Sunday, January 1, 2012

Top Ten TV Shows of 2011

No need for essay-length preamble, you know the drill. Also, standard "I haven't seen everything" disclaimer applies (perhaps most notably I haven't yet seen the acclaimed second season of Justified), so if your favorite show is missing there's no need to stress; it might just be on my to-see list and wasn't excluded deliberately.

Unless of course your favorite show is The Walking Dead, in which case I excluded it extremely deliberately. Sorry. Starting with our runners-up:

Noble Runners-Up (in alphabetical order)

30 Rock (NBC) – Between the freewheeling absurdity of "Operation Righteous Cowboy Lightning," the satirical edge of "TGS Hates Women," and the show's slightly masturbatory but still hugely entertaining love letter to itself in its hour-long hundredth episode, "100," the fifth season of 30 Rock ended strong last spring, keeping its reputation as one of TV's funniest and most irreverent sitcoms rightly intact.

Awkward (MTV) – Likely the year's biggest surprise for me and the tiny handful of others way outside MTV's target demo who caught it, Awkward emerged from nowhere to instantly become one of the best high school sitcoms ever. It's not necessarily doing anything that teen movies haven't been since the 80s, but it's an exercise in high school underdog formula executed with remarkably fresh, youthful, and sometimes cheerfully vulgar energy, and lead Ashley Rickards feels like a star on the rise.

The Chicago Code (Fox) – The most tragically canceled one-and-done season of television to air in 2011 came from the very same executive producer behind 2010's tragic one-and-done Terriers, Shawn Ryan, a man on a simultaneously hot and cold streak of artistic success and commercial failure. Nevertheless, these thirteen episodes did a fine job telling a thrilling, complex, and more or less complete story about the intersection between police and politics, with Delroy Lindo giving one of TV's meatiest, most entertaining performances of the year as corrupt Alderman Ronin Gibbons.

Fringe (Fox) – Network TV's best sci-fi show remains network TV's best sci-fi show, and not by a little. Despite the fourth season's controversial new direction (though few will deny the greatness of "And Those We've Left Behind," one of the best episodes of the series), Fringe's 2011 run continued to command cultish love even as it alienated mass audiences with its hard sci-fi, alternate timelines, parallel universes, and animated episode, all while Anna Torv kept delivering not one but several of television's quietly great performances as the many versions of FBI Special Agent Olivia Dunham.

Louie (FX) – Comedian Louis C.K.'s loosely-connected series of short films masquerading as a TV series continued to demand respect with its remarkable confidence, command of tone, and week-to-week unpredictability in its second season. Once a comedy, Louie now blurs genre lines unlike anything else on TV, having one episode build in its entirety to a massive fart while other episodes included straight-faced, relatively unsmiling depictions of Louie traveling to Afghanistan to entertain the troops and trying to talk a failed comedian friend out of suicide. 

The Vampire Diaries (The CW) – TV's best supernatural soap (fuck off, True Blood!) kept its foot on the gas and blew through 2011 without letting up on its alarming pace of jaw-dropping plot twists, agonizing cliffhangers, cool violence, nasty villains, and major character deaths for a second. Marrying the outer trappings of a teen drama to the internal combustion engine of a relentless thriller, The Vampire Diaries kicks ass.

Top Ten TV Shows of 2011

10. Archer (FX)

One of two shows on this list to follow a solid if not quite remarkable first season in 2010 by spiking dramatically in quality in 2011, Adam Reed's animated spy comedy Archer evolved into one of the best shows on television last year. This is coming from someone who doesn't even particularly like animated sitcoms – Archer is in fact the only one I follow, minus the very occasional Simpsons – but Archer defies the rest of that medium in its increasing commitment to serialization, with stories such as Sterling Archer's relationship with a baby that may or may not be his, his health problems, his romance with Russian agent Katya Kazanova and his rivalry with ODIN agent Barry Dylan providing a solid backbone to the season even as it enriched the supporting cast in strong standalone episodes.

9. Homeland (Showtime)

Called the thinking man's 24 by me, and, if you Google the phrase, plenty of others, Homeland showrunners and former 24 writers and producers Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa replicate that older show's tension and anti-heroic lead but in place of constant action substitute a classy, slow-burn 70s thriller vibe. Homeland's twelve-episode run last fall represents a near-perfect fusion of simultaneously developing rich, three-dimensional characters while also advancing the big-picture story with each installment. Claire Danes' unhinged CIA analyst Carrie Mathison is one of the only performances of 2011 that can viably compete against Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston in sheer dramatic intensity, and while Cranston probably still wins, it's not by much.

8. Parenthood (NBC)

A black sheep among the dramas of this list in its low-key, distinctly non-life-or-death stakes, the trials and tribulations of the Braverman clan nevertheless make for one of the most enjoyable hours on television. With a staggering fifteen main cast members – plus other actors including Michael B. Jordan, Jason Ritter, and Rosa Salazar who appear frequently enough that they might as well be regulars – it's the most sprawling show this side of Game of Thrones, but the simple stories of family life it tells are almost always gripping and/or entertaining and bursting with heart. While occasional larger plot machinations might have a TV smell to them, showrunner Jason Katims commands an almost magical naturalism within individual scenes that brings the barrier of your TV screen down as completely as all but a few dramas I've ever seen.

7. Boardwalk Empire (HBO)

My hands-down vote for 2011's most improved show, the second season of HBO's Boardwalk Empire took a series that in its first year felt so pristine it belonged behind glass in a museum and dragged it blissfully through the dirt. By reframing the narrative as a battle between Steve Buscemi's Nucky Thompson and Michael Pitt's Jimmy Darmody for the soul of Atlantic City, there was a sense of conflict here missing from the previous season, a conflict that came to a wonderfully bloody and tragic end in the season's final few episodes, leaving the corpses of many major characters in its wake. The addition of new characters like psychotic butcher/gangster Manny Horvitz, incorruptible U.S. attorney Esther Randolph, and Nucky's badass new Irish enforcer Owen Sleater didn't hurt either.

6. Spartacus: Gods of the Arena (Starz)

Despite being a miniature six-episode season absent the show's title character thrown hastily together when star Andy Whitfield's health problems halted production of season two, Spartacus: Gods of the Arena kicked ass. Prequels may have a bad reputation in this post-Phantom Menace era, but in this case exploring the past allowed beloved dead characters from the first season to return, introduced badass new gladiator Gannicus, and informed the backgrounds of various characters still living and Capua itself in a way that never lost sight of the action or excitement. And of course, this being Spartacus, any little gaps in the narrative were quite easily wallpapered over with hyper-extreme levels of blood, gore, and sex. Hey, I ain't complainin'.

5. Parks and Recreation (NBC)

In an age where a nasty and meanspirited show like Two and a Half Men can become TV's biggest comedy, a show as consistently warm and human (and funny, of course) as Parks and Recreation is a breath of fresh air. Airing the entirety of its fantastic third season and half of its fourth in 2011, the show's story last year involved the Parks department putting together a successful Harvest Festival and protagonist Leslie Knope's campaign for Pawnee City Council, but plot never usurped the enormously likable small-town bureaucrats at its center.

Between perennially bright and optimistic Deputy Parks Director Leslie Knope, the likably dumb Andy Dwyer, the cynical and detached April Ludgate, emotionally guarded libertarian Ron Swanson and many more, it's a cast of characters you're always excited to check in with week in and week out. Mix in Adam Scott and Rob Lowe joining the cast in season three and some of the best comedy worldbuilding this side of The Simpsons and you have one of the best sitcoms of the last ten years.

4. Breaking Bad (AMC)

The thirteen episodes of Breaking Bad's fourth season constituted a season of television so superlative that the man at the center of it all, chemistry-teacher-turned-meth-cooker Walter White, one of the most complex and gripping protagonists on television brought to life by one of the best dramatic TV performances in history, wasn't even the best part of it. No, there was no greater pleasure to be found this year in the televised Albuquerque meth scene than watching Giancarlo Esposito step up and take command of the show for huge stretches at a time as the terrifying crime boss Gustavo Fring, all the way from the season premiere to the explosive climax of the season finale. One of the best TV villains ever.

But even beyond Gus, Breaking Bad continued to seemingly effortlessly excel at blending the white-knuckle thriller and the rich character study unlike anything else out there. The season had something of a slow build to it, beginning with a series of smaller episodes rooted more in character than plot, but once things got going in the second half of the season the show became a boulder rolling down a hill, picking up dramatic momentum beyond belief as we reached episodes like "Crawl Space" and "Face Off." I can't wait to see what the fifth and final season holds.

3. Game of Thrones (HBO)

As a lifelong fan of epic fantasy, the genre's onscreen treatment can be discouraging. I mean, yes, you'll get the very, very occasional The Lord of the Rings, but for every one of those you'll get a toilet bowl full of EragonThe Golden Compass, and Voyage of the Dawn Treader. But suffering through every one of those films and a dozen others was totally worth it to hold out for Game of Thrones, one of the greatest pop culture achievements of last year and the best high fantasy on any screen big or small since Peter Jackson transported us to Middle-earth all those years ago.

Eschewing the heroic quests, magical relics, and dark lords of traditional fantasy in favor of what's basically a gritty medieval political thriller about feuding families that happens to take place in a fictional world (in fact, the only real tropes of generic fantasy this series holds onto is that people use swords and there's coming-of-age stories), Game of Thrones drew from a great source novel by George R.R. Martin, but the producers weren't content with merely resting on the book's laurels. The cast is sensational, from Peter Dinklage and Sean Bean to the many newly-discovered unknowns playing the younger characters, and the quality of the production is superlative. This was the best genre entertainment to be found in TV or film in 2011.

2. Community (NBC)

Coming at the sitcom in a way that makes almost every other show in the genre in the history of the medium seem dull, gray, and dead in comparison, Community's endless ambition and boundless creativity make for a weekly viewing experience where you never know exactly what you're going to get. It could be a sci-fish exploration of alternate timelines, a game of Dungeons & Dragons played out with the same soaring drama as Return of the King itself, a clip show made up of all-new footage, an in-universe documentary made by one of the characters, a full-bore parody of Glee, an epic hour-long paintball war that destroys Greendale Community College, a quiet restaurant-set episode modeled after My Dinner With Andre, or just about anything else you care to imagine. Community is all over the place in the best possible way.

But of course the show's extreme pop cultural literacy doesn't exist just for the glib in-the-moment laugh, but never ceases to be rooted deeply in character. There were many fascinating character arcs at work at Greendale in 2011, including Britta's first steps towards her psychology major and Troy, Abed, and Annie forming a makeshift familial unit as they all move in together, but perhaps nothing was as interesting as Pierce's descent into darkness, arguably begun by the death of his mother and his pill addiction in 2010. The aforementioned game of Dungeons & Dragons, documentary episode, and especially paintball war all involved Pierce antagonizing the group, seeing how many straws he could pile on the camel's back, a story arc which came to a moving and satisfying conclusion.

Plus, in addition to its wild creativity and experimentalism with the sitcom format, long-term character development, seasonal arcs, and ambitious film and television parodies, Community is far and away the funniest show on television, not to mention having the strongest cinematography and production design of any current sitcom, the best musical score, and the funniest performances on television, especially from Donald Glover and Gillian Jacobs. Now that the one show above it on this list is ended, it has no realistic competition for the "Best Show on TV" crown.

1. Friday Night Lights (NBC)

Though it aired only six episodes in 2011, there was never so much as a moment where I even considered putting any other show at the top of this list, if only on the strength of "Always," the best series finale in the history of television, an episode that managed to tie up almost every loose thread and stray character arc in the history of the show in a way that was deeply joyous without ever becoming saccharine or a fairy tale; an overall stronger piece of media than any film released last year. I'm reasonably confident that if Friday Night Lights had aired the first twelve episodes of its fifth and final season in 2010 and only aired "Always" last year, this would still be at the top of my list.

But as is, they aired five other episodes as well, concluding creator Peter Berg and showrunner (of both this show and Parenthood, eighth on this list, making him a true master of television) Jason Katims' long-form tone poem on life in small town America with unimaginable beauty and grace. Simultaneously putting the Taylor family at the center of this high school football drama through their most trying tests yet, servicing the new characters of the final two seasons, and bringing beloved characters Tim Riggins, Matt Saracen, and Tyra Collette back for graceful farewell arcs, Friday Night Lights' 2011 run was brief but close enough to perfect.

It's a show I can't say enough good things about in this space, so I'll just cut myself short here and say clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose. Best show of 2011 and one of the best shows of all time.

(Out of this list, Friday Night Lights, Breaking Bad, Parks and Recreation, Parenthood, Archer, The Vampire Diaries, Louie, and 30 Rock are all viewable via Netflix Watch Instantly, so if you have a Netflix account and haven't seen any or all of them, don't let me catch you complaining that you have nothing good to watch!)

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