With plenty of bodies left in the muck, plenty of sides to be chosen, and a fair number of Tolstoyan moments of transcendence, 2011 produced a veritable Hieronymus Bosch-style panorama of violence, heroism, and disgrace during wartime. Breaking Bad’s Walter White (Bryan Cranston) took it to the mattresses with Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) in spectacular fashion on AMC; plenty of hacked-off limbs and nude torsos flew across the screen on HBO’s Game of Thrones; Boardwalk Empire ruminated on how anticlimactic it might be to forcibly conquer Atlantic City; and Showtime’s breakout hit, Homeland, vividly dramatized the networks of shadow and innuendo that animate the now decade-long War on Terror.
And fictional humans weren’t the only ones at odds this year. Two thousand and eleven should forever be remembered as the year of the “sexposition” wars over Game of Thrones’s tendency to set significant plot points in brothels. The barbed back and forth between Mary McNamara and Matt Zoller Seitz on this score was some of the best drama of the year, even if it wasn’t put on film. Not to mention the full-scale blitzkriegs waged by TV critics against Whitney Cummings and the creators of AMC’s disappointing The Killing.
Many of this year’s best shows conscientiously objected to the tide of destruction, instead reveling in studied pacifism or depicting the fumbling slapstick of the peace process. NBC’s Parks and Recreation, for instance, was canonized for the singular generosity with which it treats its characters—in sharp distinction to the veritable BDSM dungeon of snark on shows like 2 Broke Girls. And in the most conspicuous gesture of detente, even Louis C.K.—in an episode critics loved the way Natalie Portman loves the Shins—initiated a sit-down with longtime nemesis Dane Cook. As is often the case, life during wartime proved to be the impetus for some truly great pop culture, and from the fray emerges our first-ever official TV list. Phillip Maciak
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
Leave it to It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia to wait nine episodes before unleashing the expected flashback installment that explains, as the episode’s title implies, “How Mac Got Fat.” After the season premiere, which used Mac’s (Rob McElhenney) newly obtained girth as the propulsion device for a secondary plotline, the show’s competent group of writers opted to take the gang, and their loyal viewership, on a customarily batty journey through such scenarios as a an ill-advised youth beauty pageant, the manic preparation for an apocalyptic storm, the establishment of an online presence for Paddy’s Pub, and, most memorably, a brilliant, headache-inducing (in a good way) lengthy set up to one of the show’s best closing punchlines ever. By the time we finally see Mac, sweat-drenched and chomping doughnuts in a church confessional, blaming his weight gain on the rest of the gang’s lofty ambitions to build perfect real-life avatars for themselves, it’s clear that It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is such a strong series that it never really needs to rely on a season-long gimmick like the aberrant somatic ballooning of Mac. Mike LeChevallier
When the Pritchett/Dunphy clan goes on vacation, they don’t need to find an ancient tiki idol. They are the tiki idol, weathered week in and week out by the emotional waves of familial love and obligation. At worst, Modern Family is beholden to formula—which would be fine if it was always its own (see—or, rather, don’t see—the Three’s Company-grade “After the Fire,” a series low-point that rested on a cruel number of contrived misunderstandings). But at its best, as in the superb “Treehouse,” in which Cam pretends to be straight in order to win a bet against Mitchell and Jay refuses to salsa with Gloria, the show continues to humanely attest to the ritual—that perfect balance of work, compromise, and fun—necessary to keeping any family feeling alive. Ed Gonzalez
Witches, for the win! Adding a splash of the dark arts to HBO’s overpopulated sex zoo of shapeshifters and bloodsuckers was the exact right move for the writers of True Blood. And casting the spectacular British actress Fiona Shaw sealed the deal. While the season featured plenty of tiresomely batshit subplots (can we please cool it on the were-panthers?) and then predictably descended into an ungodly mess at the end, that kind of dissolution is True Blood’s bread and butter. And the carnivalesque chaos brought about by the new coven in town made for some of the most fun and, especially in the subplot about Eric’s temporary amnesia, most poignant episodes in years. At its best, True Blood is such a good time that you don’t care how stupid it is. Maciak
How to Make It in America
When How to Make It in America debuted, the series had more similarities than differences with HBO’s other flagship bromance, Entourage (notably, one of the worst shows of 2011). But this year, How to Make It in America stepped confidently out of the Axe-body-spray cloud left by its predecessor and emerged as a compelling, if occasionally surface-oriented, depiction of youth culture and ambition in New York. Where Entourage’s Ed Hardy cinematic house style was perennially as stale as its Jane’s Addiction title credits, How to Make It in America managed to sustain an aesthetic that felt fresh week after week. Maciak
Futurama began its sixth season with such ease, bewitched by stories of love, star-crossed and otherwise, that it seemed as if the show had never left us. But during the second half of the season, which began seven whole months after a clunky holiday spectacular, it settled into an ongoing study of matters of life and obsolescence. Once the series seemed permanently fated for oblivion, now the oblivion was its muse. It was in the Planet Express’s struggle to rebrand itself in the wake of bankruptcy as an airline, in Fry’s belief in the supremacy of human life, even in his almost existential need to hatch an egg. But it was the episode “Overclockwise” that yielded both the season’s greatest humdingers and most poignant storyline: Bender shunning his contract of ownership and transforming into an omnipotent being. Both the robot and Futurama seem to share the same state of unrest, best summarized by the introductory words to the show’s season finale: “A wise man once said that nothing really dies, it just comes back in a new form. Then he died.” Gonzalez