It's been a month since the new shows of the 2010-2011 TV season began arriving. A picture emerges. There are precious few new network hits apart from Hawaii Five-O (Mondays, CBS, Global), a heavily promoted show with name-recognition and a good time-slot. A bikini-and-bang-bang opera, it's excellent escapism is all.
Fact is, new series have found it difficult to make a dent in the existing fan bases for continuing, established series. And while the networks have volume, cable has the quality-control. It's time to reassess. There is great TV airing now. Here are the 10 best shows currently on the air, in no particular order. Perhaps you disagree and think that Mad Men is numero uno, or that Glee doesn't belong in the Top 10. If so, let us know.
Rubicon (AMC, Sundays, 9 p.m.), when it started this past summer, was all brooding quietness as viewers saw apparently innocuous policy analyst Will Travers (James Badge Dale) poke nervously into the deaths of others at his shadowy firm. Then it grew into a superb conspiracy thriller, the ultimate anti- 24 drama. The season finale this Sunday concludes an exquisitely made series, with glorious performances from Arliss Howard as the black-clad, gay manipulator Kale Ingram, and Michael Cristofer as the cunning, splendidly-named Intelligence boss Truxton Spangler. The conspiracy, while plausible, gives you the shivers. If you missed it, the entire season will be repeated soon. Watch.
Boardwalk Empire (Sundays, HBO Canada, 9 p.m.) was weakest at the beginning when Martin Scorsese put a movie-sheen on it. Now it has depth. Steve Buscemi's Nucky Thompson has become as much a politician as a gangster, and the show loads up with subtle excursions into the dynamics of political power in America. He embodies the U.S. as much as Don Draper does. And Kelly Macdonald as the love interest is achingly good. Watching these two actors together is fabulous entertainment.
Mad Men (Sundays, AMC, 10 p.m.) reaches its season finale on Sunday. It's been a great season - Don's drinking and depression, the loss of the cigarette account, Joan's pregnancy, Peggy's anger and the arrival of a drug problem in Greenwich Village. It shifts the show toward the catastrophic end of the 1960s in the U.S., and does it with aplomb. This is not soap-opera.
Glee (Tuesdays, Fox, Global, 8 p.m.) is forgiven everything, thanks to the recent God episode. As shockingly inventive as it is childishly repetitive, it wobbles magnificently.
Dexter (Sundays, TMN, Movie Central, 10 p.m.) is better for having a bereaved main character whose only outlet is murder. Who knows what Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) embodies, but the bloodlust, mixed with dry wit, is intoxicating.
The fifth estate (Fridays, CBC, 9 p.m.) remains better at storytelling than the dramas on CBC these days. It's on a roll this season, and Friday's program has a great expose of a plan to round up and incarcerate political radicals in Canada in the 1950s.
Modern Family (Wednesdays, ABC, CITY-TV, 9 p.m.) continues to be as deadpan and subtly hilarious as the pilot episode. So much network TV comedy is ostentatiously florid and this is sublimely subdued, drawing out satire and laughs with drollery and memorable asides.
Raising Hope (Tuesdays, Fox, 9 p.m.) is still finding its feet, but it has the blessed distinction of being about people who are genuinely poor, put-upon characters trying to pay the bills. The show's tone is emphatically different. It has elements of formulaic comedy but lodges them inside a group of characters who are unlike those middle-class people seen everywhere else on TV. On the surface it's all about adorable loser Jimmy (Lucas Neff) raising an adorable kid, but underneath it's about his family and world of economic losers.
The Event (Mondays, NBC, CITY-TV, 9 p.m.) is, magically, the new 24, but with an in-love couple at the core, not a no-nonsense counter-terrorism agent. Still, there's an Obama-like president, White House intrigue and what might be an alien conspiracy. Fringe meets 24. The deft intricacies of the plotting, even though some tricks are absurd, make it very appealing. Already more than a few viewers are hooked.
Call Me Fitz (Sundays, HBO Canada, 8:30 p.m.) is, to date, a gloriously toxic black comedy. Jason Priestley is very fine as Richard Fitzpatrick, the car salesman from hell whose life unravels. The show keeps teetering on the edge of being redemptive, and then swings back to being about truly awful, despicable but wonderfully drawn characters. This is one comedy for grown-ups with irrepressible energy.
Bubbling under the Top 10: The Good Wife (Tuesday, CBS, Global, 10 p.m.) could rely more on wife Alicia (Julianna Margulies) and her steely rage, and less on the courtroom subplots, maybe. Wallander (Fridays, Showcase, 10 p.m., Sundays, PBS, 10 p.m. on Masterpiece Mystery) is a model of TV crime drama, as subtle as it is searing. Just a pity that there are only three dramas per season, and the one in the middle is always the weakest. Kenneth Branagh, though, is masterful.