The 20 Best TV Shows of 2011

TV Lists

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.


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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.


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

Share Tweet Submit Pin