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Top 10 New Shows of 2011

12/19/2011 12:01 AM Eastern

What a surprise this end-of-year Top 10 list
turned out to be. I set out, somewhat skeptically, to
compile a list identifying the 10 best new series on cable
and satellite TV in 2011 — unless there weren’t enough
worthy newcomers to qualify, in which case it would
become an all-inclusive Top 10 Cable Shows list.

My guess was that we’d have to resort to the latter.
Even in a year without AMC’s Mad Men, the quality
and quantity of returning cable series just seemed
too overwhelming. Limit the focus to freshman
cable programs only, and think of what you’re
eliminating: Showtime’s Dexter. AMC’s Breaking
Bad
and The Walking Dead. Comedy Central’s The
Daily Show With Jon Stewart
and The Colbert Report.
FX’s Justified, Rescue Me and Louie. DirecTV’s Friday
Night Lights
and Damages. TNT’s Men of a Certain
Age.
And HBO’s True Blood, Boardwalk Empire,
Treme
and Curb Your Enthusiasm. With all those
brilliant, worthy shows eliminated from the mix,
could there possibly be enough outstanding new
entrants to fill a 2011 Best of Cable?

Cover_Story_Image_12/19Impressively, amazingly, yes. Good for them, good
for cable — and very, very good for us fans of quality
television. This year’s crop of excellent TV shows is
so good, in fact, that even the first-year shows that
didn’t quite make the cut are eminently watchable
and worthy. Kelsey Grammer’s operatic dramatic
turn on Starz’s Boss. Laura Dern’s uninhibited,
unhinged, yet oddly likable post-rehab zealot on
HBO’s Enlightened. The internationally intriguing
political maneuvering of Link TV’s imported
Denmark drama Borgen, soon to be adapted by NBC.

But limiting the count to an official Top 10, here, in
order, are the best new shows that, in 2011, joined an
already stellar pack of cable programming in a truly
multichannel firmament.

HOMELAND

Showtime

Using the Israeli series Prisoners
of War
as its inspirational starting
point, Homeland executive
producers Howard Gordon and
Alex Ganza (both from Fox’s 24)
and their writing staff have crafted
a drama that’s not just the best
new cable series of the year — it’s
the best new series, period. Claire
Danes, Damian Lewis and Mandy
Patinkin star in a drama pitting
two charismatic characters as dual
protagonists: Lewis as a returning
POW who may or may not be an
al-Qaeda agent, and Danes as a CIA agent who suspects he is — yet keeps changing
her mind as she gets to know him better. The twists and turns have made this series a
wild ride, and an equally intense psychological study, as it propelled towards a literally
explosive first-season climax. And Patinkin, as the veteran CIA operative who comes to
suspect there’s a mole in the agency, delivers still another standout performance. If all
three of these actors aren’t nominated for Emmys next year, and if Homeland doesn’t
make the short list for Outstanding Drama Series, then the terrorists have won.


AMERICAN HORROR STORY

FX

Series creators Brad Falchuk and Ryan
Murphy, whose previous work includes
Nip/Tuck and Glee, intrigued some
and repelled many with the audacious
premiere episode of this modern
Gothic psychological horror series.
I was firmly in the intrigued camp,
and subsequent episodes have repaid
my faith exponentially. Almost every installment served up another twist, another unforgettable image, another indelible
performance and/or another unexpected, game-changing shocker. Connie Britton and
Dylan McDermott, as the troubled couple moving to a new coast and an old home, have
both spun out of control, and their teen daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga) has undergone
her own dramatic trials and tribulations. And the people haunting this house, in one
way or another, are fabulously unpredictable and unforgettable as well: Denis O’Hare
as the scarred and lovelorn burn victim; Frances Conroy and Alexandra Breckenridge
as alters of the same ego; and, most stunningly of all, the riveting Jessica Lange as kooky
killer Constance. This show is dreamlike, amusing and creepy, often all at the same time
— and, more than most TV series in 2011, it had you thinking about it long after each
episode was over.

EPISODES

Showtime

Two of the other new series on
this Top 10 list — Homeland
and The Killing — are based on
actual series originating from
other countries. This comedy
series lampoons that spirit of
international creativity with a
premise that takes a perfectly
beloved and highbrow British
series and turns it into an U.S.
bastardization, starring Matt LeBlanc from Friends as a faux version of himself. Episodes
stars Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig as a married TV writing team imported
to the States to adapt their series for American audiences. In the process, thanks to
some hilarious meddling from network executives led by John Pankow, they end up
corrupting and diluting not only their work, but their marriage. Episodes may sound
like a broad farce, and an obvious target for ridicule — but in the hands of creators
David Crane (from Friends) and Jeffrey Klarik, there’s as much grounded reality here as
Hollywood-bashing fantasy. Greig, especially, embodies a character whose pain and
embarrassment are as real, and as evocative, as her insults and disbelieving double
takes. And LeBlanc, bouncing back from Joey, found a role that was indeed tailor-made
for him, and at which he shines. Can’t wait for season two.

GEORGE HARRISON: LIVING IN THE MATERIAL WORLD

HBO

 Martin Scorsese directed this two-part biography
of George Harrison, known as the “quiet Beatle”
but whose story, as told here, covered both familiar
and fresh ground, using home-movie footage,
musical outtakes and an ambitiously large look at
the man’s life, interests and artistic achievements
to paint a very deep portrait of a clearly complex
man. The scope of Scorsese’s approach is refl ected
by the image of Harrison paying hide-and-seek
with the movie camera amid a bright array of
fl owers in his backyard garden. The documentary
opens with the image, but also closes with it —
and, in between, we’ve learned not only how Harrison planned and planted his garden
himself, and drew such peace from it, but also got that Scorsese saw Harrison as a
delicate sort of fl ower himself, one which unfurled itself boldly and beautifully, but
much too quickly. Just like Scorsese’s Bob Dylan documentary biography for PBS, this
HBO production was a work of art all its own.

AN IDIOT ABROAD

Science Channel

Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais, the
writing team who co-created the BBC’s
original The Office, “discovered” radio
producer Karl Pilkington and brought him
front and center, initially, to record a series of
podcasts in which he would provide his own
uniquely skewed perspective on whatever
questions the impish Gervais and Merchant
threw his way. With animation added, those
conversations can be seen on HBO as The
Ricky Gervais Show
, but it’s really Pilkington’s
show all the way — and this highly unusual
travel series doubles that bet by making
Pilkington its star. It’s unusual because seldom
are the stars of travel series so reluctant to go anywhere or do anything. To Gervais and
Merchant, sending Pilkington and a camera crew to the various wonders of the world
was as much costly prank as instructive TV series — but my, was it entertaining. And
not only that, but Merchant and Gervais are fascinated by Pilkington for a reason: His
perspective is so skewed, yet so honest and unguarded, that the stuff he says ranges from
idiotic (hence the title) to positively brilliant. And, like Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad
(again, hence the title), An Idiot Abroad takes a refreshingly irreverent look at places,
cultures and monuments usually treated with much more reverence. He even questions
the efficacy of the Great Wall of China — and with a Great Line of Reasoning.

GAME OF THRONES

HBO

Based on George R.R. Martin’s highly
detailed and involved series of fantasy
books, this ambitious series, created for
TV by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, took
a while to hit its stride, and even longer to
make it possible for many viewers to tell
the players, and their various “houses,”
without a scorecard. Eventually, though,
the confl icts and characters became
more clear, the clashes and shocks became more frequent, and several cast members
began to shine brightly, thanks to a combination of compelling storytelling and
outstanding acting. Heading the list there, in season one, were Peter Dinklage as the
resourceful, resilient and rebellious Tyrion Lannister, Lena Headey as the manipulative
Cersei Lannister, and Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen, who, by the climax of the
first season, had given new meaning not only to the concept of rising from the ashes, but
to the term “Dragon Lady.” This series was visually opulent, increasingly involving and,
in style and scope, like almost nothing else on television.

LIGHTS OUT

FX

FX didn’t renew this series, so there will
be no season two. And that’s unfortunate,
because creator Justin Zackham’s story,
about a retired heavyweight boxing champ
who is forced by circumstance to step
back into the ring, was a true TV knockout.
Holt McCallany, as retired boxer Patrick
“Lights” Leary, was a quiet revelation —
the believable embodiment of a role that
must have been very tough to cast. And Pablo Schreiber, as Patrick’s brother, Johnny, completed one of the most tragic brotherbetrayal
tandems since Marlon Brando and Rod Steiger in On the Waterfront. Other great
things about Lights Out: Bill Irwin in a change-of-pace role as tough, mob-connected Hal
Brennan, and a gaggle of guest stars who seemed to be paraded out and added to the cast
on a weekly basis: Eamonn Walker, David Morse, Valerie Perrine and so on, all in addition to
regulars Stacy Keach and Catherine McCormack. It’s regrettable that Lights Out didn’t get a
better decision from FX — but season one exists to prove how, even with a Rocky finish, the
show went the distance admirably.

THE KILLING

AMC

There’s no question, and no
denying, that when producer
Veeda Sud and company
adapted the Danish series
Forbrydelsen (translation: The
Crime
) for U.S. TV, they did
many things right and one thing
very, very wrong. By stretching
its ending over to a cliffhanger
for the second season —
something that the original
series didn’t do — AMC’s The
Killing lost
a lot of good will, and an equal amount of momentum. But that doesn’t obliterate
a season of gripping performances, moody plots and subplots, and one of TV’s best studies
of grief and loss. Mireille Enos, as Seattle Det. Sarah Linden, was given a dream TV role, and
did wonderfully expressive things with it — and her odd-couple replacement/partner, Joel
Kinnaman as Stephen Holder, got to share the spotlight just as much. The soul of season
one, though, was the wretchedly raw pain and anger and sadness of Mitch Larsen, mother of
the murdered teen Rosie Larsen. Michelle Forbes was devastatingly good as Mitch, making
you feel the aftereffects of that brutal crime at a visceral emotional level television dramas
rarely attempt, much less achieve.

From the author: "In Top 10 New Cable Series of 2011, while awarding AMC's The Killing one of the top spots, I chastised the American remake of the Danish series for presenting a cliffhanger ending between seasons -- "something that the original series didn't do." Turns out the original series did just that. The imported DVD set I watched had both 10-episode seasons in one package, which I mistook as a single-season release. Apologies to AMC for that, though not for my opinion of the ending." -- David Bianculli

TORCHWOOD: MIRACLE DAY

Starz

First there was Doctor Who, which
began in the United Kingdom in 1963
and, thanks to a series of inventive
“regenerations” both in front of and
behind the camera, continues to be
produced — and, these days, to be very
clever and enjoyable. Then there was the
spinoff , Torchwood, which is the name of
a top-secret agency devoted to all things
paranormal. (It’s also, for the record, a clever anagram of Doctor Who.) In Torchwood:
Miracle Day,
John Barrowman reprises his Doctor Who character of Capt. Jack Harkness,
an immortal from the future, and Eve Myles returns as Gwen Cooper, the South Wales
policewoman who becomes the last surviving member of Captain Jack’s Torchwood
team. After three seasons of shows produced by the BBC and imported here, the 2011
incarnation of Torchwood was a different breed of animal: a 10-part miniseries, overseen
by Russell T. Davies but co-produced in the United States with and for the Starz network,
with a mostly homegrown supporting cast: Lauren Ambrose as an ambitious p.r. woman,
Bill Pullman as a vicious pedophile, and Mekhi Phifer as a CIA agent who dies in the
opening episode — except he doesn’t, because everyone on Earth has suddenly stopped
dying. That odd occurrence turns out to be a metaphysical whodunit, a mystery that
stretches across decades and continents to come to an exciting, thought-provoking
resolution. It’s the sort of fun this genre can provide, buttressed by the length and detail
only a miniseries can afford.

MILDRED PIERCE

HBO

Todd Haynes directed and co-wrote
this miniseries adaptation of the
James M. Cain novel, which had been
made into a movie in 1945, starring
Joan Crawford and Ann Blyth as a
resourceful mother and her resentful
daughter. That movie played with the book’s original ending and reframed it as a Lauratype
murder mystery, but this opulent miniseries goes back to basics, and emerges with a
character study that, in most cases, surpasses the original. Kate Winslet has the title role in
this version, and Evan Rachel Wood, as the daughter, matches her scene for gripping scene.
Co-stars include Guy Pearce, Melissa Leo and James LeGros, and director Haynes pays
equal loving attention to the period settings and the potent performances. The broadcast
networks may not be making miniseries the way they used to — but HBO, with this excellent
drama, proves cable still can, and does. Winslet and Pearce both won Emmys.

David Bianculli is TV critic and guest host for NPR’s Fresh Air With Terry Gross, and
founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching. He is an associate professor of TV
and film at Rowan University.


September