Looking back on this year, only one thing is for certain: We watched a LOT of TV. And we liked a lot of it, too, which is why limiting our list of favorites to just five shows
gave us all panic attacks was really, really hard. Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones topped our collective lists—Breaking Bad for its incredible fourth season, and Game of Thrones not only for its epic first season, but its complete destruction of the stereotype that the fantasy genre can't deliver on mass-appeal. So we made a point to spotlight a few of our other favorites and explain why they made the cut, too. Take a look, then let us know what made your own Best of 2011 list in the comments section, below.
Spotlight: New Girl
Four months ago, I would never have thought I'd include New Girl among my five favorite shows of 2011. When I first heard about Fox's new hipster comedy, my eye rolling could be heard throughout all the land. Frankly, I'd had it up to here (hands motioning way above my head) with the Zooey Deschanel phenomenon. I think it was seeing her in all those cotton commercials that really sent me over the edge. But, I decided not to blame Zooey for all the wrong in the world and watched the first episode with a half-open heart and a boatload of skepticism. It turned out that Jess and her adorable (probably cotton) outfits, not to mention her new roommates, with their idiosyncratic behaviors and quirks, seemed like TV-ready versions of some of my friends. Which is to say they're all lovable despite (or perhaps because of) their neuroses. Oh, and Schmidt's parkour routine when he thought he was going to get with Cece is really what sealed the deal for me.
Enlightened completely caught me off guard. Previews of this show made it look like it was going to be a straight-ahead dark comedy about a screwed-up woman who finds spirituality late in life and shoves it down everybody's throats. And while it began like that, it quickly became clear that creator and actor Mike White had much more in mind for Amy Jellicoe, the antihero at Enlightened's center, so brilliantly inhabited by Laura Dern. This is a show that tackles big, universal subjects like death, loneliness, friendship, addiction, parenting, and social injustice, but does so with a light touch. The humor can be dark, but true to its title, this is a show about light, both literally—most of it unfolds beneath the blinding Southern California sunshine, like a dermatologist's lamp highlighting every minor imperfection in Amy's life—and figuratively. It's about discovering oneself, but one's real self who's never afraid to just take a moment to feel something. One season in, White has already created something completely unique and wonderful. Bravo.
Spotlight: Once Upon a Time
What could have easily been mishandled as a cheesy costume romp instead became the most imaginative and audacious drama series network TV has to offer. Once Upon a Time's adept cast makes the most of their dual roles, and the show's writers aren’t content to merely mine the rich source material of classic fairytales, but have added their own unique twists and dynamics, making each episode an essential clue in unraveling an intricate web of deception in the cozy, small-town setting. While Once Upon a Time aggressively sidesteps happy endings, the cultivated air of mystery and over-the-top drama is just as satisfying.
Spotlight: Bob's Burgers
Once you make it past the typical "mom, dad, and three kids" set-up and dull title, Bob's Burgers is a sweetly written, creatively cast series that totally flew under the radar before its pleasantly surprising renewal by Fox. The three kids—insecurity-laden Tina, rambunctious Gene, and the all-too-clever, bunny-ears-donning Louise—are my favorite new TV characters of the year. And parents Bob and Linda Belcher somehow manage to hold everything together without sacrificing on edgy humor: Bob's admission that “I may or may not have tried crack last night. I don't think I did. But if I did, I really liked it” in the episode called "Sheesh! Cab Bob" is a prime example. Overall, what really sets the Belchers apart from most TV families is that they are distinctively supportive and never mean—even for the sake of humor—despite their own independent quirks. If ever there was a show that blurred the lines between socially admirable and criminally insane, this is it.
Because it premiered late in the year after plenty of hype from ecstatic critics, it was hard to believe Homeland would be the instant classic it was hailed as. And yet, here we are. The show will be prominently featured on countless Best of 2011 lists because it’s just that good. Like Breaking Bad, Homeland combines nail-biting tension with some of the best character development on television: This is one of those rare series that stuns you with dialogue and complicated relationships, then blows you away with a literal explosion. And with some of the year’s best performances from leads Claire Danes and Damian Lewis, Homeland is a series we’ll be talking about long after the ringing in our ears has subsided.
Spotlight: The Vampire Diaries
Since its inception, The Vampire Diaries has been perhaps the most misunderstood show on television. Initially written off as a poor man's Twilight (and let's be honest, Twilight is affordable to even the most destitute of men), non-viewers probably aren't aware of just how high quality it is. With its whirlwind plotting, breakneck pace, constant cliffhangers, and anyone-can-die high stakes, the series owes more to the old-fashioned swashbuckling serials that inspired Star Wars or Indiana Jones than anything else. As for romance, a so-far incredible Season 3 has essentially uprooted and disassembled all of the show's central relationships in ways that actually enhance the characters rather than frustrate them, and for every two minutes spent discussing the human heart, the body count increases by about four. Admittedly, TVD's labyrinthine backstory requires a road map to follow, but anyone looking to get into TV's most addictive horror adventure would do well to jump in from the beginning, because it's a trip well worth taking.
Spotlight: Boardwalk Empire
This season took Boardwalk Empire to another level. Season 1's lengthy set-ups finally paid off in Season 2, as many of the players who took so long to grow on us were painfully taken away. The emotional stakes rose higher than ever before, and much of what came to surface wasn't pretty (coughJimmy'smomcough). Jimmy confronted some serious demons before the finale struck, Margaret's battle with what she gathers to be actual demons is about to royally screw Nucky over, Van Alden's on the run, and Nucky is unknowingly losing his grasp on just about everything he's ever held dear. While I wasn't particularly pleased with the twist at the end of the finale, the overall degradation of each character's sense of control this season, paired with a relentless consistency in impressive acting, made this series a must-watch in 2011.
Y'all city folk might not realize this, but FX's Justified quietly became one of television's best series in its second season, a vast improvement over Season 1. The Southern-fried drama not only brings to life one of Elmore Leonard's characters, it also brings to life the words of one of America's best authors. The dialogue on the show is fantastic; it not only rolls off the tongue but exposes the hearts of the characters who speak it. The cast, led by Timothy Olyphant as coolest-man-on-television Raylan Givens, know exactly what to do with the words they're given, and that makes it easier for the rest of the crew to do what they do best. It's a situation where every facet of the series works like your grandpappy's reliable old pocket watch. Only a handful of shows can boast this kind of all-around greatness.
Spotlight: Parks and Recreation
Remember when Parks and Recreation first debuted, and everyone bashed it for being a lesser clone of The Office? Now in its fourth season, the show has grown into one of the most consistent, enjoyable comedies on TV, with a cast of characters who are as kind and lovable as they are wacky. You simply can't help but root for Leslie and the Pawnee Parks Department gang; Parks and Rec's signature, salgar-y blend of humor and sweetness favors story arcs that are triumphant rather than trivial, and any given episode is just as likely to make you tear up as it is to make you laugh. There's plenty of meanness and bitterness in the world; rather than add to it, Parks and Rec remains as optimistic as Leslie Knope herself, and reminds us that being nice can be hilarious, too.