As per my tradition here, I'll be posting each of the 50 entries in the list one at a time throughout this week, 10 a day, and you can follow me on Twitter as I unveil each choice:
50. "Death Valley" (MTV)
MTV is primarily known for its soul-killing reality shows these days, but its less infamous scripted programming is often even worse: "Awkward." is a horrifying show in which the hero is a 15-year-old girl desperately trying to get the guy she's regularly having sex with to officially date her, and the animated series "Good Vibes" gets my nod for the worst TV series of 2011. But amidst that wasteland is "Death Valley," a surprisingly funny and smartly executed show that sounds like it should be hokey and played out: a mockumentary about cops in a California overrun with vampires and zombies and werewolves. Even the special effects and makeup, while definitely not expensive, feel just original enough and strangely realistic that you can kind of get caught up in the whole idea, in ways that you can't with something as po-faced as "The Walking Dead."
49. "The Big Bang Theory" (CBS)
This year "The Big Bang Theory" finally overtook its troubled older sibling "Two And A Half Men" as the most watched sitcom on television, and went into syndication on seemingly half the channels on my cable package. As far as pop culture juggernauts go, though, it's still a surprisingly charming and resilient show that remains as worth tuning into as it's ever been, whether or not you ever thought it was to begin with. The writers have managed to avoid either diagnosing or painting Sheldon into a corner, and have finally found a funny female foil for him, while the ensemble cast continues to get bigger and goofier yet more relatable as stereotypical geeks rather than geek stereotypes.
48. "The Killing" (AMC)
One of the consequences of my following such an insane number of shows this year, and for much that time doing it as a stay-at-home dad, is that often I was just kind of keeping up with new episodes, and not paying very close attention. But in the era of a thousand TV recap sites, you can still be a very casual surface-level viewer of a show while someone else catches the little details and points them out to you online. So by the time "The Killing" got to its defiantly, hilariously resolution-free first season finale, I'd already had dozens of plot holes and logic lapses pointed out to me, all the while enjoying the show from week to week as just a nicely acted and directed murder mystery, with a great aesthetic and sense of atmosphere and foreboding dread. It wasn't as smart as it wanted to be, sure, but I kind of feel that way about every AMC show, and this one offered more satisfaction in the way of visceral mood-building and moment-to-moment drama for me than most of the others.
47. "Single Ladies" (VH1)
I don't watch a lot of things for camp value or defend them as a 'guilty pleasure,' but this hilariously braindead primetime soap, a brazenly transparent attempt at a black "Sex And The City," is just a lot of stupid, poorly acted fun. It helps that Stacey Dash and LisaRaye are the most smoking hot 40-plus eye candy on TV, but really the show itself raises incompetent writing and acting to an artform on its own. My personal highlight of the first season was Mac Miller showing up in a story arc that was almost a precise reenactment of Saigon's stint on "Entourage."
46. "Episodes" (Showtime)
I initially found this show more interesting to think about and write about on a conceptual level than to actually watch it, and was reserved about the idea of some of the creators and stars of "Friends" and "Mad About You" belatedly jumping on a bunch of different bandwagons (single camera sitcoms, show biz meta, stars playing broad caricatures of themselves, British comedies of embarrassment). But as the show unfolded and Matt LeBlanc got more ridiculous with each episode, it really came into its own.
45. "Suburgatory" (ABC)
This fall's slate of new sitcoms has been pretty dire overall (it says something that shows as mediocre as "2 Broke Girls" and "Man Up" could actually be considered bright spots compared to "Whitney" or "How To Be A Gentleman"). My pick for the best of the season so far might've been "Free Agents" if it had lasted more than four episodes, but at the moment I'm going with "Suburgatory," which has an adorable lead actress in Jane Levy and a supporting cast full of funny people like Alan Tudyk, Cheryl Hines and Rex Lee, and is a lot more charming and creative than a show based on nothing but a city girl griping about living in the suburbs should be. It's a little awkward, however, that there's only a 15-year age difference between Levy and Jeremy Sisto, who plays her father, and that she calls him "George" instead of "Dad" on the show -- several people I've talked to were confused about whether they were supposed to be a couple, as was David Letterman when he interviewed Levy.
44. "That Metal Show" (VH1 Classic)
The hosts are irredeemably dorky, and the music they cover is really a pretty wide net of hard rock rather than just metal, but both of those things that bothered me at first ultimately make it a more endearing and enjoyable show to watch. Where else on TV is anyone ever going to argue about whether Neil Peart or Bon Scott is a better lyricist, or fawn over the guy from King's X?
43. "Live! with Regis and Kelly" (syndicated)
I feel weirdly sentimental about the recent retirings (and in some cases deaths) of broadcasters that have been ubiquitous on TV for as long as I can remember like Larry King and Andy Rooney and, a little further back, Bob Barker. I always avoided Regis's show in the Kathie Lee years, and then only found it occasionally a pleasant morning distraction with Kelly Ripa, but really Regis is just such a strange and ingratiating presence that I really will miss just having the option of tuning into his show now and again when I'm home in the morning.
42. "State of Georgia" (ABC Family)
Nobody will ever ever believe me about this, but the show starring Raven-Symoné that ABC Family ran for 12 episodes over the summer was actually really surprisingly funny the few times I saw it, she had a real comedic chemistry with Majandra Delfino and the whole show had kind of a throwback "I Love Lucy" screwball sensibility to it.
41. "Rizzoli & Isles" (TNT)
Cable is beating the networks at hourlong dramas so soundly these days that even in the one format that the networks still do well at, law enforcement procedurals about implausibly attractive people, the best show in that category is on basic cable. Or at least the one with the prettiest people (see also: USA's "Fairly Legal").
40. "Breakout Kings" (A&E)
A prison break-themed show from the writers of "Prison Break" that FOX passed on and ended up on a channel that people don't even have any idea does original scripted series (it also has "The Glades," which is pretty decent). But a great ensemble including Jimmi Simpson and "The Wire"'s Domenick Lombardozzi rose the show above what anybody would've reasonably expected from it, especially over the course of the first season as the dynamics between the characters evolved and revealed themselves much more subtly and more interestingly than you usually see on a criminal-of-the-week kind of show.
39. "Ebert Presents At The Movies" (syndicated)
It probably makes sense that I grew up to be a critic since I'd been watching and enjoying Siskel and Ebert on TV since I was a kid (I even saw the episode where they tore apart North when it originally aired!). They were replaced by an increasingly depressing sequence of new critics in the years after Gene Siskel died and Roger Ebert lost the use of his voice, and the only reason I gave the latest reboot of the show a chance is that Ebert is behind it. Christy Lemire and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky might not be the greatest critics or the greatest TV hosts, but they're both credible enough with their opinions and are starting to have a nice onscreen dynamic, and Ebert still gets a word in here and there (usually with someone else reading his reviews or commentary as a voiceover).
38. "Game of Thrones" (HBO)
I have not and probably never will read any of the A Song of Ice and Fire novels, but my wife has, and so she's become an invaluable translation tool in me even beginning to understand and appreciate this show. It still goes over my head a little and isn't necessarily up my alley, but I am enjoying it. Really, it's worth watching just for Peter Dinklage, I was so happy when dude won the Emmy.
37. "The Whitest Kids U' Know" (IFC)
For five seasons "The Whitest Kids U' Know" was just yet another of the dozens of sketch troupes with some occasional funny moments, a whole lot of bad ideas, and comparisons to "Monty Python" or "The Kids In The Hall" that they couldn't possibly live up to. In its fifth and final season, though, I finally started to feel some real affection for the show and appreciate the inherent comedy in their over-the-top concepts and defiantly half-assed acting and staging. Each episode of the last season featured excerpts from a ridiculous longer work called "The Civil War On Drugs" that even showed something approaching ambition from these guys.
36. "Grimm" (NBC)
There's been a bit of snickering about the fact that the networks have invested in two different fairytale-themed new dramas this fall, but against all odds both are actually pretty entertaining and well-made, with this slightly edging out "Once Upon A Time" as my favorite at the moment, particularly for its really impressive, unique special effects aesthetic.
35. "Pop-Up Video" (VH1)
It's really a shame that this show ever went off the air, and I'm just glad it's back. Music videos as a viable programming option for even channels once created to show them have been dead for a while (real talk: MTV2 would actually rather play "Boy Meets World" reruns at this point than videos), so we might as well have ways to sneak them on the air with some added content.
34. "Beavis & Butt-Head" (MTV)
"Beavis & Butt-Head" was off the air for even longer than "Pop-Up Video" and once offered even more entertaining commentary on music videos, but I have to admit I'm surprised how fine I am with the return of the show tackling shows like "Jersey Shore" instead of just new videos. As much as I laughed at the show in its heyday, I was never really sure at the time whether Mike Judge wasn't a one-trick pony who might not be much smarter than his characters. After Office Space and "King Of The Hill," I don't have to wonder that anymore, and enjoy what brilliant comic creations Beavis and Butt-Head are even more.
33. "Mike & Molly" (CBS)
As Chuck Lorre shows go, this is less "Two And A Half Men" nastiness than "Dharma & Greg" cartoony sweetness, except not horribly annoying like the latter, and it's actually kind of nice to see a sitcom that's just about a couple and the blossoming of their relationship, no on-again-off-again. But mostly it's just a show full of funny women, not just the deservedly Emmy-winning Melissa McCarthy but also Katy Mixon and Swoosie motherfuckin' Kurtz.
32. "The Green Room With Paul Provenza" (Showtime)
With the explosion in podcasts and documentaries dedicated to interviewing standup comics or otherwise dissecting their profession, I like that The Aristocrats director Paul Provenza found a way to get four or five great comics in a room at once (usually more like two or three great ones and a couple of seat-fillers, but hey) for what usually amounts to a really vulgar, funny bull session, uncensored on late night premium cable. Insight into the art of comedy or one comic's creative process occasionally happens, but it's kind of a detour en route to something funnier and weirder.
31. "Bored To Death" (HBO)
The third season of "Bored To Death" has been a little off from the peak of sudden, unexpected hilarity this show broke into in its second season, mostly because Zach Galiafinakis's adventures in parenthood have been one hackneyed predictable scenario after another, but it's still pretty funny.
30. "Hung" (HBO)
Like "Bored To Death," this is the kind of underachieving, good but rarely great show that would probably never get a third season anywhere but HBO. That's a problem when it's something like "Treme" that just needs to be so much better to justify its existence, but in the case of "Hung" I'm just happy it's been around this long and is slowly finding new ways to have fun with its premise and its characters, which were pretty entertaining to start with.
29. "Breaking Bad" (AMC)
"Breaking Bad" is the kind of drama that a lot of people I know or talk to online really, really love and think is the best thing on TV, and I always feel like I kinda get it, but not really, I just don't feel that love. At times it can deliver some pretty amazing moments, but more and more I feel like the writers are just making shit up as they go along and throwing a lot of sketchy plot and character developments at the wall in hopes of just totally blowing the minds of whatever potheads are watching.
28. "Parks & Recreation" (NBC)
"Parks & Recreation" is the kind of sitcom that a lot of people I know or talk to online really, really love and think is the best thing on TV, and I always feel like I kinda get it, but not really, I just don't feel that love. In the last two episodes that aired in 2010, Rob Lowe and Adam Scott joined the cast and I instantly liked them more than pretty much everybody already in the cast and was prepared to finally start really enjoying the show. Lowe has been great, although Scott has alternately been a wet blanket and a boring love interest, so that addition didn't totally pan out like I'd hoped for, but a bigger ensemble still means less Aziz Ansari overall.
27. "Sports Show With Norm Macdonald" (Comedy Central)
The worst part about Norm MacDonald's "Saturday Night Live" firing was not just the ridiculous injustice of it but that that was the best possible format for Norm's style of humor, taking the unique sensibility of his standup and putting him behind a news anchor desk to add just the right dash of stilted absurdity to the whole thing. And it took him 13 years to finally get back on TV in a project that just let him do that again. And then Comedy Central fucking canceled it.
26. "Cougar Town" (ABC)
A friend of mine made a weird running joke out of being really into "Cougar Town," and excitedly tweeting about the show when it came on every week, months before the whole thing with Abed on "Community." I played along with it, while at the time was really coming around to genuinely and unironically enjoying the show, which dials down the broad silliness of its predecessor "Scrubs" while retaining its punchy, oddball rhythms and tight chemistry between cast members.
25. "True Blood" (HBO)
After three seasons of putting all of its characters through a constant, unrelenting sequence of crises, it felt like a really great, refreshing idea for the fourth season of "True Blood" to start with jumping forward a year. Even if it made no real difference in the viewer's experience, just knowing that the characters got a breather and that you got to leap forward a little in their lives, and that they had a relatively catastrophe-free year offscreen, helped kind of put the whole thing back on track to near its season 2 peak.
24. "Being Human" (Syfy)
After "Death Valley" and "True Blood," I feel a bit ridiculous putting a total of three shows about vampires and werewolves on this damn list. But whatever, the BBC show is really good and entertaining and the first sesason of the American adaptation is almost as enjoyable.
23. "Men Of A Certain Age" (TNT)
The first season of "Men Of A Certain Age" that aired in 2009 and 2010 won a Peabody and got Emmy nominations, and was shaping up to be a long-running, prestigious cable hit. Then, the second season debuted in January, got terrible ratings, and was pulled from TNT's schedule after a few episodes, with the second half of the season relaunching in the summer and not faring any better, resulting in the show's cancellation soon after. I'm not sure exactly what happened, but the show's swift and sudden downfall had nothing to do with the quality of the show, which never faltered.
22. "Wilfred" (FX)
The first lengthy trailer I saw for "Wilfred" on FX was just a great WTF moment of having no idea whether it was a series or a movie or why the hell anyone would think either would be a good idea, and yet still being strangely amped about the whole thing. The show frequently didn't quite live up to that moment, but it was also in some strange ways richer and more unpredictable than the silly guy-in-a-dog-suit premise. And from what I watched of the original Australian series, I have to say they improved upon it here.
21. "The Colbert Report" (Comedy Central)
When "The Colbert Report" debuted, I was a little worried that its heroic commitment to the host's hilarious self-caricature would quickly turn Colbert into a one-trick pony without the long term shelf life of "The Daily Show." But six years later, I still laugh at that ridiculous intro sequence, and every interview entrance, while each night's twist on the headlines gets more perversely creative.
20. "The Onion News Network" (IFC)
As great as Stephen Colbert is at creating a satirical newscaster persona that bears his own name, there's a whole other layer going on with "Onion News Network" anchor Brooke Alvarez, played by actual longtime TV reporter and occasional FOX News personality Suzanne Sena. She plays the whole thing so straight, in just the perfect newscaster tones with a tiny little knowing glint in her eye, that you can almost forgot how hilariously evil everything she's saying is.
19. "Raising Hope" (FOX)
"Up All Night" coming off to me almost as bland as that cartoon version of "Baby Blues" was kind of the reassurance I needed that my love for "Raising Hope" wasn't just a reflexive embrace of any show that can make comedy about life with a newborn that I can identify with since I've spent the last two years as a father. Parenthood raises the stakes on everything,
18. "Louie" (FX)
The first season of "Louie" was frustrating to me in the same way as when a band makes a record like, I dunno, Kid A, abandoning certain facets of the artist's intrinsic appeal and genre tropes without necessarily putting a lot of ideas in to fill that void. It kind of felt like an artsy "Seinfeld Chronicles," with the awkward marriage of a pro standup doing what he does best mashed into some seriously half-assed acting and storytelling. The second season didn't change all that much, and is still clearly all about Louis C.K. doing whatever the fuck he wants, but what he wanted to do made me laugh or drew me in a lot more often this time around, especially in episodes like "Subway/Pamela" and "Eddie" and "Oh Louie/Tickets" where he was really genuinely getting away with great, great stuff that no other show on TV would even think of trying.
17. "Childrens Hospital" (Cartoon Network)
The whole idea of 5 or 10-minute 'webisodes' being produced as any kind of supplement or alternative to actual half-hour and hourlong television episodes has always been kind of inherently hard for me to take seriously. But when Rob Corddry decided to turn this little web series into an actual TV show, he actually chose Cartoon Network over Comedy Central because they could give him one of those 15-minute timeslots that work so well for its cartoons. And I have to say, it was the right choice -- there's so much satirical absurdity packed into every minute of this show that a half hour would either be overkill or would feel slack by comparison.
16. "Conan" (TBS)
I hate to say it, but I can't stay up past 12:35 all the time to watch my favorite late night shows like I could back in Conan's NBC heyday, not with a son that wakes up at dawn every morning. So my favorite thing about his move to TBS might be that he's on even earlier than during that brief "Tonight Show" tenure, so I've actually been watching his show more consistently than the '90s, if ever, and he and Andy definitely seem to be enjoying their new home, however they got there.
15. "Workaholics" (Comedy Central)
Comedy Central has canceled so many shows after one season, especially virtually any attempt at a live action sitcom, that Daniel Tosh will never run out of former CC shows to reference every week. So "Workaholics" coming back for a second season just a few months after the first, and already having been renewed for a third, is a testament to the fact that this crude, seemingly unpromising little series is onto something. Adam DeVine is just about the oddest motherfucker on television these days, but the whole trio at the center of the show has really strange, hilarious chemistry.
14. "The Voice" (NBC)
As a lapsed "American Idol" fan I was kind of happy to watch any kind of singing competition show that didn't involve Randy Jackson or a month of cringe-inducing amateur auditions. But "The Voice" went the extra mile of actually having a refreshing format, some judges and coaches I actually respect as singers, and a brisk pace that made it more engaging than "Idol" had been in ages.
13. "How I Met Your Mother" (CBS)
As "How I Met Your Mother" stretches into its seventh season, and is committed to go at least eight, the call gets louder and louder that it's past its peak and/or that they need to get on with it and reveal the mother (as if it's "Lost" or some shit and resolving the 'mystery' is really key on this show). And while there are some definite bumps in the road -- season 7 opened with two back-to-back episodes featuring stale plots about YouTube infamy -- I really think the show is about as funny as it ever was, give or take, and that the characters are still enjoyable to watch and kinda grow older with.
12. "Happy Endings" (ABC)
In the 17 years since "Friends" became a rating phenomenon, the networks have lobbed a thousand sitcoms on the air featuring amorphous groups of attractive urbanite twentysomethings, and other than "How I Met Your Mother" virtually all of them have been short-lived and worthless. When "Happy Endings" aired its first episode in the midseason no man's land of April, there was no reason to believe it wouldn't quickly suffer the same fate (it even echoed the "Friends" pilot with the runaway bride premise!). But somehow it got a second season, and so far has just gotten tighter and funnier and more its own show than a collection of 'hangout comedy' cliches with each episode. Gotta give Damon Wayans, Jr. some respect for getting his career going with something like this instead of a Scary Movie sequel or that upcoming "In Living Color" reboot, too.
11. "The Soup" (E!)
I want "Community" to stay on the air as long as possible, but I have to admit, I'd be a little bummed if it'd become successful enough that Joel McHale would consider leaving "The Soup." The move to Wednesdays is kind of weirding me out because it's been such a part of my weekend ritual for the past 7 years, but I'm not complaining.
10. "Eagleheart" (Cartoon Network)
Chris Elliott was my first comedy hero who felt like a true cult figure, from the Letterman sketches to "Get A Life" to Cabin Boy, he was the guy I thought was hilarious that none of my friends at school seemed to know about. But for a long, long time, it felt like he'd lost his niche and was just bumbling along, in that one abortive year at "Saturday Night Live" and undistinguished sitcom guest spots and Scary Movie sequels. Then, Conan O'Brien produced an Adult Swim series satirizing "Walker, Texas Ranger," and it finally felt like Chris Elliott was back in a role he was born to play.
9. "Saturday Night Live" (NBC)
A funny thing happened over the summer as "SNL" was gearing up to begin its 37th season: nobody got fired or hired. Usually over every hiatus between seasons, the show loses some valued cast member, and often replaces them with one or two new featured players that may (but probably won't), but this year the cast actually stayed the same. And I have to say, I'm really happy about that, I like pretty much everyone on the show right now, even people like I used to be kind of skeptical of like Bobby Moynihan, and even if Kristen Wiig has kind of run through her whole bag of tricks a few times over now, she's still a welcome presence (although I'm looking forward to Nasim Pedrad taking over as alpha female the moment she leaves).
8. "Shameless" (Showtime)
"Shameless" is that special kind of show where a really hot actress you'd never expect to get naked onscreen like Emmy Rossum is just doing constant sex scenes. Also it's pretty well written and has a great ensemble cast and a fun freewheeling atmosphere, for what it's worth.
7. "The Daily Show" (Comedy Central)
It seemed like this year there was a higher incidence than usual of nitpicky wet blanket articles about why "The Daily Show" is taking itself too seriously or is sexist or whatever, but fuck that noise, still worth watching every damn night. I never much cared for Kristen Schaal on "Flight of the Conchords" or in her standup, but "The Daily Show" has really figured out how to use her well, especially in that amazing 'money rape' segment that's possibly one of my top 10 favorite "Daily Show" bits of all time.
6. "Bob's Burgers" (FOX)
AKA the other reason I am now a fan of Kristen Schaal, along with all the people involved in this that I love dearly from "Home Movies" (including H. Jon Benjamin, who's still a TV MVP even as "Archer" and "Jon Benjamin Has A Van" pulled down his batting average this year). FOX has tried so many times to fill out their Sunday night animation lineup with a non-Groening/McFarlane production, especially since "King Of The Hill" finally went off the air, and this is the first one I can remember really rooting for and hoping it sticks around.
5. "Suits" (USA)
I remember in the '90s, when I used to joke about how the USA network was giving the country a bad name with all those "Wings" reruns. Now, like them or not, they're the #1 rated cable network. The original programming that got them there is pretty fluffy across the board -- even the justifiably award-winning "Monk" was a very goofy show, and their big action series, "Burn Notice," is so lightweight that I just couldn't watch it for more than a couple episodes. This year, they threw out a lot of new shows that I found myself enjoying and even respected more than I expected to, including the unapologetically fluffy "Fairly Legal" and "Necessary Roughness." But "Suits" was the first show that made me feel like USA could put something on the air that can compete with more 'serious' networks for my attention. It's not exactly dark, and it's very snappy and has lots of really good-looking people, but it's one of the smarter and better written legal shows on the air in recent memory. I think NBC should pick it up and put "Harry's Law" on USA where it rightfully belongs.
4. "30 Rock" (NBC)
I have never placed "30 Rock" outside the top 5 of my year-end lists for as long as it's been on the air. I thought about it this year, but only because it was off the air for the fall so there were a lot fewer new episodes in 2011.
3. "Justified" (FX)
I thought the praise for "Justified" in its first season was a bit overbaked, I mean people compared it to "The Wire" fer chrissakes. But in its second season it almost immediately grabbed my attention in ways it never had in the first year, especially with the whole plot involving the Bennett clan and its matriarch, played by the very deserving Emmy winner Margo Martindale.
2. "Sons of Anarchy" (FX)
As good as "Justified" was this year, "Sons Of Anarchy" remained my favorite show on what's become my favorite network for cable drama. In the last few years as cable shows have gotten away with more and more sex and gore and violence, I've developed what I like to call 'shock value fatigue' where the more crazy transgressive stuff happens on "Breaking Bad" or "Boardwalk Empire" or especially "American Horror Story," the less I give a shit about the characters or what's happening to them. But almost every episode of "Sons" this year has left me genuinely exhausted from kind of gasping in disbelief and being kind of amazed at how it feels like a climactic culmination of everything the show has been building to and yet this isn't the last season. The show's placing on this list has definitely been inflated by the fact that I'm still devouring the last few episodes and waiting for the finale.
1. "Community" (NBC)
My inner 'give someone else a turn' instinct kept telling me I can't put this show at #1 two years in a row. But I finally decided to give in and do it anyway last month, just before NBC announced it was gonna take it off the schedule for a while and everybody freaked out, so I'm glad I made that call before that factored into it. Really this gets the spot for the My Dinner With Andre homage in "Critical Film Studies" alone, but "Early 21st Century Romanticism" and "Paradigms of Human Memory" and "Advanced Gay" were also amazing episodes up there with the best of the show's incredible 2010 run. Even the episode that just aired last night was great. Shame this show spawned Childish Gambino, though.