Paul & AJ’s Top 10 TV Series of 2011

If you missed it last week, we rolled out our top 10 films of 2011. Now, here are our top 10 TV shows.

PAUL: 10. SO YOU THINK YOU CAN DANCE (FOX)

I’ve been slightly more forgiving of reality TV than a lot of people I think, but just barely. For the most part, the genre is vapid and soul-crushing and devoid of anything even remotely interesting. So You Think You Can Dance has been the brightest shining exception to that rule. While I still consider season 4 to be the series’ high watermark, this year’s season 8 introduced us to at least two, possibly three or four of the best dancers to have ever graced the show’s stage. I can’t quite explain what it is about this show that does it for me: I’ve never been particularly interested in dance, of any style, before this. But there have been moments watching this series that have moved me more deeply than just about anything ever has. There is something spiritual, something transcendent about the alchemy of human motion and music blending together. I’ve been moved by demonstrations of athletic prowess or feats of strength and dexterity. And I’ve been moved by the spirit of rock or the voices of angelic singers. But nothing has ever equaled the cosmic, deific inspiration I’ve felt watching someone like Alex Wong, or Mark Kanemura, or Melissa Sandvig, or a dozen others from the past eight years. When the right dancers meet the right choreographers and the right music…there are no words elegant enough to do it justice.
Key Episode: “Week One: Top 20 Performance” (8.6) …specifically the Melanie & Marko routine performed to Ingrid Michaelson’s “Turn to Stone”

AJ: 10. SUBURGATORY (ABC)

I can’t say there were many new comedies this year intriguing enough to even check out. I found Free Agents mildly amusing before it was axed, I probably won’t return to Up All Night unless it starts raking in the hosannas, and I stuck with the ungainly New Girl as long as I did mostly because I like Zooey Deschanel’s face. The less said about 2 Broke Girls or Whitney, the better. Thus, Suburgatory is the clear cream of the new funny crop. That isn’t to say the show is perfect. The central premise, that architect George freaks out about his 15-year-old daughter Tessa’s maturity and so moves them from the big city to the bizarre suburbs, is more fit for a 90-minute movie than an ongoing series, and the show can occasionally be far too broad in mocking suburbia. But even with those caveats, there’s something special about the chemistry between Jeremy Sisto and Jane Levy, who banter like they’re Gilmores, and the dialogue can be razor sharp. Not to mention the fact that Alan Tudyk plays a very tanned, very opportunistic dentist. It might not be a great show just yet, but it’s definitely one worth watching.
Key Episode: “Thanksgiving” (1.8)

PAUL: 9. PSYCH (USA)

For six seasons, this USA Network detective dramedy starring James Roday as a police consultant who passes his incredible observation skills off as psychic visions, and Dulé Hill as his long-suffering friend and partner Burton “Gus” Guster, has made me laugh harder and longer than any three other sitcoms put together. The two leads have the wackiest chemistry together which manifests not only in hilarious volleys of jokes, jibes, insults, running gags, and riffs that seem like the most genius and organic improv (though as far as I know it’s all scripted), but also allows for weekly post-credits gag reels that double me over with laughter. Roday and Hill have a mastery of the glib, geeky pop culture reference that borders on Whedonian. The sixth season proved to be perhaps the best of the series so far, with a gaggle of guest stars such as Brad Dourif, Wayne Brady, and William motherfucking Shatner. And the standout episode of the year was a send-up of the vampire craze featuring Kristy Swanson, Tom Lenk, and Corey Feldman.
Key Episode: “This Episode Sucks” (6.3)

AJ: 9. 30 ROCK (NBC)

The former king (or queen) of wacky comedy has fallen short of past glories lately, but there was still plenty to love about 30 Rock‘s fifth season, especially compared to its fourth. Liz and Jack accidentally got married, Jack’s real wife Avery was brainwashed by the North Korean government and married off to Kim Jong-un (it’ll be interesting to see where that goes), the wonderful Chloë Moretz popped up as Jack’s tweenage rival, there was an entire episode based around the fictional reality show Queen of Jordan, and most gloriously of all, Liz and Tracy engaged in a tense argument to the tune of Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl.” Not every episode is an instant classic like in earlier seasons, but I still look forward to visiting the TGS staff every week.
Key Episode: “Operation Righteous Cowboy Lightning” (5.12)

PAUL: 8. JUSTIFIED (FX)

Y’know what would be really great? If there was a way to get more of Timothy Olyphant as the upright, quick-draw lawman he perfected on the late lamented Deadwood. Y’know what would be better? If he could somehow transport himself into an Elmore Leonard novel. Cue the southern-fried, gun smoke and gangsters FX drama Justified. Olyphant steps straight out of the Shakespearean West of South Dakota and straight into the redneck Mafia of South Kentucky. As Deputy U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens, he is every bit the 19th century gunslinger Seth Bullock was, complete with the cowboy hat (white, of course). Adapted primarily from Leonard’s novella Fire in the Hole and his novels Pronto and Riding the Rap, the series is drunk with drama, violence (usually “justified”), sex, and the most morally compromised characters, hero and villain, this side of the Gem Theater. Beyond Olyphant’s riveting performance, special mention must be made of this season’s Big Bad, Mags Bennett, played by the Emmy-winning (for this role) Margo Martindale; and Walton Goggins, who plays Raylan’s best friend/worst enemy Boyd Crowder, and who had better eventually be cast as Jesse Custer in a Preacher film/series or I’ll know the reason why.
Key Episode: “Bloody Harlan” (2.13)

AJ: 8. ARCHER (FX)

I have Paul to thank for this one; there aren’t a lot of animated shows I keep up with these days, but I absolutely cannot resist the insanely violent, foul-mouthed genius of Archer. From the twisted minds that once upon a time brought us Space Ghost Coast to Coast and Sealab 2021 come the adventures of unrepentant douchebag super-spy Sterling Archer (codename: Duchess), his alcoholic mother, his extremely hot and strong-willed ex-girlfriend Lana, and the rest of the crew at the International Secret Intelligence Service. 2010’s debut season was great, but the second season kicked it up a notch by increasing the ridiculousness of the series’ surprisingly involving storylines, and out of nowhere engendering a little–but not too much–emotion from Archer’s breast cancer diagnosis. As Archer, H. Jon Benjamin is giving one of the best performances on any TV series right now, animated or live-action. If you’re still on the fence, consider the show’s comedy credentials: half the cast of Arrested Development has already appeared (Jessica Walters and Judy Greer are even regulars), and I don’t believe it’s outside the realm of possibility that the other half will show up at some point.
Key Episode: “Placebo Effect” (2.9)

PAUL: 7. CASTLE (ABC)

It’s an admittedly ridiculous premise: award-winning novelist uses friendship with the mayor to have himself assigned as the “partner” of hot shot NYPD detective for the purpose of researching his next book. I don’t care about police procedurals, or New York (I know, blasphemy), or the kind of novels being researched here (crime/mystery/bodice rippers). But what I do care about is Nathan Fillion as the smarmy, charming, hilarious author Richard Castle, who lights up every scene he’s in. Also, Stana Katic as über hot Detective Kate Beckett doesn’t hurt. But the real joy of this season has been the supporting cast (excepting new Captain Gates, who sucks), including Jon Huertas and Seamus Deaver as Detectives Esposito and Ryan, and Molly Quinn as Castle’s much-more-mature-than-her-father daughter Alexis.
Key Episode: “Kill Shot” (4.9)

AJ: 7. GAME OF THRONES (HBO)

It should be obvious to anyone who follows this blog or listens to the podcast that I love genre works, whether they feature superheroes or vampires or what have you. However, high fantasy remains a tough sell for me. I prefer my fantasy to be of the urban variety…or at least Harry Potter. So I started Game of Thrones with some trepidation, only to be immediately drawn in by the treacherous backstage politics of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. The first half of the season is all very good, with plenty of intrigue and drama, but it is mere scene-setting for the insanity that grips the second half. The last three episodes alone feature an entire season’s worth of “Oh my God!” moments, culminating in the death of several key characters, including one that will blow away anyone not familiar with George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels (like moi). For the most part, the first season doesn’t involve a lot of in-your-face fantasy elements, but by the time the dragons show up at season’s end, I had been so thoroughly captivated by the very human conflicts at the series’ core (betrayal! loss! revenge!), that all I can say about season two is this: Bring it on.
Key Episode: “Baelor” (1.9)

PAUL: 6. BEING HUMAN (Syfy)

Three’s Company for monsters and the undead. I know it tarnishes my geek credentials even more to say that I just never got into the British series from which this U.S. version is loosely adapted, but there you have it. I enjoy the three main actors and characters, particularly Meaghan Rath as neophyte ghost Sally. Mark Pellegrino as the Big Bad vampire (at least for this first season) was obnoxious and frustrating, in the best ways. Werewolf Josh, played with goofy, clumsy charm by Sam Huntington, has a very promising storyline beginning with his girlfriend and soon-to-be baby mama. And Sam Witwer manages, I think, to balance the usual gloom and doom and self-pity of the reluctant vampire trope with the scary, thrilling badassery. The biggest thing a premise like this needs to do to hook me, at least initially, is to create an interesting mythology for its supernatural world, and this series has a great start on that, in my opinion.
Key Episode: “I Want You Back (From the Dead)” (1.9)

AJ: 6. BOARDWALK EMPIRE (HBO)

The second season of Boardwalk Empire was tremendous, from the brilliant ensemble to the beautiful production values to the stunningly confident storytelling. Steve Buscemi has always been a fantastic actor, but he’s stepped up his game as Prohibition-era kingpin Nucky Thompson, still trying to transition from a slick snake-oil salesman to a gangster who doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty. This season found him at war with former protégé Jimmy Darmody, now determined to escape the shadow of his father and the clutches of his mother by taking control of Atlantic City. Creator Terence Winter & Co. didn’t shy away from the high price paid by everyone involved, morally or mortally. Margaret Schroeder, played by the great Kelly Macdonald, had to come to terms with the fact that she was no longer a good little Catholic housewife, and benefiting from Nucky’s wealth and supposed love, was now complicit in all of his crimes. No one comes away clean, and by the end of the bravura season finale, there’s plenty of dirt on Nucky’s hands indeed. My only request for season three is more Richard Harrow, please. Love that guy.
Key Episode: “Gimcrack and Bunkum” (2.5)

PAUL: 5. ALPHAS (Syfy)

The latest entry in the X-Men/Superfriends/Misfits of Science sub-genre of television, SyFy’s original series Alphas follows five people with strange superpowers as they work together to prevent other “Alphas” like them from doing harm. A tale as old as time, but told surprisingly well here. There are the usual clichés of the shadowy government agency and the set of powers featuring the strong guy, the telepath, and the super-athlete, etc., but they’re all tilted askew just enough as to be rather fresh and intriguing. Plus, the characters are fun to watch, particularly Gary (Ryan Cartwright), the autistic young Alpha with the power to view and interact with wireless communications and data streams…and to annoy his teammates.
Key Episode: “Bill and Gary’s Excellent Adventure” (1.6)

AJ: 5. HOMELAND (Showtime)

President Obama recently said that he was a fan of Boardwalk Empire and Homeland. While I can’t say I’d turn down the opportunity to chat with Mr. Obama about Nucky and the gang, I’d really love to pick his brain about Homeland. You see, the best new show of 2011 has a disturbing premise. Let’s say that an American POW in Iraq whom no one had any reason to suspect was still alive returns home after six years. Let’s say that a CIA agent, herself suffering from bipolar disorder, is convinced he was turned by his captors. What is the appropriate response? How far should the government go in order to investigate the supposition of a mentally disturbed woman? Homeland creators Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa, working from the Israeli series Prisoners of War and buffeted by increasingly complex performances from stars Damian Lewis and Claire Danes, go to great lengths to explore those questions. Then, when everyone’s allegiances supposedly become apparent, their sympathy is not one-sided. “You’re trying to find what makes them human, not what makes them terrorists,” Danes’ Carrie Matheson says. That describes Homeland‘s approach perfectly, and underlines why it has become such a fascinating piece of work. The only reason I can imagine FOX News hasn’t jumped all over Obama for professing his admiration of Homeland is because 20th Century Fox are the ones who produce it.
Key Episode: “The Weekend” (1.7)

PAUL: 4. ARCHER (FX)

If you aren’t watching this obscene, irreverent series, in the words of super douchey super spy Sterling Archer, “What the shit?!?” Every single episode of the series’ first two seasons threatened to have me wetting myself with laughter…one or two episodes just might have succeeded. Lead voice actor H. Jon Benjamin brings the perfect amount of smarmy, sexist, self-important charm to the role of Archer (codenamed Duchess). And the supporting cast is a knockout, featuring the likes of Jessica Walter as Sterling’s alcoholic, disturbingly hyper sexual mom (and boss) Malory, Judy Greer as the agency’s psychotic slut secretary Cheryl (or Carol, or Carina, or Cristal), and Aisha Tyler as Archer’s ex-girlfriend, and probably the only genuinely competent spy in the agency. The series is soaked in disgusting, ribald, and inappropriate humor and buckets o’ blood style über-violence, and it’s positively glorious. RAMPAGE!
Key Episode: “Placebo Effect” (2.9)

AJ: 4. PARKS AND RECREATION (NBC)

Parks and Recreation makes TV a happy place. I don’t think it aired a single episode this year that didn’t leave me grinning ear-to-ear, sometimes with a lump in my throat. Most comedy is cynical or negative, which only makes sense; how much comedic mileage can you get out of good, honest people? Turns out, a lot. Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope is one of the best, brightest characters on TV right now, and instead of just allowing her to be content with being Deputy Parks Director in Pawnee, Indiana–a normal show would, and it would probably still be good–her writers have blessed her with real ambition. That ambition has always been in place, going all the way back to that brief, flat-footed first season. There, Leslie was still a female Michael Scott, and her ambition was played for laughs. Four seasons in, that ambition is no longer a joke, and has led to a city council run. Of course, Leslie’s only human, and her flubs and missteps on the road to candidacy are equally funny and poignant. It doesn’t hurt that she’s got a great ensemble backing her play, among them “resigned in disgrace” boyfriend Ben (the wonderful Adam Scott); scene-stealing douche-with-a-heart-of-gold Tom (Aziz Ansari); and Ron Fucking Swanson, played by Nick Offerman, who really ought to have won an Emmy by now.
Key Episode: “Li’l Sebastian” (3.16)

PAUL: 3. THE WALKING DEAD (AMC)

After an amazing pilot, the first season of AMC’s comic book adaptation sort of shambled zombie-like to an unsatisfying cliffhanger. Fortunately, the second season has been a dramatic improvement in just about every way. It’s difficult to shock viewers already accustomed to seeing decomposed, flesh-eating undead killing and being “killed” by a ragtag group of (barely) human survivors every week. But this year, the writers have pulled off some truly shocking, even horrifying character twists, betrayals, and deaths. In a series where by its very nature no one should be considered safe, it says something that there have been a couple of particularly painful losses in the first half of Dead‘s sophomore season. And major props to the writers and one particular actor for taking a character I was already predisposed to hate, making him sympathetic, bringing me right to the point of saying, “Damn it, now he might be one of my favorite characters on the sh– HOLY SHIT, did he just do what I think he did?! That evil motherfucker!” Yeah, good stuff.
Key Episode: “Save the Last One” (2.3)

AJ: 3. COMMUNITY (NBC)

If Parks and Recreation is the happiest show on NBC’s Thursday night comedy block, Community is the darkest. (Well, maybe Whitney‘s darker; I’ll never know.) Creator Dan Harmon and his genius writing staff are committed to deconstructing the standard sitcom set-up: disparate group of people thrown together in a miserable situation, anchored by a familiar location. By this time, they’ve blown that premise apart numerous times, and in so doing have been able to say a lot about the characters at its core. Much of it’s not pretty. Jeff is hipper-than-thou, Britta is “human fro-yo,” Sherri is too pious for her own good, etc. If the first season was about the study group coming together, and the second was about them staying together despite their enormous differences, then the third has thus far been about them trying to put everything behind them and realizing why, exactly, they love each other. After all, there’s no real reason for them to stay to together at this point, even if they do allegedly study together…so why do they? The second season’s ambition was staggering, exemplified this year by episodes such as “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons,” taking place almost entirely around the table in the study room; and “Paradigms of Human Memory,” a clip show with clips from shows we never saw. If the third season has been on a smaller scale, I don’t think it’s because the show has gotten worse, as certain fan backlash would lead you to believe, just different. As its characters grow and evolve, so must the show. And as long as it can keep giving us brilliant episodes like “Remedial Chaos Theory,” in which we view seven parallel universes surrounding a housewarming party, I don’t think we’ll have anything to worry about.
Key Episode: “Remedial Chaos Theory” (3.4)

PAUL: 2. BOARDWALK EMPIRE (HBO)

I’m not the biggest fan of mobster fiction. With few exceptions, stories about Al Capone, rum running, prohibition, etc. just don’t blow my skirt up. (Never seen a single episode of The Sopranos, and don’t really plan to.) But the HBO period drama Boardwalk Empire, which features all three of those things, plus so much more, is must-see TV for me. It’s a complex and compelling cast of horrible characters portrayed by a complex and compelling cast of brilliant actors, combined with a down-and-dirty, unflinching look at crime, politics, corruption, and moral decay in 1920s Atlantic City, New Jersey. Steve Buscemi has always been great in just about everything he does, but he really raises his game here as Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, the hero you love to hate to love. Every episode, he pulls off being truly honorable and loving to some, while being morally reprehensible to others. Also amazing are the stunningly beautiful Kelly Macdonald as poor little Irish widow Margaret Schroeder, holding her own against some powerful and evil men, Michael Pitt as Nucky’s onetime surrogate son and now bitter rival, and the revelatory performance of Jack Huston as Richard Harrow, the former Army marksman sporting the eerie harlequin mask.
Key Episode: “Gimcrack and Bunkum” (2.5)

AJ: 2. LOUIE (FX)

No television comedy is as enlightening, honest, or painful as Louie. Louis C.K., who writes, directs, edits, and stars in every single episode, uses fragments of his stand-up routine to explore subjects as varied as racism, masturbation, Afghanistan, and unrequited love. By design, it’s an anthology show; storylines and supporting characters from one episode rarely carry over to the next. As such, the only constants remain Louie, his adorable/bratty little girls, and his neighbor Pamela, with whom one could say he is fairly obsessed. There were a number of remarkable episodes this year, my favorites being “Country Drive,” featuring Louie awkwardly and awesomely rocking out to “Who Are You” in front of his dumbfounded daughters; “Oh Louie/Tickets,” in which Louie has to approach real-life enemy Dane Cook to try and get tickets to a Lady Gaga concert for one of his girls; and “Duckling,” the one where he goes to Afghanistan as part of a USO tour. In one episode, Louie catches the attention of a movie executive, who takes him to lunch to discuss movie ideas. The idea he describes is one where, instead of a guy who has an okay life running up against a conflict and then resolving it, a guy who has a bad life has something bad happen and things just get worse, leading him to make one bad decision after another. The exec is terrified, and immediately flags down the nearest table of acquaintances. That idea might not describe Louie exactly, but it comes close enough in describing what makes this show so much different and more rewarding than most others.
Key Episode: “Duckling” (2.11)

PAUL: 1. GAME OF THRONES (HBO)

As a lifelong fan of sword-and-sorcery fantasy storytelling, and a diehard fan of writer George R. R. Martin’s genre work in previous years, I really have no explanation for why I never read his magnum opus series A Song of Ice and Fire. But in defiance of common sense (and my own dwindling geek cred), I never got around to it. Then HBO went and adapted the first book in the series, Game of Thrones, into a 10-episode season of the same name, and I had no more excuses. And now, of course, I’m hooked; I’ll be reading each book to coincide with each progressive season of the television series. Part of what makes the show so incredible, in addition to a stellar cast of veteran and newfound actors, awe-inspiring locations and set design, and production value that shames many big budget Hollywood films, is that with the exception of the opening and closing moments of the season, there’s practically no magic in this magical fantasy story. This is medieval politics, social structure, gender studies, plots within plots, royal corruption, war, and familial strife and struggle on an almost Shakespearean stage. It’s also got Peter Dinklage. All Dinklage, all the time. Well, not really, but it should be.
Key Episode: “Baelor” (1.9)

AJ: 1. BREAKING BAD (AMC)

Oh, Breaking Bad. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. For starters, you sport arguably the two best performances on TV, Bryan Cranston as cancer-stricken science teacher Walter White and Aaron Paul as tormented junkie Jesse Pinkman, both entangled in a meth-making operation that threatens to overwhelm them. You’re not just content to have the most fascinating protagonists, either. In fast food entrepreneur/meth kingpin Gus Fring (a chilling Giancarlo Esposito), you’ve got one of the all-time classic TV villains. Then there’s the way you take the time to tell your stories and develop your characters. After the relentless intensity of last season, you could have been content to pull the same trick again, but instead you let everything build to a slow-burn before unleashing a series of tightly-wound episodes that number among the most nail-biting I’ve ever witnessed. Perhaps what I love most about you, though, is that you are not afraid to take your characters to the darkest of dark places. Poor Jesse has been put through the wringer so often I’ve lost count, and Walt has taken another diabolical step down the moral ladder. It’s not even about sacrificing for his family anymore; his actions spring from a deep, disturbing superiority complex that will either make him the most powerful meth cook in New Mexico, or the most dead. And thanks to your gifted director of photography, Michael Slovis, you always look gorgeous. When you finally come to a close next season, I shall but love thee better after death.
Key Episode: “Face Off” (4.13)

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