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The Playlist's Picks: Best TV Shows Of The 2011/2012 Season

by Oliver Lyttelton
June 13, 2012 2:52 PM
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8. "Justified"
The Elmore Leonard-inspired "Justified" graduated from a promising escaped-con-of-the-week show to one of TV's finest dramas in its second season (it placed fourth on this list last year), thanks both to a larger role for Walton Goggins and an unforgettable villain in the Emmy-winning Margo Martindale's chilling criminal matriarch. Indeed, the latter was so extraordinary that the void that she left after being killed off at the end of the season seemed like it could never be filled. But while creator Graham Yost and co. couldn't quite conjure a character to match her turn, the addition of a duo of villains and a fiendishly plotted overall arc found them coming remarkably close. This time around, Marshall Raylan Givens is brought to a new personal low after his pregnant ex-wife leaves him again, and he winds up living above a bar, working as a bouncer on the side, giving Timothy Olyphant some fine new notes to play while remaining as charming as ever. And he and his long-term ally/adversary Boyd Crowder (Goggins), who's trying to consolidate his power in Harlan, had their hands full, thanks both to carpetbagger Robert Quarles (Neal McDonough), a sexually deviant, Taxi-Driver-gun-armed Detroit mobster in exile who's looking to take over the Oxycontin racket in Kentucky. And that's without mentioning Limehouse (Mykelti Williamson), the manipulative, omnipresent slaughterhouse owner who rules over the predominately African-American area of Noble's Holler and acts as something of a banker for the various criminal types at play, all the while pursuing his own agenda. And then there's the various memorable one-off criminals that crop up across the series, from Pruitt Taylor Vince as a pawn shop owner to William Mapother as an unpleasant pimp. Or a returning Jeremy Davies as the son of Martindale's character. Or Stephen Tobolowsky as a slimy FBI guy. Or Carla Gugino, essentially playing Karen Sisco from "Out of Sight" (which she played on a short-lived, but excellent, show a decade or so ago). The micro plots were frequently hugely enjoyable and the macro plot even more so -- complex and surprising in a way that's reminiscent of the best of Leonard's work. And the writers more than have a feel for his snappy dialogue at this point -- it's one of the more quotable shows on the air these days. There are still some issues that could be worked out -- there were a couple of duff episodes, and Yost honestly seems much more interested in the criminals than the lawmen (he's still not worked out to do with Raylan's colleagues). But as far as pulpy, hugely engaging crime tales go, this is a helluva entertaining hour of TV.
Must-See Episode: A few contenders here, but it must go to the fifth episode, "Thick As Mud," a long-awaited showcase for Damon Herriman's dim-witted redneck criminal Dewey Crowe, who's been broken out of prison by a sadistic nurse and told that his kidneys have been removed and that he needs to go out on the rob for money to buy them back. The conflict between Boyd and Quarles brews niely in the background, but this is also proof that the show can still handle strong short solo stories, and it's a good entry point to the series for newcomers.   

7. "Archer"
Prime-time animation hasn't quite delivered a classic series since the long-gone heyday of "The Simpsons" (although if you haven't seen that show in a while, the most recent season was stronger than it's been in a while). It remains hugely popular, thanks to Seth MacFarlane's trio of shows, and programs like "Futurama" and "Bob's Burgers" have fervent fanbases, but nothing's quite hit that sweet spot in the same way. But damned if "Archer" didn't come as close as anything in its third season this year. The FX show follows the titular secret agent (H. Jon Benjamin), his hard-drinking, sexed-up mother/boss (Jessica Walter), and their co-workers of varying degree of competence and sanity (including Aisha Tyler, Judy Greer and Chris Parnell), as they fight for ISIS against a wide range of foes. Spy spoofs are just about as old as the spy genre, but "Archer" works by getting the genre down (the show often includes terrific action sequences), and then by pretty much shunting it to the side in favor of workplace bickering and absurdist comedy. It's not just the presence of Greer and Bluth family matriarch Walter (as well as guest spots from the likes of David Cross and Jeffrey Tambor) that make the show feel like a successor to "Arrested Development" -- it's the tight-as-a-drum plotting, the obscure references and callbacks, and sheer density of comedy on the series. And creator Adam Reed (who has sole writing credit on almost every episode) hit new heights with the third season. It was partly familiarity with the characters, both from the writing room and for the audience. It was partly a move into longer-form plotting: a three-part blockbuster prologue to the season where Archer becomes a south sea Pirate King, a two-part season finale featuring a superb Bryan Cranston as the voice of an astronaut. It was partly that the new, more serialized approach meant the show moved beyond being a simple gag machine and became involving, and even a little moving in places. But mainly it was the sheer consistency -- only a single episode, "Drift Problem," where Archer is given a high-tech spy car by his mother, fell a little flat. Otherwise, a relentless kind of brilliance was kept across the series, and we can only hope there's much more to come. We'd be remiss without mentioning the look of the show -- a gorgeous, semi-retro world that feels significantly more impressive than some of its Adult Swim progenitors, it's a genuine pleasure to watch every week.
Must-See Episode: "The Limited," episode six, in which ISIS are charged with escorting a Nova Scotian seperatist terrorist back to Canada on a train, eventually letting Archer fulfil his long-time ambition to have a fist-fight on top of a speeding train. It's stuffed full of highlights, but Archer's excitable reaction to Cheryl's pet ocelot Babou will never, ever stop being funny.

6. "Louie"
Louis C.K. has an unusual and much-envied arrangement with his network FX: he brings in his series "Louie" for significantly less than the usual budget for a half-hour comedy, and in exchange, gets complete creative freedom, writing, directing and even editing (on his laptop) the show himself. And as a result, despite at a distance resembling the old "stand-up plays thinly-veiled version of themself" trope, "Louie" isn't quite like anything else on TV; a freewheeling collection of short stories (drawn together with thematically relevant stand-up footage) about some of the big questions in life including family, sex, sexuality, death and loneliness. The major thing to note about "Louie" is that it's not really gut-bustingly funny. It has its moments, for sure, and it's wryly, quietly humorous throughout, but C.K. has no interest in hitting some kind of sitcom laugh-meter, simply setting out to tell the stories he wants to tell, and more often than not he knocks it out of the park. The show's major advantage is its truthfulness: from the opening scene of the second season premiere when Louie's young daughter tells him that she loves her mom more than him, to the desperately awkward and heartbreaking closer when he waves off unrequited love Pamela Adlon to a plane, it's marked by the same beautifully observed relatibility that's made C.K. one of the most acclaimed stand-ups working. And he took the show to new places this time around, making astonishing use of guest stars: Joan Rivers as a reflective, yet typically acerbic version of herself; an astonishing scene between C.K. and Dane Cook, who have a famous feud (and kudos to Cook for stepping up, and for doing a damn good job in the episode); and most memorably of all, Doug Stanhope as a suicidal stand-up not a million miles away from his real-life persona. It somestimes feels that C.K. needs to focus on telling single stories in each episode -- most of the stronger episodes of the season were the ones that focused on a single strand, and sometimes the shorter scenes feel a little filler-y, or could use more space to develop properly. But few shows on the air would dare to have moments of quiet profundity, and a moment when a homeless man gets decapitated by a garbage truck within the same breath. And its playfulness and formal excellence (C.K's become a very strong director since "Pootie Tang") means that you never quite know what you're getting week-to-week, and little is as thrilling as that. When Woody Allen dies, can we make sure that his regular financing shifts over to Mr. C.K.?
Must-See Episode: The double-length "Duckling," which lets C.K. share his own experiences on the U.S.O. tour, heading out to Afghanistan, only to discover that his daughter has packed a live duckling in his suitcase to keep him company, with an almost movie-like scope to it.

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  • full tv series | November 7, 2012 6:39 AMReply

    This post is the best post and i watch many TV shows but i like tv shows that are Homeland, The Fades and Archer..............etc.

  • No Name | September 27, 2012 4:53 PMReply

    Where's The Vampire Diaries and The Walking Dead?! I think that Game of Thrones should've been number 1 by the way...

  • tdd | September 27, 2012 3:50 AMReply

    Who made this list without the walking dead.

  • moe | August 15, 2012 7:33 AMReply

    Thanks for the list! the spoilers werent cool though

  • Ross | August 14, 2012 6:43 PMReply

    Great list of Best Shows of 2012. I found some other great site to read articles about Breaking Bad.

  • Eylon | June 22, 2012 12:08 PMReply

    You have to put the show luck in too its amazing!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • CKC | June 20, 2012 1:23 PMReply

    Justified is the best show on TV. There could be less about the bad guys and more about the star Timothy Olyphant in my opinion. There was way too many bad guys this season they need to have more about Raylan and less about the bad guys.

  • aurorsand147 | June 18, 2012 5:44 PMReply

    i am glad that The Fades is in the list. its a great show and BBC must be feeling really stupid to cancel it after just one season.

  • Rob | June 15, 2012 9:15 AMReply

    Girls is an embarassingly bad tv show, ahead of Game of Thrones, really? The directors and writers have done wonders with Game of Thrones given the magnitude of the books and particular budget constraints. In terms of quality, Veep is a much better show than Girls and it is easy to compare because they are on back-to-back. I laugh at one and turn the other off. You should throw blue bloods on this list with Tom Celek and his great mustache. Looking forward to News Room

  • Mike | June 14, 2012 7:48 PMReply

    It seems like way too few people are familiar with Homeland which is a total shame.

  • BG | June 14, 2012 11:53 AMReply

    Mad Men had some great episodes but Breaking Bad had a far better progressional arc. Seem as if Matt Weiner was trying to hard with certain themes toward the end of the season. For example was his sons decleration about life sucking in the elevator necessary?

  • Tyrion | June 14, 2012 10:35 AMReply

    Girls above game of thrones yeah right... this top is a joke. It's always sunny in philadelphia is the funniest and most provoking comedy. Breaking bad and Mad men are just boring and predictable but i guess that excepting Girls you had to put the same thing as everyone else up there.

  • sp | June 13, 2012 10:39 PMReply

    " Archer " is the best comedy on television- hands down. The writing is always clever, the dialogue is always incredible, the voice cast has wonderful chemistry, and the comedy is always politically-incorrect. Plus, the this show is always unpredictable. Where are the Emmy nominations for this brilliant program ?

    "Justified " is good , but not as good as season two. " Mad Men " & " Breaking Bad" are two of the most riveting dramas on tv.

  • Rebecca | June 13, 2012 10:21 PMReply

    Shameless is also really good.

  • Mark | June 13, 2012 8:19 PMReply

    Great list. Only switch I'd make is replacing Girls and Homeland with Delocated and The Good Wife.

    Only show better than Mad Men is Venture Bros. (which is off until 2013).

  • WRT | June 13, 2012 6:23 PMReply

    PT. 3 With BB and MM, you get all the thematic, atmospheric, and textural material that you'll ever get in probably half a season (because it's all just variation, reproduction of the same). The rest is just plot. It's just idle people-watching, no different ontologically from watching The Real Housewives – MM and BB just seem different because they look slick, are faux-serious and faux-intelligent. But, at the end of the day, plot is not art, it's a distraction. At least Community and Seinfeld and other sitcoms don't have pretensions to be much more than clever, funny distractions. MM and BB pose like they're great cinema, offering something other than the illusion of "interesting" people doing stuff – when, really, that's all there is. But, if that's what you're into – hundreds of hours of people watching – be my guest.

  • gremlin | June 18, 2012 1:23 PM

    This is a very good point, and one of my major problems with TV as a whole, in that any shows that aren't simple one off bites of entertainment or drama are difficult to appreciate for any sustained period of time simply because writers, actors, directors, networks aren't sure where they stand (will they have one more season, one more episode etc) hence it becomes impossible to tell a constantly compelling story. That being said I think Breaking Bad more than any other show has succeeded in keeping the story moving forward and keeping the characters interesting and I look forward to the final season. As you state the likes of Community are enjoyable because each episode can be seen individually without a great deal of back story whereas I feel Homeland especially (as well as shows like the Killing) can be very difficult to watch over a long period of time because you don't know if after hours of viewing you will get that satisfying ending or if it will just be thrown our or, indeed, if it will drag on until everyone has no interest in what happens to the characters because the story isn't structured it simply exists because "that's how many episodes they got"

  • J. Truant | June 14, 2012 6:57 PM

    This was very smartly ritten

  • Arch | June 14, 2012 6:42 AM

    I won't pretend to agree with everything you wrote (just because people love Mad men for all the wrong reasons won't change the fact that it still is a good show) but you raise a few very interesting points.

  • WRT | June 13, 2012 6:24 PM

    PT. 1 It's impossible for any blog's "Top Ten Shows" list to mean anything. There's only 15 shows on the air that are taken remotely seriously, and any top ten is just going to be some combination of those, with Mad Men and BB, unfailingly, at the top. So, fantastic -- more critical publicity for the same handful of shows that everyone's already into. GIRLS! GOT! COMMUNITY! Shockers, all! And the insights The Playlist provides! Everyone praises contemporary TV to the high heavens, when, by its very definition, it's just plot linked by the veneer of continuity (same characters, same visual style). You may as well watch reality TV for all that Mad Men offers: the same group of supposedly psychologically 'real' people doing variations on the same stuff.

  • WRT | June 13, 2012 6:24 PM

    PT. 2 In the 100 hours it will take you to watch Mad Men and BB, you could watch 50 critically-vetted movies, experience 50 distinct explications of a world, 50 distinct sets of ideation. And if you pick carefully, only 20 hours or fewer of those 100 will have been wasted on bleh material. Not that I'm categorically against anything long-form. I love that Carlos and Mysteries of Lisbon take their time to do what they set out to (irrespective of the films' quality, I just appreciate the boldness of their length). MM, BB, Girls – these are all arbitrarily fit to 45min-1hr per episode lengths, 10 episodes (or whatever) per season. They just go. Producing plot until they have to quit, each episode linked vaguely by some "character arc" (the second most annoying term in cinema/TV criticism, after "tone-poem") or "theme." They just produce plot as best they can within the network confines.

  • Juanita | June 13, 2012 5:39 PMReply cast in tv

  • Johnny Ronny | June 13, 2012 4:42 PMReply

    Treme is numero uno by far. Runner-up: Shameless. Third best: Game of Thrones.

  • Christopher Bell | June 13, 2012 4:19 PMReply

    Fades sounds good. Been hearing a lot about Homeland, but isn't that on Showtime? I try to keep some distance from their shows after "Weeds" (and "Dexter" -- never followed, but the previous season's ending twist was awful)... still have to catch up with "Justified" and "Mad Men." Always pleased with "Louie" and "Community" love.

  • Mike | June 13, 2012 4:10 PMReply

    I think Justified & Homeland are way too low, but at least they're there, & love the mention of The Fades.

  • Luis | June 13, 2012 4:09 PMReply

    Oh my god, "Girls"... Why, dear lord? After the abomination that was "Tiny Furniture", I can't believe the legion of hipster fans this show has garnered. Williamsburg and Bushwick have found their true ambassadors in this show's characters. I can't imagine a more perfect pairing. A mediocre show for a mediocre slice of Brooklyn life. It's... I mean it's just baffling.

  • Kimber Myers | June 13, 2012 3:46 PMReply

    This is spot on. And now I have some shows to catch up on.

  • Arch | June 13, 2012 3:45 PMReply

    It was obvious Girls would make it to the list. I could go on and on about this show. Not that I hate it, I literally find it mediocre ... it is just like Starbucks, pretentious babbling for an overall generic taste, and most of all: it's everywhere (James Franco has a opinion about Girls omygosh). Said it before: Dunham IS the voice of her generation, problem is not the voice, it's the generation. Yet Girls is here to stay mostly because people will continue to focus on bogus 'subversion', decorative cameos, cheap flattery (that is SOOO like me honey) and all. On the other hand you have Louie or Community. Not everything is lost. Also people somehow manage to love a great show like Mad Men...

  • Arch | June 13, 2012 3:54 PM

    On a side note: I mean Treme guys, seriously, one of the most mind blowing shows recently.

  • Sean | June 13, 2012 3:41 PMReply

    Good top 8 but those bottom two shows are medicore.
    And I personally felt the third season of Community took a dip in quality where as Parks & Rec was just as strong this season, than last.

  • matthew weiner | June 13, 2012 3:25 PMReply


  • rotch | June 13, 2012 4:05 PM


  • cory everett | June 13, 2012 3:17 PMReply

    Anything other than those Top 3 shows on those top 3 spots and I would have rioted. Fortunately, they are in exactly the correct places.

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