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.
Here we are, at the end of the list-making fun/insanity. The last few weeks have been really, really fun for me (despite said insanity, which I of course brought upon myself more than anything) and I would just like to take this opportunity to thank all of you for reading, RT’ing, tweeting and whatever else you did during this end-of-the-year period and throughout 2011. I keep this web site alive for me, but I sure appreciate the support and interaction from all of you as well.
Anyway, it is time to discuss the best series of the year. It feels weird doing a list like this without Lost or Mad Men, but 2011 was a year full of series moving into the upper-echelon of television quality. Certain new series quickly made it to that position and a few returning series improved enough to do so as well. Unlike my episodes list, I was pretty much able to keep this list under control. I’ll be discussing the top 30 series of the year across the next two days and then posting straggling thoughts about a boatload of other series that didn’t make the list. As always, I must remind you that this list reflects my own tastes and viewing habits. Thus, you won’t see the likes of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Treme, Shameless or Children’s Hospital on here because I just couldn’t get to them this year.
Today, we begin with numbers 30-16 of my top 30 scripted television series of the 2011. Let’s do this.
30. Supernatural: The post-Eric Kripke years of Supernatural have been less consistent and sometimes fully disappointing, but I thought the second half of season six had more standout episodes (even if the whole narrative didn’t quite work) than the first half and I found the fall run to be much more like the series I fell in love with. Although two of the most beloved non-Winchester characters, Castiel and Bobby, said “goodbye” in 2011, both did so in stirring, interesting fashion. Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki continue to turn in underrated, layered work and when the writing staff backs them up, Supernatural can deliver great episodes that stand up against what the best of the medium has to offer.
Best episodes: “The French Mistake,” “Death’s Door,” “The Man Who Would Be King”
29. Wilfred: Although Wilfred features a substantial “high-concept” as they like to say in the entertainment industry, the FX series offers a little something for everyone. If you want your comedies with a dose of mythology, Wilfred’s there for you. If you’re interested in humorous portrayals of psychological issues, Wilfred’s there for you. If you just like FX’s typical brand of immature humor, Wilfred’s there for you. And hey, if you really need a Fiona Gublemann fix, Wilfred’s there for you. More seriously, Wilfred is one of those series that seems primed for a big second season. The first season stayed within a comfortable rhythm that probably helped it appeal to those disparate audiences, but I expect some bigger, deeper things from the series in 2012. And if Wilfred doesn’t get there, I guess I’ll survive on more obviously funny jokes about dogs humping things.
Best episodes: “Doubt,” “Compassion,” “Identity”
28. 30 Rock: Like a certain CBS comedy you’ll see in a moment, 30 Rock isn’t quite as consistently great as it used to be, but going from the absolute best comedy on the air to a top-lining member of the second tier isn’t really much to be sad about. Season five is my favorite 30 Rock season since season two and I would argue it’s also the best. It relied less on mediocre stunt casting of high profile-names and focused much more on Liz and Jack’s relationship, the series’ obvious strong-point. 30 Rock also doesn’t get enough credit for being pretty weird, and many of the Tracy, Jenna and various writer stories were as odd and reality-cracking as the series has been.
Best episodes: “Double-Edged Sword,” “Queen of Jordan,” “Plan B”
27. Revenge: This year’s slate of broadcast dramas isn’t that strong, but if you told me in July or August that in December, my favorite one would be ABC’s Revenge, I would have plotted your murder meticulously over a decade. More seriously though, Revenge works so well because Mike Kelley and his team know exactly – or at least strongly appear to know – what they’re doing. They know what kind of tone and atmosphere the series should have on a weekly basis, they know how plot out sufficiently long arcs and thus far, it seems like they know where they’re going in the long-term and how to provide fun reveals and twists along the way. Just this fall alone, Revenge transitioned from its “Revenge of the Week” plot to a clearer serialization pattern and there weren’t too many bumps along the way. And the cast, led by Emily Van Camp in a role I wasn’t quite sure she could pull off, is doing a really nice job of gelling together and finding the balance between the camp and the serious. Revenge is just a fun, well-made series.
Best episodes: “Guilt,” “Trust,” “Suspicion”
26. The Hour: We’ve long debated the merits of the U.S. model versus the U.K. model in terms of number of episodes per season (and number of seasons) and while I don’t think there is a concrete right or wrong answer to those debates, The Hour is a nice example of the benefits of the U.K. approach. Six episodes is a fine number to tell the story that The Hour appeared to be interesting in telling. That allowed for a mostly tighter focus on the three lead characters and their various drives succeed in their respective ways. More episodes would have probably meant more Brightstone conspiracy beats, which is a thread that worked for the most part, but I’m less sure of with a larger focus. A second season is coming and perhaps that will disrupt some of the things I’ve said. However, this first six-hour story covered compelling ground and mashed together all sorts of genres and styles very, very well.
Best episodes: “Episode Three,” “Episode Four,” “Episode Six”
25. How I Met Your Mother: I get it. You don’t like How I Met Your Mother anymore. There are newer and better comedies on the air and HIMYM has unfortunately mishandled anything related to its lead character and supposed “mythology.” Nevertheless, I think the series has had a really strong 2011 because of all the great stories related to all the characters not named Ted Mosby. Stories about Marshall’s struggle to let go of his father, Barney’s struggle to embrace his and the complicated Barney-Robin relationship have all buoyed Mother with heartfelt stories that have featured loads of great all-time series moments. HIMYM might not be as consistently capital-G Great as it used to be, but it can still deliver.
Best episodes: “Last Words,” “Tick, Tick, Tick,” “The Ducky Tie”
24. The Chicago Code: Sigh. The Chicago Code is the only series in this portion of the list that we won’t see new episodes from in 2012 and that is just sad. Shawn Ryan’s crack at a broadcast network version of his gritty police drama had a few issues along the way that made you wish it was just on FX or a similar network to begin with, but Code worked through the challenges and began to form a compelling, seedy world that had loads of potential for impressive cross-section-style storytelling about police work, politics, economics and more. As it stands, The Chicago Code ended up being a workmanlike, but quality 13-episode story that was resolved well. Delroy Lindo got a lot of the publicity for his work (and rightfully so), but Jennifer Beals, Jason Clarke and Matt Lauria were all great at the top of that cast.
Best episodes: “Mike Royko’s Revenge,” “Bathhouse & Hinky Dink,” “Wild Onions”
23. Sons of Anarchy: Yeah, the finale might have been one of the bigger narrative cop-outs in recent memory. And yeah, I definitely have lowered expectations about where the rest of the series goes because of it. But in the back of my mind, I more or less assumed Sons of Anarchy would avoid putting its foot on the gas completely this season (I wrote about this constantly in my reviews) and yet, I still enjoyed this run immensely. On a character level, I found much of the developments this year to be better than anything Sons has ever done. Season two had some powerful stuff in it, especially for Gemma, but season four brought us loads of intriguing complexities for Jax and Tara, both of which were topped off by fantastic performances from both Charlie Hunnam and Maggie Siff. Just as the great season three finale didn’t make the previous 12 episodes less of a disappointment, I can’t bring this whole season down just because the finale ended poorly and with approximately 1,218 minutes of musical montages.
Best episodes: “Hands,” “Fruit for the Crows,” “Family Recipe”
22. Raising Hope: Along with The Middle, a series I don’t watch often but enjoy when I do, Raising Hope is helping bring diverse class representations to the typically ultimate-middle class-ness of television. Hope had a rock-solid year, with a fine end to its first season and an even better start to its second. The Chance family continues to be treated with the right amount of respect, despite their obvious faults, flaws and economic circumstances. As I’ve said before, the best part about this FOX comedy is that the audience is never asked to laugh at the characters’ class or intelligence levels, we are almost always asked to laugh with them. This could be one of the more hateful comedies on television, but Greg Garcia, his writing team and the strong cast keep that from happening on a weekly basis. Finally, the series has nicely expanded the world around the Chance family, giving the handful of secondary and tertiary characters more shading and making them even funnier. The term underrated has no real meaning anymore, but Raising Hope should certainly be more popular and respected than it is.
Top episodes: “The Men of New Natesville,” “Henderson, Nevada-Adjacent, Baby!,” “Don’t Vote For This Episode”
21. Enlightened: One of the biggest surprises of the year for me. What a singular, challenging and oftentimes moving series. Laura Dern is expectedly fantastic, Luke Wilson is unexpectedly great and Mike White’s voice shines through nicely. Enlightened took some time to warm up to, but after a few episodes, I realized that the series was taking me on journey. I’m still not exactly sure where that journey leads and I suspect that a few stops along the way won’t be that satisfying, but the ultimate impact will still be substantial.
Top episodes: “Consider Helen,” “The Weekend,” “Lonely Ghosts”
20. Doctor Who: As I said in the best episodes list, I respond to Doctor Who a lot differently than most of the super-fans I’ve talked to (which might be a by-product of the fact I just caught up with the series this spring before season six began). I admire the gusto and risk-taking of Steven Moffat’s wide-ranging, complex mythology with the Doctor, River, etc., but I also think the episodes that dealt with those elements tended to be overly-complicated and borderline convoluted just because. On the flip side, I thought many of season six’s standalone episodes were very engaging, affective and important for the long-term development of the Eleventh Doctor and his relationship with companions. No matter which “version” of the series I prefer, I will say that I had a heck of time with my first year with the Doctor.
Best episodes: “The Doctor’s Wife,” “The God Complex,” “The Impossible Astronaut”
19. Misfits: Sure, the first two seasons originally aired before 2011 outside the United States. But thanks to the great deal Hulu cut this summer, I (and so many others, based on Twitter chatter) fell hard for Misfits first and second seasons this year. The British series remixes the superhero genre by keeping its focus directly on the characters and how new powers impact their already-screwed up lives. Misfits doesn’t shy away from showing us honest portrayals of what delinquent teenagers would absolutely do if they were randomly given insane abilities. These characters aren’t really heroes, which makes the moments where they actually do heroic things that more arresting. And the world has expanded at a methodical, smart rate.
Best episodes: “Season Two, Episode Four,” “Season Two, Episode Five,” “Season Two, Episode Six”
18. Southland: I know that police procedurals turn off a lot of critics, but I’m consistently shocked at how little attention is paid to TNT’s Southland. After being bounced from NBC and then dealing with an odd short order in its first run on TNT, the series was finally able to produce a full 10-episode season in 2011. With more episodes, Southland found a great balance between obvious procedural “police beat” stories and longer-form character arcs that paid off with great intensity and energy that isn’t seen on any broadcast drama about police. Southland fields the most underrated cast on television and Shawn Hatosy, Regina King and Michael Cudlitz and Ben McKenzie were all awesome in season three. It’s hyperbolic to call Southland a contemporary heir apparent to Hill Street Blues, but the two series are definitely cut from the same cloth.
Best episodes: “Code 4,” “Graduation,” “The Winds”
17. Awkward. : Under the middling guidance of Dawn Ostroff, The CW decided they didn’t want to do comedies, you know, because teen girls don’t like to laugh. Awkward. is the kind of comedy that proves The CW is probably better off with Ostroff not in charge anymore. The MTV high school comedy masterfully mixes immature and gross-out humor with a real sense of heart. The love triangle is an old device, but when done well, like it is on Awkward., it is hard to deny the narrative and emotional impact. The best stories about teenagers are simultaneously of their time and timeless and I think after one season, Awkward. is on the way to being in the discussion of said best stories.
Best episodes: “Fateful,” “Queen Bee-Atches,” “I Am Jenna Hamilton”
16. Fringe: I think you folks know that I’m disenfranchised with whatever the hell it is Fringe is trying to do in its fourth season. However, the series’ stumbles this fall do not negate a pretty strong end to a wonderful third season (borderline awful finale aside) and they certainly do not negate the very impressive work that all three lead cast members have done this year. John Noble is always tremendous and 2011 was no different. I talked about the ease at which Anna Torv handles all 17 roles she’s been asked to play a few days ago. And though he gets the least flashy material, Josh Jackson and Peter really hold Fringe together (which is partially why this season has been a bit flat). Plus, even when the series struggles like it has this fall, Fringe still knows how to construct powerful individual episodes that balance larger mythology and standalone stories better than anyone.
Best episodes: “Lysergic Acid Diethylamide,” “The Firefly,” “And Those We’ve Left Behind”
There you have it folks. Thoughts? And check back in tomorrow for 15-1!