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The Top 10 TV Series of 2011: The Best and the Rest

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Mandy Patinkin and Claire Danes in Homeland

TIME’s annual collection of top-10 lists is up, including my list of the Top 10 TV Shows of 2011. (Also up is my list of Top 10 TV Episodes, which I’ll cover in a separate post.)

After the jump, I’ll post my complete list, along with a partial list of honorable mentions. But first, it’s time for my annual list of caveats, rationalizations and excuses!

* Number one: this is not the Top 10 and Everything Else Sucks list. I had 10 slots to fill. I love more than 10 TV shows. There are different ways of dealing with that problem. You could do a top 20, or 30, or 50 list. You could do lists of comedies, reality shows, best performances, etc., etc. Some critics do, and that’s great. I didn’t, because I’m lazy and it starts to get into everyone-gets a-trophy territory.

* Related to which: I don’t blame anyone for asking “How could you not include _____?” But I probably won’t answer. (1) That way lies madness; and (2) it inevitably leads to my response focusing on the relative flaws of some show that I actually like a lot and thus seeming to bash it. Again, the blanket answer is: a show is not on this list because I didn’t want to remove any of these 10 shows to make room for it, period.

* Somebody is going to post, “You forgot _____.” I didn’t. I keep a running list throughout the year and revise it constantly. There may be a show or two I overlooked, but pretty much anything with a serious shot I thought long and hard about why to include it or not. (My top-10 episodes list, about which I’ll post separately, is a different story–I can’t watch everything, and I almost certainly I did forget things.)

* However, that doesn’t mean I never regret my choices. There are probably one or two I’m regretting already. Any honest top 10 list is really a top 9 list, and a 15-way tie for 10th. But overall, I think this list gives a pretty fair sense of what I think was best on TV this year.

* Someone will also ask how I could claim X show is two places better than Y. Here’s the dirty secret of list-making: beyond a point, the numbering is arbitrary. It has to be, with so many genres competing: Louie and Breaking Bad, say, are great in very different ways. I suspect that numbered lists make possible a kind of Mobius illogic, where I might believe 8 to be better than 9, and 9 better than 10, yet, if pressed, believe 10 is superior to 8. I cannot rationally explain it, which is why I hate numbered lists; but readers and my editors like them, so here you go.

* In fact, how arbitrary is it? So arbitrary that–for boring production reasons–we somehow managed to mix up the order of numbers 4 through 7 in the print-magazine version of the list, and I did not even notice until the very last minute. (The print and online lists match now. I think.)

* Don’t worry! There will be a 10 Worst Shows list too, around the holidays. There’s still time to nominate your least favorites!

* Please feel free to complain in the comments about the shows I left off. But a challenge: for every show you want to put on my list, nominate one show to take off. (Preferably one you’ve actually seen!)

* Finally, time.com did a bang-up job formatting the lists, but they had 50 of them to produce, so they may have made mistakes–and I almost certainly did. If you find any, note them and I’ll get them fixed. (Note: failing to pick your favorite show not a “mistake” except in the moral sense.)

Without further ado, here’s my list (and please click through my writeups for my full explanations).

1. Louie
2. Parks and Recreation
3. Breaking Bad
4. Justified
5. Game of Thrones
6. Homeland
7. Friday Night Lights
8. Community
9. The Good Wife
10. Enlightened

And finally, in no particular order–because alphabetization is hard–here is an entirely incomplete list of runners-up, which on another day might have made the list this year:

Modern Family
All-American Muslim
Boardwalk Empire
Downton Abbey
The Hour
Sons of Anarchy
Brick City
Up All Night