5. Scandal (ABC)
After a scattered, short first season, Shonda Rhimes' D.C. drama hit its stride in its second season. And this season it's been on fire, going from a show about a fixer/Washington insider to a bonkers (and yet not irrelevant) one in which Olivia Pope's (Kerry Washington) broken family is impossibly tied to the inner working of the U.S. government, including a secret organization called B613. Its hard to top the twist that your main character is in love with and has been having an affair with the President of the United States, but this year "Scandal" has managed to do just that by looping Olivia's mom and dad into the equation and having them both be terrifying and loaded up with secrets. As "Homeland" gets loopier while maintaining a stiff facade of quality, "Scandal" has managed to be infinitely more riveting while occupying some of the same territory by owning its own wild-eyed plot twists, presenting an alternate universe in which the personal and the political of its power brokers are hopelessly intertwined and the rest of the world are there on the outside, just pawns to be manipulated.
4. Enlightened (HBO)
It's sad, certainly, that Mike White's melancholic and lovely show was canceled this year. But its second season, lasting just eight episodes, was all but perfect, capturing a character in her most maddening, yearning, inconsistent and hopeful. Amy Jellicoe (Laura Dern) is a character for the ages, well-meaning but self-serving, full of grand self-help talk that masked much more mundane intentions, a sharply believable portrait of a woman in search of higher meaning in corporate Southern California setting that was far from transcendent. An argument could be made that Amy ran a little too abrasive in the show's first season, but this year on "Enlightened" was precisely calibrated and delicate in its timing and its portrayal of its challenging main character. And while Dern's performance is the heart and soul of the show, the two instances in which it stepped away from her -- to visit Levi (Luke Wilson) in rehab in Hawaii and to peek into the life of Tyler, played by White himself -- were equally good, worthy of standing alone as shorts about loneliness and the yearning for connection.
3. Top of the Lake (Sundance Channel)
A procedural only in the most technical sense, Jane Campion's miniseries played out the gender battles that she's explored so masterfully in her film work and laid them out over a remote New Zealand town to which Det. Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss) returns, bearing resentments and emotional wounds. On one side, you have the men, led by the rough but charismatic Matt Mitcham (an excellent Peter Mullan), in dark compound filled with illicit business dealings, while on the other you have the women's camp, overseen by the equally harsh GJ (Holly Hunter), a minimalistic gathering of shipping containers out in the wilderness. And in between you have a missing, pregnant 12-year-old, an old lover, a boys club of a police force and themes about the fall of man. Campion's work here look little like anything you normally see on TV, in the best way -- it's cinematic, mysterious and moving, with a thrillingly complicated sense of personal relationships and how communities fit or fail together.
2. Orange is the New Black (Netflix)
The most unexpected, piquant pleasure of the year, "Orange is the New Black" was the Netflix original with the least obvious hook -- no major stars, no pre-established brand from which to get a push, and a premise seemed fantastically uncommercial by all cynical standards. And goddamn, has it been good -- smart, surprising, engaged, raunchy and almost shockingly new. Jenji Kohan's show is about women talking, befriending, fighting and sometimes falling in love with other women, and it also has a cast filled with such wonderful actresses of types so rarely given good platforms because of their ethnicity, age, body type or other non-studio standard quality that its very existence feels like a rebuke against the lousy female representations that still dominate the big and small screen. "Orange is the New Black" can be funny and it can be wrenchingly sad, but it also deserves a salute for being important in largely nondidactic ways, for taking Piper (Taylor Schilling), a woman who is, in her own words, a nice white lady, and using her story to examine privilege, race and class and the ways in which they affect the characters' kaleidoscoping lives.
1. Breaking Bad (AMC)
Endings are hard. But "Breaking Bad" managed to run at full, breathtaking speed towards it own, and then stick the landing, against all odds, wrapping up the sad, strange story of Walter White (Bryan Cranston) by giving him a little bit of peace while also refusing to let him off the hook for all his awfulness. This breakneck final half season shook Walt's world apart right after it seemed like he'd managed to get away with everything, with his dogged brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris) on his tail, Jesse (Aaron Paul) aware of what he did to Brock and the cancer back and eating away at his health. Those three final episode were killer -- "Ozymandias," which overturned everything, "Granite State," with its spooky depiction of a kind of purgatory and "Felina," in which Walt managed a tiny bit of redemption, all incredibly taut, waste-free installments. And it's the fact that it wasn't the thought of what he'd done to his family but his resentment against his old partners, Elliott and Gretchen, that pushed him toward that end game that made the closure he ultimately managed forgivable. Walt's not a good guy -- something he at long last came to terms with admitted to Skyler (Anna Gunn), that what he did was for himself, not for his family. Between Mr. Chips and Scarface, he finally found some kind of emotional honesty -- he didn't deserve to be a hero, but he earned being able to try to set things right.
Runners up: The first season of Cinemax's fearlessly over-the-top "Banshee" was guilty fun. "Veep" continues to grow on me, improving in its second round of episodes. "Archer" is always profanely funny, while "Orphan Black" had a throwback feel to it that was very enjoyable and a multitasking lead in Tatiana Maslany who deserves the attention she's been getting. "Key & Peele" remains the best-looking sketch comedy series around, while even on an off season, "Mad Men" is very worth watching. Sour and sweet, "The Mindy Project" remains interesting in part because it still feels like it's being tinkered with, the kinks slowly getting worked out. "Broadchurch" and "The Fall" were both dreamy, emotionally intense Brit murder mysteries. Josh Thomas's Aussie twentysomething comedy "Please Like Me" was quirky in all the best ways in its first season, while "Rectify" captured an indie film quality of the type rarely seen on television. It was great to see the tremendous, clever UK sci-fi anthology series "Black Mirror" finally come to the US, and both "Parks and Recreation" and "New Girl" remain solid and genial.