Job hazard: At Christmas parties, everyone wants me to tell them what TV shows they really should be watching. Depending on the strength of the nog, I sometimes draw a complete blank. So this is the list — my top 10 for 2011 — that I’ll keep in my inside pocket for just such moments . . .
1. Downton Abbey (PBS). Who would have thought that in a year so ripe with class animosity from the 99 percent that our favorite show would be a purely British crunchy-gravel saga of an aristocratic family (and their servants) living in a countryside estate circa 1912. Second season begins Jan. 8.
2. Enlightened (HBO). A difficult case to make, but I stand by it. Sometimes the “best” TV show is not necessarily the most entertaining. The concluding two episodes of Mike White and Laura Dern’s psychological character study have made this show a worthwhile gem — and a hauntingly lovely comment on our modern conflict between our higher, yoga-toned selves and corporate cubicle culture. Season finale airs Monday.
3. Homeland (Showtime). Addictively perfect anti-terrorism thriller, set in our own spooky NoVa, held together by a stunningly edgy performance from Claire Danes as a borderline psychotic CIA agent. Season finale Dec. 18.
4. Storage Wars (A&E). I never tire of seeing what’s in those abandoned storage units, though the cooked up auction drama is easily overblown — to say nothing of the utter disregard for the misfortunes that resulted in the auctions to begin with. Is it recession escapism or recession denial?
5. Breaking Bad (AMC). Sent me over the edge of anxiety this season. “Breaking Bad” just keeps outdoing itself, this time thanks to the unforgettable Giancarlo Esposito as Gustavo “Gus” Fring. Returns in 2012.
6. The Walking Dead (AMC). Gets my “most improved” award for a gripping second season as the survivors sought temporary refuge from the zombies at a mysterious farm. Resumes Feb. 12.
7. American Horror Story (FX). Ryan Murphy’s haunted house romp became just as hokey as I predicted it would, but stylistically, the show is still buzzworthy. There’s something in every episode that’s a great hoot, if not a holler. Season finale Dec. 14.
8. Game of Thrones (HBO). I settled down and came around to this adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s best-selling fantasy series, but it wasn’t (and still isn’t) easy. I’ll never have time to plod through all those books — does winter ever come to Westeros? Returns in April 2012.
9. Modern Family (ABC). Felt a little wobbly there after the season-opening dude-ranch vacation trip but still the most satisfying half-hour of my week — and probably yours, too.
10. The Office (NBC). Nobody has said much about this, but, um — Steve who? The cast and writers have quietly rallied, filling the Dunder Mifflin power vacuum with Ed Helms and James Spader. An episode a couple weeks ago, in which Helms’s Andrew Bernard struggled to placate Spader’s Robert California by not-not giving California’s wife (Maura Tierney) a job, proves that the awkward quality that made “The Office” work before is still very much intact.
* * *
PS: People also ask me what the worst thing on TV is. I’ve run out of ways to say “Zooey Deschanel” and “New Girl” without feeling like I’m going to throw up. Even the people who actually like her or her show don’t really put up much of a fight.