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The Year In Television

Break Bad, Game of Thrones, Justified, The Good Wife, Luther, and more.

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Breaking Bad


A couple of things stick out about the year in television. First, many people just don’t watch television anymore, or rather, they don’t watch television when they’re supposed to. Between DVR, web streaming, on demand, and the multiday repeats that have become a staple in the cable/satellite era, watching a show when it first “airs” has come to seem almost quaint, though it obviously still happens; you can watch the “OMGs” ripple across social networks during particularly zesty episodes—say, The Walking Dead’s Zombie Shootout at the Nice Jesus People Corral. And, of course, that’s another thing: People don’t watch television alone. That is, whether or not there’s someone else in the room, like as not the laptop is open or the smart phone is handy and the banter is flying back and forth 140 characters at a time. (You can keep up with Ravens games play by play if you follow enough of the right folks.) And as the list below shows, there’s plenty to comment on. If the television landscape lacks a dominant, defining series (e.g., The Sopranos), it’s still a lively place these days, jammed with long-arc dramas, genuinely irreverent comedies, and effortlessly enjoyable recombinant reality stuff (the latter of which nonetheless managed to elude our polled writers). Along with the usual crap, of course, which is so much easier to avoid these days, as detailed above. (Lee Gardner)

1 Breaking Bad (AMC) This season the blackest comedy show on television offered up a back-story set in Mexico just as it defied belief that four seasons of meth-cooking ex-high school science teacher Walt (Bryan Cranston) and his “terminal” lung cancer could leave us wanting more. Money, initially the motivator behind Walt’s career move, is only creating more problems as his wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) “helps” by sharing in the guilt and fucks up their fucked-up finances. Jesse (Aaron Paul), on the other hand, refuses to care about the green and, oddly enough, seems all the more sympathetic for a meth-cooking murderer. Plus, who knew rock collecting would offer wounded DEA agent Hank (Dean Norris) a boon for his career? (Wendy Ward)

2 Game of Thrones (HBO) We kinda had to be talked into giving this a shot because generally we avoid the Ye Olde Sword and Sorcery deals where There Be Dragons in the Dungeon and stuff, but the cast of Game of Thrones, notably Sean Bean (the earnest ruler Lord Eddard Stark), Lena Headey (the chilling Queen Cersei Lannister), Mark Addy (the gluttonous King Robert Baratheon), and the charming, entertaining Peter Dinklage (Tyrion Lannister), successfully pulled us in and is keeping us interested in this epic story of an intricate power struggle in a land where winter can last 20 years and is fast approaching. (Joe MacLeod)

3 Justified (FX) After a very strong, if episodic, first season, FX’s Appalachian noire came back packing some serious heat. Timothy Olyphant’s supremely charming U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens and his itchy trigger finger are thrown into a whole new mess of troubles that include a budding romance with his married ex-wife and a territory war between rival rural crime figures (one of whom’s his dad). What puts Justified cowboy-hat-wearing head and shoulders above other, lesser cop dramas is a natural aptitude for complex plotting and a cast of refreshingly nuanced characters—Margo Martindale’s equally murderous and matronly kingpin Mags Bennet puts this year’s other TV bad guys to shame.(Max Robinson)

4 The Good Wife (CBS) The Good Wife’s titular Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) is breaking bad, and regardless of accolades earned over the past two seasons, Margulies is just now coming into her character’s own: layering those form-fitting designer suits with lacy underthings and conducting a passionate affair with co-worker Will (Josh Charles) while still wearing her wedding band, even though she kicked out her back-in-the-office-he-disgraced district attorney husband Peter (Chris Noth just getting better with age), and evolving professionally from the most empathetic to kick-ass. And it’s not just Alicia—all the show’s characters are getting their hands dirty, from her law firm’s morally questionable choice of clients to daughter Grace’s dalliance with unsupervised religion. And we can’t even remember who is fucking who where Kalinda (Archie Panjabi) is involved. (WW)

5 Luther (BBC) Everything about Idris Elba’s performance as the preternaturally gifted Detective John Luther informs this complex character: the precise speech cadence, the educated accent, even the way he walks, which straddles the line between a strutting swagger and an angry bear. It’s a fitting conflicting physicality to the highly intellectual investigator whose moral sense of right and wrong might sometimes get in the way of so-called law and order. And in the four-part second season of this BBC drama, Luther is still recovering from his wife’s murder and a friend’s betrayal while tracking a new batch of creative killers. (Bret McCabe)

6 Parks and Recreation (NBC) It took a few seasons, but Parks and Recreation snuck up on everyone and became the best sitcom on television. It not only brings a unique brand of understated absurdity to Thursday nights (season highlights: Adam Scott’s Ben crying tears of joy in a newly purchased Batman costume, the long-awaited appearance of Ron Swanson’s ex-wife Tammy), it also makes some bold storytelling moves. Developments like Tom’s failed bid at moguldom and the fallout from Leslie and Ben’s secret relationship give the show surprisingly solid emotional depth. That, as Rob Lowe’s peppy civil servant/perpetual-motion machine Chris Traeger would say, is literally incredible. (MR)

7 American Horror Story (FX) A family moves from Boston to Los Angeles to repair a marriage, settling in a house straight out of Edward Gorey’s imagination. Strange things are afoot: hauntings by serial killers, school shooters, crimes-of-passion killers, illegal abortion doctors, to name a few. Such supernatural shenanigans give Glee/Nip/Tuck creator Ryan Murphy’s new show its serious dose of horror, but it’s the “American” in the title that makes it sublime. The series’ horrors are rooted in American history’s anxieties and fixations, the ick that fills tabloids and therapy sessions, and Murphy mines it to masterfully creepy effect. (BM)

8 Mildred Pierce (HBO) Director Todd Haynes continues to do no wrong with this exquisite miniseries adaptation of James M. Cain’s 1941 novel about a housewife surviving the Depression. It’s not just a completely different beast than Joan Crawford’s 1945 noir, it’s a different way of seeing and thinking about the past. With Edward Lachman’s patient cinematography and Kate Winslet’s profoundly nuanced performance, Haynes, who stylistically recreated the 1950s women’s picture in Far From Heaven, twists casual, codified social realism. Haynes and co-scenarist Jon Raymond see Cain’s novel as an economic drama, a la Sinclair and Steinbeck, only they foreground a mother-turned-businessman as their quintessentially American everyperson. (BM)

9 Boardwalk Empire (HBO) The chronicle of utterly, amazingly, masterfully corrupt 1920s Atlantic City government official Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (Steve Buscemi) who has the foresight to move quickly to secure supplies of booze as Prohibition takes hold of America while struggling to outmaneuver his gangland and political rivals. Like the waves of hooch bottles hitting the shore in the surreal surf-music-tinged opening credits, this show is awash in compelling performances by Buscemi, Michael Shannon as religious zealot/federal agent Nelson Van Alden, the compelling/preposterous Paz de la Huerta as Nucky’s paramour, Dabney Coleman as the imperious, evil Commodore Kaestner, and crime lord/community organizer Chalky White, played by Michael Kenneth Williams formerly known as our old pal Omar from The Wire. (JM)

10 Adventure Time (Cartoon Network) You know that effed-up kid’s show at the core of every post-Howdy Doody generation’s cultural psyche, the half-hour that annoyed the crap out of parents across the board but that molded minds and perceptions and senses of humor all the way to the grave, for good or for ill? The candy-colored, surreal cavalcade of deadpan wrongness that is Adventure Time is that show currently. (LG)

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