I t’s conventional wisdom that the antenna of a TV top ten—the selection that gets the fat print and the pretty illustration—should be a drama. It must be cinematic; it must be dark. It should almost certainly be on cable, probably with someone named David in the show-runner slot. So when I choose the network sitcom Community as No. 1, I’m not saying it doesn’t have serious competition: I couldn’t even fit Sons of Anarchy or Men of a Certain Age onto this list, each of which, were I in a different mood today, might rise right to the top. Cable still hosts the most ambitious television experiments, providing a place where oddball art can find a niche audience (and one that buys DVDs).
And yet it’s worth pointing out that smack in the middle of network, there it is: this auteurist sitcom, slamming it out of the park each week of its second season. Half-hour comedies are as potent an art form as one-hour dramas, and at the moment, the schedule is studded with great ones (Parks and Recreation, Eastbound & Down, Modern Family, Raising Hope, Bored to Death, Childrens Hospital, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and The Middle). Community is theoretically set at a community college, but it uses that conceit the way The Simpsons uses Springfield, as a jumping-off point for just about anything. The show explodes TV conventions while working within them, like the boldest meta-TV from Monty Python’s Flying Circus through 30 Rock. And it’s consistently hilarious, in large part because creator Dan Harmon has such a strong, icy grip on his characters and his idiosyncratic ideas about what’s funny. This season, Community pulled off an action-packed (and sexy) Halloween zombie episode, a self-referential riff on Charlie Kaufman–style self-referentiality, and the single best spiritual trampoline sequence ever. In a competitive environment for comedy, Community is this moment’s top dog.
Which puts Matthew Weiner’s dark-auteurist-adult Mad Men at No. 2. The show’s fourth season, set in the aftermath of the Draper divorce, was punctuated by sad Sally Draper breakdowns and ended in an out-of-the-blue marriage proposal. Among many great episodes, “The Suitcase” was the standout—a duet between Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss that also qualifies as the strongest hour of this TV season. And like all cable gems, the show inspires endless debate, which is half the game.
Next up, a quintet of terrific, wildly varying series: I’ve put Terriers—a failing-in-the-ratings noir experiment—high enough for you to notice it; if it’s canceled by the time this list comes out, I’ll be weeping into my whiskey. After five seasons, 30 Rock is still a weekly grenade of sharp modern gags about politics and showbiz, wisely unsentimental about its nerdish heroine Liz Lemon. There’s In Treatment, a weekly four-pack of theatrical duets, with stunning performances this season by Irrfan Khan and Amy Ryan. And there’s Louie, a divorced-dad lament from comedian Louis C.K.—slapdash, caustic, the paternal heir to Roseanne.The Good Wife, the smartest drama on network television, offers an erotic examination of political scandal cleverly folded into a glossy legal procedural.
The next three picks came after endless shuffling and internal debate. United States of Tara is a mordant, hard-candy journey into the heart of feminine damage—the clear winner among the current spotty crop of adult cable “dramedies.” Boardwalk Empire is the most physically gorgeous series currently on television: While I bridle at its gratuitous levels of nudity and violence (and after The Sopranos, it’s hard to swallow any more smartass assassins, no matter how nice their suits), I admire the performances of actors like Michael Stuhlbarg, Michael Shannon, and especially Kelly Macdonald as a mournful, canny widow turned concubine. Treme is an ambitious tone poem about New Orleans, scarred by elements of agitprop. It just edged out AMC’s zombie series The Walking Dead (vivid and intriguingly nihilistic, but the clichéd dialogue nearly killed me), Showtime’s brilliantly original Dexter (marred this season by a weak Julia Stiles performance), and the still-addictive if inconsistent Glee (Lucky! Teenage Dream! The Barbra/Judy homage!), which was bumped for extensive sanctimony.