#1. Mad Men
AMC The year’s best new show is a time machine: It recreates the style, mores and ideas of 1960 with astonishing detail and even more astonishing clouds of cigarette smoke. It’s also a timeless machine: Don Draper is a self-reinventing American protagonist in the mold of classic characters like Jay Gatsby and Huck Finn. Unflinching in portraying a sexist, un-P.C. time, Mad Men gives its men and women depth and complexity. And that’s not just blowing smoke.#2. Flight of the Conchords
HBOViva Laughlin may have given musical TV a bad name, but this transcendently silly slacker comedy more than makes up for it. Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie send up everything from David Bowie to French film to their own beloved homeland as “New Zealand’s fourth most popular folk parody duo” scratch out an existence in New York and belt out instant classics about racist dragons and killer robots, plus the most killer (and only) binary solo you’ve ever heard. (Altogether now: “0,0,0,0,0,0,1”)
#3. Tell Me You Love Me
HBO Sex, they say, is mostly in the mind. Well, that’s not literally true, as this hardcore relationship drama shows graphically. But it is as daring and honest in portraying the minutiae of its characters’ inner lives as it is in showing the details of their sex lives. Ally Walker and Tim DeKay are especially, unsettlingly real as a couple trying to rediscover the spark in their harried, married lives.
#4. Planet Earth
Discovery ChannelThis breathtaking American presentation of a British nature miniseries was remarkable for high- and low-minded reasons: It was a vivid argument for preserving Earth’s biodiversity, and a great justification for getting a big-screen TV. Especially staggering in HD, the 11 episodes traveled from pole to pole, from the peaks of mountains to underwater caverns to capture nature as rarely seen by humans. While it didn’t have an explicitly environmentalist argument, by showing the planet’s complex weave of life and natural processes, it was possibly TV’s most moving work of eco-tainment yet.
#5. Pushing Daisies
ABC It’s whimsational! It’s twee-riffic! It’s preciously precious! In this grown-up fairy-tale, a piemaker (Lee Pace) can raise the dead with a touch, but kills them if he ever touches them again. This complicates matters when he resurrects the love of his life, whom he can never kiss, at pain of her life. Playful, fantastical, and art-directed within an inch of its life in candy colors by Barry Sonnenfeld, Daisies is as romantic as it is outlandish.
#6. The Sarah Silverman Program
Comedy CentralAs filthy and sweet as an X-rated novelty lollipop, the comedienne brilliantly translated her stage shock act into sitcom form. Whether adopting a homeless man as a pet or sleeping with God (and then blowing Him off), Silverman puts the most adorable face imaginable on clueless self-centeredness. A well-chosen ensemble (including Silverman’s own sister) rounds out a comedy that proves the best defense is a good offensiveness.
#7. The Riches
FX A family of backwoods grifters on the run comes across a fatal car accident, and they do what comes naturally: swipe the dead man’s identity and the McMansion he was about to relocate to. So begins a darkly rollicking story of opportunity, identity and class. (Think of it as The Beverly Shillbillies.) Like any daring con, The Riches constantly risks unbelievability, but captivating performances by Eddie Izzard and Minnie Driver as his meth-addicted wife hold it together on sheer nerve. The show’s premise is criminal, but its spirit all-American: If you believe it, you can make it true.
#8. Yo Gabba Gabba!
NickelodeonThe most delightfully bizarre kids’ show since Pee-Wee’s Playhouse is a marriage of club music, edgy animation and surreal imagery that will convince you someone slipped something into your Fruity Pebbles. Like a rave party for kids, with art segments by Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh and music from bands like The Shins, it’s gorgeous-looking silly fun, for adults too. In the words of one of its highly contagious songs, this is a show with a party in its tummy.
#9. The War
PBS Ken Burns did not have much to add factually to our knowledge of exhaustively covered WWII. Instead, this 15-hour documentary — a docu-elegy, really — relied on the memories of surviving soldiers and contemporaries to bring the emotional truth of the war to life (a much harder job, after 60 years of war movies). Geopolitics and troop movements aside, WWII was about millions of young people worldwide preparing to die, and The War made their experience heart-rendingly immortal.
#10. Kid Nation
CBSIt was buried in controversy before it ever aired and received indifferent ratings once it finally did. But after all the posturing, this reality show about 40 kids repopulating a ghost town in New Mexico turns out simply to be an intriguing, even earnest little show about group dynamics and ethics (free of the usual “voting off the island” competition). And it is a rare chance, in the age of overscheduling and helicopter parents, to see kids thriving and risking without the constant involvement of adults. Except for the ones holding the cameras.