It is that time again folks! The end of the year is upon us and that means it is time to look back on the highs, lows and WTFs in television from the past 12 months. There is a lot to reflect on in regard to television 2011. Charlie Sheen went crazy. Well, crazier. Comedy supposedly made a big comeback. We found out what The Event was, I think. Steve Carell and Michael Scott said goodbye and we were sad. The guys from Entourage also said goodbye, and we were less sad. AMC tried to break a Guinness Book World Record for number of stupid PR disasters by a cable network.
This year brought us a number of great new series such as Homeland, Happy Endings and Game of Thronesand a slew of horribly awful ones such as The Paul Reiser Show, How to Be a Gentleman and Charlie’s Angels.True Blood and Glee kept getting worse while Community and Justified kept getting better. 2011 was the year of Louis C.K., the year of sexposition and the year of The Killing. Over the next few weeks, I will be posting all sorts of lists, podcasts and pieces reflecting back on the year that was. So join me in saying farewell to what was a very compelling year in television. There will be so many lists.
I have spent the last few days discussing the worst television 2011 had to offer and honestly, it is bringing me down. Time to cleanse our collective pallets. There were a slew of awful newbies in 2011, but it is not like this year failed to provide great new series as well. 2010 was a big year for great new television, but I think we might end up remembering 2011 as a little bit stronger from top to bottom. 2011 brought us a couple of great new cable dramas and a few very funny broadcast comedies and a slew of surprisingly lovely series that fall somewhere along the spectrum. I actually had trouble narrowing this group down to just 10 and so you’ll see a handful of very-worthy honorable mentions at the tail-end as well. The best new series of the year, here we go.
Homeland (Showtime): I waited to do much of my “best” content because I wanted to see how Homeland would stick the landing at the end of its freshman season and that will probably end up benefiting the series greatly. I know there are some frustrated folks out there and I already see some of the problems that could arise in season two, but good lord, Homeland had one heck of a 12-episode run this fall. The series’ writing staff masterfully took a story that could have – and almost always is – been plot-driven and made the characters, their screwed up, complicated emotions and their relationships paramount. Homeland is a story about the post-9/11 America, terrorism and all these other buzzworthy things, but it’s really just a story about a few dramatically fractured individuals trying to connect to something and make a larger impact in the world based on those connections. And of course, Claire Danes, Damian Lewis and Mandy Patankin turned in three of the best performances of the year.
Game of Thrones (HBO): You are likely aware that I had my issues with Game of Thrones during its first season, but I have come to recognize that those issues are mostly mine alone and not necessarily indicative of the series’ overall quality. I didn’t feel too emotionally invested in much of the series’ action or the characters taking those actions when watching the first time. Subsequent viewings of the season’s second half (the obvious strong portion) brought me closer to some of the characters, though. And more importantly, even with my lack of investment, I could always see value in the series’ impressive world-building and ability to translate the fantasy genre to the television medium. This is a simplistic criticism, but Game of Thrones is just a cool series. I like cool things.
Happy Endings (ABC): The narrative about Happy Endings has been gone over ad-nauseum this fall (last of the Friends clones, basically left for dead by ABC, supportive audience, etc.), but I think the series’ success in season two is indicative of what can happen with comedies when given the chance to grow and discover the proper rhythms and tones. Although this sitcom doesn’t have the same kind of thematic or character-based aims as some of the comedies we hold up on the highest pedestals, it makes up for it with unbelievably fast dialogue and a fully-committed cast. We all want to hang out with Penny, Max and the rest of the gang, which is one of the highest compliments who can pay a comedy like this.
The Chicago Code (FOX): I guess it is a really great year for new quality television if The Chicago Code is the only series on this list that got cancelled, right? Shawn Ryan’s broadcast network take on the police drama stumbled here and there with its overarching narrative, but featured a slew of rock-solid performances (led by the great work of Delroy Lindo) and a smart, complex look at police work, politics and the interrelations between the two. And although I am still sad that the series didn’t make it to a second season, I appreciate that Ryan and his writing staff had the foresight to wrap up the initial story in a satisfying and compelling fashion.
Awkward. (MTV): Probably the biggest surprise of 2011 for me. MTV isn’t really known for its quality scripted programming, but Awkward. consistently delivered on its nice mix of humor and heart and ended up being one of the new series I just straight-up loved this year. The series is youthful and heavy on contemporary popular culture references and yet, features a fresh take on a timeless story engine. All the series’ elements work together masterfully.
The Hour (BBC): I found myself falling in love with a number of British series this year and The Hour is one of my favorites. Period piece plus spy threads plus journalism is an equation that feels tailor-made for my kind of nerdom and although I had high expectations for the series because of that, The Hour didn’t really disappoint. The six-hour effort might have been too focused on the love triangle at times, but it made up for those repetitive points with nice pacing, great performances, a wonderful look and a fun amount of intrigue. Romola Garai is a star.
Revenge (ABC): I’m tempted to simply write “REEEEEEEVVVEEENNNNNNNGGGGGE!” here and move on. I’m very willing to admit my personal weaknesses for soapy dramas and therefore feel I was predispostioned to love Revenge. Nevertheless, the ABC series is the real deal. It obviously knows what genre sandbox it is playing within, but also isn’t afraid to meditate just enough on theme and character to give the overall package an additional layer of complexity. Revenge could have been a lot lazier and much dumber. Thankfully, Mike Kelley and his crew realized that there are ways to tell soapy, melodramatic stories like this and still keep the story’s head above the water of messy insanity. Lots of great and different performances on this one as well.
Enlightened (HBO): This is one of the weirdest series on television. I didn’t care for the pilot at all, let a bunch of the subsequent episodes pile up and then plowed through them a few weeks ago with great enthusiasm. I am not entirely sure what Enlightened is supposed to be, but I know that many weeks, it made me feel some oddly complicated and powerful emotions. Mike White’s voice always intrigues me and he’s found a lovely partner in Laura Dern, who is turning in a great performance. Enlightened isn’t easy to watch, but it feels like time-well spent once it is over.
New Girl (FOX): I fully expected to dislike New Girl. The premise seemed thin and the marketing quickly turned my affection for Zooey D. into annoyance. However, what I didn’t see coming was the strength of New Girl’s male cast members, who are all tremendously funny. It is disappointing that the series lost Damon Wayans Jr. (but not, since Happy Endings still exists!), but the post-pilot episodes have grown into a manic, borderline absurd energy and rhythm that is powered by Max Greenfield, Jake Johnson and Lamorne Morris. Johnson is sometimes stuck doing the romantic comedy thing and yet he still finds little moments to introduce some edge and attitude to his Nick. Max Greenfield, though, is a revelation. That dude knows exactly how to take bits to a higher level without overdoing it too much. If you don’t mind me going all bad movie critic on you, come for Zooey’s adorkableness and stay for the great men!
Wilfred (FX): At times it seems as if Wilfred’s writing staff isn’t exactly sure what they want the hilarious man in the dog suit or their series to actually mean. Thankfully though, those conflicting instances are backed up by lots of funny, immature gags about feces, sexual positions and drug use and really appealing chemistry between Elijah Wood and Jason Gann. And when Wilfred does appear to know what it wants to be about, the series is even better. Of course, I think the confusion is almost all purposeful and am convinced that this staff has an interesting story to tell about our various psychoses, screwy mythology notwithstanding. Although it is a much more obviously consumable product, Wilfred is sort of like Enlightened in that you’re not really sure what the heck is going on and sometimes it is a bit difficult to enjoy, but that difficulty is paid off by the end of season one.
Honorable mention: Alphas, Hart of Dixie and Suburgatory
There they are. Your favorites of the year?