With a premise as golden as a suburban high school chemistry teacher diagnosed with terminal cancer who chooses to team up with a hoodlum ex-student of his to manufacture and distribute crystal meth in order to provide for his family after he dies, there is no going half-ass on things like acting and directing. With every episode, “Breaking Bad” delivers stupefying cliffhangers uncontested by any thriller series today, if not ever. Bryan Cranston is absolutely perfect as the well-intentioned yet increasingly deranged protagonist Dr. Walter White.
2. “Mad Men”
“Who is Don Draper?” was “Mad Men”’s first and foremost question in Season 4, and by the finale, our heads had been thoroughly spun looking for an answer. Jon Hamm navigated the transformation of everyone’s favorite mad man this season like never before, peaking with “The Suitcase,” one of the series’ finest episodes to date. New digs, a new era and a new style made for an unprecedentedly forward campaign, but brilliant writing and the gall in performances from Hamm, John Slattery and Elisabeth Moss helped maintain the excellence of Sterling-Cooper-Draper-Price.
From paintball epics to zombie apocalypses, NBC’s sophomore comedy “Community” has tackled all sorts of pop culture genres, texts and touchstones with relative ease. But amid all the buzzy high-concept episodes and reference humor, “Community” succeeds because it never strays away from character moments, even if it means being a little mushy along the way. Though the cast is toplined by everyone’s favorite sarcastic jerk Joel McHale, no other comedy on television can match “Community’s” deep cast of characters, all of whom can carry an episode on their own. Everything else is just streets behind.
The initial premise sounds cliche: two off-beat private detectives taking strange cases. But from the first episode on, “Terriers” is clearly something great and different. Unlike most cop shows, there is a focus on an arc story and an even stronger focus on characters. The real highlight is the relationship between Donal Logue and Michael Raymond-James as they balance the dark humor and drama, creating characters you grow to love for making some terrible decisions for just a small glimmer of happiness.
5. “Boardwalk Empire”
The best thing about “Boardwalk Empire”? Not its Martin Scorsese-directed pilot, nor its amazing prohibition-era depiction of Atlantic City, N.J. No, the best thing about “Boardwalk Empire” is the fact that Steve Buscemi is a lead actor, not just a supporting character stealing the show. Buscemi is one of our greats, and it’s exhilarating to see him on TV every week. The show is good, but he makes it great.
6. “Parks and Recreation”
While the six-episode first season of NBC’s “Parks and Rec” felt like a weaker take on “The Office” where Amy Poehler was Steve Carell and Rashida Jones was still Rashida Jones. That was quickly rectified in its excellent second season, which developed the show’s characters brilliantly and eclipsed 2010’s seasons of both “The Office” and “30 Rock” to become NBC’s best active workplace comedy.
7. “Modern Family”
“Modern Family” has re-imagined the family comedy genre into something actually good. The family dynamic between the standard nuclear family, the homosexual couple and the remarried stepfamily is something that simply does not exist on television. In a way that seems inspired by the best of “Arrested Development” and “The Office,” ABC’s Emmy-winning comedy invents clever scenarios loaded with wholesome values to boot.
“Weeds” used to be the great hope for intelligent television comedies. It was about something, it knew how to mix in drama and Mary-Louise Parker played a real human being, not some caricature of one. But in recent seasons, “Weeds” itself became a caricature. It wasn’t until the revelatory Season 6 that the show approached its old power. Let’s hope it lasts into the next season.
9. “The League”
Headed by the hysterical misanthropy of Nick Kroll as Ruxin and awesomely absurd musical efforts from YouTube-made comedian Jonathan Lajoie as Taco, “The League” solidifies a powerhouse one-two punch of sitcoms for FX alongside “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.” Interestingly enough, this semi-improvised, frequently raunchy series about 30-something suburban Chicago fantasy football addicts creating new cringe-worthy social faux-pas also stars husband and wife duo Mark Duplass and Katie Aselton, founders in part of the Mumblecore film genre.
10. “The Walking Dead”
As the zombie apocalypse to end zombie apocalypses, “The Walking Dead” shattered AMC and some basic cable ratings records with its premiere and finale. The inaugural season of Frank Darabount’s graphic novel adaptation has been cliche, rushed, riveting, flat, poignant and everything in between. But when it’s not falling into the pitfalls of an average zombie flick, the potential of “Dead” is obvious, and the potential of a new writing team in Season 2, the show’s weakest facet, offers the possibility of better days ahead.
“Bored to Death”
Whatever happened to film noir? It’s been mostly dormant for a long time, but Jonathan Ames resurrects it with this comedic detective show. Jason Schwartzman plays an unlicensed private investigator, also named Ames, who isn’t good for finding much more than a lost skateboard. Zach Galifianakis and Ted Danson round out an incredible cast. Even though they’re channeling a very old genre, everything about “Bored to Death” feels brand new.
“Eastbound and Down”
Danny McBride might be the funniest actor out there at the moment. Every sentence that comes out of his mouth is funny, even when you get the impression they’re not meant to be. Making a washed up baseball player/psychopath funny is a challenge, but McBride pulls it off. Add in creator Jody Hill and indie-favorite director David Gordon Green, and “Eastbound and Down” becomes one of the best-made comedies on television.
What the heck is with the pool of light? Did the writers forget about Libby? Why weren’t Michael and Walt in the church? And why, oh why, is Richard Alpert so fascinated with eyeliner? These are just some questions that “Lost” left unresolved, but as much as “Lost” was about questions, it was also about complex, interconnected characters. Any true fan of the series could appreciate where the controversial ending left our heroes: together and in true happiness.
“The Venture Bros.”
“Childrens Hospital” is Adult Swim’s most mainstream show to date and also one of its best. Created by Rob Corddry, the show has an impressive cast (it’s not hard to work out schedules when episodes are 11 minutes long). Shows like “Scrubs” that tried to make fun of medical dramas often fell into the same traps they spoofed, so “Childrens Hospital” is there to make fun of the whole lot.
What started out as a knockoff of “The X-Files” came into its own this year in a bold way. The risky choice to alternate the episodes between two parallel universes paid off, organizing the season “greatest hits” style: all killer, no filler. Darker, richer and more stylish than ever before, J.J. Abrams’ fourth television creation has become a genuine science fiction gem — just in time to face potential cancellation woes.
“Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!”
A crazy mix of horrible public access television and David Lynch surrealism, “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!” is one of the funniest, creepiest and strangest shows on television. Perhaps the strangest part is how celebrities like Zach Galifianakis, Ted Danson and Ben Stiller have been drawn in to this show. In parodying public access TV, Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim have also summed up a generation that lives on viral YouTube clips.
“It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”
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