TV  |  Lists

The 20 Best TV Shows of 2011

December 1, 2011  |  8:03am

Every day between now and New Year’s Eve, we’ll be looking back at the best music and pop culture of 2011. Today we look at the TV shows that made us laugh, cry or root for a meth cooks and serial killers. There’s no reality to be found except the frightening realities covered by a pair of fake news shows. But there’s plenty of comedy, drama and, of course, zombies.

A whopping 78 shows got nominated, so if your favorites are missing, let us know in the comments section below.

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20. Friday Night Lights
Creator: Peter Berg
Stars: Kyle Chandler, Connie Britton, Taylor Kitsch, Michael B. Jordan, Matt Lauria
Network: NBC
I can’t think of a television series in recent memory that’s resonated so deeply. These are characters who’ve struggled, mightily struggled, to find their way, to find their happiness and to find their purpose, and because of this, we saw ourselves in their struggle. They all worked toward redemption. They all worked toward a better life—whether that was overcoming the odds of a paralyzing spinal cord injury to become a sports agent in New York City or to own a piece of land. And five years later, they did all of these things—found redemption, mostly found better lives, almost always found something akin to happiness. The final season brought so many of our characters full circle, while also providing honest glimpses into their future—morsels to let us know that while we won’t be joining them on their continuing journeys in Dillon (or Philadelphia), they’re going to be okay without us.—Allison Winn Scotch

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19. Archer
Creator: Adam Reed
Stars: H. Jon Benjamin, Jessica Walter, Judy Greer, Aisha Tyler, Chris Parnell, Amber Nash
Network: FX
Archer has succeeded as a hilarious parody of both James Bond and Mad Men with the comedic sensibilities of FX’s best. Season Two was full of surprising twists—like Archer’s breast cancer. The mini third season—the “Heart of Archness” trilogy following Archer’s revenge on the man who killed his Russian love—made Archer one of the few story-driven animated series that actually delivers.—Ross Bonaime

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18. Treme
Creators: David Simon, Eric Overmyer
Stars: Khandi Alexander, Rob Brown, Kim Dickens, India Ennenga, John Goodman, Melissa Leo, Wendell Pierce, Steve Zahn
Network: HBO
In its second season, David Simon’s Treme has settled in, examining, grieving with, and paying weary homage to a wonderful American city still woozy from the shock of the greatest natural disaster to hit America. Assembling the stellar talents of Melissa Leo, Kim Dickens, John Goodman, Wendell Pierce, and so many other greats, Treme brings New Orleans to life.—Michael Dunaway

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17. The Colbert Report
Creators: Stephen Colbert, Ben Karlin, Jon Stewart
Stars: Stephen Colbert
Network: Comedy Central
Since debuting back in October of 2005 as a spin-off of The Daily Show, Stephen Colbert’s The Colbert Report has gone on to consistently deliver razor sharp and undeniably hilarious political satire year after year. This past September’s Radiohead special feature (“The Wørd”: I Think, Therefore I Brand), which included a live performance from the band, brought the show to new heights as Colbert repeatedly plugged advertisements for Dr. Pepper as “the official beverage of Radiohead,” among other products. Colbert’s extremely exaggerated neo-conservative fictional persona has become a mainstay of American television programming as an ever-growing segment of young Americans increasingly turn to his and Jon Stewart’s comedy-news shows nightly to be informed about current events.—K. Alexander Smith

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16. Bored To Death
Creator: Jonathan Ames
Stars: Jason Schwartzman, Zach Galifianakis, Ted Danson
Network: HBO
Writer Jonathan Ames’ series features Jason Schwartzman as a writer named Jonathan Ames who decides to advertise his private investigative services on Craigslist. Zach Galifianakis plays Ames’ best friend, Ted Danson quickly makes us forget he was ever in Becker, and the parade of guest stars and recurring characters continues this season with Patton Oswalt and Isla Fisher. But it’s Schwartzman’s absurd mix of self-obsession and sincerity that makes the show so fun to watch.—Josh Jackson

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15. How I Met Your Mother
Creators: Craig Thomas, Carter Bays
Stars: Josh Radnor, Jason Segel, Alyson Hannigan, Cobie Smulders, Neil Patrick Harris
Network: CBS
Very few shows are able to teeter on the tightrope of daytime soap opera and a laugh-out-loud sitcom without going overboard. For over half a decade HIMYM has spun a hilarious tale of how Ted met his children’s mother without growing stale. Sure, fans were starting to grow weary, but since the dramatic and uplifting turn in Marshall and Lily’s life and the return of the Ted-Robin-Barney love triangle, the show is back in top form and geting more like Friends than ever. We’re closing in on a lot of mysteries (Who exactly is the mother? Will Barney marry Robin? How will the baby change the Eriksens?), but so much more has developed to keep us intrigued for a few more seasons. Bonus: Neil Patrick Harris is as loveable as ever.—Adam Vitcavage

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14. Portlandia
Creators: Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein
Stars: Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein
Network: IFC
IFC’s short-run comedy series Portlandia is a show about hipsters that translates well-beyond Portland’s city limits. (Hey, Silver Lake and Brooklyn: We mean you, too.) Fred Armisen (Saturday Night Live) and Carrie Brownstein (Sleater-Kinney) have struck gold poking fun at the culture of coffee shops, indie book and record stores, and that too-cool-for school attitude.—Christine N. Ziemba

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13. Game of Thrones
Creators: David Benioff, D.B. Weiss
Stars: Sean Bean, Mark Addy, Michelle Fairley, Peter Dinklage, Emelia Clarke, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Lena Headey
Network: HBO
For a show that wasn’t supposed to attract female viewers, Game of Thrones‘s strongest characters are its women. Women in fantasy and science fiction are often made in the image of teen-boy dreams: scantily clad, big-chested warriors and damsels in distress. So credit George R.R. Martin, along with screenwriters and casting directors for giving us women with the strength to challenge the misogyny of their fictional time and place. It’s HBO, so there’s still a few more objectifying scenes than necessary, but the writing of these characters is sharp, supported by top-notch actresses. This fantasy world isn’t just for fanboys.—Josh Jackson

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12. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
Creator: Rob McElhenney
Stars: Charlie Day, Rob McElhenney, Glenn Howerton, Kaitlin Olson, Danny DeVito
Network: FX
In its seventh season, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia continues to surprise, keeping it among FX’s highest-rated shows. This season The Gang has tackled The Jersey Shore, beauty pageants, Facebook and hurricanes, each in a way that only the show’s anti-sitcom mentality could. It’s Always Sunny remains as shocking and consistently hilarious as it’s always been, while becoming self-referential and staying original, even after hitting syndication.—Ross Bonaime

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11. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
Creator: Madeleine Smithberg, Lizz Winstead
Stars: Jon Stewart, Jon Oliver, Samantha Bee, Aasif Mandvi, Wyat Cenac, Olivia Munn, Jason Jones
Network: Comedy Central
Hosting the longest running show on Comedy Central, Jon Stewart hasn’t lost his touch since taking over from Craig Kilbourn in 1999. Some of this year’s best episodes included interviews with New York Times columnist and author Thomas Friedman, Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari and Steve Jobs’ biographer Walter Isaacson. With its cast of satirically oddball character-correspondents, consistently sharp writing and Stewart’s winning straight-man persona holding it all together, The Daily Show doesn’t look to be running out of steam any time soon. —K. Alexander Smith

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