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Best of 2011: TV shows

HBO

BY DAILY TV/NEW MEDIA STAFF

Published January 4, 2012

1. “Game of Thrones,”

In its heyday, HBO created programs that transcended genres and offered something for everyone. With “Game of Thrones,” HBO has worked its magic again, turning George R.R. Martin’s fantasy saga into a refreshingly audacious program with incredible mass appeal.
 
The show’s set in a world where seasons last for years and dragons used to fly around. But that’s largely ignored. Instead, HBO presents a delightfully dark tale full of political and military intrigue. Armies move at the behest of lords manipulated by seemingly minor players, such as Littlefinger and the Imp — Tyrion Lannister — who truly run the show. Illusions of chivalry and grace are shattered by pragmatism and horror.
 
Elaborate plots and wry wit are a credit to the writers room. The cinematography and production design are a testament to HBO’s attitude of “Budget? Psh, we can pay for it with Skinemax.” And of course, there’s that final, shocking beheading.

-DAVID TAO

2. “Parks and Recreation,”

The greatest thing about NBC’s “Parks and Recreation” is how easy it is to adore every character. And now, “Parks” has become one of the most beloved TV comedies.

Season four represents what “Parks” is all about. The relationship between Ben and Leslie gets direct attention. It’s refreshing to see them face the music and answer for the office romance instead of finding some sitcomm-y loophole.
And how on earth can we pick the finest hour of Ron Swanson? Maybe it’s when he gives his Pawnee Rangers a handbook with just one instruction: Be a man. Maybe it’s when his mustache “falls off” courtesy of Tammy One, or when he throws away the invasive and satanic device, AKA his computer. Whatever it is, the man can do no wrong.

The fact that “Parks” has yet to win any big-name awards is shameful. Still, it has cemented itself a place with the comedy greats of our time.
-PROMA KHOSLA

3. “Community,”

2011 has been rough for cult hit “Community,” which is on indefinite hiatus. But creatively, the show has been brilliant.

While the first half of the second season was a little uneven, the part that aired in 2011 was insane in the way only “Community” can be. The Christmas claymation psychodrama in 2010 led into a sequence of episodes in which the show’s self-aware mode of joke-telling supplemented the deep characterization and became a part of it.

The best episodes of “Community” are gimmick episodes: a bottle episode that calls itself a bottle episode and episodes with multiple timelines. But what “Community” does with these gimmicks is more than just clever. The show’s tricks help us understand the characters and has become excellent at balancing sharp writing, clever references and character moments. Treasure it while it’s still here, because “Community” might not last long.

-SAM CENZHANG

4. “Breaking Bad,”

Having concluded its heartstoppingly suspenseful fourth season, “Breaking Bad” has evolved from its “Weeds”-esque premise into something utterly different: A life-or-death competition full of shock value and brutality, an elaborate chess game tempered by guns, organized crime and of course, methamphetamine.

Walt’s struggle with his drug-lord boss Gus comes to a head. After Walt packs yet another victim of Gus’s pragmatic, throat-opening rage into a barrel of acid, the writing’s on the wall — Walt’s a dead man. As Walt plots his survival, and ostensibly, that of his loyal underling Jesse, Gus runs into his own problems — the Mexican Cartel is hijacking his shipments and daring to declare war.

The pressure exerted on all parties slowly comes to a boil until it finally explodes, literally, in the season finale. For the moment, the formerly benign Walt, as he says, “is the danger.” Whether he maintains this status as the show continues is a different story.

-DAVID TAO

5. “Downton Abbey,”

“Downton Abbey” is the runaway hit of the year. The lavish series proves that a period piece can still kick ass. Produced by the BBC, each episode is soap-y, yet totally refined.

The series has managed to mix delectably dishy drama with an in-depth look at the English class system. It provokes real intellectual effort while sparking up deadly arcs and delicious intrigue. It follows the twists of the well-off Crawley family and their considerably less well-off servants. The first season starts off after the sinking of the Titanic, exploring the ins-and-outs of the caste system and rules of society.

The drama is a resounding achievement as the most successful British costume drama in almost 30 years. Collecting a bundle of awards for its first season, including several primetime Emmys, the series doesn’t appear to be slowing down any time soon. Bring on the fancy hats!

-KELLY ETZ

6. “Louie”

“You’re never gonna get the same things as other people. It’s never gonna be equal. It’s not gonna happen ever in your life,” Louie explains to his daughter, who questions why her sister got the better dessert. “Louie” features moments when we’re not sure whether to laugh, cry or stand up and shout at the television while watching Louie C.K.’s signature brand of dark humor.

His activities are often banal — blind dates, rearranging furniture, riding the subway — but the second season of FX’s Emmy-nominated series continues to give viewers a “Seinfeld”-like show with the soul of a gothic teenager.

Season two was even more self-aware, more mocking of the tradition from which it stems in a wonderful, sardonic manner. Take the seventh episode. It presents “Louie” in an old-school sitcom format, complete with a laugh track. It’s funny, only because we know “Louie” is anything but standard.

-JACOB AXELRAD

7. “Homeland”

There were plenty of enjoyable new shows that premiered this fall, but none were quite as impressive as Showtime’s “Homeland.” Despite the writers they share in common, “Homeland” is not the new “24” — it’s the antithesis of “24.” “24” preached that torture was necessary and that terrorism and Islam frequently overlapped, but “Homeland” critiques these ideas, presenting a much more candid picture of post-9/11 counterterrorism efforts.

Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes, “Stardust”) isn’t a superhuman Jack Bauer type. She’s depressed one second and manic the next, but all the while one of the best intelligence operatives in the business.

Sex and gore aren’t used in “Homeland” to simply excite the audience, but to provide a provocative scope into these characters’ lives. Damian Lewis and Claire Danes consistently deliver astounding performances, Lewis constantly making us unsure of Brody’s alliances and Danes playing both extreme sides of Carrie’s personality with precision. This show became the smartest, best-written action drama currently on television with ease, and it’s only the beginning.

-KAYLA UPADHYAYA

8. “Justified”

In its first season, “Justified” laid the groundwork for a thrilling Western-esque procedural centered on the bold and charismatic U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens’ (Timothy Olyphant, “I Am Number Four”) return to his small, crime-ridden Kentucky hometown. In its second season, the show proved it could master episodic and season-long arcs and enrich its excellently crafted story with compelling characters beyond just Raylan and Boyd (Walton Goggins, “The Shield”).

The best of these new characters was certainly Mags Bennett (Margo Martindale, “Secretariat”), the pot-growing matriarch of the Bennett family and longtime nemeses of the Givens family. Boyd has been a fantastic recurring antagonist, so combining him with the Bennetts provided positively explosive tension and excitement.

Raylan (and Timothy Olyphant, for that matter) remains the best part of this show. He’s a perfect protagonist, mostly because of his imperfections, his gray sense of what’s right and wrong. While most recent antiheroes on television evoke ambivalent feelings from audiences, even in his darkest times Raylan is ultimately a hero who we want to root for.

-KAYLA UPADHYAYA

9. “Archer”

James Bond was suave and seductive and snooty, but also relatively chivalrous and gentlemanly. But if you had his gadgets and cars and guns, you’d probably be a giant asshole — and so, to our delight, is secret agent Sterling Archer (H. Jon Benjamin, “Bob’s Burgers”) of ISIS. In the latest season of FX’s snarky classic, the overgrown, Hermes-wearing, “Bag with which one douches” gets married, breast cancer and a hooker pregnant, dealing with each subsequent conflict by letting loose the “whatever farm animals of war.” And also by using the wittiest, most offensive sarcasm ever to hit TV.

But the great thing about “Archer” this season wasn’t Archer himself, but his supporting characters, who stepped into the spotlight and exposed their depraved backstories to the world. The impossibly talented voice actors, many of them veterans of comedy masterpiece “Arrested Development”, stepped up to the task, bringing the twisted “Archer”-verse of “unsexy” gangsters and illegal tontines to glorious, animated life.

-DAVID TAO

10. “American Horror Story”

The basics behind “American Horror Story”?

Freak. You. Out.

Somehow, amid all the gross-out effects, psychotic characters, sex and dead babies, you want to keep watching. This isn’t some low-budget, cheap-thrill-seeking, straight-to-DVD horror flick. “American Horror Story” gets to you.

Sure, it overdoes it a bit, but the hypnotic style ends up offsetting much of the freak-you-out-just-because-we-can factors abundant in the series. “American Horror Story” deals with a more sophisticated side of the horror genre, craftily expanding upon real-life fears that aren’t so uncommon and turning them into ghoulish nightmares that will haunt your dreams. Following the Harmon family’s perils at the hands of their new haunted house and creepy neighbors, the series deftly extols on the deeper issues of the human condition: impurity, suicide, murder, miscarriages and so on.

Series creator Ryan Murphy announced FX will renew the show for a second season, though he plans to change the cast and bring in old faces as completely new characters. If any show could pull that off, it’d be “American Horror Story.”

-KELLY ETZ