Thursday, January 12, 2012

Best Shows of 2011

Once more, with feeling: this list was chosen from seasons of shows that had their season finale air in 2011. So for the network shows, material that occurred way back in the fall of 2010 is relevant, and the brand new seasons aren't. It's just the only way to make it work, okay? I don't see the value in looking at it otherwise. Stop looking at me like that.

Best of 2011

10. It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia (FX)

It's Always Sunny doesn't have the human core that it would take to be my favorite comedy on television right now, but that's by design. It's about a bunch of loudmouth jerks who do terrible things to each other, and that's been the launching point for a lot of great comedy in the last seven years. Just going by the strength of the laughs, this was one of the better seasons in the show's run, which is quite a feat considering how generally consistent it is with its cast and its writing. It's not that new anymore, but what they're doing is still so good that I don't really care.

Favorite Episode: "Frank's Pretty Woman"

9. Sons of Anarchy (FX)

This could have possibly ended up higher on the list if the finale turned out differently, but it was still an exciting, tension-filled season of a show that does a great job of balancing baser thrillers like gun fights and car chases with some really strong human drama that drives everything. It turned out to be sort of a table setting season in the end, but the journey to reach its lukewarm conclusion was at times as brilliant as anything else I saw on TV last year.

Favorite Episode: "Hands"

8. Parks and Recreation (NBC)

The third season of Parks and Rec built wonderfully on the second, continuing to develop its ensemble cast into one of the most lovable bunches on television while adding two more talented people to its cast in Adam Scott and Rob Lowe. They also did a lot to gradually turn Pawnee, Indiana into one of the most fully developed and enjoyable fictional towns in TV history. It's just a show that's always growing, and never feels like it has to stop. It doesn't blow my mind as much as shows higher on this list, but it's wonderful all the same.

Favorite Episode: "Media Blitz"

7. Louie (FX)

I don't know if I'd like Louie more if the show made more of a concerted effort to be funny. Because as much as I love the fact that Louis C.K. can do pretty much anything he wants with the show, and am frequently moved or affected by some of his wilder experiments, I still often find myself thinking that the inserted moments of his regular stand-up comedy are the most enjoyable bits of the show. Still, it's hard to fault the show for what it is; an incredibly honest and inventive series that's more concerned with doing something different and interesting than making you laugh a few times. That's admirable, and the show is good enough to pull it off.

Favorite Episode: "Oh Louie/Tickets"

6. Game of Thrones (HBO)

You know I think was a strong year for drama on cable when a nearly perfect adaptation of one of my favorite books is my fifth favorite. George R. R. Martin's fantasy series is the definition of meaty, and television would be the only reasonable way to adapt it without totally gutting the story. That some things are simplified or lost in translation is besides the point - Game of Thrones is highly successful at bringing the series to a larger audience, and is a lot of fun to watch whether you're familiar with the books or not. The production values and quality of the cast are outstanding for television, and the dark, unforgiving world the story takes place in fits right in with the gritty cable feel. Again, not perfect, but plenty good enough.

Favorite Episode: "The Pointy End"

5. Boardwalk Empire (HBO)

For a lot of these dramas, the favorite episode is somewhat randomly chosen. Pretty much episode has something good to it, and what it comes to is which one had that one killer moment that jumps out more than the rest. Boardwalk had a very successful debut last year, and it was improved this time around, expanding on the scope of its examination of the way crime and politics intertwine in early 20th century America, and giving more time for all of its characters to grow into believable people that you care about. It's a bit too stately and concerned with symbolism to match the gripping personal intensity of HBO's very best crime dramas, but it's still damn good and always fun to watch.

Favorite Episode: "Ourselves Alone"

4. Homeland (Showtime)

Looking back, this might be the only brand new show that I watched in 2011. And if that's the case, it was a darn good pick. What starts out as a nice paranoid spy thriller quickly grows into something more, as the characters doing the watching start interacting with the watched, and it turns into a messy smashing together of personal and political turmoil. The show doesn't quite have the breadth of other dramas on this list, being so focused on a single story and a small group of characters. But what they do with that limited scope is very impressive, and worth celebrating.

Favorite Episode: "Marine One"

3. Justified (FX)

For some reason, the first season of Justified was more concerned with telling a bunch of cool little modern cowboy stories than creating a real story for its great main character, and that seemed to be the case for a little while in season two as well. But it wasn't long before it became clear what the greater plan was, as smaller squabbles gave way to an incredibly compelling story of deep rooted family rivalries in a dangerous community that never forgets past slights. Margo Martindale gave a supporting performance for the ages, and just like that, the show morphed from a solid, stylish police drama into something much greater that everyone should watch.

Favorite Episode: "Brother's Keeper"

2. Community (NBC)

Community doesn't have the consistency of tone and content that other shows might have, that probably help them establish larger and more casual audiences who know what to expect when they turn the TV on. Community's eccentricity might have contributed to its low ratings, and its removal from the spring schedule and possible eventual cancellation before it was even nearly done telling stories. But if removing the less safe elements of the show so it could stay on the air a few years longer meant that it wouldn't be as potentially exciting, unique, and simply hysterical as it routinely is, I wouldn't make that trade. The second season of the show took a lot of risks, but they almost all paid off and helped create one of the best single seasons of a sitcom I have ever seen.

Favorite Episode: "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas"

1. Breaking Bad (AMC)

Another year, another first place finish for Breaking Bad. I can't help it. There's just no show that combines a unique visual flair, stupendous acting, dark humor, and a shocking and unpredictable plot like Breaking Bad. I don't quite think it was better this year than it was last time, but I was impressed with how they managed to shift the focus away from Walt without compromising the show's unerring watchability or the long term goals that they're striving toward. And with the way the spotlight returned to him as the season ended, it reinforced my belief that he is the most interesting, and doomed, protagonist on TV today.

Favorite Episode: "Crawl Space"

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