In an era when a DVR queue is more intensely personal than an iPod playlist, what does it mean to pick the year's best television? Rather than limit ourselves to a predictable top 10 or — heaven forfend! — force our indecisive crop of culture writers to make tough choices between comedies and dramas, reality and fiction, or Whitney and Whitney, we decided to let them have their Cake Boss and eat it, too. And so, the assignment was simple: Choose two television shows that mattered to you this year, positively or negatively, and consider them in tandem. The results aren't meant to suggest a winner or a loser — although there were plenty of the latter on the airwaves, particularly on NBC — but to provide a snapshot of the ways we watched TV in 2011: messily, voraciously and intimately. Which, if you think about it, is also exactly how you want to interact with a Cake Boss should you be lucky enough to make one's acquaintance.
Enlightened (HBO) vs. The Office (NBC)
By Chuck Klosterman
In 2005, the American version of The Office debuted inside a seemingly unwinnable scenario: Everyone who knew what it was reflexively assumed it would be awful. There was no way it could succeed; at best, it would be a weaker, dumber version of the British show it photocopied. Its premiere episode was a rote rewrite of its predecessor, further galvanizing a hopeless future. But then, something happened. It got weird, and then it got interesting, and then it got funny. Sometimes it was flat-out hilarious. I loved it. However — starting around the time Amy Ryan entered its arc, although this is not her fault — things started to change. It devolved (first gradually, then dramatically). Key characters were altered for motives unrelated to the narrative. Everyone involved seemed to care less. By the end of 2011, The Office had become as empty as I imagined it would be in 2005. I still watch it, and I'll always watch it. But it's no longer good, and I think I know why.
The reason The Office (once) seemed important was its offhand obsession with the culture of no-culture — the idea that there's still something meaningful about a boring place where no one wants to be. When The Office was killing it, the central element was "the office." Forcing strangers into the same space for a mostly undefined purpose generates a specific brand of conflict. Over time, that tension evaporated. Individual characters became bigger than the show. The funniest people (Ed Helms, Ellie Kemper, Creed Bratton) are still funny, but The Office now seems like an ordinary, unambitious, not-so-clever TV sitcom. It seems like something from the worst part of the '90s. Which makes it very different from HBO's Enlightened, a show that seems like an idealized manifestation of what might have happened if the best part of the '90s had somehow succeeded.
Now, I'm not trying to argue that Enlightened was better than The Office because it's better at depicting the office environment — that would be too simplistic. Enlightened was better than The Office (and almost everything else on television this year) in every possible way. In terms of merging deep humor with real emotion, its only rival was FX's Louie. Mike White (whose writing I've always liked) has never been better. Laura Dern (who's acting I've never liked) was semi-amazing in every episode. Luke Wilson's depiction of a relatively well-adjusted drug addict was exceptionally true to life. I realize almost no one watched Enlightened, so it will probably get canceled. (Editor's note: It wasn't!) But this was an insightful, original creation. It handled a lot of weirdly specific situations with an understated, uncomfortable brilliance. And one of those situations is the experience of working in an office, which is why I bring it up here.
On Enlightened, Dern's workplace is a computerized prison. There is nothing fulfilling about her job, and her happiest coworkers are the ones most devoid of emotion. Her supervisor (probably the single funniest character on the show) is both qualified and buffoonish, an unlikeable likeable person. It's almost as if Dern's job is consciously designed to make her quit on life. But she refuses to accept that. She refuses to accept that one-third of her daily existence is without significance. She wants to prove that she has larger value, and that larger value can exist anywhere (and maybe everywhere). She wants the eight hours she spends at her desk to be important, and her desire alone makes that fantasy real. Which is what I thought The Office was trying to do, before it quit.
Parenthood (NBC) vs. Up All Night (NBC)
By Tess Lynch
If you are a person in the 18-49 demographic, and you're thinking about having children, you might find yourself hypnotically drawn to shows like Up All Night and Parenthood. It's like going to Krispy Kreme to see the donuts evolve on the conveyor belt: The show doesn't even have to be particularly riveting to be somehow fantastical and educational, like an explicit book about puberty when you're 11. Thirtysomething seems like the most tedious show a person could ever watch, until you reach the age of breastfeeding friends and baby registries. Until you are thirtysomething, or staring at it from a few steps down the hall.
Depending on your mood, Parenthood can seem sort of bleak. The show drips with emotional burdens spanning generations: the isolation of being an autistic preadolescent, the angry headphone-sulks in teenage bedrooms, the loneliness of staying at home with a newborn, the post-retirement marriage rift. "Parenthood," Parenthood seems to say, "is an event that will make your heart brittle and make every song sound like an Iron and Wine cover of itself." Still, it's a great show, and not without levity: Julia (Erika Christensen) is my personal favorite, being a mom who always seems to be transporting wine somewhere (her parent's house, her sister's house, her mouth) and whose attempt to adopt a baby from the snack cart merchant last season was eerily moving. Her relationship with her husband, Joel (Sam Jaeger), is a lot like that of Up All Night's Reagan and Chris Brinkley (Christina Applegate and Will Arnett), what with the contented stay-at-home dad, professional blonde chignons, and general vibe of happy-go-lucky sanity. The difference is that Up All Night is basically baby-fever porn. Nobody is crying because of the snack cart merchant and an elusive, up-for-grabs fetus. They're way too busy slow-dancing to "Basically."
The only problem I have with Up All Night is that it is completely preposterous, even in a sitcom world, that a close friend and coworker would drop by a person's house as often as Ava (Maya Rudolph). For the first few episodes she was like a chattier Banquo's ghost, magnetically drawn to the Brinkleys' sofa. Come on, these people have been up! All night! Ava, however, also makes Reagan's professional life as important a storyline as her family plot — and that's why watching the show makes a potential future parent optimistic: having it all! Letting an F-bomb drop in front of the infant! Being so in love, so harmonic in your teamwork as a couple! Up All Night is a jelly donut: filled with even more sugar, no gaping void where your cool factor used to live. Parenthood gives you the donut, but you have to consider the hole — part of what can be so scary about the idea of having children is the fear of seeing a void where part of your life, or yourself, once was. Sometimes you'd rather fill it with jelly instead.
Jersey Shore (MTV) vs. Virgin Diaries (TLC)
By Mark Lisanti
This was the year I lost all interest in Jersey Shore. Whereas I once enthusiastically tuned in to watch the gang's weekly adventures in GTLing, fist-pumping, and monotonous tenderizing of whatever slab of DTF-grade club beef (and I use that term in the most respectful, gender-neutral way possible) was available for a televised romp in a bed so herpes-tainted it glowed red for the night vision cameras, I now find no joy in those once-diverting rituals. (Fine. Some joy. But not nearly as much. Imagine Pauly discovering Vinny jacked his favorite Affliction top during T-Shirt Time and you get the idea.) Sure, there was the promise that the cast's temporary relocation to Italy would result in all kinds of hormonally-enlarged-fish-out-of-tainted-seawater antics, but by this point, they would have had to stunt-set the crew on Mars and film the Situation and Pauly D attempting to double-team an eight-titted Martian with elaborately indeterminate genitalia for it to feel fresh in any way. And even then we'd still be subjected to Ronnie and Sammie's one-millionth staged breakup and desperate zero-gravity reunion. Also: Deena. It was clear the Shore's sex junkies had blown out all their usable veins.
But then, thanks to TLC, reality TV sex came full circle. By unleashing Virgin Diaries upon the basic cable channel grid, the network that incubated its brand in the cavernous uteri of childbirth-addicted moms is making a valiant effort to reclaim the dignity of genital-on-genital contact for unscripted TV fans who've been gangbanged into anhedonia by the Shore's throbbing juicehead gorillas. OK, maybe it's not really so dignified. It's still a freakshow, but at least a novel and somewhat more gentle one, populated by folks who, owing to religion or libido-torpedoing awkwardness (or both; it can get a little chicken-and-eggy up in there) have remained chaste deep into what should be their sexual primes.
And boy-o, are they DTF! Well, once they get married, or find their soul mate on an all-virgin triple blind date, or stumble upon someone turned on enough by the cameras to execute a drunken mercy-porking. If you'd like to see what happens when a woman with a perfectly normal, but completely self-denied, sexual appetite is allowed to finally enjoy her first intimate contact with a husband who's refused her so much as a premarital kiss, TLC gets you a front-row seat at the wedding:
Is that the same queasy tingling sensation you felt when Vinny smooshed Snooki? I bet it is.
Louie (FX) vs. Children's Hospital (Adult Swim)
By Steve Kandell
Of all the Internet's many complicated gifts, our collective decimated attention span is the one most pertinent to How We're Entertained Now. The makers of children's television shows have known for a long time that shorter is better, and Adult Swim, in their infinite wisdom, realized that the fundamental difference between 6-year-olds and stoned college sophomores is too narrow to parse, and then programmed accordingly. By doling out their shows in 12-minute chunks, they allow for a creative abandon that would grow tedious at double that length. (And, frankly, even a lot of the 12-minute shows seem too long and zzzany by half — yeah, I'm old, what of it?)
In its third official season — its first was, of course, online only — Rob Corddry's Children's Hospital made perfect use of the abbreviated format to experiment with stand-alone flashback episodes and show-within-the-show absurdities that not only make The Simpsons' mastery of these kinds of contextual hijinks seem to fade even further into the rearview, but also render the show's initial premise (as a Grey's Anatomy et. al spoof) seem gloriously beside the point. And the reveal that the series actually takes place in Brazil has to have the highest effort-to-payoff ratio of any gag in sitcom history.
Everyone's favorite everything, Louis C.K., on the other hand, wants you to believe he is oblivious to how the Internet works, despite having just used it with his recent Fugazi-like $5-for-all live special to do for comedy what In Rainbows did for music. (A good portion of that stand-up routine put the lie to the regular-schlub version of himself he plays in his FX series Louie, shrugging as he cops to flying first class and basically living a little better than all of us, for now, anyway.) But the show's format, sometimes divided into two or three stand-alone chunks within a half hour, sometimes not, is a testament to the creative autonomy he's earned and to how hoary and inefficient the standard 22-minute, A-plot/B-plot sitcom has become. Also, he fucked Joan Rivers.
To read Part 2, featuring Game of Thrones vs. Boardwalk Empire, Breaking Bad vs. Celebrity Rehab and the battle of the bro shows, click here.