TC Top Ten: Television shows

Todd Hertz

I would not claim 2011 was a banner year for great television. But in the midst of all the reality TV, some smart shows quietly had amazing years. Here are my 10 TV shows that had the best 2011:

1. "Community"

To say this is TV’s smartest comedy might give the wrong idea. It’s not a stuffy intelligence; "Community" is brilliant and innovative at fun. The most self-aware and culturally savvy show I’ve seen, it is daring in its use of the sitcom formula - and storytelling itself. It’s a new show each week; painstakingly designed to serve its story. And no matter what pop-culture object it is parodying or idea it’s critiquing, it does so to explore how community works.

2. "Breaking Bad"

I’m new to the series, but I can already recognize it’s one of TV’s most daring and well-crafted shows. And this year, it hit a new level. The Huffington Post wrote, “no other drama [had] the kind of year 'Breaking Bad' did, and it ended 2011 with one of the greatest season finales of all time.” Initially following a man who toed ethical lines with good intentions, the show is now the chronicle of one man’s descent into evil.

3. "The Killing"

The year’s most underrated show. It’s a moody, suspenseful, atmospheric movie-quality crime thriller about one case: a teenager’s murder. We see the aftermath of young Rosie’s death from the perspective of the investigators, her devastated family and her community - showing the far-reaching ripples of tragedy and pain following any untimely death.

4. "The Walking Dead"

Who knew the dead could tell us so much about the living? The show’szombie apocalypse is a background to explore the moral murkiness of a broken, hopeless world. This season,as the Wall Street Journalsays, three philosophies are at war: “spiritual zombie-humanism” vs. “Machiavellian will to survival” vs. “gentle pragmatism.” And in it all, a question from Luke 8 echoes: “Where is your faith?”

5. "Fringe"

2011 saw the conclusion of "Fringe"’s best season, an epic exploration of alternate realities; now it’s on to alternate timelines. But this show is not really about science. It’s about what fuels our dependence on it. "Fringe"’s mad-scientist-of-the-week formula shows how mad scientists are born - out of our heart’s desires, such as love, envy, guilt, regret, loneliness and fear. Never has a show about scientific theories been so personal.

6. "Modern Family"

This is the unique show that manages to be well-done, edgy and popular. It perfected the faux-documentary style and revolutionized the traditional family sitcom in a self-referential, Internet era. And as it explores the redefined idea of family and the various roles played by each member, "Modern Family" reminds us lovingly that each member is flawed (“Come on, Phil!”) - but accepted all the same.

7. "Friday Night Lights"

The football show that was not really about football, "Friday Night Lights" tackled issues like class, religion, public education, economic troubles, racism and sexuality in the comforting setting of an all-American family - and one of TV’s best marriages. I love that the The Salt Lake Tribune called it “both the simplest and most complex show on TV. It felt like real life, and real life is complicated."

8. "Parenthood"

Coming from the same creative mind, it’s no coincidence that this and "Friday Night Lights" are TV’s most real family portraits. Smart, lighthearted and warm, the drama is never pandering, pat or cloying. As these families wade through the reality of victories, challenges and transitions, I love that we see parents - especially men - not embittered by the “burden” of family, but relishing in it.

9. "Parks and Recreation"

Perhaps more than any other comedy, "Park and Rec"’s success relies on how much you just want to hang with these lovable, quirky and fun characters - because they seem to enjoy it so much. When so much comedy seems jaded and cynical, this show reveals that love, optimism and goodness are real.

10. "Once Upon a Time"

This imaginative spin on fairy tales leads a promising class of 2011 debuts. (Other notables: "Up All Night" and "Happy Endings.") The Wicked Queen has defeated her enemies - Prince Charming, Snow White and the whole lot - by erasing their memories and trapping them in our unmagical world. Will their eyes be open to a greater world they cannot see?

What were your favorite shows during 2011? Share your thoughts/lists below.

Also part of the TC Top Ten series: John J. Thompson on music.

(Illustration by Schuyler Roozeboom.)

Topics: TV, Culture At Large, Arts & Leisure