Rookie watch: the best new TV shows of 2011
A few great newbies at the top, then a lot with obvious pluses and minuses
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Welcome to the conclusion of my look back at the best shows of 2011. On Tuesday, I gave my list of the best 11 overall shows. On Wednesday, I did the best 10 returning shows.
Today was supposed to be a similar top 10 list of the best new shows of the year, but the more I thought about it, the more I began to realize that there was a very large gap between the two that were already on the overall list - "Homeland" and "Game of Thrones" - and everything else. Of the other shows, some I liked parts of but not the whole, some I liked uniformly but didn't love, and all of them felt like they should be fighting it out for spots 7-10 on a list in a much deeper year.
(Last year, for instance, half of my overall list was made up of new shows, several of which then carried over to the returning and overall lists this year.)
So rather than try to figure out which 8 I should try to slot in after "Game" and "Homeland," and in what order, I'm going to do the following: write a bit about why the big 2 are the big 2, talk about a couple of others I enjoyed but want to put in their own tier, then run down the pros and cons of a bunch of the other candidates.
The Big 2
1. "Homeland" (Showtime)
I know, I know. On the overall list, "Homeland" ranked one spot below "GoT." But I also acknowledged that at the time I recorded that, I hadn't seen the last 3 episodes of the first season, and was being cautious in case they screwed up the finish. Well, I've now seen everything through this Sunday's finale, and while I will not so much as hint at what happens, I will say that I was happy enough with it that, combined with everything that came before, it now nudges "Game of Thrones" out of the top newbie spot.
What I love about "Homeland" is that no matter which way you try to slice it, it's delicious. If you want to look at it just as a character study about an unstable woman becoming obsessed with an equally-damaged man, then you've got two incredible lead performances by Claire Danes and Damian Lewis. If you want to treat it as a thriller, the show kept the tension going wonderfully all season, with only one feint (Brody professes his innocence to Carrie one week, is revealed to be working with Nazir the next) seeming even a bit iffy to me, and one which I've accepted in hindsight. (My fear was more that they would keep doing that, and they played straight with us ever since.) If you want to look at it as an examination of the moral repercussions of the War on Terror, it wound up being very nuanced, and a reminder that the hyperbolic nature of "24" was more about the needs of that show rather than a mark on the limitations of Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa. Hell, "Homeland" even works on some level as an incredibly dysfunctional love story.
Great performances, great tension, great first season. Having seen the whole thing, rookie of the year.
2. "Game of Thrones" (HBO)
As you know, I deliberately did not read the books. I wanted to see if "GoT" would work as a TV show without me having prior knowledge of House Stark, the Dothraki, dragons, etc. And aside from a few expository (and in some cases, sexpository) bumps in the early going, it absolutely did. Benioff and Weiss brought the world and its characters to life, told me as much as I needed to know to get the story moving, and then smacked me around for a while as the fight for the Iron Throne got pretty damned crazy. Fantastic production values, indelible performances (Peter Dinklage rightfully won the Emmy, while Emilia Clarke was the great discovery and the one I look forward to seeing again the most) and a totally satisfying debut season overall.
The Next 2
3. "Bob's Burgers" (FOX)
Like a lot of the shows listed below, "Bob's Burgers" took a couple of episodes to grow on me, but I think that was less the show's evolution than me needing to get used to its weird, deadpan rhythms, and its deft blend of absurdity and warmth. I'm glad Loren Bouchard and his eclectic, funny cast of voice actors (including H. Jon Benjamin, Kristen Schaal and Dan Mintz) will back for more strange family stories in 2012.
4. "Wilfred" (FX)
Another bizarre - and very dark - comedy, and one that eschewed big laughs as the season went along and it became more of a portrait of a mentally unstable man and his (possibly) imaginary, destructive best friend. Elijah Wood and Jason Ganz (reprising the role from the Australian original) had great chemistry, and Wilfred tended to do a few hilarious things per episode (even the more sober later ones).
Everything Else (in alphabetical order)
Pros: Kelsey Grammer leaving the memory of Frasier Crane dead and buried on the outskirts of O'Hare in a magnetic, career-redefining performance. Good supporting work, particularly by Kathleen Robertson and Martin Donovan as two of Grammer's top aides, some memorable speeches and confrontations, and a sense of vicious melodrama that I enjoyed more once I stopped expecting gritty realism.
Cons: Even taken as a kind of Shakespeare in modern drag, the sheer number of speeches and heated plot twists began to dilute their impact after a while. Most of the sex scenes felt silly and shoehorned in because this is the home of "Spartacus."
"The Chicago Code" (FOX)
Pros: Terrific villain performance by Delroy Lindo as a corrupt alderman. Great use of Chicago locations. The last few episodes suggested a show figuring itself out as a kind of 21st century "Wiseguy," with a series of story arcs about the cops going after various crooks and crooked officials.
Cons: Until those last few episodes, the show really struggled to balance the Lindo arc with standalone cases that weren't remotely as interesting. Lead cops Jason Clarke and Matt Lauria had either inconsistent (for Clarke) or underdeveloped (for Lauria) characterization.
"Downton Abbey" (PBS)
Pros: Beautiful production, fine performances, great sense of place (an English manor house on the eve of World War I), and material about the servants of that house that I found endlessly fascinating.
Cons: I. Did. Not. Care. about anything having to do with the lords and ladies of Downton Abbey. That's much more my failing than anything Julian Fellowes and company did to tell their stories, but when 50% of the series makes me want to hit the fast forward button, I can't give it an unreserved hooray.
"Happy Endings" (ABC)
Pros: Once the writers moved away from the story of the pilot (runaway bride Elisha Cuthbert and jilted groom Zachary Knighton struggle to hang out while sharing the same circle of friends) and just let a group of funny actors and characters be funny together - in other words, once they learned the lesson of "Cougar Town" - it became one of TV's more enjoyable comedies. Just put, say, Adam Pally and Damon Wayans Jr. together, or Casey Wilson and Eliza Coupe, or any combination, and let them run, and chances are something very amusing will happen.
Cons: It took the show quite a while to get to that point. And by aiming solely for a joke-joke-joke structure without anything deeper underneath it, it means that the episodes where the humor doesn't work (which still happens from time to time) don't have much else to offer.
"The Hour" (BBC America)
Pros: Great trio of leading performances by Dominic West, Ben Whishaw and, especially, Romola Garai. Strong evocation of mid-'50s period, and interesting discussion of politics and journalistic ethics of the period.
Cons: A spy story that always felt awkwardly grafted onto an attempt to transplant "Broadcast News" to England around the time of the Suez crisis.
"Lights Out" (FX)
Pros: Strong, simple, effective lead performance by Holt McCallany as a punch drunk ex-champ trying to get back into the ring due to dire financial circumstances. Great supporting characters like Reg E. Cathey as Barry Word and Bill Irwin as Hal Brennan, and a good grasp of the culture around a dying sport. Like "Terriers" before it, had a finale that wound up working better as a series ender than anyone had planned.
Cons: Shaky integration of Lights' family into the rest of the show. The two actual fights had iffy choreography (though one may have been by design, neither looked great).
"New Girl" (FOX)
Pros: A great, charming, funny lead performance by Zooey Deschanel (assuming, perhaps, that you liked her to begin with). A promising supporting cast, particular Max Greenfield as repentant douchebag Schmidt. When it's on, the funniest new comedy of the fall.
Cons: The writers are still trying to properly calibrate both Jess and Schmidt, as their characterizations can veer wildly from week to week, and some versions of them are much funnier than others. Aside from one or two episodes, they also haven't known what to do with Lamorne Morris' character since he came in to replace Wayans Jr. after the pilot.
"Prime Suspect" (NBC)
Pros: A few episodes into its too-brief life, this cop drama recognized that its strength was less in recreating the woman-against-the-world dynamic of the British original than in showing the social dynamics of an NYPD detective squad populated by misfits of all shapes and sizes. From that point on, it became a very good cop drama with a fine lead performance by Maria Bello, and one of the more interesting procedurals overall in quite a while.
Cons: The cartoonish sexism of the first few episodes was really hard to take, and the good stretch unfortunately didn't last long before NBC pulled the plug due to low ratings. (Also, for some of you, Bello's hat may be the biggest con on this list.)
Pros: Remarkable performances from Emmy Rossum, Jeremy Allen White, Cameron Monaghan and several of the other actors playing the old-before-their-years Gallagher kids, struggling to raise themselves because their runaway mom and alcoholic dad are no help. When "Shameless" treated itself as a drama, it was very, very good.
Cons: The show also fancied itself a comedy, and ran into two big problems there: 1)Most of the jokes were centered around William H. Macy as the dad, and he never seemed to fit the role (and wasn't the lovable rogue he was intended to be), and 2)A lot of the more overtly comic stories seemed tonally at odds with the serious stuff.
UPDATE: I left one show off the list, as I feared I would. In theory, it would go in that second tier with "Wilfred" and "Bob's Burgers," but it's down here for a reason I'll get to in a moment.
"Strike Back" (Cinemax)
Pros: For a cheesey action show laden with gratuitous sex scenes, it was far, far better than it had any right to be. Strong straight-ahead action, two convincing leads in Philip Winchester and Sullivan Stapleton, globe-trotting atmosphere and a sense throughout of exactly what it was trying to be no more, no less.
Cons: I have yet to watch the last two episodes. For all I know, it falls apart horribly at the end, though the handful of people I know who watched all the way through tell me otherwise. Still, without having seen the complete season, I leave it here.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org