Here, as I do every year, I follow up my TV Top 10, which you can find here and in the new, print issue of EW, with my picks for numbers 11 through 20. Some of you have said these are consolation prizes, but that’s not so. There’s so much good television, that for a few years, I was stuffing my Top 10 with entries that allowed for multiple shows (“Best Thursday-night sitcoms,” for instance, allowed me to sneak three shows into one number – those were the days, eh?) until that started to become unwieldy and ridiculous. (Besides, as a part-time music critic, I like the “Top 20” phrase, with its roots in pop-music radio.)
11. Parenthood (NBC) Monica Potter’s Christina cheating death; Ray Romano trying to get Lauren Graham to cheat on Jason Ritter – great stuff. Julia and Joel adopting Victor – not so great. A show like Parenthood is always going to have trouble juggling its subplots and servicing its large cast, but this season it came damn close to broadcasting its best season ever.
12. Luck (HBO) It got better with each succeeding episode; Dustin Hoffman’s was just one of many finely shaded performances (along with a couple of gleefully over-the-top ones). It’s too bad this series got sidelined; the Michael Mann-David Milch production seemed headed for a victory lap if it had had a chance to run for a second season.
13. Fringe (Fox) The alternate-universe versions of my beloved characters never grabbed me the way the originals did, but this season made a good, strenuous effort to return to the fundamental dynamic that made this series so close to great: Its abiding notion that you take family where you can find it, and that that connection is humanity’s greatest source of love, fear, power, and vulnerability.
14. Sons of Anarchy (FX) Kurt Sutter’s take on Shakespeare is becoming more rigorous, more true to its source, yet also more exaggerated, with each season. This time around, he grounded the inherent absurdity of bikers-with-a-conscience (well, a few of them) with imaginative touches such as a finely drawn character for guest star Jimmy Smits to play.
15. Archer (FX) Dirty, slapstick, suspenseful, complex – what started out as a cartoon of James Bond plus The Man from U.N.C.L.E. has become its own unique piece of animated art.
16. The Walking Dead (AMC) Killin’ zombies: The stripped-back new mandate for the series cut away virtually all of its ponderous, moralizing flab while leaving the heart of its reason to exist – to ask, what does it mean to be human? – intact, throbbing with life.
17. Southland (TNT) The police procedural as a series of morality plays, free of preachment as well as cynicism. Probably the action series most mindful of morality, and willing to dramatize examples of it.
18. Hunted (Cinemax) If creator Frank Spotnitz was going to make a spy series about a woman who could pass as both a nanny and a bad-ass, he certainly was a witty man to cast Melissa George, queen of the lippy pout, in the role. She dove right into this satisfyingly knotty series, executed the fight scenes well, and reminded us why they used to nickname this channel Skinemax. No mean feats at all.
19. NY Med (ABC) The documentary form the way it should be done for network television: Swift narrative propulsion, doctors and nurses you’d cast if you were re-making ER for a new century, yet free of excessive explanation and self-congratulation.
20. Bent (NBC) The year’s most underrated sitcom. Amanda Peet and David Walton were, just as the series was being cancelled, coming together as a fine comic couple – they had rhythm and timing not seen or heard since Moonlighting – and, unaccountably, their network failed to see what potential riches it possessed. Plus, Jeffrey Tambor.