When broadcast television draws its last raspy breath on some date that's much sooner than you think, the obituaries will note that 2010 was the year the death watch began. Scarcely a day went by without some brawl about the comparative merits of Hulu, CBS.com, Google TV, Netflix, Apple TV --all platforms delivering TV programs via broadband rather than the airwaves. Meanwhile, watching those shows on a cellphone or computer -- once an indelible sign of marginalized nerddom -- broke into the mainstream.
And at television stations all over the nation, general managers itchily, twitchily pondered a future where networks deliver their products directly to viewers via the Internet, leaving broadcast stations without either a product to sell or an audience to buy.
It didn't help that broadcast television is still suffering fallout from the disastrous four-month strike by writers during the winter of 2007-2008. Virtually no breakout shows have emerged since then, while older hits like Law & Order and Lost have stumbled to their graves.
For all that, there were plenty of bright spots for viewers. The year's Top Five:
1. Dexter (Showtime): When it debuted in 2006, it was harder to say which seemed less likely: that Dextercould make a sociopathic serial killer into a sympathetic character, or that the premise of a serial killer who killed only other serial killers could be stretched beyond a single season. But the show has done both brilliantly. This season, with Julia Stiles joining the cast as the bloodthirsty love interest of Michael C. Hall, was the most thrillingly creepy yet.
2. The Walking Dead (AMC): Zombie movies! Zombie books! Zombie video games! Shuffling braineaters have conquered American culture so completely that even Sears put up a website hawking smart (but reasonably priced!) zombie wear. But oddly, zombie domination had not extended to TV until The Walking Dead -- a grisly, harrowing tale of life in a post-zombie-apocalyptic world -- debuted at Halloween. It shattered basic-cable ratings records like -- well, like zombies breaking open bones in search of marrow.
3. The Good Wife (CBS): This drama about a political wife left to pick up the pieces after her husband is caught in a sex-and-corruption scandal could have been a chick-flick nightmare. Instead, it is consistently the most engrossing series on broadcast TV. And the failure of star Juliana Margulies to win an Emmy will go down as a blunder epic even for Hollywood's most moronic awards.
4. Boardwalk Empire (HBO): Think of this epic, darkly told tale of how Prohibition spawned organized crime as Sopranos: The Roots.
5. The Pacific (HBO): A loving but anguished tribute to the men who fought on the bloody island hellholes that comprised World War II's Pacific theater. Filled with gore and madness, The Pacific reveals the awful truth behind a soldier's letter home: "There are things that men can do to one another that are sobering to the soul."