The FIFA World Cup was our favorite sporting event on TV this year, but it was over too quickly to really get consideration (despite our favorite commentator Ian Darke). So we’re giving NBC’s Sunday Night Football the nod over ESPN’s College GameDay and not just because the Falcons are having a better season than the UGA Bulldogs. Rodney Harrison Tony Dungy Dan Patrick Al Michaels Cris Collinsworth + a good NFL game (usually) = the most mature, salient sports TV experience.
9. Noble Exchange (Halogen)
At its best, reality TV uses the same tools as documentarians to shed light where it’s most needed. But Halogen’s Noble Exchanges doesn’t just throw a pity party for its subject. It’s a love letter to Africa that actually looks to what the West can learn from those overcoming obstacles in African nations.
8. Man Vs. Wild (Discovery)
Bear Grylls skinned a camel and crawled inside for shelter. And drank elephant poop juice because he was thirsty. And ate a dead sheep’s eyeball—not sure why he did that though. Don’t watch this show if you have a weak stomach. Kate Kiefer
7. The Oprah Winfrey Show (ABC)
Oh, don’t give us that look. The queen of daytime—I mean all creation—has redefined what a talk show could be. In her 25th and final season, she’s continued to up the ante, making each show feel like an epic (and convincing her audience to stop texting while driving that new VW she just gave you).
6. Deadliest Catch (Discovery)
This show’s strength lies completely in its subject matter. The series follows crab fishermen as they perform one of America’s most dangerous jobs, which means the Discovery Channel’s crew members are risking their lives too. But it wasn’t the sea that claimed the life of the Cornelia Marie’s captain, Phil Harris, this year. He insisted that the camera crew continue filming in the wake of his fatal stroke. Kate Kiefer
5. Good Eats (Food Network)
You’d be hard-pressed to find a food show host that didn’t really love food, but no one’s ever quite nerded out about it so thoroughly and sublimely as Alton Brown. From cheesecake to popcorn, gravy to barbecue, Brown explicates the inner-workings and finer points of common food with a patient, infectious enthusiasm, wild sets and camera angles, and brains to spare.
4. Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations (Travel Channel)
As much a travelogue as a food show, No Reservations finds Anthony Bourdain bravely eating street food in Bangkok and sulfur-cooked eggs in the volcanic springs of the Azores. The writer/chef has parlayed the success of his best-selling books Kitchen Confidential and A Cook’s Tour into five seasons of eloquent, candid reflections on offbeat culinary adventures everywhere from the Pacific Northwest to Sri Lanka, making for a mouth-watering and ravenously addictive TV series.
3. Austin City Limits (PBS)
For decades, Austin City Limits has been the place for live music on TV. In recent years, the show has moved beyond its classic roots and blues leanings, opting instead for an eclectic mix of artists. Lyle Lovett closed the show’s 36th season with a final performance in its familiar Studio 6A dives before it moves into Austin City Limits Live at the Moody Theater in downtown Austin. Other artists featured this season included Arcade Fire, The Avett Brothers, Brandi Carlile, Mos Def (as part of ACL’s first hip-hop show with K’Naan) and Spoon—with Cheap Trick (Jan. 1), Monsters of Folk (Jan. 8), The National / Band of Horses (Jan. 15), Sonic Youth / The Black Keys (Jan. 22) and Lyle Lovett / Bob Schneider (Jan. 29) still to come.
2. The Colbert Report (Comedy Central)
Opting for a different approach to news satire than his mentor, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert takes his potshots at the shouting-match mess of modern cable-news partisan commentary by hilariously inhabiting a blowhard persona himself, and playing it for all it’s worth with only the slightest wink. He does this so well that a recent Ohio State University study found that there’s actually a sub-group of viewers who believe that Colbert “only pretends to be joking and genuinely meant what he said.” Wow. Steve LaBate
1. The Daily Show (Comedy Central)
Amidst the madness and absurdity of the post-9/11 world, as the old-standby TV-news anchors retired or passed away, young America was looking for its new Cronkite, Rather, Jennings or Brokaw. Into this void, improbably, stepped comedian Jon Stewart and his band of brilliantly deadpan correspondents. While The Daily Show never really claimed to be more than a satirical faux-news show, it is so much more, offering the smartest, most unflinching social commentary on television. And despite fears to the contrary, it didn’t take infamous Bush-basher Jon Stewart long to take the gloves off in the age of Obama. No, there’s still no shortage of lampoonable material in American politics, and Stewart and his gang of correspondents are sharp as ever. Steve LaBate