With the vast array of astoundingly good TV shows currently airing across the television landscape, it is incredibly hard to point a mere Top 10. In an effort to single out what I thought reached the Top 10 for 2011, the following are 10 shows that excelled in writing, casting, characters, cinematography, direction, production and publicity. Interestingly, 4 out of 10 of the shows are British TV shows, which just goes to show that America cannot claim exclusively to be the “best of the best.”
First and foremost, DOCTOR WHO takes the top crown. No matter what other critics say, it is a remarkable achievement for any TV show to continue to enthral viewers after 48 years – of which it aired over 33 televised seasons in more than 50 countries around the globe. The genius in recasting the lead character every couple of years adds to the renewed interest in fans and the writers in creating new stories; but, by far, the current broadcast run under the helm of Steven Moffat and showcasing the enumerable talents of Matt Smith has been nothing short of extraordinary. I am not alone in this belief, as DOCTOR WHO has secured a number of BAFTA nominations in recent years – including a recent nomination for Best Actor, and winning in prior years for Best Drama and Best Writing. This past year has been perhaps one of the most shocking, surprising and delightful seasons ever as it began the season with the death of The Doctor and ended with his wedding. The cleverly cast ensemble made up of Matt Smith, Karen Gillan, Arthur Darvill and Alex Kingston has infused the series with life and energy and created an addictiveness that crosses demographics like no other show ever – children, parents and grandparents are tuning in and living for just a few more moments with the infamous Doctor. Any show that can achieve all that deserves to be number one on the year-end Top 10 list!
FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS
In its fifth and final season, FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS went out on top. It received a Best Drama nomination at the Emmys, won for Best Writing, won in the Best Actor category for its lead Kyle Chandler, and also secured a Best Actress for its co-lead Connie Britton. It also won the Writer’s Guild award for Best Drama Series. It was the “dark horse” at the Emmys, but it was by far the fan favorite. FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS is an anomaly in that it aired for two seasons in primetime television on NBC, before being picked up for an unusual deal where DirecTV had first broadcast rights and NBC would reair later in the year. Regardless of the creative scheduling and financing, FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS remained a superb drama series that had the unique quality of feeling real. It created a world so life-like that viewers felt that it actually existed somewhere in Texas. It gave us the golden duo of Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton, who brought their characters Eric and Tami to life and infused them with such charm, grace and love that we all wanted to be adopted into their family. Already the future feels dimmer knowing that we will never get to share in the joys and triumphs of the Taylors in 2012.
Looking at another family that captured our hearts and imaginations, the British series DOWNTON ABBEY invited us into a world of declining gentry, where a once-establish English family struggled with the encroaching changes of the world around them and the resulting entangled lives of the upper and working class. It was an old fashioned soap opera that everyone was talking about — from the U.K. to the U.S. viewers could not wait to see what would happen next. Ratings alone proclaimed the series to be an instant hit and now audiences in the U.S. are breathlessly awaiting the second season to find out how the pending world war will impact the lives of these new treasured friends. In addition to its addictiveness and water-cooler impact, DOWNTON ABBEY is simply the gold-standard in classic storytelling. Its visual style and carefully intertwined character-stories are breathtaking. It is a sight to behold and a story that captivates. It also managed to win 6 Emmy awards, including Mini-Series, Directing for Mini-Series, Writing for Mini-Series, Cinematography for Mini-Series, and Supporting Actress for the indomitable Maggie Smith as Countess of Grantham; and is currently nominated for four Golden Globe nominations for 2012, including Best Mini-Series.
THE GOOD WIFE
Also rising to level of both critical and popular acclaim, THE GOOD WIFE continued to challenge our perceptions of the legal system and office romances. While simultaneously lauding and condemning the problems from “sleeping with the boss,” it created a world where we were dying to know whose secrets would be revealed next. The court cases both overshadowed and subtly back-dropped each of the prevalent personal stories of the lead characters. But foremost, the story of Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) and her attempt to juggle a professional career and a personal life was simply riveting. Whether it was subtly flirting with an admitted killer to get his assistance or her steely inner strengthen in the face of devastating news, Alicia Florrick was undeniably captivating. Then woven into this carefully constructed tapestry are an array of characters that also kept up glued to our television sets, whether it was Archie Panjabi as Kalinda Sharma, Christine Baranski as Diana Lockhart, Josh Charles as Will Gardner, Chris Noth as Peter Florrick, Scott Porter as Blake Calamar, Alan Cumming as Eli Gold, Michael J. Fox as Louis Canning, or America Ferrera as Natalie Flores. THE GOOD WIFE knows that the dilemma of a woman scorned who is trying to find happiness and professional recognition is a thorny path – but it also makes fine television drama. Nominated for Best Drama and winning for Best Actress at the 2011 Emmys, THE GOOD WIFE remains one of the best and more thoroughly entertaining shows on television.
Perhaps one of the most controversial shows this past year, LUTHER dared to up the ante in its storytelling and took viewers back into the fractured world of police detective John Luther, who would do anything to get the bad guy and protect those he cared about. The cases were bone-chilling, but striding confidently through it all was Idris Elba as the complex John Luther – and Elba instinctively brought the sexy back into police work. Whether it was smoozing and then brushing-off an admiring serial killer or rescuing a reluctant prostitute, Elba used his charm and presence to his best advantage – and we weren’t the only ones noticing as he secured award nominations on both sides of the pond for his electrifying portrayal. The only thing missing from this stellar series was more screentime with the equally fascinating Alice Morgan, portrayed by Ruth Wilson. It was criminal to so sparely use such a razor-sharp character who provided such a fantastic foil for Elba’s Luther. The chemistry between the two set the screen on fire and made us wonder who was the hunter and who was the prey in their twisted game. Idris Elba also rightly received Emmy and Golden Globe nominations for his phenomenal portrayal in LUTHER.
Another lawman who lives outside the law to make sure the ends-justify-the-means, Raylan Givens, as portrayed by Timothy Olyphant was unpredictable, smoldering and surprisingly courtly in his daily life. In JUSTIFIED, the dance between Raylan Givens and his nemesis/frenemy Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) mesmerized us all. Just who was the good-guy and who was the bad-guy became murkier with each episode and intrigued us every second. Life in Harlan County is not black-and-white, only shades of gray, and depending on the issue and the task at hand each had a turn at making us wonder which role they were playing in their esoteric game of chess. Regardless of the moral ambiguity and gamesmanship, the series crackled with tension and lured us into a world where anything could happen. So while bullets were quick to fly and alliances even quicker to disintegrate, there was an underlying feeling of mutual respect and admiration between Raylan and Boyd. That unexpected camaraderie drew viewers in and made us cheer for both sides of the law. The Emmys clearly agreed bestowing 4 nominations for Timothy Olyphant, Walton Goggins, Margo Martindale and Jeremy Davies; securing a win for Margo Martindale who was simply incredible in her guest-starring role as the ruthless Mags Bennet.
THE WALKING DEAD
To be honest, it is astounding that a show about zombies would ever make a Top 10 list. But due to the sheer audacity to create a stylized and exceptional character-story about the survivors caught up in a zombie-apocalypse, THE WALKING DEAD has earned a place on this list. Not content to be a mere horror/freak-show, the series strives to offer a riveting and well-made piece of television drama. So much so, that it has received a Writers Guild nomination for Best New Series, a Golden Globe nomination for Best Drama, and several Creative Arts Emmy nominations. THE WALKING DEAD’s talent understood that they were not just making another thriller of the week and strove to make a series that is considered art-worthy. If this year’s fall finale is any indication, it also does not shirk from challenging our ethical and moral beliefs on what lengths humans will go to in order to survive. But rather than appall us with it audacity and gore, THE WALKING DEAD instead invites us into a world that feels so real that we wonder if it foreshadows the next chapter of our human existence – especially in today’s world with concerns about bird flu and other biological weapons, and anything else that hovers on the edge of fringe of science. Solidifying its rightful place on this list, THE WALKING DEAD has also been nominated both by the Writers Guild and the Golden Globes as Best New Drama series.
Another television series that pushed boundaries and expectations this past year was FRINGE. Regularly underestimated, FRINGE continues to provide astoundingly well-conceived and brilliantly portrayed stories that also challenge our perceptions about the world around us. The dual-universe stories and the mirroring of its characters in two different worlds is enthralling. It also challenges us to rethink what we think we know about the characters introduced in the first season and how they have evolved. Most shows are content to create their characters fully-formed early on, but in FRINGE’s case, with each episode, the core characters changed with a chameleon-like grace and astound us all over again — even now that the series is in its fourth season. Credit goes the writers who created them and the stars Anna Torv, John Noble, Josh Jackson, Jasika Nicole and newcomer Seth Gabel for their stunning ability to seamlessly transition between their multi-faceted and increasingly fascinating characters. It has never been more fun to watch the kaleidoscope spin and see where everyone lands up next and who he or she may be next. Science fiction is an enigma in and of itself, yet FRINGE makes it look effortless and exciting.
Not content to be a mere procedural, THE CLOSER consistently offers up some of the finest, most finely-tuned, and nuanced crime stories on television. Frequently shown from the various perspectives a tight-knit and meticulous police unit that seek only to capture the culprit or persons responsible for the heinous crimes they are entrusted with investigating, the series never fails to captivate. The show stepped up its game in 2011 with the addition of a continuing story involving a ruthless lawsuit filed against the unit’s Deputy Police Chief, Brenda Leigh Johnson (Kyra Sedgwick). With the addition of both Mary McDonnell and Mark Pellegrino, as Captain Sharon Rador and defense attorney Gavin Q. Baker III respectively, the show reached a new plateau of stellar and integrated storylines. The show was no longer about just catching criminals and dolling out “punishment that fits the crime” when the law could not hold them, the series focused on the ramifications of vigilante justice and the temptation to enact personal vengeance when trying to uphold law that do not always offer justice. Turning the spotlight on the sometimes questionable tactics employed by Major Crimes to close their cases has ratcheted up the suspense and tension in this remarkable series. In virtually every year since it first debuted, THE CLOSER has secured best actress nominations and best ensemble nominations for its outstanding cast. This past year has not been an exception as it received Screen Actors Guild and Emmy nominations for its lead Kyra Sedgwick and Mary McDonnell, who stands poised to assume the lead role in the spinoff series MAJOR CRIMES next year.
Newcomer THE HOUR is a British series that took viewers behind-the-scenes in the newsroom and the lengths the government will go to in order to manipulate the media for its own ends. On the surface, the series appeared to be a “slice of life” look at a media team transiting to television and to making themselves relevant in the fast-changing world of politics. But when one of the reporters became suspicious of a friend’s death and the ripple-effects in the news he was being asked to cover, he unearthed a labyrinthine conspiracy that sent chills down our spines. Finely-helmed by Romola Garai, Ben Whishaw and Dominic West — as well as a fantastic guest-appearance by Burn Gorman, the series caught our attention and held it. Until its final moments, we were never sure exactly what was going on, but we only knew that we could not stop watching. It was gripping, thrilling, and thought-provoking. It will be a pleasure to see where the series goes in its second season. I am also not the only one who took notice as THE HOUR just received Golden Globe nominations for Best Mini-Series, and Best Actor and Actress nominations in a mini-series for Romola Garai and Dominic West.
All in all, 2011 was a fantastic year on television and it was difficult to carve out a few of the exceptional shows currently on the air for this list. Kudos to the shows that made the list!
Finally, a few series worthy of “honorable mention” for their sheer addictiveness and providing superior entertainment in 2011 are: MERLIN, HAVEN and ONCE UPON A TIME – all shows without which 2011 would have been much paler in comparison.