The 20 Best TV Shows of 2010

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10. The Daily Show

Creators: Madeleine Smithberg, Lizz Winstead
Stars: Jon Stewart, Samantha Bee, Jason Jones, John Hodgman, John Oliver, Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, Rob Corddry, Ed Helms
Network: 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. Steve LaBate


9. Community

Creator: Dan Harmon
Stars: Joel McHale, Gillian Jacobs, Danny Pudi, Yvette Nicole Brown, Alison Brie, Donald Glover, Ken Jeong, Chevy Chase
Network: NBC

Community is a show suffused with pop culture. Almost every episode’s plot has been done by a sit-com or movie previously, but Community revels in its referentiality. Nearly everyone watching Community has spent countless hours watching other TV sitcoms and trashy Hollywood movies. The characters of Community have done the same, and aside from Abed’s encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture, they respond to clichéd show tropes in the same way you do. They know that Jeff is the cool guy, that Britta has been set up as a romantic interest regardless of the lack of chemistry between the two characters. They know that Pierce is comic relief and that they’re the center of the universe because they’re TV characters. They’ve managed to take the oldest jokes in the book and make them completely new. — Sean Gandert


8. The Walking Dead

Creator: Frank Darabont
Stars: Andrew Lincoln, Jon Bernthal, Sarah Wayne Callies, Laurie Holden
Network: AMC

The Walking Dead was done with all the cinematic care director Frank Darabont put into The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile and AMC put into Mad Men and Breaking Bad. Zombies been pretty fully explored in two-hour chunks. But with hours at his disposal to develop characters and plot, Darabont dips us gently into his apocalypse. The camera stays with the crumpling bedside flowers, the carcass of a woman in the flickering fluorescent light and the fingers poking through the cafeteria door before we see our first zombie since the gut-punch series premiere. And like Lost or Battlestar Galactica, the survivors are finding that there can be as much danger and drama among themselves than with the enemy. Josh Jackson


7. Lost

Creator: J.J. Abrams, Jeffrey Lieber, Damon Lindelof
Stars: Matthew Fox, Evangeline Lilly, Naveen Andrews, Michael Emerson, Terry O’Quinn, Josh Holloway, Jorge Garcia, Yunjin Kim, Daniel Dae Kim
Network: ABC

When J.J. Abrams first marooned his plane-crash survivors on a remote island, no one realized the show’s name was a double entendre: It took crowd-sourced blogs to make sense of all the hidden clues, relevant connections, time shifts and intertwined storylines, and each season has given us far more questions than answers. But there’s something refreshing about a network TV show that trusts the mental rigor of its audience instead of dumbing everything down to the lowest common denominator. Sometimes it’s good to be a little lost. The final resolution earlier this year might not have been completely satisfying, but the run up to the end included some of the show’s best episodes. Josh Jackson


6. 30 Rock

Creator: Tina Fey
Stars: Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin, Tracy Morgan, Jane Krakowski, Jack McBrayer, Scott Adsit, Judah Friedlander
Network: NBC

The spiritual successor to Arrested Development, 30 Rock succeeded where its competition failed by largely ignoring the actual process of creating a TV show and instead focusing on the life of one individual in charge of the process, played by show creator Tina Fey. 30 Rock never loses track of its focus and creates a surprisingly deep character for the its circus to spin around. But Fey’s not the only one that makes the series. Consistently spot-on performances by Tracy Morgan—whether frequenting strip clubs or a werewolf bar mitzvah—and Alec Baldwin’s evil plans for microwave-television programming create a perfect level of chaos for the show’s writers to unravel every week. 30 Rock doesn’t have complex themes or a deep message, but that stuff would get in the way of its goal: having the most consistently funny show on TV. Suffice to say, it’s succeeding. Sean Gandert


5. Breaking Bad

Creator: Vince Gilligan
Stars: Bryan Cranston, Anna Gunn, Aaron Paul, Dean Norris, Betsy Brandt, RJ Mitte
Network: AMC

It’s not just the delightful repartee in the meth lab or the twin Mexican hit men with axes. It’s not just the three straight Emmys for Bryan Cranston as Chemistry teacher turned criminal apothecary Walter White. It’s not just any one thing that makes Breaking Bad one of the most original television shows in history. It just is. The only bad in Bad? Making us wait thirteen months to watch a new episode. The new season begins July 2011. Tim Basham


4. Boardwalk Empire

Creator: Terence Winter
Stars: Steve Buscemi, Michael Pitt, Kelly Macdonald, Michael Shannon
Network: HBO

Easily dismissed as just a Sopranos clone set in the 1920s, Boardwalk Empire wisely took many of the best elements of its predecessor and expanded its scope. It’s this wide-ranging spotlight, drifting from the highest levels of political office down to lowly bootleggers and prostitutes, that makes the show something special, offering up morality plays that hold the lives of millions at stake while putting an actual face on those being affected. The show’s political commentary is apt without seeming preachy, while characters have maintained the balance between being archetypal ciphers and real people. Boardwalk Empire’s not as energetic as other dramas but its meticulous slow-burn has a depth and beauty to it that’s rarely been matched on the little screen. Sean Gandert


3. Dexter

Creator: James Manos Jr.
Stars: Michael C. Hall, Jennifer Carpenter, Desmond Harrington, Erik King, C.S. Lee, Lauren Vélez, David Zayas, James Remar
Network: Showtime

Dexter Morgan is a family man and a blood-splatter analyst for the Miami Police Department. Oh, and a serial killer. The fact that Dexter is governed by a strict moral code, only preying on murderers, makes the series uniquely fascinating and challenging—as a viewer, you find yourself rooting for a killer, caring for his family, hoping he’ll do the right thing, and wondering: Can slicing someone to pieces and dumping the body in the ocean ever be right? Kate Kiefer


2. Modern Family

Creators: Christopher Lloyd, Steven Levitan
Stars: Ed O’Neill, Sofía Vergara, Julie Bowen, Ty Burrell, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Eric Stonestreet
Network: ABC

The story of three inter-related families works because its characters seem familiar to life but fresh to the screen. Not that the show is above archetypes: There’s the rebellious teen seduced by popularity, the beautiful Colombian second wife, the trying-too-hard-to-be-cool dad, the patriarch who doesn’t like to show affection, the flamboyantly gay boyfriend. But it’s not taken long for TV veterans Christopher Lloyd and Steven Levitan to let each character’s uniqueness flourish through the myriad relationships within the family. There’s dysfunction here, and while a meanness sometimes creeps in, there’s also as much love for these characters as there is laughter at their expense. Mitchell’s tendencies to get uptight are mellowed by Cameron’s constant joviality. Jay’s crotchetiness is mitigated by his wife Gloria’s vivaciousness. Even Phil, the show’s version of The Office’s Michael Scott—with no self-awareness and a self-sabotaging quest to seem hip—is protected from his own antics by a loving wife. It’s these relationships that make even a completely messed-up family a valuable thing. No matter how bad things get in this Modern Family, it always beats the alternative of not having each other. They’re flawed individuals, offering only broken bits of love to one another, but that’s more than enough to cling to. Josh Jackson


1. Mad Men

Creator: Matthew Weiner
Stars: Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss, Vincent Kartheiser, January Jones, Christina Hendricks, Bryan Batt, Michael Gladis, Aaron Staton, Rich Sommer, Robert Morse, John Slattery
Network: AMC

Unless you worked on Madison Avenue in the early 1960s, AMC’s Mad Men has all the otherworldliness of a foreign film. It’s easy to covet a time when working in an office meant sharp suits, free-flowing liquor and nary a computer screen or Blackberry to tie you down. It’s also easy to feel superior to the characters’ rampant racism and misogyny. But there’s something all too familiar at the heart of Mad Men—the failings of the powerful and petty never go out of style. And Season 4 only added to the show’s intrigue. Josh Jackson