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Top TV Picks of 2009

As 2009 begins to wind down, I figured now was the perfect time as any to look back at the series that that have entertained and inspired me over the past calendar year.

And what a year it was for the television industry, which was (and is) still recovering from the writers strike of 2007/08. This past year also saw NBC box up the 10 pm hour for scripted programming, a move that hasn't had quite the effect that the network hoped (I do feel for poor scapegoat Jay Leno), while sending viewers scurrying over to cable, which continued to make huge inroads this year.

It was also a year that saw comedy make a huge comeback, from the success of FOX's musical-comedy hybrid Glee to the season's biggest critical hit, ABC's Modern Family and the surprising resilience of NBC's Parks and Recreation (hands down the winner of the Most Improved Series award). And a year that saw much beloved series Chuck teeter dangerously towards cancellation, only to receive an eleventh hour reprieve, thanks to fans, critics, and Subway.

So, what were the favorite series in the Televisionary household? Which left me wanting more... and which ones made me eager to change the channel? Find out below.

Best US Dramas:

Big Love (HBO)

The third season of HBO's compelling and addictive drama Big Love provided perhaps the single greatest season of any series this year. Gut-wrenching and heartbreaking, Big Love's third season upped the ante by having the family diversify into the casino business and a fourth wife, take a brutal road trip, and deal with barbarians pounding at the gates. Transforming itself into the grand Shakespearean epic we always knew it to be, the series went to some very dark places, revealing the tragic backstories of both Chloe Sevigny's Nicki and the long-dead Maggie Henrickson, killing off Mireille Enos' beloved Kathy Marquart, and having Jeanne Tripplehorn's Barb get ex-communicated from the Mormon church. Throw in the unexpected pregnancy of rebellious daughter Sarah (Amanda Seyfried), multiple murder attempts, the formation of a new church by Bill (Bill Paxton), a newly independent Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin), and a possible end to the Grant legacy in Juniper Creek and you have the makings of a groundbreaking drama. One that effortlessly fuses together soapy intrigue, social commentary, and family dynamics into one unforgettable and unique series that explores the Henrickson clan's unusual familial set-up and renders it not only normal but riveting. I tip my hat to you, Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer.

Mad Men (AMC)

Mad Men's gutting third season, which saw the collapse of the marriage between Don (Jon Hamm) and Betty (January Jones) and the destruction of ad agency Sterling Cooper, proved that there are no sacred cows in the universe of the 1960s period drama, created by Matthew Weiner. Following a season filled with change, presidential assassinations, fear and paranoia, Weiner exploded our expectations of serialized television by upending the twin foundations of the series, giving Don Draper a new beginning and pushing Mad Men's characters towards a new and uncertain future. With its emphasis on the unspoken subtext and the simmering desires lurking beneath the slickly styled facades of its men and women, Mad Men held onto its rightfully earned status as adult storyteller, relishing in exploring the complex emotions and bruised egos of life in the 1960s.

True Blood (HBO)

In its second season, HBO's vampire drama True Blood went from being a guilty pleasure to a series that balanced the outright campy with the truly transcendent. By pushing supporting players such as Alexander Skarsgard's Eric, Rutina Wesley's Tara, Sam Trammel's Sam, Nelsan Ellis' Lafayette, Deborah Ann Woll's Jessica, and Allan Hyde's Godric to the foreground, creator Alan Ball and the series' writers deepened the universe of Bon Temps and gave True Blood some of its most heartbreaking and compelling moments with the suicide of Eric's maker Godric and the doomed relationship between Woll's Jessica and Jim Parrack's Hoyt. There are few series that are as gleefully unpredictable than True Blood, a series that rewrites the rules about storytelling while spinning a bloody good yarn.

Lost (ABC)

The penultimate season of ABC's enigma-laden masterpiece Lost found the castaways split into two groups: one spinning through time before landing in the 1970s and joining up with the series' ubiquitous Dharma Initiative and the other, having escaped, attempting to return to the island. Deepening its mysteries and paying off several long-standing mysteries, Season Five filled in the backstory of the Dharma Initiative while serving up some paradoxical stories about the nature of time travel and free will and introducing two very intriguing diametrically opposed entities locked in an eternal battle. Characters died, sacrifices were made, and the chess pieces shifted around into new arrangements as showrunners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse prepare for one final game.

Honorable Mentions: Battlestar Galactica (Syfy), Damages (FX), Fringe (FOX), No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency (HBO)

Best US Comedies (Half-Hour Format):

Parks and Recreation (NBC)

In its sophomore season, NBC's Parks and Recreation has done the impossible: transformed itself into arguably the most hysterical comedy series on television right now. Stepping out of The Office's shadow, Parks and Recreation has found its footing as a deeply layered, character-driven comedy about small town bureaucracy and changed Amy Poehler's Leslie Knope from being a bumbling female Michael Scott replacement into a preternaturally optimistic do-gooder whose main flaw is that she cares too much. Brilliant, hilarious, and biting, Parks and Recreation might just be the best comedy you're not watching.

Modern Family (ABC)

With its pitch-perfect pilot episode, ABC's Modern Family single-handedly announced the return of the intelligent family comedy with its winning blend of realistically flawed characters, mockumentary format, and whip-smart writing. Not to mention the perfectly cast ensemble of actors who embody the series' extended Pritchett-Dunphy clan. Rarely is a series this self-assured straight out of the gate but subsequent episodes have proven just as strong as the series' initial outing. By using relatable situations and universal truths about families, creators Steven Levitan and Christopher Lloyd render the engaging characters of Modern Family in three dimensions, crafting a family that many of us want to spend the entire week with and not just Wednesday nights.

It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia (FX)

FX's raunchy and raucous comedy It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia continued its winning mix of gross-out humor, jaw-droppingly selfish behavior, and absurdly comic misadventures and I couldn't look away. By playing fast and loose with the format and allowing the owners of Paddy's Pub to remain so completely unlikable, the series remains a hallmark for finding comedy in the most unlikely of places. Who knew that running a bar in Philadelphia could prove to be quite so dangerous... or madness-inducing?

Party Down (Starz)

Likewise, Starz comedy Party Down rendered the mundane quality of the life of a cater-waiter to comic effect, transforming the overqualified crew of Party Down into poster children for slackerdom and reveling in a scripted looseness that felt almost improvised. With fly-on-the-wall precision, Party Down nailed the frustrations of twenty- and thirty-somethings in the name tag-wearing workplace and mixed up a batch of comedy and tragedy in equal measure.

Nurse Jackie (Showtime)

With grit and heart, Showtime's acerbic dark comedy Nurse Jackie brings us a modern-day heroine unafraid of being unlikable and yet succeeding at her job in spite of a drug addiction, extramarital affair, and various unethical and illegal behavior at in the workplace. If the bristly Jackie (the luminous Edie Falco) has a fault, it's that she cares too much for her patients and not enough for herself. If the bristly Jackie (the luminous Edie Falco) has a fault, it's that she cares too much for her patients and not enough for herself, killing herself slowly with drugs, cheating, and a host of lies. The show's biting wit and thought-provoking storylines--not to mention a fantastic cast in Falco, Merrit Wever, Eve Best, and Peter Facinelli, among others-- give us one of the most darkly compelling comedies on television, filled with burn victims, beating hearts, and one extraordinary nurse.

Honorable Mentions: Better Off Ted (ABC), Bored to Death (HBO), Community (NBC), Curb Your Enthusiasm (HBO), Flight of the Conchords (HBO)

Best US Comedy (One-Hour Format):

Chuck (NBC)

As if there were any doubt that the fantastic and funny Chuck would make my list in some fashion. The action-comedy hybrid deepened in its second season, thanks to the winning chemistry of the series' talented leads (including Zachary Levi, Yvonne Strahovski, Adam Baldwin, Ryan McPartlin, Sarah Lancaster, Vik Sahay, Josh Gomez, Scott Krinsky, and Mark Christopher Lawrence), the perfect genre-smashing combination of action, adventure, romance, and workplace comedy, and a taut serialized element that had Chuck finding out the truth about his father and the Intersect, all while making the choice to fulfill his true potential... and his destiny. Building on the strengths of its too-short freshman outing, Season Two of Chuck charmed the pants off this writer (and kept me on the edge of my seat) and bucked the odds, winning Chuck a much deserved third season order.

Best Canceled Series:

The Unusuals (ABC)

While many series got the axe this year, the one that struck home the hardest was that for ABC's short-lived cop dramedy The Unusuals, from creator Noah Hawley. Revolving around a group of eccentric cops, The Unusuals found the detectives of the second precinct tackling some, er, unusual cases. The procedural mysteries were fun and offbeat and the chemistry between the series' sprawling ensemble cast top-notch. Though it only lasted less than a dozen episodes, each installment proved to be a little gem of witty banter, quirky mysteries, and off-kilter cops. It's much missed.

Best Reality Series:

Top Chef (Bravo)

Once again, the same three reality series pop up on my best of the year list and for good reason: they each proved that reality programming, when done right, can have the same stakes and drama as scripted television. No other series sates my culinary hunger like Bravo's formidable Top Chef, which had a season filled with some of the most talented chefs yet and a fiery sibling rivalry in Michael and Bryan Voltaggio. Compelling, hunger-inducing, and cutthroat, Top Chef takes our fascination with food to a whole new level, creating a series that rewards creativity and vision more than manipulation and controversy.

The Amazing Race (CBS)

Coming back with a strong season, CBS' The Amazing Race again sparked my interest once more and cast some intriguing, frustrating, and outright hostile couples--Mika and Canaan, anyone?--in the world's biggest scavenger hunt, sending them around the globe to compete in various challenges and put their relationships to the test. While some teams fell way too soon (sorry, Justin and Zev), the drama and the pacing, thanks to some quality editing, kept the tension going strong, all the way to the finish line.

Flipping Out (Bravo)

No reality series makes me laugh like Bravo's Flipping Out. Despite the plunging housing market and the economic recession, Jeff Lewis, Jenni, Zoila, and the gang were back for some more obsessive-compulsive misadventures in Los Angeles. Fear and paranoia reigned supreme this season, which offered not just some belly-aches but also some genuine emotion as Jeff accused his former business partner Ryan of cheating him out of work and considered adopting a child. It's a testament to the quirkiness of the series' leads that I want to go back to Jeff Lewis' office week after week. (Come on, Bravo, bring on Season Four ASAP!)

Best New Fall Series:

Modern Family (ABC)

Yes, I already mentioned it under Best Comedies but it warrants another mention here. ABC's Modern Family easily walks away with the award for my favorite new fall series. Boasting one of the most dynamic and talented ensemble casts, Modern Family serves up both humor and heart without delving into the melodramatic or the saccharine. No small feat, considering the series has changed my opinion on what's possible with the family comedy format, a creaky sub-genre until this breath of fresh air came along. The Pritchett clan is one family that I can't wait to catch up with each week and the subtle humor--ranging from Casablanca shout-outs to burgundy dinner jackets--is already a surefire hit in this household. Innocente!

Best British Imports:

Doctor Who (BBC America)

While only airing a handful of episodes (sorry, "specials") in 2009, Doctor Who remains at the top of my list of British imports, thanks to the fantastic performance of David Tennant as the Tenth Doctor. While his song is sadly coming to an end, Tennant offered some fantastic turns in such specials as Doctor Who: Planet of the Dead and Doctor Who: The Waters of Mars, the latter of which might just be one of the darkest and most compelling entries in the entire revival series. Quirky, compelling, and unpredictable, Doctor Who played to Tennant's strengths, allowing the Shakespearean actor to be charming, roguish, and insane in equal measure. David Tennant, you'll be missed.

The Mighty Boosh (Adult Swim)

Come with us now on a journey through time and space. The three seasons of critically-acclaimed BBC Three cult hit The Mighty Boosh (which aired Stateside on Adult Swim) are a dazzling blend of music, surreal comedy, and over the top fashion as Howard Moon (Julian Barratt) and Vince Noir (Noel Fielding), would-be rock gods/zookeepers/sales clerks, explore the twisted backwaters of the human psyche through a series of bizarre misadventures. Joining them on this psychedelic road trip to dimensions as-yet-unseen are pot-addled shaman Naboo the Enigma (Michael Fielding) and his ape familiar Bollo (Dave Brown). It’s indescribably weird, absolutely hilarious, and unlike anything you’ve ever seen before on television.

Ashes to Ashes (BBC America)

Spinning off of the trippy cop drama Life on Mars, Ashes to Ashes took a different cop (Keely Hawes' Alex Drake), another David Bowie song ("Ashes to Ashes"), and another era (1980s) and created an slick and addictive drama series that's a dark exploration of the psyche of damaged forensic psychologist DI Alex Drake as she struggles to survive a gunshot wound and make her way back to the present day. Plus, the series' eerie suspense, a twisted Season Two plot involving freemasons and other potential travelers, and the trademark banter between Alex and the gruff Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister), who waltzes away with some of the series' best lines, keeps the series cutting-edge and dynamic. As Alex solves some of period cases (and ones involving her own past), the clock is ticking down as the end of the series--and the franchise--looms next year. Just who is Gene Hunt? What is this world? And what has happened to Sam Tyler and Alex Drake? We'll be getting some answers in the third and final season of this fantastic sci-fi/cop/period/psychological drama in 2010. (Note: Season Two has yet to air in the States.)

Torchwood: Children of Earth (BBC America)

Unfolding with the breakneck pacing of an epic miniseries, the third season of Torchwood, entitled Torchwood: Children of Earth, offered an edge-of-your-seat thrill ride and set up a compelling, brutal, and gut-wrenching story of an alien invasion and the past sins of Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman). While the final installment buckled somewhat under the weight of the previous installments, the limited run proved to be unforgettable, offering some intense moral dilemmas, weighty adult themes, and tough choices for the employees of Torchwood.

Best British Import (Yet to Air in the States):

The Inbetweeners (BBC America)

The much-delayed comedy from creators Iain Morris and Damon Beesley might just be the best thing that hasn't yet aired in the US. (Look for the first two seasons of this hilariously raucous comedy to launch January 25th on BBC America.) Almost operating as the anti-Skins, The Inbetweeners tells the story of four teenage friends who spend their time trying to obtain booze, get lucky with girls, and cut each other down to size. In other words: they're painfully average teenage boys. In the hands of Morris and Beesley, the quartet have some painfully hilarious sexual adventures that will have you laughing, gasping, and groaning... all at the same time.

Best British Imports (Reality Edition):

Gordon Ramsay's F Word (BBC America)

Take outspoken British chef and restaurateur Gordon Ramsay, put him in the kitchen where he's putting some inexperienced brigades through their paces and send him out in search of all things tasty, odd, or curious or to teach people to cook at home and you have the truly fantastic F Word, a blend of culinary competition, food-oriented news magazine, celebrity interview, and all-around celebration of all things delicious. Ramsay's not shy of expressing his opinion but he's also at his most real here, as he transforms his family's back garden to rear pigs and sheep or teaching the hopeless how to prepare a tasty feast on their own.

Last Restaurant Standing (BBC America)

Words can't express my love for British reality series Last Restaurant Standing (which airs in the UK under the title The Restaurant), which challenges couples to run their own restaurants... and hands them keys to eating establishments where they'll man the front-of-house and the kitchen. Judges Raymond Blanc, Sarah Willingham, and David Moore put them through their paces with tough challenges but the real test is the daily service as the couples face the hard grind of the restaurant business and have to meet the judges' rigorous expectations of the food, service, decor, and atmosphere of their restaurants... and they must face the wrath of the culinary troika as well as the dining public. Compelling, shocking, and grueling, it's a treat to watch for foodies, who will count their blessings that they're not on the line for service that night.

And there we have it. A sampling of some of my favorites from 2009. As the year rapidly swings to a close, I'm curious to see what your favorite (and least favorite) series were, which shows you can't get enough of, and which ones you're happy to see the back of now. Discuss.


David said…
I'm a superfan of Big Love, Mad Men, True Blood, Lost & Battlestar Galactica, I only wish BSG could have been more than a runnerup but I don't see one of the other four that deserves to be demoted. Thank God for cable tv for bringing the best tv shows I have ever seen my whole life.
phoenix said…
true blood , big love & flight of the conchords are my fave too!

cheers from Indonesia ;)
Mimi C said…
I hadn't thought about the Unusuals in a month. I was so sad when this show as canceled. This show would have been perfect to wrap up ABC comedy Wednesdays.

This is a great list.
Anonymous said…
Big Love? Come on, that's not one of the best series of 2009.... And Last Restaurant Standing? The second season sucked (Except for Allistair and his partner) when compared with the first season - the first season restaurants were easily brandable, and the second batch just well sucked...
rockauteur said…
Great list! Miss The Unusuals! Forgot about that show! I'd take Amazing Race off the list though - I stopped watching the past season or two, just way too predictable and tired of equalizers... Survivor on the other hand, just came off of an amazing season (except for the winner), and should be on the list above Amazing Race. Agree with you about Top Chef though, great season (though the Hosea winning season kind of was a let down because of Hosea).
Jace Lacob said…

If you watched Season Three of Big Love, you would know it IS one of the best series of 2009... or indeed any year.
Niklas said…
Any list of Best US Dramas of 2009 that omits BREAKING BAD is void. Better luck next year!
Jace Lacob said…

Why is it void? I attempted to watch Season Two of Breaking Bad after watching all of Season One and found it relentlessly bleak and couldn't root for anyone. The stuff with Skyler especially turned me off and I stopped watching. I think Cranston's performance is amazing but, no, Breaking Bad isn't on my list.
Unknown said…
As a Brit, one of my favourite new TV shows this year is Being Human, shame it didn't get a mention here.

And the new teen/superhero dramaedy Misfits is pretty awesome too.
Anonymous said…
The Unusuals!!!!! Love it. there's always a show that break my heart. So sad for this canceletion.
Page48 said…
I thought "Warehouse 13" was a nice addition in 2009.
Katie said…
Chuck is my favorite show and I'm counting the days until January 10 rolls by with the third season.
Modern Family by far deserves the hype it's getting and Parks also deserves the pat on the back it's getting for stepping it up a second season.
Always Sunny and Party Down are now on my to-do list.
Thanks for the Chuck support, Jace!
Eric said…
No Breaking Bad? Or Sons of Anarchy?

Agree with praise for Big Love and Mad Men though. Both were great this year.
Beans said…
I liked Life on Mars very much I had never heard of Ashes to Ashes and would like to see it. No mention of it at all on BBC America web site
Jace Lacob said…

BBC America aired Season One of Ashes to Ashes (the sequel to Life on Mars) in the spring and then sadly pulled Season Two about a week or so before it was scheduled to premiere. No word on when or if Season Two will air in the States.
Ask Rachel said…
Big Love and Mad Men were absolutely the best dramas of 2009. I would include BSG too if the ending hadn't been so disappointing.

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