I remember in high school once arguing with a friend about the obvious inferiority of television as a medium, that any format created solely to sell advertising could never reach the same artistic heights as, say, the silver screen. Silly rabbit… The golden age of television rolled on this year, once again significantly eclipsing anything Hollywood has been able to put together (not that there haven’t been some bright spots in cinema as well). But the seven best shows on television of 2011, both from a Mockingbird-friendly and just plain artistic point of view, were the following:

7. LOST. Like the new Michael Jackson record, it could have been so much worse. But unlike the new MJ record, I’m not sure how it could have been much better. Christian Shepherd indeed! (You could almost hear the youth ministers applauding…).

6. Dollhouse. Easy to forget that Dollhouse finished its stellar and insanely mind-bending run last January. I can’t recall a show ever moving so far away, in every sense, from its premiere in such a short time (if only you didn’t have to watch the first season to understand the second!). Joss Whedon continues to “write the book” when it comes to the whole identity question – the quippy dialogue and sci-fi conceits cannot hide the remarkable philosophical depth at work here. Someone give him a cable show!!

5. Mad Men. Another solid season of suffering and romantic subterfuge on AMC’s flagship show, the second half of which may have surpassed anything they’d previously done. Episodes such as “The Suitcase” and “Hands and Knees” display unwavering insight into all sorts of topics, from identity formation to fear of death, to father-son dynamics to the neverending highs and lows of an achievement-fixated culture. Kudos to the actors as well for continuing to make all those precious little “nuanced” moments into the big ones that Mad Men does so well.

4. Parks and Recreation. I’ll say it again, the second season of this show not only hit Arrested Development-levels of silliness, it brought us three of the best new comedic characters of the past ten years: Ron Swanson, Andy Dwyer and Tom Haverford. And Amy Poehler really hit her stride, thank God. Best of all, the whole thing came as a complete and therefore utterly pleasant surprise after the forgettable first season.

3. Breaking Bad. Mad Men may be the better show, but Breaking Bad had the better (read: perfect) year. The third season, with all of its ethical cartwheels, plays as top-notch Greek drama, not hitting a single false note. And as an illustration of the slow slide from basic hypocrisy into outright depravity – without dehumanizing the characters in any way – the show stands alone. But all the thematic elements, e.g. the will to power, the twisted morality of organized crime, the painfully intense dynamics of a marriage on the rocks, wouldn’t be half as compelling were they not married to a thoroughly absorbing/exciting plotline, brought to life by the stunning acting of Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul (who have some of the best chemistry on TV, this side of the Taylors). Not for the faint of heart.

2. Community. Having just posted my thoughts on this absurdly entertaining high-concept sitcom, I’ll spare you a second run-through. Suffice it to say, NY Magazine just ranked it the top TV of the year!

1. Friday Night Lights. The fourth season of the most grace-heavy television show of all time (aka Judgment & Love: the TV Show) continued the show’s white-hot streak, giving us what must be the greatest moment of Sydney Carton-level self-sacrifice/atonement in television history. If you haven’t watched FNL, we just cannot recommend it more highly (skip the second season): as marriage therapy, as great-American-novel material, as abreactive kryptonite, this show is flat-out INSPIRED. Thankfully, the fifth season is showing every indication that FNL is going to go out on the highest of notes…

Honorable Mentions: Modern Family, Ted Danson in Bored to Death, Sunny, and yes, Cougar Town.