While my top albums of the year list diverged from critical consensus due to a mixture of life-related ignorance and trend-related indifference, this list will look like a lot of the others you’ve seen elsewhere. It’d be nice to make a statement and be more original, but best is best. When it comes to TV, consensus tends to emerge because even critics have to limit their viewing, as it requires more of your time to watch a tv series than watching a movie or listening to an album. So the critics do some sampling, champion their favourites, and I listen.
And even though I’m selective when it comes to my TV-watching, it’s still the medium that dominates most of my time. There’s so much good TV out there that even I can’t keep up, so for 2012, I’m trying to reduce my consumption to only greatness. If a TV show can’t meet the standards of the series you see here (or fails to continue to meet previous standards), then it’s gotta go. After all, I gotta make room for other great shows (some of which might even be missing here, although probably not). So if you’d like to be more selective with your viewing, consider this a guide of what should stay in your line-up.
Honourable Mentions: Boardwalk Empire (HBO), Archer (FX), Parenthood (NBC), United States of Tara (SHO), The League (FX)
10. Cougar Town (ABC): Cougar Town isn’t the best show on this list (there are at least nine shows better), but it is easily one of the most fun and the one I most enjoy simply spending time with. That may sound like a parsing defense for a middling show, but it’s not. In many ways, creating shows with enjoyable characters is the thing that many quality TV shows have the most trouble with. I may love the other shows, but I don’t necessarily love the characters, so it’s nice to have a show that I want to hang out in, particularly one that is this whip-smart with the laughs it generates.
9. Game of Thrones (HBO): HBO had quite the task ahead of them when embarking on Game of Thrones. No, I’m not referring to wrangling a cast of dozens with impressive, undoubtedly expensive sets while trying to do right by exacting fans of George R.R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice series, although I’m sure that was difficult too. Instead, I’m referring to the even more impressive task of getting me interested in a large-scale fantasy series. Not normally my thing at all, I found myself hooked on the show fairly quickly: working out all the politicking in my head, thrilling to the zombies beyond the wall, delighting in the antics of Tyrion, hissing at that fucking Joffrey, and absolutely losing my shit at the shocking penultimate episode. If you haven’t watched this series because you’re wondering how it plays beyond book and genre fans, well I’m the proverbial outsider telling you that it works for the initiated and uninitiated alike.
8. Justified (FX): Hey, I’m surprised to see Justified this low as well, and I wrote this list. A lot of good TV out there, so it’s probably best to not get overly concerned with the ranking and instead focus on the top 10 as a whole. Justified has become my go-to recommend for people who don’t watch a lot of TV but are interested in checking out some of this great cable TV they’ve been hearing so much about. I choose it over things higher on this list because it’s the most purely entertaining of all the quality dramas on TV, delivering immediate, visceral thrills on a weekly basis, with snappy dialogue spoken by charismatic heroes and villains (and whatever Boyd Crowder is in a given week). The show made The Leap in the second season, elevated both by Margo Martindale’s stunning turn as the season’s primary antagonist as well as Graham Yost and company’s deeper understanding of what works best for the show. And while it doesn’t affect this list, it should be noted that it’s currently taking another step forward in its third season.
7. Friday Night Lights (101): The final six episodes of Friday Night Lights that aired on DirecTV’s Channel 101 presented a bit of a ranking dilemma. That’s a smaller sample size than anything on this list (including honourable mentions), making it tough to compare with full seasons of other great shows. But when an all-time great TV show has a homestretch that leads to one of the all-time great finales, it demands recognition. What’s interesting about how FNL finished up is that it was as emotionally satisfying as any final season you’ll ever see, but it achieved this by servicing a cast that was largely different from the first 2/3rds of the show. I’m struggling to think of a show of its length that embraced changes as much and as well as this one, given that the default position of most TV is maintaining status quo. But growth was the default position for this show to the very end, a tribute to the verisimilitude that made it so near and dear to all who watched it.
6. Community (NBC): When this show is at the top of its game, it is hands down the best thing on TV. It had a solid run early in the year when its wild experimentation and sheer ambition left me marveling at its ability to conquer any genre/technique/dynamic it attempted. But with that ambition comes the possibility of a challenge that can’t quite be met, which did happen enough throughout 2011 that Community finds itself on the second half of this list. Now, I’d rather have an ambitious show that doesn’t always match its own highs than something that settles for an attainable middle, but as season three developed I did begin to wonder if all its experimentation was starting to chip away at the foundation of the series. When characters are constantly changing to fit the motif of the week, it becomes difficult to invest in anything. So, I have concerns that extend past whether or not the show will even continue. But, still, “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons”, “Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking”, “Critical Film Studies”, “A Fistful of Paintballs”, “Remedial Chaos Theory”, “Documentary Filmmaking: Redux”, ya know?
5. The Good Wife (CBS): No show matches The Good Wife’s ability to mix the serialized with the standalone, making each as important and interesting as the other. In fact, I’m trying to figure out the last show that even came close (early West Wing, maybe?). As a result, I find myself looking forward to new episodes of this more than any other show on TV, as I know that something will happen every week, and because of TGW’s dedication to serialized storytelling, it will matter. This isn’t a show that will take the first five episodes of a season merely setting up story, nor is it a show that will play the same procedural beats week in and week out for a passive audience looking for the familiar. The show has moved past “great for network” to become simply “great”, while using the supposed disadvantages of network scheduling to its advantage by using its 22 episodes to experiment and build several arcs. I’d forgotten how thrilling network pacing can be.
4. Homeland (SHO): Just when I was ready to write Showtime off as a network of unfunny comedies and action dramas pushed long past their expiration dates, they come out with the unquestioned best new show of the year. There was some question on how the show would be able to stretch out what seems to be a movie-length premise into a full 12-episode season. Turns out the answer was by seemingly turning its premise on its head about two or three times throughout. Just when you thought you knew which side was what, the show flipped the script, then flipped it again. It was breathlessly thrilling, made bolder by perhaps the two best performances on television last year from Claire Danes (a mortal lock for an Emmy) and Damian Lewis. I suppose there still is a question of whether or not the premise can be sustained throughout season after season, but I’m damn excited to find out.
3. Louie (FX): Louis CK has spent the past two seasons of his show redefining what TV can be, playing with format and tone in ways as experimental as the jazz he often uses to score the series. The second season improved on the first, as CK had a better idea what he could accomplish, and had the security of a renewal to go to even deeper places than the first. There were many times in the season that didn’t even attempt humour, as the drama was enough to sustain a segment or even a full episode (there were also more single-episode stories this time, as opposed to multi-segment anthologies), and they were as engrossing as his blistering comedy. It’ll be interesting to see if Louie becomes a blueprint for future TV development, handing the reigns to creative people by keeping the budget low, or if the list of people willing and able to create, write, direct, edit, produce, and star in a series this good for next to nothing is limited to Louis CK.
2. Breaking Bad (AMC): So is it too early to re-open the greatest TV show ever debate yet? On the one hand, yes, we need to see how Vince Gilligan and company stick the landing before we know where it shakes out. On the other hand, people are already doing it. And that was before yet another season of jaw-dropping, I-can’t-believe-that-happened-I-will-spend-the-next-week-thinking-about-it moments that are Breaking Bad‘s stock and trade. Now, if we’re talking best show of all-time, I guess I should defend why I’m not ranking it best of the year (as I did last year). If I’m honest, there were times early this past season where I was getting ever-so-slightly impatient with Walt’s impotence and another round of Walt and Jesse estrangement (even as I appreciated the drama of each). But that’s mostly splitting hairs, as I still rank it the best drama on television, and, you know: Box Cutter, “I’m the one who knocks”, Crawl Space, ding-ding-ding. Awesome.
1. Parks and Recreation (NBC): When I first envisioned giving P&R the top spot on my list a few months ago, I felt pretty good about myself and my bold decision to give show of the year honours to a comedy. Then Sepinwall named it his best show of the year and I didn’t feel so special anymore. Guess that’s why you shouldn’t wait this long to post a year-end list. But when a show has a year as consistently perfect as Parks and Recreation did in 2011, you give it the top honours and worry about being original another time. I talked in the Community write-up about how I’d rather see its ambition than settling for mediocrity (*cough* Modern Family *cough*); well, Parks and Rec is the perfect balance: a show of ambition that operates on a high level week in and week out. I watch this and see a show that seems to have it all figured out. Ruthlessly funny, the show is close to Cougar Town-levels of hang out quality, as the entire cast brings something to the table while exhibiting enough warmth to illicit genuine empathy from the audience. These are people who like each other, backed by skilled joke writing, and ambitious world building, giving it stable footing to try different things. It is a comedy who can afford an episode where the jokes don’t all land because we care about its characters and enjoy being with them, that just so happens to consistently land its jokes as well.