The Top 10 Shows of 2011

I have a love/hate relationship with Top 10 lists, as I’m sure many of you do as well. But until we all collectively decide to stop writing/reading them, I suppose I can throw in my own list to the massive mix already in place.  Last year, I did a massive three-part series for my Top 10 of 2010, eventually crowning “Terriers” as my Number 1 choice for that year. This time around? I’m all about efficiency. One entry to rule them all, so to speak.

I take my choices seriously, in that I could argue until I’m blue in the face why I put certain shows ahead of another. And I definitely provide some context for my choices below. But let’s all admit up front this is a fundamentally bullshit exercise, and that ranking things such as television shows is an inexact science, and that me ranking a show in a certain place isn’t an insult to you, your mother, or anyone else in your family. (Well, except you. And your mom. Because, COME ON, right?)

Without further ado…

Incomplete Grades

Downton Abbey
Enlightened
The Good Wife
Men of a Certain Age

Either I missed out entirely, or didn’t sample enough to make an accurate judgement, here are four shows that have been on many year-end lists, are on my “To Catch Up On” queue, and warranted mention for their absence elsewhere.

The Near Misses

The Chicago Code

I’m not one for procedurals in general. And while there was an overarching season/series-long plot about bringing down a corrupt Alderman, the history of Chicago itself provided a compelling continuity all its own. Having each case tie back to a seminal point in the city’s seedy history gave the show anthropological heft.

Spartacus: Gods of the Arena

Better than it had any right to be, and for half its run, equaled Blood and Sand in terms of pulpy drama, deep character work, and relentless atmosphere. But its prequel nature confined the story in certain places, even while opening things up for the upcoming series Vengeance.

game-of-thrones-episode-7-preview.jpgGame of Thrones

I know. Stone me now. Episodes Seven Through Nine alone warranted its place on my Near Misses. The first six episodes were awfully difficult to wade through, not in terms of understanding the world but simply in being interested to understand in the first place. As for the 10th episode, it played less like a season finale than the first episode of Season 2. I will definitely keep watching: Arya Stark, Jon Snow, and Tyrion Lannister are compelling, complex characters in a show that doesn’t match their depth as much as it should or could. A more balanced second season might vault this into the Top 10 next year.

Doctor Who

I’ve written a lot about this series since Stephen Moffat took over as showrunner. While Series 5 made my Top 10 list last year, Series 6 didn’t have the balance, wit, and emotional currents of the first Doctor/Amy/Rory iteration. Causing the imbalance? The show’s fascination/obsession with River Song, around whom everything this year pivoted. This emphasis strangely sidelines Amy and Rory at a point in which it should have thrust them into the limelight. Let’s hope the upcoming season (which will be the last for the pair) gives them more solid ground upon which to play.

Community

I admire the hell out of this show’s ambition. But it’s a show I rarely connect with on an emotional level. Donald Glover will be the biggest star on TV in five years, if he hasn’t actually conquered movies by then. I watch Community for Troy at this point. But no one else in the study group grabs me as a person for whom I root to succeed, and that’s a problem. For many, this is the alpha and omega of TV. That’s awesome. But I’m on the outside looking in on this one, just as the show is on the outside looking in on my Top 10.

Awkward.

What a total surprise, and total delight, this show was for me this past summer. It took all the tropes of high school comedies and managed to make them feel fresh, specific, and yet universal at the same time. While I couldn’t relate to Jenna’s unique situation, I could relate to her feelings of isolations all too well. Here’s a show that treat all its characters with respect, and by extension, treats the audience with respect as well.

The Top Ten

soa-6.jpg10:  Sons of Anarchy

Yes, this show botched its finale something fierce. And yes, this is probably the last year this show will make my Top 10, if Kurt Sutter insists on not fundamentally changing the stakes of his show when the opportunities present themselves. But the season as a whole leading up to the finale was solid, with SAMCRO losing their way and while getting in way over their heads. Charlie Hunnam and Maggie Siff led one of the best ensembles on TV this season, making Jax and Tara into a couple trying to forge their own path even as every force in the universe (both onscreen and off) seemingly conspire to keep them along a fixed path.

9: Fringe

Yes, I’ve pretty much hated Season 4. But “Fringe” is here based on everything in 2010 leading up to the Season 3 finale, which is a testament to HOW GOOD this show was before Peter stepped into the Doomsday Device. Before that, this was probably my second favorite show on television. And I pray that in 2012, the show finds its way before FOX pulls the plug for good. These characters are too rich for them to continue to languish under this misguided new world order in which “Fringe” is currently operating.

8: Cougar Town

Forgot about this one, didn’t you? Blame ABC, which held it off its Fall schedule and seems determined to make its fans drink as much as the Cul De Sac crew does on a weekly basis. The chemistry between its major players is outstanding, and the show balances humor and pathos in a way that Bill Lawrence does best. This show passes my “DVR Test” with flying colors: if for some reason I’m not home when a new episode airs, it’s the first thing I watch on my DVR, without fail. Get beyond Penny Can and Big Carl, and you have a comedy like no other on TV right now.

7: Homeland

Here’s a show that really could have gone off the rails at any point, and yet almost always skirted danger only to land in a field of awesome. Claire Danes rightly gets praise for her work in this, but it’s Damien Lewis’ haunted, hypnotic presence that really sells the drama here. Both characters embody the nation’s split psyche post-9/11: while some lost their minds, others retreated far within theirs. Both are horribly damaged. Both seek to carve out a place in an America they no longer recognize. And both are two of the best characters on American television this year.

eric-and-tami.jpg6: Friday Night Lights

Clear eyes, full hearts, empty Kleenex boxes. Enough said. I mainlined this series in four months, which is a lot of “y’all”s, cheers, and tears. A gorgeously rendered drama that is human-scaled but as big as Texas itself, “FNL” is one of those special shows that will serve in 20-30 years time as one of the seminal shows people will need to watch to understand the best of television in the early part of the 21st-century.

5: Archer

So gloriously, gloriously wrong. Creator Adam Reed could have simply produced another season of disconnected episodes, but instead decided to have more continuity and stakes than most flesh-and-blood dramas. Archer didn’t simply find out he was a father only to forget about it the next week: the wee baby Seamus stuck around, another part of the increasingly dense narrative tapestry of what could easily be a puerile, slapstick, foul-mouthed spy parody. Season 3 starts in just a few weeks, and there are fewer shows I am more excited to see return to the small screen.

4: Breaking Bad

I’m tardy to the crystal meth party. Sorry. Along with “Friday Night Lights,” this was my big catch-up project this year. Appropriately, I mainlined Seasons 2+3 in about a week before the premiere of Season 4. That’s probably too much of a good thing, as I was exhausted by the time Gus Fring broke out that box cutter in this summer’s season premiere. The show started in typically slow fashion, but built up an impressive head of steam over the last 2/3rds. What’s so amazing about “Breaking Bad” is how it lets the characters dictate the story, logically following their decisions while organically building story from the inside out. Consequently, everything felt both surprising but inevitable as it played out onscreen.

3: Louie

Pete Townshend once marveled in an interview that fellow Who member John Entwistle was a genius because he recognized that he had the power to change his own instrument. Just like Entwistle took the bass and transformed it into a ferocious rhythmic and melodic sledgehammer, so too did comedian Louis C.K. take the 30-minute television format and continually push its boundaries. Wheras some shows follow a character along a convoluted but ultimate linear path, “Louie” takes its central character from the same fixed point each week and then moves him along a specific degree on a narrative compass. As such, each week feels like an experiment in pure curiosity, allowing the creator/writer/editor/probable catering dude to explore the would around him in a way that’s often dark, but never cynical. The world of “Louie” reflects the ethos that drives its existence: it’s a show that warmly embraces the possibility of surprise, and as such constantly surprises its audience.

parks-and-recreation-mobile-wallpaper.jpg2: Parks and Recreation

Note how I didn’t call “Louie” a comedy? I won’t call “Parks and Recreation” that either. Sure, both make me laugh more than anything else on television. But calling them “comedies” is reductive in a way that does both shows a disservice. “Parks” does my favorite thing in television, something it shares with my #1 pick: it creates a fully three-dimensional place that exists in the overlap between reality and myth. Pawnee is filled with larger-than-life characters living in a town that wouldn’t be out of place in a John Cougar Mellencamp song. Like “Louie,” “Parks” is a ballsy show because it dares to promote optimism as a viable viewpoint for sane people to possess. It’s so easy these days to default to a position of despair at worst, snark at best. But Leslie Knope is such a force for positivity that she ends up inspiring those around her to shake off their stupor and follow her lead. It’s an almost subversive position to endorse these days, and that’s why it’s more important than ever that “Parks” continue to do so. Yes, this show is fall-down funny. But it’s not simply a comedy. It’s an examination of our best selves.

1: Justified

“Justified” did something almost as daring as “Parks” this year: it set out to be the most relentlessly entertaining show on television without losing its seedy underbelly in the process. And lo, sure enough, it did, unearthing decades of family drama in a part of the United States that feels steeped in our nation’s past. The way in which Harlan is stubbornly resistant to the 21st-century doesn’t make it an outlier in this country. Instead, it’s the default position for large swaths of the country that television rarely decides to explore. In some ways, the Givens/Crowder/Bennett fued might as well take place in the 19th century, not this one. That’s a testament to the anthropological aspects of this show, but also the way in which generational sins can keep younger generations from ever truly forging their own paths. “Justified” did all this, but also managed to have three of the best small-screen performances all year (Timothy Olyphant, Walton Goggins, Margo Martindale) and a roster of secondary characters that supported them throughout the show’s masterful second season. The lived-in feel of the show gave the proceedings a false sense of security, one punctured sometimes by a howlingly funny quip and other times by a shotgun blast to the chest. Other shows this season may have had higher ambition, but none succeeded in its goals more than this one. “Justified” cut to the bone, bled us dry, and had us constantly begging for more.

3 Comments

  1. Monica242
    Posted December 17, 2011 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    Finally! Someone not only put Justified on their Top 10 list, but put it where it rightfully belongs. Kudos to you, Mr. McGee. Justified is the only show I’ve ever watched that forces me to pause it mid-viewing just so I can catch my breath and/or fully process the poetry of any given line of dialogue.

  2. David
    Posted December 17, 2011 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    Justified is not what make this list unique, most have it in their top 7. Cougar Town makes it unique. I wouldn’t say it’s as good as Community, Parks, 30 Rock, Always Sunny, or Modern Family, but I do like and did forget about it. I wish they would pair it up with something compatible and stick it in the 8:00 Tuesday time slot. I haven’t had a show to watch there in ages.

  3. OldDarth
    Posted December 19, 2011 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    Intriguing list. Thanks for sharing.

    I really need to check out Archer.

    GOT is a solid series. Agree with your assessment that it took about half a season to gain narrative traction. Was to be expected considering how large the canvas is that the story takes place in. The show should hit the ground running next season. What appears to be the big nut to crack going forward is how to handle the ever increasing scope of the series both from a narrative and budgeting perspective.

    You are more forgiving about SOA than I. Agree it makes the top ten list for 2011. And for the last time. After that finale, I no longer have interest in watching the show play a dramatic shell game. No value in seeing the show move the story and characters around in various combinations without delivering true consequences.

    Justified is a lot of fun. The under utilization of the regular cast is the main sticking point for me. Also there is a smallness to world that this show exists in that some will say is its strong suit. I feel the opposite. One of the show that gets over-praised IMO.

    Ah Fringe. Little to say as we have both made our positions clear in your weekly reviews. Pleasantly surprised to see it in your list. One of the few network shows taking narrative risks and sticking to their guns. Love that.

    Love Louie too - though it feels like another show that is over-praised to me.

    Alphas deserves mention as a show worth watching too.

    Bottom line - the list of favorite shows for 2011 that each of us will compose have strong quotas of quality. A good barometer for the overall excellence that TV can provide viewers.

    2012, you got your work cut out for you!

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  1. […] that usually goes down in Harlan, but it’s a crime all the same. After all, I put this show atop my “Best of 2010” list, and it’s a choice I stand by: no show was more purely entertaining while simultaneously […]