Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Anna Chlumsky, Tony Hale, Matt Walsh, Timothy Simons, Reid Scott, Sufe Bradshaw
Is Veep really a political satire? It’s labeled as such and it is political, but somehow it goes beyond its labels to become transcendent television comedy. The writing team of Armando Ianucci and Simon Blackwell, who created the unforgettable, savagely funny BBC comedy of Blair-era politics, The Thick of It, have transferred the energy and zaniness of that show onto a new storyline involving that essential, yet unessential figure of American political machinery, the Vice President. Julia Louis-Dreyfus has been given one of the best roles on TV now, and she has a ball with it.
Her VP Selena Meyer is perpetually bristling with rage at not having anything to do. Imagine if Senator Diane Feinstein had a much lower IQ and way less power and ended up getting into as much trouble as Lucy Ricardo and you have something close to what Veep is. The ensemble cast is brilliant with a terrific Anna Chlumsky and Tony Hale (who takes obsequious toadying to new heights). Few shows also really nail DC politics—Veep is the dark comic underbelly of Aaron Sorkin’s hallowed West Wing, and the second episode of the series, “Frozen Yoghurt” with its memorably disastrous ending, is a masterpiece in comedy writing. Farisa Khalid
Game of Thrones
Lena Headey, Peter Dinklage, Maisie Williams, Michelle Fairley, Sean Bean
13Game of Thrones
Few television shows can match the grandiosity of Game of Thrones’s visual imagery: the stunning natural landscapes and meticulously recreated medieval architecture, the stomach turning battle scenes replete with copious amounts of gore and the operatic story lines of lust, betrayal, treachery and greed. But the show’s second season continues to captivate, not through sensationalism, sorcery and sex alone (of which there is plenty), but by developing some of the most endearing and charismatic characters on television. Peter Dinklage shines as Tyrion Lannister, the cunning and lascivious Hand to Jack Gleeson’s distillation of pure evil as the sadistic, teenage King Joffrey. And Maise Williams, as the dauntless and precocious Arya Stark, breathes a spirit of playfulness and innocence into a show that might otherwise collapse beneath the weight of its often dark and disturbing subject matter. Robert Alford
Parks and Recreation
Amy Poehler, Rashida Jones, Aziz Ansari, Nick Offerman, Aubrey Plaza, Paul Schneider, Chris Pratt, Adam Scott, Rob Lowe, Jim O’Heir, Retta
12Parks and Recreation
It’s hard to imagine a series as good as Parks and Recreation getting any better, but its episodes this year prove it’s possible. Leslie Knope’s run for city council could have easily set the show off its path, but instead it opened it up for not only more story arcs, but for character development as well. Amy Poehler consistently shines in bringing to life a character as unique and lovable as Knope, part guileless feminist, part silly waffle obsessive. The cast of characters surrounding her is equally as charming and engaging. >From goofy Andy with aspirations of law enforcement, to Ann Perkins, Leslie’s best friend and game-for-anything accomplice, to superficial, status-obsessed Tom, to office scapegoat, Jerry, the series manages to bring these people to life in a way that makes the viewer not only engaged (and constantly laughing), but invested. Jessica Suarez
Television’s official home for sad bastards—and sad bastards in spirit—continued following whatever whim America’s funniest comedian damn well pleased in 2012. Despite the show’s small audience, Louie CK’s eponymous, one-of-a-kind series made noise with seemingly every episode of its third season. Rarely does a show—especially what is ostensibly a half-hour comedy—find a way to make every episode of its season unforgettable. But Louie not only did that, he managed to make almost every scene impossible to get out of your brain.
The highlights from Season 3 are too many to list here, but just for starters: Louie’s ridiculous motorcycle (by far the show’s best running gag to date), the horrifying tryst with Melissa Leo, Parker Posey’s two-episode arc, the surrealistic quest for Louie’s father, Robin Williams in the strip club, the entire Late Show arc. It all culminated in a season finale for the ages, in which CK ends up in China, searching for the Yangtze River after Posey’s untimely demise, and celebrating the New Year with a family of strangers.
The show won’t make this list in 2013 (CK will take a hiatus and return in spring of 2014), but I’d be shocked if it still didn’t get a few votes just because it’s generated so much good will with this collection of 13 episodes. The first two seasons of Louie dared you to wonder if this low-budget show on FX could do just about anything. Season three gladly accepted the challenge with aplomb. Steve Lepore
Khandi Alexander, Rob Brown, Chris Coy, Kim Dickens, India Ennenga, John Goodman, Michiel Huisman, Melissa Leo, Lucia Micarelli, David Morse, Clarke Peters, Wendell Pierce, Jon Seda, Steve Zahn
At this point Treme is the kind of series that has either connected with the viewer or hasn’t, but it’s precisely because of its unapologetic take on post-Katrina New Orleans that makes the series one of the greatest. The third season continues to tell the stories of a varied group of characters—although many more are crossing paths now—mostly struggling to get back to some semblance of their lives before the storm. The acting is consistently excellent and standouts include Khandi Alexander, Clarke Peters, and Wendell Pierce; while the writing is sharp and incisive. As always, the series relies heavily on music to help tell its story and for some viewers this emphasis can be a turn off. However, for those open to it, the music in Treme is exactly what gives the show its authenticity and life, and what makes it a groundbreaking series. Jessica Suarez
Bryan Cranston, Anna Gunn, Aaron Paul, Dean Norris, Betsy Brandt, RJ Mitte, Bob Odenkirk, Giancarlo Esposito, Jonathan Banks
For four seasons, Breaking Bad hooked viewers with the antiheroic adventures of Walter White (Bryan Cranston). White transformed from a cancer-stricken family man, desperate to provide for his family, into a meth manufacturing mastermind, eliminating actual and perceived threats to his business empire. Along the way, White stopped “breaking” and simply turned “bad”.
By season five, the show’s hero had become its villain, creating a massive quandary of audience identification. Who in good conscience could continue to root for this guy? The brilliance of season five is in how it deals with this dilemma by shifting focus to the supporting characters’ breaking points. White’s partner/protégé Jesse (Aaron Paul) and wife Skylar (Anna Gunn) draw lines in the sand, attempting to limit his influence in their lives. The very last scene of season five’s pre-hiatus episode is one of the most astonishing pieces of television writing in years. DEA Agent Hank Schrader (Dean Norris), long the show’s underdog hero, finds a crucial piece of information that puts the power in his court. In a television climate full of “gotcha” storylines, this change of protagonists and their fortunes is the gutsiest and best of them all. Thomas Britt
Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss, Vincent Kartheiser, January Jones, Christina Hendricks, Jared Harris, Bryan Batt, Michael Gladis, Aaron Staton, Rich Sommer
A specter of meaninglessness and mortality haunts the outwardly dashing and determined men of Madison Avenue in Mad Men’s tumultuous fifth season. Pete’s (Vincent Kartheiser) ill-fated affair with a neighbors wife drives her to electro-shock therapy; Roger’s (John Slattery) dubious LSD-fueled awakening leads only to further depths of narcissism; and Lane’s (Jared Harris) act of desperation culminates in the haunting image of his lifeless body swinging from a noose in the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce office.
But as the men search futilely for meaning amidst their own unbridled pursuit of money and power, the women of Mad Men struggle to define themselves in opposition to the patriarchy and paternalism that permeates their society. Megan (Jessica Paré) refuses to play the role of respectable domesticity in her marriage to Don (Jon Hamm), leaving her job at the firm to pursue her own dream of becoming an actress. Joan (Christina Hendricks) divorces her abusive husband and turns a demeaning act of sexual bribery into an opportunity for influence and power. And Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) finally walks, trading the chauvinistic atmosphere of SCDP and its accompanying glass ceiling for increased autonomy and opportunity with a rival firm.
At the center of all this searching is Don, who clutches at satisfaction in his own life, through his marriage to Megan and his role as a partner at SCDP, until that fatalistic final scene in which a woman approaches him at a bar and asks: “Are you alone”? Robert Alford