Yesterday, we published my video essay on my favorite overall shows of 2011. Now it's time to present the first of two written lists, this one focusing on the best returning shows of the year. If you watched the video, you know that 9 of the 11 shows (there was a tie) were returning series, and that therefore there's not going to be much change to the returning shows list. Still, I add one show, get to expand a bit on my thoughts on some others, and also add a list of honorable mentions at the end.
Tomorrow, I'll deal with the new shows in a slightly different way, as there are lots of 2011 rookies I liked but few I loved.
10. "Treme" (HBO)
A year ago, "Treme" ranked ninth on my overall list of shows, and I considered the second season a step up from the first. So how did it wind up on the outside looking in for the overall list, and down to 10th on this one? Well, a few shows that I found it better than a year ago improved even more this year, and rankings can be weird like that. Regardless, "Treme" season 2 felt like it did a better job of showing us the awesomeness of New Orleans, where season 1 occasionally spent too much time simply telling us. It gave nearly every character some kind of project to work on, which lent the season a more obvious shape and better sense of direction than the first, and the arc about the return of crime to New Orleans gave everything more heft overall. When you combine those subtle improvements with the usual great acting by Wendell Pierce, Khandi Alexander and company, the wonderful music and the brilliant sense of atmosphere, you have a show I had a very, very hard time leaving off the overall list, and one I was happy to get onto this one.
(tie) 8. "United States of Tara" (Showtime)
In its first two seasons, "United States of Tara" won Toni Collette an Emmy, had some funny moments and some interesting dramatic ones, but didn't always seem clear on what identity it wanted as the dominant one. In what turned out to be its final season, "Tara" chose pretty much unrelenting darkness, with a series of stories designed to show that having a loved one with Dissociative Identity Disorder would probably not make your life feel like a quirky indie comedy, but like a painful, inescapable existence. Collette and the actors around her (John Corbett especially) really stepped up their games as "Tara" turned into a straight-ahead drama, and if the end wasn't planned as a finale, it worked perfectly as one, showing Tara as a woman who is likely irreparably broken, but who will keep trying to get better, less for her own sake than for those who care about her.
(tie) 8. "Men of a Certain Age" (TNT)
Because of TNT's weird scheduling for "Men," only 8 out of 12 episodes of the show's second and final season aired in 2011. But those 8 were more than enough to make me sad that this small, simple, often heartbreaking dramedy wouldn't continue, and also grateful that something so wildly uncommercial got two seasons on a channel like TNT. If Ray Romano's dramatic chops weren't surprising in the second season, they were still very impressive as his character fell hard off the wagon and took up gambling again. Andre Braugher made me care much more than I should have about the fate of Owen's family car dealership, and Scott Bakula did some of the best, most moving work of his career as Terry finally tried to grow up. Co-creator Mike Royce has gone back to making sitcoms (where he and Romano previously collaborated on "Everybody Loves Raymond"), but it's a shame there wasn't more audience for something that neatly split the difference between funny and poignant.
7. "Boardwalk Empire" (HBO)
There are episodes where it feels like "Boardwalk Empire" has made The Leap and deserves consideration not just as one of the best dramas on TV now, but perhaps something that could be historically great. Then there are others where the show feels cold and detached and every bit the impressive but hollow live-action diorama that some of its detractors insist it is. But the emotional moments outweighed the clinical ones this year, to my mind, especially once we got to the shocking finale and discovered exactly what story we had been watching all season. Fantastic work throughout by Michael Pitt as Jimmy, welcome trips into the spotlight for Michael Kenneth Williams and Jack Huston and a very interesting landing place for Nucky and Margaret in that finale.
6. "Friday Night Lights" (DirecTV/NBC)
Even if I'm only counting the six episodes that DirecTV aired from January on, this was still an epic, moving farewell to the people of Dillon, TX (mainly the east side of it, but with cameos from our west side pals throughout). Almost everyone got a happy ending, but with enough bitter to keep the sweet from being overwhelming (I think specifically of what happens to the Lions, and with Tyra and Tim). We were reminded again and again why Eric and Tami Taylor are among the most realistic, compelling married couples in TV history, and in Michael B. Jordan's Vince, we got a latter-day character who wound up as rich and memorable as the kids we met in the first season. Thanks to the DirecTV deal, we got five seasons of "Friday Night Lights" where it otherwise might have ended after that unfortunate second one. And now we have so many great memories from the show that I will remember. Always and always and always.
5. "Community" (NBC)
My sentimental and/or defiant sides might be inclined to put this show at number one as a statement about how annoyed I am that NBC is leaving it off the schedule for mid-season. But I'm okay with it in the top 5, while acknowledging that when "Community" is at its very best (the D&D episode, the fake clip show, the alternate timelines), almost nothing else on TV can touch it. Of course, when you have the range, ambition and depth that the "Community" cast and creative team have to offer, you're going to try a lot of things that either don't work, or don't work perfectly every time. But for pity's sake, 2011 was a year that gave us Abed's mesmerizing speech about being an extra on "Cougar Town." It gave us Annie as a badass gunslinger, Jeff turning into Dean Pelton while Pelton in turn became Francis Ford Coppola/Colonel Kurtz, Troy panicking at the sight of his hero LeVar Burton, and so many moments that either made me double over in laughter or applaud at the audacity and execution. Hey, NBC: no one will remember "Whitney" the second after it's canceled, while "Community" (even with its terrible ratings) is one for your time capsule.
4. "Justified" (FX)
Leap, taken. Not only was Margo Martindale hypnotic and fantastic as the cold, immovable Mags Bennett, not only was Walton Goggins somehow even better in season 1 at showing Boyd Crowder trying to go straight in a world that didn't want him to, not only were the serialized story arcs better integrated with the standalone adventures, but the show was simply more confident in itself and its hero than a year ago. Where season 1 climaxed with Raylan pulling his gun and shooting everyone in sight because that's what we expected of him, season 2 recognized that it could strip away some of Raylan's armor, make him vulnerable, show him solving problems without violence (or even the threat of it) and he would still be a riveting main character. (If anything, Timothy Olyphant seemed energized by the chance to play a less omnipotent Raylan.)
3. "Louie" (FX)
Like "United States of Tara," here was a comedy that decided in a later season it would probably rather be a drama - and got better as a result. Like "Community," here was a series where you never knew exactly what kind of show you'd be tuning into in any given week - and one that tended to have a higher batting average on its experiments. What made "Louie" unlike those shows, and everything else on television, was its powerful, unmistakable authorial voice. It's not just that Louis CK writes, directs, edits and helps score every episode, on top of being the only actor to appear every week. It's that the show is so unapologetically shown through his worldview, which is at once self-lacerating and yet surprisingly openhearted. TV Louie has a low opinion of himself, but has great hope for the world around him, and that dichotomy is clear whether he's stumbling through a valley in Afghanistan after a runaway duckling, having an awkward confrontation with real-life rival Dane Cook or fantasizing about a house he can't remotely afford. By getting complete creative control in exchange for a drastically-reduced budget, CK has not only given us one of TV's best series, but hopefully has created a business model that others will be able to follow soon.
2. "Breaking Bad" (AMC)
Season after season, the thing that impresses me most about "Breaking Bad" - yes, more than Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul's acting, more than the gorgeous cinematography, more than the moments that make me gasp and the others that make me laugh - is simply the patience of it. Vince Gilligan and company will take their time, thank you, and they will make everything better for making you wait. Just think about the boxcutter scene from the season premiere: what Gus (Giancarlo Esposito, brilliant all season) does with the boxcutter itself is riveting, but what makes the scene immortal is what happens before and after, when we watch him dress and undress twice, just because that's how Gus rolls and because Walt and Jesse have to sit there and watch him do it (twice). Or think of how carefully the show doled out Gus's backstory, until a lot of viewer sympathy swung wildly away from Walt and towards Gus. Think of how perfectly three seasons of hearing Tio Salamca ring that bell paid off in the season finale. This is a show that moves carefully, thinks through all the angles and then smacks you upside the head and down with its genius. If "Breaking Bad" season 3 put the show into consideration for the all-time pantheon, season 4 confirmed that the show belongs there. And if you don't believe me, ask The One Who Knocks:
1. "Parks and Recreation" (NBC)
Not long after I published last year's top 10 list, I got an email from a reader who wondered why comedies don't get consideration lately for the top spot on these lists by most critics. My first impulse was to say that we had just finished a decade featuring a collection of the greatest dramas to ever appear on the small screen, and that it would be very hard for a comedy to elbow "The Sopranos," "The Wire," "Deadwood," "Mad Men" and now "Breaking Bad" out of first place. But then I thought about it some more, and realized I was succumbing to the same kind of thinking that makes it impossible for, say, a great comedy to get any kind of Oscar traction. We're just hard-wired to think of drama as "better," even as we're also aware that comedy is harder to execute than drama is. Is the genius of "Arrested Development" somehow lesser because it's ultimately silly? I don't know.
And as the months went along, the harder it became for me to ignore what an absolutely transcendent year "Parks and Recreation" was having. The spring episodes comprised the most flawless, satisfying comedy season I'd witnessed in years, and while the fall episodes have had a few stumbles (mainly involving the writing for Chris Traeger), overall it's been a very strong season, and one that quietly, brilliantly built towards last week's fantastic Christmas episode, which summed up all the reasons why this is my number one TV show of the year.
I think we have a bias towards great dramas not just because they're more serious by design, but because they seem to hit us on a visceral level. There are moments when I watch "Breaking Bad" where I forget to breathe, scenes on "Friday Night Lights" where I'm not ashamed to admit that my eyes get pretty moist, "Louie" stories that fill me with so much empathy for this lonely, miserable SOB.
But overwhelming joy is a visceral reaction, too, and that's the feeling I get these days watching "Parks and Recreation." Yes, it can be a gut-bustingly funny comedy (Chris ordering himself to stop pooping, Ron Effing Swanson dancing in a tiny hat, or Leslie and Ben taking their Model UN rivalry way, way too seriously), and that alone is an impressive achievement. But what puts "Parks and Rec" over the top for me is the sheer level of happiness it creates in me as I watch it. It's a political comedy with a fundamentally optimistic viewpoint. It generates most of its comedy not by mocking its characters for being inept (though when they're inept, they are epically inept, as in everything to do with Entertainment 720), but by showing the ways in which they are incredible. It's a show that's overflowing with love and understanding for all of its characters (except maybe poor Jerry, but at least it pities his suffering), one that can be unbelievably romantic and sweet about things that would be so easy to just mock, whether it's Leslie and Ben's shared love of a particular bench in City Hall or April and Andy's impulsive, reckless, immature decision to get married on a day's notice. (Andy to the surprised wedding guests: "I cannot emphasize how little we thought about this.")
In 2011, no show gave me greater pleasure to watch, week after week, than "Parks and Recreation."
Honorable mentions: "Curb Your Enthusiasm," which had a season with three episodes ("The Palestinian Chicken," "The Vow of Silence" and "Mister Softee") that were 100% pure, concentrated "Curb" brilliance, and a bunch of others that were middling to good; "Archer," which went unexpectedly, at times movingly serious with a story arc about Archer getting breast cancer (okay, so maybe only so serious); "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia," which had one of its strongest overall seasons over at a fairly advanced age; "Cougar Town," which, like "Community," has no home for mid-season and is more deserving than several of the ABC comedies that will; "Doctor Who," which had maybe my favorite season of the modern era; "30 Rock," which isn't quite what it used to be but is still capable of giving us the likes of "Operation Righteous Cowboy Lightning" and Liz and Carroll breaking up on the worst airline flight ever; "The Good Wife" and "Parenthood," which no longer share a timeslot but together still prove that it's possibly to tell rich, character-driven stories within the confines of a broadcast network drama; and "Chuck," which has had its ups and downs in recent years but seems to be gathering some nice momentum for a sprint to the series finale.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org