I watch far too much TV which apparently is very bad for you. As I've been watching this much since I was a kid, I figure the damage is done, This year, with fewer comedy gigs and evening engagements than previous years, and no Edinburgh Fringe to give me a whole month off telly viewing, I have seen far too much TV (well I say "seen", it's on in the background and I'm working at the same time "pretending" to watch it. Yes I am) and some of it was not in the least bit abysmal. So far from abysmal, I've rearranged them from my head into a Top Ten of my favourites.
You may care to play "Other Peoples Top Ten TV Shows Bingo" if you like. If you have seen all of my Top Ten, you win and can imagine it's the 1980s again (you remember? When whatever you'd seen the night before, you could say "Did you see..?" to someone at school the next day and they would have? So easy, so long ago...). Here is my Top Ten TV shows of 2011, after a few outsiders & special mentions...
(do things still bubble under the charts any more? Or enter "with a bullet"? If not, they should)
Little Crackers (Sky). They're only on at Christmas, only shown once as far as I can see, and not available on DVD for some bizarre reason, but these 10 minute mini-movies telling stories from the childhood of comedians are a treat. Highlights of the 2010 season included Catherine Tate, Stephen Fry, Dawn French & Meera Syal, and in 2011 we have enjoyed Jack Whitehall, Johnny Vegas, Sheridan Smith, Shappi Khorsandi, John Bishop & Sanjeev Bjaskar. A sweet series, but not in the Top Ten.
30 Rock (Comedy Central), Curb Your Enthusiasm (More 4), The Office (Comedy Central), TV Burp (ITV) and Big Bang Theory (E4). All favourite comedy shows of some years standing, but all in danger of jumping the shark or going through a bit of a patchy patch. 30 Rock remains the strongest, Curb & Burp have had some stonking episodes, but none is on its best series, and Big Bang & Office are almost unrecognisable from the shows we first grew to love.
University Challenge & Mastermind (both BBC). Firm favourites but, dare I say it, we find ourselves preferring the celebrity versions.
Most Disappointing: Torchwood Miracle Day. Had two excellent episodes (the opener and the stand-alone love story set in the 1920s) but the rest seemed to be made up as it went along, incoherent, messy, frequently ridiculous and ultimately the biggest collection of wasted opportunities of the year.
Most Frustrating: Later with Jools Holland. As someone raised on Top Of The Pops and the Old Grey Whistle Test as my weekly televisual guide to what was hot and what was not in popular music, I mourn their absence and find Later to be the worst possible substitute. One week this year the average age of performers on the show was over 60, and its selection of acts ranges from indulgently retro to depressingly repetitive. It is popular music's Old Folks Home, makes the Grammies look "down with the kids".
So, that Top 10...
10 - Doctor Who
The favourite TV show of much of my childhood, and again from 2005, it has made itself bloody hard work to stay in love with for the last two series. Steven Moffat's episodes have been brilliantly written, flattering to the intelligent and challenging, full to the brim with ideas, and rewarding on subsequent reviewings. But sometimes the characters have taken second place to the labrynthine storylines leaving us with stories which, when resolved, leave this particular viewer a little cold (especially in comparison to the way characters were used in Russell T Davies' series of the show). The scripts by guest writers have varied too much and lacked outstandingly memorable images and characters to get this series any further in my favourites list. I did love The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe, might I say.
9 - Rev
A surprisingly satisfying comedy whose description suggested it could have been patronising. middle-class, mealy-mouthed with no obvious target audience outside of the devoutest of Radio 4 listeners, Rev is modern, witty, insightful, touching, original and genuinely funny. And it won the ratings in a double bill with Ricky Gervais's Life Is Short which many found Schadenfreudtastic.
8 - Downton Abbey
Shut up, it's very well written. Yes formulaic, yes old fashioned to an extent, and yes the Christmas episode was very disappointing. But in our house we didn't see series 1 until this year, catching up with a DVD box set, which led straight into series 2, so we've overdosed on a very high quality of classy British TV writing which can only be applauded. Fave character: Daisy the kitchen maid (welling up already).
7 - Only Connect
It's the quiz that's fun to play. You don't necessarily have to know things, you can have an educated guess. But it helps if you know things. And Victoria Coren is funnier than Paxo, QED.
6 - Bob's Burgers
Did anyone else watch this? It was on Channel 4 but it's not come up in conversation yet. For everyone still bothering with The Simpsons and Family Guy, you have missed a treat with Bob's Burgers. Great characters, stories that make this writing lark look far too easy, and the sort of animation that it is all too easy to take for granted. Find it, watch it, see what I mean.
5 - Fresh Meat
Surprisingly, Bain & Armstrong only wrote the first episode, with every other ep being written by new writers. Which means there is a scary number of quality bright young comedy drama writers out there, which makes the Sitcom Trials and Sitcom Mission's continued existence seem almost futile. And Jack Whitehall can act, the bastard. My favourite line of the year: "Shit my pants." Okay, quiet year.
4 - Misfits
Howard Overman's series is a triumph of effort over budget, knocking bigger-budget sci-fi shows like Being Human and Torchwood into a cocked hat. I still haven't seen series 1, somehow, but have seen all of series 2 and 3 in the past year and couldn't admire it more. This show is as exciting as comic books used to be when I was a kid. And that really is saying something. Most distinctive faces of any TV cast ever, they would win any Cheekbones-Off anywhere anytime.
3 - The Walking Dead
Also like comics used to be when I was a kid, because it's adapted from a comic, The Walking Dead has shown how to spin out a limited budget and a restricted storyline with aplomb. For an entire series, the cast have been stuck in a house, near a wood, with a barn, looking for a missing kid, with a strict ration of one new zombie per episode, and they've made it gripping, surprising, engaging and funny. This year's Mad Men.
2 - Top Of The Pops 1976
This social experiment, which I'm delighted to learn is going to be continued in 1977, sees every surviving episode of the year's Top Of The Pops shown at 7.30 on Thursday night, exactly 35 years after it was first shown. One part nostalgia to one part... okay it's all nostalgia in this house, but if you weren't there I can only hope it is an education. From the opening song which you don't remember ever having heard in your life, through the long-forgotten follow-up single, via the presenters whose very existence seems to be the result of a casting process as disturbing as it must now be illegal, this television show is something you simply could not make up. Historians of the future are learning so much from this musical time capsule. Jonathan King and Gary Glitter have to settle for belated apologies, having been cut out of the repeats. (As JK has said in his defence, would you edit Hitler out of the World War 2 documentaries?)
1 - Party Down
A revelation. The only series I've watched every episode of twice this year and easily the best sitcom (or comedy drama, discuss) of 2011. Except it's from 2008/9. Hev discovered it via Virgin Media's TV On Demand (it's still not available on DVD in the UK, as I learned while trying to buy it as a Christmas present). It was denied a third series because the actors got asked to do bigger things, and it was on Starz which can't compete for audiences, but it is such perfect writing and performing that it will always be a comedy show whose passing will be mourned. Everything a sitcom should be. Characters who you get from their first lines: Ron is a 3D Homer, Roman is the cast of Big Bang Theory but much more pathetic, and Henry and Casey are the most will-they-won't-they will-they-won't-they couple since Sam & Diane and Jim & Pam. The characters are clear from the start, their story arc is inobtrusive yet defining, and the comedy ideas are simple, original, solid, filmic and very funny. Ron's School Reunion is painful and brilliant, Steve Guttenberg's Birthday is the best example of a story which rewards having watched the previous series without leaving you out if you haven't. And is funny. I cannot recommend Party Down highly enough.
And those were my favourite TV shows of 2011. Happy New Year.