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2010 in TV: Reinventing the Wheel

A mere eight months ago, I wrote 1,600 words about fall television premieres. From that point on, I never looked back, trudging through the trashiest of television for nuggets of artistic insight. I could not have asked for a better television season in which to do so.

The television of the early and mid-2000s (“The Wire,” “The Sopranos,” “American Idol,” even “Grey’s Anatomy”) emerged victorious in the battle to define the future of television as one of artistic quality. These programs filled the void in a time where the standards of the late ’90s were getting a little long in the tooth (“Friends” comes to mind for me, but that may be just me…). If the 2000s were, as Emily Nussbaum so eloquently put it, “When TV became art,” then the new pilots of this past fall exist in an industry and in a society where artistic innovation is expected. On the cusp of this new decade, the television landscape needed some new blood–and not just “True Blood,” though you can never have enough “True Blood.”

While NBC responded with a primetime spot for Jay Leno, the triumphant victors of this season were the irreverent comedies. Thinking back to a time when “Arrested Development” failed after three seasons, I now see that networks are fashioning their offerings around their salient comedies: Fox has “Glee,” NBC has Thursdays, ABC has Wednesdays and CBS has a little bit of everything. Where the mid-2000s resuscitated the idea of an hour-long show, 2010 reinvented the sitcom and the half-hour comedy. Arguably, the winners, critical and popular, of this season were “Modern Family” and “Community” on ABC and NBC, respectively. For me, however, these two programs only barely edged out their time slot counterparts, “Cougar Town” and “Parks and Recreation.” The genius of the half-hour time slots, which the networks seemed to have discovered, lies in their complementary nature: if “Community” doesn’t click, the night will bounce back with “Parks.” The brand loyalty that comedy creates–I have a meta sense of humor a la “Community” or an immature one a la “Cougar Town”–saves both new projects and veteran franchises like “30 Rock.”

On CBS, “The Big Bang Theory” came into its own this year and has begun to draw comparisons to the comedy stalwart of old, “Friends.” Starz, the epitome of paid cable, even threw its hat into the ring with the inimitable “Party Down.” These ensemble comedies emphasize maturity and care in casting and dialogue, as the shows took risks in both regards for handsome rewards. That these shows have been built around characters rather than situations suggests their ability to withstand the notorious sophomore slump.

The hour-long dramas showed their age this year, despite strong showings from “The Good Wife” and “Parenthood.” ABC’s reliance on “Desperate Housewives,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Brothers and Sisters” seems misplaced, particularly given the fluctuations in cast and airing this season. All the major networks are seeking to invest in the next “Lost,” though that show, so I have heard, never gave us the payoff its loyal audience deserved. The cancellation of so many hour-long programs from this year, including the classic “Law and Order,” leaves networks and audiences begging for serious contemplation of the form. The obligatory and schizophrenic focus within ensemble casts and the obvious tonal shifts accompanying them cannot sustain a full hour–“Desperate Housewives” is a great example. Half-hour comedy rewrote its vernacular this year; full-hour still needs to re-imagine its premises.

The summer will not fail to fill your nights with hours around the widescreen: paid network favorites such as “True Blood” and “Mad Men” will be back in top form. I also love a good summer reality sleeper hit (“Dating in the Dark”? “More to Love”?) and will, I hope, keep up a Remote Nomad blog to sharpen my prose and trim my use of conjunctions and tricolons.

Thanks for humoring an English major who believes her writing to be humorous and eloquent with your time and patronage! Long live television and the passion it inspires.