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Beyond the Top 30: other 2011 TV highlights

The problem with the existence of so many TV networks and so many good TV shows is that something worth watching is almost always airing somewhere. That means a lot of good shows didn’t make our list of the best television series, including plenty of the more niche programs not all of our writers were able to watch. Here, in chronological order, is a tribute to the best installments of the very good, tiny, inconsistent, and/or downright weird shows that either just missed our main list, or weren’t in the running, but merited special recognition.

Portlandia, “Farm” (Jan. 21, IFC)

Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s strange, low-fi sketch-comedy show Portlandia was never so consistent as to become the next must-see in comedy circles, but every episode strung together at least a handful of great bits. The show’s target of Portland, Oregon, seemed hyper-specific until it branched out enough for viewers to realize that the show was gently needling all hyper-liberal locavore types, as in the series’ pilot episode, in which two diners at a restaurant go to extreme lengths to find out just where their food has come from, and Armisen and Brownstein introduce many of the characters who will recur throughout the series, including two funny feminist bookstore owners. [TV]

Lights Out, “The Shot” (Jan. 25, FX)

FX’s boxing drama never quite took flight like it might have, but particularly in its early going, it seemed as if the series might find its way to making an unlikely subject into the center of a TV show. In its third episode, the show raised the stakes for retired boxer “Lights” Leary, who was already struggling financially but had promised his wife he wouldn’t return to the ring. After a low-key birthday dinner with his family and an evening making love to his wife, Lights goes downstairs to watch a match featuring one of the promising new kids at his gym—one he fears had been pushed too far, too fast. As Lights watched the kid fall and realized his financial survival was all on his head now, the series closed out its first act powerfully and gave its terrific star, Holt McCallany, great material to play. [TV]

Spartacus: Gods Of The Arena, “Reckoning” (Feb. 18, Starz) 

When Spartacus: Blood And Sand was unable to continue with its second season in light of the late Andy Whitfield’s battle with cancer, the show forged ahead with a six-episode prequel season instead. It shouldn’t have worked. And yet, it not only provided context to Blood And Sand, but also offered hints of what’s to come in season two, debuting in January. “Reckoning,” the penultimate episode of the prequel, provided shocks both from graphic violence and from exploiting the emotional connections forged between the audience and the new members of the show’s world. When character die on this show, even ones introduced in a shortened prequel, the audience feels it as acutely as those onscreen. This episode features one of the more heartbreaking deaths on television this season.  [RM]

Supernatural,  “The French Mistake” (Feb. 25, The CW)

Supernatural’s sixth season—its first without creator Eric Kripke at the helm—was a bit of a mixed bag. Despite struggling to find a narrative focal point, the season still offered some great episodes, the best of which was the crazy, meta, cracked-out conviviality of “The French Mistake.” Supernatural has gone to the self-commenting well before, but dropping Sam and Dean into an alternate reality where they are actors Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki on the television show Supernatural goes so far beyond meta it approaches surrealism, and the sequence of Sam and Dean “acting” as Sam and Dean might be the flat-out funniest three minutes of 2011. The sheer willingness of everyone involved to make fun of both themselves and the show makes the episode play like one big, sappy, hilarious love letter to loyal fans.  [CR]

My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, “The Show Stoppers” (March 4, The Hub)

Critical praise for this clever animated series was quickly eclipsed by ridicule of the media-hyped “bronie” phenomenon, and it’s too bad, because MLP:FIM overcomes a rare kids-TV double-whammy: It’s not only high-quality and aimed at girls, but it’s high-quality and based on a toy property. In “The Show Stoppers,” some kids who are hoping to earn their “cutie marks” (the icons that appear on ponies’ flanks when they’ve found their mature identities) enter a talent contest as “The Cutie Mark Crusaders.” The resulting ’80s-style hair-metal ballad is an example of another of the show’s secret weapons—songs that don’t sound like they came from KidSong 3000 songwriting software. All the show’s songs are the work of Daniel Ingram, who also wrote the catchy (and rockin’) theme music for the series. [DB]

Shameless, “But At Last Came A Knock” (March 6, Showtime)

Showtime’s scruffy remake of the British working-class soap of the same name didn’t always do a good job of justifying its existence, and William H. Macy was a big disappointment in the pivotal role of drunkard Frank Gallagher. But the actors playing Frank’s many kids made the show worth watching, particularly the surprisingly terrific Emmy Rossum as eldest daughter Fiona. By the time this late-season entry—in which the Gallagher children’s estranged mother rolls back into town, bringing with her the answer to several questions viewers had been asking—aired, the show had started to figure out what it wanted to be, nailing both its wry comedy and its despairing drama. [TV]

Big Love, “Where Men And Mountains Meet” (March 20, HBO)

The show’s disastrous fourth season will always keep it from reaching the ranks of great HBO dramas, but Big Love had a solid rebound year for its final year. The plotting remained over-complicated, and the show often became far too interested in plot threads that just didn’t matter, but in the series finale, all of that was swept away by surprisingly bold, audacious choices that only grow more ambitious in hindsight. The finale also reaffirmed the show’s commitment to treating its women—who weren’t always treated well by their church—as fully realized fictional characters, not the pawns female characters are on so many other dramas. Big Love wasn’t perfect, but it was the only show on television willing to tackle big questions about faith, marriage, and the meaning of creation, and for that, it will be missed. [TV]

Season 25: Oprah Behind The Scenes, “G’Day, Oprah” (March 27, OWN)

Season 25: Oprah Behind The Scenes, a reality show covering the making of the final season of Oprah Winfrey’s show, was an oddly compelling trifle, one that showed exactly how much work went into executing the show, and one that peeked inside the fame-bubble in which Winfrey resides. “G’day, Oprah” demonstrates both themes nicely as Winfrey’s team wrestles with providing an audience a memorable free trip to Australia and televising the whole thing. Winfrey, meanwhile, gripes about how long it’s taking her helicopter to land on the beach where she’s throwing a party for her most loyal fans, regrets that she doesn’t have time to impart any lessons upon her adoring crowd at a massive public appearance, and then plays spiritual counselor at a cocktail party hosted near an Aboriginal sacred site. It’s hard to decide whether to mock Winfrey or sign up with her. [CZ]

Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, “Ozarks” (March 28, Travel Channel)

The wit and omnivorous curiosity (and, sometimes, the compassion) that go with Anthony Bourdain’s sexy Old Man Grumpus persona make him the gold standard for travel-show hosts, and even with a new series, The Layover, on the air, his act hasn’t begun to wear thin. He’s also one of the few hosts on TV who’s genuinely interested in writers, and his trip to the backwoods of Missouri gave him the chance to do all the things he does best: meet the locals, crack wise while dazzling them with his squirrel-dressing and duck-cooking abilities and wolfing down their chili, and hang out with a famous author, Daniel Woodrell (Winter’s Bone). The fact that he sends the famous author to the hospital (Woodrell loses his footing aboard a boat during a nighttime river excursion) is gravy. [PN]

RuPaul’s Drag Race“Jocks In Frocks” (April 4, Logo)

At its best, RuPaul’s Drag Race knows exactly how reality contests work and one-ups the standard. It’s showier, glitzier, campier, and more dramatic than any show trying to be earnest could possibly be. It is, in essence, a reality show in drag, at once paying homage to the genre’s standards and poking fun at them. “Jocks In Frocks,” in which the vying ladies have to dress up straight athletes as their drag sisters, combines moments as heartfelt and gay-positive as anything on television—as when one of the bros talks about his recently out-of-the-closet little brother with Manila Luzon—with unapologetically bizarre spectacle, like the Badonk-a-donk Dunk Tank Challenge. Top it off with some insightful commentary from Margaret Cho and Sharon Osbourne, and it’s over-the-top, charming fun. [ME]

The Colbert Report, “April 6th, 2011” (April 6, Comedy Central)

Each night, The Colbert Report delivers political performance art that’s as absurd as it is incisive. This year, Colbert had plenty to mock, and mock he did, from a recreation of Herman Cain’s infamous campaign commercial to his re-enactment of Sarah Palin’s version of Paul Revere’s ride to his evident glee at the fallout from Alabama’s extreme new immigration laws. But Colbert also pays plenty of attention to non-political subjects, like the Royal Wedding. His field piece with royal scholar Hugo Vickers, in which he tries and fails to master the finer points of British etiquette, was one of the funniest, silliest eight minutes of TV this year. [MB]

The Ricky Gervais Show, “Art” (April 8, HBO)

The American debut of the funny and occasionally poignant Karl Pilkington travel show An Idiot Abroad only enhanced the wonder of the HBO cartoon The Ricky Gervais Show, which takes the musings of the opinionated but stubbornly ill-informed Pilkington and contrasts them with the more sophisticated (and often irritated) Gervais and Stephen Merchant. In “Art,” one of the broadest of philosophical topics—“What is art?”—gets weirdly specific, becoming a conversation about the things we look at every day, and whether they should stand out or blend in, and whether they should change regularly. The animation adds dimension to the chat, illustrating both the art under discussion and how statues, paintings, and installations fit into the comfortably drab world that Pilkington seems to prefer. [NM]

The Office, “Goodbye, Michael” (April 28, NBC)

For all of The Office’s problems this year, the show’s most important task in 2011 was sticking the landing for Steve Carell’s exit after seven seasons. It did so handsomely. The farewell episode highlights Michael Scott’s best attributes as he gives his staff personalized little goodbyes, and includes the vague plot-spin of having everyone think it’s his second-to-last day. Although every member of the ensemble gets a moment in the sun, Michael’s silent airport farewell to Pam (he’d already taken off his microphone) works best of all, a testament to the audience’s deep understanding of these characters. With Carell gone, the show has taken a serious tumble in quality, which just goes to show how crucial Michael Scott was to keeping the Dunder-Mifflin ship afloat. [DS]

The Mentalist, “Strawberries And Cream” (CBS, May 19)

The Mentalist’s running storyline about Red John, the serial killer who murdered the wife and daughter of Patrick Jane (Simon Baker), is there to supply the hero with a past that accounts for his stubborn devotion to crime-solving, but every once in a while, it surfaces with enough potency to send a little ripple through the whole show. The third-season finale was more like a tsunami, with a stunningly well-crafted encounter between Jane and a man claiming to be Red John (Bradley Whitford, tapping deep into his inner stalker). When the scene ends exactly the way it should, Baker gets to deliver a reminder of what a solid (and frightening) actor he can be. Even the subsequent fall season premiere, which (no surprise) is devoted to backing away from it, couldn’t fully dissipate the chill that this episode left behind. [PN]

Too Big To Fail (May 23, HBO)

HBO had an active year of producing series, documentaries, miniseries, and movies, and one of the most unexpectedly entertaining was Too Big To Fail, an adaptation of Andrew Ross Sorkin’s book about what happened in the global market in the fall of 2008 after Lehman Brothers went down. Tautly directed by Curtis Hanson and crisply written by Peter Gould, Too Big To Fail sports an all-star cast playing familiar names—William Hurt as Henry Paulson! Paul Giamatti as Ben Bernanke! Billy Crudup as Tim Geithner! Ed Asner as Warren Buffett!—but what distinguishes the movie is how clearly it dramatizes the fiscal crisis, laying out the impossible choices that faced both the government and Wall Street. Should you let the world slide into another Great Depression, or intervene in ways that go against your political principles and set dangerous precedents? You only have a few hours to decide. Go. [NM]


South Park, “You’re Getting Old” (June 8, Comedy Central)

With a hit show on Broadway in The Book Of Mormon, Trey Parker and Matt Stone seemed as if they might be tiring of the cartoon that made them famous when this episode, filled with surprising drama and finality, aired at the midseason point of the show’s 15th year. Fans of the show and commentators in the media wondered if this spelled the end of the show, if it would wrap up at the end of season 15, if Stone and Parker were off to bigger and better things. Subsequent deals to extend the run of the series and the show backing off of the events of this episode later proved this wasn’t the case, but that doesn’t remove the sheer shock of seeing Stan’s parents re-evaluate their marriage and split up in a surprising montage set to “Landslide,” or of the message that everything gets tiring eventually. [TV]

Doctor Who, “A Good Man Goes To War” (June 11, BBC America) 

Steven Moffat’s second full season as Doctor Who showrunner wasn’t quite the top-to-bottom success the first was, but “A Good Man Goes To War,” the midpoint of this year, was the season’s finest moment. Epic in scope, intimate in emotion, “A Good Man” takes the long-hinted battle at Demon’s Run and gives The Doctor, Amy, and Rory thrilling victory and crushing defeat all within the span of a single hour. Atop that, the long-running mystery of River Song’s true identity comes to the surface, offering infinite possibility in the wake of unspeakable tragedy. Nothing that followed in the season truly lived up to the promise offered up in this hour, but it’s nonetheless a powerful episode that demonstrates Doctor Who working at full power. [RM]

United States Of Tara, “The Good Parts” (June 20, Showtime)

One of life’s most important breakthroughs is the realization that family members are who they are, and to expect anything else of them is to barrel toward resentment. It’s an especially hard lesson, though, when the family dysfunction stems from a wife and mother afflicted with multiple personalities that are ornery at best and malicious at worst. In its third and strongest season, United States Of Tara became a show about a family deciding to love each other unconditionally and eschew judgment. But by the season finale, “The Good Parts,” Tara’s (Toni Collette) illness is destroying her family, and the only choice is to ship up to Boston seeking treatment. Showtime opted not to renew Tara, and while it’s a shame the show ended here, it ended on a perfect note, with a hopeful Tara looking forward to embracing drastic, terrifying change. [JA]

Hot Coffee (June 27, HBO)

An ingenious op-ed piece masquerading as a typical HBO documentary, Hot Coffee eschews the stodginess of many made-for-TV docs in favor of a sprightly pace and several fascinating examples chosen to express the film’s central idea: So-called frivolous lawsuits have been overblown in the media as a threat, and said campaign to discredit them has been conducted by corporations bent on removing citizens’ best hopes of taking them down a peg. Director Susan Saladoff keeps the film moving, but also crams in enough information to fill a book. Filled with great tidbits to share at dinner parties—particularly the detailing of the true events of the famous McDonald’s hot coffee lawsuit—Hot Coffee mostly preaches to the choir, but it sure makes for entertaining rhetoric. [TV]

Switched At Birth, “Dance Amongst Daggers” (June 27, ABC Family)

From the start, ABC Family’s Switched At Birth promised adolescent drama and soapiness—mixed with plenty or warmth—in its story of an arty, rebellious teen and an athletic, deaf teen who learn that they’ve been living with the wrong parents for 16 years. But with “Dance Amongst Daggers,” Switched At Birth began to transition from “pleasant-enough diversion” status to something a little richer, with characters who don’t always behave nobly. As the wealthy Kennish family prepares to host a benefit, the two girls are heading in opposite emotional directions, with the sweet-natured Daphne Vasquez (Katie Leclerc) feeling giddy over a romance in her new social circle while Bay Kennish (Vanessa Marano) feels resentful at how Daphne has usurped her life. By the end of the episode, Daphne makes a sacrifice to preserve family unity, setting up twists and turns that will play out over the rest of the season. [NM]

Jon Benjamin Has A Van, “Breakdown” (June 29, Comedy Central)

In its inaugural season, Jon Benjamin Has A Van took some crazy risks, like an episode where Benjamin visited a miniature version of Little Italy and received fellatio from a miniature woman, or when he was bitten by an Orthodox gentleman and turned into a were-Jew. But no chance paid off bigger than “Breakdown,” in which Benjamin’s sound guy is kidnapped and the second half of the episode is done entirely in silence. It’s not a novelty gag, either: Benjamin layers the rest of the episode with visual gags and a totally over-the-top bar scene that makes viewers wish there were sound so they could appreciate every spectacular detail. [SH]

Jon Benjamin Has a Van
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The Curious Case Of Curt Flood (July 13, HBO)

The Curious Case Of Curt Flood, HBO’s sports documentary about the baseball player who challenged MLB’s crippling “reserve clause,” is about labor relations. It’s about race. It’s about America and its perception of itself. It’s about heroism, and the fine line between being an arrogant liar or a man willing to stand up for himself, his peers, and his beliefs. It’s about the toll activism takes when someone decides that something is worth fighting for, entrenched power, stress, and personal health be damned. It’s about how sometimes a person’s life can take on a traditional narrative form: first potential, then success, then failure, then collapse, then redemption. Finally, and only in the narrowest sense, is it about baseball. [RK]

Web Therapy, “Click To Start” (July 19, Showtime)

From the opening frames of the pilot, it’s clear that Web Therapy has a grasp of the Internet age. Originating as a web series, it’s filtered through browsers and chat windows, as Lisa Kudrow’s narcissist offers a new therapy based on three-minute sessions, forcing her clients to skip the inane babbling and get to the juicy stuff. The sketches in the premiere are half prologue—describing Kudrow’s inauspicious departure from her corporate environment to her blackmail-related venture in Web Therapy—and half a glimpse into the future as she’s laughably unsupportive to her first two clients, zoning out as one talks about his girlfriend being distant. It’s funny with a purpose, a 21st-century comedy in its Internet distancing, in-the-moment improv, split-screen for the modern attention span, and great YouTube-sized performance. [BN]

Royal Pains, “The Shaw/Hank Redemption” (July 20, USA)

The breezy summer vibe that characterizes many USA original series has almost become a genre of its own. It doesn’t get any more infectious than Royal Pains, a show about a MacGyvering doctor in the Hamptons, his ambitious younger brother, the women they love, and, best of all, their con-man dad (played by Henry Winkler) and aristocratic German benefactor Boris (played with infinite aplomb by Campbell Scott). In “The Shaw/Hank Redemption” episode, the show takes a vacation from its vacation spot, transplanting the brothers to Florida to attend their dad’s parole hearing, where they meet their grandfather—played by Ed Asner, in a star turn that serves as the Royal Pains version of Orson Welles in The Third Man. 

The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson, “Paris” (Aug. 1–5, CBS)

With a rousing lip-synced rendition of Plastic Bertrand’s new-wave classic “Ça Plane Pour Moi” that Craig Ferguson departed his comfortable studio in CBS Television City and headed off to film a week’s worth of shows in gay Paree, and, boy, was the experience everything we could have hoped for. With Geoff Peterson, Secretariat, and the puppet brigade in tow, Ferguson made the most of the five episodes, taking every possible opportunity to interact with the people of Paris, visiting key landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower, the Palace of Versailles, and the Moulin Rouge, and—perhaps most enjoyably—flirting with Kristin Bell for all he was worth. Was the trip a rousing success? In a word, oui. [WH]

NTSF:SD:SUV::, “The Risky Business Of Being Alone In Your Home” (Aug. 12, Adult Swim)

Given the way NTSF:SD:SUV:: slathers on the jokes, the colon-crazy Childrens Hospital spin-off is constantly in danger of exhausting its police-procedural parody reserves. Thankfully, the straight-faced, hyper-violent brainchild of comedian Paul Scheer casts a wide net, and its daffy Christmas episode (which, naturally, first aired in the late summer) also manages to rope in that most savage of seasonal entertainments: the Home Alone series. Scheer’s stab-first, pun-later anti-terrorism agent Trent Hauser makes a great Macaulay Culkin surrogate—though he can’t keep guest star Adam Scott from making off with the episode. As Van Van Damme, Hauser’s gruff, paraplegic rival from Portland (Portland, Oregon—“Maine is for pussies,” says Van Damme), Scott pulls off some of the funniest wheelchair-bound stunts this side of Mac And Me, all in service of a plot that’s only slightly more ridiculous than the average NCIS story. [EA]

Outnumbered, “The City Farm” (Aug. 13, BBC America)

It’s a shame it took four years for the British sitcom Outnumbered to land on American television and that BBC America made the somewhat inexplicable decision to broadcast it at 11 p.m. on Saturdays. Otherwise, this little gem of a show, which centers on harried parents Pete and Sue Brockman and their three unruly children (think of it as a more subdued version of Modern Family), might have found a wider audience Stateside. In “The City Farm,” the Brockmans head to a local sanctuary to celebrate their daughter’s birthday, but the excursion quickly turns sour: Sue (Claire Skinner) can barely disguise her resentment toward her sister, Pete (Hugh Dennis) is preoccupied by charges of racism at work, and Sue’s ailing father (David Ryall) goes missing. The episode is a showcase for the superb ensemble cast, particularly Ramona Marquez, who plays the Brockmans’ dreamy 5-year-old Karen. [MB]

Downsized, “A House Divided” (Aug. 16, WeTV)

One of the few shows on television to actually deal with the crippling fallout from the Great Recession, WeTV’s little-watched Downsized took on a uniquely reality-TV question in its second-season debut: How do you make a show about people struggling to make ends meet when they’re getting paid, however modestly, to appear on a reality show? The Bruce family (two parents, each with seven kids from prior marriages between them) is preparing to buy a house with the funds from the show’s first season—all the better to get back on their feet and head back toward the outsized lifestyle they practiced at the height of the real estate boom—when an unexpected health crisis sends the family to the hospital and the bank account back into the red. It’s a bracing reminder of just how close many American families are to losing everything. [TV]

Wilfred“Doubt” (Aug. 25, FX)

The central idea of Wilfred is that Ryan (Elijah Wood) is friends with a talking dog, and beyond the minimal explanation we get in the pilot, the show never goes much further in justifying the conceit. “Doubt,” though, throws the entire show for a loop by introducing a character who claims that Wilfred ruined his life, dropping in a backstory where there wasn’t one before. It’s also the first time Ryan digs into something without Wilfred’s help (plus flat-out lies to Wilfred about what he’s up to); the deeper he gets, the more weirdness he finds. Much like the excellent first season of Wilfred, that weirdness is embraced and celebrated to the fullest extent. [SH]

Rescue Me, “Ashes” (Sept. 7, FX)

Rescue Me had long since exhausted any creative spark it had left as it limped to the end of its seventh season, but its final handful of episodes were all quite good, before the series finale pulled everything together in a surprisingly satisfying fashion. After one of the firefighters dies—and after a fake-out designed to make audiences think all of the firefighters have died—the characters go through a series of decisions about just what their job means to them and how they’re going to move forward. As always, it all comes back to Denis Leary’s Tommy Gavin, and even if the hothead has managed mostly to pull his life together, he’s still as irascible as ever. Deft and funny, the episode dealt with Sept. 11’s legacy without being too cloying. [TV]

Futurama, “Reincarnation” (Sept. 8, Comedy Central)

Since its return from cancellation, Futurama has been uneven, as the series’ usually spot-on mix of cynicism and sweetness devolved too readily into broad bits and semi-random manipulation. But when the writers found something to get excited about, Futurama proved it could still hit highs of ingenuity and wit. For example, “Reincarnation,” in which a simple story about a planet made entirely of diamond was refracted through three different formats: an old-time cartoon, an 8-bit video game, and an over-heated Japanese anime. The script was sharp, the characters consistent, and the jokes dead-on. Best of all, the show’s usual attention to detail paid off: each episode segment was crammed full of sight gags, references, and a genuine love of the subjects being mocked. Time will tell if Futurama will rediscover its groove, but “Reincarnation” is reason to hope. [ZH]

Alphas, “Blind Spot” (Sept. 12, Syfy)

No one expected Syfy’s weird little superhero drama Alphas to turn into one of the most promising new sci-fi dramas in years, but this story of a team of specially powered individuals (led by David Strathairn’s Dr. Lee Rosen) working together to catch other “alphas” quickly turned into a compelling show with some great characters and solid storytelling. “Blind Spot” was where all of the things the series had been doing well to that point gathered in the same episode. As “Blind Spot” begins, the team already has a supersonic ultra-baddie in custody, and it seems as if all is fine. That is, until an invisible assassin starts working her way through the team’s offices, striking fear into the heart of even the brutish villain. A deftly plotted bottle episode, “Blind Spot” showed just how far Alphas had come in one season. [TV]

Strike Back, “Episode Five/Episode Six” (Cinemax, Sept. 16/23)

As Cinemax’s first major foray into original programming, Strike Back didn’t have much in the way of expectations. However, as the show moved through its first season, it demonstrated a keen attention to character development and a brought in a number of fantastic actors to round out the cast for well-paced, two-part installments. “Episode Five” and “Episode Six” feature Lost’s Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje and Game Of Thrones’ Iain Glen in a set of meaty supporting roles, and nicely parallel the fate of a kidnapped aid worker with the psychological unraveling of the show’s protagonist, but the episodes still find time to knock some boots and blow some shit up. It’s a balance the show would achieve more often than anyone expected. [MM]


The Big C, “The Darkest Day” (Sept. 19, Showtime)

The Big C gained strength in its second season, thanks to the writers letting Laura Linney’s character relax into a person more complex and approachable than a stereotypically uptight suburban mom. The season also delved into anger, a much more interesting stage of grief than season one’s denial. In “The Darkest Day,” several of the season’s storylines find emotional payoffs as Linney’s Cathy abandons a family vacation to witness her friend Lee (Hugh Dancey) struggle through the final stages of his cancer. The story is frightening, sad, and refreshingly honest, and the episode’s structure—which sees tragedy arrive on the darkest day of the year, only to have the next day be slightly longer—is a poignant yet not cloying concept. [CZ]

The Hour, “Episode Six” (Sept. 22, BBC America)

In its first series, The Hour nailed the atmosphere of working at a TV news program in the ’50s, did fairly well with its character relationships, and added a spy storyline that mostly just took up time and reminded viewers that the show’s writer—Abi Morgan—wasn’t as good at the spy stuff as the other parts of the show. The first series, however, ended on a crackerjack episode, in which the production of the titular TV show is absolutely vital to the show’s larger political world. Relationships fall apart, characters make shocking revelations, and the show has to go on, even when the anchor is falling apart in front of the camera. It’s a blissfully entertaining, rocket-paced hour of television, one that suggests good things are to come in series two. [TV]

How I Met Your Mother, “Ducky Tie” (Sept. 26, CBS)

The third episode of How I Met Your Mother’s seventh season is a delicate balancing act, one that reconfigures the series’ past (adding a new wrinkle to Ted’s break-up with Victoria) while teasing out its future (explaining the garish “ducky tie” referenced in a pair of flash-forwards in the season’s first two episodes). Nonetheless, much of the episode’s humor is firmly entrenched in the moment. HIMYM’s long game sets it apart from other multi-camera sitcoms, but “Ducky Tie” is full of short-game payoffs, like Lily and Barney negotiating the terms of a bet involving that titular piece of neckwear. You might even read Barney’s intricate plot involving Pavlovian reinforcement, a Japanese-style steakhouse, and Lily’s boobs as co-creators Craig Thomas and Carter Bays (who share a writing credit for “Ducky Tie”) saying, “We may lose the thread sometimes, but don’t worry—we got this.” [EA]

Awkward., “Fateful” (Sept. 27, MTV)

Singling out one episode of Awkward. is a bit like selecting a single M&M in the candy bowl: They’re all such equally delightful treats that choosing one seems like a disservice to the others. So let’s take the easy route out and select the season finale, which demonstrates how to end two long-running storylines (the love triangle and the show’s central mystery) while complicating matters based on those revelations. Running through these revelations is the show’s signature intelligence and the ability to portray teenage life in ways that are specific yet universal, heightened yet grounded, and above all, entertaining to watch. A few more shows on the level of Awkward. would garner MTV a second look from those looking beyond Jersey Shore for quality entertainment.  [RM]

New Girl, “Wedding” (Oct. 4, Fox)

In asking their new roommate to dampen the louder aspects of her personality, the male principals on New Girl often bring out new, more psychotic sides of Jess (Zooey Deschanel). That’s certainly the case here, where all that external pressure leads to an intentionally friendly (but outwardly threatening) conversation between Jess and a potential paramour for Max Greenfield’s Schmidt. “Wedding” is more notable as the episode where Schmidt (the series’ potential breakout character) comes into his own—even as he tries desperately not to be himself. New Girl frequently explores the freedom that comes with being true to yourself, but there’s a lot of humor in Greenfield flailing at a cooler and smoother—yet totally false—persona in “Wedding.” Just as Jess can’t be anyone but her all-singing, all-Chicken-Dancing self, Schmidt is destined to be the guy tied to Natasha Lyonne’s bed, forced to watch her vacation slideshow.  [EA]

Luther, “Episode Two” (Oct. 5, BBC America)

Every hour of Luther is like a full-body viewer workout. “Episode Two” of the second series is no exception, and if anything, proves the rule. Titular criminal investigator John Luther (Idris Elba) is having a busy day: His young partner, Ripley (Warren Brown), is being held hostage and tortured by a serial killer obsessed with Jack The Ripper. At the same time, he’s dealing with a family of creepy thugs who are assaulting and blackmailing him because of his interference in their underage-fetish-porn racket. Oh, and it just so happens that the aforementioned homicidal lunatic plans to kidnap a school bus full of children, poison them to death, and dissolve their bodies in acid. Just another day in and out of the precinct for TV’s most eccentric and tormented anti-hero. “Episode Two” is the series’ finest, and exemplary of Luther’s controlled chaos. [KH]

Bored To Death, “Gumball!” (Oct. 17, HBO)

“Gumball!” brings Jason Schwartzman, Zach Galifianakis, and Ted Danson, TV’s best underdog comic trio, back together for some citizen justice. Their sleepover—sharing a king bed and matching pajamas no less—is Bored To Death at its best. There’s no such thing as a wasted setup in this show, and “Gumball!” is no exception: While riding the subway together, still in matching pajamas, Galifianakis asks Schwartzman the theoretically rhetorical question, “Can we have one conversation that doesn’t involve your peen?” Schwartzman, naturally, feels obligated to drolly promise, “It won’t be easy, but I’ll try.” Throw in a Ferris Wheel shootout, paranoid Danson falling off-mission and dispensing of his cell phone in a mailbox, and another odd encounter with perverted Officer Drake (Lenny Venito), and there are plenty of reasons to hope Bored To Death has enough life for season four. [KH]

Up All Night, “Birth” (Oct. 19, NBC)

Up All Night showrunner Emily Spivey cut the “pregnancy” section out of her low-key new-parent sitcom, choosing to base the series’ humor in her protagonists’ changing lifestyles rather than a series of “baby bump” and morning-sickness jokes. So it was a bit unnerving when the show took an abrupt U-turn into the past to tell the story of the day little Amy Brinkley was born. “Birth,” however, turned out to be Up All Night’s funniest episode yet, one that managed to broaden the show’s grounded take on a pair of loving, driven, hard-partying professionals (Christina Applegate and Will Arnett) transitioning into parenthood by portraying the very moment they transitioned into parenthood. Bonus points for an episode that organically integrates May Rudolph’s outsized Ava, all the while giving Applegate, not Rudolph, the episode’s singing punchline: an awkwardly timed a cappella rendition of Live’s “Lightning Crashes.” [EA]

The Middle, “Bad Choices” (Oct. 19, ABC)

The most underrated member of ABC’s Wednesday-night comedy lineup had great guest stars this year, including Norm Macdonald and Patricia Heaton’s former co-star, Ray Romano; but as a rule, The Middle remained at its best when focusing on its core cast members, as in this episode, in which the gradual disintegration of the Heck family’s roof inspires Frankie (Heaton) and Mike (Neil Flynn) to consider giving up on the place and getting an apartment instead. What other sitcom would maintain a several-episode plot arc about a defective dishwasher—one that takes a somewhat explosive turn for the worse in this installment—that the family can’t readily afford to replace? The Middle rarely fails to offer a not-as-exaggerated-as-you’d-think encapsulation of the lower-middle-class lifestyle, but with “Bad Choices,” the show really got it right. [WH]

Unguarded (Nov. 1, ESPN)

Though its 30 For 30 series officially ended last year, ESPN Films continued producing 30 For 30-style documentaries throughout 2011, with none more powerful than Unguarded, the story of former basketball hopeful Chris Herren’s battles with addiction. Structured simply around one of the plainspoken speeches Herren delivers to AA gatherings and high-school assemblies, Unguarded makes it clear that athletic fame and the financial blessings of professional sports fuel addiction while making it harder for outsiders to understand. Herron’s upbringing in a basketball-crazy small town in Massachusetts introduced him to a hard-partying culture that he could never escape, even when he fled as far as Fresno State in California. Particularly remarkable are his stories of playing ball while bleary from a sleepless night of drug binging, or his first night with the Boston Celtics, where he waited outside the arena in his game sweats for his Oxycontin dealer to show up. [ST]

The League, “Bobbum Man” (Nov. 3, FX)

It can still be a little hit-or-miss, but The League has proved itself a worthy partner to It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. A mostly improvised show, it’s a true ensemble sitcom that thrives off of the energy created by putting its wonderful cast in the same room together. Still, the show is best when it’s at its most demented, and “Bobbum Man” undoubtedly takes the cake in that regard. Hearkening back to an old prank, the gang hires standout recurring character Rafi (Jason Mantzoukas) to become the physical avatar of the “Bobbum Man,” some sort of anally fixated monster derived from the nightmares of Kevin (Stephen Rannazzisi). The episode shows off The League’s skill combining dovetailing plots with ridiculous gross-out humor; a side-plot involving a personalized, offline social network called MyFace ties in beautifully and functions as one of the better Facebook parodies attempted on TV so far. [DS]

2 Broke Girls“And Hoarder Culture” (Nov. 7, CBS)

For all its outdated depictions of Brooklyn and questionable, stereotype-based humor, 2 Broke Girls has undeniable potential. The chemistry between leads Kat Dennings and Beth Behrs touches on other beloved sitcom girl teams of shows past but updates it nicely. Whereas some of the installments in the inaugural handful of episodes were cluttered by groan-worthy puns and confusing storytelling, “And Hoarder Culture” is the show at its best. The jokes click, the narrative—about Dennings and Behrs cleaning out a trash-cluttered apartment for a few spare bucks—is compelling, and the character interactions are both funny and interesting. And oh, there was a kitten. [ME]

The Heart, She Holler, “Holy Meemaw” (Nov. 9, Adult Swim)

You don’t have to be Pat Robertson interpreting the weather to see what’s going on in this inbred pursuit of power at all costs, a sort of Game Of Thrones for cartoon hicks. “Holy Meemaw” achieves ecstatic comic trenchancy in its accumulation of motifs: a mayor valorizing the common man, fear-mongering scuttlebutt about the “N” word, abuse of religion (with a preacher literally raping a Bible), and a very Alec-Baldwin-in-Malice take on the divine right of kings. Patton Oswalt’s hillbilly Kaspar Hauser with daddy issues, the campaigning of Kristen Schaal’s conniving tramp and Heather Lawless’ housewife Carrie all charge this absurdist drive-by. [BN]

Batman: The Brave And The Bold, “Mitefall” (Nov. 18, Cartoon Network)

It was a big year for “meta,” with numerous shows jumping on board the bandwagon of making fun of themselves—particularly if they were struggling in the ratings and wanted to mock themselves for failing to draw a large enough audience. That’s just what Batman: The Brave And The Bold—Cartoon Network’s three-season-old superhero mash-up with a bright, goofy comic tone—did in its series finale, as episode writer Paul Dini attempted to defend his series’ brighter tone in the face of the fact that most Batman properties of the last few decades have been dark, dark, dark. Batman fights Gorilla Grodd, teams up with Abraham Lincoln to take down John Wilkes Booth, and runs into constant reasons for why his show had failed. ’Twas silly and glorious. [TV]

American Dad, “Virtual In-Stanity” (Nov. 20, Fox)

American Dad remains one of TV’s underappreciated treasures, a gleefully surreal series that does everything right that other Seth MacFarlane-created series do wrong. Nowhere was that more apparent this year than in this offering, in which Stan Smith attempts to get closer to teenage son Steve by taking control of a teenage girl avatar (voiced by Sarah Michelle Gellar) based on super-secret CIA technology. From there, he not only dates his son but hatches a plan to sleep with him—all without once becoming unbearably horrifying, somehow. In an even funnier B-story, alien Roger launches a limo service and enacts bloody revenge on a bunch of guys who stiff him on a bill. It’s an episode packed with laughs, and it proves Fox is right to keep renewing this one, even if nobody’s watching. [TV]

Revenge, “Suspicion” (Nov. 23, ABC)

One of the biggest surprises of the fall season was the unlikely success of Revenge. What started out as a slightly undercooked procedural quickly turned into a delightful primetime soap full of lies, schemes, sexual manipulation, and murder. The most pleasant surprise along the way has been how willing the show is to delve into the emotional ramifications of its story. This is played for maximum effect in “Suspicion,” which thoughtfully shows how one character’s choice to help frame another has forced her to lead a life of profound loneliness, while another’s choice to seek revenge against those who wronged her has forced her to deny herself the true happiness she desires. Revenge never shies away from darkness, which is its greatest strength. That this darkness is surrounded by things like Japanese revenge senseis and whale-shaped hidden cameras full of secrets, well, that just makes it fun. [CR]

Suburgatory, “Thanksgiving” (Nov. 23, ABC)

Though burdened with an absurd premise and a cartoon-y supporting cast, Suburgatory got through the first half of its first season by offering up just enough solid jokes to keep viewers watching. However, those viewers were rewarded with the series’ Thanksgiving episode, still its best, in which the show delves more into its central conflict of “city vs. suburbs” and shows new depths to some of the goofier supporting players, suggesting it wouldn’t stay a live-action cartoon forever. Suburgatory gets bonus points for introducing the world to the caustically funny Jane Levy, who’s turned the whole candy-colored suburban world of the show into her playground and shown an impressive skill for awkward physical comedy. [TV]

A Very Gaga Thanksgiving (Nov. 24, ABC)

A Very Gaga Thanksgiving relies on two important elements. The first is that Lady Gaga knows how to put on a show, delivering a number of compelling performances that are, in and of themselves, an enjoyable concert. The second is that no one in Lady Gaga’s camp is willing to edit her vision. Directing her own special, Gaga stages a concert in her childhood Catholic school, fries up some salami in couture, writes a new verse for “White Christmas” about a depressed snowman, and transforms the classic holiday-special tradition into performance art to sell America on her family values while simultaneously celebrating her aggressive individuality. There’s a live audience present, but the real audience lives on some distant world that would be awesome to visit. [MM]

The Walking Dead, “Pretty Much Dead Already” (Nov. 27, AMC)

One of the challenges facing any serialized drama is convincing the audience that everything was planned from the start. It doesn’t have to be true, but if viewers suspect that plot twists and reversals are being pulled from thin air, with no consideration for the big picture, they’ll lose faith quickly. So far, Walking Dead hasn’t done a great job of instilling confidence in its fans, but with its mid-season finale, the show finally came through in a big way. After weeks of squabbling, the tensions at Hershel’s farm finally threaten to boil over. Shane decides to force the issue, and what happens next provides resolution to at least one major plotline in an unexpected way. The show still has a ways to go to clean up its act, but hopefully this marks the point where it stops wandering in search of a point. [ZH]

Beavis And Butt-head: “Dumb Design” (Dec. 1, MTV)

Part of what has made the return of Beavis And Butt-head to MTV such a success is that despite feeling like it’s been plucked directly from a ’90s time capsule, its structure and point of view has turned out to be as relevant as ever in 2011. As with its original run, the show has largely stuck to silly bits and pop-culture satire, but when creator Mike Judge employs his deft talent for social criticism, as in “Dumb Design,” the result is a smart, damningly succinct mockery of the Intelligent Design argument. By allying our dull-witted protagonists with a group protesting the teaching of evolution in schools, Judge equates the boys’ distaste for learning with the IDers’ rejection of science. Because, after all, “If something’s too complicated to understand, then why should we have to learn it?” [EY]

American Horror Story, Smoldering Children (Dec. 7, FX)

American Horror Story arguably didn’t have to waste as much time as it did to arrive at the big twist of “Smoldering Children.” It’s also arguable that said big twist was telegraphed across the three prior episodes. But all the mythology-building and rule-making that bogged down much of the series before “Smoldering Children” deepened the impact of the corpse that turns up at the end of the episode. Even more staggering: the reveal—a sock to the gut a thousand times more potent than the flaccid un-masking of the Rubber Man—is only a minor part of a tense, effective hour of American Horror Story that does well by the series’ most intriguing warm bodies: Larry (Denis O’Hare) and Constance (Jessica Lange). [EA]

The Simpsons, “Holidays Of Future Passed” (Dec. 11, Fox)

The biggest problem for any new Simpsons episode is coming up with something that hasn’t been done in a hundred other Simpsons episodes. And while “Holidays Of Future Passed” is yet another jump forward into the future of the central family, it’s one done with lots of humor and a surprising amount of feeling and warmth, particularly when the adult Bart and Lisa sit down and have a long heart-to-heart. But there are also a fair number of great gags here, including a long sequence showing the progression of the family via Christmas card photos and the now-adult Maggie getting saddled with—of course!—a pacifier. [TV]