Primetime 8: Favorite Television Shows of 2011

In 2011, Television once again proved why it’s the definitive medium for long-form epic storytelling as premium cable channels continued their reign over both  network television AND film. A few new shows became huge critical darlings (and rightfully so) while some recent favorites continue to build on their initial success. And of all my lists for 2011, television was by far the hardest to whittle down to eight.

(Of note, I’m actually still getting caught up in the worlds of Breaking Bad and Sons of Anarchy and were not able to view their 2011 efforts live so don’t view their absences on this list as an indictment of their quality. I fully expect to be caught up on both by this time next year.)

1. Homeland

In a strong year for television, a debut series about terrorism on the home front was the most intelligent, compelling hour of drama. Bolstered by outstanding acting performances by Claire Danes, Damian Lewis and Mandy Patinkin, Homeland was possibly one of the best-reviewed series on television this year and was well worth the buzz. Oftentimes I would describe the show to non-viewers as “24, but not preposterous.” It was the best way to describe the suspenseful, twisting, terrorism-themed show while emphasizing that it’s a very concentrated, serious story. (Without all of 24’s layered insanity.) And where most television shows would’ve gone down the heroic path, Homeland turned heroism on its head and explored the gray area between good and bad to utmost perfection.

2. Game of Thrones

Having not ready the Song of Fire and Ice series, I went into Game of Thrones with few expectations and little knowledge of its dense storylines. I also didn’t realize I was actively rooting for a character that would meet an untimely end in what was easily the most shocking plot twist in a year full of shockers. While less on the type of epic action one expects from the genre, Game of Thrones excelled in its characters’ political machinations and interpersonal dramas, thanks in large part to no-nonsense storytelling and wise casting decisions. HBO once again proves that the best place for novel adaptations is Cable television.

3. Boardwalk Empire

After a fantastic debut season, Boardwalk Empire’s sophomore effort upped the ante and shifted its characters around the chess board in great strides. Friends became enemies, enemies became friends, and ultimately almost every main character progressed significantly from Season 1. For this reason, I’ve felt the show displays more ambition than The Sopranos, which typically threatened the status quo only to shift things nicely back to where they were. Steve Buscemi’s Nuchy Thompson saw his closes allies become enemies this season and it emboldened him to become a much more malevolent person than perceived to be in season 1. Though I think a dramatic twist in Game of Thrones was a little more surprising, Boardwalk Empire also had its own shock development, which came as an amazing exclamation point to a season of the risks, rewards and dire ramifications in this empire of crime.

4. Justified

Justified‘s second season found a way to maintain threads from Season 1 while bringing its characters into thrilling new developments and quandaries. The modern day western also introduced a whole family of villains, the Bennetts, ranging from the twitchy Dickie to the downhome duplicitous matriarch Mags, by Emmy-winning Margo Martindale. Timothy Olyphant (Raylan) continued to lead a great cast, with Walton Goggings returning as a veritable anti-hero Boyd Crowder.

5. Community

For me there is no funnier television show than Community. It tackles a multitude of concepts and clever story elements but almost always retains its intelligent, multi-layered wit while continually mastering the art of meta-comedy. One brilliant example was the Glee-parodying Christmas episode where the group slowly succumbs to the recruitment by the glee club instructor to fill in for the Christmas pageant. The show was brilliant on a musical level while also satirizing Glee, among dozens of other pop culture memes. The seven alternate timelines of “Remedial Chaos Theory” created a reverse meta-comedic situation when fans theorized that the forced hiatus of Community was itself proof that the dark timeline was the prime.

6. Modern Family

Modern Family continued strongly in 2011, wrapping up its second season and moving full strength into its third. The ensemble continued to improve, particularly with the four younger actors, and the whole cast works together so seamlessly that it’s not hard to believe they really like working with each other. While some balk at the overt heart-warming theme that wraps up every episode, it’s typically a nice hopeful conclusion to a half hour of both clever and zany comedy.

7. Parks and Recreation

Parks and Recreation is the unlikely sitcom that continues to grow stronger as it gets older (now into its 4th season) and certainly doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. The show had a hefty 2011 output since it was held back to debut in January and debuted in the Fall proper, totaling 26 episodes for the calendar year. The show continued to find comedy (and legitimate intrigue) in small-town politics of Pawnee with memorable storylines like the Harvest Festival and Leslie Knope’s decision to run for City Council. Along the way, the show managed to continue its clever spin on the various inter-office relationships (romantic or otherwise) of the Pawnee Parks and Recreation department. From the slapstick of Chris Pratt’s fantastic Andy Dwyer to the weird deadpan of Ron Fucking Swanson (expertly played by Nick Offerman), the show runs on all comedic cylinders.

8. The Sing-Off 

I downright loathe televised singing competitions and most reality programs. But The Sing-Off disregards all the schlock and image-consciousness, as well as poseur judges, while truly honoring the best a cappella talents. I hesitated adding this to the list but I realized that the true mark of a show is how much it captivates you during its time on the air and for its run in the Fall, it was a show that had my attention from beginning to end. The competition was better than ever this year, with a larger field of competitors and more clever and diverse arrangements. (Some so good that they ranked high in my musical performances of 2011.) Ben Folds and Shawn Stockman returned to judge, this time joined by Sara Bareilles, a breath of fresh air compared to Abdul-lite Nicole Scherzinger. All make for the most entertaining and enabling panel of judges of all the singing competitions. Sadly, they—and their show—doesn’t get the same press as crud like X-Factor and American Idol.

Outside Looking In:

Fringe ended its third season strongly but has limped weakly since the beginning of Season 4 with a surprisingly dull version of both universes in a Peter-less timeline. I can’t decide if it’s unfair that John Noble hasn’t been nominated for an Emmy as Best Actor in a Comedy OR a Drama.

The Walking Dead had little exposure in 2011 and I enjoyed what I did see, despite the complaints of its slow pace. I just don’t think we’ll know whether that pace was justified or not until we see the payoff at the end of Season 2 (which starts up again in February).

The Ricky Gervais comedy machine continues to grow with An Idiot Abroad joining The Ricky Gervais Show as Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s ever-growing attempts to expose the world to one Karl Pilkington. Both shows were top notch in 2011 and Pilkington is one of the funniest people on television, if not TV’s most underrated personality.

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