The 2010-2011 television series officially ended last week. Obviously, there will be a lot of great television coming in the summer months ahead and it is sort of silly to stick to the ancient constructs of the broadcast television season (which ran from September 20, 2010 to May 25, 2011 this season), but I’ve never claimed to not be silly. Therefore, over the next handful of days, I’ll be writing some reflection pieces on this season. These posts will range from lists (like this one!) to season reviews for my favorite series. There’s no set schedule for what’s to come, but stay close to the site and to Twitter and you’ll be fine.
Last week, I ranked the 10 best individual episodes of the season. Today: I take on a very similar list, the 10 best series! Before we get started, a few qualifiers, as usual. First, because I will be sticking to the constraints of the actual 2010-2011 season (meaning between September and May), there will be certain series left out of this list. This includes not only summer greats like Breaking Bad and Louie, but also something like Mad Men, as the AMC series aired only a few (I think 4) of its season four episodes during this time. Season four of Mad Men was tremendous, but it’s just not on this list. Secondly, this list is obviously based entirely on my personal tastes and viewing habits. If you follow TVS, you know what I like, what I don’t and what I don’t even watch. If something “obvious” is missing, there’s probably a good reason for it.
Alright, that’s it. Here are the top 10 series of the season, in reverse order.
Just outside the top 10: The Vampire Diaries, 30 Rock, Southland, The Chicago Code
10. Boardwalk Empire (HBO): HBO’s much-anticipated Atlantic City period drama took a while to provide really satisfying television, despite its beautiful-looking sets and cinematography and tremendous performances. Nevertheless, once the season identified the characters and their motivations (at least on a basic level) near the mid-point of this first season, Boardwalk became a much, much better series. There are countless wonderful performances here, from Steve Buscemi, Michael Pitt and Kelly Macdonald at the top to Gretchen Mol and Jack Huston in more supporting roles. The first season feels so much like an introduction to a really great story, perhaps more so than any other “great” HBO series, and sometimes it felt as if Boardwalk Empire was coasting on potential and pedigree, but hell, perhaps our expectations were just too high to begin with.
9. Parenthood (NBC): I enjoyed the first season of Parenthood. I didn’t love it, it wasn’t must-see television, but it was nice and comfortable viewing. In season two, the family drama took a nice leap and became must-see television. Even though Parenthood looks sort of bright and happy, the series works best when all the Bravermans start screaming and yelling at one another because of a few small problems that become much, much larger ones. The second half of the second season slowly built to a substantial explosion of problems that really tapped into the intensity and confusion that comes with being in a large, but close family unit. It’s easy to compare Parenthood with Friday Night Lights because the two series share(d) creative staffs, but in season two, the former started to feel a bit more like the latter. I don’t think Parenthood will ever reach the heights of FNL, but does tap into those raw, natural emotions that come from day-to-day struggles.
8. Cougar Town (ABC): My journey of enjoyment with Cougar Town mirrors the one I described with Parenthood. I liked the first season, didn’t love it, but the second season was a substantial improvement. Problematic name aside, I always have trouble explaining to people what the heck this series is about and why I love it and that’s just so depressing. Season two of Cougar emphasized the things I like best about it such as running gags and one-off games, but also found a much better sense of the characters and their emotional base-levels. Every one of these people is fairly crazy and zany, but the series does a solid job of taking their emotions seriously without overdoing it or taking too much away from the laughs. This is a really great time for comedy right now and Cougar Town isn’t quite in the top echelon, but it’s most certainly top-lining that second level.
7. The Good Wife (CBS): I am very glad I started watching this series. I burned through all of season one and the first half of season two in just a few days, but even then, I could see the series’ uptick in quality throughout the season two episodes. The Good Wife expertly weaves weekly cases, soapy romantic melodrama, political intrigue and social injustices on a regular basis. Even the major misfires (hello, Hugo Chavez episode) are totally compelling and weird because of the scope the episode’s try to reach. Much like Cougar Town, this is a series whose title works against it, but The Good Wife is most certainly the best procedural on television right now.
6. Fringe (FOX): Before the surprisingly problematic final episode, Fringe‘s third season had worked its way into becoming one of my favorite seasons of television in recent memory. The issues I have with the finale are real, but they can’t fully impact how I felt about the series in the previous 21 weeks. Fringe took a big risk by spending so much time in the alternate universe early in S3, but it completely paid off. The move not only expanded the already-intriguing universe, but deepened the characters and the relationships between them. For all its science fiction-leanings and wonky plotlines, Fringe is a series that wears its heart on its sleeve, sometimes to an annoying fault. The development of Peter and Olivia’s relationship sometimes dominated the season, but I enjoyed those middle episodes so much that I didn’t really care.
5. Friday Night Lights (DirecTV/NBC): Friday Night Lights closed out its surprising five-year run on DirecTV earlier in 2011 and I’ll still miss it. The fifth season didn’t get off to the best of starts for FNL standards, but quickly found its footing around episode five or six and turned into one of the series’ best overall seasons. By the end of this season, I cared about Vince, Luke, Jess, Tinker and the whole East Dillon community just as much, if not more in some cases, as much as I did about the original Panther players. Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton were tremendous as usual, but without the great casting of Michael B. Jordan and Matt Lauria, much of the last two seasons wouldn’t have worked as well. This final season paid off both its season- and series-long developments and character beats while still staying true to the usual storytelling rhythms and patterns. FNL is never my favorite series at one time or another, but I’ll probably remember it more fondly than some of those other series that rank higher than it.
4. Justified (FX): This is the fourth series on the list to make a big leap between its first and second seasons, which is apparently an interesting trend from this season. In any event, Justified’s second season helped the FX series take a step into the Mount Rushmore of current television dramas with a string of 13 character-heavy, emotionally intense episodes of fantastic television. The series already had a great sense of place, but with the addition of the Bennett clan and the fight over the mountain-top, Justified brought this little cross-section of Kentucky further to life. Every new character was a success, but the series never let those standouts take away from its compelling deconstruction of the leading man. Raylan Givens was much less of a bad-ass in season two, but the series was better for it.
3. Terriers (FX): Oh, Terriers. It has been nearly six months since you said goodbye and the wound still feels a bit fresh. This little-seen FX drama was the best new series of the season and unfortunately, the least watched. Despite the series’ pedigree (Shawn Ryan, Ted Griffin, FX!), I never expected Terriers to get is dirty, messy hooks into me as quickly and as deeply as it did. This series was so great at letting its lead characters be flawed, make mistakes and then make even more of them when trying to fix the original mistakes. Terriers treated its leads with respect, but didn’t sugar-coat their actions. After episode five or six, the series delivered weekly shots to the gut, both in the weekly cases and the ongoing personal screw-ups of Hank Dolworth and Britt Pollack. Even though it was taken from us way too early, Terriers works as a wonderful 13-episode story, buttoned off by a fine, yet ambiguous ending. When it comes out on DVD, check it out.
2. and 1. Parks and Recreation and Community (both NBC) in some order, depending on the day: It was a glorious season for comedy and I wanted the top of my list to reflect that. Community came out of the gate strong, which convinced me it was the best comedy on the air. Then Parks and Recreation returned in January and tore off 16 really great episodes in a row. I’ve gone back and forth on these two since January and there’s really no way to stop those complicated feelings now. Parks and Recreation is the warmer, kinder and ultimately, more consistent series.
Of its 16-episode third season, I don’t think I grade any lower than a B. Community takes a lot more risks, tries so many different things, is a bit more detached and ultimately, is less the less consistent series. However, its highs are still higher than anything Parks and Rec has to offer (and that’s not a slight on P&R). The good news is that there is room in my heart and mind for both of these series. I think Community is a tailor-made for someone like me, but that doesn’t make it better. They provide different things (heart vs. structural fun) to go along with their massive and regular doses of belly laughs, but neither one of those things is better than the other. They were both at their top of their games in 2010-2011 and no matter the order, Parks and Recreation and Community were the two best series of the season.