Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Top-10 shows of the year . . . a magical feat of cable dominance

Ah, the new year.
A time to start fresh -- especially when it comes to diets.
A time to forgive ancient grudges – or just smile through boring family parties.
And, most importantly, a time to reflect on last year’s television season.
I like making lists, so when I sat down to pick the best television shows of the year I thought it would be relatively easy.
It took me a lot longer than I thought it would.
When I sat down to look at the list, the thing that jumped out at me first was the fact that only a handful of the shows (mostly in the honorable mention section) actually came from the big four networks. I can’t decide if that’s a commentary on how good the cable networks are getting at producing fresh programming or how bad the major networks are at the endeavor. I think I’ve settled on a mixture of the two.
So, without further ado, the top ten shows of the year are:

10. Once Upon a Time: I almost didn’t have any big three network shows represented in the actual list, but ultimately I made room for this rare ABC gem. The show isn’t without its faults, but the acting is top-notch and the intrigue is not overbearing – so far at least. I’ve seen a lot of critics that were down on the show before it premiered who suddenly flipped their opinions when they saw how popular it was. Me? I was always intrigued by the modern fairy tale update and the casting of Ginnifer Goodwin, Jennifer Morrison and Robert Carlyle. Am I happy with the outcome? Actually, yes. I haven’t found myself fast-forwarding through any episodes yet – and that’s a mark of true love in my house.

9. Wilfred: I think people either love this show or hate it. I like its dark tone and black comedy roots. I think a lot of people think a show about a grown man becoming best friends with a dog – which appears to be an acerbic Australian guy in a fuzzy dog suit to him and a regular four-legged friend to everyone else – to be heart-warming and funny. This show is definitely funny, but it’s not for the faint of heart. If you object to pot smoking and stuffed animal “humping” – this probably isn’t the show for you. If you want a good laugh with characters that aren’t necessarily good people – this could very well be the show for you.

8. Psych: Now in its sixth season, this underappreciated USA gem is woefully overlooked by critics and viewers alike. Series leads James Roday and Dule Hill not only have combustible chemistry and laugh-out-loud camaraderie, but they also have a sweet bond that’s actually the heart of this show. The great thing about ‘Psych’ is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. The better thing about ‘Psych’? It embraces the silly. Whether investigating a cult, stealing a Darth Vader toy for a kid or even visiting a ‘Twin Peaks’ like town – Hill and Roday approach each comedic situation with zest and little shame.

7. Homeland: This show had the potential to be boring. It had the potential to drum up a little controversy on government issues. Instead, razor sharp writing and great acting by Claire Danes and Damian Lewis have actually made this show “must see” television. The program manages to make government work exciting – without going too over-the-top like ‘Alias’ did. I see the potential for a long run for this freshman series. Really, the only question is, how long until Mandy Patinken jumps ship – which has sadly become his trademark.

6. The Killing: This AMC summer series drew a passionate response when it ended its freshman season. Unfortunately, that response was mostly negative. Fans were incensed that the show runners had not followed through on the promised reveal of who the actual “killer” of Rosie Larsen was in the final episode. Instead of apologizing, lead actress Mireille Enos actually told fans to get over it. What was lost in that controversy was how well written, acted and paced the low key series actually was. Sadly, if show runners don’t rectify the situation from the end of the first season, ‘The Killing’ – as a whole -- could be the next victim of viewer ire.

5. Falling Skies: This summer TNT gem took me by surprise. I was mildly interested in the promos, not because I’m a Noah Wylie fan but because I’m an alien invasion fan. By the time I watched the first episode, I had three saved on my DVR and I burned through them quickly in one afternoon. This show is what ABC’s reboot of the ‘V’ franchise should have been. Not only were the characters engaging and the acting solid (Wylie took me by surprise – I’ll admit it) but the genuine atmosphere and feel of the show were spot on. The first season cliffhanger, unfortunately, looks like it could be a “jump the shark” moment. Let’s hope it’s not.

4. Sons of Anarchy: This was one of those shows I had no interest in. I didn’t care about bikers. I certainly didn’t care about the politics of biker gangs. And, despite my love of Ron Perlman, I just didn’t have any desire to see this show. Slowly, I started hearing good things from odd places. Apparently, this show was good. Despite the rumblings, I still didn’t tune in right away. In fact, it wasn’t until near the end of the show’s second season that I finally bothered to watch an episode. Suddenly, I was hooked. It wasn’t purported heart throb Charlie Hunnam, however, that looped me in. It was the underrated Kate Sagal – who I really only knew as Peg Bundy and from a few guest appearances on ‘Lost’ – who blew me away as protective mama bear Gemma. Sagal is not only the one who anchors the show, she propels it. This season, the show’s fourth, the stories and acting really hit their stride. This is now ‘must see’ T.V. – and for some reason I want a motorcycle.
 3. The Walking Dead: Zombies on mainstream television? Who would have thought it would actually work? What’s interesting about AMC’s survival show is that it’s not actually a show about zombies. It’s a show about people surviving an apocalypse that just happens to be made up of zombies, how the world changes and the resonance of that eternal question. Is it people changing to fit the new world or the new world that changes people? ‘The Walking Dead’ generally splits fans between comic book fans and show fans. Personally, I don’t understand why anyone would want a show to follow an already established storyline – comic book or otherwise. Where’s the surprise in that? I’m a big fan of ‘The Walking Dead’ and the only thing that kept the show from obtaining the top spot is the trite ‘who’s the daddy’ storyline that three of the main characters are mired in. That’s daytime soaps, not nighttime brilliance.

2. Breaking Bad: It’s rare for a show to keep getting better – especially a show that just finished up its fifth season. That’s the case with AMC’s brilliant ‘Breaking Bad.’ Before the show, I only knew Bryan Cranston as the somewhat dim father on ‘Malcolm in the Middle’ and the annoying shrieking guy on ‘The X-Files’ who couldn’t stop driving because his head would explode. Cranston is a true revelation as drug dealer Walter White. While a lot of shows make the bad guys heroes, ‘Breaking Bad’s’ ultimate strength is that these characters are likeable despite the acknowledgement of the bad things they do. That’s the true strength of ‘Breaking Bad.’ Walter and Aaron Paul’s Jesse are essentially royal douches – and yet they’re characters we can’t help but root for.

1. Justified: The freshman season was brilliant, so for the sophomore season to be even better written and acted, well, that is amazing. The FX show manages to be smart, snarky, dark, light and quirky – all in the same 60-minute span. The two lead women (Joelle Carter, Natalie Zea) on the show are pretty much interchangeable and probably the weakest part of the entire program (although Carter has a lot more potential than Zea). It’s sometimes friends - sometimes enemies - sometimes mortal enemies Raylan and Boyd who fuel the show. While Timothy Olyphant and Walton Goggins are true talents, though, it was actually Margo Martindale as ‘Mad Mags’ who stole the second season and helped elevate it to greatness. While one minute spouting her devotion to her deviant sons and the next teach them a lesson with a hammer, Mags managed to be a delightful dichotomy. While Mags met her end at the end of the second season, here’s hoping the show can come up with an equally engrossing main villain for the third season.

The Best of the Rest
And, since a list is never complete without a few honorable mentions, here’s some entertaining shows that were considered for my best show’s list, but ultimately didn’t make the cut:

Suits – Gabriel Macht and Patrick J. Adams have crackling chemistry.

Being Human – We’re talking the BBC version, not that pathetic thing the Sci-Fi Channel runs. Sadly, with heartthrob Mitchell’s death at the end of the last season, I’m worried this show won’t be able to maintain its audience.

Leverage – Even in its fourth season, the show never disappoints, thanks to a talented cast that clearly really likes each other both on and off the screen.

Modern Family – Now in its third season, the show still managers to entertain without letting its characters cross that edge from funny to caricature.

Mad Men – Good show, but it’s had better seasons.

The Daily Show – There’s no other show on television that can garner the ratings and teach us a lesson in less than 20 minutes -- and do it consistently more than 30 weeks a year.

Parenthood – The acting on this show really couldn’t get any better. The problem is, occasionally, the show devolves into a soap opera. Instead of leading the way, sometimes it’s trying to play catch-up with current trends.

Blue Bloods – The cast is pretty talented and the stories aren’t annoyingly cloy like those of most procedurals. The family at the core of the story is one I think most people would want to be a part of. My only complaint about this hidden gem – which CBS feels the need to bury on Friday nights – is that occasionally Tom Selleck’s Frank Reagan is so very perfect that he’s almost a saint instead of a real and flawed man.

What do you think? What were your favorite television shows this season?


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