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Top 10? No! My top 20 TV shows of 2009

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If you want to read my Top 10 TV shows of 2009, you can find them here. But there was so much good television over the past 12 months, I found it excruciating to leave off some shows. Therefore, I’ve expanded my list to a Top 20. Here are #11-20:

11. Dexter: This season just kept getting better because it did a risky thing: It took those Dexter Morgan voiceovers and really let you hear how much angst the guy was experiencing. The strain of a new marriage, a new responsiblity toward step-children that you never doubt he loves, knowing that he must behave differently from the way he was brought up. All that could have become the drippiest material ever, yet this was also the season that had the series’ best villain (all hail John Lithgow) who was also Dexter’s domestic doppleganger. Oh, and: The shockeroo season-ending. Great stuff.

12. Lost: The time-travel twisted even more tightly, but with the end in sight, Lost carried us along on a fresh wave of confident storytelling: The enthusiasm of the pace, the plotting, and the acting was exhilarating. This was, to take one quick example, the season when Josh Holloway’s Sawyer/LaFleur flowered into something more than a lovable rogue. Perhaps the most classically romantic sci fi-fantasy ever made for television, Lost enters its final season a must-watch event.

13. The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson: He published an autobiography, he spruced up the opening credits, he developed his own quirky, mini-roster of regular guests that sparked great give-and-take (hello, Jim Parsons and Kristen Bell, to name just two), and he made the funny puppets the voices for (among much else) his cheerful rage. But most of all, Ferguson remained freewheeling and unpredictable. Sound like a small compliment? Just the opposite, my friends: When you helm a talk show, the easiest and most debilitating thing a host can do is settle into routines that audiences love, and Ferguson is all about the blowing up of any predictability, pandering, or complacency.

14. Better Off Ted: Verbally adroit yet chock-full of slapstick, Ted is, to me, a compleat sitcom — it’s got something for everyone, which is why its relatively small ratings are baffling, sometimes infuriating. I mean, what’s a show gotta do to win your heart, if it can make its sex jokes as funny as its critique-of-capitalism jokes?

15. Eastbound & Down : Washed-up baseball pitcher Kenny Powers came close, in its brief first season, to being as fully-realized a comic creation as Ricky Gervais’ David Brent. Show creator and star Danny McBride (working with director David Gordon Green) knows working-class anger, despair, lewd humor, and excessive emotionalism as well as any contemporary novelist. A proud, egotistical, sexist delusional whom you root for with all your heart, Kenny is the opposite of the revenge of the nerd: he’s the revenge of the jerk.

16. Parks and Recreation: In its sophomore year, Amy Poehler’s marvelously droll sitcom became a consistent pleasure. Always one to share the spotlight, Poehler and the producers made sure that valuable supporting players such as Chris Pratt remained prominent (running a shoeshine stand in the office building? absurd and yet clever!). Only a series that knows what its characters are about could take the lewd wiseguy played by Aziz Ansari and find the heart in this guy as he pined for his green-card wife.

17. In Treatment: Gabriel Byrne’s soft-voiced therapist returned for a second season. He, not the season, was significantly more downbeat: now divorced and lonely, Paul presided over a new roster of patients. The stand-outs were Alison Pill, playing a cancer-stricken architecture student, and Hope Davis as a former patient of Paul’s, returning to tidy up some messy unresolved issues. Best of all, Dianne Wiest was back as Paul’s therapist, taking no guff from the sad-eyed man with the open heart and tamped-down anger.

18. Chuck: Lots of fun, and clever in unexpected ways, Chuck has snuck up on me. For a while I thought it was just silly, but over the course of the second season I came to value the way co-creators Josh Schwartz and Chris Fedak managed to do what so many other TV producers have tried and failed at: They have made an adventure-spy-romance-comedy that is more than just a novelty show, or a spoof. Chuck manages to say complex, sometimes dark things about the nature of family and trust in its bright, chipper way. Looking forward to the new season.

19. It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia: Brash and vulgar, Sunny‘s comic rhythms are unlike any other sitcom on TV. It’s usually a criticism when we say that characters talk at and not to each other, but in this case, that’s precisely what makes Sunny unique. Its noise, its squawk, its chaos, is what fuels the comedy. The show is like Seinfeld without the ironic distance or structural discipline, which can make for some genially messy episodes, but also a lotta fun anarchy.

20. The Ultimate Fighter: Heavyweights: Loved the way this season started out clearly assuming that it was going to be Kimbo Slice who’d dominate the drama, when in fact Kimbo proved to be just one element of a surprisingly passionate, varied, and frequently hilarious season. The rivalry between team captains Rampage Jackson and Rashad Evans started out with put-on sneers but soon deepened into real beefs about conflicting training philosophies. And the fights themselves, while frequently too brief to build drama equal to what was occurring outside the ring, packed a goodly wallop.

There; that’s my Top 20.

Agree? Disagree? What did I leave out, in your opinion? Thanks.

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