1. Mad Men (AMC)
A corkscrew meditation on gender, all retro visual pleasures and sideways rhythms, the second season focused on the collect-’em-all triad of Betty, Peggy, and Joan, earning every bit of the series’s insane buzz. Also, I have this weird thing for Pete. Go Pete?
2. The Wire (HBO)
The conclusion of the tragically underviewed saga depicted a Baltimore with its middle class evaporating, its schools failing, and its Fourth Estate in eclipse while corruption continued to stalk City Hall and the Game held sway on its blighted corners. "Yes, We Can?" Maybe. But for now, creator David Simon gave America the ending it deserved. Not the show’s strongest season, but the cast remained TV’s best.
3. The Shield (FX)
As if to say, "Take that, David Chase," Shield creator Shawn Ryan mounted a 90-minute finale to his bleakly brilliant L.A. policier that also deposited its anti-hero in a self-imposed purgatory. The crucial difference: Ryan and his magnificent muse, Michael Chiklis, left us clutching our hearts, not cold and stunned.
4. 30 Rock (NBC)
A screwball zinger machine, as well as a surprising contemporary workplace romance between a suit (the incomparable Alec Baldwin) and an adorable sellout (Tina Fey). Sample killer moment: Liz Lemon’s flop-sweat "date" with a co-op board ("We have so much in common! We’re all white!").
5. Dexter (Showtime)
Michael C. Hall’s brilliantly hot-cold performance elevates this serial-murder drama from a queasy curiosity into something funkier and more unnerving. If this season’s Jimmy Smits friendship-gone-awry plot proved limper than earlier seasons’ psychodramas, the series still satisfied with its wry metaphorizing of ordinary male intimacy-impairment as flat-out sociopathy.
6. Lost (ABC)
Bring on the cliff-hangers! Shrug off the meaning. This show is all about story, not character, and the writers continually raised their narrative ante with standout episodes (like the Desmond time-leap) that had fans gasping. The writers deserve extra credit for tolerating a wave of angst-ridden, entitled fan-whining that would have sunk another island.
7. Dr. Horrible’s
Joss Whedon’s bold experiment in truly independent TV, available this month on DVD. Filmed in six days and distributed online, starring Neil Patrick Harris as a supervillain wannabe, Whedon’s musical masterpiece is romantic, melancholy, funny, originalónot to mention a voice in the wilderness for the future of auteurist TV.
8. The Office (NBC)
This season, every relationship became a distorted mirror of the show’s original romantic triangle, from dirty farce (Andy, Angela, Dwight) to redemptive learning (Michael, Jan, Holly) to mocking parody (Kelly, Ryan, Darryl). Plus, they may have actually solved the ancient Moonlighting riddle, building small, realistic tensions into the heroes’ now-requited love.
9. How I Met Your Mother (CBS)
A corny, likable Friends Jr. that continues to click-click-click along, fueled by solid writing and characters who have the private-joke energy of actual friends. Bonus points for a witty Doogie Howser, M.D. homage and hilarious flashes to Robin’s Japanese TV career.
10. Ugly Betty (ABC)
The plot makes no sense, Betty can grate, and the Gio romance fell way flat, but sue me, I’m still drawn every week to this goofy, underestimated ethnic-urban-media-fantasy-comedy-drama (whew), all bright colors and sweet heart.
Photo: Carin Baer/Courtesy of AMC
Photo: Nicole Rivelli/Courtesy of NBC
Photo: Peter Lovino/Courtesy of Showtime
Photo: Courtesy of Mutant Enemy Productions
Photo: Mitchell Haaseth/Courtesy of NBC
Photo: Patrick Harbron/Courtesy of ABC