It was another disappointing fall season for the broadcast networks, at least when it came to quality programming.
To be sure, networks have had some decent ratings success stories, but they come out of shows that are, well, not that great ("2 Broke Girls," "Once Upon a Time"). Even programs that showed early potential (ABC's "Pan Am" comes to mind) failed to evolve into can't-miss TV.
Consequently, only four of the shows to make my list of 2011 Top 10 TV shows debuted this year; two of those were premium cable series.
But even for viewers who don't pay for cable, TV provided plenty of solid, worthwhile offerings this year. Anyone who says TV is "nothing but junk" simply doesn't know where to look. Here are some suggestions on what's worth watching. Spoilers on episodes that aired in 2011 included:
1. "Breaking Bad" (AMC): Watching a good man descend to evil has never been more riveting -- and never made viewers more anxious -- than when watching Walter White (Bryan Cranston). Over its most recent season, "Bad" took Walter the final step on his road to hell when he poisoned a child as part of a plot to get partner Jesse (Aaron Paul) to do his bidding. By the end, Walt had become as evil as his rival, Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito), whom he successfully vanquished. "Breaking Bad" is that rare TV series that has never made a seriously damaging storytelling misstep. With just 16 episodes left before "Bad" ends its so-good run, that's a pretty remarkable achievement.
2. "Downton Abbey" (PBS): A fantastic British import presented by "Masterpiece Classic," this original story by Julian Fellowes ("Gosford Park") tracks the lives of a wealthy upstairs family and their downstairs servants in a mammoth English countryside home. Filled with colorful characters who are recognizable despite the show's period setting, "Downton" brims with drama and comedy (thank you, Maggie Smith). It's sophisticated without being snobby. No wonder some fans are counting the days until the show's second season premieres on WQED-TV on Jan. 8.
3. "Modern Family" (ABC): In just a few seasons this show has become the gold standard of prime-time comedy, putting its characters in sometimes ridiculous, but often relatable situations. Through flaws and foibles, the characters' good intentions (and love for one another) shine through.
4. "Game of Thrones" (HBO): Described as "Lord of the Rings" for TV, "Game of Thrones" is more intricately plotted and offers more daring storytelling than its big screen cousin. Sure, "Boardwalk Empire" killed off a primary character this month, but "Game" killed off its lead first in a shocking beheading that caught TV viewers unaware. TV shows don't do that! But in that decisive action "Thrones" stayed true to the book that inspired it and proved this is one TV show that's not playing games, instead telling a story where all the characters are vulnerable.
5. "Happy Endings" (ABC): A more absurd "Friends," this comedy about a Chicago cohort sneaked onto the schedule in April and quickly proved itself to be better than the average romantic comedy. The humor often emerges from deep in left field, and the show's pace often avoids pauses of acknowledgment for the comic bomb that just exploded.
6. "Homeland" (Showtime): A twisty-turny adrenaline rush, this drama became a "24" for viewers bored with the "24" real-time formula. On "Homeland," characters' loyalties are repeatedly questioned (is Brody a terrorist or isn't he?) along with their sanity (just because Carrie's paranoid doesn't mean she's wrong about the terrorists' intentions). Unpredictable and well-acted by stars Claire Danes, Damian Lewis and Mandy Patinkin, "Homeland" almost immediately became a Sunday night show to watch and dissect at the water cooler Monday morning.
7. "The Big Bang Theory" (CBS): This Thursday night sitcom began as a series about fanboy nerds, but this year it's become as much about the show's trio of women -- played by Kaley Cuoco, Mayim Bialik and Melissa Rauch. That's a sign that the show's writers aren't willing to accept the status quo, instead pushing the "Big Bang" characters and their relationships forward.
8. "The Good Wife" (CBS): Sometimes it feels like the show doesn't know what to do with the relationship between Alicia (Julianna Margulies) and Will (Josh Charles) -- at the moment it's on ice -- but there are plenty of other characters to keep viewers tuning in, especially Eli Gold (Alan Cumming). Kudos also to the show's writers for a fantastic twist: Bringing back former state's attorney candidate Wendi Scott Carr (Anika Noni Rose) as a special prosecutor out to settle a score.
9. "Friday Night Lights" (DirecTV/NBC): It ended as it began: Emotionally satisfying and heartfelt. "FNL" never lost sight of its center -- the relationship between high school football coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) and wife Tami (Connie Britton) -- despite its athletic backdrop. Although the show lost some of the terrific sense-of-place that permeated early seasons, "FNL" remained true to its mandate of evolving its characters and their relationships with one another.
10. "Southland" (TNT): Cop shows come and go, but "Southland" deserves credit for quality and perseverance: Ordered by NBC, canceled by NBC, picked up by TNT and then revived by TNT for new episodes. In its third season, "Southland" trimmed its cast by killing off a series regular and playing the consequences out in fairly gut-wrenching fashion. It also set the stage to propel the story forward -- out from under the shadow cast by its initial set-up, which hung around longer than necessary because of the show's many starts and stops.
Honorable mention: "American Horror Story" (FX), "Awkward" (MTV), "Boardwalk Empire" (HBO), "Boss" (Starz), "Community" (NBC), "Damages" (DirecTV), "Episodes" (Showtime), "Face Off" (Syfy), "Justified" (FX), "The Killing" (AMC), "Louie" (FX), "Men of a Certain Age" (TNT), "The Middle" (ABC), "Parenthood" (NBC), "Parks and Recreation" (NBC), "Raising Hope" (Fox), "Spartacus: Gods of the Arena" (Starz), "Sons of Anarchy" (FX), "Suburgatory" (ABC), "Teen Wolf" (MTV), "Upstairs Downstairs" (PBS) and "The Walking Dead" (AMC).
On the web
Read more about TV's best of 2011 in Tuned In Journal at post-gazette.com/tv.
TV writer Rob Owen: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook. First Published December 22, 2011 5:00 AM