Now that you’ve digested and agreed with all of our 2011 music picks, it’s time to move on to television. Best comedies. Best dramas. Best fucking shows. Will The Dilemma realize that his self-proclaimed Golden Age of Television has passed? Will David Simon Cowell admit that he watches The X Factor, and still hasn’t gotten over Astro’s elimination? Join us after the jump.
David Simon Cowell
OK, now that I’ve sufficiently praised His name, I can turn to more mundane matters like our TV recap.
Like linking the Grammys to a year-end music recap, doing a television recap based on a calendar year also causes problems. Obviously, the traditional television season runs from September to May, meaning we’re tying together the end of one season to the beginning of another. But, given the changes in television programming and consumption, it’s probably more apt than it’s ever been.
Given the chasm of difference between comedies and dramas on television, my instinct is to treat them as separate subcategories. The problem? While television dramas have been killing it this year, television comedy has been on a steady decline for a while. Maybe this has to do with the maxim that comedy is harder than drama… cable channels can find somebody to do a memorable breakout drama more easily than a comedy. Maybe it’s because dramas are more valuable in a DVD environment… they’re more compelling when an entire season is consumed at once.
But, whatever the reasons, it seems that the sitcom hasn’t recovered from the death of Seinfeld and Friends (obviously, this entire discussion excludes the brilliant work of Whitney Cummings. To include her work would be so unfair to the more mortal comedians, it would be like comparing Tebow to any other QB).
Of the comedies that debuted this year, only Episodes, Portlandia, Up All Night and The New Girl would be defensible as every-week-watchable, and I’d kill myself before putting them on any list that starts with Top Five.
Obviously, and predictably, two unwatched comedies stand above the rest. Community has been killing it this season, but it’s hard to bemoan the low ratings of a show when the best episode (along with the Christmas Gleeathon) is a deconstruction of a 10+ year old documentary about a 30+ year old movie… it’s just not built for a mass audience, so a network is just not the right place. Parks and Recreation has hit heights the American Office didn’t even dream of hitting at its best… it’s pretty amazing when you think back to how turgid the first season was.
But to round out a Top Five for fictional comedy? I guess you’d have to put in The League, even with Taco, and It’s Sunny, making Thursday night still the destination for television comedy. And even though the show can be wildly uneven, I’ll throw in Bored To Death, mostly because I think Ted Danson’s character is the best character on television.
I disagree that comedies have been declining, particularly if you include cable comedies along with network sitcoms. The state of network comedy has always been pretty terrible. Seinfeld, Cheers and the rest were always exceptions, not rules. I wrote this year that we’re living in a golden age for television, and I believe that to be true for both comedies and dramas. 2011 may not have been quite as strong overall as 2010 (no Mad Men this year, no Terriers, no Lost, no Party Down, and most of the last season of Friday Night Lights ran in 2010 on DirecTV), but this was still a damn fine year for television.
However, the new crop of network sitcoms is legitimately awful, led by the Whitney weekly double you’ve chronicled to the point of mutual brain-washing. The best you can say for any of them is mediocrity — a tarnished crown worn by both The New Girl and Up All Night. New cable comedies didn’t fare much better: Episodes was legitimately loathsome, while both HBO and Showtime ran a pile of comedies with mostly no laughs, including Hung, Bored to Death, United States of Tara, and The Big C. Moreover, some comedies of different ages are withering. Modern Family and The League are struggling quite young in their lifespans, while both The Office and How I Met Your Mother are performing about as you’d expect for shows in their 8th and 7th seasons, respectively.
But, if you look at the top five (at least my top five) comedies, it’s still an incredibly strong group. The problem: what to do with Louie? Because of Louie, I can’t split my list into five comedies and five dramas — because Louie is at once both and neither of those things. I’m guessing you’re calling it a drama based on its lack of mention on your comedy list (unless you’ve gone full Kurtz and lost your mind in Ecuador). But since I’m not dividing my top ten by category, here are my #6-10 TV shows of the year.
10. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia: Discussed in detail here. Enjoying its strongest season in years.
9. Friday Night Lights: The last few episodes aired on DirecTV early in the year (including the wonderful finale), and the whole season aired in 2011 on NBC. So one last time, for old time’s sake: Texas forever.
8. Archer: Yet to turn in a bum episode. Due to my own biases, animated series have an increased burden to make lists like this, but Archer might have the most laughs per minute since Arrested Development.
7. Homeland: Tough to place without seeing the finale. But so far, the show’s creators have done a great job taking some of the best elements of 24, discarding the reactionary politics and (most of) the inane twists, and adding textured character portraits of broken people. Also: incredible acting by Damian Lewis and Claire Danes. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go re-watch Band of Brothers and that Soul Asylum video you posted earlier in the week.
6. Game of Thrones: The best twist of the year. The best grunting horseman of the year. The best incest of the year. The best baby dragons of the year.
Louie was just an unforgivable lapse. Even with its serious moments, I’d still count it as a comedy, and certainly put it in the top tier. I also completely forgot about South Park. It’s absolutely amazing how a show in its 15th season, that seemed gimmicky to begin with, is still the go-to place for commentary/satire on so many cultural issues. Plus, they actually pulled off adding an emotional element to the show they’ve never had (the mid-season Stan’s-parents-get-divorced episode was as uncomfortable-in-a-great-way as anything even Louie did). The way it’s held up is unprecedented in television right now, by far more impressive than It’s Sunny. There was at least a five-year span where I lost track of it because I thought it was dead (and I was probably right)… the last couple years, it’s become must-watch viewing again.
Another show with amazing staying power is The Daily Show. It’s had its ups-and-downs, and is certainly news-dependent (as is South Park), but there’s no more consistent forum for satire anywhere, let alone television. In his twelfth year, and by spurning network offers for dying-but-still-bigger late night talk shows, Jon Stewart has put together a historic run. As far as television hosts go, I can only think of two that would be in the same league: Letterman on NBC and the start of CBS (let’s say ’82-’95), and Carson (I only saw his last five years, but he still brought it enough that I believe that his prime was pretty fucking solid). Stewart continues to kill it year after year, even with an embarrassingly weak supporting cast… when people talk about the ’00s and I’m assuming the ’10s, he’ll be mentioned in the same way Dave would be for the ’80s and ’90s and Carson for the ’60s and ’70s.
So, my better, official, non-retarded Top Five Comedies:
Parks and Recreation
The Daily Show
I’ve never been that big of a South Park fan. I enjoy it when it’s on, but I don’t seek it out. Its best episodes are truly great, but I find the majority of them to be only amusing in fits and bursts. And I’m certainly guilty of taking The Daily Show and Colbert for granted, but even thinking it through, neither would make my top ten. The demands of putting a half hour show on everyday, all year long, are simply too much of a handicap for both programs. That actually makes what they’ve achieved even more remarkable, but if given the choice between watching a single episode of The Daily Show and a single episode of Always Sunny or Archer or even Wilfred, I’ll take the latter group. It doesn’t help that I only watch 20 minutes of both Daily and Colbert and skip the interviews (unless someone remarkable is the guest). Colbert’s interviews, in particular, are a waste of time. The guests either try too hard to show that they’re in on the joke, or they feel uncomfortable with Colbert’s character and never get into a rhythm.
I’d also like to offer a tip o’ the cap to The Soup, which has remained consistent even as Joel McHale’s attentions have been divided.
While I’m not concerned about the overall state of television drama, thanks to HBO, Showtime, fX and AMC, the landscape for network dramas is pretty miserable. With Friday Night Lights gone, there’s just nothing redeeming out there. I mean…networks don’t have that many hours per week to fill, especially when you consider that shows like X-Factor, Dancing with the Stars and The Voice fill multiple nights per week, but somehow America’s Funniest Home Videos and Fear Factor have both returned to the air. People seem to like The Good Wife, but I think that’s more an acknowledgment that there’s a drama on CBS that’s not a CSI or NCIS spinoff, and it’s not utterly awful. What else is even passable?
The season’s new crop of network dramas flopped, and were universally terrible, led by the likes of Pan Am, Charlie’s Angels, Person of Interest and Hart of Dixie. A Doc Hollywood rip-off starring Summer from O.C. should at least be enjoyable to have on in the background, but it’s unwatchable. Other than FNL, there’s not one network drama in my top ten shows of the year. Luckily, we have the aforementioned cable networks continuing to trust showrunners and take some chances. Those chances don’t always pay off (The Killing), and some of those shows are just not for me (Shameless), but it’s heartening to know that opportunity still exists for quality dramas to be born. I’m particularly looking forward to David Milch’s Luck on HBO early in 2012.
On to the top five shows of the year.
5. Justified: Holy shit, did this show come into its own this year. It took a leap from a show with a great lead character and a cool atmosphere to an all-around great drama. I’ll lay awake thinking of the missed opportunities to watch this and Terriers back to back for years to come.
4. Louie: There’s not much to say about the astounding second season of Louie that hasn’t already been said. It’s everything to everyone.
3. Community: The third season hasn’t been as great as the second so far, but it’s not like the show’s taken a step backward.
2. Parks & Recreation: With each episode, it’s moving up the ranks of the best comedies of all time. Also, in the final episode of the year, when Leslie said, “Clear eyes. Full hearts. Can’t lose.” — I’m pretty sure I had an orgasm.
1. Breaking Bad: The #2-4 shows on this list all could have been #1 and I would have had no remorse, but Breaking Bad pulled off the rare (unique?) feat of completing four seasons, with each better than the one that came before. Also, Jesse’s now in a high-end vodka commercial with Diddy for some reason?
This is where you may end our friendship. Because, while there was certainly much to like about Breaking Bad this season (Jesse’s dilemma, the old guy with the bell, the great finale), I don’t think it was close to its strongest season, or that it was close to the best show of the year.
For me, that title would have to be held by either Game of Thrones or Homeland. And believe me, I couldn’t be more surprised. Game of Thrones is complete Lord of the Rings-style fantasy nonsense… Homeland is a direct descendent of 24, a show I would have found ridiculous if it wasn’t so fascist. But, even if they’re completely out of my genre comfort zone, their characters, plots, settings, everything sucked me in completely.
My Top Five Dramas of 2011 (with the caveat that I’ve never watched Justified, but believe you and others that it’s good):
5.) Boss – A great 8-episode first season. Kelsey Grammar is amazing (you don’t think about Frasier for a second while watching it). It does a good job of exploring behind-closed-doors political dynamics (obviously in a heightened-for-television way). And, in almost every episode, you get to see Claire Arnold in an explicit, nude sex scene.
4.) Breaking Bad – Obviously, it was a solid season, and the finale was amazing. At the same time, I do think it’s starting to show its age.
3.) Boardwalk Empire – Probably moved up to 3 based on the finale (although I am sorry to see Jimmy go). My biggest problem with this show has been that it had all the tools, but there were just no stakes, nothing to make us care about what happened. The second half of this season changed that in a big way for me.
2.) Game of Thrones – Any good show that has the balls to kill off its main character in the first season has a fan in me.
1.) Homeland – Obviously, I haven’t seen the finale. But I’m looking forward to it to an extent that I haven’t since The Wire went off the air… God, I can’t wait! I haven’t been this invested in a show since the heyday of Angela Chase and Jordan Catalano.
Worst Drama Of The Year: The Killing. I’m not somebody who needs resolution in my shows. And my, and others, hatred stems at least partly from the fact that we liked it at first and it sucked us in. But when you stick with a show as it meanders around, only to get some slapdash cliffhanger that keeps you from getting answers… well, let’s just say I’m not in for Season Two.