So last year, I took the occasion of the Emmy Award nominations announcement as cause to weigh in with my own list of the best of television, because if there’s one thing this digital space needs, it’s more lists. As is often the case, I only need to do it once to consider it a tradition, so here we go again.
So using the same span of eligibility that the Emmys adopts, here’s my ten:
#1 — Louie, season 3 (FX). The completely unique creation of Louis CK dipped a bit from the creative heights of season two, but expecting it to stay at that level was undoubtedly too much to ask. It remained daring, insightful and alternated between melancholy and uproariously funny like nothing that’s ever come before. And at its best–notably “Daddy’s Girlfriend, Part 2,” featuring an incredible guest turn by Parker Posey–it’s breathtaking, exceeding the artistry of any film released in the past year.
#2 — Game of Thrones, season 3 (HBO). HBO’s adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s fantasy novels, and probably the network’s current signature series, continues to strengthen as if moves on, turning in an exemplary season that sharpened its storytelling and successfully broadened the number of worthwhile narrative threads. Peter Dinklage’s take on Tyrion Lannister remains the standout performance of the series, but season three found him nearly matched by his onscreen siblings Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Lena Headey, Liam Cunningham’s work as the forlorn, noble Davos Seaworth and Rose Leslie as Ygritte, just for the way she says, “Jon Snow.”
#3 — Arrested Development, season 4 (Netflix). The comeback season for Mitchell Hurwitz’s beloved, revolutionary comedy series has been divisive, to say the least. I think it’s just this side of brilliant, completely reinventing the structure of series television to suit new paradigms of viewing. All throughout it, I found myself continually struck by how often and how cleverly it kept doubling back on itself, not to mention the determination to avoid any sense of resolution. Maybe some elements don’t exactly work, but the season is always audacious and inventive.
#4 — Parks and Recreation, season 5 (NBC). Throughout the spring, my weekly visit to Pawnee, Indiana was like a rescue, reassuring me after another dismal viewing of the undead Community that laughter still existed in the world. No other current show provides the same sense of dropping in on great friends, the warmth and optimism of Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope (still unaccountably under-celebrated by the various award-giving bodies) blessedly infecting the entire series.
#5 — Breaking Bad, season 5 (AMC). If the ongoing saga of Walter White sometimes felt like it was marking time in what was officially the first half of its final season, it also provided a tremendously juicy stretch for Jonathan Banks as Mike Ehrmantraut. And the creators still deliver episode cliffhangers better than anyone else.
#6 — Justified, season 4 (FX). Stepping away from the “Big Bad” model that served them well in earlier seasons, Justified instead opted for a season-long mystery (that had it’s own “Big Bad” element, truth be told), keeping the series fresh as different pieces were rearranged in slight, satisfying ways. The punchy dialogue lives up to the high standard set by Elmore Leonard, who conceived of U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens in the first place. Besides continuing great efforts by Timothy Olyphant, Walton Goggins and the rest of the supporting cast, there was an especially nice spin by Mike O’Malley as a Detroit enforcer irritated that he had to stoop to plying his trade among the undisciplined rabble in Harlan County.
#7 — Veep, season 2 (HBO). So brilliantly profane, Armando Iannucci’s scathing Washington comedy steered somewhat away from the easier gags about Vice President Selina Meyer’s second-tier status to concentrate on the ugly mechanics of American politics. If the show had sharper teeth in its second season, Julia Louis-Dreyfus remained up to the task, still dominating the screen with purely inspired line deliveries. No one else puts such scabrous nuance into every “fuck.”
#8 — New Girl, season 2 (Fox). Maybe the most improved show on television, Liz Meriwether’s creation found its way to being a true ensemble instead of the first season’s showcase for Zooey Deschanel slightly unbalanced by the breakout supporting performance by Max Greenfield. This came in no small part through the development of Jake Johnson’s Nick Miller, bringing real friction to the twinkly cartoon the show sometimes risked becoming. The cast gelled in ways that routinely elevated the material they were given, and the writers in turn responded with sharper and sharper efforts as the season went on.
#9 — The Americans, season 1 (FX). After Showtime’s Homeland stumbled badly as its second season wore on, The Americans stepped in to provide the same sort of satisfying espionage gamesmanship combined with the thrilling curiosity of a broader storyline that seems unsustainable. Setting it in Ronald Reagan’s nineteen-eighties America doesn’t just allow a return to the satisfying simplicity of the Soviets as easily discernible adversaries, it allows for the added richness of watching spy games played without modern technology and battles fought over secrets we now know weren’t worth fighting for, like interstellar missile defense. The lead tandem of Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys are both great, but the best performance probably belongs to Noah Emmerich as an FBI agent carrying deep damage.
#10 — Raising Hope, season 3 (Fox). Probably feeling like renewal was unlikely (he was thankfully wrong on that count), showrunner Greg Garcia went all out in the third season, embracing the wilder, meta possibilities of the series and wound up with a show that was devilishly delightful, whether orchestrating a stealth reunion of My Name is Earl (Garcia’s previous series) or gently spoofing Modern Family in a way that may have been intended to be friendly but wound up exposing the cruelty and crass conspicuous consumption at the heart of the ABC hit. Plus the show has greater empathy for working class people than any series since Roseanne.