Another banner year for the small screen! Comedy and drama, network and cable, domestic and abroad, great work flooded the airwaves. We’ve had a lot of fun commenting on and cataloging it all. Here are my favorites of the year:
Top Eleven Television Series of 2011
11. Portlandia. Put a bird on it, indeed. Can’t get enough of Fred Armisen.
10. Luther. The first of three absolutely gripping dramas produced by the BBC this past year, this one features Idris Elba AKA Stringer Bell in a career-making performance as TV’s first ever black cockney Sherlock Holmes-by-way-of-Jack Bauer serial killer detective. Forever skirting (and sometimes crossing) ethical boundaries, Luther suffers resistance from all quarters, and is, of course, never given the credit he deserves. And the plotlines, grisly as they may be, keep the blood pumping from beginning to end. The series two finale features one of the more ingenious endings in procedural history.
9. Homeland. Another blood-pumper, and while perhaps a tad overhyped, it’s still pretty darn great. Claire Danes goes for the jugular, time and again, and it works. And her chemistry with both the male leads, Damian Lewis and Mandy Patinkin, is a director’s dream. Another terrific finale.
8. Bored to Death. People say the man-child thing has been played out, and while they may have a point, no one’s been able to pull it off with as much heart as Bored to Death. Crude as they may occasionally be, the situations these guys got themselves into made for a number of the funniest moments on TV this past year, and the earnest sweetness that Ray, Jonathan and George display in the midst of them make for terrific viewing.
7. Justified. I’ve yet to finish the second season, but I can already tell we’re in for a major showdown. Smart, funny, and filled with colorful characters on all sides of the law, it warrants a space on the list for the stellar first season. The critics weren’t lying when they called Mags Bennett the best villain on TV.
6. Louie. We said everything about the brilliance of Louis C.K. that we needed to say last week. Buyer beware, the subject matter is definitely not for kids – not by a long shot. But also be ready for some major laughs and a whole lot of wisdom disguised as scatology.
5. Zen. Downton Abbey got all the hype, but the BBC’s tragically short-lived detective show set in Rome was just as good. Dense plotting, drop dead gorgeous set-pieces, engrossing conspiracies to spare, I’m praying this one gets picked up elsewhere. Rufus Sewell was a revelation as the title character.
4. Community. This past year Dan Harmon and co were responsible for several of the wackiest, boldest, smartest, silliest, high-concept half hours that network television has ever aired. They deserve a larger audience, and certainly another season. The only thing keeping this one from being higher on the list was the oddly lazy (and distracting) portrayal of Shirlee as a shrill fundie this season. For a show with so much dimension, it’s an unfortunate slip-up. But of course, not nearly enough to detract from its overall brilliance.
3. Downton Abbey. There is always room for period dramas done this well. I personally could watch Maggie Smith read a telephone book. Or a social registry. Lost in the hubbub over the preponderance of emasculated men on the tube this year were two of the most upstanding and gracious male roles in quite some time: Hugh Bonneville’s Earl of Grantham and Brendan Coyles’s Mr. Bates. Matthew Crawley’s not too far behind.
2. Breaking Bad. The season may have started off slow, but shame on me for not trusting Vince Gilligan, the genius behind the most visceral and surprising show on television. How they can keep us so invested in a drama without a single likeable character is beyond me, but here we are. Yet another brilliant finale in a year full of them.
1. Speaking of brilliant finales, there’s no surprise here: the best show that aired new episodes in 2011 was Friday Night Lights. Our favorite series stayed true to form and went out on an exceedingly high note. Nary a false move these past three seasons. We are all richer for our time in Dillon – and how many TV shows can you honestly say that about? The ministry of television has its exhibit A.
Honorable Mentions: Parenthood, Parks and Recreation, Top Chef, Happy Endings and Cougar Town.
Biggest Disappointments: The Walking Dead, Boardwalk Empire, Big Love, The Office, Game of Thrones (sort of) and The Killing (big time).
By All Accounts Good Shows That I Haven’t Seen: The Good Wife, Boss, Fringe, and Sons of Anarchy.
Eleven Best TV Episodes of 2011
11. “Lonesome Sundown” – Cougar Town. It’s really too bad the show got saddled with such an off-putting name. Its rapid-fire zaniness hit new heights in this episode, yet without losing sight of the camraderie at its heart.
10. “Gumball” – Bored to Death. Zach Galifianakis dressed as a pilot with a roller bag encapsulates much of what makes this show so hilarious.
9. “The Trial of Leslie Knope” – Parks and Recreation. Not the funniest installment of the show this year (“The Fight” and “Ron and Tammys” took that honor), but the one with the Mbird themes writ very, very large. Self-medication, self-justification and self-sacrifice visit Pawnee!
8. “How Mac Got Fat” – It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Most of the props on Always Sunny have gone to Charlie Day (rightfully so) but by gaining 50 pounds of “mass” and filling his wardrobe exclusively with Hawaiian shirts, Rob McElhenney has effectively stolen the spotlight. Mac rules. Probably goes without saying, but Sunny is not for kids.
7. “In-Between” – Parenthood. A good show with great moments and great actors (and some silly subplots, e.g. The Luncheonette), none more touching or tear-jerking than the birthday card scene at the end of this one.
6. “When Good Kids Go Bad” – Modern Family. And the Mockingbird illustration of the year goes to… Claire Dunphy! (Runner-Up would have to be Andy Bernard in The Office season 8 premiere, “The List”.)
4 & 5. “Face Off” and “Salud” – Breaking Bad. The artistry of the slow-burn episodes is undeniable, but less well publicized is the fact that no one does action or violence better than these guys. I’m holding my breath for Mike’s return next season.
2 & 3. “Remedial Chaos Theory” and “Paradigms of Human Memory” – Community. Just watch them.
1. “Always” – Friday Night Lights. Grace-filled until the very end (e.g. Eric and Tami’s decision-making process), and unafraid to land on some genuinely hopeful ground, this one will go down as exemplary. Maybe even iconic. We will miss our full-hearted friends in Dillon. Until they do another movie, that is…
So… what are we missing?! Any particularly potent/funny parables? Instances of forgiveness and grace?