December 21, 2012 at 05:00 AM EST

1 Homeland, Showtime
The season 2 premiere abruptly dispatched a thread that had been so carefully woven into the first season — that’d be the attempt by Damian Lewis’ former POW Brody to keep his devotion to Islam a secret, known in the West only by his daughter and us. It also took Claire Danes’ disgraced CIA agent Carrie from, in her sister’s words, “a good place” to the CIA-spy equivalent, which is being plunged into “a bad place.” Then the series brought the pair together — as workers, as lovers — and things got really complicated. Homeland isn’t really operating on the same playing field as other shows: Plot twists and cliff-hangers have become almost meaningless terms — or, rather, beside the point. The entire series is a twist on what an hour-long drama usually aims to accomplish over the course of a full season. Homeland maximizes its entertainment value with its excellent acting, dialogue, and — running beneath the drama like an electric current — jolting, disruptive storytelling, which tricks you in the best way. This is not a TV show with a deep “mythology” for parsing Internet diehards — instead, it’s mass entertainment at the highest level.

2. Breaking Bad, AMC
This half season — the series wraps with a final batch of episodes in 2013 — more than paid off on creator Vince Gilligan’s original conceit: Mr. Chips turns into Scarface. Walter White (Bryan Cranston), the once-kindly teacher with a cancerous death sentence and a scheme to save his family, fully morphed into a crime boss with few scruples…and yet you still root for him. Or, at this point, root for the show and superlative but underused costar Aaron Paul to make the inevitable fall of White as dramatic as this season’s other high points, foremost of which was the death of Jonathan Banks’ hitman Mike Ehrmantraut. Add a great performance by Anna Gunn as the shrewd, under-pressure wife Skyler, and you’ve got a series that winds its tension ever tighter and tighter.

3. Louie, FX
The schlub as auteur, expanding sitcom conventions with story lines that allowed for dramatic moments, quiet moments, crazy moments — sometimes all in one episode. (See: the epochal Parker Posey run, in which it’s only gradually revealed that she’s unstable.)

4. Girls, HBO
The year’s most impressive debut, this creation from star-writer Lena Dunham characterized the post–Sex and the City generation of women as poorer in cash, to be sure, but perhaps wiser in the ways of life as it’s lived by most of us. Or by twentysomethings with minimal career prospects, boyfriends who get their sex education from Internet porn, and parents in the glorious tradition of Not Understanding Anything.

5. Mad Men, AMC
This was the season that became unbuttoned during the 1960s, with characters taking trips both geographical (to Howard Johnson’s!) and chemical (LSD!) and making risky business and personal decisions. From Megan (Jessica Paré) shimmying and purring to “Zou Bisou Bisou” to Roger (John Slattery) sweating and tripping on hallucinogens, from Lane’s (Jared Harris) heartbreaking suicide to Joan’s (Christina Hendricks) appalling sexual sacrifice, Mad Men was tough-minded as frequently as it was cool. This was one season in which creator Matthew Weiner’s overwrought overthinking proved perfectly suited to the subjects and images he wanted to present.

6. The Colbert Report, Comedy Central
The funniest and most devastating political humor in an election year came from Colbert, who took his dazzling command of performance art to a new level. His on-camera conservative blowhard struggled heroically to become enthusiastic about Mitt Romney, even as he mercilessly deconstructed the policy positions and debate performances of both Romney and President Barack Obama. Combining that with his touching, energetic interview with children’s-book author Maurice Sendak (one of the Where the Wild Things Are writer’s last before his death in May), Colbert is at once our most ruthless and jubilant satirist.

7. Parks and Recreation, NBC
This beautifully unironic sitcom ought to have a far bigger audience for the way it carefully avoids undue meanness yet is still gut-punchingly funny. In its creation of an alternate world of gentle eccentricity, Parks and Rec fits into sitcom history alongside The Andy Griffith Show and Green Acres. Yet its political story line this year — featuring Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope running for and winning a city-council seat — rooted the series firmly in our hardheaded new century. And the romance between Leslie and Adam Scott’s Ben is one of the dreamiest of any show, comedy or drama.

8. Justified, FX
Season 3 was the most hardboiled to date of what is proving to be one of the greatest noir series in TV history. It found Timothy Olyphant’s Raylan Givens encountering one of the show’s most intriguing new lawbreakers in Neal McDonough’s Quarles, a Detroit “enforcer” capable of relentless violence. This series — inspired by characters created by our foremost thriller writer, Elmore Leonard — tapped into Leonard’s deep reservoir of chilly Detroit-based fiction to come up with the smirky Quarles. Equally good: Mykelti Williamson as backwoods Harlan County crime boss Limehouse, maker of fine barbecue and even better threats.

9. The Good Wife, CBS Even with the frustrating Kalinda’s-meanie-husband subplot (hey, we were irritated because we care!), this remains broadcast TV’s best drama. Able to juggle multiple story lines and platoons of guest stars within each episode, Wife is as dexterous with Nathan Lane (to name just one peerless performer this season) as the actor is with his accountant character’s calculator. Now that Emily Owens, M.D. has been canceled, can Mamie Gummer come back as her innocent-like- a-fox lawyer Nancy Crozier?

10. Nashville, ABC
It may seem faint praise to say that Nashville is the best new show of a quite pallid fall season. But this canny creation from screenwriter Callie Khouri — with shrewd, diverse musical choices from executive music producer and hubby T Bone Burnett — is boldly soapy and seamlessly tuneful. Connie Britton manages, impossibly, to turn in her third superb lead performance in a row (after Friday Night Lights and American Horror Story), while Hayden Panettiere quickly showed that she’s more than just a plucky little hero(ine).

READERS’ PICKS
1 The Walking Dead, AMC
2 Parks and Recreation, NBC
3 Breaking Bad, AMC
4 Game of Thrones, HBO
5 The Big Bang Theory, CBS
6 Homeland, Showtime
7 The Vampire Diaries, The CW
8 Fringe, Fox
9 The Good Wife, CBS
10 Sons of Anarchy, FX
11 Parenthood, NBC
12 Luck, HBO
13 Fringe, Fox
14 Sons of Anarchy, FX
15 Archer, FX
16 The Walking Dead, AMC
17 Southland, TNT
18 Hunted, Cinemax
19 NY Med, ABC
20 Bent, NBC

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