If the holiday season is a time to reflect on things in our lives to be grateful for, then prime-time television deserves a little praise for its abundance of quality programming. Such a statement might elicit a derisive eye roll from viewers ignorant of all the great shows out there, but fans of TV know better.
While it's true that there's more junk on TV than ever, there is also more excellent programming. The increase in both trash and good stuff results from the overall rise in the quantity of shows with cable networks, especially, eager to jump into the original-programming fray.
Rejoice that the networks wrap the following TV series in bright, shiny paper and put them under the Christmas tree for all of us to enjoy.
Certainly ABC's Wednesday-night comedy lineup is worthy of universal praise. "Modern Family" and "The Middle" have been excellent, worthwhile viewing since they launched in 2009. But in 2011, ABC added "Happy Endings" and "Suburgatory" to the lineup for a seamless comedy block.
"Happy Endings" is a more manic "Friends," with pop-culture references and zingers flying with fury; "Suburgatory" chronicles one cynical teen's life in suburbia with humorous observations that should ring true/hit close to home for suburbanites nationwide.
"Revenge" has become an appointment-viewing soap for some viewers yearning for prime-time catfights while "Once Upon a Time," although not a great show (it's no "Lost," despite sharing some producers), is one of the few programs that encourage parents and children to watch together.
Ratings-wise, "Pan Am" is in a nosedive and likely won't last beyond a few more episodes, but it remains an entertaining diversion with beautiful production design and some strong performances, most notably Karine Vanasse as French flight attendant Colette.
Moving "The Good Wife" to Sunday night stinks for East Coast viewers who constantly have to play a "Where's Waldo?" guessing game as to when episodes will begin due to football overruns, but that hasn't diminished the quality of the drama itself. Last month's reintroduction of actress Anika Noni Rose as Wendy Scott-Carr, Peter Florrick's one-time political rival who's now doing his dirty work, was a genius bit of plotting on the part of the show's writers.
And while the network's new comedy, "2 Broke Girls," has disappointed after a promising pilot (despite the presence of great stars, you can't have a great show with lousy writing), "The Big Bang Theory" remains the network's gold standard when it comes to sitcoms that can conjure a smile.
Where to begin? Cable has eaten the broadcasters' lunch when it comes to thought-provoking, engrossing dramas. From HBO's "Game of Thrones" to Showtime's "Homeland," connoisseurs of quality drama know cable is the place to be. FX has modern Western "Justified" and the bizarre "American Horror Story." AMC offers "Breaking Bad" and "The Walking Dead" (and "Mad Men" will be back next year).
If anything, there might be too much good stuff, which might be why smart shows like Starz's "Boss" aren't getting the attention they deserve. Who has time to watch it all?
Part of the appeal of cable series is that they have a lower failure rate than broadcast-network shows. So if you start watching, odds are better that you won't be disappointed by a premature cancellation.
Once upon a time, The WB beckoned to TV fans with a roster of smart, youth-skewing programs. The CW has largely abandoned smart in favor of "sexy," but at least freshman drama "Hart of Dixie" has a sliver of heart, perhaps a hand-me-down from "Gilmore Girls."
Although ratings for "Glee" are down, creatively the show has had a pretty decent fall season. The network's best hour follows with newcomer "New Girl," which is still finding its footing, and sophomore comedy "Raising Hope," which is one of the most underrated (and under-watched) comedies in prime time.
Fans of "Community" want to put coal in NBC's Christmas stocking for benching the show at midseason. While I share their disappointment, I don't think it's a nail in the coffin for the series, not with so many other craters in the network's prime-time schedule.
Looking around NBC's schedule, there's not a lot to praise beyond "Parks and Recreation" and "Parenthood." "The Office" hasn't been that funny since Michael Scott's departure, "Up All Night" is cute but still has freshman missteps and "Harry's Law," while beloved by senior citizens, comes across as a subpar effort from writer David E. Kelley.
Public broadcasting had a banner year, kicking off with the sumptuous "Downton Abbey" on "Masterpiece Classic" and continuing with the "Upstairs Downstairs" reboot and the media literate "America In Primetime."
And 2012 looks promising, too, with a "Downton" sequel in January, a "Sherlock" sequel in May and the debut of "Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood," a follow-up to the children's classic "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," coming in September.