Here, as I do every year, I follow up my TV Top 10 with my picks for numbers 11 through 20. Some of you have said these are consolation prizes, but that’s not so. There’s so much good television, that for a few years, I was stuffing my Top 10 with entries that allowed for multiple shows (“Best Thursday-night sitcoms,” for instance, to let me to sneak three shows into one number) until that started to become unwieldy and ridiculous. (Besides, as a part-time music critic, I like the “Top 20” phrase, with its roots in old pop-music radio.) I had no problem this year coming up with a clean-cut Top 10; what follows are shows that grazed the list, missed it for reasons I’ll occasionally articulate below, and yet are nonetheless full of value.
11. Community So full of pop-culture allusions, it’s the one sitcom steeped in irony that isn’t smug about its own smarts. The series tried to dig a bit deeper emotionally this season, to warm some of the characters and perhaps increase its audience-outreach without betraying itself. Me, I could do with less Chang, more Britta, and a Jeff who doesn’t sometimes seem a charmingly quizzical bystander.
12. Parenthood This was the season that’s come the closest to juggling its big cast most deftly, providing nearly every character with a strong plotline. If it’s inevitable that Lauren Graham’s Sarah and Dax Shepard’s Crosby – the show’s most bumptious personalities – dominated the latter half of the season, I was glad to see strong showcases for Peter Krause, Monica Potter, and Bonnie Bedelia.
13. Prohibition Ken Burns and booze proved to be a smooth yet exciting combination. The year’s best TV documentary extended beyond the history of Prohibition to chronicle the era of women’s sufferage and the rise of gangsterism as well.
14. Modern Family The nation’s most popular sitcom had some growing pains this season: In an admirable attempt to try to widen and deepen its characters, it bumped into some sentimental moments that didn’t quite work emotionally. But that’s just a sign that MF is not becoming complacent, and its ensemble cast is a match for that of any drama on TV.
15. Men of a Certain Age Shamefully canceled by a network that seems too eager to court a younger demographic shamelessly, Men had a fine season of comic-dramatic growth. Just when you thought that, say, Terry’s relationship problems or Joe’s gambling jones were going to become tiresome, the series found new ways to keep the characters of Scott Bakula and Ray Romano, respectively, intriguing. The loss of this show hurts.
16. Southland If it weren’t for Justified, this would be the best hard-boiled crime show on TV. It handles hand-held camera-work better, and more frequently, than most series, and now only needs to tighten its storytelling.
17. Archer I admire the dry tone, the long pauses that serve as the animation version of double-takes, and the sheer commitment to absurdity, grounded in lust and greed, that make this cartoon so much fun.
18. Game of Thrones I had problems with the pacing – a polite way of saying some of this bored me – and I had dutifully plowed through the first volume of George R.R. Martin’s fantasy epic before viewing, so I knew how well and mightily the series triumphed over a very deliberately paced prose saga. That said, going into season 2, I’ve decided to spare myself the grinding homework of reading volume 2, and thus am eager to see if I can a) follow its intricacies, and b) continue to enjoy this exceptionally well-executed nighttime soap.
19. Sons of Anarchy Bringin’ it all back home to Charming after what I like to call “their wayward Irish season,” the SOA club made life most difficult for each other, which always brings out the best in these shrewd lunkheads. Plus a very fine turn by Ray McKinnon, winner of this year’s Best Intentionally Eccentric Guest Star award.
20. The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson I debated putting this on the list, since I appeared as a guest on the show: Conflict of interest? Ultimately, naw. Ferguson is objectively-via-my-subjectivity/quantifiably terrific even if you remove his taste in non-celeb guests (the best of whom, really, is writer Lawrence Block). Anyway, any year that included the trip to Paris with Kristen Bell and robot sidekick Geoff must be counted a winner.