them the chance to contemplate things for much longer than a few moments. Decisions were made, were made rashly, and many people paid the price for that rashness. Amidst all that chaos, Don got the worst phone call of his life in “The Suitcase,” second perhaps only to “Guy Walks Into An Advertising Agency” in terms of best all-time episode of the show. The show started the season by asking “Who is Don Draper?” But we always knew who he was: a long-dead soldier in the ground.
What we didn’t know was who Dick Whitman was beneath the veneer of the identity he assumed. We’d seen glimpses of it, to be sure, but that persona always had Anna as an anchor, tethering him to a semblance of both reality as well as happiness. Without her, he could have become completely unmoored, but managed to find strength in places expected (Peggy), unintentionally taken for granted (Faye), and unexpected (Megan). He was a man tired of being what he was without any clear sense of being able to transform to be anything else. With the 1960’s about to hit their most turbulent times, it will be interesting to see if Don’s engagement will provide stability or just another bump in a very bumpy road ahead.
I didn’t even know about this already-gone gem of a show until I heard rumblings from several television critics over the summer that this FX show might be something special. And after consuming the first five episodes in one sitting before it actually aired, I knew what they were talking about. But then something interesting happened: it got far, far better. It got far, far deeper. It got far, far more painful. And yet it came out on the other side just like Hank and Britt: bruised, battered, but having survived better for the journey.
This might sound weird after putting “Mad Men” second on the list, but “Terriers” reminds me of two of my favorite albums: Matthew Sweet’s “Girlfriend” and The Rolling Stones’ “Exile on Main Street.” Both are ragged, rough-around-the-edges albums that I love for the mistakes as much, if not more, than for the moments of transcendence. Indeed, the latter moments are only made possible by the former ones. Sweet’s fuzzed out guitars and Jagger’s way-too-low-in-the-mix vocals are the bait that draws viwers in, not unlike the shaggy-dog charm of early “Terriers” episodes. But once the listener/viewer thinks they are experiencing one thing, all three reveal that they have lowered your guard and have your heart right in their hands.
Look at the last two songs on those two albums: for “Girlfriend,” it’s “Nothing Lasts.” Over on “Exile,” it’s “Soul Survivor.” I can’t think of a better duo of songs to play over the final scene of “Terriers,” in which our heroes stand at a crossroads with everything and yet nothing before them. Just because we don’t see them take the path we all assume we will (no way they turn left, correct?) doesn’t mean we can’t imagine them continuing the road far better people than the point at which we met them. The journey of the season wasn’t so much about them solving corruption in Ocean Beach as much as solving the conundrum that was themselves. This wasn’t some Jewel-esque yodel-y search for the salvation of the soul: this was a getting thrown through a window, dusting the glass from your face, and trying to look at your bloodied face in the mirror without punching it type of search.
The first part of the season walked a fine line between showing Hank and Britt as co-conspirators and co-dependents, successful as a team but successful as little else. Above all else, they had to earn the respect, if not love, of the two women in their lives. Every case drove them a little bit towards that goal, whether the case emotionally resonated with Britt or kept Hank away from the bottle. Saving Ocean Beach from turning into an airport was a nice victory, but not a particularly important one when compared with Hank’s ability to finally sell Gretchen’s house or Britt making peace with Katie. “Terriers” started out as a story about private eyes in over their heads, but eventually turned into a show about boys finally turning into men.
Without that interior journey, the outer mystery simply doesn’t matter. The outer mystery served as it should: as a way to push characters out of their comfort zones in order to see what would happen. Sometimes, that journey pushes people towards their worst selves, as exhibited many times throughout the 13-episode run. But through it all, these men managed to make just enough right decisions to become the type of people they might have seen in each other, but never saw in themselves. I’m glad I got to take that journey with them. I’m sad I won’t take any more with them.
But it was still the best journey I took in 2010. So for that, I thank “Terriers” and FX for letting me have at least that.
What were your top shows of 2010? Leave them in the comments below!