The Top 10
1. Breaking Bad
Vince Gilligan’s perfectly plotted methodrama kept flying high four seasons in, as once-mild-mannered chemistry teacher Walter White continued his breakneck moral descent, a chilling trajectory that led to the year’s most memorable, and least hollow, “Holy shit, did that just happen?” moment. Tie-straightening will never be the same again.
2. Downton Abbey
If Jane Austen made TV, it would be something like the first season of Julian Fellowes’s British-import late-Edwardian costume drama, bursting with witticisms, romance, a class system, and, stealing her every scene, Dame Maggie Smith.
Louie C.K.’s perverse, thoughtful, low-budget FX sitcom feels like being in his peculiar head—where masturbation, heartbreak, the anxiety of fatherhood, and observations about duck vaginas jangle together hilariously. Plus it finally made Dane Cook seem cool.
A post-9/11 drama with a nuanced worldview and national-security perspective, it’s also a thriller that actually thrills. And Claire Danes makes for an extremely convincing hard-nosed, potty-mouthed, mentally ill government agent.
5. The Good Wife
For the first half of the year, The Good Wife was the best drama on television, a realpolitik procedural obsessed with meaty current events and also a serialized drama with a clear-eyed perspective on the sordid things people are capable of.
6. Parks and Recreation
In its third season, Parks and Recreation’s already strong Amy Poehler–led cast got stronger with the additions of Rob “Stop Pooping” Lowe and Adam Scott. The series’s distinctive comedic style forgoes mean-spiritedness and humiliation to celebrate kindness and competence.
7. Friday Night Lights
When coach Eric Taylor, the most decent man ever to anchor a TV show, tried to teach his new football team “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose” in the series finale, his signature phrase still packed enough emotional gravitas to bring a tear to the eye.
As of this month, Dan Harmon’s meta-sitcom Community will go off the NBC schedule. What a shame: There aren’t any other series with the guts or ambition to do a genre-exploding, episode-long homage to My Dinner With Andre that climaxes in an existential epiphany brought about by sudden-onset diarrhea.
Margo Martindale, as a backwoods matriarch, turned into TV’s most richly developed villain—on a show that has no shortage of great bad guys. Justified perfectly paced a season-long cat-and-mouse game that balanced genre staples with a consistent sense of humor.
10. Happy Endings
Proving yet again that in comedies it’s not concepts but chemistry that counts, what initially seemed like little more than a Friends knockoff developed its own fresh style by filling out its zany gang with heretofore unseen character types, like Adam Pally as an incidentally gay bro, and Damon Wayans Jr. and Eliza Coupe’s horny goofball marrieds.