TV Dinners: The Best TV of 2011

TV continues to occupy an increasing amount of our leisure time – last time I checked the Tivo, there were no less than 15 regular series which were being DVR’d, and it seems the number has been creeping up, to the point where we have to exercise discipline to ensure an unwieldy backlog doesn’t build up. It helps that the DVR hard-disk is limited to 20-25 hours of HD TV at any one time, and doesn’t appear expandable [unlike my ‘puter, which just got a 1 Tb external drive, almost entirely for media-related reasons]. It concentrates the mind when the DVR starts warning you that it’s gonna start erasing stuff, like a mother threatening to throw out all those toys if she finds them lying on the floor one more time.

To keep things fresh, all shows that were listed in last year’s top 10 are disqualified from contention. In some cases, e.g. Haven, they didn’t keep their standards up, others (Caprica, 24) were not on the schedule, but the majority would at least be worthy of an honourable mention in this year’s roll of televisual goodness. Speaking of honourable mentions, those should also go to Alphas and Being Human [the original British version, though the American remake is going in some interesting directions[. They were the two shows which were the final ones cut from the list. As last year, the list is in alphabetical order

Falling Skies
This tale of life after an alien invasion took a while to get going, but proved to be worth sticking with. Gradually we learn more about the ETs, their abduction of children and “harnessing” of the kids, which has both physical and psychological effects. There’s a chilling plausibility to much of this too; one suspects any actual alien invasion would probably result in humanity getting its collective arse kicked, rather than some kind of Independence Day triumph. Occasionally get a little too religious, though you get past that with a little rolling of eyes. Curious to see where they go in Series 2.

An Idiot Abroad
Debated continues to rage in TC Towers are to whether Karl Pilkington is real or a comic creation, played with deadpan seriousness. That’s been the case since we were first aware of him on The Ricky Gervais Show, and Idiot leaves the question unresolved. It’s a wonderfully funny counterpoint to the suggestion that travel broadens the mind, though Karl is thrown in at the deep-end of foreign culture and shows himself to be remarkably game, e.g. eating things that would certainly not pass my lips. So: genuine idiot or Borat-like character? The jury remains out on that one.

Law and Order: UK
I never bothered with the many US versions of the show, e.g. Special Victims Unit, Criminal Intent, etc. but have thoroughly enjoyed this one, even if the stories are largely reworked American episodes. There’s something uniquely British about the rhythms on view, and in particular, Bradley Walsh as cheerfully-reformed alkie DS Brooks. At its best – and it usually is – it’s smart yet emotional drama that really drives home the minefield negotiated by those in charge of striking the balance between law and justice. as well as the difference in those two concepts.

Funnily enough, I’ve written more – lots more – about this one on, and it remains the best action heroine show on TV, even though it’s now buried on the least-watched network (The CW) on a Friday night, where shows go to die. It’s a different take to the previous TV version, with Nikita here having quit her former quasi-governmental employers, “Division”,and now seeks to destroy them, with the help of both internal and external allies. The best fight scenes on TV, and the best selection of strong female characters, especially in Season 2, where Division has an anti-Nikita in charge.

Spartacus: Gods of the Arena
After the success of the first series, a second was commissioned, but the diagnosis of star Andy Whitfield with cancer put that on ice. While he underwent treatment, the makers went for a prequel, which retained most of the other aspects, e.g. John Hannah yelling “By Jupiter’s cock!” We also got Jaime Murray, best-known here for playing slutty psycho Lila on Season 2 of Dexter, demonstrating her range here by playing Gaia, a psycho slut. Her end in both was pretty messy, and the series single-handedly demolishes the idea of Rome being the birthplace of civilization. Sadly, Whitfield died in September, so has been recast for the show’s return next year.

Strike Back
It’s like Spooks/MI-5’s cruder big brother, with  all the gratuitous violence, swearing and rampant nudity you could want, and more than a hint of 24, with MI-6 agents Michael Stonebridge and Damian Scott kicking terrorist arse from India to Budapest [we can only speculate who would win, if Stonebridge and Jack Bauer had a fight]. Somewhat confusingly, the British Stonebridge is played by a Yank, and the American Scott by an Aussie. It’s one of two UK/US co-productions on the list – this seems to be the wave of the future, allowing for British talent to receive enhanced production values. 

Where have we been the last six seasons? How did we miss this? Chris just stumbled across an episode by chance; she was on the phone to me, and the conversation was peppered from her end with “What the fuck?” and “Holy shit!” It plays kinda like a cross between Buffy and The X-Files, with brothers Sam and Dean Winchester criss-crossing the country to take on occult evils of one form or another. While it’s not exactly impenetrable – we’ve figured out what’s going on without much difficulty – we’re waiting for the show to appear on Netflix streaming so we can catch up on the previous 100+ episodes

Torchwood: Miracle Day
Another US/UK co-production, we were concerned how this one would work out, and after some early stumbles, it meshed the obvious nods to the American audience, e.g. Mekhi Phifer with the essential British aspects (Gwen and Captain Jack) pretty well. Certainly, every penny was up on screen, and there was no toning down for a global audience. Indeed, we could have done without an entire episode basically being devoted to showing exactly how gay Harkness was [the omni-sexual approach from the UK series seemed more appropriate]. If not quite Children of Earth, not bad.

The Walking Dead
I covered the series last December, but am pleased to report it has kept up its quality and remains the most intense horror series presently on television. The second season is now under way with the dwindling band of survivors abandoning the city after their trip to CDC headquarters in search of centralized survivors didn’t quite go as planned. However, we’ve currently got one child missing and another shot accidentally, as well as all the zombies. Almost as good is this parody, which you wonder why no-one apparently thought of previously.

A truly guilty pleasure, watching people struggle their way through an impossible obstacle course, where failure is not an option – it’s the only option. Reminiscent of a hardcore version of MXC, complete with two presenters whose deadpan asides definitely enhance the viewing pleasure. I could go on about the program being a showcase for the indefatigable strength of the human spirit in the face of obstacles, but truth be told,. there’s really nothing funnier than watching people get whacked in the face, falling off things, and cartwheeling down into muddy ponds. Hey, don’t just take my word for it…