Best TV of 2011


Being in Germany since August, I feel quite detached from American television, even though that’s what I’m here to write and talk about. I’ve found ways to access the shows that I’m missing, but without the ease of my TiVo and the television schedule matching my timezone, I’m definitely watching less, and therefore more selectively. So as I approach my annual list of top programs, I feel like I’m mirroring critical consensus in large part because I’m only seeking out newer shows that critics I trust recommend, rather than sampling widely and carving my own path. But nonetheless, I certainly have opinions on much of what I’ve seen, and like to take advantage of my annual best-of to write a bit on what I’ve seen this year.

As always, I wait until the actual end of the year instead of how other sites run their lists in early December, as I’ve been catching up on a few things this month. Also, I don’t rank numerically or limit myself to any arbitrary number like 10 – I do have a Top Tier of the four shows that I do think are above the rest, but everything else is in alphabetical order. These are the best shows that I watched from this year, and there are probably some great ones I haven’t seen (Boardwalk Empire is one I know I need to watch, along with Downton Abbey, Misfits and the most recent season of Curb Your Enthusiasm – and perhaps the insanity of American Horror Story). So please weigh in about what else I’ve overlooked & should seek out in 2012.

Top Tier Breaking Bad: No surprise here, as I’ve written about how much I love this show and I’m not alone among TV critics & fans. But I think season 4 was an interesting shift – many of the show’s followers were lukewarm on the first half of the season (after a great opening episode), frustrated by the slower pace & lack of explosive action. However, the phenomenal final string of episodes seemed to please most everyone, and it’s landed near the top of most critics’ lists with little mention that the show was questioned by some early in the season. I think this is telling for how the program shifted its structural strategies this year.

The most signature format for a Breaking Bad episode is what we might call the “trap and escape” plot: Walt and/or Jesse are stuck in a seemingly unescapable situation, and the episode follows their improbable means of escape. The first of such episodes was “Grilled” in season 2, as Walt and Jesse were taken to the desert by Tuco, and other notable examples have followed in “Peekaboo,” “Four Days Out,” “Sunset,” and “Fly.” Season four contained none of these episodes, with the closest being “Salud,” although Gus was in much more control of Jesse’s seeming captivity than in any of the previous traps. But if we step back, the season as a whole functions like a long-arc trap & escape – Walt is stuck in Gus’s servitude, forced to either submit or die. He spends the first 2/3 of the season discovering the depth of the trap and feebly trying easily foiled escapes. But in the final episodes, he devises a caper sufficiently devious (and morally bankrupt) to trap Gus, and that resolution was so satisfying to most viewers that it redeemed any ill will toward the initial set-up. (Note that I actually loved the whole season, as I felt the character work of the early episodes was engaging and didn’t need to the action-heavy drive of other seasons.)

Louie: I’ve already written about this season at length, but along with his downloadable special, Louie C.K. is clearly Entertainer of the Year.

Parks & Recreation: No show is more consistent in delivering its pleasures than Parks & Rec, which this year entered the upper echelon of sitcom history alongside Seinfeld, Cheers, and Mary Tyler Moore. Every character is pitch-perfect, every relationship is unique, and the storyworld is distinct and rich (and decorated with the world’s best historical murals). It feels like the perfect use of the mockumentary form, playing to the style’s strength while avoiding its biggest clichés & cheats. And this year, it showed how to pull off effective sitcom romance, nailing two great relationships in Andy & April and Ben & Leslie. If only more people were watching, because I have no doubt that it could grow into a major hit if people gave it a try. But we’ll have to be thankful that its mediocre ratings are not a problem for NBC, where it’s surrounded by underperformers and hopefully can stay on the air for years.

Justified: The other three shows in the top tier are all best-of-breed for me – Best Drama, Best Comedy, Best Experimental Art-Film/Standup Hybrid. Justified is a notch below the three, but in season 2, it made the big leap up into the realm of television’s best shows. In large part, the leap stemmed from finding the right balance between episodic and serial plotting that was a challenge in the very good first season, which bodes well for the show’s future. However, much of the season’s success was from the brilliant arc around the Bennet clan, especially Margo Martindale’s murderous matriarch – it’s unlikely that the show will match her as a foil for Raylan, so let’s hope it continues to develop other great supporting characters to fill out the world. I was disappointed with the sidelining of Ava (and foregrounding of Winona) in season 2, but hopefully the Boyd/Ava team will get more time next year. Regardless, it’s a remarkably compelling show, and the finale was as riveting an episode of television this year.

Second Tier (in Alphabetical Order):

Archer: I didn’t watch the first season of Archer, as the visual style irked me and it seemed too much like a standard kind-of-screamy Adult Swim absurdist cartoon. But I listened to the accolades and jumped into season 2, which was truly some of the funniest and most inspired animated comedy I’ve seen in years. It’s consistently unpredictable and truly demented, but the characters have grown on me to be vaguely compelling in their reductive way.

Bob’s Burgers: I love low-key animated comedies that could work as live-action in their tone and pacing, and this great Fox series comes from producers of old favorites King of the Hill and Home Movies. It blends the sense of a real inhabitable world, compelling family dynamics, and absurdist deadpan humor in a remarkably compelling way. Can’t wait to see if the show gains confidence in its next season, as later episodes definitely showed progress toward something special.

Community: I have a strange relationship to Community, as I always feel like I should enjoy it more than I do, and often experience my enjoyment of the show at an emotional remove. It simply doesn’t click for me the way most comedies on this list do, but I do respect its ambition and usually find a few episodes each season to be quite brilliant. This year, my standouts were “Paradigms of Human Memory,” “Critical Film Studies,” and “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons,” among others, all of which would trump most any of the other comedies on this list – but still, I can’t embrace it fully. The best explanation I can come up with is that the show’s storyworld is not a place that I find inhabitable, whereas other great comedies feel lived-in – it’s not a live-action cartoon like 30 Rock, but it’s also not a world that feels tangible, like…

Cougar Town / Happy Endings: I’m lumping these shows together, as they feel quite compatible in my list, and the latter replaced the former on ABC’s schedule this fall. Next to Community, neither of these shows are as ambitious, innovative, or able to come up with gut-busting comedic bits. But both feel more tangible to me, with people & places that I could imagine visiting and hanging out with, and lightweight relationships between characters that I care about. I don’t mind if I miss an episode of either show, but I always enjoy those that I see.

Doctor Who: I’m a latecomer to NuWho, having started regularly watching series 5 last year, and slowly catching up to the Tennant years. Although I enjoy Tennant’s performance, I must prefer the tone & structure of the Matt Smith/Steven Moffat era, with significance serialized arcs and heavy-duty timey-wimey-ness. I found the whole River Song plot extremely satisfying, and many stand-alone episodes were quite satisfying as well. It’s ultimately a lightweight fluffy show, but an often supremely satisfying televisual confection that this year presented its best season I’ve yet seen, and capped it off with a moving Christmas special.

Enlightened: A truly odd series, with each episode striking a unique tone & approach to the basic scenario, but one that consistently impressed me with its daring & earnestness, even when layered with irony. I just finished catching up on it, so I’m still processing the finale, but I will say that the grocery store scene between Diane Ladd and Barbara Barrie in episode 9 is one of the most powerfully subtle scenes I’ve ever seen on television. I’m quite excited that HBO renewed it, as I have no idea where the series might go in its second season.

Friday Night Lights: I’ll count season 5 as a 2011 affair, as we watched it on DVD as it was airing on NBC. FNL is a maddening show for me, as it excels so tremendously at what it does well – creating a sense of place, tone, and mood; portraying an honest adult marriage; letting Matt Saracen be awesome – but flubs other things that drive me nuts. In the final season, its portrayal of Julie Taylor’s college life literally had me yelling at the set, and the contrived way it made Tami Taylor into a desirable candidate for an admissions dean position despite never having worked in higher education was almost as ludicrous. But just as it embraces short-cuts and contrivances in its football scenes, FNL has never offered much consistency in portraying realistic plotlines or institutions. But as a character piece, the final season soared, making me so thankful for the time spent in Dillon with these people that I (mostly) forgave the contrivances and gave myself over to the understated melodrama.

Game of Thrones: I was skeptical of this series, as fantasy is not my thing, and it seemed like “serious fantasy,” which is even worse. But after reading many raves, I dived in, bingeing the season in about a week. That’s definitely the way to watch it, as you get wrapped up in the story and avoid too much confusion about who’s related to whom – I found myself caring about the political intrigues as well as fates of the warring clans, but mostly I just enjoyed spending time in the world. Consistently excellent performances, bold storytelling, and overall quality without taking itself too seriously helps it pull off the rare feat of a good fantasy television series.

The Good Wife: Certainly the best network drama on-air right now, the back-half of the second season rivaled anything on television for balancing serial & episodic storytelling, and creating compelling relationship drama. Even though it’s not a fully-rendered vision of Chicago (especially given that it films in NYC), I love how much the show remembers its past episodes, with callbacks to old cases, judges, and opposing lawyers in nuanced ways that assume its viewers are paying attention. I’ve been a little bit disappointed in the third season so far, as the Will/Alicia relationship was handled with too much ambivalence and Grace has gotten too much screen time. But the show still delivers great comedic undertones – the cheese lobby! – and hopefully Will’s investigation will continue to build to a morally ambiguous climax.

Homeland: We’re still a few episodes behind finishing this show, but based on what I’ve seen I’d call it my favorite new series of the year. The acting is uniformly stellar, and the plot feels propulsive without being forced – it has a bit of that 24 thing where episode ending cliffhangers can seem more designed to shock than actually move the plot forward, but it overcomes this with more actual characters and emotional investment than 24 ever had. I’ve heard some mixed reactions to the finale, so I’ll revise this once I get there…

Men of a Certain Age: Of all the shows ending in 2011, this is the one I’ll really miss. Relentlessly low-key, the show just loved its characters despite their many flaws, always letting stories trickle out amidst scenes of three friends spending time together. I understand why it failed to find an audience, as it didn’t fit with TNT’s brand and was hard to classify, but it’s a show that deserves to be rediscovered on DVD.

Revenge: My favorite new network drama of the year – it’s by no means great, but it’s an awfully good time. The show plays close to the line of campy melodrama, but also offers some good characters & relationships to sustain the ridiculousness. I will say I have no idea how it will move forward, which is the best you can expect with such a serial.

South Park: I don’t watch every episode anymore, but instead follow internet buzz to seek out the highlights of each season. It’s on the list for two truly great episodes: “You’re Getting Old,” where the show seemed to acknowledge a sense of needing to mature and grow with some unexpected sincerity (even though future episodes returned to its scatological roots), and “Broadway Bro Down,” a brilliant homage/satire to musical theater. When it’s on, there’s still nothing quite like a great South Park episode.

Treme: By now, it’s obviously not The Wire in NOLA, but instead it’s an art film/travelogue/music video, unlike anything else in television history. Ultimately it’s about people living their lives, getting by in really tough times, not structured by clearly demarcated plotlines or messages but united by an affection for a city. No show loves its characters more, redeeming even its most unlikeable character Sonny. I often find it hard to want to watch the show, but always enjoy it when I do, finding its unique tone and rhythm hypnotic. It definitely plays better on DVD/download, as waiting too long between episodes disrupts the pace, but unlike most serials, there’s little drive to tune in the next week aside from wanting to check in with friends and hear some tremendous music.

5 Responses to “Best TV of 2011”

    • Sons of Anarchy is a show I’ve not gotten into, in large part because the premise seemed unappealing, and by the time the hype over the great season 2 had reached me, it was amidst the let-down season 3. Too much TV, too little time…

      • “the premise seemed unappealing”
        I never thought I would enjoy watching a teacher turn into a meth dealer or the problems of a sheriff in Kentucky. What I have learned through shows like these and SOA, is it really doesn’t matter what the premise is as long as a good story is well written,acted and directed. You even find yourself rooting for the serial killer to get away with it !

        “it was amidst the let-down season 3”
        Don’t believe everything you read ! To me SOA S3’s flaws were exaggerated like S2 of FNL .

        I agree with your opinion on the shows above that I have seen.So when you get to an off season give SOA a try,

  1. 4 Enrique Garcia

    Hi Jason

    It seems we are twins because our tastes are very similar. I just have a few comments:

    1)Breaking Bad: I like this show as an existential narrative but the cartel plot was very weak in my opinion. I liked this season because I love the two main characters but as someone studying US Latino culture, I thought the Hispanic part of the show is very bad. The Mexicans are played by Cubans and Italians and their Spanish betrays their origin. I know Hollywood does this with Asian and Middle East representations too but it bothered me that while the two main characters have complex representations, the Hispanic villains are very cartoony. Actually, the cartel representation in Sons of Anarchy season 4 was more interesting than in Breaking Bad.

    2)Justified: This was my favorite show lat year. I thought the climax was brilliant. Probably the actors are playing ‘white trash’ minstrelcy, but somehow the villains were more 3dimensional than the ones in Breaking Bad.

    3)American Horror story: I am a horror freak but hate most of the recent stupid films. This show made me believe again.

    4)The Good Wife:I like the melodrama and politics but I still find the cases to be stupid.

    5)Enlightened: This show is ok but it seems like if they did a tv show based on one of those silly independent movies loved by critics and hated by everyone else. Why do people keep saying in the show that Laura Dern is hot? She never was.

    6)Game of Thrones: I haven’t read the books but my wife Nikolina says that a lot of the minor characters that seem random, will play a bigger roles in the other novels/seasons. I loved this show and I think it will play even better when we see the bluray again after the other seasons are filmed. It will be like Lost, which in my opinion got better when I watched it again on bluray.

    7)Homeland: Very interesting show. I was really hooked and I think its better than 24.

    8)Men of a Certain Age: Very underrated show.

    9)Friday Night LIghts: Loved the final season. I agree with you about how the coach’s wife got the dean position. However I have seen stranger hirings in academia and actually the only thing that seemed weird to me is that she got the job for being sassy with the president. Most people are not sassy during interviews because academics can be vindictive.

    10)Thanks for not putting the awful Mad Men or Modern Family in the list. I don’t care that people say that MF is ironic. That Sofia Vergara is as minstrel as you can get and to me she is a disgrace to the Latino community. Some people tell me the Hispanics like her but I have problems too with Tyler Perry’s minstrel shows and he is popular with African American audiences. I also think the gay characters are ‘gayface’ or at least promote the stereotype that queer individuals are upper middle class etc.I hate this show.

    Enrique García

  2. Some real good choices here, great to see someone else appreciating the awesomeness of South Park but I’d personally put Homeland squarely in the top tier. I’m ashasmed to say there’re too many shows on the list I haven’t seen yet, I’d better get started! 🙂

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