Stare at the small screen long enough, and television starts to become as predictable as a Swanson's frozen dinner.
Not that we're knocking meatloaf and mashed potatoes, but sometimes it's a pleasant surprise to pop open a box and discover a perfectly prepared smoked salmon. Of course, playing the Mystery Meal game has its risks, as you'll discover when you peel back the tinfoil and come face to face with a mess of steamed turnips.
Here are 10 offerings from the 2010-11 television season I didn't see coming:
The Good Wife gets great: The drama with more twists than a Chubby Checker concert outdid itself late in the season with the revelation that Kalinda (Emmy winner Archie Panjabi) once slept with her colleague's hubby. Even more surprising — and it shouldn't be — is that The Good Wife continues to be one of the few straight-ahead dramas where the gals get most of the juicy lines without turning into lovesick surgeons or desperate housewives.
Michael Scott's poignant goodbye: When Steve Carell announced his exit from The Office, I expected a goodbye as long, tedious and hammy as the end of a Wayne Newton performance. Instead, the writers came up with some of the most heart-tugging moments of the show's entire run, including a candlelit marriage proposal that appeared to be designed by the dream team of Jerry Lewis and Oprah Winfrey. The decision to have the once-egocentric Scott skip his own going-away party showed us just how far both the character and the show have come.
Glee loses its grit: Talk about your sophomore slumps. Glee, once a celebration of Broadway melodies, silly love songs and misfits, has lost its spirit, relying too much on hot musical artists, hot guest stars and hot bodies. It's like the cast has suddenly become too cool for school. Most unforgivable of all: Turning Jane Lynch's Sue Sylvester into Yosemite Sam. Let's hope creator Ryan Murphy uses the summer break to get back to basics.
American Idol stays on top: When Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez joined the gang, I predicted fawning critiques and bland stabs at humor. I was right. Idol's resident grouch, Simon Cowell, is deeply missed. What I didn't see coming was the finest field of talent in the show's history. And the new judges deserve props for discovering them. It's the voices on stage — not the ones on the panel — that have kept Idol on top. The true test will come when the experts are faced with a legion of Sanjayas.
Running Wilde runs amok: Will Arnett reuniting with his Arrested Development boss Mitchell Hurwitz? Keri Russell as his tree-hugging love interest? What could go wrong? Everything, it turns out. Running Wilde, the most disappointing sitcom of the season, is proof that all the talent in the world doesn't guarantee success — or laughs. Better luck next time, gang.
Parks & Recreation soars: The award for most improved team goes to Amy Poehler and company, who have made P&R TV's best workplace comedy with vulnerable, likable characters who can turn harvest festivals, camping retreats and happy hours into gut-busting disasters.
Camelot remains intact: When the History Channel dumped its most ambitious project, The Kennedys, and no one else seemed to want it, the industry expected it to be a hatchet job. But the ReelzChannel took a chance, betting on a compelling miniseries that only strengthened the legend around America's closest thing to a royal family. Yeah, Jack popped pills and cheated on his wife, but the Emmy-worthy project gave JFK credit for growing into a masterful leader, played with steely-eyed grace by Greg Kinnear.
Carrie Brownstein rocks: We knew the co-frontman of the band Sleater-Kinney could play a mean guitar, but who knew she could tickle our funny bone? Brownstein and Saturday Night Live's Fred Armisen teamed up to develop IFC's Portlandia, an off-kilter sketch series with wit, warmth and wackiness. We're eager to hear Brownstein's next CD, but we're even more excited about the second season of Portlandia.
Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior is criminal: Advice to Forest Whitaker: Pull Oscar down from shelf. Stare at statuette for 40 minutes. Turn to face mirror. Say aloud that you're a good actor and, gosh darn it, you deserved it. Go to phone. Call CBS. Quit this show.
Oscars deserve a Razzie: We were skeptical about the idea of Anne Hathaway and James Franco hosting the Academy Awards, but who knew it would be a Gigli-size disaster? Hathaway tried to put on a good face, but Franco drifted as the tedious proceedings went on until he was practically napping at the podium. James, the stoner routine was funny in Pineapple Express. Not so much at the Oscars.