Is there an overriding message from my list of the ten best shows of 2011? Aside from surprise at how much good stuff there really is, it’s a reminder that there’s truly no dead time in the TV calendar any longer. The two shows at the top of the list aired the majority of their episodes in the summer. Use your holiday down time to catch up on anything you’ve missed.
1. Breaking Bad: It was a close call this year, but another one of its patented late-season run of classics put it back on top yet again. The season began with Walter White (Bryan Cranston, unbelievable yet again) alive only because the boss he had double-crossed couldn’t afford to have him killed, and for the next 9/10 of the season, it didn’t seem there was any plausible way he could avoid that fate. But alone and at the end of his rope, he managed a final victory over Gus Fring. In the process, he dragged his wife into the mud with him, and lost basically all his remaining humanity. The knowledge that Walter is bound to go even lower in the remaining 16 episodes makes me both anticipate and fear what’s to come.
2. Louie: Is this even still a comedy? And does it matter? The two most memorable episodes in the stellar second season saw Louis C.K. traveling to Afghanistan to entertain the troops, and hanging out with a bitter fellow comedian who sees nothing left to live for. These weren’t belly laugh episodes in the least, but they have stayed in the mind and heart more than anything else in 2011. His more “sitcom”-like plots – a backstage encounter with Joan Rivers, an unlikely friendship with an anti-masturbation activist – have a surreal quality that could only come from a show where one person calls all the shots.
3. Community: In deciding what show to rank higher between #3 and #4, I had to weigh the consistent excellence of Parks and Recreation against the more up-and-down nature of Community. At its very best, Community is not only easily the funniest show on television, but the most original. But one has to be honest and admit it also has episodes that are just … blah (some of the early half-hours of this fall season qualify). With episodes like the seven timelines and the collection of fake clips (the best outing from Season 2), it’s become more a commentary on the sitcom form than a study of junior college studiers, and that’s OK. We’re three-plus seasons away from the proverbial “six seasons and a movie;” let’s hope they make it.
4. Parks and Recreation: I’m still not sold on Rob Lowe – he tends to take me out of the world of Pawnee, Indiana because, you know, he’s Rob Lowe – but the changes that this series made in its first two seasons really took hold in Season 3, all of which aired in 2011. Amy Poehler is still the star, and Leslie Knope makes for a wonderful central character. But as anyone who has observed the Ron Swanson cult could tell you, Parks is a true ensemble. And in a relatively short time, Pawnee has become one of the most fully fleshed-out towns in TV history.
5. Friday Night Lights: Describing this show to people who never saw it could make FNL seem like the corniest collection of clichés: tight-knit Texas community, father figure football coach, kids from the wrong side of the tracks who just need a break, countless improbable wins in the last minute, etc. But as we said goodbye to Dillon in 2011, we were reminded that while life has its triumphs, and that there is always comfort in friends and family, it’s also true that bad things happen to good people, and that circumstances can conspire to keep talented young men and women from achieving their full potential.
(One note here: I make plenty of fun of NBC, and goodness knows they’ve earned the jokes, but there are just three network shows on this list, and the peacock is responsible for all of them.)
6. Homeland: The best new show of the year is also already the best series that has ever aired on Showtime. Early on, it posed a question – what if a CIA analyst believed that a beloved freed prisoner of war had become a traitor while in captivity? – that didn’t immediately seem like something that could be plausibly stretched out for multiple seasons. These fears may eventually come to pass, but the decision to make the heroine someone who may be right about the terror threat but is also definitely deeply disturbed was a stroke of brilliance. Claire Danes may be a more certain and more deserving Emmy winner next year than even Cranston.
7. Game of Thrones: The best short description of why this show works was made by Ben on Parks and Recreation: “They’re telling human stories in a fantasy world!” Anyone who went into Game of Thrones assuming it would be all about monsters and swordplay and campy Xena-type stuff – and as someone who hasn’t (yet) read the novels, I was sort of among them – quickly realized that this was a fictional universe with all the grime, blood, sex, and human passion as the richest contemporary dramas. This is the true successor to Battlestar Galactica when it comes to using an imaginary world to address our own.
8. Curb Your Enthusiasm: People were concerned that Larry David might have nothing new to say after he had fired the Seinfeld reunion bullet in 2009, but it turns out that he just needed a little extra time to recharge the bad taste batteries. Larry and the gang went to New York, and even in the world capital of bad manners, his place in life as a “social assassin” remained. Along the way, he feuded with Michael J. Fox, let infamous baseball goat Bill Buckner play the hero, and discovered the joys of sex with an anti-Semitic woman. This is more uneven than television’s absolute best comedies, but like Seinfeld, there’s quotable stuff almost every week.
9. Justified: The first season was strong, but it mainly served to reintroduce Marshal Raylan Givens to Kentucky. But 2011 gave him an unforgettable adversary in Mags Bennett (Emmy winner Margo Martindale), who sees an opening to make her family the crime kingpins of Harlan County. Raylan still had his wry side, but the drama was richer and more tragic as we learned more about the subcultures at work in Harlan. Walton Goggins, the current go-to actor for playing bad guys who can’t quite reform, deserves special mention for his work as Boyd; and star Timothy Olyphant should be cited for knowing how and when to defer to his colleagues.
10. Men of a Certain Age: A lot of shows were in contention for this last spot, and strictly on the merits, Boardwalk Empire probably should have snuck in based on its sensational final two episodes. But consider this ranking one last appreciation for a show that was too quiet, too lacking in conventional drama, and too out of step with the TNT brand to find a big enough audience to survive. Andre Braugher, Scott Bakula, and (surprise!) Ray Romano were far from perfect, but this was one of the few television portrayals of the personal lives of middle-aged men that was even remotely realistic.
Honorable mention (in no particular order): Sons of Anarchy, Modern Family, Boardwalk Empire, Prime Suspect, Happy Endings, Top Chef: All Stars, The Good Wife, The Office (but not the post-Carell stuff, unfortunately), Shameless, The Middle, Bob’s Burgers, Wilfred, Treme, 30 Rock.