12.23.11

Homeland, Justified, Downton Abbey & More: The Best and Worst TV Shows of 2011

From Homeland to Downton Abbey to Justified, Jace Lacob and Maria Elena Fernandez select their picks for the 10 best television shows of the year—and the five worst. Warning: may contain spoilers if you are not entirely caught up on the shows discussed here.

The stakes are even higher for scripted programming these days, particularly on the broadcast networks, where just a few airings are more than enough time to make a show a ratings hit or get it yanked off the airwaves.

Several of the fall’s newest offerings were dead on arrival—from Charlie’s Angels to Free Agents—and all eyes were on the mammoth-sized budget of Fox’s Terra Nova, which arrived as the network’s publicity-machine went into overdrive, which makes the so-so ratings that the show found this fall all the more head-scratching.

With no Mad Men on AMC this year (it’s slated to return in March 2012), there was an increased opportunity for the networks and AMC’s basic-cable rivals to make an impact on viewers outside of the shadow of Matthew Weiner’s period drama, but AMC’s The Killing largely turned viewers into a murderous rage and Hell on Wheels proved to be, well, hellish to watch.

Below, Jace Lacob and Maria Elena Fernandez offer up their picks for the 10 best shows of the year, which include a PBS period drama, a modern Western, and an espionage thriller, to name a few, and take a look at the flip-side, choosing five shows that they each found to be at the bottom of the barrel or in need of calling out. WARNING: For those of you who aren’t entirely caught up on the shows below, read with caution—there are many, many spoilers.

He Said: Jace Lacob’s 10 Best Shows of 2011

Homeland (Showtime)

If 24 was Fox’s visceral answer to the war on terror, celebrating the brute physicality of take-no-prisoners CTU agent Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) and the morally gray area he permanently inhabited, Showtime’s Homeland is its more cerebral counterpart, giving us terrifically flawed agents attempting to save lives—and live their own—with realistic imperfection. Inspired by an Israeli drama, Homeland is an exploration of ideas and ideals embodied by the central struggle between Claire Danes’ Carrie Mathison and Damian Lewis’ Nicholas Brody, a Marine sergeant returning home after eight years of captivity. As they began their psychological push-and-pull, so too did the audience: Was Brody turned during his time in Iraq? Is Carrie psychotic? What does it mean to be an American? What is the price of war, if it stains our collective souls? This tightrope dance is further strengthened by a standout performance from Mandy Patinkin as Carrie’s mentor/surrogate father, Saul, and a supporting cast—including Morena Baccarin and David Harewood—that adds to the show’s depth. Homeland managed to keep its rapt audience guessing (even as multiple plot twists piled up) but also emotionally engaged, something that the similarly-structured AMC show The Killing couldn’t pull off, while offering a series of breathless reveals right up until the final moments of its stressful first season finale.

Downton Abbey (PBS/Masterpiece)

Banishing the stuffy British period drama to the back of the wardrobe, Julian FellowesDownton Abbey offered its ever-expanding audience something novel and different: a brand-new and therefore unpredictable plot set in the drawing rooms, bedrooms, and sculleries of an Edwardian manor house. Focusing on both the well-heeled Grantham family and those doing the shoe-polishing downstairs, Downton Abbey gave equal weight to the plights of both the working class and their employers, embodied in a talented cast of dozens. The effect, which harkens back to the much beloved Upstairs, Downstairs of the 1970s, delivered to its audience star-crossed romances on both sides of the economic divide, sinister footmen and conniving ladies’ maids, a surprising sex scandal, and the arrival of the first World War. What Downtown does, in its own way, is trap in amber both the early 20th century and the way in which we watch television in the early 21st, offering us nuanced characters, genuine emotion, unexpected comedy, and a sense that, the more the world changes, the less it does in its own way.

Justified (FX)

Proving the sophomore slump to be an outright myth, FX’s Justified delivered an electrifying second season that found lawman Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) embattled on multiple fronts: a decades-long blood feud against the Bennett clan, overseen by ruthless matriarch Mags Bennett (Margo Martindale); his villainous former best friend, Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins); and, most notably, with his own worst enemy: himself. In its second season, the show gave television one of its most superlative villains in Martindale’s Mags Bennett: poisoner, maker of moonshine, drug kingpin, and tough old broad. In turn, Martindale—in an Emmy Award-winning performance—gave the series one of its best and most powerful moments to date as she convinced a crowd not to sell their land to a coal company in “The Spoil,” delivering a Shakespearean oratory even as she connived her way to wealth behind the backs of her neighbors. In Mags, Olyphant’s Raylan—the show’s hat-wearing gunslinger—nearly met his match, and the tumultuous battle between the two gave the season a violent and bloody power as well as a crackling wit. This is the TV Western done right, overflowing with oddball characters, complex moral codes, and a shoot-first-ask-questions-later mindset.

The Good Wife (CBS)

There are certain shows that walk a fine line between procedural and serialization and The Good Wife manages to do so with style and an abundance of smarts. In derailing one of the show’s central dynamics—the friendship between politician’s wife Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) and legal investigator Kalinda Sharma (Archie Panjabi)—creators Robert and Michelle King proved that they weren’t pulling any punches. Just when it seemed the show had taken a turn for the operatic, there was a bombshell that echoed back to the pilot: Kalinda had, years earlier, slept with Alicia’s husband, Peter (Chris Noth]). The fallout in the wake of these revelations gave all three actors gripping material that seesawed the dynamics among the characters. Add to this some Byzantine goings-on at the law firm, the best guest casting in the business, and the fulfillment of the romance between Alicia and Will (Josh Charles)—along with the ramifications of what said relationship means to her as a mother and a working woman—and you have the makings of a sophisticated, adult drama with its finger on the pulse of society. This is no stodgy CBS show, but an energized and tech-savvy political/legal/family/romantic drama about the choices we make, the paths we take, and the sacrifices each of us must account for. This Good Wife isn’t just good; she’s great.

Community (NBC)

Few comedies—certainly American ones—test the boundaries of the form more forcefully or with more intelligence and imagination than NBC’s Community, which once again dazzled with out-there absurdist wit. Whether it was an episode that tunneled into the imaginary construct of Dungeons & Dragons, paintball warfare, documentary filmmaking, My Dinner With Andre, or an exploration of chaos theory and alternate realities—expressed, naturally, by who went downstairs to grab delivery pizza—Community proved itself adept at juggling emotion, satire, and pop culture at large. (A Christmas episode that fused together a parody of Glee and original holiday music? Genius.) That Community manages to be hilarious, poignant, and revelatory—sometimes all at once—renders this cult comedy a true paragon of the format and all the more unforgettable.

Game of Thrones (HBO)

In just 10 episodes, HBO’s Game of Thrones, based on the bestselling novels by George R.R. Martin, delivered a staggering vision of a dark and brutal world beset by war and intrigue while bringing the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros (and the vast Dothraki Sea of grass) to life with vivid clarity. Boasting insanely high production values, a top-notch cast (which included Sean Bean, Lena Headey, Peter Dinklage, Emilia Clarke, and the magnificent actors playing the Stark children), showrunners in David Benioff and D.B. Weiss who understood and appreciated the underlying material, and gorgeous location work, Game of Thrones was the rare beast that merged niche programming and mass appeal into a show that managed to be gasp-inducing and heartbreaking. Wolves, white walkers, and wicked women all took the stage in a sweeping epic about good and evil, conspiracy plots, family bonds, and the survival of humanity in a land where magic had its last gasp centuries ago. The effect is a story of frailty, but also of the characters’ unbreakable spirit when faced with terrible odds.

Boardwalk Empire (HBO)

The stakes were certainly higher in the second season of HBO’s mobster drama, Boardwalk Empire, which felt increasingly claustrophobic and tense as it went on, ripping away the carefully arranged artifice of soldiers, mistresses, and hitmen to reveal the true damage at their cores, secrets that threatened not only their own happiness but that of those around them. Whether it was Van Alden (Michael Shannon) attempting to keep an illegitimate child a secret from his barren wife, Margaret (Kelly Macdonald) feeling the weight of guilt over lying and cheating on Nucky (Steve Buscemi) when faced with her polio-stricken daughter, Richard Harrow (Jack Huston) contemplating suicide, or Jimmy (Michael Pitt) coming to terms with the murder of his wife (Aleksa Palladino) and an incestuous union with his mother (Gretchen Mol), these characters were put through a fiery crucible in Season 2. The series may have begun with bootlegging and Atlantic City graft, but it’s become a parable about what people do in order to survive, and the complex ways of justifying that behavior. As the season ended with Nucky fulfilling a prophecy to dedicate himself to becoming a full-fledged gangster by murdering his former protégé, it was clear that Terence Winter and Martin Scorsese’s drama had turned yet another corner in this complex story.

Friday Night Lights (DirecTV/NBC)

In its final season, Friday Night Lights pulled off a win, exploring the breakdown in communication between solid spouses Eric (Kyle Chandler) and Tami (Connie Britton) Taylor, as it seemed as though they were moving in different directions. While paying due to five seasons’ worth of storylines, the last go-around advanced the stories of the current Dillon Lions while also catching up with familiar faces from the original cast, checking in with Scott Porter’s Jason Street, Taylor Kitsch’s Tim Riggins, and Adrianne Palicki’s Tyra Colette, offering up a mosaic about life in small town Texas and outside of it, the paths we take in life, and how formative experiences—and places—shape us. Friday Night Lights’ final episode may just be one of the greatest hours on television, a tearjerker that’s powerful, emotional, and transcendent without ever becoming saccharine. It’s a fitting testament to the power of Coach Taylor’s “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose” sentiment that so strongly ran through this remarkable show.

Parks and Recreation (NBC)

Parks and Recreation captures the spirit of optimism and hope, embodied by the dynamic and determined Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), who found herself tiptoeing into an illicit relationship with her boss, Ben (Adam Scott), and running for local political office. With wit and intelligence, Parks and Recreation painted a Springfieldian portrait of fictional small-town Americana—the Harvest Festival, anyone?—with incredible nuance, offering up a series of characters that are endearingly flawed and adorably sympathetic. In a season overflowing with “manxiety” comedy, there’s something refreshing about a show whose central relationship is between two female friends (Poehler and Rashida Jones), a will-they-won’t-they couple who unexpectedly tie the knot, an unrepentant libertarian (in Nick Offerman’s beloved Ron Swanson), and a protagonist who longs for the rewards of public service. Add in sex scandals, allusions to birthers, and Li’l Sebastian, and you have the makings of a show that’s perfection on a weekly basis. There’s a sweetness and energizing spirit to Parks and Recreation—and to Leslie herself—that sets it apart from the more darker, sarcastic shows in the current television landscape, offering an oasis that feels, remarkably, like coming home.

Parenthood (NBC)

NBC’s Parenthood appears to be the heir apparent to the type of emotion-based storytelling that Friday Night Lights in its day achieved seemingly so effortlessly. It’s no small feat to make three generations of a family—from little kids and teens to grandparents—engaging and commanding in their own rights, but Parenthood does so with a deft hand, delighting in focusing on withdrawn Max (Max Burkholder), brittle Kristina (Monica Potter), or perennial screw-up Crosby (Dax Shepard) with equal weight as Mae Whitman’s rebellious Amber or any other member of the family. Lauren Graham’s Sarah remains capable of reducing me to tears with a gulp or downcast eye; Erika Christensen’s Julia has emerged as a strong, radiant presence; and Peter Krause and Potter’s attempts to connect with their autistic son give this outstanding show a great deal of heft and painful realism. It’s rare for an hour to make you laugh and cry in equal measure, but Parenthood walks that delicate line with both care and grace.

She Said: Maria Elena Fernandez’s 10 Best Shows of 2011

Breaking Bad (AMC)

The fourth season of the AMC drama simmered for a while, as it is wont to do, then took off like gangbusters, and in the end literally blew up, as all of its main characters went to unexpected places. Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito), the fried chicken king and blue meth kingpin, sizzled all year, barely breaking a sweat as he slashed his friend’s throat with a box cutter or poisoned an enemy. The guy is so smooth that he took time to fix his tie before taking his last breath. Bryan Cranston took Walter White to new scary heights—hello! Child poisoning!—and Jesse (Aaron Paul) showed us there’s a little more to him than meets the eye as he danced with the devil. With Gus Fring dead, the meth lab destroyed, a good chunk of Walt’s earnings gone because of Skyler’s (Anna Gunn) screw-ups, and the growing threat that Hank (Dean Norris) will figure it all out, Breaking Bad is poised to finish its run on top of all the best series in history charts.

Homeland (Showtime)

Without a doubt, Homeland was the best new show of the fall. An exciting thriller, it’s also a study of the war on terror and its impact on the personal lives of a CIA analyst Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), her supervisor, Saul (Mandy Patinkin) and freed prisoner-of-war Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis). Brilliantly performed and skillfully written, the show took many unpredictable turns and inextricably linked Carrie and Brody in a compelling way.

American Horror Story (FX)

Sure, this show is bananas but that’s why it’s highly entertaining and inventive. The story of a Murder House that comes with a motley crew of ghosts is scary, creepy, campy, and emotional. The best part of the season was discovering how the ghosts are related or have had an impact on each other’s lives and deaths. Terrific performances by Jessica Lange, Connie Britton, Taissa Farmiga, Evan Peters, Frances Conroy, and Denis O’Hare only added to the fun.

Downton Abbey (PBS)

It may remind us of Upstairs, Downstairs or Gosford Park, but it’s even more delicious. Not only do we get to see the rich manipulating and betraying each other, but we also get the view from downstairs from the people who know everything: the hired help. And then to boot—a stranger beds a daughter and dies in the process, setting up all kinds of soapy fun that was handled with aplomb by a splendid cast (Maggie Smith, Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Michelle Dockery, Laura Carmichael, Jessica Brown-Findlay) and makes us really look forward to the second season on Jan. 8.

Sons of Anarchy (FX)

This was the year Charming turned on itself and it made for excellent viewing week after week. Out of self-preservation, Clay Morrow (Ron Perlman) made the terrible decision of getting into the drug business, creating a domino effect of problems that led him to kill Piney (William Lucking), one of the club’s co-founders, attempt to kill Tara (Maggie Siff) and savagely beat his wife (Katey Sagal). In the end, it was up to Jax (Charlie Hunnam) to pick up the pieces, setting up a new paradigm for the show. Charming won’t ever be the same, and that’s a good thing.

Justified (FX)

Did Mags Bennett (Margo Martindale) really have to die? The addition of the Bennett matriarch and her family (Jeremy Davies as one of her sons was also fantastic casting) presented Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) with a slew of problems that he couldn’t solve by just shooting his gun. What a great ride it was. Walton Goggins, as always, shined in Boyd’s shoes. But watching Mags kill herself with her own “apple pie” was a downright bummer. We hope Justified returns characters as ghosts. Or something.

Game of Thrones (HBO)

Everything about the TV version of George R.R. Martin’s fantasy novel was epic. From its beautiful photography and camera work in multiple foreign locations, to striking performances by a stellar cast, including Sean Bean, Peter Dinklage, and Emilia Clarke, the story of rival noble families vying for control was riveting from beginning to end. That it dared to kill off its protagonist, Ned Stark (Bean), demonstrated it wants to stay true to the world Martin has created and not a sub-par small screen version of it.

Modern Family (ABC)

First of all, I love the new Lilly. But now there’s Stella too! The adorable French bulldog that Jay (Ed O’Neill) dotes on, much to Gloria’s (Sofia Vergara) dismay. Probably the funniest episode, so far, included Stella getting lost and Gloria and Cameron (Eric Stonestreet) hilariously looking for her in the neighborhood. But there have been plenty of gems—Tyler Burrell is on fire—as the show matures in its third season but never gets old.

Raising Hope (Fox)

The most underrated comedy in all of television, Raising Hope combines utter wackiness with its soft heart and has one of the best ensemble casts of any show on the air. It’s crazy, it’s sweet, and it’s kind of unbelievable, considering it started with the execution of a baby’s mother. Oh and the baby! How the director and crew gets Baby Hope to actually participate in scenes and not just be the cute toddler in the background is a feat onto itself. 

Awkward (MTV)

Although I am not in the target demographic for this MTV comedy, two things made it one of my favorite new shows: the writing and star Ashley Rickards, who plays Jenna Hamilton. Lauren Iungerich writes about the awful high school years through a protagonist who is her own worst enemy. The dialogue is crisp and doesn’t feel like any of the dozens of shows about high school that came before it. Rickards is a total standout.

He Said: Jace Lacob’s 5 Worst Shows of 2011:

2 Broke Girls (CBS)

Painfully unfunny and overflowing with ethnic stereotypes, 2 Broke Girls might be the season’s most unlikely success story, given its overreliance on horse poop jokes and the word vagina. While it’s undeniable that Kat Dennings and Beth Behrs have a fun chemistry, they’re mired in a throwback show that tries to achieve nothing new whatsoever, recycling badly perpetuated clichés about minorities while attempting to pat itself on the back for taking down Williamsburg hipsters. The result is tired, contrived, and offensive… to viewers of quality television. Michael Patrick King, you ought to know better.

Terra Nova (Fox)

Bombastic hype preceded Fox’s prehistoric/time-travel family drama, Terra Nova, which arrived late, trailing dozens of executive producers behind it and failing to ignite the audience’s passion, judging from the limp ratings. But those looking for Jurassic Park for the small screen were hugely disappointed, from the formulaic characters, mawkish family “drama,” and lackluster special effects. What could have been a promising crowd-pleaser or, on the other hand, an insightful exploration about the fragility of society and the push-and-pull of colonists, was instead a fairly rote dino drama that spent way too much time on irritating teens and Lost-esque “mysteries” that reeked of the dangers of giving too much power to focus groups. Proving that family dramas aren’t exempt from offering quality, this was a fail on so many levels.

Torchwood: Miracle Day (Starz)

Especially when viewed in the light of 2009’s superlative and gripping Torchwood: Children of Earth, follow-up Torchwood: Miracle Day—which moved to pay cable network Starz—was a dismal let down, a confusing and nearly unwatchable mess that was more about ideas than execution. Series leads John Barrowman and Eve Myles were unwisely relegated to the sidelines as the action moved for a sizeable chunk of the fourth (and likely last) season to America, and writers positioned new American characters, Rex (Mekhi Phifer) and Esther (Alexa Havins), front and center, despite the fact that they were little more than caricatures and a collection of stereotypically “America” brashness and arrogance. By the time the tenth episode of Torchwood: Miracle Day rolled around, the season—about what would happen if no one ever died—became weighed down by the bulk of its own premise and a silly climax involving blood, a natural rock formation called “The Blessing,” immortality, transfusions, and CIA moles landed with a deafening thud. It’s unlikely that we’ll see more of Captain Jack Harkness and Gwen Cooper, but if we do, it will take a long time to wash our brains of this nonsensical and cheap-looking iteration.

American Horror Story (FX)

A clumsy mash-up of 1970s horror movie tropes, Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s American Horror Story dazzled some with its allegedly gonzo storytelling and the sense that anything and everything could happen within the confines of the haunted house from hell. But it quickly became clear that there was very little logic within American Horror Story: weird things just happened because they were weird, with very little baseline of normalcy to anchor the strangeness of the supernatural; the main characters were extremely unlikeable to the point where it was easy to want them to be killed by the house; and the solution to the main mystery—the identity of the enigmatic and threatening Rubber Man—was predictable, a soggy puzzle piece lurking in plain sight. While there have been some memorable moments within the season (Jessica Lange’s Constance has been a stand-out), the overall effect has been one of narrative overload, displaying a kitchen-sink mentality to storytelling that needed a steadier hand on the editing tiller. The only thing deadlier than the house was my sense of irritated outrage.

Grimm (NBC)

Arriving on the scene at more or less the same time as ABC’s similarly themed fairy tale drama Once Upon a Time, NBC’s Grimm, sent out into the Enchanted Forest of Friday night programming, offered up a dull procedural clad within genre clothes, a police detective who is also a member of a long line of Grimms who combat creatures from fairy tales. Tedious and more than a little cheesy, Grimm’s middling ratings are hardly surprising. Once upon a time, science fiction and fantasy used to strive to be more interesting and culturally relevant. Ultimately, this grim drama—which offers up mere breadcrumbs of interest and low calorie enjoyment—doesn’t really deserve a happy ending.

She Said: Maria Elena Fernandez’s 5 Worst Shows of 2011:

The Killing (AMC)

It’s terrible when one of the shows that should have been in your favorites winds up in this category. But The Killing threw away all of its promise by turning the second half of the season into a futile red herring chase.  As the season drew on, I cared less and less about who killed Rosie Larsen or any of the people affected by her death. The season finale was disappointing not because I didn’t find out who killed Rosie, but because yet another red herring was introduced—making it clear the writers have only one trick up their sleeves.

How I Met Your Mother (CBS)

It’s a sad day when a show you once really loved ends up at the bottom of the heap. But how Ted met his future wife has now taken longer to answer than the mysteries of the Lost island, and that’s just plain ridiculous. No matter how many times the producers say it, no one is going to see this as a the comedic version of Lost and think that’s an appealing thing. The trick the writers played on viewers this season with Robin’s (Cobie Smulders) pregnancy scare and motherhood hallucination is the final proof that this show has run out of ideas. No wonder Ted (Josh Radnor) seems so very bored.

Weeds (Showtime)

How is this show still on the air? Once Nancy Botwin’s (Mary Louise Parker) younger son became a murderer—and she endorsed it—it became really hard to laugh with these folks. Showtime needs to put them out of their misery and send them all to the big medical marijuana clinic in the sky.

True Blood (HBO)

I adored the vampires for almost three seasons. But then the wolves came. Followed by the fairies. And then the witches. By the end of the fourth season, it was all a supernatural clusterfuck—heroine Sookie (Anna Paquin) was a hot mess in love with both amnesia-ridden Eric (Alexander Skarsgård) and the new King Bill (Stephen Moyer); Lafayette (Nelsan Ellis) lost his love Jesus (Kevin Alejandro); Tara (Rutina Wesley) became a lesbian, cried a lot (of course), and probably died in the finale.  And I cared about none of it.

Episodes (Showtime)

Matt LeBlanc playing an arrogant version of himself returning to television because he needs the money is ludicrous in and of itself. Hello, the guy will be getting Friends dough for decades to come! Seeing him again on the small screen wasn’t bad, but the story surrounding him often felt like a terrible episode of Entourage (and there were many of those). British producers are really that naïve about Hollywood? It’s doubtful. That Matt ends up sleeping with the wife in the producing team is the nail in the coffin for this dull romp.