Whittling down my TV favorites to a mere 10 shows isn't easy, and the networks - both broadcast and cable - aren't making things any easier. Not that I'm not complaining.
As I peruse the shows that made the cut, one idea jumped out at me: A whole lot of these programs never would have been commissioned even a few years ago.
A prime-time show about a Hispanic woman from Queens - who gets by on her smarts and spine, not her physique or a stereotypically "spicy" personality? A series about a physician so abrasive that he's nearly sent to jail, more or less for being a jerk? A program about the humdrum lives of the drones at a paper company - a comedy, no less?
If there's one thing TV executives realized this year, it's that the same-old, same-old won't cut it any more. If you want to be a hit - on cable, on the networks, on iTunes or Yahoo TV, on DVD or even on YouTube - your show has to stand out.
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Television is a risky business, but all the more so if risks are gingerly avoided. Kudos to the creative people behind the shows on the list below. They've raised the bar yet again.
(Shows are listed in alphabetical order.)
• "Battlestar Galactica," Sci Fi: Like "Deadwood," "Battlestar Galactica" is interested in exploring how a society on the edge decides to govern itself. (Sounds exciting, eh? Trust me, it is.) What rights and actions are sacrosanct, which are outlawed, when most of the human race is eliminated? What's allowable or forbidden when life-threatening emergencies loom? Thank goodness the people muddling through these decisions are the key to this provocative series. If not grounded in the lives of understandably flawed, often noble, decidedly real human beings, none of this highfalutin' metaphorical stuff would fly.
• "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart"/"The Colbert Report," Comedy Central: Stephen Colbert, in case you hadn't noticed, is giving one of the most entertaining performances on television, in his "Colbert Report" persona as a conservative cable blowhard. The "Report's" snappy writing and Colbert's improvisational skills have only gotten better over time. And in all of the lavish media coverage of "The Daily Show," few commentators have realized that it's not just a snarkfest: There's anger at the core of the show. What drives this fake-news program is the idea that the men and women of both parties entrusted with the job of governing us aren't doing a good enough job. The pointed eviscerations of the mainstream media's failings are just a fun bonus.
• "Deadwood," HBO: This show's acting ensemble is truly an embarrassment of riches: Ian McShane, William Sanderson, Molly Parker, Gerald McRaney, Timothy Olyphant, Paula Malcolmson - the performers in this Western, right down to the feisty bar cleaner Jewel and the intense Mr. Wu, are as good as it gets. The sprawling, surprising saga, the actors and David Milch's poetic dialogue all make for an utterly compelling, extraordinarily authentic tale.
• "Friday Night Lights," NBC: If you think this show is only about football, think again. The games at Dillon High are thrilling but mostly because they provide arenas for the hopes, fears, loves and rivalries of the richly drawn characters in this small Texas town. All that plus a sizzling love triangle makes for addictive viewing.
• "House," Fox: They haven't done it yet - can you believe it? Three seasons in, and the "House" writers haven't softened the cranky doctor in the slightest. No puppy or adorable moppet has taken up residence in his bachelor pad. As if that weren't enough, the show's intelligent writers haven't slackened in their storytelling; they restlessly explore everyday ethics and morality with ruthless rigor. "Everybody lies," is House's house rule. This show wants to know why, but it gives no easy answers at the end of the hour.
• "The Office," NBC: Thursday is must-see TV night on NBC again, and this sensational series is one big reason for that. Laugh-out-loud comedy is hard to come by, but laughs anchored within a minutely realized character study - that doesn't exist, except at Scranton's Dunder Mifflin paper company. Long may it provide copy paper to the Pennsylvania business community, and belly laughs to the rest of us.
• "Project Runway," Bravo: The casting gods were smiling on this red-hot fashion-design show this year. There were many memorable characters, but, as it should be, the freaks never outshone the frocks. The level of talent among the most recent batch of candidates was truly impressive, and in the compassionate yet forthright Tim Gunn, the show had a suave secret weapon: a man who could tell nervous fashionistas the truth without causing a meltdown.
• "The Shield," FX: Season 5 of "The Shield" will go down in history as one of the best seasons of television ever. Riveting doesn't begin to describe the performances by Forest Whitaker, Michael Chiklis, Walton Goggins and Kenneth Johnson. As an internal-affairs cop obsessed with bringing down rogue cop Vic Mackey and his crew, Whitaker was on fire, and "The Shield" cast gave as good as it got.
• "Ugly Betty," ABC: No show had a more difficult mixture to master this year: Newcomer "Betty" is equal parts camp, comedy, melodrama and family saga. Getting this delicate balance right, and giving these characters depth without destroying our ability to laugh at their foibles - well, the whole enterprise could have been a disaster. But the skilled cast brings off this unique mixture with flair to spare, and as the plucky Betty, the earnest girl from the outer boroughs who's swimming with Manhattan's designer-clad sharks, America Ferrera is giving a career-making performance.
• "The Wire," HBO: Descriptions of this program sound like eat-your-vegetables TV: One strand of the most recent season of the HBO drama explores how the education system lets down inner-city kids. You might think that's a formula for earnest, boring TV - until you meet Dukie, Namond, Michael and Randy. Thanks to the cliche-free writing of "The Wire" staff and four phenomenal performances by the young actors playing these eighth-graders, this quartet of Baltimore kids became real and their fates came to matter intensely.