In a TV year that began bleakly due to residual pain from the 2007-08 writers' strike and then blossomed along the way with some great, if little-watched series, coming up with a Top 10 list was an exercise in cutting shows loose.
As much as viewers love to complain about television, the reality is that there is a lot of good TV out there -- you just have to sift through the junk to find it. But it exists, and that made this year's list no easy task.
My first duty: Remove the shows I personally like and focus solely on TV's best. As much as I enjoy "Glee," it's an uneven series and has been from the start, although it did show signs of growth in the second half of its first 13 episodes. Also, I couldn't reward a show for just one episode. The series finale of "Battlestar Galactica" was brilliant but the final season as a whole was not as strong as some earlier efforts.
After that I had to admit there are only 10 slots and some deserving shows -- "Lost," "Sons of Anarchy" -- would not make the list simply due to space limitations.
A first round of brainstorming conjured more than 30 prime-time series to consider for the ranks of the best of 2009. Here are the ones that made the cut:
1. "Modern Family" (ABC): It's a welcome relief to have several high-quality comedies on the air this season but none is more enjoyable than this show about three branches of a fictional American family. They squabble and bicker on occasion and they are certainly fallible -- hilariously so -- but in the end, they exhibit functional dysfunction and a love and appreciation of one another, faults and all. Built with a cast that allows veterans to display new talents (welcome back, Ed O'Neill!) and gives newcomers their first chance to shine (Eric Stonestreet as Cameron is a true find), "Modern Family" manages to revive a thought-to-be-moribund genre in very funny fashion.
2. "Mad Men" (AMC): Still the best drama on TV in its third season, "Mad Men" mixed unexpected dark comedy (the riding mower incident) with decisive decisions (Betty left Don!) as creator Matthew Weiner found a way to hit the reset button on this fabulous, psychological period drama and ensure there will be plenty of character stories as the show moves forward.
3. "Friday Night Lights" (NBC/DirecTV): There are many reasons to applaud this family drama, including its lead actors (Kyle Chandler, Connie Britton), but the show's creative team also deserves plaudits for a recent storyline -- no spoilers for the DirecTV-deprived; new episodes air on NBC next year -- that gave Zach Gilford a chance to shine in an episode focused on his character, selfless Matt Saracen. Rarely is TV so moving without resorting to false manipulation. "FNL" takes TV tropes and allows its characters to exist within them in ways that are both realistic and dignified.
4. "Breaking Bad" (AMC): A brilliant but dark drama about cancer-stricken chemistry teacher-turned-meth maker Walt (Bryan Cranston), "Breaking Bad" only increased the stakes in its second season. Walt unwittingly set in motion a series of events with terrible consequences and sidekick Jesse (Aaron Paul) had a shocking encounter with an ATM machine and a little kid in an episode that gave depth to his bad choice-prone character.
5. "Parks and Recreation" (NBC): Talk about a turnaround. When this comedy premiered in the spring it was more concerned with showcasing awkward Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) than funny Leslie and secondary characters were woefully underdeveloped. That all changed this fall when producers allowed Leslie some wins and gave other characters fuller personalities, allowing the series to become one of TV's best comedies in a newly revived field.
6. "The Big Bang Theory" (CBS): It took three seasons -- and a move to the 9:30 p.m. Monday time slot -- but this CBS Monday night nerd-com has grown into a certifiable Nielsen hit. (Let's hope ABC takes a lesson from CBS's patience when it comes to "The Middle.") From the start, "Big Bang" was likable, but over the years the writers discovered the talents of its cast and pushed stories in their direction so that now we're more likely to get laughs from a Sheldon (Jim Parsons)-Penny (Kaley Cuoco) story than any other combination. Who would have predicted that when the show began and some critics labeled it a stale "Three's Company" knock-off (as if a show about physicists could ever have much in common with that '70s staple).
7. "Nurse Jackie" (Showtime): Carmela who? With this new dark comedy, actress Edie Falco quickly made viewers forget her "Sopranos" matriarch in favor of this pill-popping, compassionate nurse who's cheating on her devoted bar owner husband. It's a fantastic performance that's backed by a talented supporting cast that jelled from the start, although Merritt Wever as awkward newbie nurse Zoey, was an immediate standout.
8. "Big Love" (HBO): Calling it TV's "best polygamy drama" is faint praise -- it's the only one -- but "Big Love" is also TV's best family-centered soap and last season saw some remarkable episodes as betrayals were revealed and conflicts came to a head as the Henrickson family threatened to tear apart at the seams.
9. "Torchwood: Children of Earth" (BBC America): Sci-fi at its best forces viewers to ask tough questions while considering their own humanity, something this British import did without blinking. At the same time, this miniseries was a first-rate thriller that was not weighed down by character or plot backstory from earlier "Torchwood" seasons, a difficult balancing act that "Children of Earth" pulled off with smart dexterity.
10. "The Good Wife" (CBS): Yes, it's the umpteenth procedural drama on CBS but this one is different. It's more legal than crime mystery and it weaves together a case-of-the-week with character-based stories about Alicia Florek (Julianna Margulies) and her unfaithful, politician husband. Add to that strong performances by the appealing Margulies and intriguing newcomer Archie Panjabi as law firm investigator Kalinda, and "The Good Wife" puts a welcome new spin on what could be a routine, formula show.
Honorable mentions (in alphabetical order): "Being Human" (BBC America), "Better Off Ted" (ABC), "Battlestar Galactica" (Sci Fi Channel), "Community" (NBC), "The Daily Show" (Comedy Central), "Dexter" (Showtime), "Glee" (Fox), "infomania" (Current), "Kings" (NBC), "Lost" (ABC), "Men of a Certain Age" (TNT) "The Middle" (ABC), "The National Parks: America's Best Idea" (PBS), "The Office" (NBC), "The Shield" (FX), "Sons of Anarchy" (FX), "Southland" (NBC), "30 Rock" (NBC) and "United States of Tara" (Showtime).
Contact TV editor Rob Owen at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1112. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv.