During the next few months there will be nothing but rearranging various movies into a Top Ten list. I loved the IFJA list (Whoo, Elizabeth Olsen!) but this year of movies wasn’t that exciting for me. There are plenty of ones I loved, but nothing excited me as much as waiting for these shows to have a new episode. Cliffhangers are enough to savor the taste for a little bit, but it’s the quality of the show that makes you clamoring for more. 2011 was a great year for television and this was a year without some amazing shows like “Mad Men” or “Sherlock”. Instead we had a great number of returning shows make up for the lackluster new network arrivals. Shows that continually challenged how to tell a story and steered characters into fascinating new directions. Without further adieu—and with very limited spoilers—here are my Top Ten Seasons of 2011.
10. Archer Season Two
If a comedy gets to its second season, that usually means it’s time for something special. By this time the writers and cast have really been able to spend time with the show so it’s ready to go beyond its premise into something really crazy. To put it crudely, “Archer” got nuts. Archer Sterling is James Bond without all of the qualities that makes Bond an honorable spy. This season his plots became more insane while never losing focus on any of its incredible supporting cast. There is a multi-episode arc when Archer gets breast cancer that goes beyond being unprecedented and enters a league of its own. What’s that league called? THE DANGER ZONE
9. Parks and Recreation Seasons Three/Four
I outright dismissed this show after its disastrous first season. Then something shocking happened: the writing staff expanded, the cast grounded itself and it became hilarious. Season Three really is one of the tightest comedy seasons I have ever seen because each episode felt like the best of what the show can be. Leslie Knope evolved from an annoying SNL-esque character to one of the funniest female characters on TV because her enthusiasm was finally relatable. Her love for the Parks department wasn’t ironic because it features some amazing comedy creations like Tom Haverford, poor Jerry, and RON F***IN’ SWANSON. The addition of Rob Lowe and Adam Scott proved that the good sitcoms are able to write great new characters (I’m looking at you “How I Met Your Mother”). The first half of Season Four continues to expand their world with Tammy One (and Tammy Zero) and an election plotline that has endless potential.
8. Spartacus: Gods of the Arena
I typically hate prequels. Usually not knowing all of the past means the audience can fill in the clues themselves while moving towards what happens next. “Spartacus” was all set to make Season Two until their lead actor got cancer. While they waited to see if he would be able to recover to film again, the decided to make a six episode miniseries that took place before Season One. Shockingly, it rocked. This series already defies expectations by being the most gratuitous show on television—maybe ever—while also being one of the best written. All of the characters are so well understood that the nuances actually enhances the first season. By the time it ends, it wasn’t just a fun/insane piece of action but also further laid the groundwork for a promising second season.
7. The Hour Season One
This year had three shows play up on the popularity of “Mad Men’s” period drama. NBC’s “The Playboy Club” was swiftly canceled because it was terrible, ABC’s “Pan Am” is likely to get the boot very soon but BBC’s “The Hour” was a hit. Technically it is during the 50s not 60s, but that wasn’t the trick. Playing upon the change in the times will only last so long; a fantastic story will endure. A romantic triangle lies at the heart of an upcoming news magazine program while being entangled with a spy drama. What could have easily been a mess is effortlessly seemed together through addicting dialog and vibrant where characters are able to really clash.
6. Treme Season Two
The only complaint people seem to have about this show is that it’s not “The Wire”, aka the greatest TV show in the history of time. As much as I love the rich story of McNulty et al, I never want to go to Baltimore. That was a metaphor for the failings of America, while in “Treme” New Orleans is a testament to everything that should be saved. While the food and the music are the parts the culture that are easy to argue for their merit, it’s the characters that hold the real heart. “Treme” moves without a traditional plot so it’s the characters that really push the show forward. That can mean the show may leave Louisiana for a long stretch of time, lose its focus, and create some of the most honest emotional moments on TV. All the flaws make this a very rich show, worthy of way more attention. Watch this!
5. Louie Season Two
Once a show is stale, it’s lost. Does a single character on “The Office” surprise anybody anymore? They each react exactly as expected for every plot and line. “Louie” is the comedy that defies every rule of comedy. Honest and true, Louis C.K. takes what works in his stand-up and perfects it with a series of short films focusing on his observation. His world is not the quirky times of “Seinfeld” or “Curb Your Enthusiasm” but something of extreme sadness and confusion. Each episode is something completely new because Louis C.K. is not interested in structure or continuity. His ambition continues to rise and the result is breathtaking. There has never been anything like this.
4. Community Seasons Two/Three
There has still not been an episode of “Community” I haven’t laughed at several times. Yet there have been episodes when I have stopped laughing for a long stretch. Its collection of misfits making their way through one of the dumbest colleges in existence is a wealth of comedy. It could be them vs the world, but they still can’t bond as a single collective. All of them have entered a low-rated community college because of personal problems that haven’t magically disappeared. Through each other, they have the chance to get better but it’s going to take a lot of work. Also a lot and a lot of laughs. The absurdity of its world means anything can be in flux as they have a Leone western shootout or a Yahtzee game that alternates through timelines. Whatever happens, their group is grounded by a humanity rarely seen in a sitcom.
3. Game of Thrones Season One
Wow. After a year of rolling eyes at all of the fantasy fans freaking out about this upcoming HBO series, I was ready to watch an inevitable cry of disappointment that is currently being felt by fans of the Walking Dead books. Then I watched the pilot and I didn’t know what I watched. There were over a dozen characters who are hiding their true intentions in a world with a long history of rulers. Also there’s something about dragons being extinct. Its visual style and confidence was fascinating so there was no question I’ll give it another hour. Every season and show has ups and downs, except for “Game of Thrones” which only has ups. Very quickly, the whole show instantly clicks and everything is understood. Not through some terrible exposition or scenes when the characters are clearly talking to the audience, not each other. It’s done through expert storytelling by not having a single wasted scene in its 10 hours. Amazed by what a complete creation the whole season was, I watched it again a month after it ended to show my brothers. Then I read the novel it was based off of. Technically, I viewed this story three times in a year and I could probably watch it again right now. There is a reason why everyone wants HBO to adapt their book because this proves they are still the masters of the medium.
2. Doctor Who Season Six
My love for “Doctor Who” is obvious at this point. A madman with a box travels through time and space saving the day through cleverness instead of violence. The show has been around for 48 years because the format makes for endless possibilities. The Doctor and his companion land in a strange land and save the day. Most writers change up why the day needs saving or what the land entails. Steven Moffat is trying something more fascinating by changing The Doctor or more importantly, how we see him. From its shocking opening sequence, Season Six tests The Doctor in a way never done before leading towards one of the darkest arcs I’ve seen on a TV show. This is also going on though some of the most fun I’ve had on the show like when the Holy Roman Emperor Winston Churchhill arrived on his personal mammoth, a baby renamed himself Stormageddon and someone finally said “What the hell…let’s kill Hitler.” Nerdiness is only enhanced when something is this enjoyable and intellectually stimulating.
1. Breaking Bad Season Four
Serialized shows have been some of the best forms of entertainment since the success of “The Sopranos”. It’s why I love TV because it’s no longer about telling a 45 minute story, but a story that lasts the whole season, or even a story that lasts the whole series. Since that’s still such a new idea, there’s not a set structure unlike the boring three-act policy in movies. The best shows are the ones that are willing to change as it goes on. “Breaking Bad” doesn’t just change, it refuses look back.
Every season expands the story into a direction no one could predict. Twists are so well crafted that it seems all is lost at least twice an episode. Without spoiling anything, this season put its main character in an impossible situation where he had no power. So the real people controlling the plot was no longer our hero and nobody blinked an eye. It’s not just Walter White’s journey towards [REDACTED] but everyone’s journey into a place they never dreamed they would enter. “Breaking Bad” is captivating, exhilarating, thrilling and better than every single movie that aired this year. Truly masterful.
Honorable Mentions: Cougar Town, Fringe, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Justified, Misfits, and Wilfred
Incomplete: I sometimes can’t watch all the episodes as they air so I save them for later. I’m halfway through the seasons for Damages and Homeland. They’re both really great, but with these plots they really have to land the ending so I didn’t count them.
Haven’t Seen: I’m not caught up with Boardwalk Empire and I haven’t properly started Downton Abbey Season Two