Like everyone else who has an abundance of online accounts and an empowered self-certainty when it comes to commenting on all things popular culture, I spent some time today offering snarky, mildly bitter assessments of today’s announcement of this year’s Emmy nominations. Rather than continuing to spout off about perceived snubs and the odd worthy contender among today’s honorees, I thought the better approach might be to lay out my preferences here in my corner of the digital landscape. I may type up a full list of acting nominations when it comes to the Oscars, but I’m not so crazy to try to do anything similar for the approximately five-jillion categories of the Emmys. Instead, I’ll just put my choices for the ten best series that fell into the award’s eligibility period, offering clarification by noting which specific season to which I’m referring (I’ve also gone ahead and established categorization by seasons as the way TV talk is framed around here).
Incidentally, I originally intended to present such a list back around the turn of the year, presenting it as a companion piece to my first top ten tally of albums in several years. In the end, I decided I couldn’t cobble together a group of ten that engendered strong enough feelings in me. A couple things have changed in the months since. For one, I got a chance to see a certain Showtime series from last fall. For another, HBO had a damn good spring.
I’ll concede that this list also reflects a few key gaps in my viewing habits, a natural flaw for anyone who’s writing about media on a purely semi-pro basis. If there are shows that seem bizarrely absent, it could be that I’m too far behind on them (or haven’t even started, I’m afraid) to offer a knowledgeable judgment. Then again, there are some Emmy-loved programs that I think have plainly gotten bad.
All that preface out of the way, here’s my ten:
#1 — Louie, season 2 (FX). The brainchild of Louis CK is so far and away ahead of everything else on television right now that watching it is like seeing a great maestro reinvent the modern state of music every time the baton is lifted. CK ignores any and all established rules of episodic television and instead makes resolute truthfulness the only criterion he needs to abide by. Season 2 boasted ballsy guest turns by Joan Rivers and Dane Cook, a fantastically bleak story involving a fellow comic making a stopover on the way to his own suicide, a marvelous soliloquy of unrequited romance and a quietly audacious segment that decisively reclaims “Who Are You?” from the C.S.I. opening credit sequence in the annals of television history. And that doesn’t even touch on the episode “Duckling,” involving the comedian’s USO trip to Afghanistan with an unexpected stowaway that was the best single hour of television I saw last year.
#2 — Community, season 3 (NBC). It wound up being showrunner Dan Harmon’s swan song, and it could have hardly been a more suitably iconoclastic farewell season, beginning with a musical number that offered smart meta-commentary on the inaccessibility of the series and finishing with a season finale that can serve nicely as an unofficial series bow in the event that the forthcoming shortened season turns into the darkest timeline for Community‘s most devoted fans. Speaking of which, it’s entirely possible that “Remedial Chaos Theory” will eventually be the consensus choice for the absolute pinnacle of the series.
#3 — Breaking Bad, season 4 (AMC). I’m the rare soul who found the most shocking single image of the season to be uncommonly and unfortunately over the top. That’s the only sour note, though, in a show that masterfully puts its characters into seemingly inescapable dilemmas only to revel in the joyous inspiration of getting them out. The great performances of deserving Emmy winners Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul were matched by Giancarlo Espositio as kingpin and fried chicken magnate Gus Fring, who helped to bring the show’s themes into stark relief.
#4 — Parks and Recreation, season 4 (NBC). The Knope campaign gave the season a spine that bolstered the whole show, giving the finest ensemble cast currently on television the chance to shine over and over again. Their collective strength in turn elevated terrific recurring guest turns from Paul Rudd and Kathryn Hahn and a stunning blast of cunning malevolence from Patricia Clarkson. Everbody pants now!
#5 — Homeland, season 1 (Showtime). A splendid chess game of a series as the obsessive efforts of CIA agent Carrie Mathison (played with agonizing intensity by Claire Danes) to get to the bottom of a building terrorist plot on America drive wonderfully intricate plotting that pulls of the rare feat of being consistently unpredictable about character motivations without ever resorting to cheap cheating. Forget other cliffhangers, the final scene of the season is cunningly fraught and intense in a totally unique way.
#6 — Justified, season 3 (FX). It was probably inevitable that there would be a letdown after the brilliant tale of Mags Bennett in season two, and if Justified defaulted to a complicated wildness it couldn’t always contain, it remained the most entertainingly verbose crime and justice saga on television. Timothy Olyphant and Walton Goggins remained very strong and the supporting cast just got richer, led by invaluable development for Joelle Carter’s Ava Crowder and the building importance of Jere Burns’s magnificently oily Wynn Duffy.
#7 — Girls, season 1 (HBO). The raging waterfall off online words devoted to the praise, backlash and animosity directed at Lena Dunham’s downbeat series about emotionally nomadic twentysomethings in New York City all served to obscure the winning uniqueness of the creator’s voice. It shares a certain sensibility with Louie, albeit without the deconstructionist tendencies of that series. Funny, loose and deceptively dark, Girls represents the overdue antidote to HBO’s earlier materialistic fantasyland of Sex and the City.
#8 — Veep, season 1 (HBO). The Sunday night companion to Girl threatened to be overlooked (it’s Outstanding Comedy Series nomination was one of the few pleasant surprises of today’s Emmy nods). Profanely spirited in its cynicism, Veep was often breathlessly funny and arguably served as the finest showcase Julia Louis-Dreyfus has ever had for her boundless talent. Yes, even including Seinfeld.
#9 — The Colbert Report, season 7 (Comedy Central). In the tight race over which satiric news program is the most immediate and vital, Stephen Colbert edged ahead of Jon Stewart this year, in no small part because of the scathing, revelatory segments surrounding Colbert’s Super PAC. As a bonus, the show’s two-part segment with flinty, cantankerous author Maurice Sendak defined his public persona in the most enjoyable fitting fashion imaginable mere months before his passing.
#10 — Game of Thrones, season 2 (HBO). The adaptation of author George R.R. Martin’s blocky fantasy novels improved significantly in its second season, the tedious messiness of introduction largely complete, allowing it to get down to the business of a massive battle for power among aspirants for an iron throne. Peter Dinklage continues to impress as Tyrion Lannister, almost edging his way into being the lead character of the series and picking up adding layers of whirring intellect and intriguing vulnerability as he does so.