Coming and going . . . going and coming: Our own lives can change dramatically, but why are we surprised when the lives of the rich and famous do? Maybe because those lives can suddenly turn into volcanic eruptions of booze and drugs, those verbal emissions best described as insane or, more charitably, unbalanced. We watch in astonishment, then amusement, and finally -- because public self-beheadings are horrifying as they are rare -- we look away.
For that reason, 2011 belonged to Charlie Sheen, even though he'd probably like to give it back. Fired from TV's top comedy in March, Sheen's became one of the highest-profile derailments in TV history. CBS salvaged "Two and a Half Men" by casting Ashton Kutcher as one of the "Two," but the memory of "winning (duh)," "Tiger Blood" and "goddesses" almost makes that incidental..
Also on the subject of going, going, gone, Oprah Winfrey's stage-managed exit from the afternoon carefully excised surprise and to some extent spontaneity because it was in service of an even larger goal -- the launch of a network. OWN remains tightly glued to that word "troubled" in just about every published reference, as the magic that O was supposed to bring remains more promise that reality..
And Simon Cowell left "American Idol," which was reinvigorated in his absence while his own second act -- "The X Factor" -- has had some success but hasn't yet proven that it's anything more than a glorified version of "America's Got Talent." (We also now await the second act -- or is it the fourth, fifth or sixth? -- of Regis Philbin, who left "Live! With Regis and Kelly" after 28 years; and of Katie Couric, who will host a daytime show for ABC next year.) In a broader angle view of the year of transition, there was also this: Under new management, NBC stumbled through one of the toughest stretches in almost eight decades on the air, while TV viewers became increasingly adept at avoiding, or managing, the commercial network pipeline. There's a direct link here because ABC ("Modern Family"), CBS ("NCIS") and Fox ("Idol") have proved that the best way to corral restless viewers who have thousands of options is with a bona fide hit..
To that end, the commercial networks decided once again that the tried-and-true sitcom was the surest way to that goal because viewers effectively told them it was. ABC and Fox spent lavishly and well on pilots for shows about the extinct -- Pan Am and dinosaurs -- but a predictable retread ("Last Man Standing") starring a beloved TV veteran (Tim Allen) got the viewers. CBS ("2 Broke Girls"), Fox ("New Girl") and NBC ("Up All Night") each scored with girlcoms, romcoms and newmomcoms. Even Sheen, who made 2011 so effortlessly memorable, has a new sitcom in the works for FX -- "Anger Management." At least the year ends on a funny note.
Here's the year's best:
GAME OF THRONES (HBO)
No contest. This hyper-realized mythic / historic fantasy epic based on the first book ("A Game of Thrones") in the George R.R. Martin series "A Song of Ice and Fire" was stunning in scope and ambition.
This gripping newcomer, developed by Howard Gordon and Alex Ganza of "24," and starring Claire Danes, Damian Lewis, Mandy Patinkin and Morena Baccarin, launched with one of the best pilots I've ever seen.
AMY POEHLER AS LESLIE KNOPE; LOUIS C.K. AS LOUIE
It's a tie! (Or, as you've correctly deduced, my way of cramming more choices into a top-five list.) Poehler has made NBC's "Parks and Recreation" TV's most reliably amusing comedy, and Louis C.K. has made FX's "Louie" TV's most reliably weird, unsettling and even unexpectedly (and possibly inadvertently) funny comedy.
BOARDWALK EMPIRE (HBO)
Smart, engaging, atmospheric, this show got even better during its second season. (FX's "Sons of Anarchy" got better during its fourth season, too, but enough with the ties.)
KELSEY GRAMMER IN "BOSS" (Starz)
A dazzling performance by a veteran talent best known for comedy -- not violent browbeating and political blustering and huckstering in the mold of a former (and unnamed) mayor of Chicago.
And here are the six major moments, events and transitions that defined 2011:.
Enough hyperbole has already been expended on the queen of daytime's exit from daytime. But this was truly the end of an epoch, as opposed to mere era. Winfrey, like Johnny Carson, was one of those meta-figures who seemed to transcend TV, while there's no one even close to taking her place. Meanwhile, her efforts at empire building -- OWN -- have fallen short so far.
'AMERICAN IDOL' OVERHAUL
Two new judges (do we really need to name them?) and suddenly all that talk about great TV franchises and the death throes they must endure pretty much ended. Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler will be back in 2012, and fans will, too.
How often do Long Island born-and-bred contestants go long, and far, on TV reality franchises as Miller Place's Ralph Macchio ("Dancing With the Stars"), Merrick's Robbie Rosen ("American Idol") and Roslyn's J.P. Rosenbaum ("The Bachelorette") did?
We couldn't process him with a normal brain (he said) because he was on a drug (he said) called Charlie Sheen and the only thing he was addicted to (he said) was winning. Sheen said a lot of things, some of them scary, but it was the behavior that got him canned from "Two and a Half Men."
He went gently, and without tears, into that good night -- even though he insists this exit was not retirement, so, technically, not a good night. But still, a memorable, funny, warm departure.
STEVE CARELL EXITS 'THE OFFICE'
One of TV's classic characters -- Michael Scott -- leaves Scranton for Colorado.