Yeah, yeah, I know -- 2011 is over. You don't want to read about the 10 best shows of the old year. You're ready for the New Year. You're amped about the return of "Justified," "30 Rock," and the prospect of seeing Sucre from "Prison Break" in a dress on ABC. I hear you. But can you please bear with me for a wee bit? 2011 really did offer some mighty fine TV and I'd like to celebrate some of its offerings before we move on.
And I promise, next week we'll talk about the likes of "Shameless," "House of Lies," and how Albie's closeted boyfriend from "Big Love" looks in a pair of pumps.
But, until then, here's my list of the best TV of 2011 (Note: Some big spoilers below, so you might want to skip around the shows you haven't seen).
1. "Breaking Bad," AMC: I know. Total shocker. But this thriller-drama-black comedy about crystal meth dealers in New Mexico becomes more impressive with each passing season. Its fourth season -- while maybe a notch below its third -- delivered big time, not only charting Walt's (Bryan Cranston) further descent into a life of crime and tackling Jesse's (Aaron Paul) growing comfort with homicidal behavior, but also satisfactorily bringing the arc about drug lord Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) to a close. Cranston and Paul are, as always, almost assured Emmys come fall, but it was Esposito who was the standout this season. Since his introduction in season two, Gus has always been a compelling figure -- cold, precise, gut-wrenchingly vicious. But this season, he had more to do than ever, as there were several episodes focusing heavily on Gus and his origins. Esposito was never anything less than riveting, whether slicing someone's throat with a box cutter or coolly vomiting in an enemy's toilet. And the actor was rewarded with (SPOILER) one of the gnarliest, craziest death scenes ever, as Gus was blown up by his mortal enemy, Don Hector, and paused to straighten his tie before falling down dead. Woof. Top that, season five.
2. "Justified," FX -- A lot of people quibbled about this fine drama in its first season, saying it spent far too much time on episodic stories, and took too long to find an strong, serialized arc. I disagreed, finding many of the stand-alone episodes enjoyable. However, it's tough to argue that the show hit its stride in its almost totally serialized second season, focusing on Raylan Givens's (Timothy Olyphant) battle with canny backwoods crime empress Mags Bennett (Margo Martindale, giving the Emmy-winning performance of her career). The season also focused on Boyd (Walton Goggins) and his slow, believable return to crime, as well as on Raylan's personal life. Yes, Mags and her descent into (SPOILER) moonshine-induced suicide were the season's centerpiece. But Olyphant had some excellent material here, too, as Raylan coped with the loss of a loved one and with his rekindled relationship with ex-wife Winona (Natalie Zea). Special kudos to Nick Searcy, playing Raylan's put-upon boss, Art. With his dry wit and weary manner, he needs only a few shows an episode to remind us that Raylan might be a compelling character and a decent guy, but he's kind of a pain in the ass to work with.
3. "Friday Night Lights," DirecTV/NBC: From two dark crime dramas to one sweet, emotionally satisfying slice of life drama. In its final season, this lovely portrait of a small Texas town obsessed with football brought the stories of nearly all its important characters to fitting ends. That's particularly true of Coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) and his wife Tami (Connie Britton), who saw their marriage realistically tested but, as always, ended up stronger than ever. Yes, some people still insist its second season didn't happen but serial-killing Landry aside, "Friday Night Lights" was one of the warmest, most emotionally resonant dramas of recent years. It proved that TV doesn't have to be dark to be gripping. It just has to be very, very good.
4. "Homeland," Showtime: The best new show of the year from, believe it or not, some of the same people who brought us the pulpy guilty pleasure "24." Claire Danes, whom I often find grating, was devastatingly good as a CIA analyst who believes a recently-rescued prisoner of war (Damian Lewis) has been turned against his country and is working for a noted terrorist. She must uncover the truth, while battling naysaying colleagues and the mental illness she's keeping hidden. The show beautifully built tension throughout, and had some wonderful action set pieces. Though some quibbled with the show's finale, I thought this was smart, gripping TV from start to finish, anchored by the excellent performances of Danes and Lewis. And let's give a special shout-out to Mandy Patinkin who, donning a magnificent beard and the occasional natty hat, played Danes's mentor with grace, warmth, and just a bit of intriguing repressed rage.
5. "Game of Thrones," HBO: Just barely edged out by "Homeland" as my favorite new show, this gory, smart and emotionally gripping fantasy (based on a series of bestselling books) helped, along with "Boardwalk Empire" reaffirm HBO's reputation as a destination for quality programming. Its penultimate episode (SPOILER) shocked those who hadn't read the books by killing off a major character but, even without that bit of ballsiness, this was a fun, involving thrill ride. Excellent performances all around, with Peter Dinklage's Emmy-winning work as Tyrion Lannister as standout.
6. "Boardwalk Empire," HBO: In its second season, this prohibition-era drama hit its stride, fleshing out its characters and offering a truly shocking pair of final episodes centering on Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt). This was one of two HBO series to (SPOILER) kill off a seemingly central character, as Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) had his former sidekick Jimmy killed. It was a compelling, ballsy reboot for a show that can seem a bit cold and over-intellectualized. Always smart, "Boardwalk" showed in its second season that it also had guts and grits, of which the best shows are made.
7. "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia," FX: After languishing for a few seasons, this dark comedy regained its stride big time, perhaps inspired by star Rob McElhenney's decision to gain 50 pounds because he thought it was a funny idea. A weird idea, but it kind of worked. "Sunny" had a string of classic episodes this season, including the instant classic "CharDeeMacDennis" and the weirdly old-fashioned "The Gang Gets Trapped," which functioned a lot like a classic screwball comedy (albeit a classic screwball comedy in which a woman is forced to pee in front of her brother and two dudes contemplate opening a leather goods shop in Arizona). A couple of episodes fell flat, but mostly this was a strong, funny, pleasantly twisted season.
8. "Shameless," Showtime: The rare case of a show that I love in spite of an element I strongly dislike. William H. Macy, a typically great actor, is miscast here as an amoral, alcoholic and neglectful father who treats his five children like dirt. Love Macy. Hate the character. Hate the performance. Thankfully, the show's not really about him. It's about those five kids, led by tough, whip-smart Fiona (the luminous Emmy Rossum, in one of the year's breakout performances). The rest of the kids are played by an equally charismatic bunch of young unknown actors, including Jeremy Allen White as Fiona's genius brother and Emma Kenney as her emotionally troubled sister. Their brave attempts to survive in the Chicago projects with almost no money are emotionally compelling and often quite funny.
9. "Mildred Pierce," HBO: Classic story. Kate Winslet. Lots of beautiful cinematography of pie-making and chicken-frying. Need I say more?
10. "Modern Family," ABC: This Emmy-winning series has slipped considerably in its second and third season, yet it still delivers enough laughs and emotional heft for me to include it here. If nothing else, it contains one of the most realistic pairs of sisters to ever grace TV in Alex and Haley Dunphy (Ariel Winter and Sarah Hyland). Bickering, nasty but ultimately together through thick and thin, these two rarely strike a false note. Also, this season included Sofia Vergara's character Gloria saying the word "puberty." Automatic spot on the list.
And my selection for worst show ...
"The Killing," AMC: It doesn't matter that they didn't tell us who killed Rosie Larson. This show had so many red herrings, and so little clue as to what it was doing narratively, that it quickly went from promising to deeply disappointing. That's a shame, because it featured a lot of good performances, and had the potential to be a compelling character-based thriller. Boo, "Killing"! Boooooo!