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 conclude this list with the top 15 television series of the year. If you missed the first half of the list yesterday, check that out.
15. Archer: Sometimes, I’m an idiot. Not watching more than 20 minutes of Archer before November of this year? Definitely one of those times. Watching every episode in a short amount of time allowed me to see an obvious uptick in quality between seasons one and two. In season two, Archer stopped fully relying on its “spy parody/riff” fundamentals and branched out with stories feature surprisingly effective character beats. But don’t get me wrong, the spy riffing stuff is still really great as well. The absurd, filthy humor never dives into cheap immaturity either, which is something I greatly appreciate.
Best episodes: “Heart of Archness,” “Stage Two,” “The Double Deuce”
14. Cougar Town: Thanks to ABC’s glut of new programming and general lack of confidence in the series’ ability to hold an audience, it feels like we haven’t seen Cougar Town in ages, and well, we really haven’t. This is disappointing on countless levels, but perhaps no more so because the series had a wonderful close to its second season. The season was so well constructed that the last half-dozen episodes brought a deeper sense of character complexity and emotion. The tension between Jules and Travis simmered all season and then built to a handful of truly moving moments that took their relationship from “fairly creepy HAHA territory” to something more engaging and relatable. Can we have Cougar Town back now, ABC?
Best episodes: “Lonesome Sundown,” “Free Fallin’,” “Walls”
13. Parenthood: The series is always good, but NBC’s Parenthood works best at the ends of seasons, where the bunch of vaguely-connected stories with the countless Braverman clan suddenly smash together and have reverberations throughout the family. The string of episodes that aired this past spring are the most reflective of this kind of storytelling, wherein Crosby’s insecurities with Jasmine caused him to do some very stupid things that coalesced at the exact wrong time for not only him, but also Adam’s family as well. It’s not that Parenthood typically has no stakes, but the series does an excellent job of sort of lulling the audience into this false sense of rhythm and security where it seems like everything is going to be mostly OK and then, you know, it’s not (at least for a while) and those moments are always the most stirring and get the most out of the great cast.
Best episodes: “Do Not Sleep With Your Autistic Nephew’s Therapist,” “Amazing Andy and His Wonderful World of Bugs,” “Nora”
12. Happy Endings: I wrote this earlier in the fall, but Happy Endings feels like the first real follow-up to Friends we’ve had. It took a little while for the writers and actors to figure out what kind of comedic voice the series was going to have, but once they did, Endings never looked back. This is a group of people who talk like my friends (albeit just a little bit faster) and in a lot of cases, act like them as well. Adam Pally and Daman Wayans Jr. are the stand-out performers here, but everyone on the cast has grown into their roles quite well and the overall group chemistry is superb.
Best episodes: “Spooky Endings,” “The Code War,” “Secrets and Limos”
11. Boardwalk Empire: There are still some obvious problems with Boardwalk Empire. It tends to lose sight of its too-large cast, leading to a weird, sometimes even jarring flow between episodes. And occasionally, it feels like the series is presenting all the signifiers of a great television series without actually providing much of the heft or depth it needs to back up all the lavish appearance. However, the journey that Jimmy Darmody took in season two was one of the most satisfying character arcs on all of television this year. Moreover, those last handful of episodes, most of which focused on Jimmy, were just fantastic. Boardwalk took arguably the biggest risk of the year and while it is unclear if it will work out well in 2012, we have to take note of Terrence Winter’s stones now.
Best episodes: “To The Lost,” “Under God’s Power, She Flourishes,” “Gimcrack and Bunkum”
10. Game of Thrones: At this point, I’ve talked so much about Game of Thrones and my winding relationship with it, I don’t want to belabor the point again. Therefore, I will just say that Thrones is a splendid example of first season world-building and a similarly fine exemplar of making the fantasy genre easily consumable and understandable for those who might not be predisposed to love it. There are few series I am looking forward to more in 2012 than this one.
Best episodes: “Baelor,” “The Pointy End,” “A Golden Crown”
9. The Good Wife: The third season has had its fair share of issues, but The Good Wife remains one of the most ambitious and well-produced series on television. It is reflective of the great things a broadcast network series can still do in an era of cable dominance. Michelle and Robert King know how to build long story arcs that have fantastic resolutions (see the last handful of episodes of season two) and yet, they also have no trouble crafting entertaining close-ended procedural stories that keep the legal proceedings fresh (ripping oddly humorous things from the real headlines certainly helps in that regard). Though the series’ world keeps expanding and more compelling people keep coming into the picture, The Good Wife knows how to stay with Alicia (and Cary, Will and Kalinda, to a lesser extent).
Best episodes: “Ham Sandwich,” “Closing Arguments,” “What Went Wrong”
8. The Vampire Diaries: Six months ago, I assume TVD’s placement on this would result in some legitimate scoffing from my fellow Twitter critic folk, but now it seems like everyone and their mother is doing the smart thing and catching up on one of the best series on television. I’ve discussed it constantly, but The Vampire Diaries’ ability to develop at least two WTF twists an episode and more importantly, make those twists matter and seem logical (well, logical in the series’ world) is unparalleled. Cliffhangers are purposeful on this series. Moreover, I think the third season has been slightly more interested in characters and their psychology, and although I would never say that Vampire Diaries does those things better than everyone else as well, the character work is still very good. The series has a large sense of history and never lets characters forget the horrible things that have happened to them; that kind of culmination-style storytelling works well.
Best episodes: “The Sun Also Rises,” “The Birthday,” “The Dinner Party”
7. Homeland: 2011 had a number of great new series, but Showtime’s Homeland was most certainly the best of them all. The series smartly subverted our expectations on a consistent basis and never once allowed big plot machinations overtake the quieter, more complicated character stories. This is a story about big, buzzy topics like terrorism, domestic security, religion and politics and featured a few shootings and explosions, but the most powerful moments and episodes where powered by intense conversations and human interactions. Above all else, Homeland is a story about the real impact contemporary war times have on individuals, whether those people are stuck in the middle or somewhere on the periphery.
Best episodes: “The Weekend,” “Marine One,” “The Vest”
6. Friday Night Lights: When Lost ended, I assumed the hole it left in my heart wouldn’t be filled. But as 2011 progressed, I found myself surprisingly OK with its conclusion and its departure from my life. Friday Night Lights has been over (the first time) for something like 10 months. I’m still not over it. I watched the final season four times this year (DirecTV by myself, NBC with my parents, DVD with the girlfriend and another for good measure) and just thinking about those final episodes swells my heart on cue. For as great as something like Lost is, there’s just no way to totally quantify how deeply connected we can feel to certain characters, worlds and stories and that’s where Friday Night Lights is for me. More to the point, the final season of FNL nicely and unsurprisingly balanced new character stories and familiar character stories and managed to bring everyone who mattered to a fine concluding point. The Lions’ journey to state was the most fulfilling in the series’ run and by the end of it, Vince, Luke and Tinker felt just as fully-formed and important to me as Matt, Riggins and Street. And finally, Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton. I don’t need to say anything else. You know.
Best episodes: “Always,” “Don’t Go,” “Texas Whatever”
5. Louie: I said this on the best series of the year podcast last week, but I think the mass and somewhat hyperbolic reactions to the second season of Louie got to me by the end of it. If I had to read another over-the-top tweet featuring the word auteur, I might have decided to start listening to Dane Cook again. But my own hang-ups aside, there is absolutely no question that Louie’s second season was a creative feat of a singular voice with full control of the kind of stories he wanted to tell (so, you know, an auteur; I’m a fraud). Freed from the general pressure that comes with a first season, it seems like Louis C.K. let his storytelling mind loose and the series was the better for it. Louie wasn’t obviously LOL funny too many times this season, but the series is much more than that now. C.K. is a tremendous storyteller, no matter what kind of emotions or reactions he’s trying to lock into with his work.
Best episodes: “Duckling,” “Come On God,” “Oh Louie/Tickets”
4. Justified: I’m rewatching the first season of Justified right now as my girlfriend catches up and I’ve realized that even though I really loved it the first time around, season one basically pales in comparison to the fantastic second season. Justified season two did everything you want a second season of a great drama to do: It expanded the world while simultaneously making it feel like that new corner of the world had been there the entire time; It introduced a slew of new characters that fit seamlessly into said world; and perhaps most importantly and simply, it figured out what kind of series it wanted to be and used the new sections of the world and character additions to further evoke important themes. Justified has a great sense of place and in season two, it deepened that sense while further hammering home how toxic said place can be to Raylan and those around him. The phrase “You can never go home again” exists for a reason.
Best episodes: “Brother’s Keeper,” “Bloody Harlan,” “The Spoil”
3. Community: I’ll bring up a fantastic run for a certain other NBC comedy momentarily, but that string of greatness doesn’t take away from the slew of awesome episodes Community turned in during the second half of its second season this spring. For a while there, it seemed like the series was trying excessively difficult and insane things on a weekly basis and making it look pretty damn easy. Season three is a bit of a different animal because Dan Harmon and the writing staff are so clearly playing the long-game, making it challenging to make much of a judgment on the impact of certain threads or beats. However, it’s not like there have been any middling episodes this fall either. Even when Community stumbles just a bit, it’s almost entirely because the series is trying something few other television series would never even dream of attempting. The risks don’t always pay off completely, but I cannot fault the ambition, the innovation and the undervalued heart of Community.
Best episodes: “Remedial Chaos Theory,” “Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking,” “The Paradigms of Human Memory”
2. Parks and Recreation: The eternal battle between Parks and Recreation and Community wages on, I guess. Community topped Parks on my end-of-year list in 2010 and they tied for my favorite series of the 2010-2011 season, so I guess it’s only fair that Parks and Recreation gets a little solo time in the spotlight. And to be fair, the series completely earned it in 2011. All 16 season three episodes were fantastic and there’s probably only one or two season four episodes that aired this fall that I didn’t full-on love. 24/26 legitimately great episodes for one calendar year is one heck of a run. The additions of Adam Scott and Rob Lowe brought even more heart and pathos to a comedy that already had a lot of it. Parks and Recreation is a very funny series first and foremost, but what made its 2011 so lovely is the emotional depth it explored. From obviously romantic relationships like April and Andy and Leslie and Ben to friendships like Ron and Leslie to the smallest random scenes at the office, the care and kindness permeating throughout Pawnee is really something to marvel at.
Best episodes: “Fancy Party,” “Flu Season,” “Smallest Park”
1. Breaking Bad: Vince Gilligan’s masterful drama series has now reached a point where throughout the year, I started to convince myself that there were other contenders for the “best series of the year” crown. At some point during 2011, I thought maybe any of the other series in the top five had a chance. Then Breaking Bad aired its fourth season and I remembered, “Oh yeah, holy hell this is an unbelievably great series.” Season three of Bad is probably my favorite season of a contemporary drama, but 2011’s season four might be even better. It was certainly more challenging, a bit more introspective and character-focused and full of resolutions that were worth the hilarious amount of waiting Gilligan and company made us do throughout the season. Giancarlo Esposito helped guide Gus Fring to the pantheon of great television antagonists and Bryan Cranston somehow made Walter White even more villainous while also regaining a modicum of sympathy. What a series.
Best episodes: “Face Off,” “Hermanos,” “Crawl Space”