By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist May 26, 2011 at 9:58AM
1. "Parks and Recreation"
Originally envisioned as a spin-off of NBC's most successful comedy, "The Office," and undoubtedly a kind of spiritual successor (it uses the same mock-documentary, talking-head filled format), "Parks and Recreation" had a fairly unpromising first six-episode season. It wasn't bad -- the cast, including Amy Poehler, Aziz Ansari, Aubrey Plaza, Rashida Jones and Paul Schneider, were too talented for that -- but it was a little awkward, a show visibly trying to work out what it wanted to be. But it hit the ground running in its second season, and for its recently-completed third, it managed that rarest of TV feats, pitching a no-hitter, pulling off 16 excellent half-hours without a weak episode. The sitcom, which focuses on a government branch in Pawnee, Indiana, has essentially become the closest thing we have to a live-action "Simpsons," creating a living, breathing world populated with dozens of gut-busting recurring characters, most notably the Vince Vaughn-loving douchebag prince Jean-Ralphio, local TV anchor Perd Hapley, and iPod/vacuum cleaner hybrid DJ Roomba. New additions, namely "Party Down" refugee Adam Scott and Rob Lowe (never better than he is here) have bolstered the cast, and those that survive have settled beautifully into their parts. In particular, in Nick Offerman, as man's man Ron Swanson, and Chris Pratt, as the boundlessly enthusiastic Andy, it has secret comedic weapons powerful enough to form the basis of the invasion of a Middle-Eastern country. But what really separates it from the rest is its big, beating heart: it's a show that loves and cares about every one of its characters, who love and care about each other. If its fourth season can keep it up, it'll cement its place in the hall of fame.
Must-Watch Episode: "Fancy Party," which sees Andy and nihilistic receptionist April impulsively tie the knot. It was a bold move, but the hilarious, touching episode entirely justified what could have been a ratings-chasing move. Plus it featured an absolutely lovely use of Simon & Garfunkel's "April Come She Will."
Honorable Mentions: It speaks to the strength of the work being produced on the small screen these days that we easily could have run a list twice as long, and there's some tremendous shows that, for one reason or another, we couldn't fit in. AMC's duo of "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad" are among the best dramas being produced in any medium, but both last aired in the summer of 2010, so it was just too far away for our list, aside from the fact that both have already been praised to the skies in every quarter (the same goes for "Party Down," which aired its second and, sadly, final season a year ago). Still, if for some reason you've yet to get involved, now is the time: "Breaking Bad" airs its fourth season in July while "Mad Men" will return at the beginning of 2012.