The year's best on TV

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It's never easy to devise a Top 10 TV list anymore because there are too many quality shows out there. With basic cable networks venturing more and more into scripted series, there's more filmed entertainment available, which means there's more bad stuff but also more high-quality programming. As it is, I had to cheat a little this year to squeeze more than 10 worthy shows into the Top 10.

It's also worth noting what you don't see in this year's Top 10 TV list: any surviving broadcast network shows that debuted this fall. Fox's "Lone Star" made the list, but it was canceled after two episodes. Creatively, it was a lousy fall for the broadcasters with a lot of mediocre (and worse) shows put on the air. Cable networks, most notably AMC, picked up the slack.

So the next time you want to hurl a brick at the TV, either turn it off or maybe consider giving one of these series a try:

1. "The Good Wife" (CBS): It's not as edgy as a scripted cable show, but this legal drama offers TV's most potent mix of procedural legal stories, character drama, family drama and even political intrigue as it chronicles the lives of lawyer Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies), her politician husband (Chris Noth) and a cast of fully formed secondary characters, including the alluring, mysterious Kalinda (Emmy winner Archie Panjabi). Well written and terrifically acted by a talented cast whose members understand the value of nuance and underplaying a scene, "The Good Wife" lives up to its title -- and then some.

2. "Mad Men" (AMC): As much a psychological thriller -- "What is Don Draper Thinking?" -- as it is a period drama, this series continues to uncover new facets of its characters, particularly in this season that had such a strong focus on Don's daughter Sally (Kiernan Shipka), who is growing up and developing a more complex, interesting personality than most of the bland kids we see on TV.

3. "Community" (NBC): Last year at this time this NBC Thursday night comedy was still trying to find its way. But this season the show has grown into its own, relying more on comedy that originates with viewers' knowledge of the characters than on situations. Although the situations -- zombie attack, campus-wide paintball fight, rocket ship trip -- are often hilarious, too.

4. "Modern Family" (ABC): While it's indisputably true that television's broadcast era is over, this comedy series proves that casting a wide net and hauling back specific minutiae from three different types of families still resonates with a wide swath of American viewers. We relate to the characters in this series because for many it's like looking in a mirror. We see ourselves and our foibles in their misadventures, and we have no choice but to laugh.

5. "The Middle" (ABC): One of the only shows on TV that attempts to portray a relatable, middle-class lifestyle, "The Middle" does so with recognizable humor, mostly stemming from the Heck family's three children: slacker Axel (Charlie McDermott); optimistic, failure-prone Sue (Eden Sher) and bookworm Brick (Atticus Shaffer). Sure, the parents are played by bigger name stars (Patricia Heaton, Neil Flynn), but it's the kids who make "The Middle" worth watching.

6. "Breaking Bad" (AMC): "Dexter" is pretty intense too, but it's also more gothic. "Breaking Bad" feels more real, more gritty and more dangerous as Walt (Bryan Cranston) tries to manage his life as a drug dealer, father, husband and in-remission cancer patient. He's got to be exhausted. Watching this intense, smartly written series leaves viewers pretty wiped out, too.

7. "Spartacus: Blood & Sand" (Starz): Although it began as a blood-soaked, over-the-top gladiator spectacle, "Spartacus" eventually settled down to become an above-average serial drama with strong performances, especially by Lucy Lawless and John Hannah, who return next month for a prequel series. Season two remains on hold as producers search for a new actor to play Spartacus following actor Andy Whitfield's cancer recurrence, a sad situation for the actor and fans of a show that eclipsed expectations in its first season.

8. "The Walking Dead" (AMC): What could have been a simple gore fest turned out to be a character-driven drama -- with its fair share of entrails. The short, six-episode first season didn't allow a lot of time for character development, but it did create a believable, grounded post-apocalyptic world where you can be fishing with your sister one minute and preparing to put a bullet in her zombiefied brain the next. It's that sense of constant terror and fear of what might happen next that make "Walking Dead" addictive television.

9. "Terriers" (FX) & "Lone Star" (Fox) & "Rubicon" (AMC): Back in the '80s and '90s, advocating for low-rated, quality TV shows was a key part of a TV critic's job. But with the proliferation of cable channels and the lowering of the bar for acceptable ratings on broadcast channels, in the past 10 years quality series generally fared better and didn't need the same begging-people-to-watch support. But this year the need for such advocacy rematerialized when viewers failed to show up for the well-reviewed gumshoe comedy-drama "Terriers" on FX, the con man drama "Lone Star" on Fox and spy drama "Rubicon" on AMC. Two were victims of not matching their networks' brands: "Terriers" was too soft for FX, and "Lone Star" was too morally ambiguous for a major network. Neither opened well and both would have performed admirably if they'd been on different networks. "Rubicon" debuted to strong-for-AMC ratings but moved too slowly at first, and by the time it found its groove, viewers had bailed.

10. "Glee" (Fox): Yes, it's a schizophrenic series with an ever-changing tone and a penchant for gross hypocrisy -- preaching "don't make fun of people who are different" even as "Glee" uses its oddball characters for comic fodder -- but it's also one of the most entertaining, drop-dead funny shows on TV (thank you, Brittany). The show's writers have done a better job developing some characters than others -- Kurt (Chris Colfer) gets the meatiest scenes, and Mr. Colfer shines in them -- but credit "Glee" with seamlessly integrating newcomers with the existing cast.

Honorable mentions: "Archer" (FX), "The Big Bang Theory" (CBS), "Boardwalk Empire" (HBO), "The Big C" (Showtime), "Damages" (FX), "Dexter" (Showtime), "Friday Night Lights" (DirecTV/NBC), "Grey's Anatomy" (ABC), "Justified" (FX), "Lost" (ABC), "Louie" (FX), "Luther" (BBC America), "Masterpiece Mystery! Sherlock" (PBS), "Men of a Certain Age" (TNT), "Nurse Jackie" (Showtime), "The Pacific" (HBO), "Parenthood" (NBC), "Parks and Recreation" (NBC), "Raising Hope" (Fox) and "Southland" (TNT).

TV writer Rob Owen: or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.


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