A year without anything by HBO in the Top Ten? Well, if I had done a Top Twelve then the Sarah Palin film, “Game Change,” and the Laura Dern series, “Enlightened,” would have made it. But it’s funny how there’s been a shift of the really great series from pay cable services like HBO and Showtime to second tier services like AMC and F/X, each represented by two shows. And yet, as Adam Davidson of NPR’s “Planet Money” pointed out in the New York Times, the business model that makes all this possible may not be able to sustain itself much longer.
Of course, “Breaking Bad,” “Justified,” “Louie,” and “Mad Men,” were all created by people with pay cable chops, but maybe there’s a certain discipline that AMC and F/X exert on the writers that may actually be helpful to good writing? HBO and Showtime series really seem to be allowed to meander – yes, you, “Boardwalk Empire,” “Treme,” “Dexter,” and even you, “Homeland,” which seemed to be getting more “24”-ish by the episode until the finale. (I’ll give "Girls" and “Game of Thrones” another try this year, I promise.)
1: Breaking Bad, AMC. By contrast, “Breaking Bad” is the most intensely focused series on television. Not only is there never a dull moment, there’s rarely less than a defining career moment. We knew that Giancarlo Esposito was good, but one of the great actors on the planet? And Bryan Cranston? Going from utter pathos to king of the world in a heartbeat? Vince Gilligan, you’re a genius. Please give us a series finale this summer that doesn’t bow to the Walter-White-needs-to-be-punished crowd after making moral ambiguity such a delightful concept to chew on each week.
2: Sherlock, PBS, and Elementary, CBS
Let’s not give up on the networks, including public television, just yet. When they put their mind to it they can still do great stuff as these two contemporizations of Sherlock Holmes show. The funny thing about the dueling Sherlocks, Jonny Lee Miller in “Elementary” and Benedict Cumberbatch on “Masterpiece,” is they starred together in “Frankenstein” at the National Theatre in England. Miller would be the monster one performance and Cumberbatch Dr. F and then they’d switch for the next one. I guess inhabiting the same body comes naturally to them. They certainly each do a spectacular job at bringing a touch of Aspergers to their inspired characterizations. The producers are equally adept at bringing 21st century technology into the picture. And the two Watsons (Martin Freeman on PBS, Lucy Liu on CBS) are anything but elementary.
3: David Gergen, CNN
And let’s not forget reality series. Well, yes, let’s, although the 2012 election was certainly entertaining and dramatic what with Mitt Romney’s 47 percent self-immolation, Barack Obama’s no-show in the first debate and Karl Rove’s melt-down on election night on Fox News. While everyone else was losing his or her ideological head, David Gergen was providing the calmest, most cogent analysis on CNN. You want to know what the story is? Just ask Harvard professor Gergen.
4: Justified, FX
Why give those career-defining moments all to “Breaking Bad”? Here’s another show in which one actor after another, starting with Timothy (“Deadwood”) Olyphant, leaves you amazed at their thespianism. Graham Yost, if I were MacArthur I’d give you a genius grant along with Vince Gilligan. You leave Elmore Leonard, who provided the Raylan Givens source material, in the dust.
5: Louie, FX
Rupert Murdoch put Roger Ailes in charge of Fox News but he was smart enough not to let the right wing anywhere near his Fox entertainment division. Not that there’s anything particularly left about Louis C.K. But his complete disregard for doing the right thing flies in the face of moralists of all stripes. Except that “Louie” is an incredibly moral show. We’ll get him and Walter White and Raylan Givens on a panel about contemporary morality. David Gergen can moderate.
6: Homeland, Showtime
OK, you can come on the panel, too, Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa, as long as you bring Damian “Brody” Lewis, the world’s most sympathetic terrorist. Not that we root for him to do bad things, just that we feel his pain as he’s torn between family and country (and Carrie) on the one hand and the knowledge that those concepts have their limitations.
7: Mad Men, AMC
Don Draper and his friends would be higher if we hadn’t started taking them a little for granted. Still, these guys and dolls deserve to be at any table where moral ambiguity is on the menu. Did Don drive Lane to suicide for forging checks? Can’t we all shed a tear for the much-maligned Betty, as much a prisoner of social convention as any fictional heroine?
8: Modern Family, ABC
This is your favorite show, Mitt Romney? Really? This continually funny family continues to make an America where straight white men don't dominate look like funkytown — and a very fun place to live in.
9: Dan Le Batard Is Highly Questionable, ESPN2
Let’s lighten up. Not that “Modern Family” is heavy lifting, but the Miami Herald sportswriter is the David Gergen of the sports set, not giving in to the blowhards and gasbags who dominate the discussion of both sports and politics. He doesn’t take any of it seriously and just to prove it he has his father, Gonzalo, on to ask him questions and commiserate about all things sporting. If it were up to me I’d clone the two of them and have them do play-by-play on every sports event there is. Except for:
10: Wimbledon, ESPN
Having gotten the start-to-finish contract for this year’s tournament, ESPN showed everybody else how to cover tennis with, among others, the brothers McEnroe, Chris Evert, Darren Cahill, and Brad Gilbert. And it didn’t hurt that Roger Federer won the thing. There’s no moral ambiguity when it comes to being a Fedhead.
Favorite things: Web TV
An even surer way to make me laugh than "Modern Family" or "Dan Le Batard Is Highly Questionable'' — "The Scary Snowman," a 21st century "Candid Camera."
David Bianculli's "Fresh Air" TV list.
This program aired on December 29, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.