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Best of the Best: The TV Class of 2011!

Best of the Best: The TV Class of 2011!
December 30, 2011 DAVE Q
Homeland

TelevisionBytes with NineDaves

Best of lists can be so lame. Look around the interwebs and you’ll see the same shows listed over and over and over. I get it, you like Boardwalk Empire. Meanwhile, I was bored out of my mind the entire time. Give me something good. Where’s Dance Moms for Christ’s sake!

Lucky for you, I’m doing things a bit differently here. Instead of a boring top ten list, I’m giving you a list of TV superlatives, guaranteed to have the variety in television viewing that I know you’re looking for. Who won class clown? Who’s most likely to succeed? Come take a look, then debate my picks in the comments section.

Best in Show: The Good Wife


The Good Wife

It happens every time I watch The Good Wife. In that moment, right before the credits start to roll. The action just ends. The screen starts fading to black. And suddenly, without even knowing I’m doing it, I open my mouth and say, “Holy shit this show is awesome.”

Mind you, I’m usually watching television by myself. But it doesn’t matter that no one can hear me except for my dog (who’s obviously watching too). Because despite never having seen a bad episode, I’m still amazed at just how good The Good Wife really is.

No show on television, network or otherwise, can match its quality and complexity. Part legal drama, part political drama, and part family drama, there are so many sides to The Good Wife, you’d think the show would be filled with plot holes and pointless characters. Yet in all its complexity, The Good Wife never feels complicated. Each story is sophisticated and intriguing. The type of stories that have twists you never see coming, but always seem plausible.

It helps that the acting is simply top notch. Julianna Margulies, Josh Charles, Chris Noth, Archie Panjabi, Christine Baranski, Alan Cumming, Matt Czuchry, and Mary Beth Peil are all at the top of their game here. Plus if that isn’t enough, they’re joined each week by some of the most talented actors, each putting in guest spots better than the last.

But much of that credit should go to the writers, who sure know how to balance long-term story arc while still leaving room for week-to-week trial developments. I mean, is there a more layered, realistic cast of characters on any other show today? I’d say no. Season three saw Alicia and Will finally giving it a shot, for example. But rather traveling down the “happily ever after” path we so often see, The Good Wife gave us a pretty damn honest view of relationships, love, and second chances. Not everything in life gets a nice bow around it. Nothing is perfect. Except, in this case, The Good Wife.

Honorable Mentions:

Breaking Bad I know I’m going to get a lot of shit for putting Breaking Bad behind The Good Wife. After all, Breaking Bad delivered an outstanding fourth season with a perfect villain (Gustavo Fring), insane character development (Walter White’s has really become a bad-ass motherfucker), plus a season finale that might be the best we’ve ever seen. Still, as much as I love the show, there’s just more in The Good Wife that kept me coming back week after week.

Louie I’m very reluctant to call Louie a comedy. Sitting it next to shows like Parks and Recreation and Happy Endings, it just seems out of place. Sure, the show is damn funny. But it also has a habit of cutting through the comedy and showing the portrait of a complicated, raw, honest man just trying to figure this thing called life out. Bravo to Louie C.K. for creating a truly excellent show.

Juiciest Guilty Pleasure: Revenge


Revenge

Don’t let those awful print advertisements with that chick in that black spikey dress fool you. I completely underestimated Revenge. When I first heard about it, I thought it was going to be another CW-type soap, filled with cheesy dialogue, over-the-top acting, and ridiculous plot points. Well I was right – it’s all those things. But hell if I didn’t love every second of that!

It helps that Revenge delivers like Domino’s week after week. The show follows a plotting Amanda Clarke (Emily VanCamp), as she returns to the world of the Hamptons elite years after her father was framed from a crime he didn’t commit. Now posing as a young socialite named Emily Thorne, Amanda begins destroying the lives of those who destroyed her father. I’m not talking about slashing some tires or hacking someone’s Facebook account. I’m talking about exposing people’s darkest secrets by broadcasting their therapy sessions in front of a whole crowd of people at a cocktail party. Deliciousness like that.

VanCamp is a bit stiff as our main protagonist, but Golden Globe-nominee Madeleine Stowe, who plays HBIC Victoria Grayson, is one of the best villains we’ve seen on television in a long time. A must-see, all around.

Honorable Mention:

Dance Moms Abbey Lee loves to scream and yell at the crazy moms who bring their girls to her dance studio. The moms, of course, love to scream back. Which is why Dance Moms is so fun to watch. But one has to wonder why on earth these moms don’t just take their kids to another dance studio? The Abby Lee Dance Studio can’t be the only one in Pittsburgh, can it? And is Abby Lee even such a great choreographer? I mean, have you seen her? The only mashed potato she’s ever done is from KFC.

Class Clown: Parks and Recreation


Parks and Recreation

Holy shit has Parks and Recreation changed since it’s first season. Back then, the NBC sitcom was just a knock-off of The Office, with Amy Poehler taking on the Steve Carell role of goofy boss in an office full of misfits. After two seasons of trying out that awkward, “I’m so uncomfortable I can’t watch this” style of comedy, Parks and Recreation returned for a third season in the Spring of 2011 (after a Fall 2010 hiatus) with a whole new focus – one hell-bent on showing a softer, sillier side of Pawnee. Poehler’s Leslie Knope dialed back the crazy, while her merry band of misfit coworkers in the Parks Department started working together and getting along. Hell – even Nick Offerman showed us that Ron Swanson could loosen up now and again. Crazy, huh?

And you know what? It worked! Parks and Recreation has now become the most consistently funny comedies on television, built on great writing, loveable characters, and hands down the best ensemble working in television today (Aubrey Plaza, Rashida Jones, Chris Pratt, Rob Lowe, Adam Scott, Retta, Jim O’Heir – they’re all great). If you haven’t seen it, treat yo self and catch up online.

Honorable Mentions:

Portlandia IFC’s Portland-based satire gave me my favorite quotable line of 2011: “Put! A! Bird! On! It!” Plus, it helped me realize just how funny Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein is and how not-at-all annoying Fred Armisen can actually be.

30 Rock We missed the Tina Fey comedy this fall, but the second half of season five (which aired in the spring of 2011) was stellar as always.

Children’s Hospital It’s no Party Down, but Children’s Hospital found a way to pack more laughs into their ten minute episodes than I thought possible.

Most likely to succeed: Homeland


Homeland

No freshman series demanded your attention more than Homeland, Showtime’s superb look at the modern day war on terror. The show follows Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), a CIA agent who suspects a returned prisoner of war (Damian Lewis) is acting as a double agent. That supplication soon turns to full on paranoia (obsession, really), as Mathison throws all professionalism out the window in favor of full-on mental breakdown (which, apparently, makes you curse all the fucking time). Superb performances by Danes, Lewis, and Mandy Patinkin kept Homeland from entering the slippery slope of melodrama for melodramas sake. But it was the writing – packed with more twists and turns than a Choose Your Own Adventure novel – that really elevated Homeland, and left us questioning the true meaning of “the war on terror.”

Honorable Mention:

Game of Thrones It’s easy to dismiss Game of Thrones as a fantasy nerd-fest. But strip away all those swords, kingdoms and dwarfs and you’re left with a chronicle of real people desperate to keep their families together. We’re talking the same kind of family drama you’d find in The Sopranos or The Wire. Only with way many more goblets.

Happiest Welcome Back: The Rosie Show


The Rosie Show

It’s only been four years since Rosie O’Donnell left the talk show circuit. But boy, have those four years made a difference. Gone is the angry, mean Rosie we met during her year-long run co-hosting The View. Gone also is the bubbly, koosh ball-throwing, “Queen of Nice” Rosie we met back in 1996, when The Rosie O’Donnell Show started. What we have now is a mixture of the two: a funny, smart, sincere Rosie, who for once in her life seems perfectly comfortable in her own skin.

That doesn’t mean that Rosie’s no longer afraid to speak her political mind. But on The Rosie Show, she’s polished those views. She’s more focused (see her take on the Jerry Sandusky scandal for proof). She’s smarter about it. It helps that she’s not arguing with Elisabeth Hasselbeck every five minutes. But it also helps that she’s not trying to be anything but herself.

The Rosie Show (airing on Oprah’s OWN network) took a little while to get its footing. Those early shows struggled to find the balance between segments (most shows typically feature a Rosie opening standup segment, celebrity guest interviews, and a daily game show). After a few months, the show’s still not perfect. Yet no matter how clunky it may feel sometimes, you can’t deny how appealing Rosie is when she’s interacting with people (see her amazing “questions from the audience” segments). She has that natural charisma – that quick-witted sass – that just makes you want to watch. Welcome back, Rosie. We have missed you.

Honorable Mention:

Web Therapy I still long for the days of Valerie Cherish and The Comeback. But since it doesn’t seem like Lisa Kudrow’s hysterical HBO sitcom is returning anytime soon, I’ll take Web Therapy, her online series which was picked up by Showtime this season. Kudrow stars as Fiona Wallice, a therapist who holds ten minute therapy sessions over iChat. Each episode is almost fully improvised – and impossible not to laugh throughout.

Best friends forever: Cougar Town


Cougar Town

Chemistry. It’s pretty much the most important thing when it comes to ensemble casts. If a group has bad chemistry (see: ABC’s Better With You, CBS’s Mad Love), it’s hard to root for them. But sometimes, a cast can have such good chemistry, they make you root for the show, no matter how bad the premise is (see: NBC’s Community).

That’s what happened in Cougar Town. The ABC sitcom started as a show about a divorcee named Jules (the underrated Courteney Cox), who reluctantly becomes a cougar in the eyes of her friends and neighbors after dating a younger man. Not the type of show that makes you tune in, huh? But about halfway into its first season, Cougar Town started to change. Creators Kevin Biegel and Bill Lawrence saw the opportunity they had to create a different kind of show with their pitch-perfect cast. So the cougar jokes all but disappeared, and the show started focusing on Jules and the quirky cul-de-sac crew in her life.

Now, Cougar Town is the very definition of a great ensemble comedy, rich with great performances and great chemistry. Christa Miller, Ian Gomez, Brian Van Holt, Dan Byrd, Josh Hopkins, and (my personal favorite) Busy Phillips – there’s not a weak link in the entire cast. Think about it: how many people can make throwing a penny into a can a funny and loveable game? Yeah, the Cougar Town crew people beat the odds.

Cougar Town has been off the air since it wrapped up its second season in the Spring of 2011. ABC plans to bring it back this spring, but we’ve yet to hear anything. Here’s hoping we get another go-around with this group of friends sometime soon.

Honorable Mentions:

Happy Endings The show isn’t necessarily charting new territory here. Dating, sex, friendship – we’ve seen it all before in countless sitcoms. Yet the show feels fresh, and that’s mainly do to it’s pitch-perfect cast. Eliza Coupe, Zachary Knighton, Adam Pally, Casey Wilson, Elisha Cuthbert, and Damon Wayans Jr? I want to be friends with them all.

Modern Family I’ve grown a little weary of Modern Family in its third season. The scenarios are feeling a little predictable – the cast a little flat. But I can’t deny that I find charm in every one of these characters, and often find myself wishing I was a part of this modern family.

Most improved: The Real Housewives of New Jersey


The Real Housewives of New Jersey

At the end of its second season, I was pretty sure The Real Housewives of New Jersey was completely washed up. Danielle Staub was the only interesting thing happening on that show, and without her, I was worried that the whole show would be a parade of Guidice children strutting the runway while the Manzos threw ham at one another and Ashlee sulked in the corner.

Enter Joe and Melissa Gorga and Kathy Wakile, Teresa’s estranged brother, sister-in-law, and cousin. You thought your family had problems? Joe, Melissa, and Kathy’s mere presence on the show caused Teresa to blow a gasket, leading to an all-out family war that ultimately divided the housewives. The premiere alone was enough to make you forget about the book, the table flip, and that prostitution whore. And sure, this season still gave us our fair share of Ashlee sulking in the corner. But in the end, the family drama was enough to make season three of RHONJ the hands-down best season in all of the Housewives franchises.

Honorable Mentions:

Gossip Girl Okay, look. Gossip Girl may never return to the greatness that was season one (no matter how many times they bring back Georgina Sparks). But season five saw some major improvements, including the loss of Vanessa and Little J, and the addition of a semi-believable plot. Plus, isn’t it nice to see Chuck acting like a nice guy for once?

The Rachel Zoe Project A baby seems to have softened Rachel Zoe, who calmed the fuck down this season and finally focused on the positive. It also helps that without Taylor and Brad around to cause unnecessary drama, Rachel Zoe Inc. seems to be – gasp – a stable, successful business. Imagine that!

Most in need of a second glance: The Playboy Club


The Playboy Club

When NBC’s The Playboy Club premiered this fall, it was immediately written off as another Mad Men-knockoff. Eddie Cibrian’s character a poor man’s Don Draper. Laura Benanti’s character a Joan-wannabe. Audiences rejected it, instead giving their 60s-set-TV-show-slot towards ABC’s Pan Am. After three episodes, NBC had no choice but to pull the plug on The Playboy Club.

Of course, ABC’s Pan Am has turned out to be a major bomb, with unlikable characters and ridiculous plot points. So as that show hangs in limbo (ABC has yet to officially cancel, though production on new episodes has halted), I have to wonder: was The Playboy Club the better show?

Sure, I’ll admit that the first two episodes of The Playboy Club were pretty excruciating. Each focused too much on that lame murder mystery and bunny liberation. But unlike Pan Am, the Playboy Club had a premise with bite. There were so many things that could have been explored. The patrons. The dirty things going on behind those closed doors. The public opinion of the club. The building of an empire. The focus should have been less on the bunnies, more on Hugh, and more on the danger involved. Steps were starting in that direction with episode three, but the show was cancelled before we got to see what was coming.

Like many shows, I’m pretty sure The Playboy Club could have found its footing if the network would have given them a chance. It could have been a hit. Too bad.

Honorable mention:

Enlightened You seriously can never go wrong with Laura Dern, or her real-life mother Diane Ladd. Thankfully HBO just renewed this Golden Globe-nominated dark and disarming dramedy (created by the incredible Mike White) for a second season, let’s just hope they can get more people to tune into this incredibly thoughtful show, about a woman who is desperately trying to make her way back from the edge of insanity.

Most likely to scare you: American Horror Story


American Horror Story

Words cannot accurately describe how whacked out American Horror Story really was from week to week. I mean, dammed if I know WTF was happening half the time. Between Dylan McDermott’s gratuitous shower scenes and Connie Britton’s brain eating, I didn’t know whether to look or to look away. And while I know the season as a whole was met with mixed reviews, I ultimately enjoyed it. If not for it’s oddball storylines, then at least for the fact that it was something totally different than everything else on television. Here’s hoping series creator Ryan Murphy doesn’t royally fuck it up in season two like he’s been known to do (see: Glee).

Honorable Mention:

The Walking Dead Okay, so maybe it never really scared the shit out of me. But zombies are totally disgusting yet fascinating! Did you see that scene where the pulled the zombie from the drinking well? IT’S BURNED IN MY BRAIN.

Hardest goodbye: Friday Night Lights


Friday Night Lights

I won’t take too much time here mourning the death of Friday Night Lights. Those who watched the show over the past five seasons know just what a loss this truly is. I’ll just leave us in the immortal words of Coach Taylor: “Clear Eyes. Full Hearts. Can’t Lose.” Take note, other TV shows. You might learn a thing or two from that message.