Thursday, December 29, 2011

Top Ten Television Shows of 2011

As bountiful as the year was in terms of good television, there were fewer great new shows in 2011 than in past years -- only two series that premiered this year made my top ten (though I did not get a chance to see Showtime's Homeland, which debuted this fall to acclaim). Still, the good programs that returned were in fine form, both in drama and in comedy. Below are my favorite TV shows of the year (note there will be spoilers in some of my write-ups):

Honorable Mention:
Bob's Burgers (Fox); Happy Endings (ABC); Men of a Certain Age (TNT)
These three TV programs fell just shy of making my top ten, but I wanted to give them some attention since they're all worth watching. Bob's Burgers, the best program on Fox's animated comedy block, is a strange and often hilarious show about an eccentric family that runs a burger shop. The voice actors are phenomenal -- particularly Kristen Schaal and Dan Muntz as Bob's daughters -- and the writing is very sharp, making it my favorite new comedy of the year.

ABC's Happy Endings, meanwhile, started off as a generic Friends retread but slowly evolved into something more distinct, taking full advantage of its talented ensemble of young comedic actors to tell stories that are often very silly and also very funny. Adam Pally, as a gay character who is pretty much the opposite of the stereotype, tends to steal the show, but the whole cast is very likable. It's the best Friends clone since How I Met Your Mother.

TNT's Men of a Certain Age was canceled after its second season, which is a pity because the show was unique for its understated examination of the everyday obstacles and occasional victories that are a part of growing older. Ray Romano, Scott Bakula, and Andre Braugher, as the men of the title, gave impressive performances that made viewers care about the small scale dramas of the characters. The show is canceled, but Men of a Certain Age is worth catching on DVD if you haven't seen it.

Now to the top ten:

10) Treme (HBO)
In its second season, David Simon's series about New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina started to tell the story of the city's rebuilding a year after the storm, showcasing not only the political machinations involved in the redevelopment but also the devastating increase in crime and the strain on government resources that usually follow a destructive event. But as with Simon's best work, the sociological and political messages are secondary to the growth of the characters, and this year Treme told touching stories about many of them, such as Ladonna's (Khandi Alexander) difficult recovery after a trauma, and Antoine's (Wendell Pierce) efforts to get his own band off the ground. In the backdrop, the culture of New Orleans was portrayed as vividly as ever, enveloping the narratives and serving as a reminder of why The Big Easy is worth fighting for.

9) Downton Abbey (PBS)
I'll admit, Downton Abbey doesn't really add much to the existing collection of period British dramas that address the old world class structure and the upstairs, downstairs dynamics of lords and their servants. But damn if the show isn't so much gossipy, melodramatic fun. Immaculately capturing the early 20th century period in which its set, Downton Abbey focuses on the trials and tribulations of a noble family struggling to find a suitable heir, as well as the abbey's loyal servants who face their own series of challenges. While the characters are often one dimensional, the excellent cast and the deliciously arch dialogue are more than enough to keep you riveted. You can catch up on the short first season on Netflix streaming before the second one begins next week on PBS.

8) Game of Thrones (HBO)
Like Downton Abbey, Game of Thrones is another genre show, but also like Downton Abbey it quickly transcends the genre with its universal themes of duty and honor, superb writing, stellar ensemble cast, and incredible production values. In adapting George R.R. Martin's fantasy novels, creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have ably melded the necessary exposition with fantastic action (and, as fits a show on HBO, sex), creating a crossover hit that appeals to both fantasy fans and good television fans alike. The last few episodes in particular barreled forward with such momentum, piling on the double-crosses, deaths, and premonitions, that by the end of season one it took restraint on my part not to pick up immediately one of Martin's books to see what happens next.

7) The Good Wife (CBS)
When The Good Wife first premiered, the initial hook was its ripped from the headlines story of the betrayed wife of a powerful politician. It's to the producers' credit that they never turned away from that interest in the happenings of the real world and have instead embraced it, but without resorting to unsubtle Law and Order-style rip-offs of current events. Rather, The Good Wife stays relevant by incorporating very modern conceptions of technology and office politics into its byzantine story lines, and by letting each case of the week advance the development of the show's fascinating cast of characters. For three seasons in a row The Good Wife has been the most sophisticated drama on broadcast television.

6) Community (NBC)
Over the course of its three seasons, Community has proven itself to be the most inventive sitcom on television. Creator Dan Harmon builds episodes like puzzles, often using different perspectives, narrative structures, and homages to create fully-formed stories that manage to be groundbreaking and still consistently hilarious. This season alone brought episodes featuring different timelines, multiple genre homages, and, in my favorite episode of the season, a clip show with flashbacks to events that viewers hadn't seen before. Harmon's experimentation does not always yield magnificent results, but with a stellar cast and his able writing staff, the results are more often brilliant than disappointing. Here's hoping Community's upcoming hiatus from the NBC schedule will be brief -- I'm eager to see what Harmon comes up with next.

5) Friday Night Lights (DirectTV/NBC)
In its last season, Friday Night Lights went out on a triumphant note both for the series and for the Dillon Lions. Showrunner Jason Katims took a sizable risk when he introduced a whole set of new characters and retired some old ones, but by the end of the show we cared as much about the Lions' Vince Howard as we had the Panthers' Jason Street. And that's because, ultimately, Friday Night Lights was never very much about a specific football team; rather, it was about the community of Dillon and all the hopes, dreams, and challenges that found their way onto the football field. At the center of it all was one of the best marriages ever depicted on television, between Coach Taylor and his supportive wife (the superb Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton), guiding posts of support not only for the players and students under their watch but also for each other. They, and this wonderful show, will be missed.

4) Justified (FX)
In its debut season, Justified was a very good show that still struggled to figure out how to incorporate Elmore Leonard's distinct voice -- the show is based on one of his crime stories -- into a serialized drama about a trigger-happy lawman named Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant). By the end of the second season, those struggles vanished, yielding way to a fully-realized, perfectly wrought story of one man's relationship with his hometown and its history. Set in the deep Appalachia of Kentucky, Justified spent its second season focused on Raylan's entanglements with the Bennett clan -- controllers of the Harlan County pot trade -- and specifically their manipulative matriarch Mags Bennett (Margo Martindale, who deservedly won an Emmy for her performance). But in addition to the fascinating new characters, this season also added more depth to Raylan and his slippery adversary Boyd (Walter Goggins), creating rich stories that mined the shared history of the characters to full effect. The third season, which begins in January, cannot come soon enough.

3) Breaking Bad (AMC)
Vince Gilligan described his idea for Breaking Bad as the story of Mr.Chips turning into Scarface, and in its fourth season the transformation was complete -- Walt (the always amazing Bryan Cranston) ended the season in control of his fate, masterminding his way to freedom from Gus (Giancarlo Esposito, in the performance of the year) and a reconciliation with Jesse (Aaron Paul). Along the way, we were witness to some breathtaking scenes -- Breaking Bad continues to be the most visually arresting program on television -- that ratcheted the suspense to such incredible heights that you'd be forgiven for looking away. But that's what makes Breaking Bad such compelling television -- no show has a better understanding of pacing, patience, and how to deliver a payoff. If I didn't like this season as much as season three, it's only because the last minute twist left me slightly cold for seeming a little too clever. But that just speaks to what I've come to expect from this show -- and what better deserves our high expectations than the best drama on television?

2) Parks and Recreation (NBC)
The funniest comedy on television is also the sweetest, and that may be why Parks and Recreation is such an incredible show. Showrunner Michael Schur and his writers have created a world where even the silliest elements of the show are grounded by the heart of the characters and the skill of the performances. This season introduced a new crisis in Pawnee, as the Parks and Recreation division decided to put on a harvest festival to help address a budget shortfall. The episodes that revolved around the festival made up the most consistently funny stretch of TV all year, and also brought in new characters played by Adam Scott and Rob Lowe who fit perfectly into Pawnee's already expansive universe. Parks and Recreation is a comedy, but it delivers something more impressive than laughter: pure joy.

1) Louie (FX)
Louis CK's show defies categorization because it's unlike anything else on TV. I loved the show's first season, but nothing could prepare me for how bold and inventive the second season turned out to be. This season, CK delved even deeper into his profession, showcasing what it means to be a working comedian, often with the thanks of excellent guest stars like Joan Rivers, Dane Cook, and Doug Stanhope. But it's telling that CK is more interested in the lives of comedians than the comedy itself, since his show is ultimately about life -- what we're responsible for, how we should live, and what we shouldn't take for granted. He tackles these subjects through prisms as different as the Afghanistan War and evangelical Christianity, but underneath it all is his deep, abiding interest in how we behave and what we value. He's made the most humanist program on television and the best television show of 2011.

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