Looking back at the last year of television, two things are clear: There are a lot of great dramas on TV… and almost all of them are on cable. In fact, only two of this year's selections air on network TV.
That's not to say that network television can't achieve greatness. But it's the cable dramas that truly excite us through original visions and by their willingness to explore dark territory that the broadcast channels can only dream of. These are the shows that had us on the edge of our seats eagerly awaiting the next episode… which is the hallmark of any great TV series.
After careful consideration, these ten shows were the best TV dramas of 2011.
10: SONS OF ANARCHY
"Sons of Anarchy" has always been a solid series on FX. But in the fourth season, the show hit a higher plateau with the twin storylines of Clay Morrow's (Ron Perlman) willingness to hurt or kill even his own extended family in order to preserve his secrets and the suicidal downturn of Juice (Theo Rossi) as he was blackmailed into betraying the Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club.
The rising tension in the final episodes was very impressive, as Clay murdered Piney (William Lucking) and he put out a hit on Tara Knowles (Maggie Siff); the fiancee of his stepson, Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam). Jax and Clay's subsequent confrontation in the season finale is among the best scenes of the entire year.
However, "Sons of Anarchy" cost itself a higher spot on this list by its unwillingness to commit to the storylines that it laid out. If only Clay or Juice had survived, it could have been forgiven. But by allowing both characters to continue into the next season, "Sons of Anarchy" displayed an apparent fear of moving forward towards its natural conclusion. And when it comes to drama, the truly great shows should never hold back.
9: DOCTOR WHO
Matt Smith's second year as the Doctor wasn't quite as strong as his first… through no fault of his own. Smith remains an inspired choice for the Last of the Time Lords and his manic energy and apt comic timing make even the worst "Doctor Who" episodes watchable.
And there were a few "Doctor Who" episodes this year that weren't very good. Or very good at all. The rule of thumb is that the best episodes are usually written by showrunner, Steven Moffat. However, Neil Gaiman also contributed an unforgettable episode this season, with "The Doctor's Wife."
One of the reasons that "Doctor Who" remains on this list are the strong performances by the supporting cast, including Karen Gillan as Amy Pond, Arthur Darvill as Rory Williams and Alex Kingston as River Song; whose true identity was revealed in a chillingly fantastic way even though it seemed obvious a few episodes ahead of time. Mark Sheppard also made a terrific guest appearance as Canton Everett Delaware III; while The Silence became the best new "Doctor Who" adversary since the Weeping Angels.
Moffat also wisely left the series hanging with a question that was hidden in plain sight. "Doctor… who?"
FX strikes again with "Justified," a brilliantly realized adaptation of Elmore Leonard's U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) and his dangerous life in Harlan County.
Olyphant is well suited for what may be the role of his lifetime, but he's far from the best thing about "Justified." Whoever casts this series deserves one hell of a raise, after choosing Margo Martindale to play Mags Bennet; the most unconventional and fascinating villain of 2011. The entire Bennet clan was interesting to watch, but Martindale brought such an inspired gravitas to Mags that she earned an Emmy Award for outstanding supporting actress.
Even the young actress, Kaitlyn Dever was astonishingly good as Loretta McCready. And who can forget Walton Goggins' Boyd Crowder? In the space of a season, Boyd went from a deeply conflicted soul to a born again criminal while wooing his brother's widow, Ava Crowder (Joelle Carter). It was an unconventional relationship to say the least.
"Justified" also put together an amazing string of episodes to close out the season. Suffice to say, no one leaves Harlan alive. And sometimes even Raylan's survival comes as a shock.
7: THE CHICAGO CODE
Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to present the best cop show of 2011… that almost nobody saw.
"The Chicago Code" was a cut above almost all broadcast network fare, thanks in large part to Shawn Ryan ("The Shield") and Tim Minear ("Terriers"). Although it lacked the language and adult content of a typical cable series, "The Chicago Code" was built on a rock solid foundation of Jason Clarke's Detective Jarek Wysocki, Jennifer Beals' Police Superintendent Teresa Colvin and Delroy Lindo's corrupt Alderman, Ronin Gibbons.
Gibbons proved to be one of the smartest and wiliest villains on TV, as he routinely outmaneuvered both Colvin and Wysocki, despite their well formed plans to bring him down. In some of her darkest hours, Colvin even had to turn to Gibbons for help. It was also shown that Gibbons may have deeply cared for his constituents despite being the dirtiest politician in the city.
One of the reasons that "The Chicago Code" is going to be so fondly remembered after a mere 13 episodes is that it managed to wrap up Gibbons' storyline while keeping the battle for Chicago's soul alive. It's a shame that viewers never embraced the series. "The Chicago Code" deserved a long network run and it is sorely missed.
6: LIGHTS OUT
Speaking of shows that are sorely missed, "Lights Out" is definitely one of those.
As the third FX series on our list, "Lights Out" invokes memories of "Terriers" in the way that the cable network produced one of its best dramas… and once again, an audience never found it.
I'm not the biggest boxing fan, but Holt McCallany was electrifying as former heavyweight champion Patrick "Lights" Leary. Lights was the anti-Rocky. He was reasonably intelligent and he did his best to be a good family man. Lights was also extremely desperate to reclaim his title, as he committed some morally ambiguous and even illegal actions just to survive.
Ironically, one of Lights' greatest faults was that he cared for his family too deeply and he had depleted his fortune by trying to take care of them. And while Lights sometimes made his family suffer through his choices, his ultimate penance of pugilistic dementia only served to make him more compelling.
"Lights" Leary was a contender to the end and this should rightfully be regarded as a classic series that ended far too soon.
5: STARGATE UNIVERSE
It was just about a year ago that Syfy gave fans a holiday sucker punch by canceling "Stargate Universe" in the middle of its second season after sending it out in the fall to be slaughtered by network competition.
But when "Stargate Universe" came back for the second half of its final season, it transitioned from a great show into an amazing series. Picking up a common sci-fi trope of alternate timelines, "Stargate Universe" explored a timeline in which the crew of the Destiny was stranded thousands of years in the past. And while the crew was ultimately saved from that fate and the alternate timeline was seemingly averted, the crew in the past didn't simply disappear. Instead, we watched the characters we knew grow old and have children before ultimately starting a technologically advanced human culture that still existed in the present… just in time for our favorite characters to get a glimpse of what became of themselves in the other timeline.
It was brilliant storytelling that played out over several episodes and it even remained as a stark reminder in the series finale. In what should have been the second season finale, Eli (David Blue) finally stepped up to become the hero (and the man) that he was always meant to be; when found a way to save his crew… possibly at the expense of his own life.
In the end, the series closed on a hopeful note that the crew of the Destiny could one day be rediscovered and revived. And I hope that the day comes soon. "Stargate Universe" was something special, and we should never forget the way that Syfy bungled what could have been one of the greatest sci-fi shows of all time.
4: BOARDWALK EMPIRE
One of the key differences between "Boardwalk Empire" and other drama series like "Sons of Anarchy" is that when it came time to wrap up its storylines, "Boardwalk Empire" didn't flinch at the thought of killing some of the most important and sympathetic characters on the show.
At times, the pace of "Boardwalk Empire" can seem slow and deliberate. However, the writers seem to have good instincts for when to kick things into gear or throw a few surprises at us. Who would have predicted that Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) would give up his power in Atlantic City while making another desperate play to survive? Similarly, the fall of Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon) arrived unexpectedly and the season finale of "Boardwalk Empire" is still the subject of debate and rumors.
HBO is one of the few networks that even attempts to do period dramas and "Boardwalk Empire" is impressive from top to bottom. It's well made, it looks amazing and it has a terrific cast of characters. It may not be "The Sopranos," but between "Boardwalk Empire" and at least one other series, HBO has reclaimed its golden touch for dramas.
Somewhere near the end of its second season, "Fringe" became the best sci-fi show on television. And it hasn't let up since.
For a series that deals so heavily with alternate universes, "Fringe" seems fortunate to have performers like Anna Torv and John Noble. Torv has found ways to make the two Olivia Dunhams into distinctly different people without overacting. She simply slips into their separate personas and treats both Olivia's as unique characters. Similarly, John Noble gets the joy of playing a sympathetically addled madman as Dr. Walter Bishop. But as Walternate, Noble is one of the fiercest villains on TV.
Even former "Dawson's Creek" star Joshua Jackson has really come into his own as Peter Bishop, a man suddenly without a world or a universe to call his own. Adding Seth Gabel to the main cast as Lincoln Lee has also helped freshen the dynamic for the fourth season of "Fringe." On top of all of that, the writers of "Fringe" have continuously created new and compelling adversaries who seem just as human as the main characters. This is sci-fi with a heart… even if the heart came from some animal we'd rather not talk about. ("Thanks, Walter!")
"Fringe" is a thrilling ride, I just wish more people would give it a chance. "Fringe" is everything that "The X-Files" should have been and it may be one of those once in a generation shows that simply isn't appreciated in its own time.
2: BREAKING BAD
For rising tension, no show on TV can compare with "Breaking Bad." If there was ever a television series that kept audiences on the edge of their seats, this is it.
The creators of "Breaking Bad" are fearless when it comes to chemistry teacher turned meth cook, Walter White (Bryan Cranston). For four seasons we've watched this once good man become something unspeakable. It's almost as if the show is challenging the viewer to still root for Walt despite his metamorphosis. And after what he apparently did during the fourth season's closing episodes, Walt certainly earned some hatred from the audience. But we can't turn away now.
"Breaking Bad" still has one of the best casts on television and Cranston continues to give an amazing performance as Walter White. Aaron Paul remained strong as Jesse Pinkman; who was lost to a haze of drugs and grief before redefining himself as one of Gus's top men. Which brings us to the man himself, Gustavo "Gus" Fring (Giancarlo Esposito). There's something about Esposito's preternaturally calm demeanor that makes Gus simultaneously terrifying and compelling. Gus was just a fantastic villain and his ultimate fate will be one of the most iconic moments of television in this decade.
Next season will be the last for "Breaking Bad." But after four solid seasons as one of the best shows on TV, it should be a hell of a finish.
1: GAME OF THRONES
Alongside "Boardwalk Empire," "Game of Thrones" is responsible for ushering in a new golden age of dramas at HBO. AMC and FX are close behind it, but neither network has anything that can match "Game of Thrones." This is epic television at its finest.
Adapted from George R.R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" novel series, David Benioff and D. B. Weiss have successfully brought Martin's richly envisioned fantasy to life in such a vivid manner that even critics who cringe at the thought of genre programming have admitted that "Game of Thrones" is like nothing else on television. And while the production values are amazing, it's the characters that ultimately draw the audience into the intrigue of Westros.
Peter Dinklage was rightfully honored with an Emmy Award for his soulful and hilarious portrayal of Tyrion Lannister. But Dinklage is far from the only talented performer on this cast. Even relative newcomers like Kit Harington and Emilia Clarke shine as Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen; respectively. The young performers like Maisie Williams, Sophie Turner and Jack Gleeson have also completely inhabited their characters. I'm particularly impressed by Gleeson's King Joffrey Baratheon; who happens to be the villain that you hate for all of the right reasons.
Even smaller roles like Aidan Gillen's Petyr "Littlefinger" Baelish can take the audience by surprise, both by their depth and by their willingness to pursue their own ends. "Game of Thrones" combines these great performances with an unfolding tale on a vast and dangerous stage. No one is safe on this show, as viewers of the first season have come to find out.
"Game of Thrones" stands alone as the best TV drama of 2011. And long may it reign!