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As 2011 draws to a close, THR‘s chief television critic, Tim Goodman, weighs in on the best that the small screen had to offer this year. Among his picks are a few fan favorites (Boardwalk Empire, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) and others that sadly won’t be returning in 2012 (Friday Night Lights, Men of a Certain Age).
Read below for Goodman’s top picks that were so good — his enthusiasm ran long.
1. Louie (FX)
Is there a comedy on television (hell, maybe even a drama) as original or inventive as Louis C.K.’s brilliant series? Doubtful. A notch up from let’s-put-on-a-show yet achieving an achingly real sense of style and place, the series mines pain, absurdity and acceptance of life’s strange twists.
2. 30 Rock (NBC)
The gold standard for network sitcoms, 30 Rock nails humor through verbal gymnastics, sight gags, physicality and a whole bunch of silliness. It’s like a shotgun blast of great ideas and one of the few series where you can laugh — out loud and real loud — more than a few times each episode.
3. Parks and Recreation (NBC)
There is something oddly comforting about the small-town world of Pawnee, Ind. There’s a bit of rural pleasantry going on — which is vivisected by the brutally funny jadedness and wisecracking of its city officials. Quirk is everywhere on Parks and Rec, but it’s not the stilted kind found on The Office. There’s a real likability to this series. Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman lead a stellar cast that populates one of the funniest fictional universes on television.
4. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (FX)
Television’s least appreciated great comedy (criminally ignored by the Emmys and the Golden Globes) takes absurdity and cruelty to new heights each season as the gang runs through one ill-fated idea after another. Rob McElhenney, Charlie Day, Glenn Howerton, Kaitlin Olson and Danny DeVito quietly have made Sunny one of the most creatively ambitious and searingly funny comedies of the past decade. At this point, it might be better if the show continues to be ignored — they don’t need anybody’s charity (and the characters would probably melt down any faux gold statuettes they got, anyway).
5. The Inbetweeners (BBC America)
The final season of this British import that rudely and hilariously addressed the coming-of-age pains of a group of boys continued to scorch the small screen, sending it out in a riotous (but nonetheless touching) blaze. Iain Morris and Damon Beesley took familiar ground and rototilled it full of audacious raunch, and Simon Bird led a bright young cast.
6. Archer (FX)
It was only a matter of time before someone outside the confines of Adult Swim made a grown-up animated series that was outrageous and smart. Creative, fearless and funny, Archer proved you could let an animated series stand alone on the schedule as long as it was exceptional.
7. Community (NBC)
There are a lot of funny series on this list that nobody’s really watching, so it’s probably unfair to single out Community for sympathy. But a little more largesse from NBC would be nice because creator Dan Harmon is proving that he and his writers are wildly creative to the point where normal ideas and boundaries seem to bore them.
8. Wilfred (FX)
If it was just a series about one guy (Elijah Wood) looking at what everybody else thinks is a dog but seeing, instead, a guy in a dog suit (Jason Gann) saying foul-mouthed things, smoking pot, drinking beer and doing very bad things to a stuffed bear, well, it would still be great. And hilarious. And wrong. But Wilfred is more than the obvious — it’s a nice take on existentialism, masquerading as a show about a guy in a dog suit.
Even when it doesn’t have its best stuff, Modern Family is still that rare sitcom that can always get a number of good laughs. And when it does have its best stuff, you’re looking at a real gem — a show that’s big-tent funny to a vast array of people with different tastes. That’s truly impressive.
10. Raising Hope (Fox)
The funniest sitcom of last season has not missed a beat this season. If people weren’t actively refusing to submit to Community, then Raising Hope might be the most underappreciated network comedy on television. It’s a series that can make you laugh at two separate jokes at the same time, even as it throws you two more (which you’ll get when you buy the DVD).
11. Enlightened (HBO)
This probably could be considered a drama as well. But unlike some of the dreary dramedies on pay cable, Enlightened is a completely different gift to viewers. Beautifully shot like an indie film, it pulsates with touching, deeply funny, odd and dramatic moments. Mike White and Laura Dern were allowed by HBO to conduct a kind of experiment in new-style storytelling.
12. Curb Your Enthusiasm (HBO)
Long after everyone thought Larry David‘s caustic genius would dull or become repetitive, Curb remained as uproariously wrong in season eight as it was in season one. In the process, David churned out insta-classics like the “Palestinian Chicken” episode.
13. Suburgatory (ABC)
After a number of strong seasons where the sitcom staged a comeback, this fall produced a rather lackluster bunch on the networks. But this classic fish-out-of-water tale (smart New York City teen gets moved to the suburbs and ends up in a paradise of weirdness and fakery) keeps hitting all the right notes. Jane Levy is a breakout star.
14. The Middle (ABC)
Joining Modern Family and Suburgatory on Wednesday nights is this perennially underappreciated sitcom. Do critics whine more about the unfairness of Community or Sunny getting shunned by the spotlight? Sure. But you also can be a decent-sized hit and have nowhere near the appreciation of your merits as you should.
15. Episodes (Showtime)
A show-within-a-show and one that is heavy on industry humor (a hit British series gets ruined by Hollywood) will probably never be a massive success, even if you put Matt LeBlanc in the starring role. But creators David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik realized rather smartly that they could capitalize on both the popularity of LeBlanc from his Friends days and the belief in some circles that LeBlanc wasn’t all that funny. In fact, he’s quite funny, and his willingness to poke fun at himself opened the door to all kinds of surprising comedic territory.
1. Breaking Bad (AMC)
There are a lot of great series on this list, but if you’re on the top, then you’re arguably the best show on television — an identifier I don’t take lightly. Only one series can fight it out with Breaking Bad, and that series, Mad Men, didn’t air in 2011. Few have all the goods that Bad does — incredible writing, exceptional acting, a stunning visual palette, brilliant use of sound and, above all, complete fearlessness. The notion of end times is always at the forefront of this series, and the devolution of main character Walter White (Bryan Cranston) from “Mr. Chips to Scarface” — in the words of series creator Vince Gilligan — has been harrowing. Walt’s grand showdown with boss and nemesis Gus Fring made this season one of the most nerve-racking and addictive in memory.
2. Game of Thrones (HBO)
Few genre series have taken on the gravitas of this fantasy epic of old worlds, warring clans and monumental scope. George R.R. Martin‘s dense stories have been re-created in massive scale on HBO and, far from being merely a fantasy nerd’s delight, have produced some of the best drama, acting and sense of place anywhere on television.
3. Boardwalk Empire (HBO)
If season one’s richly textured storytelling of the Prohibition era in Atlantic City, N.J, sometimes felt like it was too much about its tableaus, season two proved that Terence Winter and his writers were just setting up the slow crumbling of a vast number of lives. The detail in this series is so riveting that you can get lost for moments, missing the wonderful dialogue and restrained but powerful performances. Even with everything that went gloriously, dramatically sideways for the main characters in season two — sometimes seizing the day is harder than you imagine — it’s clear that Empire was built for the long haul, with story to spare.
4. Homeland (Showtime)
The best freshman drama of 2011 was as current and timely as any series has ever been — post-9/11 terror fallout not only depicted during the 10th anniversary of the tragedy but also fresh enough to include references to Osama bin Laden’s death. While the trifecta of impressive acting performances by Claire Danes, Damian Lewis and Mandy Patinkin is at the center of the show, there’s a hook that won’t let viewers go: Was an American soldier held prisoner in Iraq for eight years “turned” by the terrorists, and is he the most dangerous sleeper agent ever? It’s not a simple yes or no as Homeland humanizes and makes complex our fear of the new world order.
5. Justified (FX)
When you get Elmore Leonard so right that he can’t stop praising you, then you’ve got one hell of a show. It doesn’t get much more simple than that. But this series is deceptively simple — because mixing guns, justice and humor is a lot harder than Justified makes it look. This series is more bare-bones than others on the list — outstanding acting meets freewheeling writing and go! — but no less brilliant.
6. Boss (Starz)
Perhaps the biggest surprise on this list and a show that gave Homeland a run for the freshman crown, Boss is a visually impressive feast (of Chicago, politics, sex, personal politics and regret) that takes a backseat to the tour de force that is Kelsey Grammer‘s dramatic performance. This is a game-changer for Starz.
7. Treme (HBO)
What makes Treme — arguably the least appreciated series on this list — so superb, frame to frame, is its unique (some might say maddening) approach to storytelling. David Simon and Eric Overmyer have created a fictional retelling of mostly true events and pulled it off. Here’s a great American city, New Orleans, trying to rebuild after a tragedy. Here are the myriad people whose efforts will make that happen. Roll tape, and don’t force the issue.
8. The Walking Dead (AMC )
Anybody can make a zombie movie. It’s a lot harder to make an ongoing television series because you can only explode the heads of the undead so many times before you run out of tricks. The hook here is that Walking Dead is less about the dead (or undead) and more about the living. This series brought introspection to a genre that has over-relied on being a gorefest.
9. Southland (TNT)
After The Wire and The Shield, there didn’t seem to be a need for another cop series. What could one possibly do with a cop show after those? How about tell great stories believably with studied, fierce performances while remaining fresh and unpredictable? Yep, that’ll work.
10. Friday Night Lights (NBC)
This might be the last of the lavishly praised network dramas (though The Good Wife is making a run at it), and little more needs to be said. The final season delivered what fans wanted — emotional closure — and it’s impossible to overstate how well this cherished series closed its run. With wet eyes and sad hearts, we all won in the end.
11. Men of a Certain Age (TNT)
It never had the audience but always had an astonishing level of quality. With a brave, incredible (and completely unexpected) dramatic performance from Ray Romano, this series looked at the midlife crises of three men without delving into the superficial. It was peppered with humor but unafraid to be dark and uncompromising, its finest traits.
12. Lights Out (FX)
The real tragedy of this series being canceled after its first season wasn’t just that a wide audience missed a high-quality show and a virtuoso performance from Holt McCallany. It’s that the final episode created an entirely new avenue of riches to explore — a path to greatness in future seasons so evident that it was painfully disappointing to watch the credits roll for a final time.
13. Sons of Anarchy (FX)
This series will probably always be polarizing, with an enormous die-hard fan base and a vocal uprising of viewers who give up on its grandiose shenanigans (the season finale will only stoke that), but it’s hard to find many series that are so crazily bold, over-the-top and always in the discussion of television’s best series. Honestly, that Anarchy can make art out of mayhem is pretty damn impressive.
14. Shameless (Showtime)
Finally, share a little love for the dour and uncomfortable, emotionally awkward storytelling at the heart of Shameless. With perhaps the most unlikable patriarch on television and forays into the poor underbelly of blue-collar America, the series isn’t for everyone. But there’s real ambition and daring here, capped by a great and fearless performance by Emmy Rossum.
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