The title says it all, the 10 best shows of 2011. I didn’t rank them, for no other reason than I didn’t want to. Let’s hit it, with the knowledge that I don’t have any premium channels, so there won’t be any mentions of Dexter, Game of Thrones, Homeland, Boardwalk Empire, etc.:
JUSTIFIED: No show improved more this year than Justified. For that matter, no network improved more this year than FX, shaking off the rust of the last relics of some of its first generation of shows (Nip/Tuck, Rescue Me, The Shield) and coming back with a very good, albeit not always successful, run of new shows in 2011 (Lights Out, Wilfred, American Horror Story). At the top of the list of 2011 FX quality is Justified, which smartly ditched the procedural format about three-quarters of the way through the first season and concentrated on the Raylan-Boyd relationship and the potential conflict that could arise because of it. This second season wasn’t necessarily about Raylan-Boyd, even though it lurked in the background. This year belonged to Margo Martindale, an first-ballot entrant into the “Hey, I Know Her!” Hall of Fame. She rightfully won the Emmy for best supporting actress playing a hillbilly drug lord tied to her idiot kids. Both Timothy Olyphant and Walton Goggins dutifully took a back seat to Martindale all year, but if the trailers for season 3 – premiering Jan. 17 — are any indication, the boys will be back butting heads this year.
WORKAHOLICS: I’ve never smoked pot in my life. Yup, I’m that dork. So stoner comedy is usually lost on me unless it’s really, really good (like Half-Baked). For that reason, I don’t get the Harold and Kumar movies or the Cheech and Chong movies or comedy routines. I didn’t think I’d get Workaholics either because it was being called “stoner comedy.” But that’s not what Workaholics is. If anything, it’s drunk humor — and that I get. But more than that, it’s funny guys in their mid-20s living together who don’t know jack shat about what they’ll be doing with their lives 10, five or even two years from now. They like to get drunk, do dumb stuff and eff off at work. And that I can really, really relate to. That kind of thing is always a funny premise, but Workaholics cements the premise with some of the funniest scripts of the year and the best line of the year: “Take it sleazy … and I’M OUT!”
PARKS AND RECREATION: Community might be more raucously funny on several occasions — the two-part paintball season finale, the dice episode this season — but it’s had too many misses lately and none of the characters seem to be growing. Parks and Recreation is delivering the most consistent amount of laughs every week of any show on TV, one of which is Rob Lowe’s new head of hair. The Leslie-Ban thing isn’t annoying yet even though it’s been going on now for more than a year and a half, easily into Sam-Diane/Ross-Rachel/David-Maddie/Jim-Pam territory where we should be annoyed by now. But the show made a great decision to not make it a “will they or won’t they” thing, instead making it a “when will they because we know they both want to” thing that has benefited the show’s creative direction.
BREAKING BAD: This was the year I finally caught up on Breaking Bad. I just couldn’t take one more person looking at me cross-eyed when I told them I didn’t watch the show even though my other TV tastes seem to match up perfectly with the show. So in the month before the season four premiere, I blew through the first three seasons just in time to watch the season premiere. and it just wasn’t that good. For about the first three or four episodes, I kept saying the same thing — “What the hell, man?” It wasn’t nearly as good as it had been in its previous three season. Then, consciously or unconsciously, the show made the best decision it could: It started highlighting the delightfully sinister Gus as a major player in the show. No longer would he show up for five minutes every episode and disappear until the next week. Now he proved to be the perfect Walter White adversary since he was smarter than Walter, just as pompous and twice as ruthless. Wait, just as pompous? Maybe he was more pompous, since he had beaten Walter so many times that he finally let his guard down for about an hour, and it cost him his face and his life. Walter’s embrace of the ruthlessness necessary to beat Gus will likely be the running theme of next season. Along with the inevitable moment when Jesse finds out the truth. See, how’s that for merely vague spoilers! If you get the chance to catch up on this show, do it.
FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS: Doing these top 10 lists the last couple years, I’ve tried to make a clear distinction in my tastes. I’ve got to decide what is the best show that year. Not what show has tickled my fancy because it’s new and fresh (like New Girl), not take points off just because a really good show may have taken a step back (Community) or reward a show that merely made strides from a previous season (Always Sunny). No, this list is about rewarding the best shows of the year. Friday Night Lights presented that kind of dilemma to me. It’s one of my 10 favorite shows of time. At every turn, its fifth and final season rewarded its hardcore fans who had been there from the start. It was really, really good this year. But was I biased? Or was it really that good? Umm, it was really that good. It was arguably the best season of the historically good but criminally underwatched show. It netted Kyle Chandler a long overdue Emmy win and helped the show score its first Emmy nomination for best drama. Four years too late on that one guys, thanks for nuttin’! Just thinking about this show makes me sad it’s gone. Movie, movie, movie!
THE GOOD WIFE: I can only say I have no idea how this show has elevated itself to “can’t miss” for me. It’s a procedural. It’s got too many characters. It’s female-centric. It’s on CBS. Basically, it’s everything I hate in a show. I started out watching it when my wife caught up with it, then something changed. I started suggesting to my wife, “Do you wanna catch up on Good Wife?” From there I started watching it by myself. Now? If it didn’t start at 9 p.m. — prime time for getting the kids down — I’d be watching it live. Despite there being too many characters, every one of them has a defined role in the play of the show and a purpose for existing within the show’s version of Chicago. There isn’t a bad actor in the bunch, and Alan Cumming as Eli Gold is one of TV’s most intriguing and interesting characters. One thing I’d like to change — can the show stop crediting Chris Noth as a “special guest star”? He’s been in just about every episode for three years! I’m not sure if the initial plan was to have him around for a handful of episodes and just cast him away as the jerkoff cheater, but for whatever reason, he’s still around and he’s one of the show’s most important pieces. Can’t we just add him to the cast already?
SONS OF ANARCHY: Covered this a ton in the last couple weeks, but it bears repeating that SOA was truly in danger of losing my interest and my viewership. But it exploded every week nearly without fail and saved its year and the show as a whole with a very, very good season that was a combination of suspenseful, fun, powerful and gut-wrenching.
HAPPY ENDINGS: How has it happened that this show has become the one I look forward to in ABC’s loaded night of Wednesday comedy? It’s weird, right? That in just about 20 episodes, it’s managed to pass out both Modern Family (down year) and The Middle (ditto)? However it happened, it’s a welcome addition. Most ensemble comedies — even the great ones — have weak links in their cast either from an actor standpoint or from the character. Ross’s whining in Friends. Kevin Dillon’s bad acting in Entourage. Will and Grace had Will and Grace. But somehow, Happy Endings has managed to pull of the rare Seinfeld-like feat — it doesn’t have any weak links in its cast. Elisha Cuthbert looked like a pretty good bet to be the weak link, but she’s more than held her own. The Halloween episode this year was her crowing achievement, but it’s not too hard with the material these actors are being given. Every week’s script seems to be better than the last one and I get more surprise laughs out of this than any show not named Workaholics.
WILFRED: One character shouldn’t be able to carry a whole show. When breakout TV characters are thrust into the limelight to carry the show — Happy Days with The Fonz, Family Matters with Urkel, etc., etc., etc. — and asked to do just that, that’s usually when the show begins a downward spiral into unitelligibility. So when every other character in Wilfred isn’t nearly as funny as Wilfred the dog who is seen as a walking, talking, hash-pipe-hitting man to neighbor Ryan (Elijah Wood) and no one else, you’d expect the show to go down after the one-note joke petered out. Only it never did. It actually got funnier and funnier and more complex as the year went on. If anything, the only thing that got tired was Ryan’s seemingly boundless trust of Wilfred despite loads of evidence to the contrary.
THE SOUP: If an alien came down from the sky, landed on my front porch and asked me, “I need to laugh in the next five minutes, or my species will die. I don’t understand much about human humor, but I always think pictures, punchlines and comedic timing are funny.” Then Mr. Alien, do I have a show for you. Consistently and reliably funny despite it not being the show any person in America says, “I can’t wait to see The Soup tonight!”
14 more that bear mention, in no particular order:
MODERN FAMILY and THE MIDDLE: Down years. According to my wife, I’m Mike Heck. Although she’s also said at different times I’ve been Chandler, Jim Halpert and Eric Foreman. That’s a pretty weird mix.
FRINGE: I’m just not on board with everything they’re doing, but it still constitutes appointment television.
COMMUNITY: Too hit and miss this season, and the season premiere was a complete whiff.
THE OFFICE: Two of my five favorite episodes of any TV show this year — The Garage Sale (when Michael proposes to Holly) and Goodbye, Michael. But something non-Steve Carell-related is missing this year, including the episodes he was in. Some of the long-time cast members seem like they’re mailing in performances past due, and it won’t be solved with another Halpert.
FOX TUESDAY COMEDY: Glee’s Christmas episode was the worst episode of a good TV show I’ve seen this year, preventing it from making the top 10. New Girl is fantastic, but the guys are too annoying for me to go all-in. Raising Hope probably would have been my #11 show.
AMERICAN HORROR STORY: Too crazy to be in the top 10, but it was every bit the roller coaster it was advertised as and that we expected it to be.
BEAVIS AND BUTTHEAD: Welcome back. You guys haven’t lost a step.
WALKING DEAD: The most polarizing show of the year. I actually liked then being cooped up in the woods for the entire year, though I understand how some people wouldn’t have.
LIGHTS OUT: Great story, bad acting.
RESCUE ME: The most satisfying ending the show could have come up with, even if they telegraphed the funeral twist in the finale.
VAMPIRE DIARIES: Starting to tilt to the bad side of “ludicrous” but when you do it as fast as they do, you barely have time to think about it.