Want to know the best of what’s been on the box in 2011? Look no further than George Morahan’s almost-definitive TV pickings.
It has been a good year for TV, with plenty of strong shows both new and old, drama or comedy. Below is a list of the ten shows that I believe constitute the best of the year that I have seen. This list is far from definitive, but it is in alphabetical order.
Archer (US, FX)
In its second season (as well as the accompanying three-part mini-series, ‘Heart of Archness’) Archer reached new heights of brilliance this year. Telling the tale of the world’s most petulant super-spy, creator Adam Reed and his truly wonderful voice cast never let Archer slip below side-splittingly funny, whether they were dealing with the perils of espionage, office politics or breast cancer. Kudos must go to H. Jon Benjamin for bringing the title character to life and Jessica Walter for recreating Lucille Bluth in animated form before the return of Arrested Development in 2013.
Black Mirror (UK, Channel 4)
Everyone knew Charlie Brooker could talk the talk in his role as a columnist for the Guardian and host of Screen Wipe, but in penning two of Black Mirror’s three instalments, he proved he knew what he was talking about. ‘The National Anthem’ provided a darkly cynical and comic look at the relationship between the press, social media and government as the PM is blackmailed into bestial relations with a pig, while, surprisingly enough, also allowing for visceral moments of human emotion. The second part, ‘15 Million Merits’ was home to a fully engrossing vision of a dystopic future ruled by advertising – it’s a terrifying and fascinating visual spectacle – and proved to be an effective dramatisation of Brooker’s singular brand of sarcasm and contempt for modern society.
Breaking Bad (US, AMC)
One should never doubt Vince Gilligan and the makers of Breaking Bad. In the fourth season’s early episodes, it seemed as if the macabre pleasure the Breaking Bad writers took in methodical plotting would bring the show back down to earth after the dizzying heights reached in the third season, instead it came through with what was perhaps its strongest finale yet. Season four revealed patience to be Breaking Bad’s greatest virtue, but it was career-defining performances from Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Giancarlo Esposito and Mark Margolis as Hector Salamanca that helped it all to come together in the end.
Community (US, NBC)
Community is the best show on television today. There have been few comedies with more wit or heart and definitely none with more inventive ambition. One can easily enjoy Community just by watching it, but one gains a whole new appreciation of the show upon realising the inherent difficulty of what Dan Harmon and his writers are trying to pull off – every week Community has appeared in a new guise and is never less than hilarious, while also giving a thorough character study of this misfit group of students. Joel McHale also continues to do great work as put-upon ex-lawyer, Jeff Winger, acting as the anchor and sly, charming voice of reason in a community college full of crazy.
Game of Thrones (US, HBO)
Once the first few episodes had passed and the viewer had time to get used to this alternative, quasi-medieval world of Westeros, Game of Thrones continually proved to be the most exciting show on television. Adapted from the novels of George R.R. Martin, the show recounted the initial power struggle between the Houses of Stark, Lannister and Targaryan, but with some shocking and heart-stopping moments, the debut season proved only to be the prologue of a far more expansive tale. If the standard of these first ten episodes is anything to go by, we’re in for a treat when the show returns in April.
Homeland (US, Showtime)
If Homeland had been nothing more than an opportunity to see Damian Lewis playing a US Marine for the first time since Band of Brothers, then its existence would have been completely justified, but it became much more than that. Acting as antidote to a particular brand of spy drama, Homeland was much more Tinker Tailor than 007 and found its greatness in gathering intelligence and cerebral intricacies rather than explosions and jump-cuts. Both Lewis and Claire Danes jumped off the screen as a former POW under investigation and the bi-polar CIA agent tracking him, giving a human edge to the War on Terror and showing off their crackling chemistry at every opportunity.
The Hour (UK, BBC)
In a year without Mad Men, there was a great, period drama-sized hole Otwo wasn’t allowing Downton Abbey to fill. Luckily, The Hour was on hand to make everything ok. However, despite their aesthetic similarities, The Hour was a different kind of beast as it largely focused on a love triangle between three television journalists at the BBC during the Suez Crisis, while also allowing for some Cold War tensions and governmental incredulity to power the drama. If there were some missteps with the espionage subplot, The Hour was at its best when allowing its three leads (Ben Whishaw, Romala Garai and Dominic West) space to revel in their awkward tensions and unresolved feelings.
Louie (US, FX)
Comedian Louis CK struck an unorthodox deal with the American cable network, FX. He requested a minimum budget and salary for himself to make Louie and insisted that the network would leave him alone with no notes and complete creative freedom. Louie’s second season proved FX were geniuses in agreeing to such an arrangement as the show continued to blur the lines between fiction and reality in search of universal truths and took a befitting turn towards the dramatic in the process. The world of Louie is purely that of CK’s thinking, one of great darkness, but also one with a silver lining and each trip into the man’s psyche was one to treasure.
This is England ’88 (UK, Channel 4)
’88 was far more introspective and stoic than its predecessors as focus drifted from suburban teenage life to the personal struggle of Vicky McClure’s Lol. With Lol facing the ghosts of her past, she became more isolated from the rest of the cast, and McClure was called on to carry the dramatic weight of these three episodes, excelling in every regard. Such darkness made the one scene between McClure and Stephen Graham (when Lol went to visit reformed skinhead, Combo, in prison) all the more satisfying and heart-wrenching. TiE’88 ultimately became a triumph for the acting talent on show rather than of the writing talents of Shane Meadows, but it lost none of its lustre.
Tremé (US, HBO)
How do you follow The Wire? The simple answer is: you cannot, but David Simon has done pretty well with Tremé, a show without precedent. Where The Wire was a realistic interpretation of the modern cop drama, Tremé really defies the logic of television. It has a threadbare plot and too many characters, yet works like a docu-drama. It is a study of post-Katrina New Orleans, where the characters are trying to rebuild their lives and the show is little more than that. The rewards come in getting to know the people and culture of New Orleans rather than from dramatic pay-off, but it is a joy to watch their progress and revel in the little victories that come along the way.