For the first time ever, we polled the entire SOS staff on their favorite TV of the last 12 months. We knew that, given the fact that our contributors are (principally) spread out across Canada, the US, and Britain, that the results might well be a mixed bag. What we didn’t necessarily expect was the level of consensus surrounding the upper quartile of the list. There was a clear groundswell of support for our collective #1, but competition was fierce for the spots just behind it. Here are the 20 best TV shows of 2011, according to the staff as a whole; stay tuned for The Televerse’s year-end wrap-up, in which Kate Kulzick and Simon Howell discuss their respective favorites – and least favorites – in greater detail.
20. The Amazing Race
The Amazing Race continues to be arguably the classiest, most reliably entertaining show the genre has yet to produce. It probably helps that it’s one of the few televised competitions that emphasizes teamwork, strength, acuity of mind, and resourcefulness more or less equally, as well as promoting a genial, infectious love of travel and adventure that counters the cynical scheming that characterizes many other competitive programs. In other words, unlike the show’s contestants, you won’t feel the need for a shower once the racing’s over.
Hardly 2011’s most predictable success story, Mike Judge bounced back from the disastrously received The Goode Family in a somewhat unexpected manner: by resurrecting the show that first made him famous, 14 years after it last aired new episodes. What’s even more surprising is that the show managed to return “gracefully” (at least, as gracefully as a show about two revolting layabouts can be), retaining its carefully cultivated air of stupidity and transplanting it to the Age of Snooki, making room for reality-TV bashing to go with the short-form stories and music video commentaries. Snark just sounds better out of the mouths of babes.
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AKA Quite Interesting, AKA the show that’s most likely to be a total non-entity to North American readers, QI aired its ninth series this past year, with Britain’s elder statesman of dry wit, Stephen Fry, ever present as its host. “Panel shows” (celebrity-hosted competitions) are a culture unto themselves in the UK, but QI tends to get singled out for the quality of its banter, the calibre of its participants, and the emphasis on wit over factual accuracy, which is in fact the bedrock of the entire program.
Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s audacious, divisive, and undeniably popular horror series signaled a sea change of sorts for its network, FX, which will continue to branch out into genre fare next year with the Brian Michael Bendis adaptation Powers. While not everyone cottoned to its singular blend of horror-film tropes, high-concept family drama, and occasional dramatic non sequiturs, the show has nevertheless garnered a devoted fanbase eager to see what batshit development is around the corner.
It’s easy to take Jon Stewart for granted. After all, we see him four nights a week, most weeks of the year, deconstructing news media and making the noxious current political and media culture bearable through cutting wit and funny voices. After 12 years on the job, Stewart is as much of a TV institution as nearly anyone else who’s ever ventured into the realm of late-night, and a sane substitute for the inane, ideologically driven, or simply incompetent prattle of “real” news-media talking heads. Along with The Colbert Report and the Onion News Network, we are undoubtedly in the midst of the golden age of fake news.
Another long-running Comedy Central series, Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s baby turned 15 this year, and given that it immediately followed the Broadway victory lap, it would have been forgivable if they’d slacked off a little bit. Instead, Season 15 produced some of the funniest of recent years, as well as the somewhat startling “You’re Getting Old,” the mid-season finale that had some fans wondering if Parker and Stone had lost their taste for making the show at all. Not likely, since they’re on contract for another few seasons, but it’s nice to see they can still effectively rankle and provoke.
14. The Good Wife
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The Good Wife will never be hip. The fact that it’s a legal procedural on CBS and it still made the grade is a testament to just how good it is. Julianna Margulies heads up one of the best ensembles on TV, and the guest roster of judges, attorneys, and roving personalities borders on ludicrously awesome at this point. Was makes the show a keeper, though, is the incessantly smart writing and acting choices, which help to keep it possibly the most consistent pleasure on TV, even if it’s not interested in hairpin plot turns or shock tactics.
13. Boardwalk Empire
Sopranos producer/writer Terence Winter gained a little confidence in its second season, shaking off some of the first-season jitters (the weight of expectation will do that) to generally become a little meaner, a little leaner, and a little more dramatically effective. On that last note, the closing run of episodes got downright ambitious, fleshing out a key character’s background in the most memorably shocking fashion possible. That it built to a ballsy finale bodes well for 2012, even if it hasn’t quite climbed to the levels of acclaim reserved for the series Winter previously toiled on.
The only program on this list to air its final series this year (though it previously aired this run of episodes on DirecTV last year), Friday Night Lights went out swinging, delivering the same bold blend of heart and clear-headed storytelling that characterized it from the beginning. Despite the stigma it could never quite shake off thanks to its status as a show ostensibly about teenagers and sports (in rural Texas, no less), the show managed to foreground social issues and realistic interpersonal dynamics like almost nothing else on television, including what may be the most believable marriage in the history of the medium.
11. The Walking Dead
Despite some grumbling over its run so far, AMC’s The Walking Dead remains wildly popular, possibly due to being the only credible TV option for hardcore horror fans. It might also help that the second season’s midseason finale concluded with what may be the series’ best and most powerful sequence to date: the “walker” massacre outside Hershel’s barn. It’s also not a bad showing for a show that suffered a major shift in personnel very early in its run thanks to the departure of Frank Darabont. Whatever 2012 holds for Rick and co., count on it sticking around: it’s far and away AMC’s biggest hit.
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The biggest and nicest surprise of the Fall season, Showtime’s Homeland is its best new series in ages, prizing strong, unpredictable storytelling and superb writing over the shallow “hey, we’re on pay cable!” sex n’ gore tactics sometimes employed by its neighbors. Articulating post-9/11 fears of terrorism while maintaining a suspicious eye towards the government mechanisms designed to combat it (and the individuals therein), Homeland is spy TV done right. (Oh, and in Claire Danes, Damien Lewis, and Mandy Patinkin, it boasted three of the best performances of the year in any medium.)
09. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
Most comedies don’t even make it this far, but usually by the time a series gets to its seventh season, you can feel the lethargy setting in. Not so with the Sunny gang, who managed some unqualified successes in what turned out to be another thoroughly enjoyable season. Obvious highlights included the insane “CharDee MacDennis: Game of Games” and the weirdly sweet but still very dark “The Gang Goes to the Jersey Shore.” And someone please give Rob McElhenney an award of some kind for his heroic 50-pound weight gain, which was pursued only in the name of comedy. Bless you, sir.
08. Doctor Who
One of the most enduring series in television history, Doctor Who came back this season bigger than ever. Showrunner Steven Moffat kicked things off with a literal bang, ending the premiere with the haunting image of a mysterious astronaut rising out of Lake Silencio, shooting and killing the Doctor, and then disappearing back into the lake. Comprised of serialized and standalone episodes, including the fantastic “The Doctor’s Wife” (written by genre superstar and lifelong fan Neil Gaiman), the season brought laughs, tears, scares, and most importantly for those so-inclined, answers.
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Sterling Archer and his co-workers at Isis stumbled into new and more ambitious adventures this year, as Adam Reed’s series took a few bold steps forward in terms of fleshing out its characters and universe. Penning every episode (as well as voicing poor, beleaguered Ray Gillette), Reed took pains to actually make us care about his strange, perverted little creations this year, resulting in a stronger show that might actually be the natural heir to the formerly deceased Arrested Development (now due for a 2013 return) – no other show since can boast a similar number of jokes-per-minute, double entendres, callbacks, and arcane references.
Though it’s probably best known for producing badass hillside crime queen Mags Bennett (Margo Martindale, who nabbed an Emmy for the role), Justified‘s second season also pushed it further into the realm of serialization, with fewer stand-alone episodes. Most importantly, though, it preserved Raylan’s signature blend of bemused wit and old-fashioned asskickery while toning down the slightly over-the-top body count of Season 1. It also boasted some seriously great supporting turns from Jeremy Davies and Brad William Henke as the ne’er-do-well Bennett boys, and the always-welcome presence of shitkicking hillbilly Walton Goggins, who promises to up the ante in Season 3, due to premiere in just a few weeks.
05. Game of Thrones
The highest-ranking new show of the year, HBO’s insanely ambitious fantasy saga, not unlike Peter Jackson’s film versions of the Lord of the Rings saga, was a high-risk, high-reward proposition for both the network and audiences. Combining old-school genre tropes (warring kingdoms, conniving royals, doom-laden prophecies) with the unrestrained possibilities of pay cable, Thrones helped to make 2011 the year of genre TV, and produced some on the year’s most vivid characters and most stunning sequences. Those familiar with George R. R. Martin’s book series (to which the series hems closely so far) say the best is yet to come. Bring it on.
Though currently somewhat imperiled, with NBC putting the show on ice for a little while (at least), Dan Harmon’s meta-textually rich sitcom continued to push itself further away from convention this year, either going on wild stylistic tangents, or exploiting standard sitcom tropes only to openly subvert them – while never feeling less than completely reverent to its forebears. Its fate is in question – keep in mind, however, that a fourth season would yield all-important syndication eligibility – but the ratings-strapped show enjoys the most rabid internet fanbase this side of the Whedonverse.
03. Parks and Recreation
Community‘s timeslot neighbor just barely edged out the hipper show, which is surely a testament to its rock-solid writing and its stellar comedis ensemble. After a shaky first season and a drastically improved second, Season 3 (which aired as a midseason replacement at the top of 2011) was its strongest outing yet, folding in Rob Lowe and Adam Scott as full-timers while maintaining a tricky balance: amiable, but with clear stakes, and yet never feeling outright contrived. Time will tell whether the currently-airing Season 4 pans out as confidently, but Michael Schur’s writers and the cast deserve immense credit for crafting the most consistently funny and touching half-hour on broadcast TV.
After a strong freshman season in 2010, Louis CK took his one-man effort to even greater heights in Season 2, pushing himself as an actor, writer and director into new and bolder territory, making TV without parallel or precedent in the process. Tackling parenthood, the entertainment industry, racism, masturbation, war, mortality, family obligation, unrequited love, and a host of other topics while retaining its filthy-but-cogent tone throughout, Louie‘s second season proved once and for all that TV can be an auteur’s medium to the same degree as feature film. (That it did so on the budget of roughly a single episode of our #1 series is just gravy.)
01. Breaking Bad
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Some wondered if former X-Files scribe Vince Gilligan and his crack team of writers and directors could pull it off. Breaking Bad‘s third season seemed to perfect the show’s signature blend of high-stakes thrills, brutal pathos, dark humor and relentless story momentum – so where could the show go from here? Season 4 may or may not have been the equal of what came before, but no other series this year was half as pulse-pounding, or played host to as many unforgettable moments. With the announcement that the next season (which may be split in two) will be the show’s last, Gilligan (along with stars Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul) can take comfort in the fact that his show can already be counted among the greats.