2010 is the first year of the new century’s adolescence, so in a way it’s fitting that the television landscape was so sullen. Now, wait. Before all you Hawaii Five-O fans start chasing me with tiki torches, or you devotees of The Event try to confuse me with your backward “E,” understand that I’m not saying there were no decent shows this year. 2010 ushered in few solid debuts (which I’ll get to in a sec) and, of course, countless old warhorses that got trotted back out for yet another victory lap (America’s favorite sitcom, Two and a Half Men, for example, is now in its eighth season. If it were a child it would be in the third grade).
What I’m saying is that there were no pop culture explosions, the kinds of shows that launch a thousand blogs and propel their casts to insta-fame. 2009 gave us Glee and Jersey Shore. By contrast, the first new show of 2010, premiering on Jan. 3, was Frank the Entertainer in a Basement Affair on VH1, a program that featured a sub-D-list reality show contestant trying to find love among a group of women who literally lived in the basement of the house he shared with his parents.
But while the zeitgeist may not have been rocked to its core by television this year, the medium was far from dead. In fact, it was revived late in the game by AMC’s smash hit The Walking Dead, about a small-town sheriff grappling with the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse (despite having premiered less than eight weeks ago, it has already been renewed). Another dark, hour-long drama, HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, brought in solid ratings this fall and treated viewers to Steve Buscemi’s creepiest role since he expired at the hands of a wood-chipper in Fargo. On the comedy front, FX’s Louie, the latest vehicle for comedian Louis C.K., became a sleeper success, and 2010 made history as the year that gave the world its first series based on a Twitter feed, $#*! My Dad Says (also on CBS, and much more popular than it deserves to be … but again, might I remind you that Two and a Half Men is in its eighth season. EIGHTH!)
Speaking of returning shows, a number of sophomore series managed to avoid slumps, emerging as the year’s most consistently excellent entertainment. NBC’s Community has only gotten more addictive over time; the same can be said for CBS’ The Good Wife and ABC’s Modern Family. Glee, while it’s been—to borrow a phrase from American Idol’s Randy Jackson—a bit pitchy in its second season, shows no signs of slowing in its quest for world domination. Sure, some long-suffering series need to be given the hook (Desperate Housewives is getting truly desperate, Weeds has done a triple Salchow over the shark, and there are only so many more doctors to violently kill on sweeps week episodes of Grey’s Anatomy), but just as many are thriving in their middle age: Mad Men, 30 Rock, Dexter, In Treatment and Friday Night Lights, to name a few, are still water-cooler staples.
Looking back, though, I think this year in television will be remembered not for the new shows it introduced or even for the old ones it relied on for ratings. What stands out is not what was gained or maintained, but what was lost. It was, after all, in the first weeks of 2010 that Conan O’Brien began his very public feud with NBC and Jay Leno over the time slot of The Tonight Show, stepping down from the high-profile gig on Jan. 22 as we watched, riveted (he was resurrected via TBS’ Conan on Nov. 8). In April, Ugly Betty, which had started off strong in 2006 but lost its footing (and its audience), was put out of its misery. On May 23, Fox’s time-traveling Gilligan’s Island nightmare Lost bowed out after six seasons with a hugely divisive series finale (what, you didn’t want them all to die?). And who can forget The Hills, the Jersey Shore of its time, which bit the dust in July, but not before teaching us that blank staring contests can count as meaningful conversations?
Great TV, like any creative pursuit, ebbs and flows. And the departure of such pop-culture mainstays can only mean one thing: We’re due for a remote-control renaissance in 2011.