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Best TV of 2010: My mid-year Top 10 list

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We’re half-way through the year; time to stop and take stock of the TV year thus far. Here is my mid-year Top 10, selected from shows airing during the period between January and July 2010. I’ve also added a few notes at the end about some other notable TV events. Happy holiday weekend to you.

1. Breaking Bad (AMC) No TV series this year has mixed knuckle-cracking tension with funny-bone-breaking humor the way Bad has. Both Bryan Cranston’s Walt and Aaron Paul’s Jesse were pushed to extremes of thought and action that challenge the fundamental sympathy we’re supposed to have for the protagonists of a weekly drama. This show can find the menace and malice in a fast-food franchise owner and an ordinary housefly. And when it comes to really dangerous items, such as crystal meth and murderous Mexican cousins, Bad is chilling, thrilling.

2. Fringe (Fox) For me, Fringe paid off on every level, especially in the latter half of its second season. No other sci-fi show this half-year has been as interested in detailing the internal lives of its characters, and no drama about the intricacies of family — both blood-related and (really) extended — has been as wigged-out experimental. Plus, along with Breaking Bad, Fringe offered the season’s best cliffhanger.

3. Modern Family (ABC) Humor does not lie: More belly-laughs per episode than any other hit sitcom of the past six months. This is what mass-entertainment, broadcast television should be.

4. Friday Night Lights (DirecTV 101/NBC) Only the greatest sports drama series on TV ever, with one of television’s finest portraits of a marriage, week in and week out. This side of The Wire, I can’t think of a show that has been robbed of more Emmys.

5. Justified (FX) The thing about Elmore Leonard characters in books is that they never evolve — the malicious joke is that they’re doomed to act out their DNA destinies. The thing about Leonard characters in a good TV show is that they evolve in small, surprising ways. The first season of Justified hard-boils down to this: Timothy Olyphant’s Raylan Givens goes from hatted to hat-less, from helpful to helpless. With loud gunfire and quietly hilarious jokes.

6. The Good Wife (CBS) What could have been the year’s most obvious nighttime soap turned out to be a twisty, turny new kind of network hour: The political/romantic/courtroom/investigative drama.

7. Parks and Recreation (NBC) In its second season, P&R settled in as Thursday night’s least sarcastic or cynical sitcom. Taking Amy Poehler’s sunny comic persona and radiating it throughout the entire show, P&R suggested that there is both vulnerability (I’m looking at you, Aziz Ansari’s Tom Haverford) and zaniness (I’m looking at you and your moustache, Nick Offerman’s Ron Swanson) within every character. And by extension, us.

8. Better Off Ted (ABC) The wittiest, most absurdist and risk-taking new sitcom since Arrested Development never attracted the audience it deserved. And as I write, there are still two unaired episodes to be seen. Where are they, ABC?

9. Lost (ABC) Now that the fan and media furor has died down, I’d say that this was a very good season, occasionally uneven as is inevitable with a show of such vast storytelling complexity, with a series finale that, overall, succeeded less as dense mythology clarification than as resonating emotionalism. Which I mean as a compliment.

10. Glee (Fox) A borderline case, this one. Creator Ryan Murphy knows how to reinvent genres brilliantly (see also Nip/Tuck and Popular), only to festoon the reinventions with self-consciousness when they become successful (see Glee and Nip/Tuck). Thus, roughly, the marvelous first half-season of Glee and, roughly, the self-congratulatory second half-season.

Additionally, I would add:

• The best made-for-TV movie of the year thus far is HBO’s Temple Grandin.

• Most Improved As Its Season Went On: Community

• Show I surprised myself by liking so much: I’d never watched any season of Doctor Who (BBC America) closely, and so was happily, utterly beguiled by the charms of the new Who, Matt Smith, and writing that was alternately goofball-funny and intricately witty.

So, what do you think of the list? Any shows you’d drop, and ones you’d add?

Follow: @kentucker

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