Friday Night Lights
We watched the Friday Night Lights finale way back in February, when it debuted on DirecTV, and we still can’t believe it’s over. The show’s genius was taking a story about high-school football and turning it into a show about the entire, flawed community of a Texas town. We loved FNL‘s characters, from Eric and Tami to Matt and Julie to Vince and Jess — and, of course, our favorites, Tyra Colette and Tim Riggins. At a time when so much of TV is supposedly showing us “reality,” FNL‘s stories felt far more genuine, intelligent, and respectful of their characters than anything else we saw on the small screen. The ending was satisfying, and, like the best FNL episodes, it made us cry, too.
Despite ratings that, frankly, disappoint us about the state of the human race as a whole, Tina Fey’s 30 Rock has hung on for five seasons — and, thank God, will be back for a sixth in mid-season 2011-12. There are too many Season 5 highlights to mention, but we’ll name a few: We loved Matt Damon as Liz Lemon’s pilot boyfriend, Carol; the episode that spoofed Jezebel, Sarah Silverman, Olivia Munn, and Fey herself in a brilliant dissection of the eternal women-in-comedy issue; and Margaret Cho as Kim Jong-il in a late-season episode in which Avery is captured in North Korea.
We’ll be honest: We’d been watching and enjoying Big Love for its entire run, but if you asked us whether it would make our top ten list this time last year, we would have laughed in your face. The show’s third and fourth seasons verged on farce. Sharks, dolphins, blue whales — all of these sea creatures had been jumped. For its final go-round, though, the showrunners listened to fans and critics and decided to bring the drama back home to Bill Henrickson and, to an even greater extent, his three wives. Season 5 felt intimate, and its surprise ending wasn’t a random shocker — it brought the show to an appropriate and satisfying conclusion.
The family sitcom isn’t dead, nor was Modern Family‘s first year a fluke. In its second season, the show about a quirky, 21st-century extended family was the top-rated scripted series in America. There’s nothing mysterious about Modern Family‘s success: The cast is talented, the kids are cute, the story lines are fresh and funny, and the show is sweet without being cloying.
The perfect blend of style and substance, Mad Men is still a rarity on TV four years into its run. Last season brought a tidal wave of angst, from the newly single Don’s descent into (and rise from) alcoholism to his and Peggy’s increasingly complicated relationship (beautifully illustrated in perhaps the show’s best episode ever, “The Suitcase”) to the large-scale crisis facing Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. And then, of course, Mad Men Season 4 ended on a note of “WTF,” with contract negotiations pushing the fifth season into 2012. Promise us we’ll make it until then?
About a decade into their TV dominance, we’re pretty over reality shows. American Idol? No thanks. Dancing with the Stars? We’d rather have a migraine. And while its predecessor, Project Runway, has become bloated and nonsensical on Lifetime, Top Chef keeps us coming back. The challenges are consistently interesting and topical, cheftestants’ skill levels are high, the personalities are entertaining (mostly without becoming too grating), and the judges’ decisions seem to make sense almost all of the time. The nice thing about Top Chef is that between Just Desserts (by far the best version if you love tantrums), Masters, and All-Stars, it’s almost always on.
We cheered — audibly, even! — when we heard that David Simon’s riveting follow up to The Wire has been renewed for a third season, low viewership numbers be damned. (Seriously, what is wrong with people?) Like Friday Night Lights, Treme is a show that makes us care deeply about its deeply imperfect characters. Now, halfway through Season 2, we’re hurting for LaDonna and Big Chief, rooting for Toni, Antoine, and Janette, and loving DJ Davis for upping the show’s sissy bounce quotient.
Parks and Recreation
We were late converts to Parks and Recreation. Early episodes seemed a bit forced, like the writers were trying so hard to rip off The Office and 30 Rock that they weren’t developing their own characters. But we love the people of Pawnee more with each new episode. This season has brought the excellent, full-time addition of Adam Scott and Rob Lowe, both perfectly cast. We love that Leslie Knope has a genuinely hot love affair going on, that slacker couple April and Andy spontaneously tied the knot (and then fought over Neutral Milk Hotel), and that the hilarious Ron Swanson was more of a focal point than ever. Long live the Swanson Pyramid of Greatness!
Pretty Little Liars
TV’s best teen drama of 2010-2011 wasn’t Gossip Girl or MTV’s Skins or even Glee; it was ABC Family’s Pretty Little Liars. Based on the YA book series of the same name, the show follows four girls a year after their bitchy, manipulative best friend was murdered. They’re all keeping secrets — from each other, their peers and parents, and the show’s audience — and they’re all pawns in a mysterious, sadistic stranger’s (known only as “A”) game. These high schoolers are so fashionable and precocious, they’re practically mini-adults, and the show’s intrigue keeps it from falling into the who’s-dating-who slump that makes so many teen series boring.
The United States of Tara
Only a few episodes from its finale, the news broke that Showtime is killing The United States of Tara (but keeping Nurse Jackie, which we’ve never loved as much as we were supposed to). Fans who are keeping current on the show know that the network couldn’t have picked a worse moment to cancel the series, with Tara on the brink of a major and terrifying reckoning. Eddie Izzard has been a perfect addition to the cast in Season 3, as Tara’s prickly, skeptical professor and therapist. Toni Colette is a brilliant actress, and her mastery of her character’s multiple personalities will go down in history as one of the greatest performances of all time, in any medium. In a perfect world, she, her talented supporting cast, and showrunner Diablo Cody would get to make this smart, bizarre show for as long as it took to finish the story (and Two and a Half Men would be canceled.)
Honorable mentions: True Blood, The Killing, Boardwalk Empire, Community, The Walking Dead, Glee