Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Dan's Top 10 TV Shows of 2011

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

2011's nearly over, so it's time for my traditional end-of-year Top 10 list. Below you'll find my 10 favourite television shows (drama/comedy) that aired the majority of their episodes in 2011.


  • Given the aforementioned "majority rule", my list can include US dramas that actually started in Sep-Dec 2010, provided they finished around Apr-Jun 2011. If a TV show aired 50% of its season in 2011, it counts.
  • This list is my subjective opinion, with results drawn from the TV shows I happened to watch over the past year or so. I don't doubt there were brilliant shows I missed that deserved a place here, or shows I didn't stick with long enough to watch them improve and deserve inclusion, but my Top 10 is purely based on what I saw from beginning to end, on either a US or UK schedule.
And now, the list...

10. Boardwalk Empire
(Season 2) It's fair to say Boardwalk Empire's first season, while brilliant in many ways, had definite storytelling problems. The biggest being its slothful pace and difficulty to make audiences care about many of the characters and events. I'm so pleased the writers took stock of the situation and made clever changes this year, which led to a far more satisfying and rewarding drama. It was easier to understand what was going on, character's allegiances were much clearer, there was more emphasis on stirring action, it contained truly brutal violence (a scalping and garroting proved particularly memorable), the brilliant Michael Kenneth Williams was given more to do as the clenched Chalky White, new characters were introduced who worked nicely (like Charlie Cox's beguiling-yet-ruthless IRA hitman), and the excellent Jack Huston was afford extra opportunities to give depth to his facially-disfigured character Richard Harrow. It's still not the crown jewel HBO wants it to be, but the writers' confidence is growing and things are taking shape. HBO / SKY ATLANTIC (premiere review)

9. Spartacus: Gods Of The Arena
Prequels have earned a bad reputation on the big screen, but Spartacus: Gods Of The Arena showed how to do one very well on the small-screen. The fact this miniseries only came to exist because the late Andy Whitfield was diagnosed with cancer is amazing, because it's far from the lazy placeholder it could have been. Over a lean, mean half-dozen episodes, Gods introduced a few new characters and provided juicy back-story for the old favourites. There's nothing deep about Spartacus, but it's also far from the mindless, bloodthirsty spectacle it appears to be at first glance. I like things that feel very unique, and despite influences from many different sources (particularly the appropriation of 300's visual style), there's nothing else on television like Spartacus. It's irreverent, violent, sexy, shocking, and usually provides more raw drama in an hour than other shows manage in a whole season. While it's on, there's few other shows I'm more excited to sit down and watch. STARZ / SKY1 (review archive)

8. Justified
(Season 2) Yet another improvement this year was Justified, which realised its serialised stories were of greater appeal than most of the standalones, so course-corrected for its second season. This year had more of an ongoing story involving a criminal family led by Mags (Margo Martindale in Emmy-winning form), and the way the story built over time led to very impressive and dramatic payoff in the latter-third. The show proved it didn't have to keep relying on Timothy Olyphant's charisma and swagger as Raylen Givens, as the writers found firm and convincing ways to expand the show. FX / FIVE USA (premiere review)

7. Doctor Who
(Series 6) Here's the thing with Doctor Who: even when it has a weak year in some ways, it remains one of the most entertaining and appealing sci-fi shows around. There's just such a lot of heart and passion on display it's wonderful to just sit back and let it rinse your brain. Most of the episodes not written by Steven Moffat felt redundant this year (a fault of the decision to make series 6 more serialised than ever before), but a few were perhaps the most memorable—like Neil Gaiman's outstanding "The Doctor's Wife". The storytelling was epic this year, but not always handled in a satisfyingly way, with too much emphasis on the interminable River Song mystery. There was also concern from fans who started to think Moffat's tenure is too scary/complex for younger minds. The debate rages on, but it's probably worth mentioning that Douglas Adams once claimed Doctor Who should be "simple enough for adults and complicated enough for children". Anyway, I think a bigger problem is that Moffat enjoys biting off more than he can chew, and adores the challenge of getting himself out of narrative corners. When he manages it with aplomb, there's nothing more cathartic and joyful to watch unfold... but when he doesn't, the feeling of disappointment can really sting. Series 6 overreached, but I'm glad it's aiming for the stars. BBC1 / BBC AMERICA (review archive)

6. Fringe
(Season 3) The season that stopped trying to appeal to newcomers and instead aimed to please and delight the fanbase, Fringe's third season was a fantastic example of a show finding its voice in maturity. By slitting the show between two universes, it gained depth and intrigue on two fronts, and simultaneously allowed the actors to explore alternate versions of their existing characters. Anna Torv bloomed before our eyes because she was finally given the material she clearly craved as "Fauxlivia", and the show galloped through its year having a great deal of fun with its hard sci-fi premises. The only reason Fringe isn't slightly higher on my list is because the final batch of episodes floundered to some extent, and setup an idea that's proven to be problematic in season 4, but its breathtaking first half makes it a worthy chart entry. FOX / SKY1 (review archive)

5. Louie
(Season 2) This micro-budget comedy from US comedian Louie C.K is one of the best things on TV because there's just so much creative freedom on show. FX have such a low financial stake that ratings don't matter quite so much, so Louie can create a quasi-autobiographical world that pushes the boundaries of what people expect from a comedy... even a black comedy. Bookended by footage of his stand-up, each episode is like a fantastic indie movie that isn't afraid to challenge various conventions. It's Curb Your Enthusiasm with added piss and vinegar. The second season was a huge improvement on the first, covering such things as Louie's racist great aunt, having sex with Joan Rivers, the shocking decapitation of a homeless man, a defence of masturbation, the suicide of a fellow comedian, a trip to Afghanistan to perform for the troops, and a wonderful twist on the rom-com cliché of the "airport farewell". FX

4. Game Of Thrones
(Season 1) It took time to warm up and for audiences to get to grips with the sheer abundance of characters, but HBO's Game Of Thrones became must-see television by its sixth episode. Readers of George R.R Martin's books were in heaven much earlier, of course, which is a benefit of already knowing these characters and the fictional realm of Westeros. For newcomers, it took some faith to get through hours of what appeared to be a glum and magic-free Lord Of The Rings. But I'm glad I stuck with it, as the second half was so much stronger and included some of 2011's most jaw-dropping TV moments (including the untimely death of a very significant character). Perhaps the best thing about Thrones is the feeling that season 2 can only get better, now that the exposition's been dealt with and we're fully immersed in these characters' lives, with a real understanding of what makes them all tick. HBO / SKY ATLANTIC (pilot review)

3. Community
(Season 2) The absolute best comedy on television, no question, but I'm speaking as someone who gets most of its references. The problem Community has is that it' plays to the geeks very blatantly, as those people are on the same wavelength as the people writing the scripts, and the TV-obsessed character of Abed (Danny Pudi). It must look like bright, zany gibberish to anyone who doesn't know RoboCop's Prime Directives or what a Vogon is, but I was pleased this show refused to become more accessible to the masses. Just like Fringe's third year, Dan Harmon's team decided to amplify everything fans enjoyed about season 1, which meant more in-jokes and feverish pop-culture creativity. What other TV shows does a Tarantino special that owes more to '80s arthouse darling Dinner With Andre? Or could make a tense and exciting episode from people sat around a table playing Dragons & Dungeons? Or goes to the trouble of making a fake "clip show"? Or has the gumption and budget to produce a fully stop-motion animated Christmas special? Only Community. NBC (review archive)

2. Homeland
(Season 1) This was on my radar for 2011 given its compelling premise and inclusion of so many former-24 writers, but I never expected Homeland to be quite so brilliant. Based on an Israeli series called Prisoners Of War, this cable series told the story of an American PoW rescued from Iraq and flown home to be with his family, who comes under suspicion from a committed CIA operative of being a brainwashed terrorist now working for the people who captured him. Beautifully acted by Claire Danes and Damian Lewis, with fine support from Mandy Patinkin and David Harewood, Homeland kept the plot moving in a plausible and invigorating way, while refusing to treat the audiences like idiots. The "thinking man's 24" is a phrase I've used a lot to describe this show, but that's exactly what it is. The perfect spy thriller for the Obama era. SHOWTIME (review archive)

1. Breaking Bad
(Season 4) How do you follow a third season that was showered with Emmy nominations? You make a better season, that's how. I know some people had concerns about its measured pace for the first five episodes, and others didn't like how Walt (Bryan Cranston) wasn't quite the centre of the Breaking Bad universe this year, but I had no real complaints. Unlike the terrific third season, this year kept building and building every week, until it exploded with a run of four-star episodes all the way to the staggering finale. Of particular note was Giancarlo Esposito's magnificent performance as druglord Gus, who brought a startling amount of depth and magnetism to his larger role on the show. But, really, everything was firing on all cylinders. Even the show's female characters were given better material, particularly in the first half of the year. Plus, without spoiling anything, this season contained one of the most astonishing and indelible images I saw on TV all year, which is almost reason enough to put this incredible show in my #1 spot for the second year running. AMC (review archive)

Honourable mentions, alphabetically: Being Human (series 3), Black Mirror, Fresh Meat (series 1), The Good Wife (season 2), Luther (series 2), Strike Back (series 2) & This Is England '88.

What do you think? In the comments below, free to grumble about my picks, leave your own alternative Top 10s, or suggest a few small-screen gems that I missed.