TV's top 10: My picks for 2011

This is the time when everyone gets to gripe and grumble about top-10 lists and such. Here's the one I set to papers; later, I'll also put my year-in-review story; let the grumbling begin:


TV critics agree on very little, except
that “Seinfeld” was funny, “West Wing” was smart and “H8R”
was a low moment in civilization.

So any top-10 list is an adventure.
Here's what I saw as the 10 best shows of 2011:

1) “American Masters.” The year
started with a living actor (Jeff Bridges) and ended with dead
designers (Charles and Ray Eames). It ranged from an imposing dance
master (Bill T. Jones) to an unimposing comic (Woody Allen); it had a
nature zealot (John Muir) and musicians – Pearl Jam, James Levine,
James Taylor, Carole King. The approaches varied; the quality didn't.
These were deep, involving portraits. (PBS, check local listings;
Eames is Dec. 19, Taylor-King reruns Dec. 30, Phil Ochs is Jan. 23)

2) “Friday Night Lights.” TV rarely
captures the rhythms of blue-collar or small-town life; this show did
perfectly. It projected deep emotions with a glance, a nod, a few
words. And occasionally, it had some football. (DirecTV, rerunning on
NBC; already concluded)

3) “The Daily Show.” In his 12 year
as anchor, Jon Stewart keeps getting better, reacting to life's
silliest moments. And this year – with presidential candidates
soaring and crashing – he's been in his glory. (Comedy Central, 11
p.m. Mondays through Thursdays)

4) “Big Bang Theory.” Other shows
rise and fall; “Big Bang” remains sharp and funny. Its writers
and actors show a love of the characters, even while knowing their
flaws. (CBS, 8 p.m. Thursdays)

5) “American Experience.” Back in
1961, young people confronted the core of racism. A half-century
later, they recalled the most important moments in their lives, in
“Freedom Riders.” That film – and a musical companion piece,
“Soundtrack of a Revolution” – were compelling, but many other
films were also superb. They ranged from New York's deadly Triangle
fire to consecutive portraits of the Civil War foes, Robert E. Lee
and U.S. Grant. (PBS, new season starts Feb. 20-21)

6) “Rescue Me.” In its seven
seasons, Denis Leary's show ranged from goofy comedy to the pain of
firemen who couldn't connect to the outside world. The finale
included all of that, a rich farewell to great characters. (FX,

7) “Modern Family.” Most comedies
are content with one or two good characters; this show has 10 or
more, each wonderfully likable and wonderfully flawed. All six
grown-ups drew Emmy nominations and the kids are worthy too. They're
part of a neatly textured comedy, (ABC, 9 p.m. Wednesdays).

8) “Downton Abbey.” After adapting
the classics, Julian Fellowes came up with a better idea – original
scripts, set in olden times. He won an Oscar for “Gosford Park,”
an Emmy for this one. “Abbey” also won for best mini-series,
despite some melodramatic touches and a weak ending. That last part
may seem OK when the sequel arrives Jan. 8. (PBS, check local
listings;reruns Dec. 18, Dec. 25, Jan. 1.)

9) “Justified.” The first season
was filled with tersely terrific dialog in the Elmore Leonard style.
The second added a worthy opponent, a crime matriarch in the Kentucky
Hills; Margo Martindale played it to Emmy-winning perfection. (FX,
third season starts Jan. 17)

10) “New Girl” … or maybe “2
Broke Girls” … or “Whitney.” Each of these new shows tends to
be a bit too jokey. Still, they're great fun and (with “Suburgatory”)
part of a wave of fresh, female-focused comedies. (“New” is 9
p.m. Tuesdays, Fox; “Broke,” 8:30 p.m. Mondays, CBS; “Whitney,”
9:30 p.m. Thursdays, NBC, soon movig to Wednesdays; “Suburgatory,”
8:30 p.m. Wednesdays, ABC).

Also 10) Let's give a nod to two others: The year's best TV movie was Lifetime's "Five," a beautiful blend of five separate films about the impact of breast cancer. And on Starz, "Torchwood: Miracle Day" was superb science-fiction, the sort we expect from producer-writer Russell Davies.