From the youngs of Brooklyn to old-timey Jersey, the White Walkers to the regular old zombie walkers, here's our list of the 10 best television shows of the year ... and two that were not so much.
A glimpse at the finish line has inspired NBC's greatest sitcom since Seinfeld to pick up the pace, returning to the limber and elastic wit of its early seasons while dialing down some the arbitrarily gonzo stuff it had recently made routine. Tina Fey and her staff of talented writers have also done a nice job of finishing larger character arcs in graceful ways — Liz Lemon becoming more self-assured and realizing she doesn't have to live by principle alone (she got married, for example), Jack Donaghy getting ever closer to realizing his CEO dreams, put-upon page Kenneth finally growing some backbone. Unafraid to show a slight sentimental side now that the dance is almost over (the series wraps up next month), this season of 30 Rock has been more appealingly well-rounded and finely crafted than the show has been in years. What a nice way to go out, with a sparkling, uproarious reminder that when Fey's glorious screwball masterpiece was good, it was really good.
The third season of HBO's gangster drama was its most opulent and gaudy by a lot, but there's nothing wrong with that. Finally embracing its role as a high-minded crime thriller (rather than the ponderous chamber piece it tried to be in its first season), Boardwalk Empire splattered itself with blood all autumn long, unabashedly reveling in the mess. With out-there, borderline surreal plot lines — particularly the one featuring season three MVP Gretchen Mol — plus deft and efficient pacing, this string of episodes gave us moments of pause and contemplation while also delivering the gruesome, grimy goods we've so patiently waited for since the show's premiere two years ago. This season was full of nasty surprises, most notably the one involving kept woman Margaret's ultimately doomed plan for escape. Though Bobby Cannavale's villain was never very believably drawn — someone that erratic and unhinged probably wouldn't last that long in the organized crime world — the story he set in motion gave us some of Boardwalk's most exhilarating moments. Special props to the episode in which Nucky hid out in a basement with his lieutenant and a cocky young thief — it ended with a bang as starkly brutal and unforgiving as the rest of this ornately violent, hard-boiled season.
For the first of two final half-seasons closing AMC's midnight-dark drama, show runner Vince Gilligan had to top last year's big blowup of a finale. So he chose a train heist and a giant evidence-destroying magnet. And while those were arguably over-the-top set pieces, the eight episodes this year had many smaller moments that tingled with anxiety and despair. Walt and Skyler's marriage continued its reign as the most soul-destroying union on television, with Walt pathetically trying to patch things up and Skyler disappearing in a haze of wine and worry. Meanwhile, Jesse and his old buddy Mike were trying to get out of the game entirely, with an ever steelier Walter impeding them at every turn. This year's episodes were a lot of push and pull, many bargains and double-crosses, but it was all done with this show's particular brand of spareness and ease. Jonathan Banks was the standout actor this season, giving Mike contrasting shades of compassion and cold-bloodedness that filled his scenes with a melancholy dread. Breaking Bad has never flinched in the face of some pretty dark stuff, but this season (or half-season) "went there" with especially grim aplomb.
As HBO's epic fantasy tale marched into the second book of George R.R. Martin's sprawling series, show creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss were faced with an unenviable task: stay true to the plot and spirit of the ever-expanding world of the books while also condensing and reshaping things for episodic television. That's no easy feat. We breathed a sigh of relief, then, when we saw what a remarkable job they and their exceedingly capable cast and crew had done. Inspired bits of elision and tinkering breathed new life into the story for loyal book readers — setting up Arya and Tywin as a wary but amicable duo of master and pupil, giving us some sexy Robb Stark scenes that are woefully missing in the book (c'mon, we're only human) — while hitting all the important plot points that will set us up for next year's roar into the third book, which is easily the series' most complex and action-packed. The ever-spirited main cast accommodated new arrivals gamely (better get used to that, guys), standout newcomers being Gwendoline Christie as battling she-knight Brienne of Tarth and Liam Cunningham as the steadfast Davos Seaworth. A few stumbles here and there — a miscast Melisandre, that silly-looking White Walker — were forgivable errors, but for the most part, HBO's big, bold triumph continued to grandly stretch the boundaries of prestige television.
The year's most controversial, overly talked-about show was also one of its wittiest and most surprisingly touching. A look at the aimless self-regard of a pack of Brooklyn twentysomethings, creator and star Lena Dunham's show actually hummed with a good deal more of universal truth than its site-specific premise would suggest. Dunham is a keen and exacting observer of human behavior, and imbues all of her characters with a specific sense of clarity — not necessarily for them, but certainly for us. We know these kids, we've met them, and yet are still eager to find out more about them. Giving fair treatment to real adults as well (namely Dunham's character's parents, played humanely and hilariously by Peter Scolari and the marvelous Becky Ann Baker), Girls feels like the birth of a new subgenre of piquant but ambling social comedy. It's realistic when it needs to be but unafraid of a comic flight of fancy here and there. Not exactly the irony-drenched celebration of brattiness that many initially wrote it off as, this fine series is in many strange ways the most good-hearted sitcom on TV today.
Praising comedian Louis C.K.'s breathtakingly original FX series is maybe bringing coals to New Castle at this point, but good grief is it a mind-bogglingly funny, devastating, droll, observant, morbid, melancholy wonder. From its stable of inspired guest stars — F. Murray Abraham! Maria Dizzia! David Lynch! — to its note-perfect capturing of New York City's dark charm, Louie is short-form television art rivaled only maybe by HBO's beautiful Enlightened. (Which we left off our list last year, criminally. Apologies to all involved.) Two moments in particular stick out from this bleak but touchingly raw-nerved season: Garry Marshall, behind mournful music, detailing a possible career path for Louis that involves a noble, intentional belly flop; and best-guest-star-yet Parker Posey, as one of Louis's dates, perched on the edge of a skyscraper and maybe, maybe, maybe threatening to jump. No show is as confidently daring as Louie, but what's really remarkable is how it pulls off the attempt nearly every time. I know that some folks don't go for the show's downbeat, shambling narrative freestyle, but if you can get past your initial aesthetic aversion, an abundance of ingeniously stated humor and aching wisdom awaits you.
In a season that felt like the series' dishiest yet, Don Draper and his not-so-merry band of scrambling men and thwarted women lurched toward the 1970s on anything but terra firma. After opening things on that beguiling "Zou Bisou Bisou" birthday party performance by Don's new wife Megan — both a wave goodbye to an older innocence and a wink at a new kind of kink — Mad Men's fifth season told us a story of people both idling in time and forcing themselves forward, pains of progress be damned. Don chafed at the honest complacency of his second marriage, Peggy found herself bolting from the company, perhaps impulsively, as soon as a new opportunity presented itself, Joan extricated herself from her marriage and finally acknowledged its violent beginnings, and poor old Lane Pryce shuffled off this mortal coil in weary defeat. We also got the thrill of a Roger-takes-LSD scene, one that opened the character up and let the always wonderful John Slattery do his best work to date. And, of course, our jaws dropped giddily at the shocking sight of "Fat Betty." For the dreamy, terrifying, heartbreaking episode "Mystery Date" alone, Mad Men was, as ever, an elegant and thoroughly piercing standout this year.
In this age of Young Adult fiction mania and vampire/werewolf obsession, it would be a bit narrow-minded to ignore stuff that the kids like, and boy do they like Teen Wolf. And you know what? So do we. Bouncing back from a hokey and slow-paced first season, Teen Wolf's second round of episodes moved at a clip and twisted and turned its way into genuinely fascinating knots of supernatural mythology and regular old human drama. Would our teen wolf hero, Scott, hold onto his girlfriend even though her family of wolf hunters was trying to kill him and his friends? Would the school hunk finally get the beast-y power he so craved? Would Stiles ever take off his shirt?! These were the main questions of this dense but nimble season, one that was more tightly built, compelling, funny, and, yes, scary than True Blood has been in years. It also packed a few emotional wallops, a surprising sneak-up for a show that we were supposed to be watching as a joke. The series can still be watched that way, and there's plenty of shirtlessness to hornily gawp at if that's your thing (speaking of, the show is remarkably queer-friendly for a teenage-aimed series), but there's also actual thought and artistry being put to use here. For taking its premise and execution seriously enough to deliver satisfying and startlingly rich television, we don't mind saying that Teen Wolf was some of our favorite TV this year. Hell, we'll howl it.
Though the frantic movement and verbal acrobatics on display in British TV vet Armando Iannuci's first American endeavor can be a bit off-putting at first, letting yourself settle into Veep's manic groove yields many rewards. None is bigger than Julia Louis-Dreyfus' performance as flustered, vain, grasping Vice President Selina Meyer. Louis-Dreyfus is terrifically well-suited to Iannucci's staccato spews of profanity and exasperated asides — this is a role that finally harnesses all that mean, spitting energy she revealed in the darker corners of Seinfeld. Her supporting cast is uniformly excellent, including Tony Hale as Selina's weird, whipped, purse-carrying lackey and Matt Walsh as her schlubby-smart communications director. The cast whirs in harmony in every reeling, wildly blocked scene without losing any of the writing's sharper, finer beats. Veep is a smart comedy of errors that emphatically understands the value of a good string of f-cks and sh-ts and c-cks. That lends the series an odd air of joyfulness and ebullience, even though we're drudging around in the morass of Washington glad-handing and devil's compromise-making. That's pretty f-cking hard to do, but Veep does it pretty f-cking well.
I'm as surprised as maybe some of you are to see this show on this list, but, for me, there is no denying that seasons 2.5 and 3.0 of AMC's zombiethon delivered scares and shocks like never before. As the year wore on, what was once a plodding and heavy-handed drama became a fast-paced, terrifically grim horror series, which is what it always should have been. On this fall's gripping round of third-season episodes especially, all the hammy moral hand-wringing and goopy emotional conflicts were replaced with dizzying, bare-bone scenes of terror. We've lost major characters, met important new ones, and explored interesting new acreage of post-zombie America. The Walking Dead is still not the art it clearly wants to be, but it has become a supremely addictive suspense series that rarely blinks when it comes to doing the rough stuff. Whereas the second season of American Horror Story eventually lost itself in a thicket of its own Grand Guignol invention, The Walking Dead has found its way while heading further into the dark. I hope they don't stop to look back when the show returns in February. I like where we're headed, even if it is sometimes — OK, always — unbearably hard to watch.
And the worst...
Glee: At some point last spring, Ryan Murphy's once-promising, now rotten musical series finally teetered over the line between bad and unwatchable. It might have been around the time that Coach Beiste had the abusive husband plot line? Hard to say really, and who really cares. The new post-graduation season has been a complete disaster, with utterly forgettable new characters and lame, listless new stories for its too-old-for-this-sh*t veterans. Put this turkey to bed, and no lullabies please.
The Newsroom: A clunky misfire on almost every level, the only thing that Aaron Sorkin's pompous paean to windbaggery has going for it is that it's so mesmerizingly misguided and awful that it's become appointment television. There are those who seem earnestly, and inexplicably, interested in Sorkin condescendingly lecturing about the all-too-remembered recent past, but to us this self-serving passion project is the apotheosis of an artist who needs to quit the cult of himself.