I'm something of a TV snob. In many ways I prefer great television to great cinema – you have so much more time on TV to develop characters and then pay off that development. You can't do Lost as a movie – there's just no way you care about the fate of Jack or John Locke nearly as much in a 90-minute movie as compared to a 100 hours of a well-written TV show.
But I don't really write about television ever because I tend to expend all of my writing energy on the trails and tribulations of NC State sports. But with a little break over Thanksgiving weekend, I decided to write up my Top 10 shows of 2011. This is just one man's opinion though, so feel free to defend your favorite show to me or tell me why one of the shows in my top 10 is garbage. I'll listen to arguments for anything that isn't reality television or Two and Half Men.
(Quick note: I am not caught up on Boardwalk Empire so it doesn't appear in the list. Similarly I do not watch Community regularly enough to feel comfortable ranking it in here. Also Mad Men did not air in 2011.)
1. Breaking Bad (Season 4)
The easiest decision on the list, Breaking Bad is simply head and shoulder above every other show on television this last year. Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul both continued to do award-winning work for their respective roles, while Giancarlo Esposito turned in one of the great villain performances on television with his work in season four. It's a rare show that can deliver real heart-pounding suspense episode after episode, but the final five or so episodes of this season managed to do just that. Mad Men might still be the best show on TV, but Breaking Bad has significantly closed the gap over its last two seasons.
2. Justified (Season 2)
A Western set in modern day Kentucky with Timothy Olyphant as a trigger-happy Marshall? Yes please. The first season was good, but the second season elevated the show to a whole new level. It helped that they mostly dispatched with its procedural stories in favor of a season-long arc, but the show can mostly thank Margo Martindale's portrayal of Mags Bennet for that leap. Martindale picked up a much-deserved Emmy for her role as the head of a red-neck crime family while Olyphant and Walter Goggins continued to do great work in their respective roles. Even if the Western motif isn't your thing, this is a show worth watching.
3. Parks and Rec (Season 3, First half of Season 4)
I might laugh more at other shows, but there's no sitcom on television that I enjoy watching more than Parks & Rec. The show has found a perfect blend of hilarity and heart – you generally care about all the characters despite the over the top personalities. Amy Poehler has found the perfect tone for the Leslie Knope character and the supporting cast is second to none – Ron Swanson is, literally, the funniest character on television right now. The writers have also managed to create a Simpsons-esque world of minor characters that give the town of Pawnee life. If you haven't watched this show yet I recommend starting at the 2nd season, as the show spent the first season trying too hard to be The Office with Poehler as Steve Carell.
4. Homeland (Season 1)
One of three new shows on the list, Homeland has so far managed to be the best of the bunch. Claire Danes might be playing the most screwed up female 'heroine' I've ever seen on television – an exceptionally talented and exceptional crazy CIA agent who's convinced that an Iraqi POW has turned terrorist. The audience isn't told the answer to the question either, leaving the over-arching mystery of the season whether Damian Lewis' character is simply massively screwed up from eight years of captivity or if he's turned on his own country. I'm not sure how this show works past its first season, but that hasn't made the first eight episodes any less enjoyable.
5. Louie (Season 2)
I know Parks and Rec is listed higher, but this is the best 'comedy' on television from a creative and thought-provoking standpoint. Louie CK is probably the most brilliant comedian alive, and his world view is so dark and honest and hilarious that its amazing he ever got this show on television. No comedy ever created makes you laugh at one minute and then go 'wow that's really profound' in the next the way that Louie has pulled off in two seasons. Credit to FX for handing full creative control over to him, its a gamble that more networks should take and hopefully will given Louie's success.
6. Friday Night Lights (Season 5)
I can't believe that this show fell this far. I love this show and it did a good job of wrapping up after five fantastic season of Coach and Mrs. Coach and all the Dillon football players. I'm essentially a heartless sarcastic bastard and this show got to me on multiple occasions (usually involving Matt Saracen, the most down-trodden QB1 at any high school ever) over its five seasons. Kyle Chandler was just magnificent and it was great to see him get the Emmy for best actor this year even if I thought Jon Hamm was most deserving.
7. Game of Thrones (Season 1)
A lot of people are probably turned off by any show that's heavy on fantasy elements, but this HBO adaptation of George Martin's fantasy series is so good that it might do for the fantasy genre what Deadwood did for the Western. A sprawling epic that spans across kingdoms and continents as it depicts the struggle for the Iron Throne and all the violence, incest (yep, incest) and back-stabbing that goes along with it.
8. Sons of Anarchy (Season 4)
The biker drama loosely based on Hamlet is now in its fourth season, and its taken a big step up in quality after a less than stellar third season. The key has been keeping the focus on the club itself, with the drama of club politics mixed with the outside forces coming against the club. I will say this – if they don't kill off one particular character by the end of the season I'm going to be pissed off. They've gone too far with him at this point that it will infuriating to see him work his way out of his problems.
9. Lights Out (Season 1)
Sadly we'll only get one season of Lights Out, as the story of an Irish boxer coming out of retirement for one more fight was canceled after one abysmally rated season on FX. Still, it was a great 13 episode run for the show. Holt McCallany hasn't starred in very much in his life but he was great as Patrick 'Lights' Leary, a former champ who has taken one too many punches but is still determined to get back in the ring for one last paycheck and one last shot at glory. The show wrapped up nicely despite its quick cancellation, so if you want to check it out you won't feel slighted by the ending.
10. It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia (Season 7)
The gang delivered is currently in the process of delivering its best seasons in a few years. Rob McElhenney's decision to get fat just for the sake of comedy was terrible for his health, but it has been good for laughs. 'Chardee MacDennis: The Game of Games' is one of the best episodes they've done in a long time, as I don't think I stopped laughing for most of that episode. It's good to see that the gang isn't getting any less crazy as they get older.
Modern Family – One of the biggest comedy hits on television, I guess I'm just less enamored than most people. It too often goes to the bag of cliché sitcom tropes for laughs – I swear there is a 'hilarious misunderstanding' story in every episode. That said, its a very funny show and the kid actors might be the best part – Luke is the funniest character on the show in my opinion. I was surprised the show ended up outside of my top 10.
Fringe – If I had done a list for 2010, this show would have easily made the cut. But 2011 has been much more uneven run for the show and I think its time to admit that it probably reached its creative high at the beginning of last season. After a good end to last season, I've pretty much hated every second of the fall storyline. With ratings in the tank, here's hoping Fox goes ahead and pull the plug early so that the show-runners can wrap things up properly.
The Simpsons – The popular refrain is that the show hasn't been funny since Season (fill in your preferred end of Simpsons greatness here). And while the show will never be as great as it was in the mid-90s, its still pretty good. The last couple of seasons have been noticeably better as the show has gotten back to a consistent narrative from start to finish and made Homer less of a self parody.
30 Rock – Always funny, but I usually get tired of any plot that doesn't involve Jack or Liz. You have to deliver a pretty good rate of laughs if your a show that forgoes all realism or character development for the sake of the joke, and I think 'Always Sunny' did a much better job than 30 Rock this year in that regard.