By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist May 26, 2011 at 9:58AM
Todd Haynes' "Mildred Pierce" was also an amazing piece of work (arguably Haynes' best work to date), but it almost feels like a movie more than it does a TV series, with a limited five-episode run, so we left it out: but rest assured, this won't be the last time you'll hear about it on The Playlist. In terms of recent drama, two other shows on AMC, "The Killing" and "Rubicon" just missed out, the former a supremely detailed police procedural, the latter a tortuously complex homage to a '70s conspiracy thriller, sadly canceled just as it started to hit its groove at the end of the first season. Both are worth catching up on, though (although not to be that guy, but the Danish original of "The Killing" is far superior to the remake, particularly if "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" has given you the taste for Scandinavian murder). The channel also hosts "The Walking Dead," from "Shawshank Redemption" writer-director Frank Darabont, and, while occasionally over-laden with the tropes of the zombie genre, gives it a freshness by using longer-form TV storytelling to flesh out its characters and its situations.
Cable also hosts some bigger-name shows that, while incredibly strong, didn't quite live up to the hype. There's a lot to love about Martin Scorsese's "Boardwalk Empire," but it hasn't quite nestled in the memory like some other dramas, despite a storming central performance from Steve Buscemi -- we'll see if the second season raises things up. Similarly, David Simon's "The Wire" follow-up, New Orleans ensemble-drama "Treme" had sky-high expectations and didn't quite meet them -- it's even less accessible than its predecessor, and occasionally feels a little aimless. But at its best, it packs just as much of a punch as the best shows here, and the second season has been a marked improvement. Finally, we're yet to watch it ourselves, but FX's boxing drama "Lights Out" gained more and more advocates as it went along, although it wasn't enough to keep the show from being canceled.
The BBC's "Sherlock" was inconsistent -- one great episode, one good episode and one bad -- but it has a great central pairing in Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, it's truer to the spirit of Arthur Conan Doyle than Guy Ritchie's big-screen take, and when it works, it really, really works. A second three-episode run is on the way in the fall. The British Idris Elba vehicle "Luther" is also ballsier than most police dramas, even if it descends into silliness in places, while the currently-airing Chiwetel Ejiofor starrer "The Shadow Line" has divided critics, but it's intrigued us enough to make sure we'll tune in for the whole run.
The networks have just as much quality drama as well, with "Friday Night Lights," "Parenthood" and "The Chicago Code" all having their fans, although perhaps the best, and a show that only just missed our list, is "The Good Wife" -- a twisty, morally ambiguous legal drama with a tremendous depiction of Chicago politics and a raft of fine performances from the likes of Julianna Margulies, Chris Noth, Alan Cumming and Archie Panjabi.
If anything, comedy is in a stronger place than drama. "30 Rock," for instance, came off a dip in its fourth season to return to its best in its fifth, frequently packing more laughs into its half-hour than any other show around. "Modern Family" is the rare show that's both a ratings monster and a critical hit, and pulled off a strong second season, even if it didn't quite match the first. FX's "Archer" is something of a favorite in these parts too. It might be an R-rated cartoon, but who knew R-rated cartoons would be so good? Where else could you laugh so hard at phrases like “Relax. It was just cancer sex.”? Only a hypersexual international spy star could get away with such a line -- and only a show as consistently darkly funny as "Archer," would it not be out of place. "Archer" also manages to not just be all over the top plotwise, though they have an utter disregard for time with the 1950s fashion, 1980s gadgetry and the continuation of the Cold War. At its best it's the "Arrested Development" reunion everyone's wanted, with Jessica Walter, Jeffrey Tambor and Judy Greer all voicing characters.
"Portlandia" is another fantastic cable comedy, righteously mauling the hipster-archetype: Fixie bike riding, organic tea drinking, kale eating, feminist book-reading people rejoice (or tremble in fear of being mocked further)! The show gives SNL a good kick up the sketch writing backside -- consistently funny and culturally spot-on. Featuring Fred Armisen and indie rock legend Carrie Brownstein, as well as a bunch of indie musicians and actors including Steve Buscemi, Colin Meloy and Aimee Mann. "Bob's Burgers" has also had a strong debut season, standing head and shoulders above "The Simpsons" and the Seth MacFarlane pack in Fox's animation line-up. The show features the voice talent of no less than H. Jon Benjamin, Kristen Schaal, Eugene Mirman, Jon Roberts and Dan Mintz as the family behind family-owned Bob's Burgers. Bob, the auteur of burgers, and his offbeat family spend most of their time wrestling with local competition, keeping above the red and of course, enduring annoying relatives. But the cast alone -- particularly Schaal as the hilariously evil minded youngest member of Bob's brood -- is plenty reason to check this one out.
Rob Corddry's "Children's Hospital" is darkly funny and cameo-packed, "Cougar Town" has overcome its unpromising premise to become one of the weirder, most character-driven shows around, and HBO's "How To Make It In America" isn't too ambitious, but it's far more than the hipster "Entourage" than it seemed to be at first. Finally, the newest comedy worth looking at is yet another "Friends" rip-off, but one that's only gotten better as the weeks go on. Breaking from the pack, it seems, is “Happy Endings” which just premiered in April and has already been picked up for a season 2. From somewhat shaky beginnings, the show has only gotten stronger, as we get to know this charming group of characters, brought to life by some solid comedic talent (we’re looking at you Adam Pally!).
-- Oliver Lyttelton, Sam Chater, Cat Scott, Leah Zak, Kevin Jagernauth, Chris Bell