2011 in Review: The Best Shows

I watched a lot of TV this year. Probably more than I ever have before. And there were a lot of great shows, too. So many, in fact, that I’ll be posting a set of honorable mentions tomorrow. And this is just the TV that aired January to December! So here’s my top 10.

10. Modern Family (ABC)
You’ll notice these are all episodes from the back half of season two. Season three has left plenty to be desired, but as a whole, 2011 saw lots of great moments from the Dunphy-Pritchett clans, and it could always bounce back. Based on what we’ve got, Modern Family still makes the cut.
Standout episodes: “Our Children, Ourselves,” “Caught in the Act,” “See You Next Fall”

9. Up All Night (NBC)
NBC is moving this show to the plum post-Office spot in an effort to make it a bigger hit, and thank God for that. Up All Night does newborn comedy better than Raising Hope and office comedy better than the Office. What really puts this over the top for me is Will Arnett’s performance. He’s proved that he can go beyond GOB (which was great for that show, but became grating as he repeated that tone in every single appearance). Plus, the show has tremendous heart – and not in a schmaltzy way. All that, and Christina Applegate singing “Lightning Crashes” while high on painkillers.
Standout episodes: “Cool Neighbors,” “New Car,” “Birth”

8. Beavis and Butt-head (MTV)
The best cartoon to ever come back from the dead (yeah, it’s better than Family Guy and Futurama) provided more laughs for me than any 30 minutes this year. The season ended weaker than it started, but it’s hard to be anything less than excited to have them back. Heh-heh. I said “hard.”
Standout episodes: “Werewolves of Highland,” “Dumb Design,” “Copy Machine”

7. Onion SportsDome (Comedy Central)
We only got 10 episodes, but Comedy Central’s brilliant takedown of SportsCenter managed to be the best, most thorough satire of the year. It nicked at every sport – especially the NFL – and mocked ESPN staff, from the stupid nicknames to their private issues that often became public. Plus, the first episode provided me with a quote I like to use often: “Expect the worst; hope for the best. That’s how I got through the Coast Guard.”

6. Happy Endings (ABC)
So few shows get the chance to prove what they can be after they work out the kinks, and start firing on all cylinders. Just ask the U.S. version of Free Agents. But like Parks and Recreation, Happy Endings started out as a pale imitation of other, more successful sitcoms (P&R: The Office:: Happy Endings: Friends) and then outshone the series it most often got compared to. The interaction and dialogue is among the best on TV and the cast is absolutely impeccable. It’s also funnier than all of the top 10 comedies.
Standout episodes: “Dave of the Dead,” “Spooky Endings,” “The Code War”

5. The Daily Show/The Colbert Report (Comedy Central)
No shows make me sadder than these back-to-back news satires. It’s abundantly clear that they’re the only two shows that don’t B.S. when it comes to the state of the union. My favorite moments are pictured: Stewart ripping Glenn Beck a new one and Colbert subverting the entire political process with his Super PAC.

4. Louie (FX)
Louie already stood out among the television landscape for its lack of structure and continual downer endings. But season two took a leap forward by making Louie less pathetic and more determined. Season two also made stylistic advances, from the wordless tribute to the weirdness of riding on the subway to an hour-long USO tribute. Louis CK handles every aspect of the show, and he can go anywhere from here. Can’t wait to see what he does in season three.
Standout episodes: “Subway/Pamela,” “Come On, God,” “Duckling”

3. Community (NBC)
NBC may have more shows on this list than any other network, but if they don’t bring Community back this year, they are dead to me. Season three threw everyone for a loop, and it deserves to bring all its new directions to an end. Even so, if all we got were the 65 episodes aired this far and specifically (for the purposes of this list) the 23 aired this year, we’ve got a great record of one of the greatest shows to ever air on television.
Standout episodes: “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons,” “Paradigms of Human Memory,” “Remedial Chaos Theory”

2. Parks and Recreation (NBC)
For a show I didn’t start ’til this year, I’m a little surprised this show landed so high on my list. But I can’t get over how consistently funny, how well-drawn and how heartfelt every episode is. I still wish they could figure out what to do with Ann (Rashida Jones), but those are small quibbles when we get subtle, lovely moments like April and Andy’s wedding, Leslie throwing Ron the greatest birthday party ever, Ben’s resignation and the entire office volunteering to run Leslie’s campaign. Plus, this.
Standout episodes: “Fancy Party,” “The Fight,” “End of the World”

1. Friday Night Lights (NBC)
In its final season, FNL continued to follow the characters as they find themselves trapped and attempt to make an escape, even if those efforts are doomed from the start. The last episode follows Newton’s third law of motion: every action has an equal and opposite reaction. All these characters’ fates are intertwined. And not everyone ends up happy. Not everyone gets out. Not everyone changes. I wish that this show could continue on forever and ever, but now that it’s ended, I can fully appreciate the entire five seasons, and how no film or TV program has ever captured small-town life so vividly or kept me riveted for this long.
Standout episodes: “The Right Hand of the Father,” “Texas Whatever,” “Always”

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