Best TV shows of 2011: Homeland, Boardwalk Empire, Louie and more
The good news for fans of popular television in this year of 2011 is a whopper:
Comedy is back. Finally.
After years of network TV threatening to line their schedules with the latest Survivor knockoff and Apprentice reboot, the success of new comedies like Fox's The New Girl and CBS’ 2 Broke Girls have made it official.
Look at the top TV shows for viewers aged 18 to 49 – the only audience big time TV really cares about – and outside of one-time specials, sports or The X Factor, you’re down to slot number 28 before you hit a show which isn’t a comedy (weirdly, CBS’ NCIS, which always felt a bit, um, older skewing with 60-year-old hero Mark Harmon).
But here’s the other surprise. There’s so many quality dramas on TV, my list of the best shows from this year only has two comedies on it. So there.
While network TV is gorging itself on profitable sitcoms and the umpteenth twist on a cops and robbers formula (c’mon, NBC, cops and fairytale villains? Really?), cable stepped up with a vengeance, pouring resources and creativity into shows which are, quite literally redefining television as we watch.
There’s so much good stuff here, in fact, that I’m not stopping at 10 choices. Because when a medium which can be dumb as television gets smart, you want to reward every bright spot you can.
1)Homeland (Showtime): A bipolar heroine CIA analyst figures a returning war hero is a secret terrorist agent, then convinces herself he’s not, then foils his plan to blow himself up beside the vice president without almost anyone – even her – knowing she pulled it off. Claire Danes at her most vulnerable and explosive.
2)Boardwalk Empire (HBO): The evolution of Steve Buscemi’s 1920-era gangster Nucky Thompson from crooked politician to full-on gangster rivals Michael Corleone’s trek from war hero to Mafia don. Seriously.
3)Louie (FX): Louie C.K.'s new comedy is a showbiz high-wire act, exploring the pathos and absurdity of a divorced, 40-something dad/comic in episodes he writes, directs, edits and stars in. The episode where he and Dane Cook play out the real-life battle over allegations Cook stole his jokes is worth the price of a Netflix subscription alone.
4)Breaking Bad (AMC): Bryan Cranston’s high school teacher-turned-meth maker Walter White outsmarts the biggest, smartest gangster in the Southwest, fully becoming the deadly criminal we always knew was inside. Props to Giancarlo Esposito for playing crime boss Gus Fring as a buttoned-down menace, even when half his face is blown off.
5)Justified (FX): Margo Martindale gave the performance of the year as a backwoods crime boss bedeviling Timothy Olyphant’s modern-day cowboy lawman Raylan Givens. Just seeing a pile of smart, smart alecky southern characters on TV is revolution enough for me.
6)Modern Family (ABC): How does a show about the funniest, three-couple family on TV keep getting better? By making the characters deeper and the situations sillier.
7)The Walking Dead (AMC): Fans grouse that this season, set in a farmhouse holding a secret stash of zombies, was too boring. But between seeing ex-lawman Shane kill a companion to escape the flesh eaters and a long-lost girl revealed to be among the walkers in the barn, I was riveted. Still, when the season’s second half starts in February, the pace better pick up.
8)Luther (BBC America): As brilliantly dysfunctional in his private life as he is inspired at catching criminals, Idris Elba’s genius-level police inspector John Luther is the most tortured character on television. Here’s hoping the show’s third season reunites him with his Hannibal Lecter, beautiful sociopath Alice Morgan.
9)Game of Thrones(HBO): A sprawling, epic, Lord of the Rings-style adventure drama willing to kill off its best characters while offering a juicy, Emmy-winning showcase for Peter Dinklage. Yes, it’s a geeky fanboy party; but it’s a lavish, well-acted one.
10)The Good Wife (CBS): Like a soap opera with substance, this show let Julianna Marguilies' wronged wife Alicia Florrick rebound from newly-awful revelations with an office fling and renewed independence. Just getting Christine Baranski, Alan Cumming, Michael J. Fox, Chris Noth, Anika Noni Rose and St. Petersburg native Monica Raymund in the same cast deserves some kind of special award.
Sons of Anarchy (FX): A biker drama played as King Lear starring gun running bad boys.
Boss (Starz): Despite occasional bouts of overacting by Kelsey Grammer, magnetic portrait of a Chicago mayor fighting enemies and a secret, degenerative disease.
Rescue Me (FX): The only series to put our collective post-9/11 trauma into a dramedy so sidesplitting, you laugh through the tears.
Men of a Certain Age (TNT): Ray Romano’s affecting drama about middle age deserved better than cancellation just as it was getting good.
The Daily Show/Colbert Report (Comedy Central): The only way to really school young audiences on current events in our ADD age, is to marry news with the bravest satirists of our generation.