The 20 Best TV Moments of 2011 – Rolling Stone
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The 20 Best TV Moments of 2011

From warlock’s blood and meth chefs to Kardashian nuptials, why we watched this year

Chris Haston/NBC; Nick Briggs; Gregory Peters/AMC ; Chris Haston/NBC

If anyone had the line that summed up this year, it would have to be Snooki. When the Jersey Shore gang traveled to Italy, she had these poignant words: "Como se dice  'This sucks balls'?" Good question, Snook. And more than ever, TV is where we went for the answers. As American culture found whole new ways to suck balls, TV got right to the heart of it all, from sublime drama to reality sleaze.

By Rob Sheffield

kim kardashian wedding

Albert Michael/startraksphoto.com

20. Kim Kardashian’s Wedding

The apotheosis of reality-TV pigouts: all the emotional depth of Pawn Stars, plus all the erotic tension of My Extreme Animal Phobia. And more people watched it than all those tasteful cable dramas you like combined. Winter is coming, bitches!

mega python vs gatoroid

Syfy

19. ‘Megapython vs. Gatoroid’

I love the intenstine-spewing monster-pulp vividness of The Walking Dead. I love the cerebellum-molesting reality-puncturing mind games of Fringe. Can't choose, so I'm going with Megapython vs. Gatoroid, a gloriously trashy zero-budget quickie flick in the noble Syfy tradition, because it combines the craziest aspirations of both. It also throws in Eighties teen queens Debbie Gibson and Tiffany fighting Mickey Dolenz-eating mutants and rescuing the planet in the name of electric youth.

drita mob wives

Piotr Sikora/VH1

18. Drita’s Raccoon Hunt on ‘Mob Wives’

Everybody's favorite Mob Wife, a blonde whirlwind of quotable threats and Incredible Hulk-worthy tantrums, takes a break from punching the scungilli out of her fellow Staten Island molls to grab a paintball gun and find even slimier rodents to kill. "Raccoons are little scumbags," Drita fumes. "They're smart motherfuckers… They roll deep!" Without Drita, this'd be just another Real Housewives knockoff; with her, it's like the Lifetime Movie Channel sequel to Goodfellas that Scorcese was way too smart to make.

ricky gervais

Paul Drinkwater/NBC

17. Ricky Gervais Keeps It Real at the Golden Globes

"Welcome to a night of partying and heavy drinking. Or as Charlie Sheen calls it, breakfast." Thus Ricky Gervais began the bitchiest awards show of all time, in a room full of increasingly pissed celebs who started making their own jokes about wanting to strangle him.

michael the office

Chris Haston/NBC

16. Michael’s Farewell On ‘The Office’

As Pam rushed through airport security to give Michael Scott one last hug, with dead air on the soundtrack, it was a tearjerking moment. Although it would have been even more tearjerking if we knew how bad Dunder Mifflin was going to suck without him. "They say on your deathbed you never wish you spent more time at the office," Steve Carrell muses at the end. "But I will. Gotta be a lot better than a deathbed."

triumph occupy

Courtesy TeamCoco/Youtube.com

15. Triumph the Insult Comic Dog Goes to Wall Street

"It's going to be a serious bloodbath… or even worse for you, a regular bath!" You had to expect Conan O'Brien's cigar-chomping corndog puppet would crack plenty of hacky easy-target gags at Occupy Wall Street, and he sure did. But what makes it great is (1) the way Triumph lets the protestors hijack the funniest moments, like when the drum-circle guy adds the rimshots, and (2) the way he skewers Wall Street's "job creators": "Granted, most of your jobs end with you ejaculating on a massage table."

the situation jersey shore

Courtesy MTV Press

14. The Situation’s Headbutt on ‘Jersey Shore’

The Jersey Shore gang gets lost in Italy. Shockingly, drunken violence ensues! To get out of a fight with Ronnie, Sitch takes the gonzo option of slamming his head into a wall, resulting in a concussion that makes you wonder how there was anything to concuss. I think Snooki summed it up with her poignant question: "Como se dice 'This sucks balls'?"

obama osama walk

Brendan Smialowski-Pool/Getty Images

13. Obama’s Pimp Strut

The President's announcement about the death of Osama Bin Laden was an old-school live-TV communal event, the kind you thought didn't happen anymore. (My friends and I even postponed Mob Wives to catch this.) But the most dramatic part was the superfly coda, as the man left the podium and took his long, deliberate, extremely stylistic stroll down the hall across the red carpet. Now Obama doesn't need to run campaign ads – he can just show this clip and ask, "Can you picture Mitt's ass here? Didn't think so. You were saying?"

portlandia

IFC

12. ‘Portlandia’’s Song ‘The Dream of the Nineties Is Alive in Portland’

Oh Portlandia, you had me at "clown school." Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen introduced their boho-baiting IFC satire with a lovingly bittersweet musical tribute to arty small-town slackers everywhere, as embodied in the city of Portland, "where young people go to retire." In all honesty, I laughed and I cried. Twenty years after Nevermind, this is how that moment really felt, except as a wide-open future instead of a comically squandered utopia. Maybe if Nineties indie kids had been this funny, they would have done a better job toughing out the 2000s. But "The Dream of the Nineties Is Alive In Portland" might be the best opening sequence any series has attempted since Welcome Back Kotter.

sons of anarchy

Prashant Gupta / FX

11. The ‘Sons of Anarchy’ Finale

Clay Morrow, the fearsome biker crime lord, loses his power over the Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club, betrayed by his own hard-ass gangster code. It hurts to see his Kurt Cobain-esque bastard-of-young protegee Jax strip Clay of his gang patch. That scene sums up all the story's cultural conflicts – hippies vs. punks, the 1960s vs. the 2010s, fathers vs. sons, Ireland vs. California – without resolving a one of them. Will shit get even bloodier next season? You think?

GOP debate

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

10. GOP Debates: Reality Show of the Year

Remember how scared you were six months ago about the 2012 election? But it looks like the Republicans opted not to mount a campaign. Instead, they went for a bad cover version of the Kardashian wedding, with one-tenth the budget, one-twentieth the brain power and one-thirty-sixth the conviction. I'll definitely miss Herman Cain, who let his campaign manager light up in the year's funniest political ad. Smoke 'em if you got 'em, Herm!

steven tyler american idol

Frank Micelotta/FOX

9. Steven Tyler Hits ‘American Idol’

Nobody thought it was possible, but the Aerosmith motormouth held his brain together on live TV, and brought a little down-market friendliness to the uptight franchise. He single-handedly saved it from the post-Simon disaster everybody was waiting (and to be honest, hoping) to see.

charlie sheen

Tom Briglia/WireImages

8. Charlie Sheen’s Bender

You knew it was too good to last, and it was. But his televised meltdown, interview by interview, was a thing of beauty, as this sitcom drone who seemed so tame and familiar suddenly exploded into – as he put it – a "total frickin' bitchin' rock star from Mars."

adam levine the voice

Chris Haston/NBC

7. Adam Levine Finds His Groove on ‘The Voice’

The breakout star of the surprise summer hit sat in that giant red chair like a pop-star version of a Bond villain – a "wheeler dealer schmealer," as Christina Aguilera called him. Who knew this guy was so smart or so funny?

childrens hospital

Darren Michaels

6. The ‘Childrens Hospital’ 70th Episode

These pervy Adult Swim doctors prove that more comedies should last 10 jam-packed minutes. No plots, no set-ups, no dead weight, just a barrage of morally reprehensible gags, from the hospital urine drive to the Party Down reunion. This stupendously pointless rapid-fire mastermix of 1970s sitcom cliches ("Ford, you turkey!" "Read between the lines, Iran!") was the year's kinkiest comedy highlight. My wife and I have watched this so many times, we recite the dialogue while waiting in line at the supermarket: "Cool out, woman! You want a lude?" "I want respect! I want my due! And I want a lude! Yes! I want one of those!" Which usually means we get the whole aisle to ourselves.

curb your enthusiasm

John P. Johnson

5. Larry David Tastes the ‘Palestinian Chicken’

This has all the elements of a cringe-core Curb Your Enthusiasm classic – when Larry's Palestinian sex goddess screams, "I'm going to fuck the Jew out of you," you worry your neighbors will overhear it through the walls and realize you're a horrible person. That's the essence of Curb: you realize that you really are a horrible person, and only a social assassin like Larry can force you to laugh at it.

parks and recreation

Chris Haston/NBC

4. The ‘Parks and Recreation’ Drink-Off

Parks and Rec jumped from one high to another all year, with Ron Swanson earning his turkeyburgers as the funniest character on TV. I love this guy. The rulebook for his scout troop just has three words ("Be a man") and he declares, "I only read nautical novels and my own personal manifestos." He even brags he made his wedding last two hours: "After the priest said, 'Repeat after me,' I fell silent." But he meets his match with the arrival of Tammy One – the ex-wife whose evil powers make Ron shave off his mustache. Leslie has to gather all the ferocious women in Ron's life – his gun-toting mama Tammy, the sex goddess Tammy Two, even April – to battle for his soul in an "old-fashioned prairie drink-off." The ladies heroically reunite the man and his facial hair, even after he warns them about Swanson family homebrew: "We used that stuff to burn the warts off mules!" For conservatives, Ron must be their fantasy of a godless American who turns out okay without Jesus; for the rest of us, he's our fantasy of a conversative with actual principles. But either way, nobody wants to see him stripped of his 'stache.

game of thrones

Nick Briggs

3. Ned Stark’s Execution on ‘Game of Thrones’

The good guy gets the axe? Right down to the final minutes, it seemed unthinkable they would go ahead and chop off the head of the one noble warrior in this corrupt kingdom. Sean Bean's last human gesture – spotting his daughter Arya in the crowd, and speaking one word of code ("Baelor!") to ensure her safety – made an already audacious scene devastating.

community

Lewis Jacobs/NBC

2. The ‘Critical Film Studies’ Episode of ‘Community’

The most brilliant half-hour of TV that aired in 2011, no question. All the absurdist satire – a parody of My Dinner With Andre, for fuck's sake – lurches into an intense moment of human interaction, as two twits struggle to have a "real conversation." ("You know who has real conversations? Ants! They talk by vomiting chemicals into each other's mouths!… Humans are more evolved. We lie.") You couldn't ask for a more succinct statement of what TV is, how TV works, and how TV brings people together, mostly by telling blatant lies to our faces that somehow mutate into real emotions. (Even if the moral of the story is, "Sometimes emotional breakthoughs are overrated.") Pure genius – no wonder NBC has it on the chopping block.

breaking bad

Gregory Peters/AMC

1. The ‘Breaking Bad’ Finale

The hands-down best drama on TV is a terrible commercial for meth, because most of us need a muscle relaxant or a stiff drink to get through the tension in each episode of Walter White's American journey into his own twisted soul. The killing of crime boss Gus Fring was Walter's ultimate triumph – a wheelchair suicide bomb that goes off in a nursing home, removing most of Gus's face, although he manages to straighten his tie one last time before he falls down dead. But it's also his ultimate defeat, because he's escaped nothing. More than ever, Walter is at the mercy of his most ruthless enemy – himself. That's the painful twist – Walter White likes himself this way, and after killing Gus, he's never been so proud of himself in his life. Which means he's still on the hook – and so are we.