TV’s best? Can’t pick just 10

Boiling down scripted series in 2009 is daunting

December’s arrival without a clear Oscar field has yielded the customary hand-wringing — especially with this year’s field doubling to 10 best-picture nominees, fostering doubts about the worthiness of what might qualify for those last few slots.

The itch to assemble year-end lists, however, assumes a different tone sifting through the ranks of scripted television, which — like the Bowl Championship Series — appears to be experiencing an unusual embarrassment of riches.

In television, where the Emmys and Globes divide the world along increasingly hard-to-distinguish comedy and drama lines, putting together an aggregated 10-best roster amounts to more of a time-killing (and for newspapers, space-filling) exercise.

That said, boiling down the scripted series on display in 2009 to just 10 feels inordinately daunting. Not only are there a stellar and diverse array of dramas to consider — from the period “Mad Men” to the gothic “True Blood,” the delightfully twisted “Dexter” to the soapy “Big Love” — but a resurgence among sitcoms, including ABC’s “Modern Family,” CBS’ “The Big Bang Theory” and Showtime’s “United States of Tara.”Much has been written in recent years about TV’s dramatic golden age, especially with FX, AMC, USA and TNT (which recently gave a new lease on life to NBC’s “Southland”) each making concerted pushes into that genre.

With comedy snapping out of its creative doldrums, the prospect of settling on a mere 10 combined favorites becomes no small feat.What’s responsible for this bountiful period for quality TV — beyond that there’s more of everything, and as they say, even a blind pig occasionally finds an acorn?One factor, oddly, might be because the mass-appeal mantle has largely passed to procedural drama and reality TV.

In a fragmented environment, the bar for ratings viability has been steadily lowered even at the broadcast networks, while the blockbuster burden is borne by the likes of “American Idol” and “Dancing With the Stars.”These diminished expectations have allowed not just pay and basic cable to sustain the TV equivalent of arthouse fare but have also helped narrower confections like Fox’s musical “Glee” and NBC’s “30 Rock” exist in the broadcast realm.

Indeed, in years past low ratings would have surely sacked “Friday Night Light” by now, but the series continues delivering some of its finest work — albeit in a limited, off-Broadway-type platform on DirecTV, with NBC carrying the program virtually as an afterthought. By contrast, mainstream movies generally lack that kind of freedom to nurture mid-sized hits.

Does this suggest that television is currently producing more quality material than movies? Upon closer inspection, that certainly looks to be the case.

Ten-best lists were part of the filmgoing ritual long before the Academy Awards announced their nomination expansion. The Golden Globes has long split films into drama and comedy/musical categories, just as various critics’ groups and the American Film Institute select an annual Top 10.

The Producers Guild, for example, released its TV award nominees this week, and they’re a perfectly respectable bunch. Yet the five candidates for both comedy and drama overlooked at least as many equally worthy contenders — and notably, failed to include a single first-year show.

Digital video recorders and second-chance downloads have become another remarkable boon to commercially borderline prestige fare. Thanks to dual-tuner TiVo and its kin, time-slot rivals like “Grey’s Anatomy” and “The Office” or “Modern Family” and “Glee” no longer represent strict either-or viewing propositions, as they once would have been.

Finally, TV series possess an unfair advantage in that premiere contenders hang around for awhile, whereas movies must replenish their slate every year. “Desperate Housewives” might not be the media darling it once was, but the show remains eminently watchable, as do a number of other long-running properties.

Sitcom producer-turned-novelist Charlie Hauck once neatly summarized the inferiority complex that television talent historically harbored vis-a-vis movies by saying, “Features are bigger. It’s a big screen. They win.”

Perhaps so, but even with that size disadvantage, TV’s best today can beat up the biggest and baddest that movies have to offer.

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