1. It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, FX-No comedy had me flat-out marvelling at the directions it dared to take their characters. Although it's been five seasons, the show has really hit its stride and what I love is that it seems like the characters have evolved and the writing has gotten even better. You could take practically 75% of the scenes and set them alone as comic set pieces which would be funnier than most skits on SNL. The show's characters have truly become fleshed-out and differentiated from each other at this point, yet they all share that singular humor that makes them so off-center from the rest of the world. It's like these guys are Abbott and anyone who comes into their circle of insanity is Costello.
2. In Treatment, HBO-The raw drama, the power of the performances,
the insight into the human psyche is, to quote Shawn Stockman on NBC'
The Sing-Off (and if you saw his critique of Committed on that show
you'd know what I was talking about), "What it's all about, man." The
root of what makes drama good is right here. There's nothing but a room,
a couch and a chair with a patient who we slowly learn about as the
weeks go on and a psychiatrist who's pretty damn good at his job. More
specifically, we're watching a guy who's pretty damn good at his job go to work in
four out of every five episodes. On every 5th episode, we learn how much
of a basket case he is when he visits a psychiatrist of his own
(Editorial note: I have restrained myself from watching the "Paul goes
to therapy" episodes because I find it ruins the illusion).
3. The Office, NBC-The first half of season 4 once Ryan got fired and Pam and Jim started becoming more insular in coupledom was somewhat disappointing, but the writers took us for a massive twist or two that threatened to destroy the safe confines the sitcom had built up for four years. Michael quits the company and competes against his own business and hires Ryan and Pam. It was both an entirely game-changing development in the Office universe and also one that stayed as true to the characters as we come to expect from a show that creates such a sesne of realism. The show was also improved by the addition of three great additions: Idris Elba, Amy Ryan and Ellie Kemper as guest stars (the third now a permanent cast member).
4. Breaking Bad, AMC-Holy crap, this show really became intense in the second season. The show erased any moral limits to Walter White and while it might not be realistic (although the show tries within limits to make moral decay realistic), there is a palpable sense of suspense over how far removed from his original moral center White will get. In the meantime, Jessie has become a voice of reason and the uneasy alliance between the high school dropout and his former teacher really has taken on another dimension of instability. Beautifully shot backdrops, drugs, violence, sex, and lots of high school chemistry, what more could you ask?
5. Better off Ted, ABC-Very few shows get as good mileage out of just five characters and that's all the more impressive when you consider that they fit into such classic stock conventions: the straight leading man, the two bickering nerds, the beautiful girl-next-door whose free-spirited personality often tips the scales towards looniness, and the sexually threatening boss without a conscience. Maybe that boss figure (Portia de Rossi) truly is an original with the way she can say the most inhumane things with a wink and a smile. Better off Ted, technically in its second season, is a workplace comedy that satirizes the nonsensical social norms and mores of the modern workplace better than anything I've seen in a while
6. Glee, Fox-Like an old MGM musical where you're just as intrigued by the dance numbers as you are by the story, Glee has some fantastic song-and-dance numbers that make hypocrites out of us all for going gaga over the show's mp3 downloads when we were being so condescending to our younger cousins and siblings when they did so with High School Musical. The characters are also absurdly caricatured but real enough to keep us tuned in. Some acknowledge that Glee is kind of weak on consistency and stretches believability but the show is widely watched and spurs a lot of water cooler talk, a lot of which centers on just how to interpret the show and its flaws therein. The bottom line is that it's entered the cultural conversation.
7. Royal Pains, USA-There are a million shows about doctors on TV but this is the only one that intrigued me enough to watch in the first place and there was a lot to keep me going once that happened. In the same way that something like Touched by an Angel and Joan of Arcadia serves as entertainment that reaffirms our faith in the world, there's something in Royal Pains that also does that in a very topical way. In the midst of this health care debate, Hank symbolizes what we all need: A doctor who is fully committed to doing good and is willing to put his career on the line for it. Hank is insistent on treating people whether they can pay for it or not despite the musings of his accountant brother who is concerned about the bottom line. The show paints its characters in pretty broad strokes (Hank's medical assistant is part of that glamorous world with her exotic accent and expensive dresses) but it's somewhat satirical of that world as well.
8. Dollhouse, FOX-Joss Wheedon's appeal at creating thought-provoking feminist dramas shines once again in his latest series which takes us into a futuristic world where Eliza Dushku is one of several vagabonds who signed away their free will to a shady underworld company that practices its own rules of ethics. The show features a arcing storyling in the style of Lost but the episodes also stand alone well. Bonus points for the casting of Rushmore's Olivia Williiams.
9. Flight of the Conchords, HBO-This New Zealand import wrapped up its second (and possibly last) season just in time for me to stumble upon this gem. Because both styles of comedy center around the pathos of the mundane, Flight of the Conchords initially struck me as a Ricky Gervaise comedy (particularly Extras) with songs. However, the show grew on me rapidly for its unique spin on the regular-guys-eeking-it-out-en-route-to-stardom premise: Flight of the Conchords is about two guys who are successfully being deluded by the people around them into thinking that their sad, aimless existence is actually some micro-form of stardom. Compliments for pulling of this premise hillariously go to the deluders: Rhys Darby as their clueless pushpin manager and Wendy Schaal as the borderline psychotic fanbase of one.
10. Sit Down Shut Up, FOX-The show from Mitch Hurwitz started out terribly, but really found its strides in its "second season" (technically, this was just the network burning off the remaining nine episodes of the first season). Whatever problems the show had, it had a great cast that never let the show down and created interesting characters out of the lines that were given to them. The basis of any good comedy is good characters and Sit Down Shut Up had that base so when the plots were clicking (as what happened more often in the season's second half) the show really came on fire. I also loved how unapologetic the show was about never involving the students into the picture.