Friday Night Seitz
Slide show: From "Breaking Bad" to "Homeland" and with a surprise at No. 1, cable dominates the best shows of 2011
10. “Men of a Certain Age” (TNT)
I am very, very sad to see this comedy-drama go. There should be a place on television for gentle but incisive comedy about men (and women) pushing 50. “Louie” mines this same territory, but in an urban setting, and with far more aggressively eccentric style. Although the tone is usually lighthearted, “Men of a Certain Age” could hit surprisingly dark notes, especially when its main characters — expertly played by Ray Romano, Scott Bakula and the great Andre Braugher — faced failure, loneliness and mortality head-on. Every now and then the show would ease into a melancholy groove that reminded me of Anne Tyler’s fiction, which seems harmlessly, lovably middlebrow until it rips your heart out, holds it up in front of your face and says, “Look at this poor little thing. Can you believe how fragile it is?”
9. “American Horror Story” (FX)
As I wrote in a Dec. 8 piece about this utterly and completely insane series from Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, “I suspect the explanations behind ‘American Horror Story’ will matter even less than the ‘mythology’ of another addictive and pretty clearly ret-conned fantasy drama, ‘Lost.’ I’m not watching ‘American Horror Story’ to Figure It All Out. I’m watching it to appreciate the eerie confidence of Jessica Lange, with her Tennessee Williams accent and dancer’s hands and Gorgon stare, and Denis O’Hare’s deft comedy/tragedy footwork as Larry, and to see just how long Murphy, Falchuk and the gang can continue to sustain this nerve-jangling feat of bravura show-running. One more season? One more week? One more minute? Sooner or later this show will fall apart, or implode like the house in ‘Poltergeist,’ and I want to be there when it happens.”
8. “Game of Thrones” (HBO)
David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’ adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s epic fiction is the most meticulously constructed fantasy series ever aired on American TV. The sheer chutzpah of its slow-build momentum is dazzling in retrospect; it took three, maybe four episodes just to lay out all its plot and fill in its major characters, and there was no reason to think that non-Martin fans wouldn’t get impatient and bail out. But a surprisingly large audience stuck with it and were glad they did. The back half of the show’s first season was “The Godfather” with swordplay and dragon’s eggs — intricately wrought, magnificently dire, and sophisticated in its portrait of the use and abuse of power. And Episode 9 was a stunner.
7. “Justified” (FX)
It’s strangely fitting that as Elmore Leonard heads into his twilight years, he’d score his biggest-ever TV success with “Justified,” a show that fuses the defining genres of his early and later careers as a novelist: the rueful western and the laid-back urban thriller. As badass Kentucky-born federal marshal Raylan Givens, Timothy Olyphant is the only plausible modern heir to Clint Eastwood, and more of a dreamboat; the supporting cast is equally strong, and this year’s cast of antagonists — a hillbilly clan of drug dealers and power brokers, headed by Margot Martindale as a Ma Barker-like matriarch of crime — was perversely sympathetic even when its members were plotting to murder characters we loved. Show-runner Graham Yost has adapted Leonard’s fiction with grace and good humor. This is the most accurate scripted rendition of the master’s literary voice since 1998′s “Out of Sight.”
6. “Homeland” (Showtime)
Here’s what I wrote about the debut episode of the terrific drama “Homeland,” about a troubled CIA agent (Claire Danes) tracking a returned Iraq War POW (Damian Lewis) who might be a sleeper agent: “The show delivers the core elements you expect from a military/espionage thriller, including sex, violence, conspiracy plots and clever detective work. But this isn’t the new adventures of Jack Bauer or James Bond, or even a Tom Clancy-style geopolitical fantasy. The characters of ‘Homeland’ don’t fall into the genre’s four major categories: superheroes, supervillains, bureaucrats and cannon fodder. They’re psychologically plausible human beings.” In retrospect, I might amend a word or two of that — there were a few twists later that struck me as problematic, or perhaps more TV-like than I would have preferred. But the series has done a bang-up job of justifying pretty much all of them. And Danes, Lewis, costar Mandy Patinkin and the rest of the show’s cast are a fearless, peerless ensemble.
5. “Community” (NBC)
How can I describe this comedy series in a year-end capsule? I really can’t. It’s about community college in the same way that “Gilligan’s Island” was about survival, and “Waiting for Godot” was about a couple of friends waiting for a third to show up — by which I mean it isn’t, and it is, and it is and it isn’t. It’s kidding and serious, self-conscious and willfully innocent, a sendup of sitcom conventions that milks them for every drop of fun and pathos that they can yield. The key to the brilliance of this Dan Harmon sitcom is that in trying to summarize “Community,” you can juxtapose low- and high-culture references as jarring as those two and not be off-the-mark. The show aired five, maybe six episodes this year that rank with the best half-hour TV comedy it’s ever been my pleasure to see. (No. 1 is the “Pulp Fiction” episode, which ended up being more indebted to “My Dinner With Andre” and Luigi Pirandello.) Come on, NBC, enough of this “hiatus” crap. Just renew the damned thing. You know you want to.
4. “Breaking Bad” (AMC)
Creator-executive producer Vince Gilligan’s drug drama is the most engrossing drama on TV: mordantly funny, shockingly bloody, dazzling in its architecture, merciless in its execution. It always stays a half-step ahead of its viewers, who by now know better than to second-guess the writers’ choices, no matter how seemingly bizarre or unmotivated. There were a few points where I thought, “Oh, no, they’ve taken a wrong turn, they didn’t think this through!” only to eat my words a couple of weeks later. The core cast was terrific as usual, but Best in Show goes to Giancarlo Esposito as Gus Fring, who turned one of the few fresh gangster characters in recent memory into a tragic antihero, a control freak who missed a couple of details and ended up, ahem, losing face. Never underestimate the diabolical cleverness of Heisenberg. Just one more season left, alas.
3. “Louie” (FX)
Writer-director-star-cameraman-editor-and-probably-caterer Louis C.K.’s autobiographical comedy is the best argument imaginable in favor of finding brilliant artists and giving them creative control of their material and the freedom to pursue inspiration wherever it leads. It’s a comedy! It’s a drama! It’s an experimental film! It’s a blog with characters! All that and a jazz score, too.
2. “Enlightened” (HBO)
At first, Mike White and Laura Dern’s brilliant series about a recovering addict coasting in a soulless corporate job feels like the latest version of the Comedy of Mortification — the kind of show you sort of half-watch between splayed fingers. And it definitely is that kind of show, but it’s so much more than that: a corrosive satire about American corporate groupthink, a loving portrait of a grown-up daughter and her elderly, widowed mom (Diane Ladd, Dern’s real life mom) coping with the fallout of trauma; and a surprisingly upbeat, inspirational statement about damaged people picking up the pieces of their broken lives, and trying to improve themselves and the world.
1. “Mildred Pierce” (HBO)
My first article about Todd Haynes’ five-part adaptation of James M. Cain’s novel began, “‘Mildred Pierce’ is a masterpiece. I say that with some surprise, because I went into this five-part, limited-run HBO series skeptical of the channel’s motivation for making it (Period costumes! Kate Winslet! Emmy bait!) and resisting the appeal of its director, Todd Haynes (‘Safe’, ‘Far From Heaven’), a filmmaker whose work I’ve always admired but rarely loved. If I see a richer, more perfect drama on TV this year, I’ll be surprised.” The year is almost done, and I wouldn’t change a word of that.
Every Friday, Salon writer Matt Zoller Seitz sifts through beloved classics and obscure indies for a slide show that sheds light on the hidden connections and most fascinating moments in film and TV history.