By now you've read a number of year-end columns by television critics, naming their choices for the ten best programs of 2011. Here are ten that haven't shown up in many (if any) of those lists, yet still deserve special recognition as the year draws to a close. Starting with ABC's Revenge...
Revenge (ABC) -- The year's most surprising success story is a trashy primetime serial in the grand tradition of Dallas, Dynasty and Falcon Crest. For too many years, viewers have been expected to sympathize with the everyday trials and tribulations of wealthy people who could buy their way out of almost every problem (hello, Brothers and Sisters).
So it is indeed refreshing to once again be able to watch fabulous looking one-percenters do terrible things to each other and suffer for their dastardly deeds. In that context, Revenge has been the feel good program of the year -- and it's only going to get better when William Devane -- the formidable Gregory Sumner from Knots Landing -- joins the cast next month as the patriarch of the deliriously dysfunctional Grayson family.
Tosh.0 (Comedy Central) -- With apologies to E!'s The Soup (my usual pick), this year Comedy Central's uncompromisingly crude Tosh.0 was TV's Funniest Show. If you think it's easy to slap together the most shocking and unreservedly vulgar videos available on the Web and package them in a consistently entertaining manner, just compare Tosh to the clip crap that clogs truTV and other networks and then get back to me. (One caveat: I'm not including G4's genial Web Soup in that smack-down.)
Fearless goofball Daniel Tosh may be missing a sensitivity chip or two, but I think he's the only comedian who truly understands Generation Digital. And get this: His work is bringing families together! I've heard from several friends that Tosh.0 is one of those rare shows they enjoy watching with their kids.
Face Off (Syfy) -- After Project Runway, Top Chef, The Next Food Network Star and Design Star, I didn't think I could muster any interest in yet another formulaic reality series in which a number of people who share a particular skill set compete to be honored as best in show by a panel of colorful judges. Then along came Syfy's special-effects make-up competition show Face Off, and it proved to be the happiest surprise of the year, at least for fans of science fiction and horror movies who enjoy an inside look at how the magic happens.
Bomb Patrol: Afghanistan (G4) -- Except for the occasional documentary (such as National Geographic Channel's Restrepo) or scripted effort (like Kathryn Bigelow's Academy Award-winning The Hurt Locker, or FX's short-lived Steven Bochco series Over There), anyone who has not served (or had a loved one serve) in either of our two long-running wars would be hard-pressed to understand in even a small way what itâ€™s like to be there. (By contrast, those of us who grew up during the Vietnam War watched it play out every night on the evening news, in sometimes brutal bloody detail.)
This is especially true of young people, which makes all the more noteworthy G4's decision to run a weekly observational reality series about heroic soldiers who locate and dismantle IEDs in Afghanistan. Not to understate the reality of the dangers our troops in both wars face on a daily basis, but there is something about getting to know a particular group of soldiers on a weekly basis as they put their lives on the line that makes Bomb Patrol: Afghanistan entirely more impactful than an occasional war report on broadcast or cable news.
Days of Our Lives (NBC) -- The bright note in an otherwise terrible year for soap operas (and the millions of loyal viewers who watch them and support their advertisers) was the revitalization of this 46-year-old daytime drama, which like so many other soaps during the last decade had been allowed to corrode into something almost unrecognizable.
Days in September briskly disposed of the sleazy storylines and frequent violence that had been rotting it from within, and replaced them with relationship-driven stories about romance, family, friendship and community -- in other words, the very things soap fans crave but have been largely deprived of for entirely too long. Days also brought back a number of beloved long-absent veteran cast members, including Deidre Hall and Drake Hogestyn, and gave them all great material to play. But Alison Sweeney as scheming Sami Brady, and young Chandler Massey as her tormented teenage son Will, are stealing the show.
The Glee Project (Oxygen) -- After a really terrible second season, Fox's once uplifting musical comedy Glee has almost flat-lined in its third year. What a waste. The only new life this year in this prematurely feeble franchise was its companion reality series on Oxygen, a bright and breezy competition program judged by Glee creator Ryan Murphy, among others. The grand prize was a seven-episode guest stint on the mother-ship, but so many of the Project kids were so ingratiating that Murphy ended up offering extended roles on the show to four of them.
Crazy as it sounds, I think Glee Project could easily find a way to continue even if Fox pulls the plug on Glee in another year or two.
All in the Family (TV Land and Antenna TV) -- The economy is in crisis. The nation is at war. The rich are getting richer at the expense of the working class. Inflation is soaring, unemployment lines are getting longer, the banks aren't helping anyone and Washington is a complete mess. Meanwhile, young people seem to be living in a world that is totally foreign to their parents' generation.
Those are the issues the Bunker family is coping with in the most topical situation comedy on television today: The surprisingly timeless Seventies gem All in the Family.
It's so much more than "that show about the bigot," as I have heard it described by many twenty- and thirty-something television critics and reporters who have never bothered to watch a single episode. (Shouldn't that be a requirement?) It's a show about all of us -- then and, unfortunately, now. The difference is, thanks to the Bunkers, we could laugh at ourselves back then.
The Soup/Fashion Police -- E! had the perfect Friday night comedy combo in The Soup and Fashion Police, so what did it do? Send new installments of The Soup off to Wednesday, that's what. How the heck is a show supposed to recap events of the week when it debuts in the middle of the week? Ah, well, at least we still have a Friday night rerun.
I've been raving about The Soup for so long that I have nothing new to say about it, except that I'm darn glad that Joel McHale stayed even after he landed a starring role on NBC's brilliant but struggling Community three years ago. (I'm sure McHale is happy too, now that Community appears to be teetering on the brink of cancellation.)
Meanwhile, my compliments to the crew on Fashion Police and especially its host, the indefatigable Joan Rivers, for lighting up Friday night with a half-hour of comedy that fits so well with the special brand of madness that McHale and his team have perfected over the years.
Attack of the Show (G4) -- G4's daily live comedy-information-talk show Attack of the Show remains one of the liveliest and most enjoyable series on television, despite a very modest budget and very limited resources. It's a thoroughly engaging and unique blend of entertainment news, tech reviews, celebrity interviews and viral videos, delivered with a delightful nerdist humor that is impossible to resist. Shouldn't MTV be doing something like this?
As I've said many times before, the AOTS team does so much with so little it puts to shame the many television productions that do so little with so much. Give much of the credit to the effortless charm of co-hosts (and Comic-Con superstars) Kevin Pereira and Candace Bailey, and contributors Alison Haislip, Blair Butler, Chris Gore, Chris Hardwick, Sara Jean Underwood and Blair Herter.
Pretty Little Liars (ABC Family) -- What's all this talk about serialized scripted series falling out of favor with television audiences? Don't tell the millions of teenage girls and young women who can't get enough of ABC Family's contemporary dramas -- each one a serial that isn't afraid to draw out storylines, tease its viewers, and grow its cast with plenty of supporting characters to keep things fresh and interesting.
There is no better example than ABC Family's Pretty Little Liars, a mesmerizing mystery about four teenage girls haunted by intimate and potentially explosive messages seemingly sent from their dead frenemy. It continues to prove that a good mythology can keep even the increasingly fickle tween and teen audience enthralled.