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10. The Good Wife (CBS)
Julianna Margulies has finally found a post-ER vehicle that suits her wounded-woman-warrior affect perfectly: As the wronged wife of a philandering husband (Chris Noth at his hangdog best) jailed for alleged political corruption, Margulies' Alicia Florrick conveys pain, anger, and chin-up perseverance without ever dipping into self-righteousness.
After you've seen Ken Tucker's top 10, click over to his Watching TV blog to see his expanded list: Best TV shows of '09: Nos. 11-20
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9. Glee (FOX)
Hands down the year's most novel show, Glee is also its least likely success. Before this musical-comedy high school saga, the musical TV series pretty much started and stopped with 1990's Cop Rock. And before I saw Glee, there were two things I dreaded: ''Don't Stop Believin''' and American Idol-style vocalizing. But the series caught me up in its swaggering cleverness, and in the way it dealt with issues of sexuality with an original blend of sensitivity and irreverence. Jane Lynch's breakout performance (as mean cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester) has remained brilliantly brittle, avoiding the coy exaggeration into which Glee could slide so easily. Now, if the series can ride out its pregnancy subplots, we'll see how long it can sustain such delicate campiness.
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8. Mad Men (AMC)
For a season that frequently seemed to take place in a low-lit trance, with characters speaking in library-quiet voices about mergers both business and sexual, Mad Men knew when to up the dramatic ante. During a dull patch, the show sent a lawn mower plowing through the ad agency, spraying blood and boosting the drama. Buffeted by British overlords and outside events (the Kennedy assassination), the core characters broke away in a glorious season finale promising a new ad agency that'll bring fresh energy (and the important return of crucial characters like Christina Hendricks' curvy Joan) to Mad Men.
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7. Friday Night Lights (DIRECTV CHANNEL 101/NBC)
A TV series whose behind-the-scenes history is as embattled as the football games it depicts, FNL now airs first on DIRECTV Channel 101 and then on NBC. The financial arrangement kept Kyle Chandler's soulful coach Eric on the field and put Connie Britton's tough-love Tami in the principal's office for a third season, which bade a moving goodbye to Smash Williams and introduced a fine villain, D.W. Moffett's Joe McCoy. The fourth season (it'll air on NBC in 2010) gives Eric superb new challenges coaching a scragglier new team, the East Dillon Lions, as some of the show's fan favorites — Taylor Kitsch, Minka Kelly, Zach Gilford — get great scenes for their farewell appearances.
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6. Breaking Bad (AMC)
Given the intensity of the first season of this making-meth-for-profit-and-family-well-being series, it seemed likely that Breaking Bad would either lose steam or become repetitive. Instead, the crank drama cranked up its pace and emotions. No fan will ever forget the white-knuckle showdown Bryan Cranston's Walt and Aaron Paul's Jesse had with the ruthless druggie Tuco in the desert. Walt and Jesse are AMC's real mad men: angry at the universe, loony in many of their actions, always moving forward ferociously. Which is what keeps us tuned in to them.
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5. Nurse Jackie (SHOWTIME)
Who'd have thought Edie Falco would precede James Gandolfini in getting a role that would enable the actor to be perceived as someone other than a Soprano? But as Jackie Peyton, a pill-popping, adulterous wife and mom who dispenses hospital care with tough love and wisecracks, Falco put Carmela on the Emmy shelf and nestled into Jackie's blue scrubs with itchy ease. The series quickly transcended any facile nurses-are-better-than-arrogant-doctors setups and delved deep into the exhausting work and home life of Jackie. Who can blame her if she occasionally snorts a ground-up Percocet (I know, don't try this at home) or flushes the severed ear of a creepy patient down a toilet (don't try...well, how likely are you to have that opportunity?)? It's this mix of realism and oddity that gives Nurse Jackie its rush.
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4. Sons of Anarchy (FX)
Oh, I tried to resist it. I was convinced I wasn't going to root for a bunch of violent, sexist thugs on bikes — no way. But in its second season, the Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club took me hostage. I expected creator Kurt Sutter to give these guys a humanity any nonbiker can relate to; what I didn't expect was the way he never backed away from making the SAMCRO crew mean, ornery, and vindictive as well as protective and loyal. Much praise to both Katey Sagal for enriching what could have been a dreadful plotline — her Gemma's gang rape — and Adam Arkin for being the season's coldest villain. And more praise still for the high-drama power play between Charlie Hunnam's Jax and Ron Perlman's Clay.
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3. Modern Family (ABC)
The year's best new sitcom zooms into the higher region of my top 10 because not only is it so damn funny, it's also so uncommon that a new comedy finds its tone, and fleshes out its characters, with such assurance this quickly. The way MF follows three family units with so much dexterity, allowing every main character his or her neurotic flaws and in-the-clinch strengths, is remarkable. It's that rare piece of programming now: a multigenerational meeting place (not just a site to lure the 18 - 24 demo), aiming for belly laughs (not hip, ironic chuckles). If I single out Ed O'Neill, doing the funniest work of his career, and Ty Burrell, turning himself into a new comedy star, it's only because I don't have room to embrace this entire Family.
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2. Fringe (FOX)
In its second season, Fringe expanded the parallel universe and maintained its supernatural scare quotient while sustaining the quality. That is, it made the core triangle — Anna Torv's FBI agent Olivia Dunham, John Noble's brilliant but unstable Dr. Walter Bishop, and Joshua Jackson's Peter Bishop (wise-guy caretaker to both, but in different ways) — as nuanced and complex as its Other Side and Pattern mythology. Observers, shape-shifters, and Leonard Nimoy inhabit Fringe's permeable universe(s), but not at the expense of storytelling that makes you protective of its three heroes. For me, Fringe has an added advantage: I can follow most of its sci-fi twists in a way that Lost (as much as I admire the still-transfixing way it's going out) has made impossible for all but the geekiest among us.
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1. True Blood HBO
What a deep pleasure it is when a show that I admire greatly dovetails into a fan-favorite phenomenon: True Blood this season was popular culture working masterfully on all levels. Creator Alan Ball took a great commercial risk in using Charlaine Harris' source materials — themselves big-audience best-sellers — and bending them to his own creative purposes. By doing things such as making Stephen Moyer's Bill and Alexander Skarsgård's Eric equal attractions for the affection of Anna Paquin's Sookie, and keeping viewer fave Lafayette (Nelsan Ellis) around for further torture and campy repartee, Ball could have alienated the Stackhouse-books diehards. Instead, the second season was a voluptuous, satirical, Southern-gothic delight. Sookie's shape-shifting boss, Sam (Sam Trammell), went into action-hero mode, and the disclosure that vampires Bill and Eric are part of a vast, complex society of bloodsuckers gave the show more depth. Having Jason (chesty Ryan Kwanten) help expose the corruption and power lust of the Fellowship of the Sun fine-tuned both his character and the show's satire. The stint by Michelle Forbes as a maniacal maenad demonstrated how the series can introduce and explode characters with a surging narrative force. Erotic, funny, scary, and political, Blood looks as though it's only beginning to flex its muscle as an entertainment that uses the tiny town of Bon Temps as a microcosm of the frighteningly complicated mess we all live in.
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KEN TUCKER'S WORST TV SHOWS OF THE YEAR 5. Sex Rehab With Dr. Drew (VH1)
Sad demi-celebs receiving treatment that's filmed for a home audience meant to be titillated by the patients' tales of compulsion: repulsive. Dr. Drew, shame on you.
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THE WORST 4. Grey's Anatomy (ABC)
The too-long running hospital show now exists primarily as a breeding ground for bad romances and a revolving door for actors to enter (hello, Kim Raver) and exit (goodbye, T.R. Knight).
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THE WORST 3. Osbournes: Reloaded (FOX)
Before Sharon turned herself into the weepy nice-queen on America's Got Talent in the post-Susan Boyle era, she began the year doing dumb sketches and making vulgar, mean jokes on this variety special.
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THE WORST 2. Glenn Beck (FOX NEWS)
Beck began the year an entertaining TV personality: effusive, emotional. But he became haughty, hauling out blackboards to back up his theories. Now he's that cranky neighbor you cross the street to avoid.
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THE WORST 1. The Jay Leno Show (NBC)
By any measure — comedy, interviews, ratings — this prime-time experiment has failed. There's an odd listlessness to Leno's performance these days, as though he's tired of being the public face of NBC's 10 p.m. audience shrinker.
Now that you've seen Ken Tucker's top 10 and worst 5, click over to his Watching TV blog to see his expanded list: Best TV shows of '09: Nos. 11-20