Television critics started compiling year-end top-10 lists back when there were only three networks. Aren't longer lists called for by now? Allow me to break with time-honored tradition by offering my choices for the 12 best series' of 2011, plus eight very deserving runners-up.
Downton Abbey (PBS) -- I never thought I'd see the day when I would pick a crunchy gravel drama as the Program of the Year. But, improbable as it may seem, this Masterpiece mini-series was the only true scripted TV phenomenon of 2011. I knew it belonged at the top of this list just a few weeks ago when I attended a public screening of the Season Two premiere and witnessed hundreds of people of all ages bursting into thunderous applause during a scene in which two lovelorn characters finally kissed. (When was the last time that happened in a movie theater?)
Breaking Bad (AMC) -- One of those rare remarkable shows that truly improve as they get older, Breaking Bad is my choice for the best returning dramatic series of 2011. I won't be surprised if Bryan Cranston takes home a fourth Emmy next September for his uniquely powerful portrayal of mild-mannered chemistry teacher and ailing family man turned dangerously narcissistic meth dealer Walter White. Cranston's brilliance was more than matched by his co-stars: Aaron Paul as Walter's painfully messed up partner Jesse Pinkman, Anna Gunn as his grievously conflicted wife Skyler, RJ Mitte as his loving son Walt Jr. and especially Giancarlo Esposito as lethal drug lord Gustavo Fring.
Friday Night Lights (DirecTV/NBC) -- The final few episodes of this quietly powerful series reminded us why we fell in love with it at first sight five years ago. I know people who wouldn't watch the series finale for several weeks after it was telecast because they couldn't bear to say goodbye to the residents of Dillon, Texas. Television is something less without them.
Justified (FX) -- There was huge fun to be had watching Timothy Olyphant's smartalecky Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens go toe to toe with Margo Martindale's unforgettable pot-farming mountain woman Mags Bennett. (Apple pie, anyone?) If only they had kept her around for a second season. Really, why the rush to end her?
The Middle (ABC) -- I suppose Modern Family should be sitting in this space, but the truth is it doesn't need any more acclaim, while The Middle -- television's second best comedy about a contemporary family and a far more realistic take on the way most people live -- needs all the help it can get. I'm happy to oblige.
See the rest of this list over at the MediaPost TV Board.