Television seems to become more of a true art form with each passing year, and 2011 continued the trend with bold, ambitious storytelling and bitingly smart writing. Here are our picks for the best (and some of the worst) TV this year.
This HBO series gets the prize for most improved of the year, delivering a thoroughly engaging second season after a somewhat slow, funereal debut last year. Sure they upped the body count to raise the stakes, but that's OK. While certainly artistic on a regular basis, Boardwalk is primarily a mob show, and mob shows get bloody. Teeming with wonderful, lived-in performances in parts both big and small and infused with the transporting melancholy of a time gone by, Boardwalk is big, grand period entertainment done right. Let's just consider the first season the introduction. This year was when the '20s really got roaring.
Watching this season of AMC's great Southwestern crime drama was as if someone (show creator Vince Gilligan perhaps) kept pulling and pulling and pulling on a string; we could feel it getting tighter and tighter and knew it was going to snap, but we weren't sure when and we weren't sure how bad it was going to be when it did. Almost unbearably suspenseful, the fourth season saw our hero Walter White trying to get himself out from under the unnervingly serene (well, serene until provoked, and then cover your neck) crime boss Gus Fring. No show on TV does a whacked-out, dizzyingly intense, yet still somehow believable set piece like Breaking Bad, which runs at a rate of at least two indelible moments per episode. As witnessed in a terrifying scene at a Mexican drug lord's hacienda alone, the show is both stressful entertainment and high art.
Though it premiered in its native UK in 2010, this lovely, sparkling post-Edwardian domestic drama arrived on PBS in America back in January. The show, which concerns the oft-intertwining lives of both the upstairs aristocracy and the downstairs help, is written (oftentimes by series creator Julian Fellowes) with a giddy brio, whether the scene is a witty storm of words or one of quiet longing and ache. Those of us too impatient to wait for the second season's American debut next year have cheated and already watched the British version online, so we know that the second season begins to go a bit too heavy on the melodrama (while still being terrifically entertaining, mind you), but season one is a near-perfect little English jewel. Even if you don't like Period Pieces, you won't likely be able to resist the charms of a stay at Downton.
Adapted brilliantly from the first book in George R.R. Martin's massive fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, this HBO wonderment proved compelling television even for the fantasy-averse among us. Genius-level casting and a spare-no-expenses attention to detail help make the series -- about a kind of medieval alternate Earth where dynastic power struggles run rampant and long-dead magic is flickering back to life -- one of TV's most vivid viewing experiences. With an eye toward both epic sweep and intimate human drama (and be-armored and be-frocked eye candy), Game of Thrones is HBO's grandest achievement in years.
Whizzing along as network television's smartest series, this CBS legal drama combines intelligent, swiftly moving intrigue with just enough of the soapy stuff to create perfectly calibrated entertainment every week. Archie Panjabi, Alan Cumming, Christine Baranski, and the ever-elegant Julianna Margulies are just a few examples of the show's deep pool of acting talent, while the writers continue to surprise by deftly avoiding the oft-tread cliches of a generally weary genre. The show rips from the only the most interesting headlines while still creating a world of Chicago wheelings and dealings all its own. Gourmet popcorn at its best.
One of the greatest rewards of good series television is the pleasure of watching a cast's dynamic deepen and grow, and there was no finer example of that this year than the fivesome on FX's blackly absurd comedy. Somehow managing to seem delightfully fresh even in its seventh season, Always Sunny's perfect ensemble -- among them Kaitlin Olson's thwarted dreamer, Charlie Day's gonzo whipping boy, Danny DeVito's grubby troll -- bring us gapingly crude, but always sly, situational humor with remarkable consistency every Thursday night. Watch the tired-seeming (though, to be fair, less so these days) crew on The Office and then go watch these guys. By comparison, their energy seems astoundingly limitless.
Exploring the bleak mundanities of everyday living, show creator, writer, producer, director, and star Louis C.K. specializes in a kind of shrug-shouldered tragicomedy that feels truly original. Some episodes of this FX half-hour, like a thoughtful USO trip or a declaration of unrequited love, hardly feel like comedy at all. But each moment, whether screamingly funny or bitterly sad, is perfectly earned and expertly crafted. Were he not such an indispensable comedian, we'd almost urge C.K. to pursue a filmmaking career in the style of another Louis, Mr. Malle.
Saturday Night Live's Fred Armisen and (surprisingly) Sleater-Kinney's Carrie Brownstein aim very specific on this IFC sketch satire show: They poke fun at all the bourgeois bohemian trappings of many Subaru-driving, NPR-listening, reusable tote-carrying urbanites the land over. They've found a ripe and previously untargeted demographic to skew, which also seems to be the audience that's tuning in. But really this is the kind of smart/dumb humor that can be broadly appealing, even if the phrase "farm to table" means nothing to you. Gently absurd and never cruel, Portlandia is a little oddball delight. And when they're on the nose, they are really on the nose. We admit to maybe hanging our own heads in shame during the now-classic "Did You Read?" sketch.
A gauzy, gooey soap opera of the highest order, ABC's thoroughly entertaining vengeance drama is the new TV season's most unexpected enjoyment. Set in the moneyed idyll of the Hamptons, Revenge tells a satisfyingly quickly paced tale of a beautiful young woman (the icy yet inviting Emily VanCamp) who is hellbent on destroying the lives of the South Fork elites who framed her father for a terrible crime. Romantic complications, accidental near-murders, and fabulous fashion keep every episode humming along, while Madeleine Stowe's imperious, pale-skinned archvillain gives the series its most invaluable dollop of camp. No show this silly has any right to be this good, and yet here Revenge is, wrapping us tight in its summery spell.
How do you make an already-great reality series about talented chefs trying to out-cook each other with manic fury even better? By bringing back some beloved, and especially talented, chefs from seasons past for the ultimate battle royale. While the show technically premiered in December of 2010, the bulk of the excitement unfolded in the winter and spring of this year, so we're counting it. How could we not, when the season featured the triumphant return of gizmo-happy Richard Blais, more genial underdogging from fan favorite Tiffany Derry, and the wolverine-haired villain Marcel Vigneron? When Bravo does a competition show right, it really sings, and Top Chef: All Stars stands shoulder to shoulder with some of the greats (Project Runway season four comes to mind).
(Note: We would also include the lovely and heartbreaking final season of Friday Night Lights, but since that season technically aired in full in America in 2010 before this year's NBC run on Direct TV, we won't. But know that it was good. Just so, so good.)