Troy Patterson’s TV Top 10

Ten things about 2011 from a TV critic who’s careful not to watch too much television.

Breaking Bad
Dean Norris and Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad

Still by Lewis Jacobs © AMC 2011. All rights reserved.

1. Breaking Bad (AMC) was the best TV show of 2011. But you don’t have to take my word for it. No, really, don’t; you can’t, actually; I have scarcely seen anything of its fourth season. My DVDs sit unspun, waiting to be binged upon when I’ve got a free weekend to fill, or a preteen slumber party to emotionally scar. Earlier this month, The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum spoke truth to power under the headline “I Hate Top Ten Lists:” “Part of my problem is the false authority of it,” she wrote. “TV critics certainly try to keep up, but damn, there’s a lot of TV.” Indeed, I sometimes moderate my viewing habits in the belief that I can sharpen my vision by resting my eyes. The key to being a TV critic without losing one’s mind is to not watch too much television, or so I hope. But it’s a strategy that closes the opportunity to make definitive pronouncements. As far as I know, Charlie’s Angels is an unjustly ignored masterpiece.

Further, it is my belief the nature of television—with its flow and its shifts and its context of no context—is such that moments matter more than series. What I will remember most fondly of the 2011 TV year are two epiphanies: that Jimmy Fallon’s Late Night is most in its element during a small hotel-room after-party, and that the work of my local-news station’s traffic girl, an angel of the bluescreen, is peerless civic cheerleading.

2. Homeland (Showtime*) was also popular. I enjoyed this terror-era paranoia thriller, partly because every episode offered a few moments when excellent acting triumphed over shaky writing, and despite the fact that every episode offered a few moments when bad acting made shaky writing shudder like an overheated engine. How is Gore Vidal’s health? He could be the ideal reviewer of this show, what with his lavish lunacy about 9/11 and his experience writing for television, where the Wise Hack of the Writers’ Table in the MGM commissary once told him, “Shit has its own integrity.”

3. Some people seem to dig Game of Thrones (HBO), as I learned when I confessed it didn’t do that much for me, earning a scolding in the nerdosphere and a few flowery death threats in the comments. Apparently, your correspondent, a “popped-collar troglodyte,” ought to be “slapped,” and he deserves to “rot in hell.” They called me dirty names including “Rex Read [sic],” “Armond White,” and “Pitchfork.” I’d like to respond to my critics directly:

a) About the rotting in hell part: I maintain, grandiosely, that I have trapped all the commenters in the review, where their icons will forever grapple with the flypaper, a bit like characters in a story-inside-of-a-Borges-story—a story that will continue to expand, perhaps even fractally, as time passes. The angry commenters are Satan’s minions, fanning flames eternally, trapped in, as one observer put it, “a classic low-grade flame war.” For kicks, I have left some puzzles and riddles about the nature of television criticism in those sulfurous depths.

b) As a matter of principle, I only rock a popped collar on a hot tennis court.

4. Best comedy? Community.

Psyche! But the show is good—clever, extremely pleased with its cleverness, intriguingly demented in its pursuit of that self-pleasure. A bell jar of a watercooler show, it offers narratives for narratologists and moods for postmoderns, and it never met a text it didn’t want to chat about. Someday someone will write a Petrarchan sonnet on the recent episode of The Soup (E!)—star Joel McHale’s other gig, the self-loathing, self-abusing survey of trash TV—in which his Community co-stars dropped by and in-jokes disappeared up their own navels with a tickle.

5. Best Gender? Women.

Don’t they look like they smell pretty? It must be all the shampoo in the commercials. Also, the story of the year concerned their new prominence, and television’s role in a perpetual conversation about sex and gender and femininity and machismo, which is mostly inane and occasionally brilliant. We are entrusting our philosophies of love and family to the tube, which is a lot of weight for Whitney Cummings’ pointy shoulders to bear. A special most-polarizing trophy goes to Zooey Deschanel, of New Girl (Fox), who enters her first midseason as a TV star primed to caper through the Yuletide forever as Elf enters heavy rotation and her Christmas songs get canonized. Will the people she displeases grow Grinchy?

6. The conversation will pick back up after the holidays with the recessionary cross-dressing sitcom Work It!, an early contender for my Worst Show of 2012 award. I am interested to see how the joke likening a prostate exam to gang rape goes over.

7. Best Short-Fingered Vulgarian? Donald Trump.

I have seen the Donald in the flesh, if that’s what it is, six or eight times over the years. I hadn’t dared to suppose that he could get any sillier than he did the evening that, literally self-regarding, he stalked into an opening party for a photography show, made directly for a picture of himself, and admired the work at length, nodding with a downturned mouth like an emperor to communicate that the picture was none too shabby a tribute to his powers. Then, in May, after his toxic surges of filthy birtherism, he slithered to the stage at the NBC upfront to announce that he would not pursue the office of the presidency of the United States, because—and this was beautiful in a way, luxuriantly soulless in its disingenuousness—to do so would take him away from his charity work. What a fucker.

8. That was a week before Herman Cain announced his barrier-breaking clown show and six months before the New York Times’ Michael D. Shear published “A Taste for Reality TV Seen in Popularity of Debates.” Choice quote No. 1 comes from erstwhile McCain adviser Steve Schmidt: “Who gets kicked off the island, or who gets kicked off the talent stage, is now deeply embedded in the American culture.” Then Ronald A. Klain chimes in: “If your job was to cast a reality series called ‘The Republican Presidential Debates,’ this is the group that you would want cast for that program.” Egads. We deserve better than this. By that I mean that we deserve a special celebrity edition of The Republican Presidential Debates featuring Steve Largent, Jon Voight, Chuck Norris, and Gopher.

9. Fun fact: They started broadcasting poker in 3-D.

10. Best Kardashian: Khloe.

Correction, Dec. 29, 2011: This article originally identified Homeland as appearing on HBO. It appears on Showtime. (Return to the corrected sentence.)