The Best Television Shows of 2011

The small screen offers up the usual suspects, proving once again that, with a few exceptions, what's good on today's prime time schedule will stay that way until the next best-of list.

TV Show: Happy Endings

Network: ABC

Cast: Eliza Coupe, Elisha Cuthbert, Zachary Knighton, Adam Pally, Damon Wayans, Jr., Casey Wilson


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A wonderful consequence of the ever-diluting niche audiences networks are forced to carve out is that they can be patient with shows that aren’t exactly out-of-the-box successes either ratings-wise or creatively. NBC let Parks and Recreation stumble through a misguided, shortened first-season before fine-tuning and turning into one of television’s best half-hours just months later. ABC has two such success stories -- one being Cougar Town, which escaped it’s gimmicky title to become a fantastic hang-out comedy -- and one of them is this season’s break-out, Happy Endings.

Stacked with an ensemble cast littered of semi-known television secret weapons -- Eliza Coupe as tightly wound working wife Jane, Casey Wilson and merely spinning in circles Penny, and Damon Wayans, Jr’s bungling husband Brad -- and genuine finds -- I swear, Elisha Cuthbert has become a bankable comic actress and not merely Dion Phaneuf’s better half -- and a powerhouse, potentially star-making performance by Adam Pally, currently TV’s most reliable funny-man (watch his work in this year’s Halloween episode alone, it’s the best stuff anyone’s done for as long as I can remember). Combined with ever-sharpening writing and characters who remain likable despite knowing that they’re usually headed towards doing the wrong thing, Happy Endings can’t be TV’s best kept secret much longer. Steve Lepore

TV Show: Falling Skies

Network: TNT

Airtime: Sundays, 9pm ET

Director: Carl Franklin

Cast: Noah Wyle, Moon Bloodgood, Will Patton, Drew Roy, Colin Cunningham, Connor Jessup


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Falling Skies

Falling Skies opens six months after a massive attack against earth, an attack that has destroyed major cities and wiped out long-range communications. Our ragtag band of survivors has been scrounging around in the suburbs of Boston, but by now they've picked the area clean and the aliens keep targeting progressively smaller groups of humans for extermination. Commander Porter (Dale Dye) decides to split the group in two and send them in different directions. Weaver (Will Patton), a soldier with extensive military experience, will be in charge of the 2nd Massachusetts Unit, with Tom Mason (Noah Wyle) as his second-in-command. Falling Skies' mix of compelling individuals helps to make its early use of formula less troublesome than it might have been. Later episodes develop interesting and diverse motives, as the 2nd Mass begins to figure out what the aliens are up to and how to fight them more effectively. Wyle's earnest hero is flawed and sympathetic, as he struggles with his loss, seeks to save the world, and develops a relationship with a doctor named Anne (the excellent Moon Bloodgood). What's remarkable is that he's only one of many reasons that Falling Skies is good science fiction. Chris Conaton

TV Show: Beavis and Butthead

Network: MTV

Cast: Mike Judge


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Beavis and Butthead

You might guess that Beavis and Butt-Head, with their slacker attitudes and penchant for music-video-viewing, were wholly a product of their time. It turns out that the same dim-wittedness (and, in some cases, animation) work in any era. Sure, they’re now plopped in front of Jersey Shore and Teen Mom -- shows that are basically their own self-satire, so you’d think there’d be nothing else to say about them. But writer/voice actor Mike Judge knows just what to say -- something so profoundly stupid, it’s stupidly profound -- to wring out the most laughs out of any situation, including The Situation. Marisa LaScala

TV Show: New Girl

Network: FOX

Cast: Zooey Deschanel, Jake Johnson, Max Greenfield, Lamorne Morris, Hannah Simone


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New Girl

New Girl begins with a very typical fish-out-of-water premise: When Jess (Zooey Deschanel) breaks up with her long-time boyfriend, she needs to find a new living situation and winds up taking a room in an apartment with three dudes. The charm comes from how goofy all four roommates are. Sometimes the boys rightfully tease Jess for her quirky social blind spots, and sometimes they’re just as clueless as she is. And it’s always a good time watching Deschanel indulge her ultimate inner dork. Marisa LaScala

TV Show: Bored to Death

Network: HBO

Cast: Jason Schwartzman, Zach Galifianakis, Ted Danson, Heather Burns


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Bored to Death

Despite gratuitous nudity, double-crossing gunplay, and a pile of corpses, Bored to Death was a remarkably gentle show for most of final season (HBO canceled the series on December 20) and its characters surprisingly lovable. An especially engaging episode, like “Gumball", could make you want to give its tush an affectionate squeeze. But in the final hour, creator Jonathan Ames threw the audience an icky curve ball, and viewers had to decide if they could keep on loving bumbling detective Jonathan Ames (Jonathan Schwartzman) after learning he had decided to hide a whopper of a secret from his girlfriend (Ames explains his creative choices here). I’d like to extend Jonathan the benefit of the doubt, just as he did for all the eccentrics who populated Bored to Death’s madcap universe. The show’s deft, absurd humor was one of its hallmarks (introducing her fiancé, one woman explains, “I met him at a séance where we were trying to communicate with the original designer of Fiestaware”), but the relaxed, poignant rapport among the three leads was its main draw. Ted Danson was loose and funny as the urbane George, Zack Galifianakis was a hilarious live wire as the infantile Ray, and Schwartzman injected the neurotic, self-obsessed Jonathan with such good-natured naiveté, it was difficult not to find him endearing... even after that head-scratcher of a finale. Marisa Carroll

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