There’s a lot on TV these days, and a lot of it just isn’t very good. But rising high above the muck consisting of random Kardashians, Charlie Sheen and shows made with cookie-cutter premises are 15 exceptional series that have aired this year.
A bunch of solid shows missed the cut, for various reasons. I’m not counting “Friday Night Lights” until it airs on NBC. “Amazing Race: Unfinished Business” has been frustrating, mostly because two of the first four episodes have been to-be-continued. “The Chicago Code” has been good but not great. I love “Modern Family,” but it’s supplied more reserved chuckles than laugh-out-loud moments. “Brick City” was great but not quite compelling enough to keep me interested. “Southland” might have been great, but I missed it in the logjam of Tuesday nights. But I had to make the cut somewhere, and I’m too lazy to do a top 25 list.
What it comes down to is this: I want to be entertained. If a show makes me think or makes me smarter, that’s a bonus. I just want to be able to sit back and enjoy it. So here then are my favorite 15 shows of 2011 (so far).
15. “Jersey Shore” (MTV). God help me. It’s stupid and awful and appalling, but that’s also what makes it so riveting. Like a nasty car crash, I just can’t look away. I recoil, I gasp, but most of all I can’t help but laugh — at them, with them, at all of it. Everyone needs a brain sorbet to cleanse the palate, and this is mine.
14. “Chopped All-Stars” (Food Network). Two episodes into its five-episode run, and I’m hooked. I love reality competitions where talented professionals do what they do best. Sunday’s matchup of chefs Anne Burrell, Robert Irvine, Claire Robinson and Duff Goldman was just that, and might have been the best episode the series has ever had. With two more qualifiers and the championship to go, this is shaping up as a must-see.
13. “Survivor” (CBS). The gimmicky returns of Boston Rob and Russell have played out better than expected, with the likable Rob’s charm and cunning putting him in command of one camp, while the other tribe smartly ousted the cancerous Russell. After only four weeks, it’s become the most interesting “Survivor” installment in years.
12. “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” (NBC). I’m a convert on the Fallon bandwagon. His awkwardness has become endearing, he interacts well with fans, his skits are creative and hilarious and it’s the late-night place to see cool bands.
11. “Portlandia” (IFC). This sketch show’s smart, surreal tweaking of hipster culture was even more consistently funny than I thought it would be. I’m looking forward to Season 2 next year. All they’ve got to do is put a bird on it.
10. “Spartacus: Gods of the Arena” (Starz). I tried it out for the cartoonish violence and gratuitous sex. I stayed for the surprisingly compelling story and well-developed characters. Lucy Lawless put out the best performance of her career in this recently completed miniseries.
9. “No Reservations” (Travel). Always more than just a culinary travelogue, Anthony Bourdain’s show this season (through only three episodes) has broadened itself to become more of a snapshot of societies in flux, using food as a basic common ground of cultures recovering from tragic histories. It’s been eye-opening.
8. “30 Rock” (NBC). After an off year, the best network comedy is back in top form and has been consistently hilarious. It’s a rare series where stunt casting (Elizabeth Banks, Matt Damon) works, and credit the always-sharp writing for that.
7. “Archer” (FX). Is this really the most twisted half hour on television today? Yyyup. From moronic office politics to secret agent/d-bag Sterling Archer’s mommy issues to the wee baby Seamus, this animated spy satire makes comic gold out of everything it inappropriately touches.
6. “Community” (NBC). Finally finding consistency, this ensemble comedy is really hitting its stride. Though Pierce (Chevy Chase) has morphed into a hateful Cartman-like character, the rest of the cast has excellent chemistry. “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” was the best episode of any sitcom this year, at once hilarious and touching.
5. “Parks and Recreation” (NBC). After a long layoff, last year’s comeback kid is still at the top of its game. It’s brilliantly layered, delivering ridiculous slapstick with a Pawnee-sized serving of heart. The addition of Rob Lowe and Adam Scott has been a huge upgrade for a show that I didn’t even realize needed one.
4. “Lights Out” (FX). The boxing story isn’t particularly original, but it’s so well done, with such nuanced characters and such great acting that it’s compelling anyway. Sadly, this will almost certainly be canceled after its run ends in April. Check it out on DVD in a few months and see what you missed; the ending is supposed to wrap things up nicely.
3. “Justified” (FX). The best dialogue on TV elevates this cop drama above the rest. The writers have out-Elmore-Leonarded Elmore Leonard, developing a rhythm and cadence for Raylan (Timothy Olyphant) and Boyd’s (Walton Goggins) Southern drawls that are a pleasure to listen to. Doesn’t hurt that Olyphant can say more with a squint of the eyes or the cock of his head than most actors can in a monologue. You don’t so much watch “Justified” as you do absorb it, it’s so richly atmospheric.
2. “Top Chef All-Stars” (Bravo). A terrifically brutal season; terrific in the top-notch cast of returning chefs and the creative challenges, brutal in the competition that’s been so stiff that almost every week sees a favorite’s shocking elimination. I’ve had to avoid Facebook and Twitter on Wednesday nights to avoid stumbling across spoilers from stunned and distraught fans. It’s the mark of a great series when fans care that much.
1. “Fringe” (Fox). The sci-fi series has delivered the payoff that “The X-Files” never did, dispensing with the teases, going full steam ahead with a game-changing plot twist and giving viewers an amazingly detailed, mythology-rich parallel universe storyline that even “Lost” couldn’t do right. Right now, it’s the most ambitious, gripping, mind-blowing series on TV, and the recent “Patient 13″ might have been its best episode yet. It’s the one show I actively look forward to week after week.
So what do you think? What are your favorites this year?