In last week’s column I named the first six shows on my annual year-end Best Of list: AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” PBS’ “Downton Abbey,” Showtime’s “Homeland,” CBS’ “The Good Wife,” ABC’s “The Middle” and NBC’s “The Voice.” Here are the rest, plus eight very deserving runners-up.
“Southland” (TNT) – TNT’s underrated cop drama was the year’s most improved show. The cast was trimmed, the characters were rotated into new pairings, and Lucy Liu was brought on board for an especially compelling season-long arc as police officer Jessica Tang, a tough, quirky cop putting her career back on track after a brutal assault. Liu is off to CBS’ enjoyable detective drama “Elementary” (arguably the best new broadcast drama of the fall). She’ll be missed, but there is no doubt series standouts Ben McKenzie, Regina King, Shawn Hatosy and Michael Cudlitz will continue to make “Southland” a must-see show.
“Mad Men” (AMC) – Still sublime in season five, “Mad Men” was filled as always with distinctive and memorable character interaction the likes of which we don’t see in other television programs. There were so many unforgettable (and often deeply disturbing) scenes: Lane’s suicide, Roger’s LSD trips, Megan’s startlingly suggestive performance of “Zou Bisou Bisou,” Don and Megan’s dark exchange at Howard Johnson’s, an overweight Betty digging into a second dish of ice cream at her kitchen table, and pretty much everything involving young Sally, from her palpable fear of Richard Speck (who in 1966 raped and murdered eight nurses in Chicago), to her unexpected glimpse of Megan’s mother performing oral sex on Roger, to the arrival of her first period while on a date with oddball Glen at the Museum of Natural History.
But for me, the most memorable scene in “Mad Men” this year was also one of the simplest; the heart-to-heart conversation Joan had with Don at a bar in the episode titled “Christmas Waltz.”
I think the only thing series mastermind Matthew Weiner has done wrong so far was to separate Don and Betty. Divorce did not come easily in the ‘60s, even to the upper middle class – appearances and all that – and I do believe “Mad Men” was a stronger show (and truer to the period) with the Drapers’ dysfunctional marriage as its dark center.
“Sons of Anarchy” (FX) – TV’s nastiest soap opera this year was unrelentingly grim and unapologetically violent – and at times unbearably annoying. (For example, most of the characters on its canvas have been committing heinous crimes and breaking all kinds of laws for years, and it’s good doctor Tara who goes to prison in the season finale?) But it was as compulsively watchable and consistently surprising as ever. I hope “Sons” runs long enough to show us the lives of its characters after Clay, a character whose days are presumably numbered.
“Girls” (HBO) – I have said for many years that HBO should revive “Sex and the City” and tell the stories of four twenty-something women in present-day New York City, which is nothing like the Manhattan of the ‘80s that brought together Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte and Samantha. “Girls” isn’t exactly that; Hannah, Marnie, Jessa and Shoshanna live in Brooklyn and have apparently been empowered and enabled into utter dysfunction by their parents. But it was arguably the most exciting new series of the year, and certainly one of the most poignant. Now we’ll see if series creator, executive producer, head writer, occasional director and fearless star Lena Dunham can keep it fresh in season two and lead her girls into something resembling maturity.
“Dexter” (Showtime) – Showtime’s serial killer thriller hasn’t been the same since it peaked in season four (with John Lithgow’s terrifying performance as the fiendish Arthur Mitchell, aka the Trinity Killer) – until this year, when it was excitingly recharged with multiple stories of madness and murder. Much of the credit goes to Jennifer Carpenter’s award-worthy performance as Dexter’s now-twisted sister Deb, who learned her brother’s dark secret, professed her uncomfortable love for him (they aren’t blood relatives), became complicit in his crimes and then crossed the line big time into his territory. (I’ll reveal no further details here.) Michael C. Hall was never better, somehow finding a way to delve deeper into the internal darkness of Dexter’s world. (He was so convincing you could see the crazy in his eyes.) As impressed as I was this fall by Andrew Lincoln in “The Walking Dead” and Damian Lewis in “Homeland,” I think it would be grand if voting members of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences next year acknowledged the sublime subtleties in Hall’s performance and finally awarded him a long-overdue Emmy.
“Breaking Bad” (AMC) – Is it fair to include a half-season of a series in a year-end round-up of television’s best shows? Probably not, but I’ll make the exception for the too-few episodes of “Breaking Bad” that AMC offered last summer. Who can say what impact the cataclysmic events depicted in those first eight hours will have on the final eight to come – especially the murder of an innocent little boy and the death of Gus Fring’s steely enforcer, Mike. (I like to think the death of that kid is going to somehow blow the show’s narrative wide open and bring everything to a corrosive conclusion.) Bryan Cranston’s portrayal over the last five years of meek chemistry teacher and cancer patient turned fumbling meth maker turned increasingly lethal drug lord Walter White has been has been thrilling to watch. Aaron Paul’s work as White’s increasingly conflicted partner in crime Jesse Pinkman has been equally distinctive. Television will be something less without them.
Here are eight runners-up (including two miniseries), bringing this list to a tidy 20: PBS’ “Sherlock,” CBS’ “The Big Bang Theory,” BBC America’s “Doctor Who,” FX’s “Justified” and “Louie,” USA Network’s “Covert Affairs,” Showtime’s “Shameless” and History’s “Hatfields & McCoys.”