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TV Feature: The 10 Best Television Shows of 2011

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CHICAGO – Here’s the best news for TV fans — there’s reason again to be excited about our favorite distraction. After a few years of lackluster freshman classes, the just-ended year was simply an amazing one — eight out of my top twenty shows of 2011, a whopping forty percent, are new offerings.

It’s the best freshman class since the legendary one of 2004 (“Lost,” “Deadwood,” “Battlestar Galactica,” “Entourage,” “Veronica Mars”) and my list doesn’t even include pop culture hits like “Once Upon a Time” or “Revenge” or new shows that could easily move up into the elite next year with a bit of tinkering like “Enlightened” or “Shameless.” Even the under-achievers of the class of 2011 have potential.

Boardwalk Empire
Boardwalk Empire
Photo credit: HBO

As we watched new stars burn bright, old ones began to fade out, some more drastically than others. When I think of the final season of “Entourage,” my skin crawls (especially when compared to how good it used to be). It was arguably the worst show of the year, new or old, certainly the worst one that garnered any attention at all (but I’d probably give the golden turd trophy to “I Hate My Teenage Daughter” with runner-up citations for “How to Be a Gentlemen” and “Free Agents.”) “The Office” started a decline before Steve Carell left and jumped into freefall afterwards. Seriously, it’s reaching terminal velocity of crap, arguably the worst show on NBC Thursday nights (yes, including “Whitney”). It wouldn’t even be in the runner-ups to the runner-ups this year, after regularly finishing in the top ten in years past. “Damages” also took a steep fall in its move to DirectTV, although I could easily see it returning in its final season. And “True Blood” took another sizable dip. Still sporadically entertaining, but not what it used to be and not top-20 worthy.

Enough negativity. More than any other year, I had painful difficulty whittling down the best of what TV had to offer down to ten choices. There are strong shows like “Nurse Jackie,” “South Park,” “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” “Treme,” and “Parenthood” that I wish could have at least been given a spot in the top 20 but they fell just short. And I can’t think of any other year in which award-worthy programs like “Boardwalk Empire,” “Southland,” and “Modern Family” couldn’t squeeze their way into my top ten but I just can’t make it happen. All TWENTY of these shows (and a few more) deserve spots in your Season Pass Manager. It’s an amazing time to be a TV fan. Arguably there’s never been one better.

As for what might be considered missing, I clearly find a lot of time for TV but have never made room for enough episodes of “Fringe,” “The Good Wife,” or “Sons of Anarchy” to aptly judge their place on the year — I mention them because I’ve liked what I’ve seen but not seen enough of any of them to feel like I could accurately place them on this year. Every critic has gaps in their viewing schedule. I’m only admitting mine so you know they aren’t missing because I didn’t deem them worthy. I also labeled mini-series ineligible. With that in mind, I loved “Mildred Pierce” and “Downton Abbey.” If both were eligible, they would be top 5. Rent them both.

Finally, I want to extend a truly heartfelt thanks to the people who tune in on Saturday mornings to hear me with Bill Moller on WGN-AM Radio 720. For the last month, we’ve been listening to your choices for the best of the year and it honestly did change the list below. I went back and re-visited most of the suggestions and listened again to your arguments, which can be found here, resulting in further appreciation of “Boss” and “American Horror Story,” among others. Thanks so much for being a part of a great year in television coverage on HollywoodChicago.com and I hope you come back for 2012. And tell your friends.

Runner-ups:
20. “Falling Skies” (TNT)
19. “The Walking Dead” (AMC)
18. “Raising Hope” (FOX)
17. “Boss” (Starz)
16. “The Killing” (AMC)
15. “Dexter” (Showtime)
14. “New Girl” (FOX)
13. “Southland” (TNT)
12. “Boardwalk Empire” (HBO)
11. “Modern Family” (ABC)

THE TOP TEN SHOWS OF 2011

10. “Happy Endings” (ABC)

He’s a hipster, Penny. All those things you like, he likes them ironically.
—Episode 1.7, “Dave of the Dead,” 5/4/11

Happy Endings
Happy Endings
Photo credit: ABC

As television comedy has become more loosely defined with shows with such diverse intentions as “The Big C,” “Whitney,” “Hung,” and “Two and a Half Men” somehow all falling into the same category, there’s something comforting about a program that falls into a well-worn groove in a comforting way. Viewers and critics like to complain about how shows feel generic or copied from previous hits, but there’s something to be said for well-done formula. “Happy Endings” is incredibly well-done formula. It’s the best of the “Friends” copies since the NBC hit and is a program that, most importantly, just keeps getting better. The first half-season that debuted earlier this year featured an ensemble still a little uncomfortable with their characters and the rhythm of the show. With rare exception, every episode since that premiere has felt more confident and more accomplished. In particular, the cast, especially Adam Pally and Casey Wilson, keep adding depth to their characters while perfecting their comic timing. There was a bit of a desperation to make you laugh, a need to hook the viewers, when the show started, and as that disappears and these characters become more likable and interesting, the show just keeps getting funnier. It’s a guaranteed laugh every week.

9. “Curb Your Enthusiasm” (HBO)

That’s a remarkably idiotic thing that you just said but you know, the fact that you’re wearing glasses, I perceive it as a little less idiotic than I normally would.
—Episode 8.9, “Mister Softee,” 9/4/11

Curb Your Enthusiasm
Curb Your Enthusiasm
Photo credit: HBO

The oldest show in my top ten by a whopping FOUR seasons. It makes me wonder if the new TV marketplace is creatively putting its veteran programs out to pasture more quickly than in days past. And perhaps the reason that Larry David’s brilliant program has defied the typical law of diminishing returns that seems to be hitting veterans earlier than it used to is because he doesn’t play by typical rules. He comes back and does a new season when the spirit moves him to do so, when he’s creatively inspired. The seventh season of “Curb” is one of the best comedy seasons of the last several years, as David brilliantly intertwined a “Seinfeld” reunion into his hit show. This past eighth season may not have been as creatively impressive but it was often just as funny. Any comedy that can weave Bill Buckner and Michael J. Fox into risky, dangerously un-P.C. plotlines deserves your attention. And moving a now-single Larry to New York City was a stroke of genius (I almost wish it had happened earlier and gone on longer). Where better for the most bitter, cynical, self-serving protagonist on TV to feed his character weaknesses? There’s no saying how much longer “Curb” is going to be on the air but it shows no sign of getting stale. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if its the elder statesman of my top ten for years to come.

8. “Justified” (FX)

At this intersection here I’m gonna go right, I want you two to go left. I go right, you go left. If you go right, I’m gonna want some answers.
—Episode 2.10, “Debts and Accounts,” 4/13/11

Justified
Justified
Photo credit: FX

The second season of great programs are often their best — the writers work out the kinks from the freshman year and refine their process for the second one. (“The Sopranos” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” are two prime examples of programs that had simply amazing sophomore years for that very reason.) The team behind “Justified” came into year two riding a wave of good press and delivered easily one of the best shows of 2011. In fact, I can’t believe I can’t get it higher than #8, which just serves as a testament to the strength of programming on the list above this entry. In recent years, the second season of this brilliant series would be top five or even top three. It’s that good. It helps to have guest stars like Emmy winner Margo Martindale and Jeremy Davies to push your regular cast to even higher levels. I loved Martindale’s arc this year, but the programs belongs to Timothy Olyphant and Walton Goggins, two men who have carved out a pair of the most fascinating men on television right now in just two seasons. More than any show in the first quarter of 2012, I can’t wait to see where “Justified” goes next.

7. “American Horror Story” (FX)

I questioned my sanity when I first found out. But this house, this house will make you a believer.
—Episode 1.6, “Piggy Piggy,” 11/9/11

American Horror Story
American Horror Story
Photo credit: FX

The most gleefully unpredictable show on TV this year. Ryan Murphy and his team purposefully played with archetypes of the form — jump cuts, big score moments, things written on mirrors, twins, all of the traditional haunted house themes of the last fifty years — but every single episode would contain shocks that viewers had to admit came completely out of left field. (I particularly loved the nurse who passed out when she looked at an ultrasound from hell.) The creative thing was how much the writers embraced the B-movie nature of their scares — making you jump and then laugh at the audacity of the ridiculousness of the plot. The genius of “American” is how it took increasingly over-the-top risks by working with familiar elements and themes but filtering them through something that felt new. Almost like Quentin Tarantino’s films, the show felt derivative and completely original at the same time. It was nearly brilliant and the pace was the most remarkable on TV. At one point, it felt like there were a dozen ghost arcs spinning simultaneously (the Halloween two-parter with Denis O’Hare, Zachary Quinto, and Kate Mara chewing scenery like they were starving to death was insanely brilliant and when they had the nerve to incorporate The Black Dahlia and even Roanoake into the mix I had to marvel at the sheer audacity of it all…truly American). Was there any filler? Even casual conversations felt like they could erupt in an S&M blood orgy. That’s original programming. We could use more shows this daring. And given the success of this one, there’s reason to hope we’ll get them.

6. “Game of Thrones” (HBO)

Your mother’s dead, before long I’ll be dead, and you, and your brother, and your sister and all of her children. All of us dead, all of us rotting in the ground. It’s the family name that lives on. That’s all that lives on. Not your personal glory, not your honor, but family. Do you understand?
—Episode 1.7, “You Win or You Die,” 5/29/11

Game of Thrones
Game of Thrones
Photo credit: HBO

What daring storytelling. Never falling victim to the common over-exposition that usually comes along with fantasy fiction, the producers of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” dared to be dense; dared to be complex; dared to be hard-to-follow. This program didn’t just require attention, it requires work. And yet the show had a cumulative power not unlike the great fiction on which it was based. While it felt like perhaps you were lost in the quantity of characters and their relation, the program was building and building, getting under your skin until, suddenly, you knew who everyone was, how they were related, and what they were trying to do. And let’s talk a second about production value — this is arguably the most impressive television filmmaking in the history of the form. The art direction, the costume design, the score, even the mesmerizing opening credits — “Game of Thrones” looked amazing. Maybe that’s why it was hard to follow at first — it was too jaw-dropping just to watch.

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