The best TV of 2009

From cash-strapped polygamists to rogue lawn mowers at Sterling Cooper, the greatest shows dared to provoke

By Heather Havrilesky
Published December 22, 2009 2:01AM (EST)

This was the year TV dared to be odd. Comedies and dramas across the dial flirted with darkness and freaks and bizarre references and tiny subcultures and left the big, obvious, conventional stories and plotlines far behind. Instead of tolerating the same generically likable characters and bland, familiar American lives, we traveled through time and space to meet manic community college professors, polygamists struggling with money troubles, a suicidal retired CEO, a self-deprecating geek with a knack for extreme neurological makeovers and a gay couple bickering over their adopted daughter's bedroom mural.

Yes, this year, bad TV was still bad. But good TV? Good TV was smart and weird and hilarious and fun and provocative -- remarkably so. This year, TV overachieved, and instead of one or two quirky, original, suspenseful, strange shows, we had about 15 of them. If that sounds like an exaggeration, well, maybe you're watching the wrong stuff.

1. "Mad Men"

"That's life. One minute you're on top of the world, the next minute some secretary is running you over with a lawnmower." In describing the bloody John Deere calamity at Sterling Cooper, Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) might as well have been summarizing the cultural tidal wave about to take America out at the knees. If "Mad Men" seemed to veer off the tracks in Season 3 -- Violent bohemians! Grueling childbirth! Betty (January Jones) and Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) making kissy-face with old guys! -- the madness made sense against the vertigo of the times. After all, when the advertising gurus go from slinging hairspray and staging chirpy reenactments of Ann-Margret's "Bye Bye, Birdie!" to grappling with the unexpected brutality of JFK's assassination, the fallout is sure to extend beyond rumpled hairstyles. The genius of Matthew Weiner's meticulously imagined drama is that the serene perfection and glossy exterior that the series has become known for feels like it's about to be blown out of the water like the idealized decoy that it is: Marriages are unraveling, long-held traditions and beliefs are starting to look as outdated as Betty Draper's 24-hour bra, and Sterling Cooper has been disassembled and reimagined in a scrappy new form. "Mad Men" doesn't just invite us back into the past, it forces us to question our long-held, oversimplified notions about those times. Or, as Don Draper put it in the first season of the show, "I feel like Dorothy. Everything just turned to color." Likewise, the vibrant, imaginative world of "Mad Men" sometimes made everything else on TV look as flat as black-and-white.

2. "Modern Family"

Aliens have assumed for years now that family sitcoms were merely government-sponsored cautionary tales of how dangerously lame and devoid of laughter people become the second they get married and have kids. Thankfully, ABC's "Modern Family" is here to set them straight, proving for the first time since "Arrested Development" that families and comedy aren't mutually exclusive. Against all odds, creators Steven Levitan and Christopher Lloyd managed to start with a gay couple who adopt a baby, two middle-aged parents with two school-age kids and a teenager, and an older guy with a trophy wife, and spin the whole mess into comic gold. From Jay's (Ed O'Neill) eye-rolling acceptance of his odd stepson ("When I first heard Manny wanted to fence I was like, sure, uncoordinated kid, lethal weapon? How could this go wrong?") to the hilariously coy banter between Cameron (Eric Stonestreet) and Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) ("You had to clip my wings, which you used to be the wind beneath!"), "Modern Family" is packed to the brim with hilarious but realistic characters, pitch-perfect familial squabbling and absurdly ill-fated scenarios that devolve in unpredictable ways (Luke's elaborate but treacherous birthday party is one recent favorite). And speaking of unpredictable, who could've known that the best new comedy on TV this year would be full of beleaguered parents and obnoxious kids? Or as Manny would say, "Ugh, kids! You don't have to tell me, my school is full of them."

3. "In Treatment"

No sooner had HBO's "Tell Me You Love Me" demonstrated that almost nothing under the sun could be more tedious and unbearable than a TV show about therapy than HBO's "In Treatment" arrived to prove just the opposite. In the show's second season, the offices of therapist Paul Weston (Gabriel Byrne) once again unveiled a steady flow of tense scenes and characters so deftly scripted that they had audiences sniffing and weeping their way through big boxes of tissues right along with them. How could therapy be so riveting? In part, "In Treatment" works because the show's writers acknowledge the limitations and frustratingly distancing language of therapy even as they explore its benefits for the emotionally shell-shocked clients who find their ways to Weston's door. As tough as it was to invent a worthy follow-up to "In Treatment's" dynamic first season, all of the new clients were compelling, from retiring business executive Walter (John Mahoney), with his alternately infuriating and heartbreaking self-protective tics, to biological time bomb Mia (Hope Davis), who may be my favorite complicated, conflicted female character ever to appear on a drama other than "Six Feet Under." And of course, Byrne was utterly believable as the sensitive professional who remains confused about his own issues. "In Treatment" offered the immediacy and emotional impact of an engrossing play, while showcasing the most intricately drawn, exquisitely performed characters on TV this year.

4. "Parks and Recreation"

After an amusing but unremarkable first season, NBC's "Parks and Recreation" leaned into the seemingly limited comedic possibilities of small-town government in Indiana and pulled out one absurdly funny episode after another, from the dismissive Venezuelan officials visiting from Pawnee's sister city to the soft-porn appeal of local beauty pageants. Whether Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) is trying to save an empty lot from the malevolent forces at the library or trying to broach the subject of Tom's divorce ("And … how are your institutions … that you're a part of?" she finally asks him), she sticks to her principles. When Ron Swanson's (Nick Offerman) ex-wife Tammy (a great guest spot by Megan Mullally) asks whether Leslie would rather be unscrupulous but sexy like Cleopatra or principled but plain like Eleanor Roosevelt, Leslie is incredulous: "What kind of lunatic would want to be Cleopatra over Eleanor Roosevelt?!!" Thanks to some smart character development and some ridiculously entertaining stories this season, the female leader we really want to emulate is Leslie Knope. Three cheers for Leslie and three cheers for Pawnee. 

5. "30 Rock"

Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) and Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) may be searching for a new star for TGS, but "30 Rock" itself doesn't need any new curveballs to keep our attention this season. Despite the sudden rush of fine comedies on TV this fall, there's just something special about this depraved gaggle of industry weirdos that makes our hearts sing. "30 Rock" successfully dramatizes everything from class differences to the unbearable preciousness of actors to thirtysomething biological clocks, veering into the absurd, the outrageous, the utterly freakish with equal abandon. Whether the show is taking on Facebook ("Those sites are for horny married chicks with kids who want to exchange pervy e-mails with their old high school boyfriends," offers Liz) or meaningless book blurbs ("Lemon numbers among my employees" is Jack's blurb on the jacket of Liz's book), the show features a reliably steady flow of great pop cultural commentary. Throw in a three-ring circus of unhinged characters and bizarre outbursts, and you have one of the best workplace comedies ever. How do they do it? Just don't ask Liz. To her, "Your hair is looking less weird," is a glowing compliment.

6. "Friday Night Lights"

Instead of keeping its high school graduates around indefinitely, all of them becoming general managers at Applebee's, doomed to comp Coach Taylor's (Kyle Chandler) barbecue rib platters until the end of time, the show's writers wisely chose to send these kids off into the world on their own. A third season dominated by long goodbyes should've been an intolerable, uneven mess, but "Friday Night Lights" milked every moment for all it was worth, and in so doing, sent Smash Williams (Gaius Charles), Jason Street (Scott Porter), Lyla Garrity (Minka Kelly) and the others off in style. Only Riggins (Taylor Kitsch) and Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford) remained in the show's fourth season this fall on DirecTV (the show will air on NBC in 2010), but the writers have wisely taken their time to weave new characters into the mix. Coach Taylor's new gig at East Dillon High has proved a rich and necessary source of story lines. While the "bad boy gets drunk and reckless" plot is probably repeated a little bit too often, ultimately the emotional impact of "Friday Night Lights" remains as strong as ever, most recently evidenced by an unexpected major turn in Matt Saracen's life that led to the show's strongest episode this season. Although its odd on-air schedule makes it challenging to write about "Friday Night Lights" in anything but veiled terms (to avoid spoiling it for those who'll eventually watch it on NBC), thank the good lord that DirecTV and NBC found a way to keep this sweet, humble, yet utterly original drama on the air for as long as they have, because, in its best moments, "Friday Night Lights" is simply transcendent.

7. "Dollhouse"

Joss Whedon's "Dollhouse" has been canceled, but that doesn't mean it isn't the best sci-fi drama on TV right now, and yes, that includes "Fringe" and everything on SyFy. (While they "Imagine Greater," as their logo goes, how about imagining picking up "Dollhouse" once Fox drops it? Might just fill that "Battlestar Galactica"-shaped hole in their lineup.) While Eliza Dushku's star turn as Echo has always been the show's weakest link, Whedon's fantastical army of brainwashed whores has remained unnerving and clever in all of the ways you'd hope, despite the obvious push to minimize the overarching narrative in favor of standalone procedural episodes. Fox just couldn't blot out Whedon's brilliance, from his ethically challenged characters to his layers of thoughtful reflection on conformity, societal pressures, loneliness and free will. Could some second-rung cable channel with lower expectations for ratings please, at long last, give Whedon a blank check once and for all, without any talent attached, and let him work his magic? This man was born to write twisted, witty, diabolical tragicomedies for the greater good. Of course, as Echo (or a Fox development executive, for that matter) might put it, "Is this some sort of fantasy scenario, 'cause I don't get it. When do we get naked again?"

8. "Community"

How could a comedy about community college be anything but silly? NBC's "Community" proves that it can't, yet this show still bounces along like an empty kegger, giddy and foolish and ready to brain anyone who stumbles into its path. From the Greendale Community College mascot (a grayish, faceless "human being" chosen for his/her inability to offend some segment or ethnic group) to Jeff's (Joel McHale) aggressive dalliance with debate team grandstanding, "Community's" finest episodes are direct parodies of the enforced p.c. climate of academia, the adorably provincial notions of academic administrators, and the specific built-in insults of so-called second-rung institutions of higher learning. Beyond the rich subject matter, "Community's" cast pulls off even the most juvenile of plots, from Pierce's (Chevy Chase) drug-induced existential crisis to Jeff's continuing struggle to grow beyond his flatly selfish existence. Danny Pudi is deliciously off-kilter as Abed, Allison Brie is hilariously prudish and spot-on as Annie, and Yvette Nicole Brown masters the alternately aggressive and retiring Shirley. In short, "Community" is all about community -- albeit, one filled with pure-hearted but deeply disturbed individuals.

9. "Big Love"

While Bill's (Bill Paxton) choice to find a new spouse at the end of "Big Love's" second season threatened to make him look like an unscrupulous horndog, it's really the female leads that make this show so transfixing, from sweetly naive Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin) to fiercely protective Barb (Jeanne Triplehorn). The third season was even more fraught with peril than usual, thanks to Roman's (Harry Dean Stanton) trial, Nicki's (Chloë Sevigny) increasing alienation and the countless unnerving twists and turns along the way. Without careful storytelling, of course, a show about polygamy would feel like a attention-seeking gimmick (as it sometimes did in its first season). But "Big Love" keeps our interest by staying focused on the ties that bind this odd family together, their very earnest interest in making their bizarre collaboration work, and the challenges of living in ways that the wider world openly discriminates against. Whether or not we understand their motivations perfectly, through moving performances and riveting storytelling, "Big Love" makes us care about this odd family and its endless tribulations.

10. "Damages"

Glenn Close's restrained intensity as high-powered lawyer Patty Hewes was reason enough to love the second suspenseful season of "Damages," but when you threw in William Hurt's great performance as the perplexing Daniel Purcell, Rose Byrne as fallen ingénue Ellen, and Timothy Olyphant as Ellen's double-dealing lover Wes, you had the kind of cast that directors' daydreams are made of. Although this twisty tale of blackmail, lawsuits and countersuits, hired thugs, dirty deeds and vengeance isn't exactly notable for its layers of meaning or insights into the human condition, what it lacks in weight it more than makes up for in breakneck, head-spinning plotting and truly nasty dialogue. (My personal favorite Patty line? Her warning to her son's older girlfriend, "You will break his heart, and when you do, I will tear your face off.") Other TV writers may loudly fret over the challenges faced by serial dramas to hold an audience's interest over the course of a season, but the "Damages" scribes seem to have stumbled on a clear solution: Offer up a few revelations and one or two major twists per episode. The resulting wild ride of repositioning, scheming and backstabbing adds up to one thing: riveting television.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: "Hung," Glee," "Bored to Death," "Flight of the Conchords," "Survivor," "The Office," "Kings," "Saving Grace," "Burn Notice," "Men of a Certain Age." 

Check in tomorrow for Heather Havrilesky's picks for best TV of the decade.

Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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