If the weather was as warm where you were as it was in New York over the long weekend, you probably didn’t spend much of the past few days watching TV. But Memorial Day isn’t just the beginning of the summer season — it also marks the end of May sweeps month, the official close of the television season, when network programming packs it in until September and we’re forced to make do with generally crappy filler, reruns, and the occasional fantastic basic or premium cable series. What this means (besides that we should all step away from the screen and get some sun) is that it’s time to crown our favorite TV shows of the 2011-12 season. Our picks, featuring the astute input of Flavorwire’s editorial staff, are after the jump.
“It’s not exactly a bold, brave stance to pronounce Community one of the best shows on television, particularly with the high emotions swirling around Harmon-firing-gate,” writes film editor Jason Bailey, who joins just about every Flavorwire staffer (and, in case you haven’t noticed, the entire Internet) in supporting the series. “And the few grumblers who have loudly objected that, hey, the show was a little uneven this season are right (and that’s an if that I’m not quite ready to cede), then it should be noted that Community on an off night is better than just about any other television comedy at its best. And when Community is on… well, you end up with episodes like ‘Pillows and Blankets (Part 2)’ (aka the Ken Burns episode), ‘Regional Holiday Music’ (their killer Glee parody), or ‘Remedial Chaos Theory’ (the ‘darkest timeline’ episode). When that last show rolled its closing credits, this viewer felt something I hadn’t felt since the first time I saw the ‘Contest’ episode of Seinfeld: that I’d just seen perfect television comedy.”
Sadly, we won’t find out whether the show will become trapped in its own “darkest timeline” until September — but the news that writer Megan Ganz will be back does offer a shred of hope.
“You could immediately tell that this addictive Showtime series was created by many of the same people who worked on 24,” writes Flavorwire managing editor Caroline Stanley. “But unlike that show, so much of the compelling action here was what was happening internally, in the psyches of its characters. For me, the most fascinating of the bunch was Claire Danes’ Carrie, a CIA officer desperately trying to keep her bipolar condition under wraps while attempting to prove that everyone’s beloved P.O.W. poster boy Brody was actually a terrorist — an investigation which obviously makes her look like a nutter. When she ends up falling for him in the process, it doesn’t feel like a cheap ploy, but rather something that would actually happen in real life. In a similar way, the haunting closing scenes of the season finale — which see Carrie on an operating table about to undergo a procedure that will wipe out her short-term memory only moments after she’s had a major breakthrough in her investigation — don’t read like a manipulative cliff hanger (even if it is). Rather, this is the kind of compelling story telling that sticks with the viewer, even months later. If you haven’t seen this show yet, I recommend setting aside a weekend to watch it from start to finish — that’s what you’ll end up doing anyway.”
Flavorwire contributor Michelle Rafferty calls Happy Endings “the story of a group friends you can see your own brunch-pals in, until you realize these people are wicked insane — in the best possible way of course. The show requires your undivided attention while also being a helluva lot of fun while also reminding you (in a sweet way) that being sort-of-old sucks. This past season we had the joy of seeing everyone get slightly more crazy, and it worked because the gang also became a little more human as more of their insecurities and unresolved feelings surfaced. Some critics thought the love triangle was treading on dangerous ground, but I think its subtly was perfect — and for the purposes of Season 2, just the right amount of tug we needed at the ol’ heartstrings.” The show’s holiday episodes deserves a special shout out, with “Spooky Endings,” “Grinches Be Crazy,” “The St. Valentine’s Day Maxssacre,” and “The Butterfly Effect Effect” rivaling 30 Rock‘s “Leap Day” for “Best Holiday Episode of the Year.”
It’s not what you might call Quality Television, but of all the guilty-pleasure nighttime soaps on TV right now, Revenge‘s ratio of guilt to pleasure is the highest. A very loose adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo, it finds heroine/possible sociopath Amanda Clarke adopting the identity of one Emily Thorne and diving into the Hamptons’ richest, most exclusive social circle in a tireless quest to avenge her father, who she believes was framed as a domestic terrorist by a cruel, powerful family. There’s nothing deep here, but the plot is twisty (and there is one, ahem, Gossip Girl) and the dialogue is campy, the scenery and the characters equally nice to look at. Revenge is mind-clearing TV fun at its best.
“The first season of Louis CK’s artisan sitcom established it firmly as one of the most unique and quietly subversive comedies on television,” observes film editor Jason Bailey. “It got even stronger in its second season, as his narrative moves grew bolder, his topics grew more outlandish, and his guest stars became more interesting. And then came ‘Duckling,’ the hour-long episode involving Louie’s trip to the Middle East on a USO tour, which moves from comedy to commentary to pathos with astonishing nimbleness. Can’t wait to see what he does in Season 3.”
Sorry, Downton Abbey — we still love you, but a different British show crept in and stole our heart this year. In only six episodes, The Hour sucked us in with its inside look at an inevitably controversial (fictional) BBC news program whose debut coincides with the Suez Crisis. There’s also plenty of communist intrigue befitting the era, but what really makes this a fantastic show, and one that greatly improved between its premiere and the season finale, is its characters. At the center of The Hour are colleagues Freddie (the brave, arrogant, truth-seeking reporter), Bel (his loyal friend and capable producer), and Hector (the good-old-boy anchor who sometimes surprises us), whose complex quasi-love triangle adds fuel to their tense workplace’s fire.
We are so sick of reading and writing about Girls that we can barely bring ourselves to write this blurb, so we’ll keep it short… ish. The bottom line is that Lena Dunham really is doing something we can’t remember having seen on TV in our lifetime: depict the total weirdness of launching aimlessly from college to the “creative life” in the city, with few job prospects, a depressing romantic life, and no experience fending for yourself. Although, as many have pointed out, lots of young people who aren’t privileged enough to be over-educated would love to have Hannah Horvath’s problems, Girls is still among the most insightful — and often uncannily accurate, uncomfortably funny — depictions of the Millennial predicament we’ve ever seen. The recent episode that found Hannah returning home to Michigan and gaining some perspective on her life in New York was the best of the season, and it has us excited to see what Dunham will do next year in response to all the criticism. You know, besides making the (awesome) decision to hire Donald Glover.
“Though the first few episodes left me unconvinced — too cute, too unbelievable, just too silly — this show has seriously grown on me,” Emily Temple admits. “The characters, after a little wiggling, are funny and charming (yes, even Schmidt) and Jess has stopped seeming like Zooey Deschanel indulging herself and more like Zooey Deschanel poking fun at herself, and putting together a darn good show in the process.” And Emily isn’t along among the Flavorwire staff; she echoes many contributors whose first impressions were generally negative but grew to enjoy the sitcom as the season progressed.
Game of Thrones
“Do you know anyone who isn’t watching this show?” asks Caroline Stanley. “Like the books, HBO’s small-screen adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series is impossible to resist, even for those of us who never imagined ourselves enjoying fantasy fiction. I think what I’ve loved most about the current season — other than watching Joffrey get slapped — is seeing the writers depart from the source material in way that feels true to the original story without being confined by it. I’m sure that there are plenty of diehard fans of the books who disagree with adding new characters and plot points while eliminating others, but I kind of enjoy not knowing exactly where things are headed. It’s like getting to experience it again for the first time. And for the record, the third book is my absolute favorite, so if you think the show is amazing now, just wait until Seasons 3 and 4!”
Parks and Recreation
“It’s not particularly original to praise Parks at this point — everyone knows it’s good — but I thought this season had a particularly nice arc, based around Leslie running for city council,” Emily Temple writes. “The storyline allowed for a lot of dramatic tension buoyed by some really sweet moments (and yes, really funny ones), and ultimately left me wholly satisfied.” We only have one thing to add, and it’s that any season that kicks off with not one, not two, but three of Ron Swanson’s evil Tammys deserves a place on this list.
American Horror Story
“While I found American Horror Story way too campy to be classified as ‘scary’ (except for the vintage baby pictures in the opening credits), it was exciting in a way that most TV series are not,” writes Caroline Stanley. “You never really knew what was going to happen each week in the Harmon house (including but not limited to the birth of Satan spawn!), which made tuning in so much fun. No offense intended to Dylan McDermott, but it was the female cast members who really carried the series — Jessica Lange, Connie Britton, Frances Conroy, and Taissa Farmiga were all fantastic, elevating material that could have veered off into pure sensationalism into a show with characters who I actually cared about. I’m curious to see how the next season plays out; apparently it will include some of the same actors playing new characters, and is set in a mental hospital in a different time period.”
For the first time in years, there’s a network animated series we can get behind. “When this animated comedy premiered midway through last season, it was funny but a bit strained, its creators clearly struggling to find a voice somewhere between the smart shows they’d come from (Dr. Katz, Home Movies) and the dreck surrounding it in Fox’s Sunday animation block (Family Guy, American Dad),” writes Jason Baily. “But this season, everything clicked: the characters are rich, the situations are clever, and the humor is peculiar and goofy (the non-sequiturs of Eugene Mirman’s Gene and the manic energy of Kristen Schaal’s Louise are particularly reliable for laughs). With each episode, this one gets more confident and more enjoyable.”
As our night editor, Alison Nastasi, recalls, “Walter White’s descent from ‘manufacturer’ into full-blown, fractured Heisenberg fascinatingly unfolds in the show’s fourth season. Watching each character continue to traverse such a dark path that is continuously and unpredictably diverted, while immersing us in its masterfully precise aesthetic that mirrors all the decaying conflict and coiled brutality, has been one of the most exciting TV experiences I’ve had in a long time.” Check out Alison’s predictions for Season 5, which debuts in July, here.
Laura Dern, along with co-creator and co-star Mike White, created one of the year’s best TV characters in Amy Jellicoe. She isn’t necessarily likable — unless you’ve got a thing for narcissistic, high-strung executives turned narcissistic, New Age self-help practitioners — but she is relentlessly real, a deeply flawed woman trying to get a new start and make some meaning out of her life after a divorce, a messy affair with a superior, and the nervous breakdown that resulted from the consequences of finally calling the guy on his shit. Amy and her equally broken family and co-workers irritate us, sure, yet their loneliness and disappointments, set against a corporate background where work defines life, resonate.
Oh, sure, it’s no surprise that we still love Mad Men after almost five seasons, so we couldn’t resist adding it to this list, even though the finale is still almost two weeks away — especially after the most recent brilliant and devastating episode. When watched in tandem with AMC’s other crowning achievement, Breaking Bad, Alison observes that the shows create “a torrid collision of psychological complexity, with Mad Men slowly imploding as Don and company move swiftly through the social and moral clash of the late 1960s. It’s been fun to watch someone like Megan challenge Don’s insularity and at times even dominate, but while most of the characters ride the ebb and flow, he’s starting to vanish again — as expected. It will be interesting to see how Walt and Don grapple with new ways to begin again, but time is slipping away from both of them.”
Honorable mention: Downton Abbey, Portlandia, White Collar, Bored to Death, True Blood, The Walking Dead, Pretty Little Liars, Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23