It’s that time of year. As shoppers raid the department store sales, I mark the end of the year in my own crazily secular way: by raiding my DVR. Sadly, while I watch an awful lot, I simply can’t watch everything (sorry, Boss andParks and Recreation!) Forthwith, you’ll find the very best of what I did see on TV at some point between January 1, 2011, and now. I salute ten that, for me, were tops, but if you don’t see your own personal favorites, there’s a fair chance I still enjoyed them (ie, Downton Abbey, Bored to Death, Game of Thrones, Modern Family, Nurse Jackie, Raising Hope). Or maybe not (Glee,Mildred Pierce). But as you’ll see, this season gave me plenty of reason to smile:
Episodes: Everything about the construction of this seven-ep season was clever: its incisive look at Hollywood life, the culture clash between LA and London, and how the studio system can impoverish rich material. Plus it introduced Tamsin Greig and Stephen Mangan to a larger audience and reminded those who may have forgotten just what a loose, self-effacing actor Matt LeBlanc can be.
Friday Night Lights: The final season of this NBC gem was certainly drenched in sentiment, but it continued to host the best cast of younger actors to be found in one place, while Connie Britton and Kyle Chandler continued to place the most genuinely loving married couple since Clair and Cliff Huxtable. It will be hard to find a new place that pays such tribute to the virtues of home and community.
Enlightened: This half-hour HBO show may have had a half-hour running length, but it was in no way your typical sitcom. Instead, it was a kaleidoscope, with each episode furthering (and yes, sometimes, blurring) the image of Amy Jellicoe (Laura Dern), a divorcee living back home with her mom and stumbling through an insulting data entry job after a mental breakdown. Drowning in self-help vitriol that she espouses outwardly more than applying inwardly, Amy was frustrating but deeply human. And even when she couldn’t get herself to work on time, it was clear that Dern was working overtime to treat her character with love and understanding.
Happy Endings: Meanwhile, this half-hour ABC show is everything the modern sitcom should be. If theFriends’ sextet showed twentysomethings moving on up in the world, Endings’ six thirtysomethings exemplify what it’s like to be stuck where you never thought you’d be. Adam Pally and SNL alum Casey Wilson get most of the attention, but co-stars Eliza Coupe, Damon Wayans, Jr., Zachary Knighton, and – most surprisingly – Elisha Cuthbert all have a mean funny bone. This is one of the two great comedic ensembles currently on television (see below for the other).
Justified: This Kentucky-fried modern-day Western not only improved upon an accomplished debut in its second season, it gave us some of the tube’s finest characters. There was Margo Martindale’s crime queen Margo Bennett (winning the long-overdue vet her first Emmy) and brilliant turns by Jeremy Davies and Brad William Henke as the Bennett boys, not to mention awesome work from Walton Goggins as hillbilly Boyd Crowder. But it’s the underrated Timothy Olyphant, in the role of his career as Raylan Givens, who carries this show, bridging its humorous tone and in-your-face violence. He’s the new Steve McQueen. (What, you thought it was Jason Statham?)
The League: The other great comedic ensemble can be found in this low-brow bro-com, a descendant ofIt’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Party Down in their early days. This partially improvised show about six friends and their fantasy football league, like Friday Night Lights, only has as much to do with pigskin as the audience brings to it. The characters’ zippy punch lines and loving insults are as perfect a depiction of modern male friendship as you’ll find in any medium.
Homeland: The most talked-about show of the season, thanks to career-high work from Claire Danes, Damian Lewis, and Mandy Patinkin, and top-notch writing (Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa created the show) that made every episode count with smartly-telegraphed turns. How many dramas are willing to tackle both conspiracy theories and bipolar disorder? If Showtime keeps this up, it will become the new HBO.
Awkward.: MTV hit its first bulls-eye with this scripted series about the tormented resilience of high school teens. A smart cast (led by the terrific Ashley Rickards) showed how the pecking order takes shape, and that as experienced as they may be, kids will still be kids. Using their own believable, un-Juno-like jargon (example line of dialogue: “I needed to tell Tamara that I had given Matty the gift of my Vagi”), Lauren Iungerich’s comedy was both empathic and sharp. It puts the “joc” in “jocular.”
Louie: There was no reason for Louis C.K.’s comedy to work, and yet it has done more to advance the genre than anything since Seinfeld. C.K. uses personal embarrassment and upset to feed a series of awkwardly amusing encounters with members of the opposite sex, fellow comedians (an ep featuring Joan Rivers was a highlight), and his daughters and to ruminate on matters large (war) and small (masturbation). Plus he does it all, as writer, director, star, and even editor. This is a show people will look at in years to come as a game changer.
Breaking Bad: Yes, the series is that good (though I maintain its earlier seasons, in which Bryan Cranston’s Walt White entered the world of meth manufacturing while grappling with life-threatening cancer were more interesting). I consider myself lucky that I caught Vince Gilligan’s gritty drama on a weekly basis in real time; watching this riveting season in marathon form may have been too much for my blood pressure. Walt’s continued transition to kingpin marks the most exciting move to the dark side since Michael Corleone loaded a gun in a restaurant bathroom. My one suggestion? That everyone realize how extraordinary Anna Gunn is as Walt’s now-complicit wife. You’re missing out if you are not watching this.
And I’d also like to salute one of TV’s major, though constantly overlooked, MVPs. For six seasons, Jennifer Carpenter has given a consistent, nuanced performance as Debra Morgan, the foul-mouthed foster sister of the titular serial killer on Dexter. Much has been made of Dexter himself and the various baddies he’s offed on the show, but people often overlook Carpenter. They shouldn’t. In Deb, a female police officer who struggled with a promotion to lieutenant, Carpenter shades in all sorts or insecurities and competence to make her one of the more complex characters on TV. She’s bloody good.
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