As has been a tradition here near the end of the year, we like to focus on the top ten shows of the year — but do it in a rather different sort of fashion. As opposed to just listing off the same ol’ list as every other TV critic, we try to look at the grander scope of things — not only are the shows here among the best of 2011, they are also the ones that are surely going to have a cultural impact in the years to come.
These shows define 2011, and they also remind us why we love watching TV so much to begin with.
“Breaking Bad” (AMC) – The critical favorite
If you ask the majority of TV critics about their favorite show of 2011, they’re likely to put “Breaking Bad” at the top of the list. It’s a dark, violent, beautiful, and strangely meaningful show with one of the most complicated characters on TV in Walter White.
Usually, the fourth season of any program is the time in which the quality really starts to taper off — but that wasn’t the case here. “Bad” instead got better in better, with the Walter / Gus plotline becoming a story that will play out for ages.
“Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” (NBC) – The joy of late-night comedy
It took Jimmy Fallon over a year to get it right, but he’s now become the most engaging host in all of late-night TV. “Late Night” is the only comedy show that genuinely feels like a party. One night, you’re watching Jimmy dress up like Justin Bieber, and the next he’s rapping alongside Justin Timberlake or racing go-carts with Willow Smith.
Jimmy has the best band on TV in The Roots backing him up, and it also has something that many other shows are genuinely envious of — a staff that cares about making the audience happy. Even when a joke doesn’t work, you can tell there was love put into it — you just can’t frown watching the guy. Is there any other talk show out there where you can really say that?
“The Voice” (NBC) – The real singing star
“American Idol” this year added two new judges, and neither one of them seemed to understand how to actually give constructive criticism. Meanwhile, all the Simon Cowell snark in the world could not save “The X Factor” from feeling stale, overproduced, and in desperate need of judges willing to play a fair game.
While you could say that “The Voice” suffered from judges who were at times too nice, the structure of the show was never constructed to be mean-spirited or overly critical. Instead, we were given a surprisingly great singing show from NBC — one featuring a panel of “coaches” with great chemistry, an audition process that is creative and entertaining, and a host in Carson Daly who feels comfortable in his own skin.
It’s still to be seen how “The Voice” fares in season 2 — but even without a winner in Javier Colon that can sell records like Scotty McCreery, this was the most entertaining (and entertaining) entry into the overdone “singing competition” entry this year.
“How I Met Your Mother” (CBS) – The late bloomer
There’s no question after watching the end of season 6 and the start of season 7 — “How I Met Your Mother” may very well be the saddest sitcom on TV. With that being said, it’s also one of the few where you really feel like these people are your friends.
Executive producers Craig Thomas and Carter Bays have done a spectacular job over the years of allowing us to watch these characters grow up, and there is no other show of its kind that pays this much attention to detail. The slap bet returned this year. So did Victoria and the Slutty Pumpkin. We also saw the passing of Marshall’s father (one of the few times all year I personally shed a tear watching TV) and the revelation that Robin could not have children.
While there are many moments that “How I Met Your Mother” made us laugh in 2011, it’s the quiet, tender, scenes that we are going to remember for years to come.
“The Killing” (AMC) – The ongoing mystery
Can we still a love a show even when they do not necessarily give us as viewers what we want? This was a key question that “The Killing” posed when it ended its first season by not solving the murder of Rosie Larsen. Some viewers were upset — some vowed to never watch again — and the ending is something that is being debated even to this day.
Carried by a nuanced and chilling performance from Mireille Enos, “The Killing” managed to achieve something that American TV sees very little of these days — a murder mystery without limits. The payoff to a story should not be dictated by an episode count. No other show of its kind is willing to be so polarizing, and in that sense no other show is willing to be so gripping to watch.
“The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” (Bravo) – The truth about reality
The first season of “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” was a guilty pleasure — it was silly, dramatic, senseless, and oftentimes so over-the-top that it was uncomfortable to see people blab so incessantly about things that only they would care about. Then, the second season made us realize what the word “uncomfortable” really meant in the context of TV.
Many people would argue that “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” is a more worthy choice here as a reality show, mainly because the family has dominated the headlines. However, there is a distinct difference between the circus of Kim Kardashian’s personal life and the terrible tragedy that has enveloped Taylor Armstrong’s — how the cameras capture it.
While the Kardashian are apt to exploit, the “Housewives” brought a sense of discomfort and pain that was brewing under the surface. This may be one of the few reality shows where there are true lessons to be learned, and we can only hope through all this that Taylor becomes a champion. This may not be the “best” show of the year in terms of entertainment, but its significance in the debate of reality TV vs. real life cannot be ignored.
“Community” (NBC) – The underdog
As the only entry from last year’s edition to make it this time, hats off to “Community” — a show that proves that humor can exist within multiple timelines, tragic glee clubs, blanket fort bedrooms, and anime-themed ping-pong battles.
It’s true that season 3 thus far may not be as consistent as season 2 (and some of the characters, particularly Britta and Shirley, tend to be nearing caricature territory at times), but there is no show as daring, as smart, or as downright hysterical. On most other network stations “Community” would already be canceled — and as upset as many are at NBC for not having it on the midseason schedule, we have to first and foremost be grateful for what we have.
As the months pass until the show returns with new episodes, it’s likely that we will all see just how big of a hole there is on network TV without it — “Community” challenges us to think outside the box, and to realize that you don’t have to tell a comedic story in a traditional way.
“Pan Am” (ABC) – The rough takeoff
You could say that “Pan Am” was a show that was doomed to crash before takeoff. The marketing campaign decided to advertise what appeared to be “Sex and the City” aboard a plane — and the first two episodes of the series demonstrated that at times as there was a show in serious need of direction.
Then, episode three rolled around — and by the time many people tuned out, this airline drama became smart, enthralling, and even at times moving. In the midst of some lighthearted stories, we also had Karine Vanasse‘s character of Collette collapse in Germany under the weight of her haunting past — and the tears quickly started to flow.
“Pan Am” managed to become a fantastic show overnight following the first two episodes, and we really wish we could see more of these pilots and stewardesses conduct spy missions, fall in love, and navigate their way through history. If you’re looking for a show to catch up on over the holidays, book a pan am flight. This show is proof that not all series should be counted out right away, and it also shows just how vital marketing is to making your work a success.
“The Oprah Winfrey Show” (syndicated, ABC) – The one and only
There may never be another show with the gravitas of “Oprah.” The show was a conversation-starter not only for the viewers, but also the guests. Being on “Oprah” was a status symbol, a sign that you had truly talked to someone who was making a different in the world.
Even just seven months removed from the last edition of the show, Oprah Wifrey’s absence has left a big hole in the daytime TV lineup. With apologies to Anderson Cooper and Ellen DeGeneres, there’s no one on TV who feels as important or as groundbreaking. Even Oprah’s new network fails to have the same impact as a simply one-hour show from Chicago — one that aired a finale in May almost as talked-about in America as the Royal Wedding.
As a television writer, it’s impossible to cover every show — nonetheless, this Oprah neophyte was as moved as anyone in those final moments when she hugged Steadman and walked out those doors.
Show of the Year
“Game of Thrones” (HBO)
Genre TV made a comeback in 2011. “Fringe” rose to a new level, “American Horror Story” proved that TV can become a fright-fest, and “True Blood” gave us another reminder that vampire romances don’t always work out well.
As fantastic as these shows are, none of them compared to what HBO managed to achieve with “Game of Thrones.” While “True Blood” and some other TV shows (“The Vampire Diaries,” “Pretty Little Liars,” “Dexter”) have shown that drifting from your source material can be effective, “Thrones” was daring enough to actually stay close to author George R.R. Martin‘s source material– and even with Martin on board production. When there are shifts (such as the change in Dany’s age), they are done so with the utmost precision. It’s a big risk having a chunk of your audience know exactly what will happen, but it paid off.
“Thrones” is a series that many doubted would ever make it to the small screen, mainly because there are so many characters, so much backstory, and even so much sex and violence that many audiences would shudder. It’s also a show that ran the risk of polarizing anyone who can into the premiere completely unaware of the books before it. I had never read a single page of Martin’s work before tuning in — and yet, here it is as the Show of the Year.
Ultimately, we did not feel so captivated, invested, or torn to pieces with any other show this year as we were with “Thrones.” While Peter Dinklage has been given his due recognition, Sean Bean and Emilia Clarke may be the two most overlooked performers of the decade thus far. The execution scene is a TV moment destined for history, as was the closing image of a bold woman — once afraid and forced into a marriage with a stranger by her very brother — rising out of fire as a warrior.
Just how lacking has the fantasy genre been on TV? “Game of Thrones” was the best of its kind for a generation the moment it premiered — and now that season one is over, there may not be another fantasy series that can touch it.
Of course, we want to hear your picks below or at my Twitter page @MattCarterMedia! Thanks again to everyone for reading — you are the reason this page exists, and your support makes me as a writer eternally grateful.