Summer TV was, as usual, time for the cable channels to truly shine, and it was thanks to their efforts that there was usually something worthwhile on nearly every night. Heck, between Friday Night Lights and Whale Wars, Fridays in summer actually gave us better programming than we see during the "real" season. With summer now at an end, here's a rundown of my favorite ten shows of the season, in order of general preference:
1. Friday Night Lights: The freedom of a two-year renewal to wrap up the story allowed the producers to become ever more fearless, as both Eric and Tami Taylor faced unprecedented professional challenges. While the departed younger actors will be missed, the new cast additions were all stellar. And corny as the climactic game may have been, I wouldn't have wanted it any other way.
2. Mad Men: We'll call this a summer show, seeing as how it's halfway through its season already. Mad Men typically spends those early episodes setting us up for a big payoff at season's end, and one can see how Don Draper's increased drinking and lack of caution is going to land him and his new firm in trouble soon enough. All they have to do is find a way to get Sal back. And keep Betty away from her children.
3. Louie: Easily the biggest surprise of the summer given Louis C.K's lousy history with series television, Louie gave us both some of the summer's most hilarious moments and some of its most depressing. You can't imagine that a scene where a son begs his mother to tell him she loves him and gets no answer could be funny, but this show does that every week. Just be glad it airs in relative obscurity late on Tuesday nights, or else the protests would be deafening.
4. Whale Wars: Animal Planet's biggest hit ever just keeps getting crazier and crazier, and I can't help worrying that something really awful is going to happen to one of these boats eventually. At times this past Whale Wars season, the whales almost seemed irrelevant, what with the mutual hatred between the Sea Shepherds and their Japanese antagonists, which led to unprecedented confrontations.
5. True Blood: While this series can annoy me with its hyperactivity and irrelevant subplots, there's so much going on that at least viewers are never bored for more than a few minutes. Denis O'Hare has been a fantastic (if possibly short-lived) cast addition, we saw four "immortal" vampires staked in a three-week stretch, and even Anna Paquin has finally had a pretty good season. Now if they start putting Jessica and Pam in every episode, that can only help next summer's ranking.
6. So You Think You Can Dance: The consensus among many is that this season of SYTYCD didn't work, due to the absence of Mary Murphy and the disastrous run of dancer injuries. But I don't enjoy Murphy much, and the medical toll is just one of those things. I found this season's competition solid, the faster pace was appreciated, and America even threw in a big surprise at the end with Lauren's victory.
7. Work of Art: Bravo finally got itself another successful competition show. While not everything about the debut season worked -- team challenges, China Chow's weekly Lady Gaga act -- Work of Art had something common to most successful reality shows: a memorable first season cast. Does America have enough good undiscovered artists to keep this show going for years? Probably not, but of course, it's reality TV. It's best if a lot of them aren't good.
8. Entourage: This veteran series had become increasingly repetitive and cameo-obsessed of late, but news that it will soon be concluding seems to have given new urgency to the usual Hollywood hijinks. Vincent's new interest in putting partying ahead of his craft has at least raised the possibility that the producers are planning an unhappy ending for our heroes, which would be a huge volt to those viewers who have always seen Entourage as a male Sex and the City of fantasy fulfillment.
9. Hung: Is HBO back on Sunday nights or what? Hung took a big step forward in its second season, leaving the sexual shenanigans aside (mostly) and becoming more of an examination of how a man entering middle age copes with divorce, recession, and job uncertainty. But while Thomas Jane is fine in the lead, Jane Adams is showing comic chops I didn't know she had as her own situation gets more desperate.
10. Royal Pains: This has emerged as my favorite of the USA formula shows. The balance between serious medicine and frothy Hamptons-y stuff is about where it should be, the cast is attractive and has excellent chemistry, and we got a surprisingly dark turn from Henry Winkler besides. Chalk up another series for this network that will run reliably for eight years or so.