2011 was a good year for television, which made selecting the top ten shows of the year a tricky task. Not all of our favorites will win awards for their greatness, but whether it was because they made us laugh, made us think, kept us on the edge of our seats or simply entertained us, these are the shows we loved the most in 2011.
TV had a lot to offer this year, and there were a number of shows that came close to making the cut but didn’t quite squeak through to the Top 10. Among them, American Horror Story, Wilfred, Shameless Happy Endings and Beavis & Butt-Head, all of which contributed to television in their own dark, twisted, funny, quirky and/or clever ways. In the meantime, to hint at the shows that did make the cut, before we get to the actual list, here are a few relevant (some fictional) locations: Westeros, The Hamptons, Pawnee, Greendale, Portlandia and Capua...
Spoiler alert: The list below contains plot details about shows that have aired this year that may be considered spoilers. Tread lightly if you aren’t caught up on your favorite shows!
“Box Cutter.” “Face-Off.” For Breaking Bad fans, the episode titles that book-end the outstanding fourth season say it it all. One of the things that’s worked so well for the AMC drama series from the start has been the pacing. Over the course of four seasons, we've witnessed Walter White’s slow transformation from a regular man to a meth-cook living a double life that’s barely concealed anymore. He’s taken control of his life and in the process, transformed from a relatively harmless man into a man who’s willing to anything to stay alive, protect and provide for his family.
Season 4 included the slow-boiling power struggle between Gus and Walter, a growing distance between Walt and his partner Jesse, Walt’s wife Skyler’s increased involvement in Walter’s dealings, and some excellent flashbacks that give us further insight into Gus’ life, including his connections with Tuco’s uncle Hector. All of this comes together slowly, building up to what amounts to one of the best season finales we saw all year, from one of the most intense, gripping and outstanding series on television.
Parks and Recreation
It's hard to express how far Parks & Recreation came in 2011. Off the air for the entire 2010 fall season, it returned for its third season in January with two new cast members, Adam Scott and Rob Lowe, and a completely renewed sense of purpose. Gone was the awkward, Office-inspired humor of the first two seasons and the sense that Leslie Knope was a barely competent pain-in-the-ass who drove her coworkers crazy. Instead the show fully embraced its sweeter side, establishing the Parks Department as a strange but loving family, setting up a very real romantic spark between Ben and Leslie, and even softening up the scowling April with her romance and eventual marriage to Andy.
Ron never stops disdaining the government, the Parks Department never stops making fun of Jerry and Leslie never manages to avoid awkward conflict entirely, but this year Pawnee became a place you're dying to visit every week, full of both central characters you're invested in and a rotating cast of townspeople (Perd Hapley, Joan Calamezzo, Jean-Ralphio) who make the world feel richer and immeasurably stranger. Once the struggling spin-off of The Office, Parks & Recreation became its own full-fledged success this year, the nicest and funniest and most consistently excellent comedy on any network.
When fall started, Revenge seemed like the ultimate guilty-pleasure drama, however as the weeks went by, the guilt dissolved and the obsession set in. The series, follows the scheming of a young woman named Emily, whose father was wrongfully convicted. Emily’s on a mission to take down the people responsible for framing her father, which means posing as a wealthy girl summering in the Hamptons and immersing herself in society’s elite while she slowly unravels their lives from within.
Part of Revenge’s draw early on was the opening scene, which featured Emily at a lavish party, and someone getting shot on a beach. So far, the series has been leading up to the shooting on the beach, however the anticipation is just a bonus. The real treat is watching Emily interact with the people she’s plotting against, or in a couple of cases, conspiring with. Keeping her plan on track is proving to be tricky and new complications have slowly been introduced. Between the twists and turns in the plot, the ever-building suspense, and outstanding performances by Emily VanCamp, Madeleine Stowe, Gabriel Mann and others, Revenge has quickly become a must-watch drama.
IFC’s Portlandia has proven to be one of this year’s unexpected comedic treats for television in 2011. Created by Fred Armisen, Carrie Brownstein and Jonathan Krisel, and starring Armisen and Brownstein, the short-based comedy series is an amusing take on the hipster culture of Portland, Oregon. Each episode features Armisen and Brownstein portraying the various fictional inhabitants of Portlandia as they go about their lives, trying to be good (or superior) human beings, listen to the right music, eat the right food, wear the right clothes and converse about the right things.
The first season consisted of a meager six episodes and a collection of hilarious characters, including a couple who goes above and beyond to make sure the meat they’ve ordered was treated humanely before they eat it, and a couple who hire a house-sitter, leaving her with a ridiculously long list of instructions, only to reveal that their trip consists of a visit to the store to purchase a new cell phone. Then there’s the couple that serves a full meal of food retrieved from dumpsters. The season was brimming with guest stars, which added to the surreal nature of the series and only made it all the funnier. Portlandia is bizarre and quirky, taking aim at a very specific kind of humor, and nailing it more times than not. In the end, I’m often left wondering if they’re poking fun at Portland culture or celebrating it. Maybe it’s a little bit of both. Whatever it is, it’s working.
The Chicago Code
It won’t be remembered as fondly as Shawn Ryan’s previous clever-and-cancelled Terriers, if remembered at all. Its absence is only slightly less disappointing. After 24, Fox couldn’t seem to create action-dramas that weren’t tethered to high-concepts or gimmicks. The Chicago Code avoids those trappings by keeping it simple with likable characters, a great setting, and shady political corruption. And despite hokey narration, the dialogue remains genuine and amusing.
Jason Clarke’s tough-talking homicide detective Jarek Wysocki is partnered with young Caleb Evers (Matt Lauria) in taking down Alderman Gibbons (Delroy Lindo) a political leader with his hands in everyone’s pockets. This is all overseen by Teresa Colvin (Jennifer Beals), Chicago’s first female Police Superintendent. Wysocki’s niece is a rookie cop romantically involved with her partner. There’s an undercover agent infiltrating the Irish mob! And Wysocki’s got woman troubles! Storylines initially seem procedural, but many are incorporated into the larger plot, which builds with both external and internal pressure, though is unfortunately never as diabolical as it should be. While not perfect, The Chicago Code is exciting cop show fun, whether you like the Cubs or the Sox.
Although 2011 hasn't been the kindest year to Community and its fans, there is little doubt that the NBC comedy remains at the top of the class. The series continued to wow with wonderful performances, genre bending direction and probably the smartest writing of any situation comedy. However, these factors that make the show so inspired also make it demanding, and it's already joining the ranks of other critically acclaimed, cult classics that were not long for this world.
The 23 episodes of Community that aired this calendar year, including 13 from the back half of Season 2 as well as 10 from Season 3. This means the 2011 season includes some "Advanced Dungeons & Dragons," Abed having 'My Dinner with Jeff' with a side of Pulp Fiction, a whole new kind of clip show and two "Fistful of Paintballs" as well as this year's instant classics like the darkest timeline (as part of the brilliant "Remedial Chaos Theory" episode), Jeff and Dean Pelton singing Seal in a video booth and the flashback rivalry between Tinkletown and Big Cheddar. This year’s Community gave us two terms, spring and fall, overflowing with laughter and even the occasional tear. Let's hope they aren't forced to drop out before graduation and have a chance to make the Cinema Blend Honor's List again next year.
Spartacus: Gods of the Arena
Spartacus: Gods of the Arena was an epic, dramatic event that reveled in the garish and the gory. Creating a prequel for a second cycle in the absence of Andy Whitfield was a bold move, and one that probably shouldn’t have worked as well as it did. Set several years before the events in Vengeance, Spartacus: Gods of the Arena simultaneously manages to bring Crixus to the forefront, allows audiences to identify with morally bankrupt slave owners Lucretia and Batiatus, introduces a new prized warrior in Gannicus, and creates gladiator conflict that is both compelling and feels cut from the same cloth as its sister series.
Spartacus: Gods of the Arena could have gone for more. It could have made the production more glitzy, the story arc more grandiose and the big reveals more unbelievable. Instead, Gods of the Arena keeps the same tone and fervor at the heart of its story. It is relentless in its ability to grab audience and reel them in, and, on the same token, it has kept us all waiting for more.
Game of Thrones
Anytime you adapt a beloved series you are walking a fine line. Sure, you have a built in audience but also comes the pressure to impress. However, any time HBO is the one adapting the series, there's always some reassurance that the source material will be handled with the utmost respect and care. D.B. Weiss and David Benioff, co-creators of the television series, have done just that delivering a series with fantastic writing, stunning visuals and an incredible ensemble cast.
HBO's Game of Thrones, an adaptation of George R.R. Martin's "Song of Ice and Fire" series, doesn't just satisfy the die-hards but it also brought in people previously uninterested in fantasy. The reason that the series was able to accomplish that most difficult task of crossing genre divides, is that underneath the fantastic facade is a show about interesting people, their relationships and humanity's often destructive obsession with power. It's a medieval morality play with dragons, what more could you want? Game of Thrones' spectacular debut season adapted the famed fantasy series with an unblinking focus on the human relationships and managed to create many of the year's most memorable television moments. "Winter is Coming." Can't wait.
If you aren't a fan of Louis C.K. in his roles as stand-up comedian, writer, actor, director, truth-deliverer, redhead, or chronic masturbator, then there’s a world of disagreement between us. (Well his acting is mug-filled, but always fun to watch.) Louie’s second season continues to subvert tones and presentations for every story or idea. Quite often, these are ideas, surreally realistic moments that don't need three acts to traverse the emotional spectrum. The first episode combines panic with strangers’ empathy before dive-bombing into carefree juvenility, and the curveballs seldom seem intentionally shocking. This is Louis C.K.'s mind on display. Nobody's mind is linear.
Painting himself as the under-appreciated dad, daydreaming subway hero, work-a-day comic, and unluckiest lover, he becomes the rare underdog in a tele-verse of undeserving over-achievers. He’s troubled by overtly honest daughters, the housing market, a socially awkward niece, costumed hoodlums, his aunt’s passive racism, and insecurities with women, one of which makes "blueberries" un-explainably undesirable. These toiling foils highlight the sincerity of subtler scenes, such as he and Pamela Adlon’s nearly overused will they/won’t they relationship, or his crass last night with Eddie, a desperately suicidal old buddy perfectly portrayed by the similarly brutal Doug Stanhope. Most notably, Louie performs for troops in Afghanistan in the extended “Duckling,” which allows breathing room between sparse comedic beats, creating a documentary-lite aesthetic that transcends usual episodic expectations. Oh, and then there’s the one where he fucks Joan Rivers. Television is rarely this sublime.
The first season of Showtime's Homeland was nothing short of fantastic and is definitely in the running for not just the best new series on television but for the best series period. Few series can come out of the gates running in their freshman year but with only 12 episodes there was simply no time for showrunners Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon to waste. Gansa And Gordon cut their terror television teeth working on 24 and yet, Homeland manages to capture all of the intensity of the often over the top series while still remaining focussed on telling a slower-burning, character based narrative. And they've made it one of the most interesting hours of television each week.
Adapted for American television from the acclaimed Israeli series Prisoners of War (or Hatufim) by Gideon Raff, Homeland prides itself on being unexpected and unconventional without coming across as having twists purely for twists' sake. The writers structured each individual episode as well as the entire season so that each revelation felt completely earned not forced. That doesn't mean there weren't more than a few shocks - and even explosions, both literal and figurative - but the real power comes from impeccable writing as well as the amazing performances from Claire Danes, Damian Lewis, Mandy Patinkin. The show wasn't always easy to watch (especially the final shot) but it was certainly easy to come back. Showtime's Homeland will return for Season 2 in 2012.