Monday, January 9, 2012

Ten Best TV Shows of 2011

TV: DG Editor Tony Nunes continues a look back at 2011's best, with the top 10 TV shows of the year

By now it's no surprise that in order to find the best television, audiences generally have to look beyond the big networks.  Cable networks like AMC and FX, along with subscription based cable networks like HBO and Showtime are dominating the creative markets by taking risks the big networks otherwise shy away from.  Bold and original programming pushes the limits and relies less on generic forms of storytelling.  It's becoming ever more difficult to find captivating and challenging entertainment nowadays, but in many ways TV is quickly becoming one of the greatest sources for intelligent writing.  That's not to say that there isn't more garbage on TV than quality, but still, there's no doubt that the trend of originality is spreading across the networks. 

Looking back at 2011's Best TV, its immediately clear that good television succeeds only as much as its characters.  TV is a character driven medium, and the emotional impacts of the best shows of the past year all derive from the growth, vulnerability and downfalls of some of the strongest characters to grace the airwaves in almost a decade.  From drug kingpins to bipolar spies and kingly little people, here are my picks for the top ten shows of 2011.   

10)  An Idiot Abroad - The only reality based series on the list, "An Idiot Abroad" is the brainchild of comedians Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant.  This is the travel show to end all travel shows.  Gervais and Merchant send their oddly particular, bald-headed buffoon of a sidekick, Karl Pilkigton (known best from HBO's Ricky Gervais Show) across the globe in search of great travel wisdom and worldly insights.  What they get is a hilarious travelogue from a character who just doesn't give a damn.  Pilkington is naturally amusing, albeit ironically, and  his view of the worlds greatest wonders is a wonder all itself.  Poignantly blunt, "An Idiot Abroad" is the perfect representation of our increasingly underwhelmed culture.

9)  Fringe - The fourth season is still in progress, but the third season, which ended in May was a tense buildup to the event that saw Peter Bishop latching himself into the ominously named "Doomsday Device."  In a flash, the two separate universes were joined into a meeting space that in essence opened up an entire third universe where Peter no longer exists.  I was at first a bit weary of the writers decision to open up the third universe, a move that could have been a confusing leap of the shark.  But the "Fringe" writers have proved yet again that they are the best Sci-Fi scriptwriters currently working on TV.  With Peter, the catalyst for universal calamity out of sight, his father Walter has fallen back into a manic state of instability.  On "Fringe," the science fiction is epic, but the human conflict at the shows core is where the series really stands out.

8)  Boardwalk Empire - At the start of season two I had a hard time reconnecting to Nucky Thompson and the merry band of misfits and religious ne'er-do-well’s who rule Atlantic City with back-stabbing hypocrisy.  Following an incredible pilot season of twists it seemed to me that Boardwalk Empire's sophomore season may run out of boardwalk.  It took a couple of episodes for that feeling to pass, and by mid-season I was back in the “can‘t wait until next weeks episode“ frame of mind week to week thereon.  The killing off of Jimmy Darmody, the lead protagonist played by Michael Pitt was the second-most unpredictable TV moment of the year (the first from another HBO show I'll get to).  The action and pacing leading up to the finale was full of violent jerks only a Terence Winter show can deliver.  Amist the violence and action however, the tragically sad scenes featuring facially deformed Richard Harrow (Jack Huston) were some of the shows best yet.  

7)  American Horror Story - Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuck, who brought us "Glee" and "Nip/Tuck" delivered one of the years best new shows with "American Horror Story."  Surprisingly violent and endlessly creepy, AHS is the darkest horror series to come around in recent memory and the surprise hit of 2011.  The show is basically a haunted house story based at the mother of all haunted houses, an LA home of death featuring a slew of murderous (and dead) tenants, deformed freaks, and innocent victims.  The Harmon family, the dysfunctional new tenants stir the house up until the inevitable moment when they too are taken by the evil forces within.  The creators recently announced that next season will focus on a new house and cast, a move that has me worried about the shows future.  AHS would have fared even higher on my list if not for its predictable finale.  We'll see if the show can maintain its charms, or if it's doomed to become over-dramatic fluff like its creators two other popular shows.

6)  Louie - The sophomore season of FX's "Louie" proved without a doubt that this is the smartest comedy series on television.  Louis C.K. writes, directs and stars in this simply produced and fictional series about a standup-comedian who juggles his career with raising his two young daughters in New York City.  Sounds like a generic story, but the way "Louie" is written and presented elevates it way above the laugh-track yuk-fests on network TV.  Episodes are strung together as extended vignettes, moments written from C.K.'s own experiences as a working comedian.  Guest stars this season including Dane Cook, Bob Saget and Doug Stanhope are there as fictionalized embodiments of their comedian selves.  The scaled back production of the show is what makes it shine, injecting intelligence into characters and material without forcing it down our throats.  The episode "Duckling," featuring Louie on a USO tour in Afghanistan stands as the smartest comment on the absurdity of war I've seen since the war began.  

5)  Community - The "Community" guarantee is that hilarity will ensue.  Episode to episode, week to week Dan Harmon's NBC sitcom is the freshest, most pop-culture savvy half-hour on TV.  Where Louie is smart and scaled back, "Community" is consistently over-the-top and unapologetic.  For its type of comedy and demographic, this tone fits the series like a glove.  Look no further than this seasons absolutely ingenious episode "Remedial Chaos Theory," a testament to solid and intelligently layered comedy writing.  At a housewarming party for Troy and Abed, the Greendale crew play a game of Yahtzee that has universal implications.  With each spin of the dice, the group spins into an alternate timeline where things go hilariously awry.  The brilliance of the writing creates a comedic play on the Rashomon effect, a sort of comedic Run Lola Run.  I hope NBC sees fit to hold onto this series amidst rumors of a time slot shakeup, a usual kiss of death.  

4)  Justified - Part procedural, part backwoods drama, "Justified" is perhaps FX's most approachable series, and surely the strongest among its stellar lineup.  This Kentucky based drama created by Graham Yost, is a compelling look into holler politics in and around Harlan, a coal mining town full of richly back-country criminals and gun-toting red-staters.  As great as the shows lead characters, Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) and Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) are, season 2 provided the series' greatest character to date.  It was Margo Martindale's portrayal of Mags Bennett, a ruthless businesswoman who falsely sells herself as a woman of the people, that propelled this show to the (near) top of my list.  Her steadfast and intricate portrayal gave an emotional edge to the show that led to a love/hate enjoyment of watching Mags in every scene she appeared.  Martindale deservedly won the Emmy for her role, and unfortunately won't return in the upcoming season 3, as Mags died by her own hand at the end of season 2.     

3)  Homeland - Showtime really set the bar high with their newest hour long drama "Homeland."  No show other than my number one pick had me emotionally pacing in anticipation of each week's new episode.  The deep cavern this show was built upon provided a remarkable plunge week after week into a rabbit hole of political intrigue and heightened levels of paranoia unlike I've ever seen on a TV series.  I loved "24" and miss it greatly, but "Homeland" takes what "24" was, a counter-terrorism action/drama, and flips it into an intelligently layered meditation of heightened complexity.  I won't go into the plot details of the show, as I urge anyone who missed it to stop reading (after this article) and seek it out immediately.  Claire Danes performance as bipolar CIA agent Carrie Mathison is not only the best performance by an actress on TV this year, but the best by an actress in any medium this year, period.

2)  Game of Thrones - Best new show on TV.  "Game of Thrones" season one followed the first book of George R.R. Martin's epic fantasy novel series A Song of Ice and Fire.  Never before has a television series been so epic in scale, a weekly production of LOTR caliber backed by an amazing story, complexly rich characters, and a setting filled to the brim with stunning visual effects.  As stunning as the fantasy may be, "Game of Thrones" is a character drama first and foremost.  Each of the members of feuding royal families and the numerous characters who surround them are written and acted with great purpose and an even greater sense of what it means to live in the hostile world of Westeros.  Like I said with "Homeland," I won't spoil anything about "Game of Thrones" as I urge anyone, fantasy fan or not to rush out and rent the DVD's.  The first season came with the most shocking scene in all of TV all year long, and the series ended on another shocking and beautiful image that has stuck with me since seeing it last Spring.  Keep an eye out among this amazing cast for Peter Dinklage's portrayal of Tyrion Lannister, the standout character of the series thus far.  Season 2 starts in April.  I can't wait!

1)  Breaking Bad - If you're not watching "Breaking Bad" on AMC, something might seriously be wrong with you.  By now you must have at least heard of TV's best show, the squirm-worthy downward spiral of Walter White, the cancer patient turned Meth cooker.  The fourth season just ended, and yet again tops my list of Best TV for the emotional wallop that it delivers with each minute of each episode.  Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul are the forces to be reckoned with when it comes to strong TV acting.  Better make that strong acting period.  These guys deliver on every emotional decision they are forced to make as their lives crash further and further down the rabbit holes of their own creation.  Equally stunning was Giancarlo Esposito's cold and calculated role as Gus Fring, the drug kingpin who initiated a year long terrorizing of Walter that led to the most nerve-wracking season of television I may have ever seen.  What's more is Walter's final landing at seasons end at the bottom of the hole he's created.  Walter started out a good man choosing to do bad to save his family from misfortune.  Now, he's so far-gone into darkness that Walter has become a bad man through and through.  Without the contradiction, I look forward to seeing where the fifth and final season will take him later this year.

Honorable Mention - Warm and clever laughs on ABC's Modern Family, Western antiheroes on AMC's Hell on Wheels, slow-burning mystery in AMC's The Killing, silly and crude comedy on Fox's Bob's Burgers, smart satire on The Colbert Report, blood and sex on Spartacus: Gods of the Arena on Starz and great music on HBO's underrated Treme.


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