Wednesday, December 28, 2011

My top 20 (plus) shows of 2011

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Just got in the mood to write again, so what better in the last week of the year than go the lazy cliched route and do a "Best of" list? So here are my Top 20 shows of 2011!

(These are my top scripted shows...none of my favorite reality shows belong in the top 20 as "best", but they are some of my favorites, so my top 5 reality shows: 5) Work of Art; 4) Hoarders; 3) Top Chef; 2) Deadliest Catch; 1) So You Think You Can Dance)

JUST MISSED THE CUT: Raising Hope, The Office, Up All Night, True Blood, Modern Family, Downton Abbey, The Good Wife

20. Suburgatory – Was not expecting to like this one, but it’s one of my favorite new shows of the season. Creepy chemistry aside, the two leads are very enjoyable, although the fact that Jane Levy was supposed to be 15 for the first part of the season caused some weird dissonance. I HAVE a 15 year old daughter…they don’t look or act like that.

19. New Girl – Look, this all comes down to whether you find Zooey Deschanel annoying or not. I don’t, and Schwarz cracks me up on a pretty consistent basis. The show is still trying to find its footing in many ways, but when they let Jess just be clueless rather than infantile, it’s one of my favorite shows.

18. Psych – Comfort food. Consistently funny, and the many pop culture references are right in my wheel house, since I am roughly the same age as the writers and stars.

17. Louie – Louis C.K. is a genius, and this show is 100% his vision, so of course it’s good. Personally, I found it fascinating and certainly I admired his “no rules” form of creating television, but I found it hard to really ENGAGE in the material, which is a big thing for me.

16. Happy Endings – Just started watching this in the fall, or it probably would have been higher. This is just a really funny show with really funny people that I like to hang out with for 25 minutes every week. Elisha Cuthbert is surprisingly strong, and the rest of the cast is filled out with people who simply know how to be funny. Did I mention it’s funny?

15. Chuck – One of my most personally beloved shows. There have been some serious inconsistencies in the quality from week to week, but when this show is on its game it still hits every one of my pleasure buttons. There are only a few episodes left before it ends its (amazingly) FIFTH and final season, and I’m starting to miss it already.

14. Sons of Anarchy – Would have certainly been higher on the list if Kurt Sutter had not completely wimped out and blown the ending. (SPOILERS AHO…SKIP TO THE NEXT NUMBER IF YOU DON’T WANT TO BE SPOILED ON THE CRAPPY SONS OF ANARCHY SEASON FINALE….). There is NO reason, plot-wise, for Clay to still be alive. None. He killed John Teller, a founding member and Jax’s father. He killed Opie’s wife and father (another founding member of the club). He tried to have Jax’s old lady killed, and possibly derailed her surgical career in the process. He roped the club into this arrangement with the drug cartel that has produced multiple deaths and tons of problems for the club. AND EVERYBODY KNOWS ABOUT IT. In this universe that Sutter has created, there is NO way for Clay to survive. And yet…next season, Clay will probably be sitting at that table, because Sutter chickened out and couldn’t kill off one of the stars of the show. Booooo.

I actually really liked the season up to that point…definitely would have been in my top 10. But between the botched Clay storyline, the ridiculous deus ex machina ending to the FBI investigation, and the whole Juice fiasco…I need to stop talking about it, or I will have to drop it further and redo the list.

13. Dr. Who – Honestly, the majority of the episodes of this show are just so-so for me. But…when you have a calendar year that includes “The Doctor’s Wife”, “A Good Man Goes to War”, “The Girl Who Waited”, and “The Wedding of River Song”, well…you make the list. Plus, Amy Pond may be at the top of my Favorite Redheads on TV list, and Matt Smith is very fun to watch.

12. Walking Dead – I enjoy this show, but I also understand that it is probably never going to be “great television”. Almost* all of the characters are extremely two-dimensional, as well as stupid, and virtually every decision is based on what the plot needs them to do, rather than what actual people would do. But no show does tension like this one, it is beautifully shot, and hey…..ZOMBIES.

* - The two exceptions to the crappy characters on this show are Daryll and Shane, both of whom I found to be EXTREMELY problematic in the first season, but whom I now wish would just branch off from everybody else and start their own show.

11. Archer – Continues to probably deliver the most laughs per episode, plus they actually made a bold attempt at continuity and serialization this season. But mostly, it’s on the list because it’s the show that makes me pause and rewind most often due to laughing too much to catch all the jokes.

10. Fringe – If I made this list in June, this one may have made the top 5. The end of last season had me calling it my “new LOST”. This season, on the other hand, has not been nearly as strong, mainly due to what I think was a major misstep in last season’s finale. Won’t spoil too much, because I still want you to go back and watch this show, but the problem is that the writers have painted themselves into a corner where it seems that either the characters I’m seeing NOW aren’t really themselves, or the characters I’ve been watching for the last three seasons don’t exist anymore. Either way, it lessens my investment in the characters. But, man…I can’t leave it out of my top 10 after the utter awesomeness that was most of season 3.

9. Cougar Town – Barely remembered that this one was on in 2011, due to the ridiculousness that ABC execs are putting the show through now, but the Cul de Sac Crew are probably my favorite group on television to hang out with every week. My love for Busy Phillips has been discussed here before, and the rest of the cast play off each other perfectly. To me, they are the most “organic” cast on television, in that I feel like they talk to each other like real friends do…they rip on each other, they gang up on each other, but they have an absolute loyalty and love for each other. Love this show, and can’t wait until they come back….whenever that ends up being.

8. Boardwalk Empire – Can’t believe this show is this low on the list, but I can’t put it above any of the ones above it. I love this show, and it’s because what some may call its “weakness” (that the plot is historical in nature and therefore unchangeable in many ways) isn’t really that much of a factor for me. I will ALWAYS value characters over plot, and this show does characters better than just about anybody. Plus, they had the guts to do what almost any other show would never do (SPOILER AHO!!!) by killing off a character who was ostensibly the lead this season. Hey, Kurt Sutter…this is how you tell a story. When the story says it’s time to die, then it’s time to die, and there was no way Jimmy could walk away from the decisions he made this season. Nucky could NEVER allow him to live…it doesn’t matter that the attempt on his life was Eli’s idea…Jimmy was in charge and could have stopped it, and Nucky knows it.

Even before the gut wrenching finale, this was a really strong season of television, with typical fantastic acting performances. Jack Huston breaks my heart as Richard Harrow every week, Michael Pitt was outstanding, Gretchen Mol was convincingly creepy, Michael Stuhlbarg as Rothstein steals every scene he’s in, etc, etc. This show does fantastic “moments” and character studies, and the fact that we know basically how the story is going to end doesn’t lessen my enjoyment of it in any way.

7. Justified – I love that this show has started to get mainstream critical approval. Crackling dialogue, delivered by fantastic actors, in a setting that immediately felt lived-in and real from the moment we stepped foot in Harlan, KY. If you grew up in the South, you KNOW these people….heck, you’re probably RELATED to some of them. The cast is phenomenal, but special kudos for this season go out to the magnificent Margo Martindale, who took a character that could have been a very two-dimensional villain and made you sympathize and even ROOT for her at times. This show comes back in just a few days, and I am STOKED. Yeah, I still say STOKED, when it’s appropriate, and it certainly is in this case.

6. Game of Thrones – To say I was excited about this one is a massive understatement, as the books the show is based on is my very favorite book series of all time. The show got off to sort of a slow start, as I think the creators actually tried to stay TOO close to the source material, but about a third of the way through they hit a groove and never looked back. Gorgeously shot, with a truly epic ambience. The creators have been handed a fantastic story, one which they obviously love, and they were smart enough to mostly let that story drive the narrative on the show while only embellishing around the edges. And, honestly, the embellishments were some of my favorite scenes.

Special credit goes to the simply amazing child actors that the show chose to play the vitally important young characters. The Stark children, in particular, felt to me like they leapt directly from the pages of the books onto my television screen, and I REALLY want to adopt Maisie Williams (Arya).

My only disappointment with the show, besides the slightly pedantic opening few episodes, is how little use they made of the direwolves. I know that animals are hard to direct, but the link between the direwolves and the Starks is one of my favorite aspects of the book…but, as usual, the books are better anyway.

5. Community - This one is hard to explain to people who don’t watch the show, or who have tried it and don’t enjoy it, but I’m going to try. WARNING…rambling ahead.

There is not a show with more ambition on television, in my opinion. They aren’t just aiming to be funny (though they are hilarious), they want to be…DIFFERENT. Not content to just be another sitcom that can live in perpetuity in syndication. Not a Chuck Lorre project, in other words.

I am square in the middle of the target demographic for this show…I don’t just enjoy watching television, I love exploring what makes television what it is, like examining various tropes and clich├ęs and figuring out why they work or don’t work. I love meta commentary. I am in my mid thirties (barely hanging on to them), so I recognize all of the pop culture beats that the show hits. It just hits so many sweet spots for me.

Plus, the entire cast is super talented, extremely funny in a very clever way. And, yes, I know the “cleverness” is what turns a lot of people off, but what can I say? I’m often guilty of assuming I’m the smartest person in the room, and that’s the vibe this show gives off when it’s at its worst…so I can sympathize.

This show has my heart. Six seasons and a movie.

4. Homeland - My very favorite new show on television this year. I’m not going to spoil anything, because it’s still new enough that you can probably find a place to watch it. I will just say that it is refreshingly bold in its narrative, in that nothing is dragged out simply because the length of the season requires it (hello, THE KILLING). There are several moments that happen a good 5-6 episodes, or even 1-2 seasons, before they would happen on a typical show, simply because…that’s when these things would happen if they were happening in real life rather than on my television screen.

And, seriously…I can not possibly over praise the work that Damian Lewis and Claire Danes do on this show. These are two actors that I am predisposed to like anyway, due to their previous work (I ♥ Angela Chase FOREVER), but wow…Lewis will find it hard to break in to the Cranston/Buscemi/Hamm/Hall/Grammar field for Best Actor (especially with Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte joining the fray soon with Luck), but if Claire Danes doesn’t get serious Emmy consideration then we need to consider shutting down the whole system.

Go watch this. I promise, you won’t be disappointed.

3. Parks and Recreation – OK, I take it back. Among comedies, Community really has more of my BRAIN…Parks and Rec has my heart. No show brings me more sheer joy than this one…even when I’m not laughing till I hurt (which happens at least once every episode), I usually have a ridiculous grin on my face the entire time. I love every single one of these characters…even Jean-Ralphio (played by Ben Schwarz, who is probably in my top three favorite podcast guests).

The show just does everything well…character, story, ambience, you name it. Fancy Party is probably my favorite comedy episode of the year, and that is not because it was the funniest…it’s because it completely captures everything that this show is about, and what it’s about is pretty near perfect.

Plus, Ron Swanson…enough said.

2. Friday Night Lights – I still can’t talk about this show without getting emotional. This final season was a perfect send-off to a truly amazing show.

Amazing on so many levels…not just the truly spectacular acting performances (too many to name), the gut wrenching writing (I’m sure I wept openly at least once at every episode), the flawless direction (the show often looks and feels like the greatest home movie ever made)…but the fact that we actually got five seasons and that the writers were able to finish their story as they wanted, when we spent the first two seasons wondering if every episode may be the last one to see the light of day due to America’s stupidity.

This show is an American treasure. It’s television as an art form.

Texas, forever.

Clear eyes, full hearts…you know the rest.

1. Breaking Bad – Speaking of television as an art form…in my mind, there is no question that what Vince Gilligan is doing with this show is truly next-level stuff. It is visually astonishing. The story SIZZLES. The characters…well, more on them in a minute. Every single episode just flies by for me…I’m truly sad when it’s over and I know I have to wait another week before I can step back in to this deeply disturbing, wondrously wrought, bleak and yet somehow hopeful universe.

As for the characters, this show has a truly unique ability to surprise me without sacrificing the characters that have been built over the life of the show. It’s easy to surprise a viewer…just write a scenario that calls for a character to do something that we would NEVER expect. LOTS of shows do that, but most of the time the reason the character surprised you is because their actions completely contradict everything we know about that character. It is much more difficult to pull off what this show does, which is to have characters do completely unexpected things that first shock me and then cause me to say, “Yeah…that is EXACTLY what that character would say/do in this moment, because it is exactly in line with what we know about him/her.” It’s art, is what it is…and this show does it better than anybody.

From a storytelling perspective, there are few better. From a character perspective, there are none more well-developed and formed. From an acting perspective, there is no better cast. From an aesthetic perspective, no show currently has a better grasp on what their visual style is and how to best use it.

For all those reasons, Breaking Bad is my Best Show of 2011.

So, fellow TV fanatics...what's your favorite? Any that I'm missing? Let's discuss!