tongue-tied lightning

2011: The Year in Television
December 19, 2011, 9:50 PM
Filed under: tv

Last year I followed what… 7 shows?  This year it’s up to 18.  I guess I’m becoming someone who watches TV?  Which a younger me may have scoffed at, but when it’s as good as it is now (the best american TV rivals the best american cinema) it’s hard to feel the time is wasted.  Of those 18 shows 12 of them were more or less excellent (the nature of TV being such that if you aren’t enjoying a show you usually don’t bother keeping up with it) and only The Walking Dead and The Killing managed to keep me around to the end of their respective seasons while being more or less awful, which is probably some kind of accomplishment in its own right.  Anyway, let’s get going.

Community:  Easily the least consistent show on the list (what’s aired of season 3 has been particularly spotty) but when it steps outside and goes for it (“Advanced Dungeons & Dragons,” “Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking,” “Critical Film Studies,” “Paradigms of Human Memory,” “Remedial Chaos Theory”) Community is capable of being the best comedy on TV.  “Critical Film Studies” was billed as the show’s “Pulp Fiction episode” but that was merely a Trojan Horse allowing them to air an homage to Louis Malle’s My Dinner With Andre during primetime on network television.  That is the kind of show Community is capable of being.

Doctor Who: Community has spent a lot of time this season exploring Abed’s Inspector Spacetime obsession and it makes me wonder what percentage of its audience is familiar with the show it’s parodying, this show.  Given how much I enjoy Doctor Who and how exciting watching Doctor Who is I feel a bit guilty putting it this low on the list.  At its best I think Doctor Who functions as a paean to the strength of the human spirit, and this season is definitely the strongest since it rebooted in 2005.  The ending didn’t quite live up to expectations but it’s hard to complain given how good everything else was.

Game of Thrones:  HBO shows are so known for taking a few episodes to congeal that it sometimes feels like the term “slow burn” was created to describe the network’s dramas.  Even by HBO standards the patience Game of Thrones took in situating its characters and plotlines was ambitious.  I don’t think it was until episode 4 that everything was completely assembled.  It paid off though, everything building to one scene in the penultimate episode that answers the question the series seemed to be posing all along: can an honest man survive in a corrupt system?

Homeland:  This was probably the biggest surprise of 2011 for me.  Perhaps it’s just my bias, but I can’t say I expected a drama airing on Showtime, run by two ex-24 writers and starring Claire Danes to be particularly good.  Yet the first 6 or 7 episodes present a nuanced look at our surveillance state and the psychological effect captivity and torture can have on soldiers and their families.  There was a brief hiccup where it seemed like it might be sliding a bit too close to 24 territory for comfort, but it recovered and the distressingly bleak finale seemed to remember all the things the show was doing right early on.

Mildred Pierce:  This is kind of the odd one out on this list as it’s a miniseries, and is self-contained where the others are all unfinished pieces of a serial narrative.  It’s kind of hard to rank it alongside them but I think this is fairly accurate.  Todd Haynes adaptation of Mildred Pierce throws out the noir aspect of the iconic Joan Crawford film and ends up somewhere closer to Douglas Sirk directing Jeanne Dielmann.  It starts out establishing the day to day routines of it’s protagonist with an observational style that recalls Akerman’s classic and ends up with a heavily melodramatic opera performance and a climax that is high camp at its very best.  I can still hear the chilling cue from Carter Burwell’s score.

Friday Night Lights:  When Friday Night Lights came on the air in 2006 it was a breath of fresh air, a network drama that cared more about character than plot.  It stumbled a bit in its second season and NBC wasn’t very forgiving, fortunately it found a home on DirecTV’s channel 101 and gave us it’s three best seasons.  The fifth season is a perfect ending for the show as one could imagine.  I mentioned elsewhere this year that the show reminds me of the cinema of Terrence Malick, not in content so much as style.  The elliptical direction and editing aided by the natural performances and emotive scoring led to many moments that were greater than the sum of their parts.

Louie:  These next three shows could really appear in any order depending on my mood, and right now I’m questioning the mood that decided to place Louie at 4 rather than 2.  By now you’ve likely heard that Louis C.K. writes, directs, edits and stars in every single episode of this show.  It’s an unprecedented feat and that the show maintains the level of quality it does is kind of astounding in its own right.  But what I find truly unique about Louie is that you don’t know whether you’re going to get an uproarious vulgar episode, a sweetly sentimental one, or somber looks into suicide or the war in Iraq.  Regardless, it’s guaranteed to be both exceptional and thought provoking.

Parks and Recreation:  The fine-tuned hilarity is what brings me to Parks and Recreation every week, but the humanism and warm optimism leaves me with a heartwarming feeling at the end of nearly each episode.  2011 was easily the show’s best year as I’m hard pressed to think of an episode that was less than great.  I guess the consistency is what sets it apart from the other comedies on the list, and the large ensemble of lovable characters portrayed by talented performers.  Not just Leslie, Ben, Chris, Tom, April and Andy, but also Ann, Jerry, Donna and the recurring characters like Perd Hapley and Jean-Ralphio.  It has echoes of the Simpsons in it’s prime, which is high praise indeed.

Breaking Bad:  Every year the show is eligible it’s expected Bryan Cranston will win the Emmy for Best Actor, but this year the show’s star was Giancarlo Esposito in his performance of Gustavo Fring.    I’m at ends trying to decide whether I preferred the shows third or fourth season when taken as a whole (a rewatch would likely settle it) but there are three or four episodes in the second half of season four that I think are the best three or four episodes the show has ever done, including one or two that left me feeling physically ill, and I mean that as a compliment.  It’s unfortunate the series only has one more season left to cement it’s place alongside the top 5 or so dramas ever to air.

Treme:  David Simon’s The Wire is my favorite television series of all time.  Few shows have the journalistic integrity, scope or insight The Wire posses and yet, there are some areas in which I feel his follow up, Treme, outshines its predecessor.  Which makes all the more inexplicable it’s absence on critics year-end lists following a second season that improved on the first in every conceivable way.  My sole hang up with the first season was its hip insidery winking and nudging and its occasional stacking the deck in favor of a city that doesn’t need any help proving the value of its unique culture.  That is more or less absent from season two.  People claim nothing happens, but that’s not entirely fair, we are watching characters change and grow in the wake of traumatic experiences, and the atmosphere is second to none.  Or maybe it’s just I can’t get enough of the music.  I don’t know, but there are few things as pleasing to me as David Simon’s aesthetic and I’m waiting with bated breath for season 3 (while simultaneously hoping HBO is generous enough to let David Simon see his four season vision through).


2 Comments so far
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Awesome list and I love how you put so much detail into your explanations to each choice!

Comment by Matt Stewart

Your write-ups are superb as usual.

Comment by J

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