The Best TV Performances of 2011

Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

For all the high points on TV in 2011, there were also things that bothered me, and not all of them were named Kardashian.

The past year saw TV expand its reality horizon, featuring pig herders and people addicted to eating toilet paper or detergent. If watching rednecks catch alligators wasn't your thing, though, reality TV offered up a slew of new talent competitions, insuring that more singers and groups will have 15 minutes of fame before their CDs wind up in the $1.99 discount bin. In 2011, only J. R. Martinez actually became a star, and who can complain about that?

Still, no reality show highlighted over-the-top competitors seeking the big prize like the endless Republican debates, during which candidates hurled innumerable accusations at the front-runner of the week, which helps explain why they've gone through several front-runners. On a more positive note, if you started the year hoping for a big splashy wedding, reality TV accommodated, twice -- one royal wedding and one royally screwed up wedding. Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries apparently got along as well as Charlie Sheen and Chuck Lorre.

It grew increasingly difficult to be a loyal series fan this year, as more programs saw their seasons hacked into multiple mini-seasons. This created confusion about when favorite shows were on and provided us all with the opportunity to enjoy a new cliffhanger every week. Still, nowhere did the television landscape change more than on daytime TV, as four daytime legends left: Oprah, Regis, All My Children, and One Life to Live. This opened hours to be filled by more cheap programming, so that anyone who had a YouTube video with more than a thousand views to get a talk show.

Katy Mixon in Mike and Molly

All the comings and goings on TV no doubt made work challenging for television critics. Yet, they managed, as usual, to sound unified with their praises, rattling off the same familiar titles in the year-end lists (Breaking Bad, Modern Family, Mad Men) and one or two same new titles, like Homeland.

This isn't to suggest the critics were wrong, but in their enthusiasm for the obvious, they often overlooked worthy performances without "buzz." So, here we discuss just a few of those who didn't get the pats on the back they deserved. (My favorite performance of the year was Maggie Smith on Downton Abbey, but it's hard to classify Dame Smith as "overlooked".)

Melissa McCarthy is having a banner year, much deserved, but the Best Comedic Performance on McCarthy's series Mike and Molly belongs to Katy Mixon, as Molly's stoner sister Victoria. Her skewed, marijuana-influenced view of the world was a sure laugh-getter every episode. The complete opposite of Victoria, Mayim Bialik's brainiac Amy on The Big Bang Theory was equally funny. She wins the Best Decision to Upgrade Someone to Regular Role Award.

Winner of this year's Most Interesting Kid Award is young Atticus Shaffer, who plays Brick on The Middle.

Aldis Hodge in Leverage

Aldis Hodge wins 2011's Liveliest Unleashed Hacker on TV Award, for his work on Leverage. Though the show isn't a comedy, Hodge's Alec got out from behind his computer more this season, giving him something more to do than spout witticisms through his headpiece. Gary Bell on Alphas is a different type of uber-hacker, one who can read electrical streams of data in the air. His portrayer, Ryan Cartwright, also played the ill-fated Vincent Nigel-Murray on Bones.

There were more departures over on Law & Order: SVU, including Sister Peg (played beautifully over nine years by Charlayne Woodard), who died this season. SVU featured another great guest performance, Elizabeth Mitchell on the episode "Totem." (After kicking alien ass on V, Mitchell must have enjoyed playing a demure, damaged piano teacher.)

The award for Best Guest Performance in Not-Quite-a-Drama goes to the marvelous Irma P. Hall, who played Anna Nicholson in an episode of Harry's Law.

Jessica Lange in American Horror Story

Jessica Lange wins a prize for being Most Ferocious in a Recurring Role, for her work as Constance Langdon on American Horror Story. In truth, Lange's ferocity isn't surprising (and how delightful to watch her and Frances Conroy trading barbs); the show's true surprise is Taissa Farmiga as Constance's neighbor Violet, equal parts doe-eyed innocence and teen turmoil. Over on Treme, Khandi Alexander is this year's winner of the Actor Most Overdue Some Emmy Love.

Patton Oswalt is getting award buzz for his performance in Young Adult, but he has been equally effective on United States of Tara, playing love-struck Neil. He and co-star Rosemarie DeWitt made up this year's Most Endearing Pathetic Couple. The Two-Dimensional Award this year goes to H. Jon Benjamin, who provides the voice of Archer.

Khandi Alexander in Treme

For all these high points on TV in 2011, there were also those things that bothered me, and not all of them were named Kardashian. For instance, I've had enough of James Patterson showing up to hawk his latest book of the week by threatening to kill off his most popular character.

I'm also a little irked by the stupidity of crime investigators, particularly those on the CSI shows. Repeatedly, these professionals search through crime scenes with just the light from a pocket flashlight, when turning on the overhead light would be so much more helpful. Showtime's The Borgias revised history some more, substituting sex for facts. If you have to throw in lots of sex to attract viewers, maybe the story isn't that strong to begin with.

And new this year, I'd like to call out the worst performance of the year, Thomas Gibson on Criminal Minds, TV's most needlessly graphic show. Gibson has shown considerable range in previous performances (Chicago Hope, Dharma and Greg, More Tales of the City), so his one-note, bland performance on the CBS hit is perplexing. There's stoic, and then there's boring, and his Aaron Hotchner is just dull.

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