It's that time of year again. There's a chill in the air, carolers singing and around every corner of the Internet is another best-of list. As the clock ticks down on 2011 and we prepare ourselves for the apocalypse (next year is 2012 after all, didn't you see that John Cusack movie?) it's time for critics and bloggers everywhere to weigh in. Who was naughty and who was nice this year in the land of television? I'll leave it to someone else to hand out coal, because despite the "Whitneys" scattered about the dial, the TV landscape has never looked brighter. Here are the 11 shows from 2011 that elevated the game this year:
1. Justified-- Picking a stand-out performer on FX's western shoot-em-up hit Justified is like picking a favorite child; you probably have one but that doesn't mean you don't love the rest. Timothy Olyphant earned his Emmy nomination every episode playing U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens with a steady mix of good humor and dangerous resolve. The second season of the show played a long cat-and-mouse game featuring the wonderful and terrifying Margo Martindale's Mags, a villain who will literally kill you with kindness. The season felt meticulously well-plotted and the ending felt at once crushing and inevitable. Plus there are few shows with Justified's restrained yet excellent sense of humor.
2. Breaking Bad -- There's a reason AMC's crystal meth cooking Breaking Bad ends up on every critic's best of list. That's because it's really that good. As a fairly recent convert to the culture of Walter White I feel it necessary to state that I found the first few seasons of the show to be a bit too dense and depressing. This year, however, the show upped the stakes in a way that made the end of every episode feel like the season finale. Speaking of the season finale, a straightened tie has never been so terrifying. This year the tension on Breaking Bad has never been so high, while the depths that Walt is willing to sink have never been so low.
3. Friday Night Lights -- We lost one of our best shows this year in the NBC/Direct TV football drama Friday Night Lights. The show was one of the most naturalistic on television thanks to lived-in performances from its cast and fly-on-the-wall cinematography. Thankfully, the drama got a send-off that was as hopeful and moving as the show itself. Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose.
4. Parks and Recreation -- NBC's comedy about a bunch of misfits in local government is one of the funniest sitcoms on the dial without sacrificing any of its sweetness. The addition of Rob Lowe and Adam Scott brought the show to the next hilarious level while the romance between Leslie and Ben made political nerds sexy. So let's hear it for the fictional town of Pawnee: first in friendship, fourth in obesity.
5. Community -- While NBC hasn't given the meta comedy a place on its winter schedule, Community will always have a place in our hearts. That's because the show balances high-concept comedy and emotional character-driven stories with ease. As Magnitude would say "Pop pop!"
6. Game of Thrones -- Come for the ridiculous sex scenes and violence and stay for the intrigue in HBO's swords and scheming epic fantasy series. The great thing about Game of Thrones is that no one is safe and the noblest characters are often the first to lose their heads. Literally.
7. Downton Abbey -- Imagine if Jane Austen and the writers of Gossip Girl had a baby. That baby would be Downton Abbey. The stylish and sophisticated British import packs more drama than most daytime soaps into the grand sitting rooms of the titular castle. Besides, no one can turn a phrase quite like Maggie Smith.
8. The Borgias -- While largely ignored by critics the historical drama The Borgias by Oscar winning screenwriter Neil Jordan is great historical fun. The acting is top notch and the members of the infamous Borgia clan feel well rounded and human. Neither too soapy nor too dull, these wonderfully compelling Borgias make history come alive.
9. Raising Hope -- The FOX sitcom takes wacky to a whole new level while never sacrificing its heart. The Chance family, now saddled with son Jimmy's infant daughter Hope, is both sweetly affecting and balls-out crazy. It's a combination that keeps Raising Hope walking the delicate line between oddball goofiness and saccharine earnestness. It's a line the show walks without a misstep, even if the Chances' attempts at childrearing aren't as picture perfect.
10. Happy Endings -- What started off as another Friends-knockoff midseason replacement soon morphed into a word-of-mouth hit. That's because Happy Endings is what many sitcoms hope and fail to be: legitimately funny. It also hinges on the great chemistry between the close-knit group at the heart of the show, as well as hilarious stereotype defying characters like gay slob Max. We check in every week with the Happy Endings crew because if they really existed we'd want to hang out with them.
11. Revenge- ABC's new hit Revenge is a rare breed: a prime-time soap that revels in its soapiness and takes it very seriously. The Hamptons-set show is great fun with nonstop scheming, a convoluted backstory involving betrayal and great ruthless characters. Apparently vengeance is a dish best served with an ocean view.
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