“Top 10” lists are a dime a dozen this time of year, so I hope you’ll bear with me as I add one more. While many are busy debating the merits of Drive vs. The Artist, I thought it appropriate to take a look at the year in television. There’s no denying that the TV landscape has changed enormously over the past decade. Once a wasteland of disposable entertainment, the rise of original programming outside the network system has resulted in some of the best storytelling across any medium. This past year we were given more than a couple fantastic new shows to add to our weekly DVR list, and we saw a fair number of inventive and genuinely funny veteran comedy series get even better. Hit the jump to check out my picks for the best in television of 2011.
A quick note: this list only includes series that have run through an entire season from start to finish in 2011, and those that are at the halfway point of their current season (ie. premiered this past fall). I did not take into account the back half of previous seasons that aired in the beginning of 2011. Without further ado, here’s what I found to be the best shows on television this year followed by a couple of extra categories at the bottom:
6. GAME OF THRONES
I’ll admit up front that I still have yet to read any of George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series off of which Game of Thrones is based, but I fell for this HBO fantasy series hard. The pilot didn’t knock my socks off, but the character work intrigued me so I tuned in the next week. And the next week, and the next week, and the next week. I was not only enraptured by the wide-ranging cast of characters—from the infuriating Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) to the immensely entertaining Tyrion (Peter Dinklage)—but I was positively taken by the world of Game of Thrones. Creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss crafted a brilliantly enchanting and gorgeous universe that was almost addictive in nature. The pitch-perfect casting and the twists and turns of the plot made for an excellent first season, and I’m excited to see how things evolve in season two.
Standout Episode: “Baelor”
Comedian Louis C.K. turned the sitcom on its head last year with the debut of his half-hour comedy series Louie on FX. The comedian famously produces, writes, and directs every episode, giving him incredible creative control. The show is often painfully hilarious, but also incredibly dark. This season Louis took the show’s “weird” one step further, and many times I genuinely found myself not knowing whether to laugh or cry. For a show so subversive and dark, Louis is able to find poignancy in the strangest of circumstances, oftentimes leaving the audience consciously oblivious to the tonal shift. The highlight of the series thus far was this season’s hourlong Iraq-set episode “Duckling”. The entry was the most ambitious Louis has attempted thus far and was not only extraordinarily funny, but also pretty damn sweet. Also of note was the hilariously depressing happy/sad final scene of the season finale.
Standout Episode: “Duckling”
Currently on an indefinite hiatus from its third season, the ratings-challenged comedy Community is a peculiar series. The show began as a fairly generic sitcom with a charismatic cast, but quickly morphed into one of the best—and strangest—comedies to come our way in a very, very long time. Creator Dan Harmon showed no signs of making the show “less weird” this year, opening the season with a super odd musical number that outright acknowledged said weirdness. The third season also saw the introduction of alternate realities (Evil Troy and Evil Aaaaabed), a “Cabin in the Woods” episode, and a progressively dark homage to the Apocalypse Now making-of documentary Hearts of Darkness. The show continues to showcase some of the most creative storytelling on TV, and if NBC has any remnants of a soul (or an eye for good television), they’ll renew the series for at least one more season.
Standout Episode: “Remedial Chaos Theory”
One of the best shows of the year came from quite an unlikely source: a little freshman Showtime series called Homeland. The heart-stopping psychological thriller featured a brilliant turn by Claire Danes as a CIA operative who believes that an American POW (who was just rescued and returned to the United States) has been turned. The supporting cast, featuring Mandy Patinkin and Damian Lewis, is equally outstanding, but Danes turned in one of the best performances of the year (in TV or film). The multiple plot twists and turns resulted in some of the most entertaining—and nerve-wracking—television of the year, but the show put just as much emphasis on character development. Each main character would be worthy of his or her own series, but the interaction within this ensemble results in some extraordinary drama. A couple shaky moments toward the end of the season kept Homeland from topping my list, but overall the good was enough to outweigh the bad and I’m anxiously awaiting season two.
Standout Episode: “The Weekend”
2. PARKS AND RECREATION
As with Community, NBC’s Parks and Recreation got off to a not-so-great start. Season one was a little predictable and too close in tone to The Office, but during the show’s second season the Amy Poehler vehicle began to find its voice and set out on a creative upswing that it has yet to come down from. There’s not one weak link in the show’s ensemble, as every single character brings it 110% (Aubrey Plaza, Chris Pratt, Aziz Ansari; this show is stacked). The addition of Rob Lowe and Adam Scott only improved the already fantastic chemistry, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a more consistently funny and sweet show on television. This season’s most pleasant surprise was the evolution of Poehler and Scott’s relationship; what I thought was destined to be a short-lived story arc became a full-on coupling. Scenes between the two uber-nerds have become almost as fun as scenes between Nick Offerman’s Ron and Aubrey Plaza’s April. Almost…
Standout Episode: “The Trial of Leslie Knope”
1. BREAKING BAD
Breaking Bad is hands down the best show on television. Period. It seems an impossible feat, but each season of the AMC series is better than the last (with not a weak link among them) and season four was no exception. Immediately following “that Gus scene” in the aptly titled season opener, I knew we were in for a treat. Giancarlo Esposito brought such nastiness and humanity to the villainous role of Gus that I found myself rooting for him rather than Walt more often than not. Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul turned in another couple of Emmy-worthy performances, and creator Vince Gilligan took the series places I never dreamed it would go—at least not this far out from the series end. The storytelling here is just at a whole other level and I seriously doubt we’ll ever see a show this consistently good or ballsy ever again. Oh, and that other “Gus scene”? Genius.
Standout Episode: “Crawl Space”, though special recognition is warranted for Esposito’s work in “Hermanos”.
Most Addictingly Bad New Show – American Horror Story: I don’t necessarily see AHS as a “good” show, but with all the twists, turns, and over-the-top drama I could not stop watching.
Most Excruciatingly Bad New Show – Once Upon a Time: The concept is actually intriguing, but the incredibly heavy amount of cheesy dialogue and “Movie of the Week”-style life lessons learned in each episode make Once Upon a Time extremely hard to sit through.
Most Pleasantly Surprising New Show – New Girl: While I was initially fearful that this new Fox sitcom would rely too heavily on Zooey Deschanel‘s awkward/adorable factor, the series quickly revealed itself as an ensemble piece filled out with a talented and genuinely funny supporting cast who have come into their own.