While the summer is an excuse for the movie studios to roll out their biggest offerings, television executives are much more afraid of warm weather, leaving the television dial mostly as a wasteland of repeats and reality shows. As such, the TV season essentially gets underway in September and runs through to May (with cable dramas occasionally moving the goalposts a little either way — “Breaking Bad” starts in July, “The Newsroom” next week).
As such, TV should probably be judged on a slightly different schedule, and to mark the passing of the season (arguably which just ended with “Mad Men“; read our season finale recap here), we’ve run down, as we did last year, our ten favorite shows of the season. These kinds of lists always generate disagreements, and there’s so much good television that some shows are bound to miss out — some of us couldn’t be bigger fans of “Parks and Recreation” for instance, but its fourth season was a significant enough step down from its pitch-perfect third (which topped this list last year) that it found itself slipping on the list.
But if you have a case to make for any of the other sterling shows that we didn’t include — “Fringe,” “Eastbound & Down,” “Boardwalk Empire,” “Enlightened,” “Bob’s Burgers,” “30 Rock,” “Downton Abbey,” “The Hour,” “The Good Wife,” “Treme,” “Luck,” “Veep” and many, many others, you can sound off in the comments section below.
10. “The Fades”
When it came to the Television BAFTA for Best Drama Series this year, there was pretty stiff competition among the nominees: previous winner “Misfits,” the last series of long-running spy series “Spooks,” and the hugely popular detective show “Scott and Bailey” (and that’s even without the stalwart shows that weren’t even nominated like “Doctor Who,” “Sherlock” and “Downton Abbey“). But the winner was none of these things: in a rare example of an awards show getting it exactly right, the winner was “The Fades,” the BBC3 (or BBC America in the U.S.) supernatural drama which received relatively low-ratings, and embarassingly, had already been cancelled. The series was created by fast-rising writer Jack Thorne (“The Scouting Book For Boys,” “This Is England ’86,” the upcoming “A Long Way Down“), who pitched it to the BBC as ” ‘Ghostbusters’ meets ‘Freaks & Geeks.’ ” And tonally at least, that’s not far off, but the finished product was much darker, weirder, sexier and funnier than that sounds. The pilot introduces us to Paul (Ian de Caestecker), a teenager suffering from apocalyptic visions who discovers that he’s an Angelic — one of a special few able to see Fades, spirits of the dead who never made it to the afterlife. As it turns out, the Fades have a plan, and Paul, along with his best friend Mac (Daniel Kaluuya), twin sister Anna (Lily Loveless), would-be-girlfriend Jay (Sophie Wu) and his sinister mentor Neil (Johnny Harris), have to band together to stop Paul’s visions from coming true. It sounds like any other post-‘Buffy‘/”Supernatural” type series, but Thorne (who penned all six episodes himself) makes it feel fresh, purely by putting together a cast of genuinely compelling characters (Harris, of “Snow White and the Huntsman,” being a particular highlight), smart comedy, and raw emotion — few shows can make you tear up during the “previously on” introduction, but this one, which sees Kaluuya deliver the recap in character, did. The villains were motivated and terrifying, the action well-directed and exciting, the plot twists surprising, and the whole thing was enormously entertaining, even if some aspects didn’t quite work (there was a sub-plot featuring Paul’s teacher (Tom Ellis) mourning his wife (Natalie Dormer), who’d been turned into a Fade, that never quite went anywhere). Hopefully, the BAFTA win will make the BBC reconsider their decision not to comission a second season, especially given the cliffhanger ending.
Must See Episode: The fourth, which picked up on the jaw-dropping climax of the previous episode, when Paul was rendered comatose, even as the lead Fade (Joe Dempsie) regains corporal form, and starts chewing up the townspeople.
A decade on, the major attempts to tackle the war on terror have been in jumped-up action series like “24” or “Sleeper Cell,” and a new show from some of the writer/producers on the former didn’t exactly inspire hope of a more nuanced take, despite a starry cast assembled — Claire Danes, Damian Lewis and Mandy Patinkin. But as it turned out, “Homeland” — a loose remake of Israeli series “Hatufim” — was both gripping thriller and well-drawn character study, which against the odds managed to carry its premise across the first season without dragging or dropping off significantly. The show follows bipolar CIA agent Carrie Mathison (Danes) who is told by an informant that an American prisoner of war has been turned. Months later, she watches Private Nicholas Brody get off a plane back onto home soil after eight years, and is immediately suspicious of him. Is Brody really a sleeper agent with a terrible aim? Or is Carrie simply losing her mind? The answer was both, and also neither — creators Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa had created a plot without easy answers, set in a world of grey, that still barreled towards a breathlessly tense conclusion. Not that it was ever rushed, with the show just as interested in its protagonists as in its twists and turns, and while there were some weaker performances in the sidelines, the central trio more than delivered. Claire Danes reminded everyone of the talent she first displayed in “My So Called Life” with a turn that demands Emmy recognition; manipulative and vulnerable and terrified that she might be wrong, and that her mind might be betraying her. Damian Lewis, meanwhile, has always fared better on television than in movies, from “Band of Brothers” to “Life,” and gave another storming performance here, expertly keeping Brody’s motivations out of reach while still allowing an insight into the man. And Mandy Patinkin was a wonderful avuncular mentor, battling against his own imploding relationship and trying to save Carrie from herself (special mention too to Morena Baccarin as Brody’s wife — she’d always felt a little flat on “Firefly,” but is ace here). There were certainly flaws, in retrospect: some patchy dialogue, a few subplots that felt like padding, a couple of moments that felt contrived or far-fetched. And questions still remain about whether the show will be able to stretch that premise to its second season and beyond. But they’ve already surpassed expectations, so we’re certainly hopeful for its return this September.
Must See Episode: Episode 7, “The Weekend,” in which Brody and Carrie’s relationship comes to a head as they go for a dirty getaway together at her family’s cabin. The episode culminates in a conversation so brilliantly written and unexpectedly performed that it’ll be ensconsed in the TV hall of fame long after the show comes to an end.
The Elmore Leonard-inspired “Justified” graduated from a promising escaped-con-of-the-week show to one of TV’s finest dramas in its second season (it placed fourth on this list last year), thanks both to a larger role for Walton Goggins and an unforgettable villain in the Emmy-winning Margo Martindale‘s chilling criminal matriarch. Indeed, the latter was so extraordinary that the void that she left after being killed off at the end of the season seemed like it could never be filled. But while creator Graham Yost and co. couldn’t quite conjure a character to match her turn, the addition of a duo of villains and a fiendishly plotted overall arc found them coming remarkably close. This time around, Marshall Raylan Givens is brought to a new personal low after his pregnant ex-wife leaves him again, and he winds up living above a bar, working as a bouncer on the side, giving Timothy Olyphant some fine new notes to play while remaining as charming as ever. And he and his long-term ally/adversary Boyd Crowder (Goggins), who’s trying to consolidate his power in Harlan, had their hands full, thanks both to carpetbagger Robert Quarles (Neal McDonough), a sexually deviant, Taxi-Driver-gun-armed Detroit mobster in exile who’s looking to take over the Oxycontin racket in Kentucky. And that’s without mentioning Limehouse (Mykelti Williamson), the manipulative, omnipresent slaughterhouse owner who rules over the predominately African-American area of Noble’s Holler and acts as something of a banker for the various criminal types at play, all the while pursuing his own agenda. And then there’s the various memorable one-off criminals that crop up across the series, from Pruitt Taylor Vince as a pawn shop owner to William Mapother as an unpleasant pimp. Or a returning Jeremy Davies as the son of Martindale’s character. Or Stephen Tobolowsky as a slimy FBI guy. Or Carla Gugino, essentially playing Karen Sisco from “Out of Sight” (which she played on a short-lived, but excellent, show a decade or so ago). The micro plots were frequently hugely enjoyable and the macro plot even more so — complex and surprising in a way that’s reminiscent of the best of Leonard’s work. And the writers more than have a feel for his snappy dialogue at this point — it’s one of the more quotable shows on the air these days. There are still some issues that could be worked out — there were a couple of duff episodes, and Yost honestly seems much more interested in the criminals than the lawmen (he’s still not worked out to do with Raylan’s colleagues). But as far as pulpy, hugely engaging crime tales go, this is a helluva entertaining hour of TV.
Must-See Episode: A few contenders here, but it must go to the fifth episode, “Thick As Mud,” a long-awaited showcase for Damon Herriman‘s dim-witted redneck criminal Dewey Crowe, who’s been broken out of prison by a sadistic nurse and told that his kidneys have been removed and that he needs to go out on the rob for money to buy them back. The conflict between Boyd and Quarles brews niely in the background, but this is also proof that the show can still handle strong short solo stories, and it’s a good entry point to the series for newcomers.
Prime-time animation hasn’t quite delivered a classic series since the long-gone heyday of “The Simpsons” (although if you haven’t seen that show in a while, the most recent season was stronger than it’s been in a while). It remains hugely popular, thanks to Seth MacFarlane‘s trio of shows, and programs like “Futurama” and “Bob’s Burgers” have fervent fanbases, but nothing’s quite hit that sweet spot in the same way. But damned if “Archer” didn’t come as close as anything in its third season this year. The FX show follows the titular secret agent (H. Jon Benjamin), his hard-drinking, sexed-up mother/boss (Jessica Walter), and their co-workers of varying degree of competence and sanity (including Aisha Tyler, Judy Greer and Chris Parnell), as they fight for ISIS against a wide range of foes. Spy spoofs are just about as old as the spy genre, but “Archer” works by getting the genre down (the show often includes terrific action sequences), and then by pretty much shunting it to the side in favor of workplace bickering and absurdist comedy. It’s not just the presence of Greer and Bluth family matriarch Walter (as well as guest spots from the likes of David Cross and Jeffrey Tambor) that make the show feel like a successor to “Arrested Development” — it’s the tight-as-a-drum plotting, the obscure references and callbacks, and sheer density of comedy on the series. And creator Adam Reed (who has sole writing credit on almost every episode) hit new heights with the third season. It was partly familiarity with the characters, both from the writing room and for the audience. It was partly a move into longer-form plotting: a three-part blockbuster prologue to the season where Archer becomes a south sea Pirate King, a two-part season finale featuring a superb Bryan Cranston as the voice of an astronaut. It was partly that the new, more serialized approach meant the show moved beyond being a simple gag machine and became involving, and even a little moving in places. But mainly it was the sheer consistency — only a single episode, “Drift Problem,” where Archer is given a high-tech spy car by his mother, fell a little flat. Otherwise, a relentless kind of brilliance was kept across the series, and we can only hope there’s much more to come. We’d be remiss without mentioning the look of the show — a gorgeous, semi-retro world that feels significantly more impressive than some of its Adult Swim progenitors, it’s a genuine pleasure to watch every week.
Must-See Episode: “The Limited,” episode six, in which ISIS are charged with escorting a Nova Scotian seperatist terrorist back to Canada on a train, eventually letting Archer fulfil his long-time ambition to have a fist-fight on top of a speeding train. It’s stuffed full of highlights, but Archer’s excitable reaction to Cheryl’s pet ocelot Babou will never, ever stop being funny.
Louis C.K. has an unusual and much-envied arrangement with his network FX: he brings in his series “Louie” for significantly less than the usual budget for a half-hour comedy, and in exchange, gets complete creative freedom, writing, directing and even editing (on his laptop) the show himself. And as a result, despite at a distance resembling the old “stand-up plays thinly-veiled version of themself” trope, “Louie” isn’t quite like anything else on TV; a freewheeling collection of short stories (drawn together with thematically relevant stand-up footage) about some of the big questions in life including family, sex, sexuality, death and loneliness. The major thing to note about “Louie” is that it’s not really gut-bustingly funny. It has its moments, for sure, and it’s wryly, quietly humorous throughout, but C.K. has no interest in hitting some kind of sitcom laugh-meter, simply setting out to tell the stories he wants to tell, and more often than not he knocks it out of the park. The show’s major advantage is its truthfulness: from the opening scene of the second season premiere when Louie’s young daughter tells him that she loves her mom more than him, to the desperately awkward and heartbreaking closer when he waves off unrequited love Pamela Adlon to a plane, it’s marked by the same beautifully observed relatibility that’s made C.K. one of the most acclaimed stand-ups working. And he took the show to new places this time around, making astonishing use of guest stars: Joan Rivers as a reflective, yet typically acerbic version of herself; an astonishing scene between C.K. and Dane Cook, who have a famous feud (and kudos to Cook for stepping up, and for doing a damn good job in the episode); and most memorably of all, Doug Stanhope as a suicidal stand-up not a million miles away from his real-life persona. It somestimes feels that C.K. needs to focus on telling single stories in each episode — most of the stronger episodes of the season were the ones that focused on a single strand, and sometimes the shorter scenes feel a little filler-y, or could use more space to develop properly. But few shows on the air would dare to have moments of quiet profundity, and a moment when a homeless man gets decapitated by a garbage truck within the same breath. And its playfulness and formal excellence (C.K’s become a very strong director since “Pootie Tang“) means that you never quite know what you’re getting week-to-week, and little is as thrilling as that. When Woody Allen dies, can we make sure that his regular financing shifts over to Mr. C.K.?
Must-See Episode: The double-length “Duckling,” which lets C.K. share his own experiences on the U.S.O. tour, heading out to Afghanistan, only to discover that his daughter has packed a live duckling in his suitcase to keep him company, with an almost movie-like scope to it.
Ah, “Community.” One of the more dramatic behind-the-scenes stories of the year that didn’t involve Michael Mann killing horses, “Community” ended up its third season with a headline-grabbing feud, with a timeshift change for its fourth season, and with most of the show’s key creative personnel leaving or being fired. But none of that should take away from a season that, while highly divisive, was to our mind the show’s best yet. Opening off with a musical number in which the cast promised to “have more fun and be less weird than the first two years combined,” Dan Harmon went on to live up to the first half of the promise, but certainly not the second, as the formal experimentation of the show moved from parodies of gangster and zombie movies to far more obscure and experimental techniques. Across the season, we got one episode that showcased seven alternate takes on the same three minutes, a “Treehouse of Horror”-style anthology, a parody of “Hearts of Darkness,” a Manga segment, a full-blown musical episode, a Ken Burns parody, an almost unexplainable dream episode, a pitch-perfect “Law & Order spoof, a fake clip show, a 16-bit animated video game homage, and a heist flick. Nothing else on TV — even the formally nebulous “Louie” — has anything like the experimental mindset of “Community,” and it’s a consistent joy to see what it’ll turn to each week, and more often than not they pull it off with aplomb. Not that they can’t handle more traditional sitcom-type plots: indeed, some of the season’s highlights were the more grounded stories (grounded being a decidedly relative term, it should be said). But no matter what they were up to, you could generally be assured that it would be consistently, gut-bustingly funny, and contain Harmon’s rigorous sense of story-above-all-else. It’s a show that, however out there it got, is generally rooted in actual human behavior and isn’t afraid to go to some dark places. There were a few duff episodes, but fewer than in previous seasons, and experiments with heavier serialization towards season’s end fell a little flat, thanks mainly to an odd plot direction for Chang (Ken Jeong). But virtually nothing on this list was as bold, as rib-tickling, as surprising, and generally satisfying as “Community” this year. We suspect it’ll be the last great season, but we live in hope that its brilliance will continue into the end of its story.
Must-See Episode: A viciously difficult one to pick — meticulously plotted heist parody “The First Chang Dynasty,” the insanely ambitious and emotional raw “Virtual Systems Analysis,” Ken Burns parody “Pillows and Blankets” and “Glee“-skewering Christmas episode “Regional Holiday Music” all could have filled this slot. But nothing quite beat “Remedial Chaos Theory,” the episode that shows a party across seven different timelines, removing one member of the cast from the equation each time. It was, quite simply, perfect, and one of the best sitcom episodes in the history of the form.
4. “Game of Thrones”
Last time we compiled one of these lists, “Game of Thrones” hadn’t even finished its first season. King Robert and Ned Stark were still alive, the kingdom was still at peace, and there were no such thing as dragons. Things have changed, and changed even more by the end of the second season, with more characters introduced to the world, and just as many have left it, normally in brutal fashion. And while it didn’t necessarily have the shock of the new, the sophomore season didn’t skip a beat, maintaining an incredibly high level of consistency across the ten episodes, and only getting better and better as it went along. There were issues along the way, to be sure: the arcs of Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen felt like they were mostly stalling for the third season — when you think about what the characters actually went though, it’s worryingly little. But there were so many other joys throughout, from seeing Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) in power and the interactions of Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) and Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance) to the fall of Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen), that the show mostly didn’t suffer for it. It still remains genuinely spectacular in terms of the production value, telling stories on a scale never seen on TV (it’s clear that the budget had been amped-up second time around), and directing and writing across the board has been world-class (there were as many quotable lines as most comedies, but Bronn’s “There’s no cure for being a cunt” has to take the prize as line of the season). And that cast only gets richer and more expansive even as heads roll, with new additions like Stephen Dillane, Liam Cunningham, Nonso Anozie and Rose Leslie all doing sterling work. Thanks to a year of repeats and the DVD release, it’s winning over more and more fans who’d otherwise been put off by the fantasy elements (even our editor-in-chief, rarely a TV watcher has been addicted), and right now, our biggest issue with the show is that we’ve got to wait more than nine months for it to come back on screen. With that army of white walkers heading towards the Wall, things are only going to get darker and darker, we imagine.
Must-See Episode: It’s got to be “Blackwater,” the focused, penultimate installment, which revolved entirely around the battle ensuing when Stannis’ forces try to attack King’s Landing. Matching thrilling action with terrific character beats, it’s the kind of thing that’s rarely, if ever, been seen on television.
Uh-oh. We imagine that any mention whatsoever of Lena Dunham and Judd Apatow’s HBO comedy, anywhere on the list, would bring out the show’s fervent gang of furious detractors, let alone making it this high up the list. But while we obviously appreciate and accept diversity of opinion on… well, anything, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to see why so many spend so much time and energy loathing a show that, as far as we’re concerned, has proven itself to be the best comedy airing on TV over the past year. The wall of hype that preceded the show was certainly off-putting — even we were a little suspicious. But it’s proven to be a truthful, complex and deceptively original take on twentysomething life, free of sentiment but not without heart. Your twenties are a horrifically self-absorbed time, and Dunham has portrayed that perfectly, something that’s meant that some viewers have struggled to latch onto the characters, finding them “unlikable.” But we care less about whether we like characters on TV shows, and more about whether they’re interesting, and like Don Draper, Walter White and Theon Greyjoy, the girls of “Girls” do terrible things because they’re human beings, and that’s what human beings do. You’re not meant to find them paragons of virtue, and the show has expertly twisted perspective on its protagonists as time’s gone on, demonstrating that they, like the viewer, might not sympathize, but they certainly empathize. It helps, too, that the series isn’t just beautifully observed (most people we knew, whether under or over the age of thirty, have at least had one moment of squirming recognition), but also incredibly funny without ever sacrificing tone or character integrity for the sake of a gag. The supporting cast have been consistently surprising and enjoyable (the strong dramatic turn from Kathryn Hahn in the most recent episode was a particular highlight), and the behind-the-scenes talent just as strong, with Dunham’s directorial skills improving a hundredfold since “Tiny Furniture,” and collaborators Richard Shephard and Jody Lee Lipes doing sterling work too. For all the facile “Sex and the City” comparisons, it can’t just be Judd Apatow’s presence in the credits (and the presence of Betty Anne Baker as the mother) that makes us thing that the show is closer to a successor to “Freaks & Geeks” and “Undeclared” in its mix of humor and raw, autobiographical emotions. It’s been uneven in places, a few episodes became a little too traditionally sit-com-y in spots, but we wouldn’t bet against Dunham and co. fixing these and raising the game even further in season two.
Must-See Episode: Installment seven, “Welcome To Bushwick a.k.a. The Crackcident” is the best evidence yet of the show firing on all cylinders — hilarity, drama and new perspectives on its characters all within a brisk half-hour.
2. “Breaking Bad”
The fall of Walter White, cancer-diagnosed-high-school-chemistry-teacher-turned-New Mexico-meth-kingpin, continued ever deeper in the fourth season of “Breaking Bad,” returning to the heights of season two after a season three with serious highs that also dragged a little in spots. Thanks to the graduation of Gustavo Fring from uneasy ally to full-on antagonist, as he slit the throat of his henchman with a box-cutter in the opening episode, there was a new, contained drive for the season perhaps absent in the previous one: Walt and Jesse needed to find a way to off Fring or their time left on Earth would be a short one. What “Breaking Bad” does better than anything else on television is sheer suspense, both in individual sequences (of which there were many across season four) and in its overall arc, and there were plenty of instances where you couldn’t do anything but watch, jaw agape, wondering how the characters could possibly get out of their latest fix. Of course, as ever, it was laced with a wonderful black humor, fascinating characters and some imagery as haunting as anything we saw in the movies in the last year (the show consistently has the most impressive cinematography of anything on cable). Nothing else has balls the size of “Breaking Bad.” And nothing else has anything to compare to the titanic performance of Bryan Cranston, who took Walt to a new low in this season (poisoning a child, with every possibility that he might have died), changing dramtically from the person we met in season one. And somehow, you still root for his survival, despite the monstrous acts he’s committed. Season 5 could be nothing else but Cranston giving monologues to camera in character and we’d still tune in religiously every week, but we’ll be eager to see how the show moves on without Giancarlo Esposito, and with the game entirely changed.
Must-See Episode: The finale, “Face Off,” featuring the unforgettable, gory execution of Walt’s plan, a rare moment of triumph, and the revelation of the depths to which Walt has sunk.
1. “Mad Men”
Consistently one of, if not the strongest, things on television across the last five years, “Mad Men” got an extended hiatus after season four, as negotiations between creator Matthew Weiner, Lionsgate and AMC dragged on and on. But all we can say after the conclusion of the fifth season is that maybe every TV show should get an eighteen-month break before picking up again. The most coherent and best run of episodes that the series has yet produced, season five saw “Mad Men” cement its place not so much as the Great American Novel for television as a collection of Great American Short Stories, each episode telling a contained, compelling narrative while still building towards a bigger picture — exactly what a serialized television drama should be doing. Weiner and his writing staff took their characters to new and bold places, including Don’s new marriage, Pete’s extra-marital infatuation, Roger’s experiments with LSD, Peggy leaving the nest, Sally’s rocky path into womanhood, the prostitution of Joan and the sad, sad tale of Lane Pryce. Even smaller characters were taken into entirely unexpected places — most notably Paul having become a Hare Krishna with ambitions to write for “Star Trek.” Entire essays could be, and have been written (including our own) on the thematic richness of this season, from the bartering of women in society, the coming of the swinging sixties leaving the older generation like Roger and Don behind, unsatisfaction with your lot, the price of success, the steady plunge into depression and death… we could go on. For all the brilliance of all the shows we’ve been talking about (and the Golden Age of television is clearly continuing), nothing else is even attempting what “Mad Men” is going for, let alone pulling it off. Bum notes have been struck — Betty’s fat suit-aided plotline makes you wonder why they don’t just write Don’s ex-wife out of the show entirely. But moments of ambition that don’t quite hit can be forgiven by the extraordinary level of achievement of 95% of the show. And it truly has the most gifted cast of television as well with Jon Hamm, Christina Hendricks, John Slattery and Vincent Kartheiser all reaching new heights in their portrayals. Plus Pete Campbell got punched in the face multiple times, which is enormously, enormously satisfying.
Must-See Episode: As powerful as the death of Lane Pryce in “Commissions And Fees” was, the low-key brilliance of “Signal 30,” revolving around a dinner party at the Campbells’ was the perfect example of the short-story structure that’s seen the show become even better.