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 meth cooks and serial killers.

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10. Dexter
Creator: James Manos, Jr.
Stars: Michael C. Hall, Jennifer Carpenter, Desmond Harrington, C.S. Lee, Laren Velez, David Zayas, James Remar
Network: Showtime
In all honesty Dexter probably will never duplicate the intensity it created in the fourth season. The bathtub scene in the finale two years ago left us all with our jaws on the floor. Last season provided a bridging season that allowed Dexter to regroup. This season is drastically different than anything we’ve seen yet. The serialization of the Doomsday Killer harks back to when Trinity was slicing up the ladies, but weaves in so many more threads.—Adam Vitcavage

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9. Modern Family
Creators: Steven Levitan, Christopher Lloyd
Stars: Ed O’Neill, Ty Burrell, Sofia Vergara, Julie Bowen, Jessie Tyler Ferguson, Eric Stonestreet
Network: ABC
Modern Family liberally borrows some of the finest elements of two of the best sitcoms of the last decade: Arrested Development and The Office. But it applies them to one of the greatest ensembles currently on TV, making each family interesting and fun in their own way. Modern Family has been able to take ideas we’ve seen before, but wrap them up in a way that feels fresh each week.—Ross Bonaime

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8. Louie
Creator: Louis C.K.
Stars: Louis C.K., Hadley Delany, Pamela Adlon
Network: FX
When life gives you lemons, you can make lemonade. But as comedian-turned-divorced dad Louis C.K. proves on a week-to-week basis, you don’t have to be happy about it. Louie offers a painfully real but hilarious look at Louis C.K.’s fictional, jaded version of himself and explores the humor in divorce, aging and parenthood.—Tyler Kane

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7. The Walking Dead
Creator: Frank Darabont
Stars: Andrew Lincoln, Jon Bernthal, Sarah Wayne Callies, Laurie Holden
Network: AMC
The Walking Dead has been treated with all the cinematic care director Frank Darabont put into The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile and AMC put into Mad Men and Breaking Bad. For all my quibbles about lazy Southern stereotypes or occasional clunky dialogue, the plot arcs have been masterful again in the show’s second season. That’s a credit both to Robert Kirkman’s source material and Frank Darabont’s adaptation to TV. Zombies been pretty fully explored in two-hour chunks, but this slowly unfolding adventure has the time to look at religion after the apocalypse, the morality of survivalism and even the question of what makes life worth living.Josh Jackson

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6. 30 Rock
Creator: Tina Fey
Stars: Tina Fey, Tracy Morgan, Jane Krakowski, Jack McBrayer, Scott Adsit, Judah Friedlander, Alec Baldwin
Network: NBC
Season Five of Tina Fey’s oft-celebrated sitcom helped re-establish the show’s critical clout after what was considered a relatively weak fourth season. With varying degrees of success, Fey and company experimented with form more than ever with a two-hour “100th episode” special, an episode recorded live à la classic sitcoms, and even an entire episode stylized as a fictional reality TV show starring Tracy Jordan’s wife. That adventurousness aside, 30 Rock’s fifth season faced a tremendous obstacle: Central actor Tracy Morgan underwent an emergency operation related to diabetes during production, forcing him to miss several episodes. The show headed off this potential debacle with finesse, which is a further testament to the strength of the comedic interplay between Fey and Alec Baldwin.—John Barrett

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5. Homeland
Creator: Howard Gordon, Alex Gansa
Stars: Claire Danes, Damien Lewis, Morena Baccarin, David Harewood, Diego Klatenhoff, Mandy Patinkin
Network: Showtime
Acclaim for a pay-cable drama isn’t anything new, but Homeland’s reviews have been universally glowing. The series follows Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison, a CIA officer who is on probation thanks to running an unauthorized operation in Iraq. She believes a Marine Sargeant has been turned into a sleeper agent by Al-Qaeda. Offering a great look into a post-9/11 world, Homeland focuses on the psychological aspect of government officials’ lives in a thrilling manner and has already captivated a loyal audience. It was rewarded with a second season not even halfway through its debut set of episodes.—Adam Vitcavage

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4. Parks and Recreation
Creators: Greg Daniels, Michael Schur
Stars: Amy Poehler, Nick Offerman, Aziz Ansari, Adam Scott, Rob Lowe, Chris Pratt, Aubrey Plaza, Rashida Jones
Network: NBC
Parks and Recreation started its run as a fairly typical mirror of The Office, but in its third season, the student became the master. As it’s fleshed out with oddballs and unusual city quirks, Pawnee has become the greatest television town since Springfield. The show flourished this year with some of the most unique and interesting characters in comedy today. With one of the greatest writing staffs of any show right now, Parks and Recreation is only getting better with time.
Ross Bonaime

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3. Boardwalk Empire
Creator: Terence Winter
Stars: Steve Buscemi, Michael Pitt, Kelly Macdonald, Michael Shannon
Network: HBO
Easily dismissed as just a Sopranos clone set in the 1920s, Boardwalk Empire wisely took many of the best elements of its predecessor and expanded its scope. It’s this wide-ranging spotlight, drifting from the highest levels of political office down to lowly bootleggers and prostitutes, that makes the show something special, offering up morality plays that hold the lives of millions at stake while putting an actual face on those being affected. The show’s political commentary is apt without seeming preachy, while characters have maintained the balance between being archetypal ciphers and real people. Boardwalk Empire isn’t as energetic as other dramas but its meticulous slow-burn has a depth and beauty to it that’s rarely been matched on the little screen. Sean Gandert

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2. Community
Stars: Joel McHale, Donald Glover, Danny Pudi, Alison Brie, Gillian Jacobs, Yvette Nicole Brown, Ken Jeong, Chevy Chase
Network: NBC
There are so many aspects of Community that are fresh, smart and creative that it’s beyond head-scratching that the entire world isn’t walking around quoting lines from the sitcom. For two-and-a-half seasons now we’ve followed Jeff Winger and his merry study group around a community college campus, hanging onto every pop-culture reference and absurd plotline, like we’d never heard or seen them before. But we have heard and seen them, just never taken to their ridiculous extremes. And that’s why Community is such a top-notch show. Dan Harmon has created a world that we feel a part of. We know how ridiculous it is, and so do the characters. We love the gang because we can hang out with them and know that they’ll love us back just as much.—Adam Vitcavage

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1. Breaking Bad
Creator:Vince Gilligan
Stars: Bryan Cranston, Anna Gunn, Aaron Paul, RJ Mitte, Giancarlo Esposito
Network: AMC
One of the reasons Breaking Bad is the best show on TV right now (and will be ranked among the all-time greats), is that the writers do a phenomenal job introducing complex themes, plot lines and ideas, and then weaving them all together for an extremely satisfying conclusion. It’s not an easy thing to do, especially when the show asks the audience to hold on until the end to see where it’s all going. In that way it’s reminiscent of The Wire, a show that didn’t hammer its audience over the head constantly with flashy moments, but asked for patience as all the plot threads slowly untangled. And with Breaking Bad‘s narrower focus, the stakes and emotional ties we have with the story and characters can be much higher. If the Season Four premiere told us anything, it was that we were in for a lengthy chess match that would keep us on the edge of our seats until the final move was made. This couldn’t have been truer as the finale brought them all home. It’s hard to say where Breaking Bad will go next. But if the writers can come up with anything half as incredible as this season, we could have ourselves a true modern classic.—Brent Koepp

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