This year saw so much good television that narrowing our list of the top programs to 30 and our “top episodes from shows other than our top 30” list to 50 proved remarkably difficult. It was a year when comedy solidified its return as a creative force in the television industry, from big network hits like Happy Endings to cable cult shows like Childrens Hospital. It was a year when there were great dramas all over the dial, from FX to HBO to CBS. And it was a year in which two miniseries reminded us of the strength of that particular form. Here are the 30 best television programs to air in the United States in 2011, as determined by 25 of our TV Club writers, who each had 150 points to dole out among 15 to 20 shows, with a maximum of 15 points for any given show. (You can view individual ballots here, and watch the video below.)
30. Sons Of Anarchy (FX) (34 points, 4 votes)
After the meandering third season of Sons Of Anarchy, Kurt Sutter and company roared back with a more focused, operatic fourth iteration of the show. Charlie Hunnam had been growing as an actor with each season, but this year he truly came into his own as Jax’s history collided with his future. With the Belfast saga in the rearview mirror, SAMCRO made a dangerous deal with some other international cohorts. Throw in an ever-more desperate Clay (Ron Perlman) and Gemma (Katey Sagal), plus a formidable new foe in the form of Lincoln Potter (Ray McKinnon), and SAMCRO was in peril at all times from all sides. Balancing narrative impulses with popularity proved a bit of a problem for Sons Of Anarchy in 2011, as the show kept threatening true change only to back away from it. But the ensemble, one of television’s best, kept things compelling in Charming.
Best episodes: “Hands,” “Family Recipe,” “Burnt And Purged Away”
29. Raising Hope (Fox) (36 points, 3 votes)
In the year of the 99 percent, Raising Hope transformed from an also-ran sitcom about a single dad into one of the best working-class comedies since the heyday of Roseanne. And while it increasingly focuses on the comedy of barely scraping by, the series never laughs at the Chances, preferring to highlight how the family’s circumstances bring its members closer together. That wouldn’t be worth much without the chemistry between the actors at the head of that family—at their best, Garret Dillahunt and Martha Plimpton are a television husband-and-wife duo in the same league as, well, Roseanne Barr and John Goodman.
Best episodes: “Baby Monitor,” “Henderson, Nevada-Adjacent, Baby! Henderson, Nevada-Adjacent!,” “Bro-gurt”
27. (tie) The Daily Show With Jon Stewart (Comedy Central) (36 points, 5 votes)
Even those who have always made The Daily Show a part of their current-events regimen go through periods where their need for Jon Stewart and company’s commentary waxes and wanes. It’s easy enough in an election year for the staff to riff on garden-variety U.S. political bullshit, but this year brought a different set of challenges: It’s at once much harder to satirize the revolutionary uprisings of the Arab Spring, and seemingly far too easy to rip apart the absurd gaffes of Rick Perry and Herman Cain. (Seriously, how did a show as consistently entertaining as the Republican primary debates not make this list?) The Daily Show chose to handle the “You can’t make this stuff up” insanity of 2011 by simply continuing to be the smart, funny friend you can sit down with at the end of the day. It won its ninth straight Outstanding Variety, Music Or Comedy Series Emmy in the process, all the while assuring those regular viewers that, no, they are not imagining it, shit is fucking crazy right now.
Best segments: Jan. 24, 2011: “24 Hour Nazi Party People”; Aug. 9, 2011: “Glazed And Confused”; Oct. 26, 2011: “Science: What’s It Up To?”
27. (tie) Men Of A Certain Age (TNT) (36 points, 5 votes)
It’s easy to miss why Men Of A Certain Age was such a revelatory television program. The audience necessary to keep it on the air never materialized, and TNT canceled the program without much of a second thought, despite the massive critical outcry designed to save it. The series doesn’t seem that impressive at first, either: It’s just a show about a bunch of guys in their 50s, examining their lives and loves, right? But Men’s eye for perfectly telling details and exact, precise character moments allowed it to tell small stories that seemed huge, little tales of middle age that became universal in their specificity. There were better shows than Men Of A Certain Age, but none that did what it did as well.
Best episodes: “And Then The Bill Comes,” “The Great Escape” “Whatever Gets You Through The Night”
26. Parenthood (NBC) (41 points, 6 votes)
For a show that centers on the intimacies of family life—a television trope since the set was invented—Parenthood gets a lot more right than it gets wrong. Though the first season started off with gusto, it took until the latter half of the its second season for Parenthood to really master its material. Though the plotlines sometimes veer in sudsy directions, the compelling cast—Lauren Graham, Mae Whitman, and Dax Shepard all deserve special notice—often pull it back from the edge. The series’ real strength is in its attention to detail, the kind of tiny, wonderful moments that make television worthwhile. The Braverman clan is one of the TV families that feel real enough to sit down to dinner with, even if that dinner is often a tense one. Watching Parenthood is the process of sifting for those scenes, and in 2011, we were rewarded with a bounty of them.
Best episodes: “Tales From The Luncheonette,” “Just Go Home,” “Do Not Sleep With Your Autistic Nephew’s Therapist”
25. Childrens Hospital (Cartoon Network) (45 points, 6 votes)
Like Community without all the character development and real-life resonance, Childrens Hospital is no longer a rigid hospital drama parody but a free-for-all hail of joke-bullets/slobbering orgy devouring all the comfortable conventions we love and hate about television—hence all the ironic “Very Special Episodes.” It rode that energy to inspired highs in its third season, accruing travel expenses for a single gag and resurrecting Party Down just because it could. Trying to make sense of the show’s 40-plus-year timeline makes Glee look intricately planned, but there’s a method to its absurdity. In an age of hyper-serialization, Childrens Hospital skewers continuity through fabricated “Previously on” footage and high-concept re-imaginings throwing the series back to the ’70s. Amid an epidemic of self-seriousness, Childrens Hospital is a lifesaver because the only thing it takes seriously is television. And the criminally insane children of Ward 8.
Best episodes: “Childrens Hospital: A Play In Three Acts,” “Night Shift,” “The Chet Episode”
24. It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia (FX) (46 points, 7 votes)
It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia has never really suffered an extended creative slump, but it’s still a happy surprise how funny the show’s seventh season has been. From the introduction of “Fat Mac” to the continued willingness to get really, really dark—as in “Sweet Dee Gets Audited,” in which the bar holds a memorial service for a baby that they invented and then killed off for tax purposes—this season has been inventive in its storytelling structure and daring in its subject matter, without ever forgetting how to get laughs just by putting the five stars in a room and letting us watch them get shit-faced.
Best episodes: “Frank Reynolds’ Little Beauties,” “Sweet Dee Gets Audited,” “Chardee MacDennis: The Game Of Games”
23. 30 Rock (NBC) (50 points, 6 votes)
At times n 2011, 30 Rock’s plotlines felt recycled. (Tracy Jordan is crazy; TGS is in trouble; Liz Lemon just can’t get it together.) At other times, the stories seemed scattershot: Recurring guest stars Elizabeth Banks, Matt Damon, Will Forte, and Ken Howard had plenty of screen time, which was good news for fans of their characters but bad news for fans of ongoing long-term storylines with satisfying payoffs. But what the series lacked in depth or continuity was made up for in jokes that seemed darker, weirder, and dirtier than in seasons past, and in a good way. (Just look at Jane Krakowski’s Jenna and her relationship with Forte’s “gender dysmorphic bigenitalian pansexual.”) Factor in the way the show pushed the boundaries of its own reality (visions of multiple Jacks, an entire episode parodying Bravo’s Housewives shows) and 2011 ends up looking like a good year for 30 Rock.
Best episodes: “TGS Hates Women,” “Queen Of Jordan,” “100”
22. The Vampire Diaries (The CW) (51 points, 6 votes)
Many shows use accelerated pacing and dramatic plot twists to maintain interest, but constant cliffhangers and mythology expansion tend to drive most such shows off the rails. That The Vampire Diaries has avoided the pitfalls of such qualities (so far, at least) is its greatest achievement. How has it done it? It grounds its twists in understandable character motivations. As soon as a storyline starts to grow stale, the show mixes things up: Kill a character here, introduce a character there, and watch what happens as loyalties shift. Even better, as the story has grown denser, the show’s themes have become more intelligent. Plus, it has sexy people and the highest volume of “OH MY GOD, SURPRISE STABBINGS” on the air. Embrace the crazy—it’s done properly on The Vampire Diaries.
Best episodes: “The Dinner Party,” “The Sun Also Rises,” “The Birthday”
21. Cougar Town (ABC) (51 points, 9 votes)
Cougar Town made the inappropriateness of its name into a running gag in its opening credits throughout its second season. It was a funny touch, but not really necessary. The show ran away from its gimmicky name a long time ago, leaning instead on endearing characters, running gags, and a sense of place that made its suburban cul-de-sac look like a little bit of wine-drenched paradise. It’s impossible to single out cast members for the work they do here because, as good as each is individually, together they make Cougar Town into a model of how a great ensemble works together to elevate a show. Now if only it didn’t disappear for long stretches at a time…
Best episodes: “A Thing About You,” “Walls,” “Free Fallin’”
20. Boardwalk Empire (HBO) (53 points, 5 votes)
A brutal, gorgeous saga of historical fiction, Boardwalk Empire has been raised and fattened by a group of caretakers—including Terence Winter, Tim Van Patten, Mark Wahlberg, and Martin Scorsese—who are artists as well as pragmatic, savvy entertainers. It’s the best explanation as to why the series’ second season satisfied as both an intelligent meditation on its running themes (love, betrayal, self-discovery and changing times, need, greed, and ends of means) and exceedingly violent, smoldering theater for the masses. As Jimmy Darmody, Michael Pitt is all expression and internal rage. The addition of William Forsythe as psychopathic Philly butcher and gangster Manny Horvitz is the show’s unheralded kick in the nuts. And Steve Buscemi is great as a different Nucky Thompson, one whose glad-handing calm has slipped, revealing something dark and desperate to those around him. And as Nucky goes, so does Atlantic City. Prohibition is no longer these characters’ feast or foil; they’re all paying their debt for the choices they’ve made—and it’s fascinating to watch.
Best episodes: “Gimcrack & Bunkum,” “Georgia Peaches,” “Under God’s Power She Flourishes”
19. Curb Your Enthusiasm (HBO) (55 points, 6 votes)
Given its improvisatory nature, consistency has never been Curb Your Enthusiasm’s strong suit. A good season is one in which the inspired episodes outnumber the duds, and by that measure, season eight was very good indeed. Although it lacked a fruitful arc along the lines of last season’s Seinfeld reunion, this year’s batch did offer up a change of scenery from L.A. to New York (only Larry David would move 3,000 miles just to get out of a charitable obligation), the usual rich mix of guest stars (Michael J. Fox sending up his own misfortunes, Bill Buckner redeemed at last), and a couple of all-time classic episodes. (“Palestinian Chicken” may eventually go down as the series’ highlight.) But as always, it’s the core characters who keep Curb’s squirm-worthy comedy percolating: feckless manager Jeff (Jeff Garlin), his volatile wife Susie (Susie Essman), invaluable consigliore Leon (J.B. Smoove), and the infinitely exasperating but always entertaining Larry David himself, who proves (if proof were still required) he’s not just an amusing persona, but a skilled comedic actor as well.
Best episodes: “Palestinian Chicken,” “Mister Softee,” “Larry Vs. Michael J. Fox”
18. Misfits (Hulu) (56 points, 6 votes)
Many shows have attempted to tackle the awkwardness and wonder of humans suddenly acquiring superhuman abilities—but none have had the gloriously brash panache of Misfits. Centering on a ragtag group of juvenile delinquents whose members each find themselves bestowed with a unique superpower by a mystical thunderstorm (it’s happily never explained), Misfits gleefully blurs the line between science fiction, comedy, and drama. The beauty is in its simplicity; it’s much less concerned with telling mythical superhero stories than telling stories about these specific people, and the show soars as a result. That’s because this whole thing is really all about Nathan (Robert Sheehan), Kelly (Lauren Socha), Curtis (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), Simon (Iwan Rheon), and Alisha (Antonia Thomas). The series lives and dies with them, in all of their alternately vulgar, funny, heroic, and insensitive glory. Whether dealing with a nosy probation worker or a troublesome shape-shifter, they do it together, and in this process Misfits became more than a superhero story. It became a story about how even an ever-so-unlikely group of so-called losers can find family in the most unexpected places.
Best episodes: “Series One, Episode Four,” “Series One, Episode Six,” “Series Two, Episode Two”
17. Treme (HBO) (57 points, 8 votes)
Although the characters in David Simon and Eric Overmyer’s series may be fictional, the post-Katrina New Orleans in which Treme takes place is, obviously, quite real. Committed to capturing that reality, Simon and Overmyer doubled down on the first season’s methodical plotting to explore the existential struggle of characters that, after trying to recover from a terrible loss, are now trying to build something new in a broken city (or trying to make a living elsewhere). While the results were only occasionally exhilarating, they were consistently evocative of both the cultural magnetism and the social degradation in New Orleans as it began to rebuild. There’s a fine line between a victim and a survivor, and the show continually shifted that line for its characters as their day-to-day lives became inexorably connected to the chaos around them. While the second season did little to silence the series’ critics—continuing to shy away from more traditional narrative structures—strong performances continued to highlight the benefits of telling the story as it really was: uncertain and slow, yes, but human above all else.
Best episodes: “On Your Way Down,” “Carnival Time,” “Do Whatcha Wanna.”
16. Fringe (Fox) (57 points, 9 votes)
A series that knows full well it’s unlikely to ever expand beyond its existing—but highly dedicated—fan base, Fringe spent much of 2011 playing straight to the geeks, starting with its first episode of the year, which featured both Back To The Future star Christopher Lloyd and a throwaway line from Walter (John Noble) that seemed to tie the Fringe universe into that of Twin Peaks. The second half of season three saw the usual back-and-forth between dimensions, a flashback to the ’80s, Anna Torv’s highly respectable Leonard Nimoy impression, and even a partially animated installment before wrapping things up with a critical decision on the part of Joshua Jackson’s Peter. If anything, season four has only upped the ante, with the fallout from that decision adding new wrinkles to the series’ use of alternate timelines and universes. Calling Fringe the best sci-fi series on television at the moment might be damning it with faint praise, but it doesn’t make it any less accurate an assessment.
Best episodes: “The Firefly,” “One Night In October,” “Lysergic Acid Diethylamide”
15. Bob’s Burgers (Fox) (65 points, 10 votes)
Since the return of Family Guy, most of Fox’s additions to its animated lineup have come from the same mold as Seth MacFarlane’s apparently deathless show, if not from MacFarlane himself. That’s not always a bad thing, but it can make for a same-y evening of television (in addition to contributing to MacFarlane’s dangerous depletion of references to ’70s and ’80s TV shows and movies). Created by Loren Bouchard (Dr. Katz, Home Movies) and developed with King Of The Hill veteran Jim Dauterive, Bob’s Burgers hearkens back both to King and the early days of The Simpsons, focusing on the loving but off-kilter dynamics of a family headed by the eponymous owner of a burger restaurant (voiced by H. Jon Benjamin, in his inimitable, understated style). Bob tries to eke out a living while raising an eccentric crop of kids with the help of a supportive, but no less eccentric, wife. It’s the rare show that can be unfailingly warm while building a whole episode around paintings of animal anuses, but Bob’s Burgers achieved that balance with ease in a first season that only got better as it went along.
Best episodes: “Art Crawl,” “Sexy Dance Fighting,” “Burger Wars”
14. Happy Endings (ABC) (69 points, 10 votes)
Even though the last thing the world needs is another Friends, Happy Endings somehow rejuvenates the attractive-young-people-hanging-out formula with breakneck pacing and motormouth dialogue. Surely the scripts for this show are at least a third longer than for any other 22 minutes on television, and even if a joke doesn’t hit, the writers are willing to make 10 more jokes about how it fell flat. Best of all is the ensemble, full of characters who cherish their little neuroses, but don’t hesitate to point out each other’s: Penny (Casey Wilson), the eternal optimist; Max (Adam Pally), the gay slacker; Jane (Eliza Coupe), the competitive micromanager; Dave (Zachary Knighton), the idealistic bro; Brad (Damon Wayans, Jr.), the one-step-behind husband; Alex (Elisha Cuthbert), the sixth wheel. The way these energetic actors play these characters—full throttle from “action” to “cut”—they somehow don’t come off as carbon copies of every other sitcom about funny folks in the city. The result is a network surprise that goes beyond “pleasant” to “inspires cultish love.”
Best episodes: “Spooky Endings,” “Dave Of The Dead,” “Baby Steps”
13. Masterpiece: Downton Abbey (PBS) (77 points, 10 votes)
The Mad Men of the 1910s, Downton Abbey is an immaculately constructed period drama that follows the lives of a rich noble family tasked with maintaining an abbey and the lives of its many maids/butlers. During the show’s excellent first season, it’s often impossible to tell who has it worse. The dire search for a suitable abbey heir is just as important and pressing as a servant-driven plot to oust a perfectly friendly worker. One of the noble daughters bonds with a maid, while another scoffs at those below her, and the maid is punished for not knowing her place. Like Mad Men, the series (which debuted on Britain’s ITV in 2010, but made its way to the States this year) embeds itself into a specific time and place so deeply that the accompanying aesthetic feels both completely alien and hauntingly familiar.
12. Mildred Pierce (HBO) (91 points, 9 votes)
Adapting James M. Cain’s novel into the three-night, five-and-a-half hour sprawl of a miniseries may seem like an indulgence, but Todd Haynes uses the time for a luscious, evocative melodrama that doesn’t lack for period (or emotional) detail. Zagging where the 1945 noir version zigged, Haynes’ Mildred Pierce casts Kate Winslet as a much earthier Mildred than Joan Crawford and builds the film around her determined and methodical quest for self-determination. Being a housewife in Depression-era California, Mildred’s efforts to hold on to her middle-classic lifestyle in the wake of her separation from her adulterous husband (a stand-out Bryan F. O’Byrne) meet with strong resistance. Though Haynes views her plucky entrepreneurship with the empathy and awe it deserves, Mildred Pierce doesn’t spare the consequences of her ambition, either, particularly in her toxic relationship with a daughter (played as an adult by Evan Rachel Wood) who seems determined to hurt her. The miniseries format allows Haynes to give the film the feel of a great novel unfolding, so viewers not only know everything about the characters, but also how to open their own chicken-and-waffles restaurant in the early ’30s.
11. Archer (FX) (93 points, 12 votes)
A funny but lightweight spy spoof in its first season, Archer could have contentedly repeated its formula for season after season and remained enjoyable. But credit is due to creator Adam Reed for stepping things up in season two and building on the show’s characters, expanding the ensemble, and upping the bonkers level about tenfold. A subplot where our hero Sterling is saddled with a baby would have been a drag for any other show, but Archer finds a way to make it funny. An arc in which he suffers from cancer brilliantly spoofs all the tropes of that storyline but gets to the emotional core of it, too. It helps that Archer’s terrific cast, including H. Jon Benjamin, Aisha Tyler, and Jessica Walter, is doing some of the best voice work on TV today. All of season two aired in 2011, as well as an excellent three-part bridge episode to the third season that saw Sterling recovering from the death of his fiancée and becoming a pirate king. Those two items next to each other in one sentence speak to how this show brilliantly manages to ground its lunacy.
Best episodes: “Pipeline Fever,” “Placebo Effect,” “El Secuestro”
10. Enlightened (HBO) (96 points, 12 votes)
Like a lot of projects driven by the writer-director (and actor) Mike White, this series manages to be genuinely divisive for its clear-eyed yet sympathetic treatment of a character most movies and TV shows would either reduce to an instant punchline or ignore altogether. It sometimes feels as if Enlightened is daring audiences to share its interest in, and sometimes its respect for, its heroine, a reformed drug addict with a downsized career and a busted marriage who is trying to remake her life after a scary public meltdown, and whose good-hearted efforts to become a better person and a useful member of society are making her more insufferable, instead of less. Taking the dare, Laura Dern delivers a performance that is one of the bravest and most beautiful seen on TV this year.
Best episodes: “Sandy,” “Lonely Ghosts,” “Comrades Unite”
9. The Good Wife (CBS) (113 points, 12 votes)
When The Good Wife debuted two years ago, its premise—a ripped-from-the-headlines legal drama about a disgraced political spouse—seemed perilously thin. Now in its third season, The Good Wife has consistently proven to be one of the smartest, most complex, and funniest shows on television, network or otherwise. Last season ended on a woozy high note, as the once-docile Alicia Florrick finally made a choice between her two love interests. But as compelling (and juicy) as Alicia’s transformation has been, The Good Wife is much more than a soap. The series is unabashedly feminist, full of wry commentary about office politics and the difficulty of balancing work and family. For news hounds and political junkies, there’s no show more entertaining than The Good Wife, which is almost freakishly timely (complete with an episode about a death-row inmate that aired a few weeks after the execution of Troy Davis). Executive producers Robert and Michelle King take a decidedly wonkish approach to the stories of the day, turning out gripping hours of television that hinge on issues like Taiwan’s diplomatic status and obscure executive orders. It’s a constant relief that a show this intelligent can not only survive but actually thrive on network television.
Best episodes: “Marthas And Caitlins,” “Executive Order 13224,” “In Sickness”
8. Friday Night Lights (NBC/DirecTV) (148 points, 15 votes)
Few dramatic series have stuck the landing as well as Friday Night Lights in its fifth and final season, which pulled the nifty trick of making viewers care as much about the “new class” of characters introduced the previous season as they did about the original cast members who dropped in for guest-star appearances as the show wrapped up. Michael B. Jordan’s consistently excellent work as East Dillon Lions quarterback Vince Howard frequently took center stage, as he struggled to balance his small-town sports stardom and shaky home life, and Tyler Kitsch’s brooding return as fallen football hero Tim Riggins provided an emotional counterpoint to Vince; but the (finally!) Emmy-winning Kyle Chandler and Emmy-nominated Connie Britton remained the grounding force and emotional center of the show. The changes facing the Taylor family created tension throughout the season’s final episodes, and their eventual resolution provided a graceful, suitably nostalgic exit for the series. Appropriately for a show that is about football but also so much more, the final moments of the finale—more about new beginnings than endings—are built around a brilliant sequence that drives home both the heightened, emotional glory of the sport, and life’s unstoppable forward march once we exit the gridiron.
Best episodes: “Don’t Go,” “Texas Whatever,” “Always”
7. Homeland (Showtime) (150 points, 17 votes)
Homeland is a show about skepticism that initially provoked some skepticism of its own. It’s produced by Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa, alums of 24, a show about terrorism that ultimately buckled under the weight of its rigid devices and increasingly histrionic tone. Homeland’s playing field isn’t as narrow, but its premise—a paranoid intelligence officer suspects a returned prisoner of war is a double agent—is certainly self-limiting. But instead of contriving ways to slow the pace and keep things manageable, Homeland’s writers went balls-out week after week, upending expectations and mashing the narrative gas pedal even as it seemed there was no runway left. Claire Danes delivers the best work of her career as Carrie Mathison, a CIA agent whose steely professional demeanor barely conceals the emotional and psychological turmoil she’s under. As Carrie spends all day, every day spying on suspected turncoat Nicholas Brody (an equally stellar Damian Lewis), the show hints that her obsession is verging into something much more emotionally damaging. In a television landscape littered with auspicious debuts that quickly petered out, there’s something comforting about the sheer recklessness of Homeland’s mile-a-minute storytelling. It’s such a high-wire act, surely no one would try it unless they knew exactly what they were doing.
Best episodes: “Pilot,” “Blind Spot,” “The Weekend”
6. Game Of Thrones (HBO) (183 points, 19 votes)
The mistake that a lot of TV fantasy shows make is either to treat the material like a movie, all grand and removed, or like a comic book, all stiff and cheesy. David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have treated George R.R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire novels like a TV show—and specifically like an HBO TV show. There are echoes of Deadwood and The Sopranos in Game Of Thrones’ emphasis on family dynamics and subtle power-plays, and in the way that characters make bold choices that go dreadfully awry. There’s a lot of world-building to do in a series like this, but Benioff and Weiss have handled the mapping-out of kingdoms and sub-kingdoms and fantastical histories masterfully, by revealing it all only when it’s necessary to the plot of a given episode, and grounding all the complicated backstory in what it means to each individual participant in this saga. That’s why it’s been so easy for the show’s fans (which grew in number as the first season played out) to become invested in the fate of an underestimated dwarf, an exiled warrior-princess, a bastard patrolling a treacherous frontier, and more—even when they’re all working at cross-purposes.
Best episodes: “The Wolf And The Lion,” “A Golden Crown,” “Baelor”
5. Justified (FX) (187 points, 16 votes)
It’s easy to praise the central performances of Timothy Olyphant, Walton Goggins, and Margo Martindale and then call it a day on Justified. But that would be doing a major disservice to the show, which more than just about anything on television this year conveyed a sense of history suffusing every action onscreen. Justified continually made the foreign seem familiar as it delved into the intertwined histories of the Givens, the Bennets, and the Crowders. A keen sense of shared space made the small town of Harlan feel like it kept an infinite amount of secrets. Here’s a place that provides a haven for its inhabitants but also a prison, one from which few feel they could ever escape. The land itself was under threat throughout this season, and with it, its soul as well. But above all, this season was about family: how much we will do for them, how badly they can hurt us, and how surprising bonds can form in the bleakest of places. It’s that rare thing on television: an unabashedly entertaining piece of pop fiction that nevertheless hurts your heart at every opportunity.
Best episodes: “Brother’s Keeper,” “Bloody Harlan,” “Save My Love”
4. Community (NBC) (198 points, 21 votes)
NBC’s little-watched but cultishly adored Community has endured its most trying year yet, as an ominous mid-season hiatus seemingly puts its future in question. But creatively, showrunner Dan Harmon and his writers and actors—one of the best comedic ensembles on TV—have found surer footing as the third season has progressed. Genuine sentiment has always lurked below Community’s almost overwhelming cleverness, but in the back half of season two and the first half of season three, the show learned to better balance those traits, without letting sincerity overpower its comic snap. Even facing an uncertain future, Community has remained idiosyncratic, going dark and weird, indulging in the occasional theme episode, or spending three seasons building up to one sight gag. Although the show’s quick wit and meta commentary seem to doom it to a small audience (see also: Arrested Development), it’s a devoted one, and that doesn’t come easy. Community has earned that devotion by being one of the best shows on television.
Best episodes: “Remedial Chaos Theory,” “Documentary Filmmaking: Redux,” “Foosball And Noctural Vigilantism”
3. Breaking Bad (AMC) (248 points, 19 votes)
Walter White is broken. There’s no getting around it now, but while it’s impressive to watch a series dismantle its protagonist’s delusions of humanity as thoroughly as Breaking Bad has done for the former chemistry teacher, what’s really remarkable about the show’s fourth season is that it keeps finding new ways to make all this matter. While Walter was forced to the sidelines for much of the run, playing mental chess against a seemingly unbeatable opponent, Bad took the time to explore the struggles of its supporting cast, from Skyler White’s slow descent into corruption, to Hank’s painful rehabilitation and Marie’s efforts to cope, to Gus Fring and his methodical, unrelenting pursuit of vengeance. These character arcs helped enrich an already rich world, and when the series finally focused on its two central combatants, their confrontation was simultaneously intimate and epic, a battle for survival that settled on the soul of one man: poor, agonized, perpetually trusting Jesse Pinkman. As Walter’s ascension to power continues unchecked and Breaking Bad enters its end game, Jesse’s fate remains uncertain, the largest chip in a poker game where the stakes rise with each hand. Game metaphors proliferate, but for all its clever twists and devastating reversals, at heart, the story is simple: Once upon a time, a selfish man chose to do evil for what he thought were the right reasons. As with any addiction, what started as a choice became a compulsion, and the collateral damage continues to spread.
Best episodes: “Open House,” “Crawl Space,” “Face Off”
2. Parks And Recreation (NBC) (258 points, 23 votes)
Pawnee, Indiana is the most authentically realized fictional town on television after Parks And Recreation’s third and fourth seasons. Benched for the back end of 2010, the NBC mockumentary wasted no time in restoring its momentum, using the Parks Department’s triumphant staging of Pawnee’s Harvest Festival as a way to both drive the third season and help build the world in which it takes place. The addition of Rob Lowe and Adam Scott to the show’s already stellar ensemble provided a conduit for introducing previously unseen corners of Pawnee culture—without the wry bewilderment of Scott’s Ben Wyatt, beloved local celebrity/miniature horse Li’l Sebastian wouldn’t have been half as funny. Wyatt’s relationship with Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope provided an emotional core for the series as it transitioned into its fourth season, during which Leslie declared her candidacy for a city-council seat, and the series showed it could still balance an overarching plot with solid character-based comedy. It would be easy for the series to treat the oddball citizenry of Pawnee with contempt, but romantic reunions and gut-busting-yet-touching episodes like “Andy And April’s Fancy Party” show the big, Sweetums-Snake Juice-and-waffle-swollen heart beating within Parks And Recreation.
Best episodes: “Fancy Party,” “The Fight,” “Smallest Park”
1. Louie (FX) (285 points, 23 votes)
In its first season, Louie stood out in the TV landscape as a show driven less by overarching story arcs or complicated plotlines and more by a point of view. Unfolding like a brilliant collection of comic sketches, written by a great comedic mind, that season seemed as if it might be difficult to top. And in the show’s second season, creator Louis C.K. (who also writes, directs, edits, and stars in every episode) didn’t even try. Instead, he took the show to daring new places, into the housing crisis and the roar of battle in Afghanistan, through the life of a working comic on the road and a single dad struggling with how best to raise his kids in a terrifying world, on a drunken night with an old friend and a first date that goes from terrible to sublime, thanks to an unexpected tragedy. Maybe Louie wasn’t as funny as it was in its first season, but that was because C.K.’s dark-clouds-with-only-the-slightest-of-silver-linings worldview only permitted humor to peek through in passing moments. Instead, the show became almost impossibly warm and humane. It takes place in a world that’s recognizably our own, but our tour guide is someone who seems to see all the weird, wonderful stuff happening at the edges. In an age when a lot of television seems stultified and hidebound by convention, Louie is a reminder that innovation is still possible, and it’s always best when tempered by humanity.
Best episodes: “Moving,” “Eddie,” “Duckling”