Ben McKenzie, left, and Michael Cudlitz in "Southland."
By Rob Owen / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
If there's one theme to this year's Top 10 list of best TV shows, it's that TV drama continues to eat comedy's lunch.
While many of the shows in the Top 10 have comedic elements and moments, only one show is produced in half-hour segments (HBO's "Getting On").
So what happened to the comedies? They just weren't up to snuff. "Modern Family" still has its moments, but it's not able to turn out as many consistently funny episodes as it was early in its run. "The Middle" and "The Big Bang Theory" still garner laughs, but they're also growing a bit long in the tooth; you can see the writers struggle to come up with plots that aren't a rehash of an earlier episode.
Add to that a dearth of new quality comedies this fall, and it's not surprising to find a TV Top 10 dominated by drama.
1. "Southland" (TNT): Canceled this year for the second time, "Southland" had a great ride. TNT saved "Southland" from extinction after NBC dumped it in 2009, producing an additional three seasons of new episodes. With a large, somewhat unwieldy cast in its NBC incarnation, the show's smaller budget on TNT resulted in a tighter focus and smarter, more character-driven stories anchored by strong performances from the core cast of Michael Cudlitz, Regina King, Ben McKenzie and Shawn Hatosy.
2. "Breaking Bad" (AMC): An argument can be made that this thrill ride of a series resolved too neatly with one last big win for scheming Walter White (Bryan Cranston). But it sure was the anti-"Sopranos." "Breaking Bad" gave viewers a satisfying send-off to a series that made so few missteps that future TV writers will study it for the near-perfect plotting that is its legacy.
3. "The Americans" (FX): An addictive 1980s-set soap about Russian spies living as suburban American yuppies, this FX series starring Keri Russell ("Felicity") and Matthew Rhys ("Brothers & Sisters") melded elements of thrillers and family drama in its first season, an entertaining and often nail-biting mix. Producers also took a seemingly unbelievable plot element -- the Russian spies have an FBI agent as a neighbor! -- and made it work without playing the FBI agent (Noah Emmerich) as a clueless sap.
4. "Mad Men" (AMC): Don Draper (Jon Hamm) got caught with his pants down (by his daughter!) and finally hit rock bottom after a season full of missed meetings and absenteeism at the office (Worst. Employee. Ever.). Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) got bested by new hire Bob Benson (James Wolk) in entertaining fashion. Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) got dumped by married Ted (Kevin Rahm). Unpredictable and surprising as always, "Mad Men" still offers a potent mix of psychological character drama punctuated by moments of comedy.
5. "The Good Wife" (CBS): Most prime-time dramas start to show signs of aging after their fourth season, but not "The Good Wife," whose producers decided to take a page from the cable drama playbook by shaking up its characters to excellent effect this fall. Alicia (Julianna Margulies) bolted from Lockhart/Gardner to start a rival firm, infuriating her former lover, Will Gardner (Josh Charles), setting up an ongoing game of backbiting between the two. This style of drama tinged with dark comedy gave "The Good Wife" a fresh start.
6. "Orange Is the New Black" (Netflix): While "House of Cards" and the "Arrested Development" revival got more advance buzz, "OITNB" quietly snuck in and stole their thunder by becoming the streaming service's most critically acclaimed series. (And maybe its most watched? We don't know because Netflix won't release viewing data.) Although ostensibly the story of privileged yuppie Piper (Taylor Schilling), who goes to prison for drug smuggling, "OITNB" managed to spread its stories over more than a dozen inmate characters from diverse ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds. Yes, there's an element of "Oz" to this show -- the character development-informing flashbacks, especially -- but "OITNB" is lighter with more room for comedy and pathos.
7. "Game of Thrones" (HBO): From dragon attacks to the Red Wedding, the third season of HBO's fantasy-drama-soap amped up its dramatic quotient, sending multiple characters to the great beyond and introducing the best fantasy realm Dowager Countess (Diana Rigg as Olenna Tyrell) since Maggie Smith's earthbound "Downton Abbey" character.
8. "Getting On" (HBO): Dr. Jenna James (Laurie Metcalf) and nurses Dawn Forchette (Alex Borstein) and Didi Ortley (Niecy Nash) ride herd over a hospital's long-term care facility for the elderly, and none of them come out looking very good. But their often sad, pathetic workaday lives generate moments of pitch-black comedy. In its six episodes "Getting On" gave a pretty good sense of the lives of its three lead characters. More would be welcome, but it's not essential.
9. "Downton Abbey" (PBS): Taken as a whole, the third season of the British drama was a marked improvement over season two until, of course, the abrupt demise of joyriding Matthew (Dan Stevens) in the season finale. The only thing worse? How obvious producers made his pending death by telegraphing something bad was coming by having everyone, especially Mary (Michelle Dockery), so happy and settled in the moments just before the death-by-car final scene.
10. "Bunheads" (ABC Family): For shame, ABC Family, for canceling this delightful, if never fully formed, series from the creator of "Gilmore Girls." Sweet and funny with dollops of drama, "Bunheads" proved a winning showcase for Broadway star Sutton Foster and "Gilmore" vet Kelly Bishop. It ended much too soon.
Honorable mention (in alphabetical order): "American Horror Story: Coven" (FX), "Arrested Development" (Netflix), "Bates Motel" (A&E), "The Big Bang Theory" (CBS), "Broadchurch" (BBC America), "Call the Midwife" (PBS), "The Goldbergs" (ABC), "House of Cards" (Netflix), "Justified" (FX), "Last Tango in Halifax" (PBS), "The Middle" (ABC), "Mob City" (TNT), "Modern Family" (ABC), "Nashville" (ABC), "The Neighbors" (ABC), "New Girl" (Fox), "The Newsroom" (HBO), "Orphan Black" (BBC America), "Parks and Recreation" (NBC), "Please Like Me" (Pivot), "Rectify" (Sundance), "The Returned" (Sundance), "Scandal" (ABC), "Time of Death" (Showtime), "Vikings" (History), "The Walking Dead" (AMC).
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