In case you’ve forgotten, here was my list of TV’s Top 10 for 2011.
1) “Friday Night Lights”
2) “Breaking Bad”
3) “Downton Abbey”
4) “Parks & Recreation”
5) “Game of Thrones”
9) “The Vampire Diaries”
10) “The Hour”
As I said when I posted my Top 10, after the Top 9, there were myriad shows that could have rounded out my list.
Click through for my Second 10. As promised, after keeping my Top 10 to a sacred and unembellished 10, my Second 10 is full of cheats, including one thematic tie, one production block and one limited segment of a year that was otherwise kinda dismal.
11) “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” – Start with Fat Mac, add a dead hooker, an alcohol-infused ham, a baby funeral, a made-up uber-board game, an adventure to retrieve a stolen vase, a city-wide trek to a hot Hollywood blockbuster and a high school reunion from Hell. I don’t know if “Sunny” necessarily hit the string of highs that the show reached in Season 2, but it certainly delivered its most consistently hilarious and delightfully damaged season yet. “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” has a set formula, but kudos to the entire team for continually finding new ways to turn that formula on its head.
12) “Boardwalk Empire” – HBO’s Golden Globe-winning drama slipped out of my Top 10 in its second season. It wasn’t that “Boardwalk Empire” saw any decline in its tremendous production values or in the top-to-bottom excellence of its cast. In fact, Michael Pitt made a big leap forward and deserves strong Emmy consideration next year, while stars Kelly MacDonald and Steve Buscemi deserve to keep their nomination slots. But maybe “Boardwalk Empire” was just a little more narratively diffuse this season. Maybe the show kept following its best episodes with weaker episodes. Maybe too many favorite characters vanished for long and improperly explained stretches. However, as uncertain as I was about the show’s direction through the middle of the season, I loved the two episodes that completed the season and that pushed Jimmy Darmody’s into dark places that were both expected and unexpected. I’m highly intrigued by the new paradigm that Season 3 promises.
13) “Shameless” – When you build a TV show around an Emmy-winning, Oscar nominated star, you wouldn’t think it’d be a good sign when your toplining thespian is upstaged by a slew of unknown child actors and half of the cast of “Dragonball: Evolution.” In the case of Showtime’s “Shameless,” William H. Macy has been showy and often fun, but it’s the performances by folks like Cameron Monaghan, Jeremy Allen White, Emma Kenney and especially Emmy Rossum that have brought life to the saga of the Gallaghers, easily TV’s most dysfunctional family. Seriously, how has Rossum not even been NOMINATED for best actress by the Emmy, Golden Globe and SAG voters? Maybe it has something to do with Showtime’s conviction that just because “Shameless” is an hour-long, it must be a drama, rather than the demented, pitch-black comedy that it is.
14) “Community” – If I were to only concentrate on highlight episodes, “Community” would probably be in my Top 5. “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.” “Intermedia Documentary Filmmaking.” “Critical Film Studies.” “A Fistful of Paintballs.” “Remedial Chaos Theory.” “Documentary Filmmaking: Redux.” Those are some standout episodes. And I’m not even one of those people who thinks that when “Community” episodes are bad, they’re awful. With a cast this good and writers this smart and innovative, even the less-than-mind-blowing episodes feature laughs, usually frequent. My complaint: “Community” has begun to read its own clippings and the show has unearthed a vein of smugness that sometimes flies entirely under the radar, but sometimes consumes the entire show. “Community” is very rarely bad, but it’s frequently just a little too proud of itself. I’m still gonna miss it while NBC keeps the show on the shelf.
15) “Treme” – Like “Boardwalk Empire,” “Treme” is another HBO drama that didn’t work for me *quite* as well in its second season. David Simon’s sprawling post-Katrina New Orleans saga sprawled even more in its second season and many of the pieces never quite came together. I hate to make Jon Seda the whipping boy for all of my Season 2 problems, but boy oh boy was that a plotline that was stuck in a conventional rut for its duration. Melissa Leo’s Toni was also trapped in a confusing and ultimately uninteresting procedural investigation. In both instances, I could see the institutional commentary Simon was trying to make, but I didn’t get much value from the way he chose to make it. And I’ll leave it for you to decide if you enjoyed Janette’s culinary adventures in New York City (I actually did). But “Treme” has always been a show that was more valuable as a pointillist tableau than when you stopped and scrutinized any single storytelling dot. The world of Simon’s New Orleans is so fully inhabited and nearly every performance is so authentic and honest that “Treme” has become a show that makes me happier when I sit back and experience its sights and sounds and rhythms than when I try to take notes on what might or might not be happening.
16) “Survivor: Redemption Island” – Set aside your feelings about Special Agent Phillip Sheppard and his possible delusions. Forget, if you will, Matt Elrod’s weird combination of religiously dogmatic challenge dominance and utterly brain-dead in-game strategy. Try to repress that this was yet another Russell Hantz season of “Survivor,” albeit his briefest performance to date. Instead, just think back on the sheer joy of watching Boston Rob dominate a “Survivor” season for 39 days of physical, mental and strategic excellence. The competition may not have been all that impressive and this may, in fact, not have been Boston Rob’s best “Survivor” game ever, but there was something unspeakably satisfying to actually concluding a “Survivor” season with 100 percent certainty that the most deserving player walked away with the million. [Note: If you’re one of those people who doesn’t like Boston Rob, you clearly won’t agree with this placement. Also, what’s wrong with you?]
17) “Awkward” and “Switched at Birth” – File these two together as teen-skewing summertime cable surprises. Created by Lauren Iungerich, “Awkard” represented a huge leap forward for MTV’s scripted development department, a raunchy, smart and sometimes hilarious look at life as a high school outcast that managed to be relatable for outcasts of all ages. “Awkward” included a breakout performance by Ashley Rickards and some of the saltiest, vernacular-twisting dialogue this side of Diablo Cody. And if “Awkward” made its bones from dialogue, “Switched at Birth” stood out with silence. ABC Family’s new hit took a premise that could have wallowed in sensationalism — The kids were switched at birth and one of them is DEAF!!! — and instead treated it with admirable integrity and illuminating honesty. Vanessa Marano confirmed the potential from promising appearances on “Gilmore Girls” and “Dexter,” Katie Leclerc was an impressive new discovery and more than a few fans will tell you that the show truly found itself when the writers realized how good Sean Berdy was.
18) “Bob’s Burgers” – It only premiered in the spring, but “Bob’s Burgers” quickly carved out a place as network TV’s wackiest animated half-hour. As with all Loren Bouchard shows, “Bob’s Burgers” has a sensibility that requires a little getting used to, but fans who honed that sensibility got to enjoy marvelously absurd episodes like “Sheesh! Cab, Bob?,” “Lobsterfest” and the sublime “Art Crawl” as the season progressed. Special kudos to the “Bob’s Burgers” vocal talent, including H. Jon Benjamin, John Roberts, Kristen Schaal, Eugene Mirman and Dan Mintz.
19) ESPN Films – ESPN’s landmark “30 for 30” franchise came to an end in 2010, but the sports network continued its commitment to quality sports-related documentary programming in 2011. For my money, Alex Gibney’s “Catching Hell” would have had a place among the best of the “30 for 30” docs, while “The Fab Five,” “The Real Rocky,” “Unguarded” and “The Marinovich Project” were a cut above as well. Without the “30 for 30” brand name, the ESPN Films docs may not have been appointment viewing in quite the same way — I skipped three or four of them, which would have been unheard-of with “30 for 30” — but I hope that ESPN sticks with longform non-fiction programming like this. It’s good for the network and good for sports fans as well.
20) The end of Steve Carell’s run on “The Office” – Forget about the first after of Season 7 of “The Office” (though the dark twists of “Classy Christmas” have merit). Forget about most of the home stretch of Season 7 and almost all of Season 8 of “The Office.” Instead, concentrate on how well “The Office” executed its farewell to Steve Carell’s Michael Scott, culminating in the supersized “Goodbye, Michael” last April. Much credit must be given to Carell, who never sacrificed his character’s essential Michael Scottiness, but still delivered both laughs and sadness with a nuance that should have earned him an Emmy under any reasonable circumstances. I was a vocal critic of the idea that “The Office” needed to end with Michael’s departure, but seeing how the writers have struggled to pick up the slack in his absence, I may be reevaluating.
Fairly honorable mention: “The Chicago Code,” “Boss,” “The United States of Tara,” “30 Rock,” “Archer,” “The League,” “Wilfred,” “Bored to Death,” “Beavis & Butthead,” “Futurama,” “Prime Suspect,” “Chuck,” “Fringe” and lots, lots more. [Note: If the show you’re looking for isn’t listed here, it’s counted among “lots, lots more.” Unless I dislike the show.]