The Christ and Pop Culture writers rank their top-10 TV shows of 2011. Has TV ever been this good?
10. White Collar
“White Collar” is the sort of guilty pleasure that I feel no guilt whatsoever for enjoying. “White Collar” follows the exploits of skilled con-man Neal Caffrey, who enters into an unlikely partnership with straight-laced FBI agent Peter Burke and uses his talents to bring down white collar criminals. It’s fluff in many ways, but it’s incredibly enjoyable and well-made fluff, with plenty of charisma, panache, humor, heists, and conspiracies to keep me tuning in. And as a child of the 80’s, I get an extra kick out of the presence of Tiffani Thiessen, aka “Saved by the Bell”‘s Kelly Kapowski, who turns out to be one of the show’s highlights as Burke’s wife. -Jason Morehead
9. The Walking Dead
In Season 1, The Walking Dead was just a zombie-romp — a thoughtful zombie-romp, mind you — but not much more than a fun distraction between seasons of more “serious” dramas like Mad Men and Breaking bad. After internal troubles over showrunners, producers, and writers, the quality of Season 2 seemed up-in-the-air at best. But somehow, the creators and writers have managed to turn the show into something that can truly stand on its own and maintain the great story arcs established in Season 1. Most importantly though, The Walking Dead continues to challenge our survivors and boil down the essence of what it means to be human in the absence of civilization, most specifically in the conflicting leadership between Rick Grimes and Shane Walsh. Everything from ethics to moral code to faith are on the line and The Walking Dead creators have handled the themes with a delicacy that we haven’t seen in a show of this type since Battlestar Galactica. -Luke Larson
8. Game of Thrones
To be honest, the fact that this show actually works is still something of a miracle to me. With upwards of 20 primary characters whose names you can’t pronounce, comparatively small amounts of action and battle, and seemingly little thematic relevance to modern culture, Game of Thrones doesn’t add up as a show that could achieve any kind of mainstream success. However, thanks to some of the best writing, pacing, and acting of the year, I never felt overwhelmed by the massive cast or the twisting and turning plot. Even still, it wasn’t until I had been sucked deep into the thickening plot that I realized what had truly kept me coming back to the show: This medieval struggle for power isn’t as far-fetched and barbaric as we’d like to think. Although thousands of figurative years might separate us from it’s setting, the bitterness and greed of the human heart depicted in Game of Thrones might as well have been read out of the International Politics section of the Sunday newspaper. -Luke Larson
7. The New Girl
It’s been written off as being a superficially quirky sitcom featuring a lead character who was focus-grouped and created solely to be loved for her cuteness and unique qualities. They’re not all wrong: The New Girl can be relentlessly cheery and bright at times.
Still, there’s a subtle darkness hidden under the surface that drives the show forward. Jess is a relentlessly self-concious, insecure person. It’s a struggle that doesn’t seem to resolve itself easily or simply. While the show’s focus rests with Jess, it’s her friends that play the most important role, impacting one another and Jess herself in ways that seem small in the moment but compile themselves throughout the season. You may love it, you may hate it. But The New Girl isn’t so concerned about that, because it’s trading in the same self-surety as Jess is ever-so-slowly learning from her friends. -Richard Clark
6. The Office
It’s no secret that The Office doesn’t enjoy the unique place it once did among television shows. Great creations tend to spawn imitators and innovators, and so shows like Parks and Recreation or Community have built on the foundations laid by The Office, rendering it somewhat less unique and groundbreaking. Further, Steve Carrell is now gone, removing both the most creative comedian and the emotional heart of the show in one fell swoop.
Despite all that, The Office remains one of the most consistently amusing shows on the market. Nearly every episode highlights exaggerated versions of situations we face in the workplace; awkward dinner parties, borderline racist comments, embarrassing weight loss challenges, arguments, insubordination, and inappropriate ideas from foolish managers. By seeing the humor in these things, The Office teaches us patience and acceptance. Its characters, despite their considerable flaws, keep growing as people.
That’s really what makes The Office great. The writers understand that at the heart of our love for a show lies our desire to connect with human truths. We fall in love with characters because we sympathize with their lives, needs and challenges. The Office, somehow, manages to keep touching this chord; celebrating the challenges and joys of a small community, highlighting the inconsistencies that lie in all of us, and displaying the slow and sometimes unwilling walk toward maturity that we all take. That it does so in a way that keeps us laughing at the foolishness of corporate America is just icing on the cake. -Ben Bartlett
There is nothing particularly sensational about Parenthood. It’s a drama about four sets of parents who love their children. Parenthood has long been my favorite television show, but as my wife and I recently welcomed our first child into the world, the show became even more moving.
At the heart of our sin nature is the desire to live for ourselves at the expense of others. If there is anything that naturally challenges us to fight that tendency, it’s having a child. I love Parenthood because it highlights how having children challenges us to live selflessly and presents us with parents who are sincerely trying to do so. They don’t always succeed, nor should they. If I have learned one thing in my short tenure as a parent, it is that I will not always succeed in putting my family first. Parenthood presents us with parents who are deeply flawed and yet deeply love their children and are committed to one another. It’s perhaps the most hope-filled show on Television. -Drew Dixon
4. Parks and Recreation
Despite the show’s rocky start and the early accusations of being a simple clone of The Office, Parks and Recreation has evolved into one of the funniest on television. The cast of the show is extremely diverse but they always manage to work together thanks to their relationships to Leslie Knope, played by Amy Poehler. The show has a habit of highlighting the eccentric nature of its’ characters for comedic effect, but it does so in a way that manages to show us each character’s potential for good. The show’s protagnist, Leslie Knope has a talent for bringing these diverse personalities under one banner and getting them to work together for admirable causes.
We all know that our city governments don’t always have our best interests at heart. That’s why we love Leslie Knope. Knope is the kind of leader we all wish for. She is dedicated, driven, and compassionate, the latter of which makes for a show that is as warm as it is hilarious. -Drew Dixon
When NBC announced that “Community” was going on hiatus, fans reacted with both online and real-life protests, including a flash mob at NBC’s headquarters. It’s not difficult to understand why. The show, with its ultra-meta pop culture commentary, quirky characters, and clever visual style (its influences include Sergio Leone and Rankin/Bass), is the sort of cult hit that attracts passionate fans. And it felt especially frustrating that “Community” was making way for “30 Rock”. Whereas “30 Rock”‘s last season or so had been pretty underwhelming, “Community” was only getting better with each passing episode. Here’s hoping that NBC stays true to their word and airs the remaining the episodes after the hiatus ends. -Jason Morehead
2. Breaking Bad
Breaking Bad is about the .111958%.
In season one we see a flashback of high school chemistry teacher Walter White at a chalk board with his former love interest discussing the chemical makeup of the human body. They are able to account for 99.888042% of the elements that constitute a human being. Wondering aloud about the remaining .111958%, Walt responds that there has “got to be more to a human being than that.” Later in the same episode—after Walt has had to kill a man—we return to the same flashback where they, still trying to account for the missing .111958%, finally wonder, “what about the soul?” From the very beginning, we’ve recognized Breaking Bad as a show primarily concerned with very difficult moral questions, and how the devolution of evil works itself out in the individual.
And, in 2011’s season four, we see the hardening effects of Walt’s morally-compromising decision to cook meth for the supposed betterment of his family in the wake of discovering that he has cancer. By the end of the season, we look expectantly to next year’s final season, wondering if his descent into the sinister is complete.
This superbly-crafted show retains its excellent sense of pacing even while taking its drama to a more explosive level. It’s not necessarily the high-pressure sequences that most grab my attention with Breaking Bad; it’s the gut-wrenching silences and close-ups—the way the show is able to make me empathize with Walt and Jesse’s guilt-ridden anxieties. Their slow descent into badness is so recognizably human that it’s suffocating at times in the empathy it conjures. -Nick Olson
1. Friday Night Lights
Most television shows offer up three or four things for us to complain about. They are too serious or not serious enough, their characters are not believable or the production quality is low. We calculate whether individual shows are worth our time depending on our mood, the strength of the story, how believable the characters are, and a dozen other components.
Friday Night Lights is that rare exception. The characters are deep and believable. The Taylor’s marriage is the most heart-wrenchingly truthful portrayal of a marriage I have ever seen on television. There is humor, joy, heartache, adrenaline, sorrow. Mistakes are made and feelings are hurt, but forgiveness is extended and healing takes place.
Consider the most recent season. We see that not all good intentions end well when Connie Taylor is unable to help a troubled girl. We see the incredible inconsistencies between truth and perception when the Lions present themselves as a unified team, but are fighting and divided behind the scenes. We see the long, painful process of Eric letting go of a town that has defined his career as a coach so he can honor and support his wife. We see kids learning to get over their childhood fantasies, fathers learning to take responsibility with their families, and other fathers failing time and time again. We see the ugliness that results when a young girl makes a huge mistake and doesn’t know how to face it. Oh, yeah, and there’s some football in there too.
This is a show that does not back away from difficult topics, that does not let characters off the hook with trite solutions, and that does not wrap key storylines up within the space of an hour. It simply portrays life in the way that life usually is: full of mistakes, rife with challenges, and shot through with ugliness – yet worthy of being enjoyed and celebrated.
Friday Night Lights is comfortable telling us the truth about who we actually are. It left us with, “Clear eyes, full hearts.” -Ben Bartlett