Thursday, January 13, 2011

Top 10 Shows of 2010

David Cross is still on a comedic roll: not just a well-loved standup comedian and character actor in random films, Mr. Cross is now a part of three great comedy vehicles. His first major contribution to television was the manically mirthful HBO sketch series Mr. Show, followed shortly after by his remastering of physical comedy in Arrested Development. And now David Cross has given us Todd Margaret, a bumbling office temp who hilariously is offered to go to the UK to spearhead promotion of a new energy drink by his hotheaded and demanding Type A boss (reuniting Mr. Cross with Will Arnett to extraordinary effect). Lying his ass off at every opportunity, the in-over-his-head fish out of water must contend with a sarcastic and conniving underling as well as maintaining his subterfuge at the cost of all sense of dignity. It was only six episodes, but this first season of The Increasingly Poor Decisions Of Todd Margaret finds David Cross perfecting foolhardy comedy and leaves us hanging as to just how this will all come to end (we learn early on that things will not be turning out well for Mr. Margaret). Season two can’t come quick enough.
9) EASTBOUND & DOWN (Sundays on HBO, September 26 – November 7)
The continuing chronicles of Kenny Powers (no doubt Danny McBride’s best character and finest performance) finds the down and out antihero cockfighting in Mexico (and sporting corn rows). Steve Jankowski makes it down in time to witness (and assist) Powers return to baseball through the Mexican league team The Charros, becoming La Flama Blanca and buying himself a ticket to his long hoped for comeback. Co-creater Jody Hill described this season as “a cross between the films Amores Perros and The Bad News Bears.” That pretty well sums it up. The cameos are as mackin’ as KP himself: Michael Peña, Adam Scott, Deep Roy, Efren Ramirez (Pedro from Napoleon Dynamite), Matthew McConaughey (in Tropic Thunder funny mode) and, of course, Don Johnson – everyone bringing a wonderful new character to this strange saga. Overall, everything that made the first season of Eastbound & Down epic comedy is back here and all the better this time around. And the one-up bump from six to seven episodes was a good call. It may not get any better than this, kids. The third season is reported to be the final, and we all know how bittersweet it is when shows go out, even if it is in a blaze of glory (here’s hoping, anyhow).
8) MAD MEN (Sundays on AMC, Sundays July 25 – October 17)
I must admit, I haven’t seen this season of Breaking Bad still, and from what I hear, it deserves to make this list. But I can’t talk about what I don’t know (not with any fairness intact, at least). But what I do know is this: The forth season of Mad Men was a series best. For those that weren’t willing to give the show a shot after disliking the first, it’s hard to convince you that this show has been getting more engrossing and enriching as it goes along (which is the case, by the way). But for those who can look past the anachronisms and sometimes soapy sentimentality to see this sterling period drama for more than its “we should known better” ticks (which remain pretty funny for me and my crew), the show is a glowing example of the type of drama that is possible since The Sopranos and Six Feet Under. Sure, it’s a glimpse made in hindsight, but a glimpse nonetheless into some fascinating characters set together against a authentic 1960s backdrop. I don’t want to spoil any of the events, so let me just say that I loved the ending arc of this season more than even season two’s twist-turning final three episodes (where we first saw Don take that trip to California that plays so poignitly in hindsight of this season). I don’t see this show fading away, nor do I see it going anywhere catastrophic or monumental. But Mad Men isn’t that kind of show to begin with. It’s one where you simply sit back and enjoy the well-crafted ride.
7) THE WALKING DEAD (Sundays on AMC, October 31 – December 5)
AMC is building a good reputation for taking on exciting and offbeat work. Not just confined to the alliterative Mad Men or Breaking Bad, they also tried Rubicon and The Walking Dead out for size. The jury hasn’t even started for me on the former (I’ve only seen the pilot thus far), but I have seen the light that is Frank Darabont’s adaptation of the graphic novel series (the later). I wouldn’t have thought that the guy who brought The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile to the screen would have it in him to try adapting any comic series, especially a very modern Romero-esque zombie wasteland story. It’s a slow moving but characteristically engrossing film, essentially (only six episodes in the first season – I picked a lot of short order seasons for this list, didn’t I?), one that builds towards a taut conclusion and the promise of a thirteen episode second season by next Halloween. In the meantime, we’ll have to make due with what we’ve got: a desperate band of human survivors rambling across the country looking for any hope or salvation they can find. Sure, we’ve seen this story a hundred times before, but the gory and grungy series has some fine performances and great turns throughout. And with plenty of source material, this show could end up there with True Blood as a great modern spinning of a tired monster genre.
6) IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA (Thursdays on FX, September 16 – December 9)
The Gang have progressively bigger shoes to fill each season, but they have yet to not outdo themselves. Season Six features many classic moments, on par with Kitten Mittens or “Wild Card, bitches!” or Sweet Dee potentially dating a retarded person: who could forget The Gang buying a boat? Or getting lost in the woods? How abut the incredible Halloween mystery Who Got Dee Pregnant? Or Charlie’s multi-episode defection from bar bitch to school janitor (and the inevitable bounce back to Paddy’s)? And how great was the unbelievably uproarious finale wherein Dee finally had that baby they’d been trying to hide the first few episodes of the season? Not a bad episode of the bunch, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia continues to exaggerate America’s foibles to farfetched but insanely insightful capacity. Their selfishness is on par with Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Larry David (now there’s a crossover), and they are even more self-oblivious separately than David Brent and Michael Scott put together. The low-budget comedy remains king, chugging along on its way to becoming the most successful situational comedy on the air. As it continues to tackle controversial subjects with a boost of blue humor and a dark turn of mind, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia is starting to make other contemporarily long-running comedies look a little lazy. Then again, these guys only do 13 episodes a season instead of the usual 20+ of network television. Oh well, it does leave me salivating for more. It’s weird that I’m almost willing to skip summer just so I could get to September for more Always Sunny.
5) TREMé (Sundays on HBO, April 11 – June 20)
David Simon’s kept busy since finally leaving Baltimore be. In the same year as The Wire’s fifth and final season, he brought his adaptation of Evan Wright’s book Generation Kill to HBO as a miniseries, and then he set to work on a new city drama, this time set in late 2005 New Orleans. Dealing with the atrocious aftershocks of Katrina and the failure of the levees to protect the city, Tremé stays surprisingly upbeat despite delving into so many disparaging aspects of what can happen when bad fortune, bad weather and bad planning all coincide. The reason for Tremé's abundance of positivity (certainly in comparison to Simon’s previous TV work) has much to do with the large focus on the people who make the city the vibrant wonderland that it has remained, even post-Katrina. A large portion of the cast are musicians, and the jams thrive on this show. I think most music lovers wouldn’t have minded seeing and hearing a little more, but when there were musicians onscreen, an extra electricity jolts out of the program (and into our shufflin' feet). The blending of drama and melody is inexplicable, capturing the spirit of the joy of being alive as much as anything else the city (and neighborhood where the show gets its name) has to offer. If it seems like it’s going nowhere during your first time watching it, just enjoy it for the performances from many notable musicmakers (including, but not limited to, Kermit Ruffins, Allen Toussaint, Dr. John, Coco Robicheaux, Elvis Costello, Tom McDermott, Steve Earle, The Pine Leaf Boys and Galactic); not to mention the delectable looking foods, simmering cuisines cooked up by several chefs that pop in and out of this show (including one played by Deadwood alum Kim Dickens); as well as the finely tuned performances from several notable thespians of the screen. It's nice see Khandi Alexander (The Corner, News Radio) and Melissa Leo (Homicide) returning to good TV. Wendall “The Bunk” Pierce and Clarke “Cool Lester Smooth” Peters reunite (though their characters never meet), and it's nice to see John Goodman return to TV (on that note, give it up for Steve Zahn for making his film-to-TV transition much smoother and more admirably than most). And trust me, by the end, all doubt of actual story-driven plot is obliterated by the finale's fierce final moments that reveal the entire season has been a profoundly insightful meditation on the plight of cross purposes – Katrina was the impetus of many festering and conflicting tensions amongst the citizens of the city, which all became relevant in a new way once survival and restoration became factors. But the people of Tremé keep on keepin’ on (well, most of them), and I am curious for how Simon and company plan on carrying this jazzy new creation.
4) PARTY DOWN (Fridays on Starz, April 23 – June 25)
Starz dropped the ball. Screwed the pooch. Deserves to be motherfucked. I understand that Party Down wasn’t looking like their most profitable decision, but what did they expect when they aired their first original program on a Friday night? Nobody knew Starz was doing its own thing – most people I know don’t even have Starz. And who’s watching TV on a Friday night? That is the one night to not put any brand new programming on, especially non-established commodities. I call Party Down a commodity because it was something special. Not since Arrested Development has a comedy been so daring, original, succinct and clever. Call it a happy accident, but Party Down was the right guys getting the green light at the right time. The first season was unique, a sharp show about struggling workers and starving artists schlepping as caterers while waiting to get famous in Los Angeles. This newest season maintained the same “everything happens at the event being catered” setup and kept upping the stakes on just how far they could take things. And every episode consistently got better and better, from the welcoming “Jackal Onassis Backstage Party” (with one of the McPoyle twins from Always Sunny) to “Constance Carmell Wedding” (which featured the return of season one’s shining star Jane Lynch, when since left to get richer on Glee). Big things started happening for all the actors, turning Party Down from a catering comedy vehicle to a solid actor launching pad. I know I’m going to enjoy Adam Scott on Parks & Recreation, and Ken Marino is killing it on Childrens Hospital (Megan Mullaly, too), but I’m sad to see this show go. I believed it had potential to be the next big thing, as unique as Freaks & Geeks and as continual inspired as The Larry Sanders Show. Apparently I was wrong, but this season remains one of the funniest things I have seen all year (and I make it my business to see the funny stuff above all else).
3) FUTURAMA (Thursdays on Comedy Central, June 24 – September 2/Sunday, November 21)
The return of Futurama may have been preceded by the revival of Family Guy a few years back, but this rebirth was more rewarding experience, for a much rougher road was travelled to reach that point. Despite production being halted for over five years, Futurama always held a special place in my heart. By the second season, I was enjoying new episodes of Futurama more than The Simpsons (still the pinnacle that most other cartoons aspire to, even if its golden days are far past), and each season has delivered the goods in similar fashion, outdoing every other cartoon for fun, adventure and even emotion. The return to the third millennium brought lots of fun new escapades for our interplanetary travelers to endure. The comedy continues to take topical subjects and make them both fodder for parody and an excuse to snazzify it by making it all futuristic and stuff (my favorite being the eyePhone). And the animation, if possible, has gotten even more gorgeous. The picture perfect blend of traditional cel drawings and three-dimensional computer rendering is a feast for the eyes. And the voice cast has not lost their charm – Fry, Leela, Bender, Farnsworth, Zoidberg, Amy, and all of our favorites are back and better than ever. The sixth season of Futurama is a marked victory for fans. But only for being a consistently great string of episodes, but for making us feel like caring for a show can still matter. This is one of the few cases where a show that shouldn’t have been cancelled was, only to be picked back up – and all the more amazing that it’s core of writers, animators and actors were able to come back and make it seem like no time at all had passed. Certainly the upcoming season shall be equally splendiferous.
2) LOST (Tuesdays on ABC, February 2 – May 18/Sunday, May 23)
What more can I say that hasn’t already been hashed and rehashed to death by the fans, the critics, the skeptics, the haters, the not-so-sures and the die hards? Lost had to end sometime, and any show so heralded is going to divide people on whether or not the ending sucked. I was someone who didn’t find Lost to be mega-compelling until somewhere in the middle of the third season, so I don’t share some people’s view that the later season got increasingly off their rocker. For me, each season got better, because Lost was the type of show that was best experienced live. Anyone uninitiated has a great story of mythic (nah, biblical) proportions, but they will never get to experience what it was like when the whole world was tumbling down the rabbit hole together, discovering an Island so beautiful, dangerous and mysterious that it couldn’t be avoided. I loved the ride for as long as it lasted, and I dug the flash sideways, the origins reveals, the theories debunked and the multitude of further questions raised. Though I still think season five was pound-for-pound the best, this season does play with your mind and your ideas about everything you’d previously watched on Lost like no other final season has. The two dudes known as Darlton (and their writing team) truly crafted one crazy concoction, a televised labyrinth, a cinematic puzzle, a video game that didn’t need to be played merely felt… The Island and the character of Lost will remain in television fan’s collective hearts for a long time to come, and it's thanks to this season, for finally getting our Losties back home.
1) CHILDRENS HOSPITAL (Sundays on Cartoon Network/Adult Swim, August 22 – November 7)
It’s not a cartoon, but this vaguely-ongoing Airplane-on-acid style satire of hospital dramas (chiefly ER and General Hospital, but also St. Elsewhere, Grey’s Anatomy, House, Scrubs, Chicago Hope… you get the idea) sure does feel unreal, filled with rapid-fire guffaw-inducing hilarity: nonstop non-sequiturs, over-the-top puns and wordplay, and a terrific ensemble. I love Adult Swim’s persistence in pushing the fifteen-minute format on its product; it is about the exact amount of time that any crew or viewer should devote to any such lunacy that is aired nightly. But for all of their strung out, high octane, severely skewed animated series, this year a live-action team consistently came off as more outrageous than even Venture Bros. and Metalocalypse (not to be confused with metaocalypse) – which is no disrespect to the two solid seasons those shows both had this year (or half, in VB’s case). If you agree that the best part (or only tolerable part) of Will & Grace was Megan Mullaly, then you need to be watching this business. But you’ve also got creator Rob Corddry, along with Ken Marino, Erinn Hayes, Rob Huebel, Lake Bell, Henry Winkler, Malin Åkerman, Nick Offerman, Ed Helms, and (the voice of) Michael Cera… A great batch of comedic acting pranksters (plenty beyond the ones I just boasted about) and the showrunning skills of the maestro himself David Wain (The State, Wet Hot American Summer, Role Models). If you love medical melodrama or savage slapstick, visit Childrens Hospital post haste. Most fun finder’s keepers show of the year.

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