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Top 10 Shows of 2009: The Best, and the Rest

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Where did FNL land? Read on to find out! / DirecTV

TIME’s annual collection of 10-Best Lists are up, including my list of the top 10 TV shows of 2009. (Also up is my list of the top 10 TV episodes, which I’ll cover in a separate post.) After the jump, the quick-and-dirty version of the list, some thoughts and explanations, and my honorable mentions:

* It’s a tribute to the quality of TV in 2009 I had my hardest time in years narrowing down this list (even with the despicable cheat of a “tie” to sneak an 11th title on here). In strike-affected 2008, I went farther afield for examples; this year, there were a lot of consensus choices, leaving many, many shows I wished I could have put on but didn’t.

* There are different ways of dealing with that problem. You could do a top 20, or 30, or 50 list. You could do separate lists of comedies, reality shows, best performances, etc., etc. Some critics do, and that’s great. I didn’t because (1) I’m too lazy and (2) it starts to get into everyone-gets a-trophy territory. List should be about hard choices and regrets. (That said, there were so many good shows this year that I’m considering next year doing separate lists for new and returning shows, like I once did.)

* It should probably go without saying, but leaving a show off the list does not mean I hate it. It means I had 10 slots, and I love more than 10 TV shows.

* Somebody is going to post, “You forgot _____.” I probably didn’t. (Chuck, for instance: sorry, I just don’t think it’s one of the 10 best shows on TV.) I keep a running list throughout the year and revise constantly. There may be a show or two I overlooked, but pretty much anything with a serious shot I thought long and hard about why to include or not.

* However, that doesn’t mean I never regret my choices. There are probably one or two I’m regretting already. As I like to say, any honest top 10 list is really a top 9 list, and a 15-way tie for 10th. There are a good two dozen shows or so that, on a different day, might have made a slot, but just didn’t. But overall, I think this list gives a pretty fair sense of what I think was best on TV this year.

* Someone will also ask how I could claim X show is two places better than Y. Here’s the dirty secret of list-making: beyond a point, the numbering is arbitrary. It has to be, because with so many genres competing, to an extent you’re comparing apples and oranges. I suspect that numbered lists make possible a kind of Mobius illogic, where I might believe 8 to be better than 9, and 9 better than 10, yet, if pressed, believe 10 is superior to 8. I cannot rationally explain it, which is why I hate numbered lists; but readers and my editors like them, so here you go.

* Don’t worry! There will be a 10 Worst Shows of 2009 list too, as part of my holiday-time Robo-James Cavalcade of Robo-Posts. And I have a Top 10 of the Decade List, which will either post separately on time.com or here at Tuned In.

* Update: Finally, while the time.com staff did an absolutely killer job, the top 10 lists are such a massive job that there are bound to be technical glitches—I’ve already found a couple misplaced videos. If you see any, post, and I’ll see to it they get fixed.

Without further ado, here’s my list (and please click through the full version to read my explanations):

1. Mad Men
2. Modern Family
3. Breaking Bad
4. Big Love
5. Battlestar Galactica
6. Lost
7. Friday Night Lights
8. Glee
9. Sons of Anarchy
10. The Office / Parks and Recreation (tie)

And my (incomplete) list of honorable mentions, in no particular order:

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
Party Down
Bored to Death
The Guild
Top Chef
In Treatment
Torchwood: Children of Earth
How I Met Your Mother
Nurse Jackie
Better Off Ted
The Daily Show / The Colbert Report
Spectacle: Elvis Costello with…