After I retired from daily journalism and all-hours television monitoring in 2005, I took what many devotees of the medium would consider a radical step. I decided to try to get by somehow, some way, with just basic cable. That’s right. No HBO or Showtime, no AMC or FX or ESPN. Just the good old broadcast networks, several televangelist outlets, two Hispanic networks, ION, and one not-so-super "super station," WGN.
No need to offer condolences or put in a call to the National Institutes of Mental Health. I’m fine. And I only mention this now because I’ve been reading critics’ year-end Top 10 lists and thinking, hmmm, maybe I’ll get the most recent available season of Breaking Bad from Netflix.
Or maybe not. I’m just not that into the assorted sons of The Sopranos, however darkly brilliant they may be, and I maxed out on the flesh-eating undead after my third viewing of Zombieland.
There are occasional nights when I miss having “the works” — mostly for a basketball game or a hard-to-find 1930s flick on TCM — I get more than enough to fill my watching hours from my limited array of choices. I even have a Top 10 for the year — 10 programs I respect and admire and would be watching even if I had soup-to-nuts cable.
Alphabetically, they are:
American Masters (PBS) — The quality control is amazing on this long-running anthology of biographies which, this year, included Johnny Carson, Harper Lee, Cab Calloway and David Geffen.
The Good Wife (CBS) — The moral dilemmas and everyday problems of attorney Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) and her family and coworkers resonate with me much more strongly than the exaggerated, operatic conflicts of serial-killer cops and chemistry teachers-turned-drug dealers. I will concede, however, that I entertained fantasies of Dexter Morgan making a guest appearance to bump off Kalinda’a hugely annoying husband.
Happy Endings (ABC) — The cast is wonderful, though I admit their characters remind me of no one I’ve ever known. Their primary function is to exchange razzle-dazzle witticisms and cultural references and execute sight gags built like ingenious Rube Goldberg devices. The timing is so amazing, I think NASA consults.
Masterpiece Mystery (PBS) — Sherlock (left), Wallander, Inspector Lewis and more equals whodunit heaven.
The Mentalist (CBS) — Unapologetic, old-fashioned light mystery, but with a dark undercurrent — the recurring hunt for serial killer Red John — that makes it unlike anything Ellery Queen or Agatha Christie ever wrote.
The Mindy Project (Fox) — Not since Roseanne has a sitcom been so perfectly constructed around a stand-up’s unique personality. Mindy Kaling’s show, in which she’s part of an OB/GYN practice, is at once droll and daring.
Modern Family (ABC) — It hasn’t grown much since its debut, but there’s not a lot of room for that when a show arrives fully formed and perfect. And you never know when you’re going to get a truly inspired visual joke (i.e., the stuffed elephant and gorilla atop Cam and Mitchell’s car, right).
The Simpsons (Fox) —So what if it’s past its prime. It was so far ahead of the curve for so long, it’s still a contender. And the recent take-down of Portlandia was, well, Portlandia should be so funny.
60 Minutes (CBS) — Timeless. And whether you’re talking about Morley Safer’s leisurely chat with historian David McCullough or Scott Pelley’s quick-turnaround piece on the Sandy Hook massacre, I wouldn’t trade it for a whole day of CNN, MSNBC or Fox.
Smash (NBC) — Or, Follies of 2012, complete with original songs, backstage backstabbing and footlight tirades. An extremely high degree of difficulty makes the occasional missteps of this making-of-a-Broadway-musical melodrama easily forgivable.
American Experience (PBS) — Jesse Owens, Grand Coulee Dam, Death and the Civil War.
30 Rock (NBC) — Weirder than ever.
Nashville (ABC) — Prime-time soap opry, smart and tuneful.
Parks and Recreation (NBC) — Rocks the vote.
Nature (PBS) — DUCKumentary, Ocean Giants.