Exciting newcomers. Stellar returning shows. So much compelling fare was on television in 2009 that we considered begging our editor to expand this annual Top 10 list to 12, or even 15 choices.
But that would be taking the easy way out and, well, we love a good challenge. So after wracking our brains, making some tough decisions and flipping a coin or two, this is our list and we're sticking to it:
1. "Modern Family" (ABC): Turns out that the domestic sitcom wasn't dead. It just needed a little refurbishing. Enter this witty, feel-good series, which deploys a "mockumentary" approach to peer in on three branches of a large, extended brood. The show smartly recognizes that families these days come in all shapes, sizes and cultural persuasions. Most of all, it succeeds because the writers balance their contemporary brand of comedic edge with just the right amount of old-school sweetness.
2. "Mad Men" (AMC): Season 3 brought whirlwind changes to prime time's best drama: JFK is assassinated, the Sterling Cooper agency gets sold and Don (Jon Hamm) and Betty (January Jones) hit rock bottom. What didn't change was the overall quality of the show, which continued to be as slick and stylish as ever.
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3. "Glee" (Fox): This blissfully offbeat and original new musical comedy about a ragtag high school glee club is a joy to behold. Yes, the plots occasionally hit some flat notes (What's up with that faked pregnancy?), but we were so busy leaping off our couches to bust a move that all was forgiven.
4. "Friday Night Lights" (DirecTV/NBC): It's a miracle that this intimate small-town drama continues to survive. It might be an even bigger miracle that it continues to burrow into our hearts, despite cast defections, budget constraints and major changes in storytelling direction.
5. "Breaking Bad" (AMC): It's no fluke that Bryan Cranston has collected two straight Emmys. His portrayal of a sad-sack chemistry teacher's misguided foray into the harrowing world of crystal meth continues to be superlative — and addictive.
6. "Big Love" (HBO): Life with the Henricksons never has been boring, but Season 3 of this polygamist soap was the best so far. Thorny new challenges emerged to push family bonds to the breaking point, and, as usual, the acting and writing were remarkable.
7. "The Big Bang Theory" (CBS): A show about a bunch of "Star Trek"-loving geeks who have a passion for physics? It sounds like oh-so-much homework. But with warm, relatable — and hilarious — characters, "Bang" just keeps getting funnier and more popular.
8. "True Blood" (HBO): All hell broke loose in the second season of Alan Ball's fang-tastic vampire soap opera and, at times, the plots became eye-rollingly ridiculous. Still, its spicy gumbo of sex, suspense and shameless camp was just too powerful to resist.
9. "Lost" (ABC): Getting bogged down in all the time-tripping stuff was enough to give us nosebleeds. Still, our favorite island drama had enough audacious moments and surprises to keep us tantalized.
10. "Nurse Jackie" (Showtime): Carmela Soprano may have been the role of a lifetime, but Edie Falco resisted typecasting with this dark comedy that put a provocative twist on the medical genre. Her caustic yet compassionate caregiver proved to be one of the most riveting characters of the year.