'Spartacus,' 'Treme' and 'Dead' among TV's 10 Best

NEW YORK - December 20, 2010

Way up there: Betty White.

Way down: The audience for "Parker Spitzer."

Down and out: "Law & Order," abruptly axed after 20 seasons.

Out and back: Conan O'Brien, quitting NBC, then resurrected by TBS.

Programs sank pretty low ("Bridalplasty") and fell flat ("The Hasselhoffs," canned after a single airing).

But this year, TV also had ascendant moments. Here, in alphabetical order, are 10 top examples of when TV soared:

  • "Carlos" (Sundance Channel). For six gripping hours, viewers witnessed a legendary terrorist on an epic scale from up-close-and-personal proximity. Edgar Ramirez is haunting as Carlos the Jackal in this nation-hopping, multi-lingual bio-odyssey that spans a breathless quarter-century.

  • "God in America" (PBS). In this six-hour documentary, "Frontline" and "American Experience" joined forces to tell the story of America with religious faith as its narrative thread. Religious liberty was a founding principle that helped shape America's identity, and this film, spanning 400 years, surveys the rough-and-tumble competition of the religious free market that resulted.

  • "The Good Wife" (CBS). In its second season, this courtroom-and-family drama has been even better and more surprising than before. It stars Julianna Margulies as a wife and mother forced to resume her long-ago career as an attorney in the wake of betrayal when her politician hubby, played by Chris Noth, was jailed for corruption and infidelity. Now he's on the campaign trail. Meanwhile, her law firm is hurting for business and ready to deal. Enhanced by smart writing and a brilliant cast, nearly everyone on this show is likable, flawed and engagingly compromised.

  • "Luther" (BBC America). A topflight psychological crime thriller, this British miniseries pits a London police detective against a beautiful, crafty murderer - and, increasingly, it puts him in cahoots with her, too, as he uses the murderer to solve other crimes and salvage his job. Idris Elba ("The Wire") stars as the charismatic, tormented Luther.

  • "Mad Men" (AMC). This series' fourth season resumed in November 1964 with magnetic ad man Don Draper (series star Jon Hamm) divorced and struggling at his startup agency. The season ended a year later as Draper found love - or so he thought - with his beautiful young secretary. For Draper, like many of the other "Mad Men" characters, it was an emotion-charged season, meticulously told. Maybe the series' best year yet.

  • "Spartacus: Blood and Sand" (Starz). With all the bloody violence, you felt the urge to take a shower. With all the hardbodies and hanky-panky, you wanted to take a cold shower. An orgiastic blend of hyper-realism and epic fantasy, with an outstanding cast including Lucy Lawless ("Xena: Warrior Princess"), this show is a wicked treat unlike anything else on TV.

  • Super Bowl Ad with Dave, Jay and Oprah (CBS). It was 15 seconds of ironic bliss. And such a surprise! Here were CBS late-night host David Letterman and his longtime NBC archrival Jay Leno, plus Oprah Winfrey - planted side by side on a couch for what, Dave grumbled, was the "worst Super Bowl party ever." Produced on the sly and aired just once, during last February's Super Bowl telecast, this promo for "Late Show With David Letterman" glowed with miniaturist cleverness.

  • "30 Rock" (NBC). By now, its fifth season, this wildly celebrated comedy should either be feeling its age or larded with self-satisfaction. Instead, it's as zany, fresh and inspired as ever. Meanwhile, the pending takeover of NBC Universal by Comcast - while otherwise no favor to the average viewer - has been a comic boon for "30 Rock" fans. Its send-up of big business, with a conglomerate called Kabletown devouring GE Sheinhardt NBC Universal, has represented "30 Rock" at its wackiest.

  • "Treme" (HBO). Set in the months after Hurricane Katrina, this drama is a sometimes joyful, sometimes painful homage to New Orleans. There is plenty of evident rage over the preventable disaster that resulted from Katrina. But there's also music, soul and cultural zest propelling this saga of a city determined to get back on its feet, and dance.

  • "The Walking Dead" (AMC). A tattered band of survivors faced a zombie invasion in Atlanta (and who knows how far beyond) in a drama that proved macabre, suspenseful, poignant and horribly funny. Its all-too-fleeting six-episode first season left the audience as ravenous as zombies to feast on the monstrous twists surely lurking next year.

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