The Eleven Best Television Shows of 2011

December 30, 2011

The nature of the medium of television breeds a certain amount of critical consensus every year.  There just aren’t that many shows out there, and while there are enough that this list could be entirely different from someone else’s, it isn’t likely.  So what’s the point of making this list?  Basically, it’s just a bit of fun really.  I’d also like to talk briefly about something that I devote far too much of my time so it feels at least somewhat worthwhile beyond sheer entertainment.  The rules are simply whatever aired in 2011, so the final results shouldn’t include the first half of a broadcast network season (even though I admit that they probably play a role in some cases).  There’s an intriguing discussion to be had somewhere about how a year-end list favours cable dramas because of this, but we’re not going to have it here.  Just a note that Friday Night Lights could technically be on this list, but as it only aired 3 or so episodes – as I saw them – this year it didn’t seem fair.  Suffice it to say that it’s a great show and if you haven’t seen it you should seek it out. Spoilers for two shows have been noted in the headings.


11.  The Story of Film: An Odyssey

Based solely on this fifteen-hour series, I imagine Mark Cousins to be unbelievably insufferable company.  Still, this epic documentary story about the history of film, from its beginnings up until the present, is about as comprehensive as you can hope to get about the subject on television.  You can quibble with something in each episode, whether it be his taste or his interpretation or what he leaves out, but there’s little doubt about his passion for the medium, and it comes through in every minute of screentime.  It’s not long before his rather…affected…delivery becomes endearing and even kind of poetic, even as he prattles on about ‘the bauble’.  He does a fantastic job of concentrating on foreign films as he makes intriguing (though often debatable) connections to taste, technology, economics, and politics.  At the very least, you get an amazing series of clips from a huge swathe of films that absolutely must be seen.  I’ll even forgive his tendency to spoil the endings.  For Cousins, it isn’t just a highlight reel of film; it’s his emotional interpretation of images.



10.  Treme

It might be a cliché to describe Treme’s narrative as like jazz in the way it ambles along at its own pace and alternating rhythms, but it works.  Many people –one imagines mostly expectant Wire fans- criticized the first season of David Simon’s depiction of post-Katrina New Orleans for that almost structureless narrative.  Characters would occasionally intersect, but there wasn’t much of a backbone to support the series and there wasn’t a major arc outside of, perhaps, the search for the missing person.  I imagine Simon heard the criticism, and in his typical fashion, said “fuck them” and doubled down on the aimlessness.  The threads in season two were even looser, the pacing even more lax.  Once again I’m not convinced it entirely works, but it’s gutsy and fascinating and I have enough investment in the characters that I appreciate the style.  Picking up the ruins of one’s life is never easy and never ends with a tidy ending.  It’s a hard slog, but Treme does about as good as job as possible portraying the humanity of the situation.  We should be grateful for its quiet radicalism.


9.  Happy Endings

The 2010-11 season saw a number of very poor and eventually ill-fated hangout comedies.  Happy Endings didn’t start off well, but for a show the network was essentially burning off, it slowly developed into something far better than anyone could have expected from the first few episodes.  Beginning with a pointless premise of a broken engagement and the friends of the bride and groom, it eventually coalesced into a quippy, occasionally slapstick show about amusing people hanging out together.  They still haven’t nailed the two straight-person leads in Knighton and Cuthbert, though they’re getting some mileage out of turning them into Joey-like loveable fools, but Eliza Coupe and Damon Wayans Jr. have become the funniest couple of television by quite some distance.  They have the kind of natural chemistry and closed-off rhythms that one expects from a married couple who have been together a while, which is a rare feat for broadcast comedies.  The show also features the best puns on the air, and that’s something to be treasured.

8.  Homeland

Plot-heavy shows have a difficulty sustaining themselves fairly regularly, but Showtime’s (I know, I know) Homeland knows well enough that if you create deep, interesting characters, the plot becomes secondary.  It is especially impressive considering it’s centered on a POW possibly being a sleeper cell and the spy obsessed with proving it.  There was a middling episode smack in the heart of the season, exactly where it didn’t need to be, but aside from that it was a remarkably smooth ride.  You can quibble about the ending – and you certainly could this year considering what other shows have done – but the nuanced, difficult performances by leads Damien Lewis and Claire Danes breathed so much life into their characters that minor plot crimes must be forgiven.  Lewis’ conflicted, PTSD-suffering marine is both sympathetic and completely understandable in a way he shouldn’t be.  Sometimes I swear you can see his brain whirring just by looking at his eyes.  Danes has the extremely difficult job of turning a schizophrenic, cold workaholic into something that doesn’t fly off into pantomime and she achieves it as well as much more.  It’s enjoyably intense in the way that 24 could be in its better seasons, but it leaves out the queasy morals and aims straight for the grey area any surveillance-based series should.  The ending of the first season leaves a huge amount of room for worry as to where it will go from here, but its quality has afforded its creators the benefit of the doubt.



7.  Boardwalk Empire  *Plot Spoilers*

Over-hyped and subsequently under-praised as a result, HBO’s would-be flagship Boardwalk Empire has not quite become the show many would have hoped.  If The Sopranos had two sides – the violent crime drama and the smart character study – then Boardwalk clearly wants to emulate the more macho, accessible aspects to generate the hit they think it deserves to be.  This doesn’t mean there haven’t been fantastic characters, of course, but the plot tends to lean towards the violent, sensationalist side.  Season two didn’t totally move beyond the series’ initial problems – in the case of Margaret, for instance, I think it got worse – but in the last 5 or so episodes it found a pretty fantastic and moving groove.  The elevation of Jimmy Darmody, thanks in no small part to Michael Pitt’s masterfully subtle performance (see the smoking out the window scene in the finale), and the development of the people around him, namely his wife.  When the final, shocking moments of the season happen they feel totally earned and also gamechanging, not just in the practical sense of narratives of the future, but in the way it recasts the two seasons we had already watched as less of a thrilling crime saga and more of the tragedy of a lost generation.  The final two episodes of the season stand amongst the best I have ever seen, and even if I have trepidations about where it will go from here, I’m glad the series managed to overcome its excessive cast and focus on something small and really moving.

6.  Justified

As one of the few who really enjoyed many of the first season of Justified’s standalone episodes – I thought they were fun and zippy with some great faux-Leonard dialogue – I didn’t see the inevitable move to a more heavily serialized second season to be an instant improvement.  Still, when the serialized elements were as good as they were, I’m not going to complain.  Anchored by a great supporting cast of villains, specifically the incomparable Margo Martindale, it’s tempting to say that the show worked best when it didn’t concentrate on laid-back, violence-prone Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant), but shockingly enough it wouldn’t be true.  Olyphant gives some of the best performances of the year with his deeply conflicted (and occasionally enraged) Marshal.  Still, the scene-stealers were the villains.  Martindale turns a Ma Kettle matriarch stereotype into a fully developed character.  Terrifying and menacing, eerily calm, and utterly unable to reconcile her modern-day capitalist ambitions with the maternal devotion she has to her idiot sons.  Her scene with Olyphant in the final episode was one of the best of the year as her dignified resignation masked the deep pain of loss.  There are still kinks to be worked out – I’m not sure about Ava and Wade while Winona still doesn’t quite fit – but it was a fantastic season of television overall.

5.  Parks and Recreation

This would be higher if I could include the whole second season, but the arbitrary rules of these sorts of things won’t permit it.  No, the third season has, so far, not been nearly as good as the previous two, but it’s still very funny and often sweet.  When the writing falls away a bit, the characters are still there, inhabited by the finest extended comedy ensemble on TV right now.  The Office (US) accomplished this to varying degrees in its seasons 2-and-3 heyday, but I’m not sure it reached levels quite as high as Parks and Recreation when it is at its peak.  Earlier this year we had the wedding episode, which was brilliant in its total lack of build up and moving in its downplayed demeanour.  No huge emotional build-up or sickeningly saccharine – just nice people enjoying each other’s company and realizing how much they really care for each other.  The series has also wisely expanded upon its increasingly bizarre town, not just with its violent history and its ridiculous citizens who turn up at open meetings (they would be the most ridiculous, of course), but in smaller ways, such as the continued use of Alta Vista.  It’s remarkably consistent, and the latter half of the second season was particularly great.  It is probably the most well-rounded comedy on television when it comes to rhythms and execution.  The minor dip in form in the third season doesn’t mean it’s bad.  After all, when they can throw off a sequence like Jean-Ralphio’s job interview during the credits, it would be churlish to complain.

4.  Breaking Bad

Breaking Bad is so beloved and critically adored by this point that I should really be writing about why it’s only at number four as opposed to praising it for being great.  Well, I have a few bugbears with the fourth season, the largest of which is the way they handled a particularly crucial plot-point in the final episodes.  It paid off well, but the handling up to then utilized the type of close-to-your-chest card holding that the show had never used before.  It felt too much like the creative team had written themselves into a corner and it was their best way to maintain tension through the finale they wanted to give.  Still, it was a hell of a finale.  The season as a whole was in keeping with the standards set by the previous two.  Aaron Paul’s turn as Jess can’t be praised enough as his character continues to become the beating heart of the show.  He has real reactions to the traumas inflicted upon him and the cruelties he must enact.  Walter White’s descent is as horrific and thrilling as ever.  The pre-credits sequences, while not on par with the third season’s, were still the best on television.  And then there’s Gus, the intriguing antagonist who is surely destined to be inaugurated into the unwritten annals of Great TV Villains.  Dark, charming, and likeable, even the brilliant flashback episode centered on him didn’t explain everything, which is a good thing.  All of that is thanks to the work of Giancarlo Esposito, who could brilliantly suggest everything while giving away nothing.  The ending might have been slightly cartoonish – though admittedly awesome – but it almost felt like the only way it could have really happened.  I might be a little harsh on the show, but that only comes from the dizzying expectations it has consistently created and exceeded.  I can’t wait for the final 16.

3.  Community

You can charge the low-rated but much-loved Community with being obsessed with meta-comedy and pop-culture references, but I think that’s a simplistic, surface view of a show that manages to turn its caricatures into characters.  There’s a real bond in the study group the series is based around, and despite how insane someone might act it is always grounded a basic reality of their personality.  Like Parks and Rec, I don’t feel the show’s third season is going as well as it’s first two so far, but it still brings laughs in every episode and when it hits, it hits.  The back half of season two was absolutely immaculate.  The flashback episode was a particular kind of genius, and the knowing paintball retread was full of great moments.  There’s always the cast to rely on if the show doesn’t work completely, and they’re extraordinarily talented.  Yvette Brown’s mood shifts are quick and hilarious, and Donald Glover can make virtually anything fall-on-the-floor hilarious.  If the third season hasn’t quite lived up to the standards set by the second so far, it has produced a number of fantastic moments and intriguing ideas, as well as what can only really be described as a perfect episode of television in its alternate realities exploration.  That episode was funny as all hell and wildly experimental as far as narrative devices in 21-minute sitcoms go.  It also earned the sweet-natured ending but cut against it with the intriguing notion that Jeff has become the problem member of the group.  In the end, Community deserves plaudits not for its cleverness and audacious risk-taking, but for how often it manages to pull them off to create something funny, sweet, and genuinely emotional.


2.  Game of Thrones *Plot Spoilers*

I am not, it should be said, a true fantasy fan.  I like the idea of fantasy far more than the reality, if that make sense.  After all, I couldn’t make it past page 30 of The Lord of the Rings, despite spending a pretty penny on a really lovely edition.  As I watched Game of Thrones and got drawn into the world of the Seven Kingdoms, I was happily surprised and quick to conclude it to be ‘nothing great, but the most fun currently on television’.  On second viewing, however, I found my appreciations grow.  It turns out the really spectacular achievement of the series wasn’t its violent, shocking twists or incredible production value, but rather its subtle character work and extraordinary world-building.  It can feel very expository at times, but far less than any show with this rich of a world (not to mention this many characters) ever should.  There are deep, familial connections all over the place, and the way history plays a vital role – and told in such a simple but intriguing fashion – is intoxicating.  I realized at some point that half the fun is piecing together the past and the way it hangs over the present like a thick fog.  Naysayers, occasionally correctly, criticize the show for giving into that fantasy HBO temptation of throwing nudity around, especially in its ‘sexposition’ scenes.  I hate the notion, however true, that geeks just want to see bare-breasted women cavorting about and the fact that the show caters to it, but Game of Thrones has also created two of the most empowering (both for their actions and their depth) female characters on TV right now in Arya and Daenerys.  Then there’s the great gut-punch of the year, in the execution of Ned, who was cleverly positioned as the star of the show.  Anytime a series can properly pull off a “holy shit” moment it is something special, but on rewatch it wasn’t the shock that moved me but the sadness.  Author George R. R. Martin has created a fantastically interesting world, and the creators of the series have brought it to life and interpreted it in an impressive way.  The reality is that Ned was never the true hero because he wasn’t that clever.  He was stubborn and so devoted to his simplistic notions of honour that he couldn’t see the forest for the trees.  When the eunuch lambasts him for this, it seems cruel, but it turns out the eunuch is the only one who truly cares about the realm.  The show never seems to forget that we’re watching a small elite change the fortune of thousands.  It’s an incredible feat of world building, and it something that very few TV shows could ever hope to achieve.  Plus, when a show makes me hate someone as much as I hate Joffrey, it must be doing something right.

1.  Louie

It’s been a banner year for Louis C.K., with his rise to fame, his recently successful self-marketed comedy special, and the way his TV show has dominated virtually every end-of-year list around.  Because of that, there isn’t much I can say that is entirely original about the second season of Louie, but a drive for originality hasn’t stopped me yet, so I’ll press on.  If the first season was a little uneven but often great and occasionally incredibly moving, the second season went for the jugular.  It was almost more of a drama than a comedy, oftentimes relying on the stand-up routines interspersed throughout the episode for its entire ‘funny quotient’.  The truest ‘auteurist’ show perhaps in the history of the medium, Louis himself stars in, writes, directs, and edits each episode.  The incredible amount of freedom FX gives him, especially due to the miniscule budget (the story of how he got the rights to a Who song that would normally have taken up most of the episode’s budget is worth seeking out), affords him the opportunity to experiment in whatever way he wants.  There’s little to no overarching narrative – the only real consistent is that he has kids and that he’s fallen for a fellow parent named Pamela (Pamela Adlon) – and an episode could be one storyline or two completely separate tangents.  I hasten to add that it isn’t a sketch show by any means; it’s essentially a series of short films ruminating on a particular aspect of life.  I could write about any number of episodes (Afghanistan, Dane Cook, the alcoholic friend dropping in, or the confession to Pamela), but I’d like to single out his segment “Moving”.  Realizing that he still lives in the same apartment he did when he was married, Louis decides to find a new place as part of the “moving on” process.  After a number of disastrous and surreal viewings, he settles upon a hugely expensive, opulent house that he feels will win the affection of his daughters and, in some way, ‘win’ over his ex-wife.  The episode contains the sight gag of the year (the apartment with the wall) and probably the best line reading as well (“…but…Obama…”), and yet it moves beyond mere comedy in such an aching fashion that it also ranks up there with the most purely emotional episodes of anything, including drama, of the year.  There’s a genuine, heartfelt desire to improve his life and the life of his children, but it’s out of reach.  The sadness and longing in his face as he sits on the steps of his never-to-be home speaks volumes about what it means to be a father who can’t provide what he wants for his children, and as a person who can’t achieve the things he desires.  It’s so incredibly humanist, and that’s the real key to the show as a whole.  It also happens to be unpredictable, experimental, sometimes traditional, sometimes very funny, and sometimes very emotional.  Most of all it’s honest, and that’s a trait you can never undervalue.  Louie was the show I looked forward to watching more than any other week after week in 2011, and because there’s no serialization or overarching narrative, that’s a very special achievement indeed.


3 Responses to “The Eleven Best Television Shows of 2011”

  1. kim Says:

    Joffrey’s actor is amazing…
    The eye candy for the ladies was at least done tastefully…

    And yeah, half the fun is piecing together the clues.

    Since nearly everyone and their brother had read the books, I’m halfway surprised that anyone could make it to ep9 without getting spoiled…

    • chiaroscurocoalition Says:

      I only knew one or two people who had read the books, and the thread on the message board I was reading had a strict spoilers policy, so I think I was pretty isolated. It’ll be more difficult to avoid spoilers now, I imagine, but I think it’s worth trying. I was toying with reading the books but this season was so good I don’t want to ruin whatever surprises might come along.

      When I was watching “Baelor” I was confident a raven was going to fly in and bring the news of Jamie’s capture, giving poor Ned a reprieve. I had no idea they would really go there.

  2. Greg Says:

    I’ve only watched not even half of the shows on this list, so I’ll preface this by saying what the fuck do I know but I thought Community (a show I love) really hit a dud this season. The Pierce storylines all got way too dark and fairly unredeeming. You’re right though, when the show hits, it really is spectacular. Just seems like in this season there were way too many misses and not enough hits.

    I pretty much stopped watching Parks and Recreation for much the same reasons, the storylines just don’t seem to go anywhere.

    The only reason I watch Happy Endings is for Eliza Coupe and Damon Wayan Jr., they are fantastic together. I have a feeling that the writers will eventually get Knighton and Cuthbert together (for that Ross and Rachel parable). Not 100% sure how I feel about that.

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