#1. The Sopranos
HBOThe show that changed TV drama went out not with a bang — well, famously, it went out with nothing at all — but its final string of episodes were as searing, literate and unflinching as any since its first season. David Chase stripped the show down, one unsentimentally eliminated character at a time, to its dark core: a study of a fascinating, evil man. As brutal in its family-vacation scenes as in its gangland whackings, this final season left us with nothing, and everything.
ABCLike a boulder on a desert-island mountain, a Lost season starts slow, but after a dithering first six episodes, season 3 was an awesome force. This spring’s episodes delved deeper into the mythology of the mysterious island, then vaulted years ahead in an astonishing, forehead-smacking finale that set the bar even higher for next season. In between, we got Desmond’s mind-blowing premonitions, invisible mystic island honcho, Jacob, and the moving death of doomed romantic junkie Charlie. What more could you want? Only more Lost, and soon.
#3. 30 Rock
NBCAccepting the Best Comedy Award at the Emmys, writer-producer-star Tina Fey thanked the show’s “dozens of fans.” Oh, you lucky dozens. This year 30 Rock morphed from a funny office comedy to a subversive TV satire and outrageous character showpiece. Fey’s Liz Lemon has developed into a smart-but-neurotic urban Everywoman, while Alec Baldwin channeled the spirits of Redd Foxx and Jimmy Walker in a politically incorrect impersonation that was the funniest two minutes of TV this year.
#4. Friday Night Lights
NBC Though it stumbled this fall with over-the-top plots, this remains network TV’s finest slice of life, with a heart as big as Texas. As a beleaguered small-town football coach and father, Kyle Chandler is a classic, square-jawed icon of decency. Emmy-deserving Connie Britton and a refreshingly real cast of teens round out a small-town story that’s as searing as a 100-degree scrimmage.
#5. Big Love
HBOThe second season of this man-and-wives drama became more outrageous (with the introduction of the bizarro polygamist Greene family), more exciting (with a showdown between suburban protagonist Bill and the rural compound he spurned) and more emotionally real (with rich detail added to the three “sister-wives” relationships). And it showed off TV’s best collection of actress talent, with standout performances from Ginnifer Goodwin, Grace Zabriskie, Amanda Seyfried and others. Its dramatic possibilities were fruitful and multiplied.
#6. The Office
NBC Jim hooked up with Pam, and the show lived to tell the tale. In its third year, the sitcom deftly played the office love triangle (sorry, Team Karen), balanced wackiness and poignancy and pulled off the brilliant flip-the-script move of promoting temp Ryan to become Michael’s corporate boss. Its roster of supporting characters is as broad, delightful and well-drawn as any ensemble drama’s. You don’t have to be crazy not to watch this show, but it would help.
#7. The Colbert Report
Comedy CentralStephen Colbert’s nightly ego-blast started out as a punditry parody and has evolved into mass-scale interactive performance art. After invading Wikipedia and getting the host’s name on a bridge in Hungary, this year Colbert and the Colbert Nation nearly got his name on the South Carolina primary balllot. He was derailed by the Democratic and Republican parties (and then by the writers’ strike), but he made the quest into an on-air tutorial about, and commentary on, big-money politics. (Thank you, Doritos!) For that, Colbert is a fine American, and so can you.
#8. The Shield
FX As Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) sees the endgame of his corrupt police career draw closer, The Shield’s sixth season focused on the complicated friendship/rivalry between him and protégé Shane (Walton Goggins, doing his finest work). Meanwhile, with Claudette Wyms (CCH Pounder) rising to precinct captain, the drama has continued to be a brilliant study of urban and ethnic politics. The drama remains a bloody but riveting look at those, on both sides of the law, who make the mean streets meaner.
ShowtimeIn Agrestic, Calif., the grass may not always be greener, but it’s cut up in baggies and for sale. The third season of Jenji Kohan’s suburban send-up about pot-dealing mom Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker) raised the stakes for its characters as Nancy found it ever more impossible to keep her family separate from the fallout from her working life. An eerily topical finale involving a wildfire left us anxiously waiting to see if Nancy’s world will likewise go up in smoke.
#10. Top Chef
Bravo It benefited in part from airing a full season (crafty reality sibling Project Runway is just getting season 4 going), but in its third season Bravo’s cooking competition came into its own. The producers played well off the move to Miami, making use of the area’s local Latino food culture and glammy nightlife. But as always the secret was casting, and cocky eventual winner Hung was just the best of a talented, compelling kitchen crew. You may not be able to taste the food, but you can feel the heat.