I’ve been kind of disappointed with films this year (the amazing The Artist notwithstanding). On the other hand, I’ve been more than impressed with the selection of television shows in 2011. To wit…
Fringe constantly reinvented itself in 2011, providing three completely different characters for the criminally un-nominated Anna Torv to play and ending Season Three on a note that allowed it to completely reboot in Season Four with completely different stakes. And no, I’m not just saying that because I helped write a book about it.
At first I wasn’t even going to bother. Another show about terrorism? But the great reviews kept trickling in. And it was on right after Dexter. Turns out the Best New Show hype was for reals. The tone was so unique. Grim, but not humorless. And increasingly involving. A perfect balance of character study and plot machinations building to some pretty layered “Holy shit!” moments as the season wore on. And for a storyline that seemed to have a built in destruct sequence after one season, they set themselves up for what could be an amazing Season Two.
After a solid but not especially memorable Season Five, Dexter returned to show there are still plenty of facets to explore in the life of everyone’s favorite serial killer/vigilante. This season it was religion and spirituality, and they didn’t skimp on the nuance. They could have easily gone with some wholly anti-religious crackpot bent, but instead the writers presented a much more challenging depiction of religion and how it plays out in different characters’ lives, brought home in particlar by an Emmy-worthy turn from Mos Def. And though I was semi-spoiled for one of the season’s big reveals, the final seconds (indeed the final words) of the season were jaw-dropping in a way not seen since Season 4.
7. Boardwalk Empire
Building off an incredible first season, Boardwalk Empire reshuffled the deck to present new conflicts, new characters, and deeper insights into some of my favorite characters, Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams) and Eli Thompson (Shea Whigham). All building to one of the most heartbreaking season finales I’ve ever seen.
6. Downton Abbey
This almost didn’t make the list as, until the end of the year, it just sat in my Netflix streaming queue waiting for Linda Holmes’ endless recommendations to reach a tipping point. Finally, in one marathon session, Dr. Wife and I knocked out the whole damn thing. We just couldn’t stop. Which is surprising because the machinations of upstairs/downstairs living in early 20th century England is not the sort of thing I’d usually be into. But if anyone can make that compelling, it’s Gosford Park scribe Julian Fellowes, who gives a stellar cast delectable dialogue.
5. Doctor Who
With the first two episodes of this season, showrunner Steven Moffat drew a Lost-like line in the sand declaring that the story arcs of previous years were nothing compared to what was about to unfold. While the characterizations were to remain just as compelling, the narrative thread was about to become an intricate web whose complexity was only hinted at in the (admittedly more solid) Season Five. But I happen to like complexity, especially when it’s rewarded throughout the season with jaw-dropping reveals that add to instead of detract from the coherence of the arc. Oh, and he happened to introduce a new villain on par with the Weeping Angels in terms of creativity and how-the-hell-do-you-fight-that? mind-fuckery.
Ending Season Two as arguably the best show on television and running through what is hopefully only half of Season Three as maybe not that great, but certainly as ambitious, Community has redefined the boundaries of what the half hour comedy can be. Granted, I’m a big fan of genre-tweaking, which has become the show’s stock and trade, but the important thing is that they’ve done it without sacrificing character. In fact, they’ve kept all of those tweaks deeply rooted in character, perhaps never more-so than in “Critical Film Studies.” Tell me one other show that could even come close to pulling off a meta-narrative exploration of storytelling that incorporates Pulp Fiction, My Dinner with Andre, and Cougar Town.
Also, Donald Glover. Always Donald Glover.
Four episodes. That’s it. Season One had only six episodes but even that seems indulgent compared the lean storytelling you get with Season Two of the best damn detective show on television. Idris Elba continues to explore the dark recesses of the human soul with his searing portrayal of DCI John Luther and the crazy, clever, and genuinely frightening (instead of just novel, which is what you usually get in these stories) serial killers (and B-plot scumbags) he encounters. We also get to see the evolution of DS Justin Ripley (Warren Brown) from sidekick to driving force. My only complaint: not enough Alice (Ruth Wilson).
Oh, and who else desperately wants a Sherlock/Luther crossover?
2. Game of Thrones
Much adoration has already been thrown at this one, so I’ll only add that the hype you’ve heard is true. This really is one of the best shows on television. It’s utterly involving. Utterly unpredictable. Shockingly so. And yes, Peter Dinklage deserved that Emmy. And people who’ve read the novels tell me I ain’t seen nothing yet.
1. Parks and Recreation
When I first heard about Parks and Recreation I thought of it as the red-headed stepchild of The Office. And for the first half-season it was still trying to figure its way out of that box. But as it evolved in Season Two and especially in the one-of-the-best-seasons-of-telelvision-ever Season Three, it became it’s own wonderful thing. A sincere, natural, believable, and yet sweet, even verklempt-inducing comedy. And Season Four looks to be just as strong. I’ve already caught myself getting Up levels of weepy on more than one occasion. As much of my list as is devoted to dark, hour-long melodrama, the day of the half hour comedy is not nearly over, and there is so much more left to do. Parks and Recreation is doing most of it.
Honorable Mentions: Archer, Boss, The Big Bang Theory, Modern Family, True Blood, Breaking In