Perhaps the so-called “golden age” of television is almost over, but it doesn’t mean quality was lacking in 2011.
Need proof? Here are the top 10 best series of the year (and some may surprise you):
1. “Breaking Bad” (AMC).
This drama about a former high school chemistry teacher who has cancer and gets caught up in the world of meth making keeps topping itself every season. It’s a phenomenal feat for any program, but stunning in this case. Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul deliver the goods from solid-steel scripts that examine the consequences of going down the wrong path while trying to find redemption. Week after week, this series challenged the audience’s point of view.
2. “Community” (NBC)
The genre-tackling comedy about a study group at a community college is the most unappreciated series in prime time. The writing is a study in contrast, ranging from broad comedy to dark, almost introspective characters. Joel McHale should be counting his Emmy nominations by now. Instead, he is counting the days since NBC yanked the series off the schedule for several weeks. Shame on you, Mr. Peacock.
3. “The Walking Dead” (AMC)
If you thought, ultimately, that the first season was a bit of a letdown near the end, you should be happy with Season Two. The zombie drama, which follows a group of human survivors trying to stay ahead of the hungry hordes, has pulled off the road and made a home at a desolate farm. But the change of setting has not meant tranquility, as the survivors questioned each other and whether they, as individuals, might not be better off taking their chances with the zombies.
4. “30 Rock” (NBC)
Even with Tracy Morgan absent for many episodes, this rollicking comedy — truly a modern classic with its downbeat but hilarious style — was a sure-bet for laughs all season long. In fact, the best single episode of any series this year featured Sherri Shepherd as Morgan’s wife, Angie, in a spoof of “The Real Housewives” franchise. Angie’s fierce catchphrase: “It’s my way ... ’til payday.” Go on with your bad self, girl.
5. “Friday Night Lights” (NBC)
Yes, this show’s final season aired in 2010 — but that was on DirecTV. In 2011, those same final episodes ran on NBC. So, yes, it gives me one more chance to say what a pleasure this series about a football-obsessed town has been over five seasons.
6. “Boardwalk Empire” (HBO)
Atmospheric, dark and moody, this period drama has the feel of a vintage David Lynch story — bizarreness engulfs and threatens 1920s Atlantic City and its denizens. The plot shifts are often jolting and keeps the audience on its collective toes, making this hour one of the most gripping in primetime.
7. “Episodes” (Showtime)
From the start, this series was a horse of a different color: Matt LeBlanc (“Friends”) was touted as the comedy’s star, but he’s really a supporting player in a story about his life. It’s a weird concept, but the skewing of Hollywood and its inner workings is fabulous. LeBlanc plays an outrageous version of himself with delicious flair, full of ego and taking down anyone who gets into his self-destructive orbit.
8. “Wilfred” (FX)
A man’s best friend is his imaginary dog — or, rather, a man dressed in a dog suit and only a lonely young man (Elijah Wood) can see him. Based on an Aussie series, “Wilfred” is wildly inappropriate, heartfelt and crude. The darkly funny comedy works best when you watch it in your basement, chilling out on a couch, with your best buddies.
9. “Curb Your Enthusiasm” (HBO)
Larry David never lets up. His need to make us uncomfortable knows no limits — and the 2011 season made us squirm. From his poking fun at Michael J. Fox to “The Fugitive” spoof, David had no desire to curb anything about his unusual view of the world around him.
10. “One Life to Live” (ABC)
A daytime soap on this list? Yes, because the 43-year-old series, which ends its run next month in one of the biggest bone-headed decisions made by any network, has enough guts to surpass the melodrama and be loose and free. One recent episode spoofed the show’s cancellation as a long-time character tried to save her favorite daytime soap, titled “Fraternity Row.” Several “One Life” actors played characters within the fictional soap and took satirical jabs at some of “One Life’s” most outrageous plots. Who knew that “One Life,” on its deathbed, would rally with such, uh, life?