The Television of 2011

It was much harder to find the time for a lot of series this year, and it’s only going to get harder. Thanks to film studios funding a fraction of the smaller budget pictures they used to, a lot of very creative people have migrated to the far more welcoming cable television environment, spawning a golden age of television that we’re right in the thick of. It’s impossible to see everything, but for what it’s worth, here’s what I got around to.

Black Mirror- A BBC series by Charlie Brooker consisting of three unrelated stories connected only in that they explore how technology affects society, and vice versa. The first five minutes of the first episode are jaw dropping, and the rest of the installment manages to do justice to the insanely inspired setup. The other two episodes, despite having an almost impossible act to follow, still manage to hold their own. For a scarily accurate portrayal of how people might behave in present (and future) times if certain things were to happen, I can’t recommend tracking this down highly enough. If you watch it, you’ll thank me for being vague. 

Boardwalk Empire– One of the very few TV shows I managed to keep up with on a weekly basis, college-based obligations be damned, and it was entirely worth it. The second season built on everything in the first to ultimately culminate in nothing short of classic Greek tragedy. It was, at times, breathtaking. Jimmy Darmody, Richard Harrow, and newly introduced Jewish butcher/psychopathic gangster Manny Horowitz were standouts amongst a stellar group of characters.

Breaking Bad– The best show on television. Season 4 was more or less flawless, with Walter White’s descent into hell progressing nicely. Looking back, this season can pretty much be summed up as “X vs. Y” (trying to avoid any spoilers, here. If you’ve seen it, you know what/who I’m referring to) and the way that conflict resolves justifies every second. Sure, there were some slow moments in the first few episodes, but the last batch more than make up for it. Not sure if any of the episodes in their entirety quite top “Half Measures” and “Full Measure” for ratio of pure quality per moment, but the last minutes of “Crawl Space” and a very special twenty or so seconds from the finale are on the shortlist for consideration as my favorite scenes from any TV show ever. And I don’t say that lightly. As Walter might put it, it’s brilliant! Here’s to sixteen more episodes with the One who Knocks.

Community– I’ve only seen a few episodes, because I’m a bad person, but damn this show is great. At times it seems more like a study of narrative than a series in and of itself, and for that I both love and fear it. By some miracle, I pray it isn’t cancelled.

The Daily Show and The Colbert Report– I’ve sort of kind of managed to keep up with the former, because I love Jon Stewart so damn much. Colbert’s great too, but I can’t really make time for it anymore. Anyway, these shows along with The Onion are the pinnacle of satire, and they’re so much more genuine than any “legitimate” news program. And a lot of the time more informative.

Dexter– At the start of every season of Dexter after the first, I thought “There’s no way this will still be good.” Finally, after five years of very satisfying television, I was proven right. The sixth season finally fucked it all up. The villain finally failed to appear as something other than the designated baddie for the year. The characters finally stopped feeling real and became the collection of traits we associated with them that said things we thought they should. For some people Dexter did this last year, but I was still on-board.  I’d built up a lot of goodwill toward the Bay Harbor Butcher and his friends, family, and near-weekly ritualistic execution. Then they ruined all that with the single most insultingly stupid twist I’ve ever watched a TV show try to pull off. It was PAINFULLY obvious, but I’ve had plot points pointed out well in advance before. When my reaction to figuring it out isn’t “oh, that’s great, I wish they did it in a way that surprised me” but “oh, fuck this” that’s when it’s an issue. And seriously, fuck this. I never thought I wouldn’t have finished watching Dexter, but goddamn I could not make time for the rest of this season. Apparently they threw in some incest towards the end. Because really, why not?

Doctor Who– Okay technically I’m not yet caught up, so I didn’t see anything from this year, but I’m really close and I absolutely love it. This is definitely a case where you’re not watching a show, you’re getting involved in an entire culture- one that’s been around for nearly fifty years. Russell T Davies did a fantastic job reviving the series and, from what I can tell so far, Steven Moffat has the potential to make it even better. I love the three Doctors I’ve seen, I like the companions (And I think I’m falling in love with Amy Pond), I find the effects brilliant when they work and adorable when they don’t, and I love the way the show constantly explores the myth of the Doctor. I don’t know if there’s a character I’ve seen who can (in all incarnations) so convincingly run the gamut from quirky to badass to tragic to terrifying. If you haven’t watched any of this show and think you’ll never be able to get into it with its decades of history, just watch the Season 3 episode “Blink.” All you need to know is there’s a time traveler in a blue box called the Doctor and you’re good to go.

Game of Thrones– The best possible adaptation of A Song of Ice and Fire anyone could have asked for. Thank you HBO, for more or less filming the book. A lot of the greatness is owed just to faithfulness to the source material. They really lived up to what they were given- the look is really impressive, and the cast is amazing. Peter Dinklage as Tyrion, sure, but I can gush for far too long about how almost anyone perfectly evokes their literary counterpart. A few (Bronn, Jorah Mormont, Shae) are even better onscreen. So far the television level budget hasn’t even been that noticeable. My biggest complaint with the first season was that the Hound wasn’t as awesome as he should have been. And that’s something they can fix. And that’s mostly it. For an adaptation of a wonderful and hugely complex fantasy series, that’s nothing short of astounding. We are in for, at the very least, three more great years of television before I have doubts about whether they’ll be able to make a good show out of the books. Let’s enjoy it while it lasts.

Louie– FX has allowed Louis CK to make something I don’t know if I’ve ever seen done before: an auteur television series. He writes, directs, edits, and stars, and based on the content I’m absolutely sure he’s never been told not to do something, because I cannot possibly picture any sort of studio executive having authority over any of this. I can’t even picture them thinking it won’t be terrible. “What’s that Louis, an episode where you go on a drive with your daughters and you sing along with the radio for the entirety of ‘Who are You?’ and that’s the whole scene? Fine by us!” It somehow worked, by the way. As did the one about his friend wanting to kill himself followed by a completely believable conversation that resolved nothing. And the one about Dane Cook stealing Louis’s jokes with special guest star Dane Cook. And the one where the woman he’s in love with doesn’t feel the same way because that’s life sometimes that made me fucking cry. This show is incredible and unlike anything I’ve ever seen. You will laugh. You will despair. You will be baffled and thankful that this somehow exists.

The Office– Steve Carell’s last few episodes were handled with skill and heart, and the departure of Michael Scott was fittingly emotional while remaining true to the character. If only it had been the series finale. I’ve stopped watching the shambling self-parody calling itself The Office. I have no interest in seeing something I enjoyed gradually lose everything that endeared me to it in the first place.

Parks and Recreation– It does the faux documentary thing with an ensemble cast that gels, I think, far better than the staff of Dunder Mifflin did, even in their prime. Still owes a lot to The Office, and loses something because it’s format is no longer fresh, but the way it started out as farce instead of awkwardly transitioning to it allowed it to be outlandish without betraying anything. If the show was just April and Ron Swanson interacting with an occasionally different third person I’m pretty sure I’d still watch it.

Going into 2012, I’m ridiculously excited for Game of Thrones to continue and Breaking Bad to get however far it does into its final season. Some excellent stuff on the horizon, no question.

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