It’s rare for the best series on television to attract huge audiences, but it’s equally rare for the very worst series to manage the same feat. Indeed, only three series out of the 10 worst of 2011 were renewed for second seasons, and all of those are on cable (evidently the best place to keep the worst and best TV alive). On the other hand, two of our network selections have gotten full-season pickups, so the Big Five may yet reclaim their crown. Fortunately, many of the worst shows of 2011 were so execrable that they were chased off the air as quickly as they arrived, few lasting more than a handful of episodes.
10. Whitney (NBC)
There were promising elements within Whitney—a strong female at the center, the agreeably hangdog Chris D’Elia as the boyfriend, a supporting cast full of ringers who’d done great work on other sitcoms—but they never came together to make an appealing show. Creator Whitney Cummings and showrunner Betsy Thomas spoke defensively about the decision to film the show multi-camera style, but their reverse-snobbish attitude could only go so far, and the show began to collapse under the weight of its own formula after just a few episodes.
9. Live To Dance (CBS)
During the brief period when Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell hadn’t yet made up, CBS—the one network without a hit performance/reality show of its own—tossed this odd, reheated version of So You Think You Can Dance on the air, mostly to pin down Paula as one of its central talents. The show, which didn’t have a single original idea other than “Dancing, maybe?” flopped, with surprising thoroughness for a CBS show, and Abdul was quickly shuffled back under the wing of Cowell (only for the two to disappoint in one of the fall’s most hyped, most shrugged-over shows, The X Factor).
8. Most Eligible Dallas (Bravo)
It’s not immediately clear who the audience for the many dating reality shows that have infiltrated the airwaves over the past few years is, but at least most of these shows feature a gimmick or two, like forcing people to compete for someone’s hand, or shoving them all into the middle of nowhere, or forcing incredible “transformations” on them. The gimmick for Most Eligible Dallas seemed to be, “They’re in Texas,” and the show’s personalities were so vapid and boring that the show became Bravo’s equivalent of an AfterDark screensaver: vaguely pretty people wandering around in randomly generated patterns.
7. Franklin & Bash (TNT)
TNT’s annual personality-free procedural entry to this list, Franklin & Bash had a lot of things going for it. It had good guest stars. It had Malcolm McDowell as an irascible old coot. It had two stars (Breckin Meyer and Mark-Paul Gosselaar) with enough chemistry to appear charming in interviews. But the premise and central characters were all wrong, lending it a stale, fratty feel, like taking a swig of beer that someone’s left out on a counter for days. The story of two iconoclasts hoping to spice up a stodgy old law firm failed because, well, the iconoclasts simply weren’t iconoclastic at all. They talked like what a TV executive probably thinks hip young kids talk like.
6. Unforgettable (CBS)
A series mostly notable for originally being titled The Rememberer, Unforgettable strands the likeable Poppy Montgomery in a generic crime procedural about a woman who solves cases by thinking really hard about things she’s seen before—it’s as if she’s constantly trapped in a “spot-the-differences” puzzle in an issue of Highlights For Children. Dylan Walsh grimaced his way through his role as Montgomery’s ex-boyfriend, and the likeable Michael Gaston was wasted in a role that seemed modeled after J.K. Simmons on The Closer. The cherry of awfulness on top? The absolutely ridiculous “serialized” element of the show, in which Montgomery can remember every day of her life perfectly—except the day her sister was murdered. Ugh.
5. Retired At 35 (TV Land)
It’s hard to fault TV Land for attempting to fashion new shows in the mold of bland sitcoms from the ’80s and ’90s. The major networks haven’t been doing a good job of providing it with bland-enough shows lately. In addition, TV Land’s efforts have led to a fertile place for old sitcom stars looking for new work, and sometimes this leads to fun shows, or at least fun shows of the sort that might safely be watched with grandma. Not so Retired At 35, which wastes George Segal, Jessica Walter, and a clever premise (young man moves into a retirement community) on a show that started breaking its own rules to find new conflicts in episode two.
4. Charlie’s Angels (ABC)
The world didn’t need another Charlie’s Angels remake, but if ABC was going to give us one—from Miles Millar and Alfred Gough, the creators of Smallville, no less—it could have tried a little harder than it did with this one, a tepid tale of three female fugitives who found themselves brought together to undertake dangerous missions (and look hot). The show seemed bored with presenting cheesecake shots of beautiful women—essentially its entire reason for existing—and tried far too hard to pile mythology onto a property that didn’t need it. The pilot summed it up best when the angels infiltrated a party with appetizers designed to get the fashionable guests to need to relieve themselves really, really badly.
3. Dance Moms (Lifetime)
Lifetime’s Dance Moms looked to be the network’s answer to Toddlers & Tiaras, but missed pretty much everything that makes that show, for lack of a better word, “classy.” Where Toddlers is a horrifying yet entertaining descent into a little-explored subculture, Dance Moms is simply a collection of thoroughly unpleasant people being thoroughly unpleasant to each other. It was odd that a network billing itself as “television for women” would make a show that conformed to so many sexist stereotypes its centerpiece.
2. I Hate My Teenage Daughter (Fox)
I Hate My Teenage Daughter is a dumb-as-nails sitcom made even worse by an awful premise: Two women who were nerds in high school go to war with their mean-girl daughters and make utter asses of themselves. It wastes the talents of Jaime Pressly and Katie Finneran, reducing them to cartoons and making them strut about the stage as the audience howls, almost as though they were performing in an old-time vending machine, where dropping in a quarter earns the requisite amount of “sitcom antics.” Even Fox seemed embarrassed by this one, referring to it increasingly only as Teenage Daughter in promotional materials.
1. H8R (The CW)
Any of the above series would have been a worthy winner of this list in most other years, but this year they’ll all have to content themselves with coming in far behind H8R, one of the most repellant television shows in recent memory. Hosted by Mario Lopez and featuring reality-show impresario Mike Fleiss as one of its producers, H8R posited that one of the foremost problems facing America today is that people are saying mean things about celebrities on the Internet. The show’s cluelessness would have been funny if it didn’t lead to episodes where Lopez thought he was doing good by letting people like Girls Gone Wild founder Joe Francis and reality TV asshole Jake Pavelka tell their “haters” that no one knows the real them. And at all times, Lopez giggled safely from his bunker, secure in the knowledge that he really was that much better than all of us.
And now some special awards for shows that didn’t debut this year or pulled off achievements that don’t fit comfortably on the main list.
Special award for most horrifying news coverage of the year
The death of Caylee Anthony was a tragedy, and the 24-hour news media circus that sprang up around the trial of her mother, Casey acquitted in the child’s death, was both a complete mess and a reminder of just how poorly cable news channels do with big trials. Particularly terrible: Nancy Grace, who suggested Satan was happy with the outcome of the trial.
Special award for greatest dip in quality from pilot to finale
The Killing’s first handful of episodes were good enough to just keep it off this list, but by the time the season had reached its halfway point, it became obvious the show was trying to stretch the average episode of Cold Case out to 13 episodes for no particular reason. Bonus points to showrunner Veena Sud for her tone-deaf interviews in the wake of the head-spinningly awful finale.
Special award for stealth awesomeness in awful TV
The hosting job by Anne Hathaway and James Franco on the Oscars couldn’t have been called “good” by any means, but there was something so gleefully trainwreck-y about Franco’s lack of interest and Hathaway’s desperate need to keep the evening together that the pairing became fascinating, like watching an awkward dinner party fall apart.
Special award for getting a bunch of talented people together and doing nothing with them
How To Be A Gentleman boasted a terrific cast, writers and producers from It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, and an engaging odd-couple idea for its central premise. While it was more wet-fart mediocrity than awful, it disappointed, simply by wasting so many good people.
Special award for not doing the simple thing required of you as a reality show
The Glee Project, which got down to the final four and then, in its finale… said they were all winners and left it at that. The contest winners have since behaved exactly like teenagers randomly given guest spots on their favorite show.
Special award for being awful but also endlessly watchable
Fox’s Mobbed is based on the questionable idea that everything’s better with flash mobs, but the show is just so weird—complete with Howie Mandel piling extravagance on top of extravagance and the fact that only a handful of messages will make sense delivered via flash mob (and “I’m your real dad” isn’t one of them)—that it became perversely enjoyable in spite of itself.
Special award for wasting a great idea for a reality show
NBC’s America’s Next Top Restaurant went from the natural outgrowth of a program like Top Chef to a show where Chipotle founder Steve Ells kept trying to turn everything he saw into Chipotle.
Special award for reminding us of the lows of reality television
The Real Housewives Of Beverly Hills, which saw a cast member commit suicide in the off-season, then tried to figure out a way to tastefully brand him as a wife beater in the aftermath.
Special award for wasting potential
It’d be impossible to say that ABC’s Modern Family is a bad show but, with its talented cast and writing staff, it feels like it’s increasingly written and performed by people who just want to check out and play golf at 5 p.m. everyday. Where’s the occasionally dark wit of the first season? Where are the non-exaggerated conflicts? Why does every episode seem to feature a car accident? Modern Family is a huge hit and still has its champions, but is there any joke here that would sound out of place with a laugh track inserted immediately after it?
Special award for once being a good show but now being utterly awful
The sixth season of Dexter just might have been the worst season of television to air this year, going from the strained comedy of the season première, to a storyline about two villains who barely intersected with the main story, to a twist that nearly everyone in its audience saw coming weeks before it was played. Now the show’s trying to suggest icky things about its central sibling duo, while everybody involved goes through the motions. One episode wasted several minutes of screen time on Dexter’s sister going over the vagaries of Florida property law. For a once-entertaining show, this is an embarrassing low.