Monday, 2 January 2012

Favourite TV Shows 2011 - Top 11 Shows, #11 - 2

So here we are, to take a look back at what exactly my favourite TV shows of 2011 actually were. Whilst the vast majority of the new series were absolutely terrible (here's looking at you Whitney) but there were major bright spots thanks to the debuts of both Game of Thrones and Homeland. But as always, it's the returning shows where the best stuff was coming from, even in a year that didn't have a new season of Mad Men. So first are the honourable mentions followed by the full list down bellow.

Honourable Mentions
Bob's Burgers
Black Mirror
Cougar Town
Shameless US
Sons of Anarchy*

*for the vast majority of its fourth season, 'Sons of Anarchy' was actually enjoying a place within the Top 10. But then that finale aired, and it was pretty terrible, so sadly it gets relegated to an honourable mention thanks to a mostly good season.

11. United States of Tara
I came to United States of Tara late. However, because of people talking about the leap in quality the show had made in it's third and ultimately final season, I decided to give it a go. The first two seasons of United States of Tara were fairly lighthearted with occasionally forays into darkness out of necessity it's very hard to avoid the fact the main chracter is suffering from dissociative identity disorder (DID). But the shows third season dives into the deep end of this darkness and begins tackling what actually caused her DID. What follows is a 12 part psychological thriller built around the family drama, where even though no one actually dies there's a very real, palpable sense of tension and dread. This is only made possible because of the fantastic performance that Toni Collette gives, jumping with ease between each of the different personalities, as well as the other fantastic cast members, including a brilliant guest role from Eddie Izzard. Whilst it is sad that Tara ended when it did, the final episodes hopeful note, even after the terror of the previous episodes, was the perfect end to what had become a great series.

10. Boardwalk Empire
Boardwalk Empire made it onto this list for one reason, and one reason only, that finale. The second season of HBO's gangster series was gripping, gorgeous and filled with many fantastic performances, including the brilliant Jack Huston and Michael Kenneth Williams, however it lacked cohesion from episode to episode. It felt like episodes alternated between being fantastic and slightly underwhelming, Jimmy's attempts at overthrowing Nucky felt like they played out in the background much of the time, and the lack of some of the stronger members of the supporting cast in some episodes was sorely felt. Then the finale pulled all of these seemingly disparate strands to make the season worth it, culminating in one of the most visually striking scenes of the season as Jimmy and Nucky have their final stand-off in the rain by the war memorial. It was a gutsy move to end their second season on, that I hope pays off in a big way in season three.

9. Doctor Who
If you've read this blog in the past, I've been quite critical of Doctor Who in years past. I thought Season four ended on a dreadful note, some of specials that aired in 2009 had some fantastic moments but that 'The End of Time' didn't truly come to life until David Tennant was saying goodbye and then Steven Moffat's first season as show runner was marked by the fact that almost no one, apart from Moffat himself, could write a compelling episode. Season six they fixed that. Yes the less said about the clone two-parter the better, but that led to the fantastic ending moment where the Amy we've been with most of the season is revealed to be a fake. All five of Moffat's episode were superb, but unlike every other season of Doctor Who they weren't the best; Neil Gaiman's 'The Doctor's Wife' which celebrated the Doctor's relationship with the TARDIS and was terrific, but perhaps the best episode was Tom MacRae's 'The Girl Who Waited', the episode that proved beyond a shadow a doubt that Amy Pond is easily the best of all the modern companions.

8. Adventure Time
The production schedule for Adventure Time makes it very difficult to tell what seasons actually aired in 2011, and it's even difficult to say if there has been a marked improvement from season to season. All I know is that in terms of what each episode actually achieves  there's no show that is as creative as Adventure Time. From 'The Real You' to  'Death in Bloom' to 'Mortal Folly & Mortal Recoil' the episodes of Adventure Time season two that aired in 2011 would have earned it a place on this list, but then season three had 'Still', 'Memory of a Memory', 'Too Young', 'Fionna and Cake', 'What Was Missing', 'Thank You' AND 'Holly Jolly Secrets'. It's a stellar run of episodes for what is sure to become a children's TV classic in the years to come.

7. Homeland
There weren't many great new shows in 2012, there were some very good ones, which I have mentioned above in my honourable mentions, but in terms of great new shows? There were only two, Game of Thrones (which makes an appearance later) and Homeland. Homeland was a show that could have gone wrong at any second, the fact that it came from the creative team behind 24, a show known to go off the rails on occasion, meant that it was always a worry that Homeland could as well. Luckily Homeland didn't, in fact it just got better, particularly when it came to the episode 'The Weekend' wherein Carrie and Brody, both played masterfully by Claire Danes and Damien Lewis laid out almost every single secret that the two of them had in one of the best episodes of TV from the entirety of 2011. Whilst occasionally the flaws in the shows logic would show, particularly in the bunker scenes in an otherwise fantastic season finale, the performances by Danes, Lewis and Mandy Patinkin and the fact that the viewers expectations were frequently subverted, made Homeland's debut season one of the best in recent memory.

6. Justified
Like the second season of Sons of Anarchy, Justified took a leap in its second season and ascended to greatness. Of course Sons of Anarchy wasn't able to maintain that level of quality into it's third of fourth season, but for one glorious moment it was as good as any other drama on TV. I'm not saying that Justified's third season is going to follow the same trajectory, but it's going to be tough to find a villain who will be able to compete with Mags Bennett, played to perfection by Margo Martindale a character actress who finally got to prove just how good she could be given the right role. Justified's flaws are still it's flaws, the green screen in driving scenes is still awful and the other Marshals, Tim and Rachel are woefully under utilised  but everything else about season two made up for that. The supporting cast featuring fantastic performances by Jeremy Davies and Kaitlyn Dever as well as Walton Goggins' Boyd Crowder getting to be a little bit more villainous than he was in season one and then there's Timothy Olyphant as Raylan, who might not be as flashy as the other actors on the show, but is the necessary anchor to it all. But at the end of the day, Season two of Justified gets this high for Margo Martindale alone because that's just how fantastic she was.

5. Parks and Recreation
Parks and Recreation season three was an all time great season of television, and I'm going to be saying that for a lot of the shows that will be appearing on the rest of this list. If Parks and Recreation had only aired it's 16 episode third season in 2011, then it would have probably placed a little higher on this list. Not that the episodes from season four were bad, but they lacked the cohesion and sheer brilliance that season three had. The whole cast wass utilised as well as any ensemble that I can think of on television, particularly thanks to amazing work from Amy Poehler, Nick Offerman, Chris Pratt, Aubrey Plaza and Adam Scott and classic episodes such as 'Flu Season', 'April and Andy's Fancy Party' and 'Li'l Sebastian'. Season three was a triumph in terms of pretty much everything, that I can't help but look at season four in a less light, even with fantastic moments such as April and Andy visiting the Grand Canyon in 'End of the World'. However, even if Parks and Recreation maintained it's season four level of quality for the rest of it's run, then I can almost guarantee it a top 5 placement next year, I just don't see them topping season three.

4. Louie
Louie season two took the foundation of what Louis C.K. did with the first season and just ran with it to all kinds of weird and wonderful places. The unpredictability of what exactly could happen on any given episode of Louie was ratcheted up a hundred fold. The premiere of season two was a 20 minute fart gag, 'Country Drive' had Louie singing the entirety of The Who's 'Who Are You', there was meditations on suicide, and a double length episode set in the Middle East. Maybe not everything in this second season hit its mark (I was not a fan of the episode 'Joan') but when Louie was working, which it was 95% of the time, it was one of the most hypnotically fascinating shows on television. Sometimes hysterical, other times deeply poignant, it's hard to say if a balance was hit between these emotions, only that each moment felt right and they felt earned. Louis C.K. proved himself to be something special with this season of Louie and I can honestly say that I have no clue what season three is going to hold, but that's perhaps the most exciting thing about it.

3. Game of Thrones
Many people would argue that Homeland had the stronger debut season in 2011, however in my opinion, almost no show on television this year was able to compete with how much excitement I had to watch a new episode of Game of Thrones each week. Yes, it took at least two viewings of the first episode and then about two further episodes until I was able to remember names and characters, but that didn't stop The Wire from being engrossing, and it also helped the George R. R. Martin's Westeros feels like a real place with a rich history. Of course, the vast majority of the praise for what makes Game of Thrones work should go to David Benioff and D. B. Weiss for their fantastic work adapting the novel to the small screen, but also knowing what to add and to take away. The fact that their additional scenes fit seamlessly into the narrative shows just how well they understand this series. Everything about Game of Thrones seemed to click, from great performances by Sean Bean, Peter Dinklage, Emilia Clarke et al, to the stellar direction, particular by Alan Taylor for the penultimate episode of the season, 'Baelor'. That episode was the perfect culmination of the season and also the strongest example of what Weiss and Benioff had an almost uncanny ability to do, chose end of episode cliffhangers, because if you weren't going to come back after that ending, then there's something seriously wrong with you.

2. Breaking Bad
I am going to say something completely hyperbolic right now. I think that season four of Breaking Bad is about as good as a season of serialised dramatic TV can get. I would put it on the level as The Wire season three/four, which is about as good as television can get in my opinion. And yet, it only just misses out on the top spot of this list, but for lack of trying. Season four built on all of the foundations that Breaking Bad laid out for itself it's also seminal third season. Giancarlo Esposito completely dominates the entire season as Gustavo Fring, creating one of the greatest villains to ever grace the small screen and possibly one of the greatest villains ever. Of course Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn and Dean Norris are all fantastic and should really go without saying, particularly with Cranston's being a three time Emmy winner for this show. Where season four really exceeded though was in the building of tension, from the superb use of silence in the season premiere 'Box Cutter', the meeting with the Cartel in 'Salud', Walt's laugh at the end of 'Crawl Space' or the eponymous moment from the finale 'Face-Off', Breaking Bad  season four was a master class in making your audience sit on the edge of their seat. Now with three straight seasons of near perfection, it's hard not to wonder what the final 16 episodes are going to hold for Walt and Jesse, all I do know is they probably won't disappoint.

1. ???
And my number 1 show of 2011, will be revealed in a post dedicated entirely to it, and why it was the best TV show to air in this calendar year

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Favourite TV Shows 2011 - Top 11 Episodes of 2011

So this year I'm doing this list in a slightly different order. Instead of the normal music list first, followed by TV, followed by episodes, we're jumping straight into episodes. And don't expect to be able to guess the TV list from these episodes, considering about half of them won't be on my overall list at all. Onward to the honourable mentions! (Oh and spoilers for any of these shows that you haven't watched but will want to in the future).

Honourable Mentions:
Black Mirror - '15 Million Credits'
Doctor Who - 'The Girl Who Waited'
Chuck - 'Chuck versus the Santa Suit'
How I Met Your Mother - 'Ducky Tie'
Justified - 'Bloody Harlan'
Supernatural - 'The Man Who Knew Too Much'

11. Adventure Time - 'Still'
Adventure Time is easily one of the weirdest shows currently airing on TV, and whilst it is definitely aimed at kids, there is still something for adults to appreciate. It might not be appearing on many critics lists for 2011 (although IGN did rank it their favourite Animated Show of the year), I'm going to be detailing probably my favourite episode Adventure Time aired all year. Ever since 2010's brilliant 'What is Life?' I fell in love with Gunter the Penguin, so having an episode which showcased how brilliant he is was always going to rank highly in my books. And that's not mentioning the brilliance of having the Ice King dress as a very creepy Finn or the fact that Finn's astral beast is just a whole load of butterflies. But it's Gunter that makes this episode, because who can't love the most evil thing in the world?

10. Homeland - 'The Weekend'
'The Weekend' was when Homeland proved it wasn't going to be like most shows on television. For a serialised show to essentially lay all of its cards out on the table halfway through its first season is a huge risk, that worked out wonderfully the show. Of course, being from the writers of 24, there was always the risk that the events of 'The Weekend' would be retconed in the future but that didn't happen. What makes 'The Weekend' such a great hour of television is the fact that it finally let us spend time with just Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) and Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes). The climax to this episode is just the two lead characters sat and discussing everything that has come before. It is wonderfully tense and beautifully acted scene that proves that tension can arise, even if the only thing happening on screen is a conversation.

9. Wilfred - 'Pride'
I'd enjoyed the episodes leading up to episode 7 of Wilfred. They were funny, dark and normally featured a cool guest star. But 'Pride' was when I decided I was in for the long run on this series. Reviewing an episode of comedy TV show pretty much comes down to whether that particular episode made you laugh, and 'Pride' did that. Whether it was the montage of Wilfred doing disgusting things to the stuffed giraffe Raffi or Jane Kaczmarek informing Elijah Wood when he goes down her that it was the "right rabbit, wrong hole" which elicited equal numbers of laughs and disgusted noises when it was uttered. Wilfred was one of my biggest surprises of 2011, and it's the episode that I keep going back to in my head as a signal to everything that the show does right.

8. Shameless US - 'But At Last Came a Knock'
I have to make the revelation that I've never actually seen a single episode of the UK version of Shameless, and seeing that I am from the UK, that is probably a huge travesty. But I can say that I thoroughly enjoyed the first season of the US version. What made Shameless US as good as it was were the fantastic performances by Emmy Rossum (seemingly making up for 'Dragonball Evolution' and 'The Day After Tomorrow'), Jeremy Allen White and Cameron Monaghan. The Gallagher kids story was easily one of the most engaging I saw in 2011, and whilst I thought that William H. Macy would sometimes drag the show down as Frank, 'But At Last Came a Knock' was an episode where he was used pretty much perfectly. The return of the kids mother was always going to be a big deal, and this episode handled the return perfectly. Emmy Rossum's impassioned speech at the hand being utterly superb. Whilst the follow-up episode fumbled the conclusion to this arc a little bit, it cannot take away from the sheer depth of emotion shown in this episode.

7. Boardwalk Empire - 'To The Lost'
After a season of pitting Boardwalk Empire's two leads, Nucky Thompson(Steve Buscemi) and Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) against each other, it seemed obvious that this war would have to end soon, presumably with some kind of truce. For a while, the finale seemed to play to audience expecations, with Nucky and Jimmy offering each other advice, and clearing up each others affairs, that is until the final scene. Boardwalk Empire's second season closed on what was surely pantheon level scene of television, with the climactic confrontation between Nucky and Jimmy, culminating with Nucky shooting Jimmy at point blank range in the head. Boardwalk Empire's second season may not be a truly great show just yet, but to take a chance as big as killing of the co-lead in only its second season, shows just how much potential there is for this show to reach the upper levels of television along with Breaking Bad and Mad Men.

6. Sons of Anarchy - 'Hands'
I'll leave my thoughts on the whole of Season 4 of Sons of Anarchy for another blog post (needless to say, they were mixed) but I do really need to highlight just how excellent 'Hands' really was. Airing just as the season was building to its climax, this felt like the watershed moment for the series as a whole. This was the beginning of the end, the moment that had been coming for almost four whole years. Clay finally went too far and Jax (or someone else in the club) was going to have to deal with the fact that he just beat Gemma. Maybe this wasn't as bad as other moments from previous seasons dealing with Clay, but we all knew that this was something that Jax could not forgive. And that's not even mentioning the permanent damage done to Tara by the kidnap/murder gone wrong (also orchestrated by Clay) which also led to a fantastic scene in the hospital as Jax and Tara realised that they'd never get out of Charming with the clubs blessing. The season stalled quite dramatically after this episode, but like Season 2's 'Balm' and Season 3's 'NS', 'Hands' proved that Sons of Anarchy is the more than capable of putting terrific episodes of television.

5. Louie - 'Eddie'
Before this episode of Louie, my only knowledge of Doug Stanhope had come from the little pieces that he does for Charlie Brooker's Newswipe series. These on the whole were a mixed bag. Because of this, I was little nervous about whether or not I'd enjoy an entire episode of Louie wherein Louis CK had to deal with Stanhope. I should not have worried in the slightest. Louis CK is one of the sharpest minds in comedy right, but he also has an innate ability to write a compelling dramatic piece as well. 'Eddie' deals almost exclusively with Louis coming to terms with the fact that one of his fellow comedians from his early days on the stand-up circuit has essentially told him that he plans to commit suicide that evening. The highlight of this episode comes near the end where Louis confronts Eddie after a night of drinking as they stand next to the car about he really shouldn't commit suicide. It's not something that you'd expect to come from a show advertised as a comedy, but it's handled with such grace that's hard not to just stand back and watch in awe as the scene plays out on the screen, without ever contradicting any of the previous moments of comedy in the episode.

4. Parks and Recreation - 'Andy and April's Fancy Party'
There were so many episodes that I could have chosen from Parks and Recreation in 2011. Season 3 was such a fantastic season, that an argument could be made for almost any episode (such as 'Flu Season', 'Lil' Sebastian' etc.) but I finally settled for 'Fancy Party', not only because it came as a complete surprise but also because it was pretty everything you could possibly want from an episode of Parks and Recreation, a mixture of sheer hilarity and a general sweetness and sense of positivity that is sometimes lacking in comedy. The wedding of Andy and April came out nowhere, but it made perfect sense for these two characters to do something this random and impulsive, and it was the perfect counter to the wedding of Jim and Pam on the Office. But it's the little things that will make a Parks and Recreation stand above the others such as the first appearance of Orin, Jean-Ralphio or the moment where the dead dove is released after the ceremony. Maybe other things did things better, such as have more Ron or were maybe funnier all the way through, but in 2011 no episode summed up why I watch Parks and Recreation more than 'Andy and April's Fancy Party'.

3. Game of Thrones - 'Baelor'
Before I even touch on the obvious big moment that closes out this episode, it needs to be said that 'Baelor' was absolutely packed to the brim with awesome moments. Whether or not it was the revelation that Robb Stark had managed to kidnap Jamie Lannister right from under Lord Tywin's eyes. Then there's the absolutely hysterical scene as Tyrion, Shae and Bronn stay up late drinking and trading stories. Tyrion easily became the closest thing to a break out character on Game of Thrones, and it was scenes like that proved why, incredibly charismatic and hilarious to match. Then across the Narrow Sea we had Daenerys dealing with the impending death of Khal Drogo from his infected wound from the previous episode, and her ultimate decision to use the forces of magic to try and keep him alive, even if it cost her the life of her child. But of course, the big part of this episode has to do with the killing of Ned Stark (Sean Bean). Sean Bean was obviously the big name draw to Game of Thrones, as well as the apparent lead in its first season. Of course the joke that Sean Bean dies in every movie was around, but they couldn't kill him off when he's the lead of TV series that is supposed to last many years? But that's what they did, and the writers of Game of Thrones proved that they had the balls to follow through entirely with the template left for them with George R. R. Martin's books, even if many people felt betrayed by the (necessary) death of Ned Stark.

2. The Office - 'Goodbye, Michael'
'Goodbye Michael' might not be the best episode that The Office ever produced, but it was the perfect send off for the character for the character Michael Scott and Steven Carell. Yes the show probably should have ended with this episode, and yes the parts of the season that weren't really dealing with it being Steve Carell's last year were just as flat as any moment from The Office's worst points. But the departure of Michael Scott was everything that a fan of this show could hope for. Every single fair well to all the characters on the show were pretty much perfect, and the moment that Jim walked into Michael's office once he realised that Michael wouldn't actually be showing up for his 'last day' tomorrow, the tears started to come. Sometimes emotions can make something seem better than it probably is (see the Lost finale), but if something makes you feel an emotion, then screw the tiny insignificant faults, you've been made to care about fictional people, and that's all that really matters in the end. And of course, Steve Carell's final words on the show were going to be 'that's what she said'.

1. Breaking Bad - 'Salud'
Every year I sit down to write this list, there are always one or two shows that could fill the entire lists with absolutely fantastic episodes, and for the past three years, Breaking Bad has been one of those shows. Narrowing down just one of the thirteen episodes from Breaking Bad Season 4 was so difficult, it could have easily been 'Box Cutter', 'Hermanos', 'Crawl Space' or 'Face-Off' but I have decided that 'Salud' is the episode that was probably the clearest example of what Breaking Bad so effortlessly good in its fourth year. Season 4 is the year that Giancarlo Esposito (Gus Fring) stepped up and proved that someone in the acting world could stand up to the immensity of Bryan Cranston (Walter White) and Aaron Paul (Jesse Pinkman), and this episode played to all three of their strengths. From Walt's tearful admission of guilt to his son, to the intensity of the final few minutes as Gus put his plan into motion to poison Don Eladio and all of his capos. Director Michelle MacLaren (Season 3's 'One Minute') continues to prove that she is one of the best directors currently working in television, as she directs the best episode of the year two years in a row.