Year in Review: Mary McNamara's top TV of 2011
For all the shows that premiered this fall, it was not a stellar season. Fortunately, the television landscape has many datelines, so, taken overall, it was a very good year. And here’s why:
“Game of Thrones”: HBO proved that nothing beats epic fantasy when it’s rooted in good story and great performances, which this show most definitely is. No doubt the dragons will be fun too, but with Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion and Emilia Clarke’s Daenerys, even dragons are just icing.
Margo Martindale on “Justified”: FX’s lyrical, Elmore Leonard-inspired drama about a U.S. marshal returning to his hometown to clean up a few messes took on epic and revolutionary proportions when creator Graham Yost introduced Mags Bennett (Martindale), a back-country mob boss the likes of which have never been seen. Martindale rightly won an Emmy for her astonishing performance, but it would have been better if she had won another season — for reasons that confound me, Yost chose to kill off Mags in the season finale. I may forgive him; I haven’t yet.
“Downton Abbey”: Julian Fellowes crossed “Upstairs, Downstairs” with his own “Gosford Park” to herald a new and glorious age of PBS period drama.
“Homeland”: Wrangling Claire Danes and Damian Lewis as two of the most complicated characters on television (not to mention the ever-mercurial Mandy Patinkin), Howard Gordon and some of his “24” team turned an Israeli hit into the first show to successfully mirror midwar America.
Al Jazeera: During this year’s rebellions in the Mideast, Americans found themselves glued to their laptops to watch on-the-ground coverage from Al Jazeera English. For a time, many lobbied to find it a permanent American home, which would be a very good thing.
Ted Danson in “Bored to Death” and “CSI”: It’s difficult to imagine another actor who could juggle the quaint-ish HBO comedy and the CBS behemoth at all, let alone with such agility. I am not a huge fan of either show but watch both for the pleasure of seeing a man so utterly in control of his craft.
AMC and “The Killing”: Veena Sud’s murder-mystery stumbled as it soared, and outraged fans and nonfans alike with its non-finale season finale. But around here, we give points for trying, and AMC continues to do just that, accepting its failures (“The Prisoner”) as down payment for its successes (“The Walking Dead”). Sud took on TV’s most popular and predictable genre and, for better and worse, made it her own. Also Mireille Enos is now officially a star, and that has to count for something.
“Parks and Recreation” and “The Middle”: Two wonderful shows that have been living in the shadows of “The Office” and “Modern Family,” respectively, finally seem to be getting the recognition they deserve.
“Louie”: Louie C.K.’s angsty, semiautobiographical FX comedy defines adult comedy — outrageous, sentimental, big-hearted, brave and true. And that duckling-in-Afghanistan episode just about killed me.
Having recently endured, through circumstances beyond my control, back-to-back viewings of “Jack and Jill” and the latest “Twilight” movie, I cannot bring myself to use the word “worst” in connection with anything I have seen on television this year. But here are a few of the biggest disappointments (none of which, I am happy to add, involved Al Pacino).
OWN: I’m not certain what I expected from the new Oprah Winfrey Network, but I know it was more than a bunch of whiny reality series. When Rosie O’Donnell is your biggest draw, things are not up to the Oprah standard.
And the cable networks’ coverage of the jumpy Dow. Look, here we all are, alive and well, the four horsemen of the Apocalypse nowhere in sight, despite all the rumors to the contrary during that horrible week in August when the Dow bounced around and all the business pundits seriously lost their minds. Did none of you ever hear about Orson Welles and his “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast?
For more, here's an essay on TV in 2011.
— Mary McNamara
Photo: Jason Momoa and Emilia Clarke in "Game of Thrones. Credit: Helen Sloan/HBO.