It’s that time of year when anyone and everyone with an internet connection create ‘best of’ lists. Revolutionaries that we are, seven 400 Club contributors selected their top ten television shows of the year, which were tallied and ranked (show #1 accruing ten points, #2 nine points, etc.) to create a collective top five.
Below we’ve written about why we love these shows, what makes them unique, interesting and compelling viewing. By no means definitive (if only because we can’t possible watch everything) and certainly a rather silly and indulgent exercise, these sorts of lists (and the discussion they encourage) can, and hopefully will, aid those searching for something new and worthwhile. It’s the season to celebrate and give thanks, why not extend some enthusiasm and praise to our friends inside that glorious screen?
Despite the rabid fan base, the rave critical reviews, and the charm it exudes on a weekly basis, Parks and Recreation continues to fight an uphill battle to be even be watched, let alone accepted. Buried late at night on Channel 7 (though in credit to them, at least the show consistently goes to air each week), Parks and Recreation is more than the ripoff of The Office that it has the perception of being. Parks and Recreation centres around the staff of the Parks Dept of the local council that manages the small town of Pawnee. Most of the office is filled with disengaged govt employees, but led by the excessively engaged Deputy Director Leslie Knope who cites Janet Reno as one of her inspirations. Officially in charge of the office is the least engaged staff member, Director Ron Swanson, a libertarian with three ex-wives each named Tammy.
2011 saw Parks and Recreation add Rob Lowe and Adam Scott to its already solid cast, transforming the show from one of the best TV shows on the air into TV’s finest program. Scheduling challenges meant that the entirety of Season 3 and the first half of Season 4 all screened during 2011. It’s been a phenomenal effort in transforming the series from being a dependable performer into one of the finest weekly offerings in the history of television. It’s an unusual comedy in that its strength is not in being funny. While the show can have some great laugh out loud moments, it’s a love for the characters that keeps drawing viewers back. The show exhibits heart without ever being considered schmaltzy. TV hasn’t seen an ensemble cast click together, and with an audience this well, since the days of Cheers, which is in many ways a template for the character relationships in this show. Parks and Recreation is an easy show to dismiss (especially those that saw the god-awful first season), but week in, week out Parks and Recreation delivers the most charming and engaging series to have aired in 2011.
Episode highlight: “Andy and April’s Fancy Party”
Louie by Alexeem Boyle
Louie is perhaps the most purely surprising and unapologetically, consistently authored series on television. Written, directed, edited and starring comedian Louis C.K., Louie is striking for its experimental and seemingly endlessly diverse approach to genre, style, tone and content. Despite the lack of the familiar—Louie is the only character in every episode, the program is both a comedy and a drama, the subject matter is broad and largely inexplicable—and while adopting what many consider an entirely new approach to the medium, the episodes are strung together by Louis C.K.’s astonishingly confident, intelligent, hilarious and fascinating voice.
Louie has become a layered collage (chagrined confessional, biting satire, single parent frustration zone, depending on the timestamp) illustrating and revealing a middle-aged/divorced/father-of-two/comedian’s lonely (if hopeful) and frequently humiliating world through stand-up routines, painfully personal anecdotes and unexpectedly captivating conversations. One moment you find yourself groaning, head-in-hands as Louie attempts to ask someone on a date, and the next, laughing hysterically as a crazed homeless is decapitated by a truck; Louie seamlessly handles and switches moods, grounded by Louis C.K.’s “Oh, Life…” attitude.
In its second season this low-budget FX series tackled everything from the art of creating and surviving stand-up (in dialogue with Dane Cook and Joan Rivers) to frank discussion of the morality of masturbation, agonisingly embarrassing romantic entanglements, failed dreams and depression, old-school racism, troop entertaining in Afghanistan and the joy of air-drumming to The Who in the presence of unimpressed (if much loved and very fortunate) daughters. Self-mocking, honest, unexpected and generously compassionate, Louie C.K.’s experiment manages to succeed again and again in new and exciting ways; you never quite know what lies on the other side of those credits, but you can rest assured you’ll be entertained and—more often than not—moved (to either clutch your cramped stomach, or for the Kleenex).
Episode highlight: “Eddie,” “Country Drive,” “Duckling”
When the TV season started this past fall I felt a little letdown by how abysmal my beloved TV shows had become- particularly “Glee”, and both “How I Met Your Mother” and “Community” had a slow start. Some started strong and became lame (“Dexter”), one new show turned out to be an unexpected surprise (“Revenge”), while others so far haven’t been able to measure up to their promise (“Once Upon A Time”). “Homeland”, on the other hand, kept me at the edge of my seat from the beginning and maintained that level of interest throughout all twelve episodes. You’d probably guessed (correctly) from the above mentioned that I tend to watch mainstream and not overly intelligent or deep television series, let alone political drama (I suppose “24” doesn’t fall into that category). So why do I think that “Homeland” is the best new show this season?
Despite some minor plot holes, “Homeland” manages to handle a red-hot topic—the struggle of identifying threats (in this case, a possible sleeper agent) and finding appropriate and effective ways of neutralising them in the post-9/11 American Zeitgeist—in a believable way, and creates psychological drama with multi-dimensional characters that are brilliantly portrayed. It also maintains the audience’s interest through largely credible story development and twists, and while not necessarily answering every single question, I never felt betrayed or frustrated by the multitude of loose ends.
The season finale wraps up the story nicely and provides prospects for the next season without the need of a heart-stopping cliffhanger. My major point of criticism is that a great show like this apparently can’t be without frequent nudity, sex scenes and vulgar language, but then, what else did I expect from a Showtime series? If you want to see Claire Danes and Damian Lewis at their very best in a more than satisfying story arc, don’t miss this show.
In 2011, Community solidified its place in the hearts of pop-culture nerds everywhere. The back half of season two and first half of season three transformed the show from some kind of Friends/30 Rock hybrid, into one of the most original comedies of the last decade.
Community has become the show of choice for television and film obsessives. Episodes such as “Regional Holiday Music,” “Documentary Filmmaking: Redux,” and “Critical Film Studies” (a personal favourite) are particularly reference-heavy. Any show that can produce an episode that appears to pay homage to Pulp Fiction but is in fact referencing My Dinner with Andre is both wonderful and, unfortunately, doomed. Community’s fast-paced, often meta-driven humour has proven jarring to most viewers, which has sadly led to the show being put on indefinite hiatus by NBC. Community is the kind of the program where the viewer really needs to pay attention, which means that it will never have the mainstream success of shows like The Big Bang Theory or Two and a Half Men. What makes Community so wonderful is its originality, but sadly, that appears to also be its downfall.
Game of Thrones’ complex pilot episode launched viewers into the fantasy world of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros at break-neck speed, impressing both unfamiliar viewers and loyal fans of George R. R. Martin’s original book series. Although it took a lot of screen time to set up the backstory and relay necessary information, the pilot and subsequent episodes promised enough danger, scandal and betrayal to secure an enthusiastic audience for the rest of the season.
With a stellar cast and more than enough rich characters and interwoven plot-lines to fill each hour long episode, co-creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss managed to bring Martin’s medieval world to life on the screen whilst staying true to the books. The series upheld HBO’s reputation for outstanding production values through the stunning set designs, visual effects and powerful soundtrack. Season one’s action featured enough murder, incest, love triangles, blackmail and mythical creatures (baby dragons!) to continually shock viewers, and the series will no doubt continue to do so. It’s merely the beginning of this addictive, disturbing power struggle where only the strongest and cruelest survive.
While it was several months late in arriving on our screens, no one who witnessed the fourth season of Breaking Bad could begrudge Vince Gilligan and his team a little extra time. After season three’s ultimately non-cliffhanger cliffhanger, we found everybody’s favorite drug addict, Jesse, in a very bad way and everybody’s least favorite chem-teacher cum drug impresario, Walt, a surprisingly cuckolded man.
This season was a slow starter—and appeared to have perhaps gone too far down the rabbit hole of Jesse’s guilt at times—but Gilligan and his writers continued their unflinching look at the social and economic pressures of our modern society and the lengths to which we will go to combat or satisfy these pressures. After thirteen episodes of seemingly unending intrigue, blocked and parried power plays, insightful backstory, and homicidal guilt we emerged on the other side as if addicts emerging from a particularly nasty trip: guilty, dirty, complicit in some awful things but oh so ready to do it all again.
1. Parks and Recreation
3. Breaking Bad
4. Game of Thrones
7. 30 Rock
8. Sons of Anarchy
9. The Hour
10. The Good Wife
Honourable mentions: Archer, Boardwalk Empire, Downton Abbey, Modern Family, Fringe, New Girl, Cougar Town and The Vampire Diaries.
1. Parks and Recreation
4. The Office
5. 30 Rock
6. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
7. Saturday Night Live
9. Children’s Hospital
10. Jon Benjamin Has a Van
The Slap by David Faraker
The ABC’s adaptation of Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap, which aired in Australia from October to November 2011 and is now available on DVD, for the most part finds distinctly filmic means to capture that text’s sprawling yet intimate dissection of contemporary Australian suburban life, making for one of the more provocative Australia screen productions of recent times.
Like the novel, the series is divided into eight parts that together explore the everyday banalities – often pretty seedy – and joys – also often pretty seedy – of eight people present at a barbecue in which the temperamental Harry (Alex Dimitriades) slaps the undisciplined son of Rosie (a spookily good Melissa George) and Gary (Anthony Hayes). The legal repercussions of the slap feature to a greater or lesser extent in each episode, but the issues of parenting, responsibility, friendship, and class (among others) that are bundled up with it permeate the series throughout.
Following the model of American cable series, the series was coordinated by a showrunner (Tony Ayres), and a team of writers (including Brendan Cowell and Somersault director Cate Shortland) who devised outlines of individual episodes and one for the series as a whole before individually writing episodes. Four directors – Ayres, Jessica Hobbs, Matthew Saville, and Robert Connolly – directed two episodes apiece. While the results almost inevitably lack the cohesive vision of the novel, there’s more than compensatory fascination to be had from experiencing each writer and director’s different thematic and stylistic concerns. For instance, after his film Noise and episodes “Harry” and “Connie” here, I’m convinced nobody can capture Australian’s urban landscapes at night better than Saville. Meanwhile, in “Rosie” and “Aisha”, Connolly supplied the episodes perhaps most attuned to the complex and contrasting dynamics of long-term married couples. From the frantic pace of the party episode, “Hector”, to the resigned march of “Manolis”, to the meditative, almost slow-motion-hallucinatory vibe of “Aisha”, no two episodes of The Slap feel quite the same, just one way the series keeps us on our toes and upsets our expectations.
If you haven’t heard of 30 Rock, where the hell have you been? The premise is simple enough: it’s a comedy about the making of a sketch show for CBS. Tina Fey stars as head writer Liz Lemon, who has to figure out how to deal with her boss and friend Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) while creating, managing and writing ‘TGS with Tracy Jordan.’ From this wonderful formula hilarity ensues, with content that comments on politics, current events, political correctness and of course, television (to name but a few).
The guest stars that frequently appear on 30 Rock are always a welcome addition. Matt Damon starred in a few episodes this season as Liz’s long distance pilot boyfriend, Carol, and his presence in an episode proved reliably enjoyable. He matches Fey’s awkwardness and nerdish demeanour and demonstrates his largely unmined comedic abilities. Another highlight of this season was Michael Keaton’s guest role as Tom, the air-conditioning maintenance guy.
A sixth season is due to start (on January 12) amidst rumours of Alec Baldwin leaving the show. Whether 30 Rock continues without him or not is yet to be confirmed. If Fey is the heart of the show, Baldwin is the blood that pumps through it. The two stars work incredibly well together and it’s hard to see how the show would survive long-term without the central dynamic duo.
30 Rock has elicited fits of laughter so hard breathing has been near impossible, to the point where the DVD must be stopped to allow me to catch my breath and regain control. Season 5 had less of these moments, but the comedy still remains fresh and sharp and mostly avoids clichéd gags. With around 22 episodes per season, each running just over 20 minutes, it is the perfect bite-sized comedy to have with a meal on a nightly basis.