The Five Cable Series That Nudged Brilliance in 2010

Boardwalk Empire
Abbot Genser

Michael Pitt (left) and Steve Buscemi of “Boardwalk Empire.” Did the HBO show have too much to live up to?

Related: James Hibberd on the Five Lessons of the Fall TV Season

Do you hear that sound? Of course not. It’s the deafening silence of five excellent television series closing out their seasons and going dark at about the same time (one of them forever). And the emptiness is depressing. It leaves a gaping void of quality — so it’s essential to take a critical look at how these prominent series fared in their seasons.

Three acclaimed freshman series — HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, AMC’s The Walking Dead and FX’s Terriers — joined Showtime’s Season 5 of Dexter and FX’s Season 3 of Sons of Anarchy in providing viewers an almost unheard-of opportunity to explore excellence. Unfortunately for Terriers, which FX canceled because of extremely low ratings, its finale will be just that.

I’ve written about the obstacles Terriers faced, but the show shouldn’t be allowed to vanish without acknowledging how strong it became from episode to episode, garnering a vocal band of loyalists. It was too little, too late.

The best way to eulogize Terriers it to think of it as a model of British series, which often come out, display their brilliance and disappear (often as planned). In time, you’ll get the Terriers DVD — with, one would assume, some nice extras — and it can stand on your shelf as a monument to a story well told.

The four others will return, and though they demanded attention and proved worthy of devotion, each has issues to address going forward.

Boardwalk Empire
The expectations on this series were probably unmatchable. It wasn’t the hype so much as the lineage. The Sopranos fruit tree is impressive — already, former writer Matthew Weiner has delivered Mad Men. Terence Winter got his shot with not only a cache of Sopranos directors but with a pilot directed by executive producer Martin Scorsese. Sprinkle in amazing actors, a huge HBO budget and — let’s not kid ourselves here — the bar was too high. Yet Boardwalk impressively laid the groundwork for a series that should be engaging and expansive for years. Full-on greatness in Season 1? Pretty close but not quite. The pacing might have put people off. The series swiveled on backdoor deals, and those don’t always come with machine-gun fire. But there was much to love here. Steve Buscemi, Michael Pitt, Kelly Macdonald, Michael Kenneth Williams, on down the line — top-notch actors fleshed out nuanced and intriguing characters. Boardwalk was a flat-out success creatively, and Season 2 should go a long way toward cementing its reputation. Especially if it attains the urgency viewers are seeking.

The Walking Dead
Could this be the first crossover zombie hit? If any series managed to pull in people who wouldn’t normally dabble in a big-screen gore-fest, this was the one. Leave the big screen to cheap thrills. Walking Dead managed to prove that not every arm will grab a throat, not every bit of evil lurks near a snapped twig in the forest. In fact, the real fear factor here is human behavior in the face of the collapse of civilization. Beyond that, sure, who doesn’t want to see some splattered zombie brains? The challenge next season — when Walking Dead moves up to 13 episodes from a mere six — will be to keep the story interesting, fresh and relatable.

Blame the name, blame the branding or whatever might come to mind. But television is littered with wonderful shows that never caught on.

It’s almost impossible not to like America’s favorite serial killer, Dexter Morgan. It has been an incredible journey for the series and, even when it strains credibility — which happens often — Dexter never fails to entertain. But it’s pretty clear that if this series wants to stay in that rare stratosphere of being a hit that also has critical acclaim, it needs to change the formula. Putting Dexter in situations where he’s almost found out but manages to slow his breathing and avoid detection is becoming tiresome. Repetitive patterns are emerging, such as Jaime Murray feeling strong emotions toward Dexter’s dark lifestyle in Season 2, just as Julia Stiles did in Season 5. Maybe those are minor quibbles. Besides, just when you thought Dexter was out of ideas, John Lithgow came around and made Season 4 the best ever. Who knows what will happen now that the series is renewed for Season 6.

Sons of Anarchy
Of all the excellent dramas here, fan reaction to SOA in Season 3 is the most interesting, and baffling. This outlaw biker-club series from Kurt Sutter embraces its heightened gangster mentality, its Hamlet-on-a-Harley agenda. You’ll find few series whose fans are as rabid and outspoken. The story line that took the club from the fictional Northern California town of Charming to Northern Ireland had a lot of viewers and critics claiming it meandered and that the skillfully riveting first and last episodes held together a soft middle. It’s too tough on Sutter; any creator/writer/showrunner ought to take chances — that’s essential to greatness. Had he kept SOA in Charming for a third year, playing the same tune, the backlash would rightly have been more fierce. Fans ultimately might look back at this ambitious season as instrumental in the series achieving brilliance.

Besides, who wants a show that resists change and shies from a creative leap? If you want that, turn on broadcast TV. Now that these shows are gone, you’ll get plenty of settling.