Best Television Of 2011
10) Curb Your Enthusiasm
Eight seasons in, with tentative plans for a ninth, Curb Your Enthusiasm has surpassed even the most optimistic predictions of relevancy. Season seven was moored by the brilliant conceit of a Seinfeld reunion (which made for what would have been a more than appropriate coda for the series) but season eight, scripted loosely around Larry David's temporary return to New York (in true Curb fashion, spurred by the need to avoid charity work) was just as strong an effort. At this point, Curb plots are pretty old hat, so much so that one can see the intersection of the handful of plot points in each episode coming a mile away, but that doesn't diminish in any way the strength of the episodes, nor the strength of the laughs. Larry is still as curmudgeonly as ever, outraged and incensed by a world that doesn't ever seem to cotton to his arbitrary rules of societal conduct. One would think that such a premise would become stale, that a character so resolutely resistant to growth would become exhausting, but Larry David has grown so comfortably into the role that he seems perfectly at peace to become more of an ass with each season, with frequently hilarious results. Highlights of the year include Larry's weirdly adorable cohabitation with the always irascible Leon (JB Smoove), not to mention a feud with Michael J Fox and one of the most indelible episodes of the series' run in "Palestinian Chicken" in which Larry puts aside Jewish/Muslim differences in the name of casual sex and the titular snack.
09) Game Of Thrones
How ballsy is it to kill off a major character in the first season of what is all but guaranteed to be a seven season run? Such is the grit and grandeur of David Benioff and D.B. Weiss' adaptation of George R.R. Martin's renowned series of epic Fantasy novels. Heavy on the swords and light on the sorcery, the Game Of Thrones finale hints at an increase of mythical beasts in the second season, but what's so refreshing about the (admittedly dense) narrative is how engrossing the medieval politicking of the Kingdom of Westeros can be. It certainly helps that Martin has a knack for rousing speechifying and intriguing power struggles, and now that it's a certified premium cable hit, HBO can continue to throw ungodly (or ungods-ly, according to the polytheistic leanings of Westeros) amounts of money to produce what is now a far less cost prohibitive show. By this season's finale it's clear that a regime is coming to an end, but with so many factions making plays to power, and decidedly supernatural forces encroaching in the wintry north, the most likely claim to the throne is anyone's guess. In contrast to the trashy, soapy derivations of True Blood, Game Of Thrones earns the ever widening scope of it's complex world, as well as a must-watch designation for seasons to come.
When it comes to voice work in animation, there's Patrick Warburton, Jon Benjamin and everyone else (apologies to the brilliant Simpsons cast, but they rarely work outside the franchise). Warburton specializes in tough guys (Family Guy's Joe Swanson, The Venture Bros.' Brock Sampson) so he only really alters his basso drone to express (often hilariously) indignation, while Benjamin has played everything from scumbag soccer coach (John McGuirk from Home Movies) to inter-dimensional being (The Master from The Venture Bros.) without so much as a tweak to his bemused, sarcastic lilt. It's that same recognizably inflexible voice that makes Benjamin such a delight as churlish super spy Sterling Archer. A man simultaneously crippled by abandonment issues and empowered by narcissism who, despite his appetites for indiscriminate whoring and boozing, can't help but be the best damn agent in the field. Archer, like all good comedies, wouldn't be the marvel it is without its writers and supporting cast. Arrested Development's Jessica Walters stars as Sterling's mother (head of the ISIS agency around which the action is centered) while Chris Parnell, Aisha Tyler, Judy Greer and Amber Nash round out the show's ISIS-employed degenerates. Creator Adam Reed may have reigned in his penchant for storylines that start outlandish and spin off into the stratosphere but he's perfected his knack for whip crack pacing and joke delivery. Archer is the fulfillment of the promise Reed showed in his two Adult Swim series (Sealab 2021, Frisky Dingo), crazy enough to include bionic spousal murder and a subsequent three episode pirate-king arch, but thoughtful enough that those events fit squarely within the show's deranged mythology.
07) Childrens Hospital
Originally a web series (hosted on the WB website, of all places) and currently half a half-hour comedy on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim block, Childrens Hospital has the most bang for your buck of any show currently on cable. Not because it deftly balances humor and heart or because it concentrates on characters as much as it does story (it does none of those things), but because it's so jam packed full of jokes, riffs and general ridiculousness that it's both easily consumed and eminently rewatchable. Ostensibly a parody of medical dramas, Childrens Hospital sports a game cast of Comedy ringers (Rob Huebel, Ken Marino, Megan Mullally, Henry Winkler, show creator Rob Corddy), an equally impressive roster of recurring guest stars (Nick Kroll, Nick Offerman, David Wain, John Hamm) and a go-for-broke attitude towards cracking-wise that make gambits like shooting on location in Brazil for a single gag seem perfectly sane. Throwing character, plot and historical continuity aside in favor of the almighty guffaw frees up Childrens' writers to indulge in themed episodes like the one set in the seventies, or to take the week off to follow around an ancillary character, just for the hell of it. For all the great work being done in network and cable comedy these days, there's still something to be said for twelve solid minutes of nonstop laughs and brazen weirdness.
Bloodlines run deep in the second season of FX's modern-day western noir Justified. Timothy Olyphant's US Marshal Raylan Givens, freed from the case-of-the-week machinations of the first season and having all but dispensed with the crooked Crowder clan, becomes embroiled in the murderous dealings of an even more dysfunctional family: the Bennetts. Led by matriach Mags (Margo Martindale, the picture of folksy maliciousness) and her scoundrel sons Dickey (Jeremy Davies, lanky and sinister), Doyle (Joseph Lyle Taylor) and Coover (Brad William Henke), the Bennetts look to fill the criminal void left by the Crowders, taking over the drug trade in Harlan, Kentucky like some backwoods mafia (oh but there's also an actual backwoods mafia, which is occasionally alluded to and will no doubt factor into season 4). Making the jump from half procedural to full-time serialized drama allowed showrunner Graham Yost and company to expand the world and history of Harlan by delving into generations-old feuds and local politicking, but what makes Justified stand out are the wily characters, the whip smart Elmore Leonard style dialogue and the portrayal of the American South that never descends into caricature or condescension.
Though the divide between film and television grows ever slighter, there wasn't an artistic vision on either as singular and uncompromising as comedian Louis CK's quasi-autobiographical half hour oddity. Season one was a stubbornly unmoored collection of loosely themed vignettes on modern masculinity and adulthood, season two throws all semblance of a through-line out the window and lets the viewer get lost in CK's worldly but befuddled mind. CK doesn't try to tell interesting stories, he tells stories that interest him. From an interlude of a subway busker playing incongruously beautiful music alongside a bathing vagabond to an excruciating scene in which CK professes his love to an uninterested platonic friend, the world of CK's making is heightened but recognizable. He plays his character as a sort of surrogate of himself, a curious outsider one minute, an endearingly earnest participant the next. Louie is frequently funny, but more often it's uncomfortably honest and beautifully human.
For as much praise as it receives for its ingenious event episodes, meta-humor and elaborate pop-culture homages, NBC's oft-endangered single camera comedy Community is a surprisingly conventional show. An ensemble cast, each member defined largely by a handful of character tropes, are either paired off or bottled together over the course of each episode of a nominally serialized season to experience growth through conflicts within their core group or with the occasional recurring character or guest star. It's TV 101. Of course, the creators (and characters) of Community know this, and are more than happy to celebrate and explode sitcom conventionality to serve their own hilarious ends. Being self-aware wouldn't matter much if the writing and acting weren't as sharp as they are, at times Community has a wit so quick it's easy to miss the current gag while appreciating the previous one. That's not to say that the show isn't focused on its characters, who have grown into likable, recognizable human beings, funny and sympathetic for all the same reasons that they're often obnoxious and alienating. Currently on hiatus with a dozen shelved episodes and no guarantee for renewal, Community seems destined to suffer the fate of Arrested Development, which burned bright but lasted a similar two and a half seasons. Though there's something to be said for a show ending before its inevitable decline, who knows how many superlative seasons the world Greendale Community College might have left in it.
With Showtime's flagship series Dexter growing increasingly tiresome and ridiculous as the seasons pile up, the premium cable also-ran would do well to position the bold, timely Homeland as it's heir apparent. An hour long drama concerning a returning POW Marine with (at the very least) conflicted feelings about the land he's sworn to protect and the brilliant, unstable young CIA operative who takes it upon herself to figure out whether he's been turned by the enemy, Homeland wisely anchors its international and inter-personal conflicts with Damien Lewis' intense and inscrutable Sergeant Nicholas Brody, Claire Dane's scarily devoted agent Carrie Mathison and Mandy Patinkin's gruff, grandfatherly CIA Division Chief Saul Berenson. As Brody's allegiance becomes increasingly complicated and Carrie's methods cross boundaries both bureaucratic and moral, Homeland's writers turn a premise more suited to a BBC-length miniseries into twelve and half hours of arresting television. Homeland mirrors the narrative daring of HBO's Game Of Thrones or AMC's Breaking Bad in its willingness to take the characters into uncomfortable places or drive its plot lines off a cliff and let the writers and co-creators Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon work their way out of the mire. Gansa is a veteran of Fox's 24, but the similarities end with the subject matter. Where 24 was often jingoistic and blustery, Homeland is nuanced and controlled, though not without some action fireworks of its own. Homeland posits some frighteningly plausible scenarios concerning national defense and shows how doing the wrong thing for the right reason and just doing wrong aren't as far apart as we'd like to believe.
02) Parks & Recreation
It's hard to imagine a more likable group of comic misfits than the staff of Pawnee, Indiana's Parks & Recreation Department. Some single camera comedies keep viewers tuned in with anticipation of outlandish antics (It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia) or clever gimmick premises (Community) but Parks & Recreation is blessed with such a talented cast of sweetly idiosyncratic dreamers, dunces and grumps that it's enough just to be able to hang out with them every week. That's not to say that there aren't wacky mishaps aplenty, but Parks & Rec has struck the perfect balance of sentiment and farce. Seasons three and four added Rob Lowe's maniacally upbeat city manager Chris Traeger and Adam Scott's well-meaning if bewildered Ben Wyatt as his assistant. While Lowe settles in with the borderline insane denizens of Pawnee with ease, Scott is the perfect straight man, forever at a loss to understand, for example, Pawnee's deification of a miniature horse named Lil' Sebastian or it's vehement aversion to salads. Season three was based around the planning of a town-saving Harvest Festival and season four followed the city council candidacy of the always charming and funny Amy Poehler's Deputy P&R Director Leslie Knope. Parks & Rec is laugh heavy enough that it doesn't really need to be able to work in stand alone stories within season-long archs, but the fact that it does makes it one of the most impeccably written series on television.
01) Breaking Bad
It should come as no surprise to anyone who's kept up with the turbulent saga of the White family that show runner Vince Gilligan's gut wrenching crime drama is the best show to grace the airwaves since The Wire ended its five season run. Season three found Bryan Cranston's increasingly unhinged Chemistry teacher turned meth cook Walter White hounded by The Cousins, a pair of deadly serious, mostly mute Cartel enforcers (chilling ciphers for the cosmic retribution wrought by Walter's infernal criminal descent) who cut a corpse strewn path of revenge toward our ever oblivious anti-hero. This season, Gilligan and his accomplished team of writers and directors, along with a cast of revelatory character actors, all but push Walter into the background. Cornered by the game-changing, heart-breaking gambit from the season three finale and all but marginalized in the whirlwind of drug violence he helped create, Walter is as desperate as ever; hatching one half-baked scheme after another in an attempt to dodge the deadly intentions of his kingpin boss Gus (Giancarlo Esposito, who gives a quietly malevolent, frequently amazing performance). If the brilliance of season three lie in it's gasp-inducing cliff hangers and willingness to turn the world of the show upside down, season four's jaw-dropping finale is even more impressive for being at once meticulously foreshadowed, wholly unexpected and emotionally devastating.
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