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Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss, Vincent Kartheiser, January Jones, Christina Hendricks, Jared Harris, Bryan Batt, Michael Gladis, Aaron Staton, Rich Sommer
Season six of Mad Men was all about transitions, its penultimate installment seen through the lens of how it sets up itsBreaking Bad-esque two-year finale. With the show winding down and Don Draper headed for a fate we cannot yet divine, it was easy to take in what was happening on Mad Menas foreshadowing a future to come. Would Don (Jon Hamm) be back with the agency once built around his sheer force of personality? Could he really change his ways and would it be with or without Megan? Would Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss)—or even doppelgänger Bob Benson (James Wolk)—be keeping his seat warm at Sterling Cooper & Partners or taking his chair?
Indeed, a season that takes place during 1968 couldn’t be about anything but change and coping with it. Capturing a period rife with social upheaval, three of the season’s 14 hours were set to the MLK and RFK assassinations and the Chicago DNC protests, not to mention Vietnam War subplots. That uncertain sense of transformation provided an apt backdrop for the plot line, as characters we’ve become familiar with were at a crossroads and had to evolve or go extinct. Peggy, for one, didn’t let being drawn back into Don’s orbit or being pulled into Ted Chaough’s(Kevin Rahm) stop her from getting that corner office, while even Pete Campbell(Vincent Kartheiser) showed enough growth to become a complex, almost sympathetic figure. Don, however, never felt so much in suspended animation—even his transgressions and revelations just repeated his past. As a show, though, Mad Men never spun its wheels, keeping up with its times and getting ready to move into its future. Arnold Pan
Mireille Enos, Joel Kinnaman
A year after the devastating Rosie Larsen murder of the first two seasons has been laid to rest, Holder (Joel Kinnaman) and Linden (Mireille Enos) are re-teamed when a crime scene unlike any the detectives have ever seen is uncovered, forcing Linden to re-examine a case from her past she thought closed. The two leads, as always, anchor the show with a strong emotional center, supported this season with uncanny performances by Elias Koteas, Nicolas Lea, Jewel Staite, Amy Seimetz, Rowan Longworth, the revelatory Bex Taylor-Klaus and a career-best Peter Sarsgaard as Ray Seward, a convicted killer facing the death penalty whose guilt Linden has begun to doubt. A brave, challenging and morally murky season finale has paved the way for the show’s upcoming six-episode final season, sure to put the detectives through the ultimate ringer. Rest assured, we’ll be watching the detectives. Kevin Brettauer
Timothy Olyphant, Nick Searcy, Joelle Carter, Jacob Pitts, Erica Tazel, Natalie Zea, Walton Goggins
When the great writer Elmore Leonard sadly passed away this August he surely knew he was leaving his character Deputy Sheriff Raylan Givens in safe hands. Like Leonard, the Justified team know it takes more than witty wisecracks, a Stetson and a cool-as-fuck walk to craft riveting drama. Nobody here is merely “good” or “bad”. They all walk the line, teetering over the abyss whilst wrestling with history, dreams, desires, bad company or just darn bad luck. This season Givens struggled with impending parenthood and his failure to escape his own father’s ominous shadow. Boyd and Ava’s Dairy Queen dreams were haunted by a ghost from a shallow grave whilst poor Ellen May was caught in the crossfire between loose cannon Colt Rhodes, machete juggler Ellstin Limehouse and mystery man Drew Thompson. As Givens concludes “Priorities change”. Justified, like the best stories, remains elusive, unpredictable, compelling, true to its characters. Oh and Hallelujah! for lovable rogue Wynn Duffy finally becoming a series regular. Matt James
Diane Kruger, Demian Bichir, Annabeth Gish, Thomas M. Wright, Ted Levine
Few shows this year messed with the expectations of narrative development like The Bridge, which was all the more daring considering it was the Nordic Noir remake‘s debut season on FX. With the plot lines moving at a frenetic pace right from the get-go, peaking when you least expected them to, viewers quickly learned that anything could happen at any time to anyone: Sure, the initial reveal of a conspiracy theory-spouting vigilante as the border killer halfway through the season was just a red herring, but as quickly as that lead ran cold, the real mastermind hiding in plain sight came out of the shadows an episode later. Up to that point, almost anyone could’ve been a suspect and, throughout, everyone was fair game—with main character Marco Ruiz (Demián Bichir) having his family torn apart and co-lead Sonya Cross (Diane Kruger) getting shot at point blank and left for dead in a rollover accident.
So while gripes about everything from the plausibility of the crimes, to how well the Danish-Swedish border of the original translated to the U.S.-Mexico border, to the sensationalization of violence in Ciudad Juárez were fair enough,The Bridge still made for gripping television, its anything-goes approach keeping you engaged in a world based on the one we live in but really something all its own. With nothing sacred, The Bridgewas at its best when breaking down black-and-white absolutes of good-and-bad, its title aptly implying how these opposing terms are on a continuum in its warped moral universe. Arnold Pan
Orange Is the New Black
Taylor Schilling, Danielle Brooks, Taryn Manning
Orange Is the New Black
What happens when an “ordinary person’s” life takes her from the well-paved suburban streets of her upbringing to a road full of potholes, strewn with rusty nails and broken glass? The weak curl up and wither away into obscurity. The strong adapt, as Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker) did in Weeds, and their stories become part of our mythology. Indeed, one can see Emmy award-winning Weeds’ creator Jenji Kohan’s deft hand in the telling of Orange Is the New Black, the only TV show about women in prison I’ve ever watched. I approached it with trepidation, as the subject matter evokes ‘70s sexploitation films or possibly worse, shows that make light of a far from light situation, (e.g., 2003’s Prison-A-Go-Go!). Was I in for a surprise. Based on Piper Kerman’s titular memoir (2010), the ominous sentiment, “There but for the Grace of God”, snakes through Orange Is the New Black. That smooth asphalt we’re all riding on is but a thin paving of civilization, after all, and that paving always cracks.
Like Weeds, Orange Is the New Black is a tale about survivors. Key to a survivor’s strength is her knack for finding that life is quite funny, albeit often in a darkly funny way. But we’re not always laughing. In Season One’s cliffhanger finalé, Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) left viewers stranded on that rough road with no exit in sight—and the gas gauge had long ago dropped to “low”. I was willing to get out and push, just to keep that story going. Karen Zarker
Bryan Cranston, Anna Gunn, Aaron Paul, Dean Norris, Betsy Brandt, RJ Mitte, Bob Odenkirk, Giancarlo Esposito, Jonathan Banks
At some point in a man’s life, he realizes that the game is rigged. For Walter White, it’s when his health insurer won’t cover his cancer treatment. It’s a death sentence for our mild-mannered hero and a one-way ticket to poverty for his family. So what’s a chemistry teacher to do? He cooks meth, the purest blue crystal ever seen. And he builds a fortune. But Walt is diving into the shark tank of the drug trade, so he transforms before our eyes, becoming someone unrecognizable to his family and friends. Walt becomes Heisenberg. In the crackpot lexicon of Fox News, Heisenberg fits the bill as a free market hero, a “maker and job creator”. Welcome to the new American dream. Breaking Bad reveals Walter White as a modern day Faust, bartering his soul to protect his family. And the devil always gets his due. Roll credits. John Grassi
Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys, Maximiliano Hernández, Holly Taylor, Keidrich Sellati, Noah Emmerich
If nothing else, The Americans proves that the Cold War is history, in every sense: For anyone who grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, during the later stages of a geopolitical standoff that felt like it had lasted forever and would continue to, the premise of The Americans is a particularly fascinating one, fictionalizing how the other half lived by casting KGB agents embedded in American suburbia as the protagonists. As we follow Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys going through the motions as Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, what’s revealed isn’t just how political ideologies—on both sides—are ingrained and hardly natural, but also how the stuff of everyday lives takes training and practice, as their professional relationship grows into a personal one with all the complications and baggage that go with it.
Sure, the cloak-and-dagger dramatics push the narrative forward breathlessly and the re-creation of the Reagan era taps into nostalgia that’s more realist than kitschy, but the international affairs take a back seat to the characters and the relationships that drive The Americans. And often, it’s not even the main story line that’s the most engaging, rather the multilayered, spy-vs.-spy friendship between Philip and CIA operative neighbor Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) and the show’s truest love connection, the international, interracial solidarity shared between Elizabeth and her former Black Panther informant Gregory (Derek Luke). Through its competing perspectives and unexpected scenarios, The Americans turns out to be even better as an alternate reality than a spy thriller. Arnold Pan