Top Ten TV Shows In 2011

Meth shenanigans, Austenian redux, zombies, and dawning enlightenment.

1. Breaking Bad Like a modern day Heart of Darkness, Breaking Bad continues to masterfully chart chem-teacher-turned-meth-kingpin Walter White’s descent into immorality. Bad is addictive, and this season delivered perhaps the most jaw-dropping moment of the series.

2. Downton Abbey Julian Fellowes’ ode to Austen may not have been on your radar because it aired on PBS’ Masterpiece Theater, but if romantic period dramas brimming with meaningful lingering looks, sentences that trail off uncompleted yet potent, witticisms, and Dame Maggie Smith are your thing (let’s be honest, everyone loves Maggie Smith), you need to watch this show.

3. Community One part TV show and one part grand experiment – can we make a critical observation about My Dinner with Andre and Pulp Fiction that ends in a poop joke? Or how about an anime sequence about Foosball just to test the waters for an entire anime episode? – Community is perhaps the smartest show on TV. Unfortunately, like other smart shows that came before it (#SaveOurBluths), Community currently faces the ratings ax. Instead, we get Whitney.

4. Homeland The return of Claire Danes and the complex political TV thriller, Homeland is 24 meets The West Wing with a savvy post 9/11 perspective and a captivating story arc that makes it the most talked about new show of 2011.

5. The Good Wife A study of the modern id couched in a smart procedural format that riffs on current events, The Good Wife showcases human nature, which carefully orchestrates and twists societal and legal rules to its advantage. At the center of this Hobbesian universe is a strong woman who confronts and redefines the titular characteristics at every turn.

6. Enlightened The best show on TV that you’re not watching, Enlightened is sometimes a maelstrom and sometimes a gentle breeze, but it is constantly, urgently, gently, pushing and at the heart of it all is Laura Dern who has immersed herself so deeply in the painfully genuine Amy Jellicoe that you don’t realize how brilliant the show is until you let Amy in.

7. The Walking Dead Last season saw Rick Grimes and gang moving often and quickly, but this season has so far been about immobility. Each week felt like the characters were on the edge of a cliff, and any number of things could push them into the abyss, not the least of them being Shane’s alpha male huffing and puffing (and blowing out Otis’ kneecap). In reality, not much happened from week to week, but to the show’s great credit, The Walking Dead managed to maintain its heart-stopping tension.

8. Parks and Recreation Eternally optimistic and dedicated Leslie Knope would seem a rarity amongst government employees, but not in Pawnee, Indiana where effervescent optimism seems to fortify the drinking water and even curmudgeons Ron Swanson and April Ludgate have good intentions hidden behind their misanthropic refrain. Parks and Rec’s bubbly do-gooder mission remains refreshing amidst the often depressing media landscape.

9. Game of Thrones They said it was un-filmable, but like the Lannisters, HBO laughs in the face of danger and high price tags. A brooding and intricate epic of the caliber rarely seen outside of miniseries territory, Game of Thrones demands your loyalty and pays you back by subverting expectations and not coddling you with simplification. Also, what would you say about the weather if you couldn’t say, “Winter Is Coming?”

10. New Girl Quirky, and though I hate to say it, “adorkable,” New Girl is a love/hate half-hour of TV, and I think that’s good. Shows that polarize their audiences usually have a strong voice (like the aforementioned Enlightened), and New Girl is nothing if not it’s own brand of comedy. Deschanel’s Jess is this generation’s Seinfeld, the actor inextricable from the character and seemingly unaware of absurdity. New Girl won’t likely find itself on many TV top ten lists, but I think its interpretation of the sitcom will have an impact and therefore merits a place (albeit, barely) on this list.

Cross posted at The Faster Times

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Downton Abbey (Season 1) – Austenian Redux

This weekend, I had a marathon viewing of the first season of Downton Abbey (courtesy of Netflix Instant). I had heard a lot of good things about the show from friends and critics, and it was high time I checked it out. Julian Fellowes, the creator and writer of the series, delicately weaves the story of the personal and public dramas of the Grantham family and their servants in the 19-aughts. It is at times painfully British, brimming with lingering looks full of meaning and sentences that trail off uncompleted yet potent, and at other times witty and modern. But above all, Downton Abbey is Austenian to a T.

It’s 1912 and the RMS Titanic, the unsinkable ship, has sunk. Among her crew were the heirs to the Downton Abbey estate, and now Lord Grantham, the “owner” of Downton (owner in-so-much as he is in legal possession of the estate despite the fact that his finances alone were unable to keep the estate afloat) is left in the lurch. According to the law, the estate must pass into the hands of the next male heir, and having only three daughters, Lord Grantham is forced to accept his third cousin, whom he has never met, as the next recipient of the fortune. But Lord Grantham’s mother, the Dowager Countess, and his wife, the Lady Grantham, are bent on making sure the fortune passes into the hands of the eldest daughter, Mary. Certainly, this is a plot Austen could get behind, especially considering it’s strikingly similar to the opening premise of Pride and Prejudice.

The similarities between Downton and Pride and Prejudice are numerous (a strong-willed daughter who insists on defying the rules and is only interested in marrying for love, the political and personal game playing of English nobility, and sibling rivalry just to name a few), but unlike P&P, Downton does not exist solely in the vacuum of upper-class living. Much of the focus is on the servants below decks and the blurring of the line between classes and genders as the 20th century rolls on. Here, then, I’m reminded more than a little of Gosford Park. Hmm, wonder why… Oh yeah, Fellowes wrote that too.

And Fellowes’ fingerprints cannot be ignored. Downton is very much an auteur piece, and perhaps what I enjoyed most about it is its sense of humor (which Fellowes is known for). The Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) is the oldest of the group, and therefore presumably the most traditional, but her wit sparkles and she is surprisingly amenable to modern customs (except for electricity and telephones). She pushes hardest for Mary to become the proper heir and takes the many changes the family undergoes in stride. Fellowes even offers the audiences a few winks, like an aside in a Shakespearean play that tells a joke only the audience gets. On one particularly trying night, Lady Grantham and Mary must cover up the true circumstances of a guest’s death. In the morning, when the dead body is discovered by the rest of the house, Lord Grantham tells his butler that they must not dwell on it around the women because their sensibilities are so much more fragile!

Downton has substance beyond the humor, of course, substance that is strikingly relevant in the current economic times as the lines between the classes have quickly become starker and larger. Indeed, multiple posts could be written on Downton (the Dowager Countess warrants one to herself), and perhaps more will come, but for now I’m looking forward to season 2, which by all reports, is much more controversial (and possibly not as good), leaving the realm of Austen behind and taking on a more Dickensian tone.

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