1. BREAKING BAD
Just to put things in perspective, Lost had already jumped the shark with that Bai Ling episode by season 3 and Deadwood never even made it to season 4. Meanwhile, in its fourth year, Breaking Bad arguably exceeded its own standards of excellence as the hate triangle between Walt, Jesse and Gus Fring paid off with an amazing 2011 finale. Whether Vince Gilligan et al. can somehow maintain the sky-high quality for one more go-round remains to be seen, but the 46 episodes of family drama and drug-dealing mayhem thus far have long since earned the series a spot in the TV Hall of Fame.
2. DOWNTON ABBEY
Combining the energy, snap and pace of the best American long-form TV with Masterpiece-quality British period drama, Downton Abbey is an elgant and deeply satisfying full-course meal, from the individual storylines of its upstairs/downstairs nobles and servants to its broad stroke depiction of Britain’s transition into the modern era. Also, Maggie Smith rules.
3. PARKS & RECREATION
Consistently sharp writing and an incredibly funny, likeable ensemble make Parks a great sitcom. But what really pushes this Amy Poehler vehicle over the top is its timely satire of democracy in action and its open-hearted reminder of why community-strengthening public service is ultimately worth all the aggravation.
Not only is Louie C.K. the reigning king of stand-up comedy, but he’s also exploded the conventions of half-hour TV with a show that’s more like a series of experimental films than a traditional sit-com. I’ve heard that other performers are now demanding the creative license of the “Louis deal” when developing their own projects, but I’m guessing very few of them will make such brilliant use of their new freedoms.
The half-hour episodes of Enlightened also play like short independent films, although here the tone is more contemplative than experimental as the series charts the painful spiritual evolution of a fallen corporate one percenter. Laura Dern’s lead character is a hot mess you can’t help rooting for, and it’s great that HBO gave the unusual but exceptional series a second chance to expand its small but loyal viewership.
Speaking of small and unusual, this sketch comedy curio from SNL’s Fred Armisen and indie rocker Carrie Brownstein may not be everyone’s cup of Fair Trade organic herbal tea. But for me, the duo’s spot-on artsy-slacker send-ups are instantly familiar and hilarious (even though I’ve never so much as set foot in Portland)!
7. THE WALKING DEAD
Many groused about this season’s claustrophobic farm setting and squabbling melodrama, but I was intrigued enough by the characters and storylines (not to mention the most dread-inducing opening credits in history) to stay loyal week after week. Plus, even as it came to seem inevitable, the Sophia twist was still pretty great.
8. MEN OF A CERTAIN AGE
Though not quite a part of the show’s certain age demographic, I appreciated the human-scale drama and relatable struggles of Men’s central trio: Scott Bakula’s overgrown adolescent, Andre Braugher’s stressed family man and particularly Ray Romano’s divorced gambling addict (engaged in a tense, series-long dance with his frenemy of a bookie, played with Emmy-worthy chops by Joe Manfrellotti).
9. BOARDWALK EMPIRE
In a year of startling televised plot developments, Boardwalk scored more than its share of jaw-dropping moments this season. As always, the series remains easier to admire than to love, but the scope and ambition of this Prohibition crime saga continued to make it must-see TV in 2011.
10. SURVIVOR: SOUTH PACIFIC
Though increasingly lazy and predictable, the granddaddy of reality TV proved it still had some juice as a social experiment by (perhaps inadvertently) dramatizing the hypocrisies and moral quandaries inherent in loudly proclaiming one’s Christianity while engaged in distinctly un-Christian behavior (like backstabbing, lying and demonizing opponents in hopes of winning a game, a prize, or a majority of votes). Bonus points for a gratifying victory by one of the most deserving players in recent memory (although the reunion show was possibly the worst of all time).
MISSED THE FIRST SEASON BUT APPARENTLY NEED TO START WATCHING: GAME OF THRONES
FINALLY GAVE UP ON: TREME…
…YET FOR SOME REASON STILL WATCHING: TRUE BLOOD
Honorable Mention: The Soup, Big Love, Nurse Jackie, Project Runway, The Amazing Race, The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, Saturday Night Live, Real Time With Bill Maher, Fashion Police, Modern Family, The Office, 30 Rock