Fresh Air's TV critic David Bianculli liked so many shows this year that he says he couldn't pick just 10 favorites. Instead, he split his favorites into several lists, including best documentaries and best scripted comedies/dramas.
Bianculli also highlights some of the worst shows to hit TV screens this year — including not one but two shows featuring Snooki.
Despite his Snooki misgivings, Bianculli says it was a banner year for TV.
"There is more good television on a weekly basis than there has ever been," Bianculli says. "I am absolutely certain of it."
A TV critic since 1975, Bianculli has been a Fresh Air contributor since the show's inception. From 1993 to 2007, he was a staff critic for the New York Daily News. An associate professor of TV and film at Rowan University in New Jersey, Bianculli is also the author of Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, and the founder and editor of the website TVWorthWatching.com.
Best Scripted Comedies And Dramas
1. Breaking Bad (AMC) Vince Gilligan's drama stars Bryan Cranston as Walter White, a high-school science teacher turned crystal-meth manufacturer — not a character with whom you'd normally empathize. But Cranston, as Bianculli said in a review that aired March 19, 2010, "commits so highly to [his] role that [he] not only wins our sympathy, but disappears within the part." Bianculli notes that Gilligan has said from the start that he wanted to take Walter White, and viewers, on a journey, following the central character as he changed from meek hero to forceful villain, and this season certainly delivered on that promise.
2. Homeland (Showtime) The first-year drama stars Claire Danes as a CIA agent who suspects a heroic American POW is actually a double agent for al-Qaida. What makes the drama so unusual — and so good — says Bianculli, is that viewers at home are initially unclear about who is telling the truth. "It's so rooted in character," he says, "that I love this show."
3. The Good Wife (CBS) Bianculli says both the acting and writing really work on this CBS legal drama, which stars Julianna Margulies as a litigator attempting to rebuild her reputation after her husband lands in jail on corruption charges. And this season has amped up the emotional stakes for Margulies' character Alicia as she navigates work — and a new relationship.
4. Modern Family (ABC) Bianculli says he continues to recommend the family comedy for Wednesday night TV viewing. In a review from September 2010, Bianculli applauded the series for creating a sense of "risky creativity" — one that ended up being rewarded, both with solid ratings and at the Emmys.
5. Justified (FX) Timothy Olyphant plays Raylan Givens, a U.S. marshal transferred from sunny Miami to his former home in the backwoods of Kentucky. In those Kentucky hills, Givens encounters a slew of unsavory characters, including Mags Bennett (Margo Martindale), the moonshine-making matriarch of a law-defying hillbilly family. In a March 2010 review, Bianculli said that the show "pulls off that same tricky balancing act of mixing tense drama and low-key comedy, often in the same scene."
6. Dexter (Showtime) Michael C. Hall, who played the uptight gay undertaker on HBO's Six Feet Under, stars as Dexter Morgan, a forensics expert whose specialty is blood-spatter analysis. He helps solve murders as a member of the Miami Police Department, but also harbors a deep secret: He's a serial killer who channels his murderous impulses by hunting down other serial killers. In a review that originally aired on Sept. 24, 2010, Bianculli said the show is "one of the most inventive and exciting shows on TV," one that explores "twists with breathtaking imagination."
7. American Horror Story (FX) The series was created by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, who previously worked together on Glee. The central story has Connie Britton and Dylan McDermott moving into a house where the previous tenants were found dead. Bianculli says it "may be the scariest TV show" he's ever seen, and it leaves him thinking about the characters long after he's turned off the TV set.
8. Curb Your Enthusiasm (HBO) The eighth season of Curb saw Larry David moving from Los Angeles to New York for several episodes. It's "one of the funniest and [most] daringly different shows ever made for TV," wrote Bianculli in July 2011.
9. Louie (FX) Comic Louis C.K. plays a divorced father of two struggling to balance his comedy career with his duties as a single dad. This season racked up honors from Time Magazine and GQ, as well as from Bianculli, who called it "ambitious" in his 2010 summer TV guide.
10. True Blood (HBO) The HBO vampire series created by Alan Ball is a soap opera, pure and simple, said Bianculli in a review that aired originally on June 9, 2010. "Or more accurately, it's a soap opera, impure and complicated." The show's constant plot twists — and the regular introduction of new characters — keep Bianculli hooked. And "for a safe, long-term investment in pop culture's fascination with the paranormal, I say take your money and let it ride on vampires," he said last May. "They're undead in more ways than one — every generation, they always seem to earn a brand new life.
As always, Bianculli had trouble limiting his list to just 10 shows. His honorable mentions include Rescue Me on FX, The Walking Dead and The Killing on AMC, Boardwalk Empire and Treme on HBO, Men of a Certain Age from TNT, NBC's Friday Night Lights and 30 Rock, Showtime's Episodes, and Damages on DirecTV.
He also highlights several nonfiction broadcasts and documentaries, including HBO's George Harrison: Living in the Material World, the Science Channel's Idiot Abroad and three documentaries on PBS: Prohibition, America in Primetime and American Masters: Woody Allen.
Worst TV Shows Of 2011
1. Fear Factor (NBC) "I think of it like locusts," Bianculli says. "Like it went underground for many years, and now it's back. It was a horrible show the first time. It's a horrible show now."
2. Jersey Shore (MTV) Snooki, Pauly D, JWoww and The Situation headed to Italy this season. That didn't change the show for Bianculli, who called it "by far the worst show" on television. "I just cannot tell you how despicable this show is," he observed last year. "It makes me want to shower."
3. H8R (NBC) The already-been-canceled show featured celebrities ambushing people who had previously snarked about them on the Internet. "The [celebrity] in the pilot was Snooki," notes Bianculli. "By being in Jersey Shore and in the pilot of H8R, Snooki is actually in 40 percent of my worst shows of 2011."
4. Kim's Fairytale Wedding: A Kardashian Event (E!) "It was four hours long, and Kim's marriage to Kris Humphries was 72 days," Bianculli says. "This TV show lasted about 1/300 as long as the marriage. I'm not sure on the math on that, [but it was] a waste of time."
5. Charlie's Angels (ABC) "The second that you had a buff Bosley, you knew you were in trouble with that show," says Bianculli. "In the original Charlie's Angels, Bosley was this Pillsbury Doughboy-type guy who hung around and was the nonsexual buddy who would drive the car and do things. Now he's a matinee-idol kind of player. ... But to dissect Charlie's Angels on that level is to give it too much time."
Bianculli also discusses several TV personalities who retired or switched networks in 2011, the state of cable news and what he's looking forward to, TV-wise, in 2012. Highlights include:
High Points In News
"Were I to have a Top 10 list that included news programs, 60 Minutes would probably be on it. But also vying for my Top 10 would be The Colbert Report and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. ... Many times, they don't just do the best comedy take on the news. They do the best take on the news."
Mobile TV Personalities
"Oprah and Keith Olbermann both presumed that they would go from one venue to another ... and felt that their TV audiences would follow them wherever they went. And it's like real estate. A lot of it's location, location, location."
Critics And Spoilers
"They used to call this 'water-cooler' conversation. If you had a TV [show] that was 'water-cooler,' then people were talking about it the next morning — 'Who shot J.R.? Did you see what happened over here?' — Well, now, if there are water coolers and if there are offices, one person goes up and says, 'Did you see Dexter?' And they're like, 'No, shut up, I didn't see it. Tell me in a year.' This is not the way to have a conversation.
"I feel once it's broadcast, I should be free to talk about it. You should be free to avoid my discussion of it or avoid my articles on it if you want to keep it that way. Television has gotten so good that I can't watch it fast enough. So I have to do the same things I'm requiring other people to do. As we're talking right now, I'm four days behind on television I really am dying to see. But it's so good, my rule about great TV is that if it's that good, I don't want to multitask. I just want to sit and watch it."