10) Sons of Anarchy
Much improved over season three, “Sons” brought its angst back to Charming this time around, and it was nice to have the boys on their home turf. Creator Kurt Sutter’s motorcycle club melodrama knows how push all the right buttons — sometimes too safely, however — and special kudos to Maggie Siff, who knows Tara is in way too deep to ever find that normal life she’s been longing for. Her Michael Corleone-like diatribe against Gemma in the penultimate episode might have been the season’s crowning moment.
9) Modern Family
Two Emmys later, it’s probably not in vogue to say how good “Modern Family” remains. Yet, the series continues to be as funny as ever, anchored by the incredible Ty Burrell. Sure, when you’re creating 22 episodes a season, there’s a handful that might not reach a very highly set bar, but even a mediocre “Modern Family” will bring a few hearty laughs and is clearly worth the time investment.
Claire Danes, Mandy Patinkin and Damian Lewis can make any ordinary script better, but the material here is already top notch. From “24” vets Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa, “Homeland” taps into fears of another terrorist attack on U.S. soil, and provides audiences with how our governmental agencies have the awesome responsibility of keeping us safe — but often let politics get in the way. Sixteen years since the end of the short but brilliant “My So-Called Life,“ how wonderful it is to see Danes delivering her immense talents for a TV series once again.
7) Parks and Recreation
Admittedly, I almost never came back to Pawnee after a very erratic first season. After reading how the show turned around, however, I dove back in and now I can’t even imagine missing even a single episode. Whether it’s Ron Swanson flicking meat particles out of his moustache or Leslie trying to balance her work and social life, the humor is both slapstick and sweet. And when Ron pays for and encourages a penniless Andy to take college courses, the well-earned sincerity can make a grown man weep.
If a show as vast as the entire city of New Orleans can be considered under the radar, then “Treme” fits the bill. Those who don’t watch, however, are missing a wonderful quilt of performances — from veteran Wendell Pierce’s dizzying jigsaw of skirt chasing, band leading and teaching music to the city’s youth, to the wonderful Lucia Micarelli‘s Annie, a spectacular violinist trying to find a big break that will move her from Bourbon Street to Carnegie Hall.
5) Friday Night Lights
This actually been might have been higher on the list, but only six episodes aired in 2011 on DirecTV. It was tearfully difficult to say goodbye to Coach and Tami and all who inhabited Dillon over the five-year run. The series ended on a perfect note, with some characters realizing their high school glory days may ultimately be the crowning moment of their lives while others aim to reach far beyond the confines of Texas prep football.
4) Boardwalk Empire
For anyone who watched the first two seasons of this great Prohibition-era feast and remained on the fence, the last two episodes should have quickly ended any doubt. As in “Game of Thrones,” HBO wasn’t shy about killing off a main character if that’s what the storyline dictated. For those who believed Steve Buscemi didn’t have the heft in taking on the role of Atlantic City kingpin Nucky Thompson, creator Terence Winter had no such doubts, and has been proven correct.
Granted, Timothy Olyphant is perfect at the center of the Kentucky storm, but it’s the supporting players that elevate “Justified” week after week. This season, Margo Martindale filled the bill as the matriarch of a moonshine-making hillbilly clan who tried to keep her knuckleheaded sons in line. Walton Goggins brought his usual chameleon-like ways to Boyd Crowder, who never quite revealed his true motivation to anyone.
2) Breaking Bad
The show has come so far since meth-making Walter White yearned to make some extra cash for his family. It could have long ago fallen off its initial promise, but showrunner extraordinaire Vince Gilligan would never let that happen. With Walter alternately scheming between trying not to get killed and knock off Gus (the superb Giancarlo Esposito) at the same time, “Breaking Bad” — with its dramatic flashbacks and pitch-pefect tone — remained absolutely riveting.
What makes a show great is that, week after week, you simultaneously know what to expect and expect to be wowed. Yet, it was the unexpected that made “Louie” my top choice for 2011. Labeled a comedy, one week the series could provide belly laughs while the following week’s episode felt like a treatise on war, health care or homelessness. And, to top it off, I dare anyone to find a cuter TV couple than Louie and Pamela Adlon. The thought of waiting a day, or even an hour, to watch “Louie” after its initial airing was almost too much to bear.
The second 10 honorable mention (in alphabetical order)
The Big Bang Theory
Bored to Death
Curb Your Enthusiasm
The Good Wife