10. The Returned
The zombies on this moody, atmospheric, impossibly chic French drama (now airing on Sundance) aren’t really zombies per se. They don’t nibble on femurs or drag a backward-turned foot down the street. So when a school-bus accident kills children in a small Alpine village — and one of those children comes back to life — the story is so much more unsettling than your average undead saga. The Returned speaks to our inability to let go of what’s gone, and in an era when the past and the present seem to happen simultaneously — with YouTube and Instagram channeling instant nostalgia — that feels like an especially timely theme. Clearly, this show has what all zombies want: braaaaaains.
9. House of Cards (Netflix)
Some people never finished this masterfully paced Beltway thriller because it bugged them when Congressman Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) spoke directly to the camera. Me? I think it’s a smart device, meant to convey that Frank is so swept up in his own ego, he can’t do anything without imagining that he has an audience. That’s just one of many savvy dramatic choices in the gripping morality play, which reveals Washington, D.C., as a stage fit for Shakespearean drama. Spacey makes Frank’s rise to power just as chilling as Richard III’s, and Robin Wright is downright icy as Frank’s own Lady Macbeth. Yet something about their cold, ambitious marriage feels very of-the-moment, too. I’ll bet the Clintons binge-watched the hell out of this.
8. The Good Wife (CBS)
One clever watcher recently dubbed ”Hitting the Fan” (a.k.a. the Episode Where They Blow Up the Law Firm) ”Lockhart/ Gardner’s Red Wedding.” That feels about right: The action couldn’t have been any more intense if Diane (Christine Baranski) had sung ”The Rains of Castamere” while plunging a sword into Alicia’s (Julianna Margulies) belly. But then, every episode has been almost that exciting lately. Between the cerebral sparring matches in the courtroom and Alicia and Will’s (Josh Charles) delicious hate-flirting, it’s part screwball classic, part brainteaser — and all the more reason to believe that great TV doesn’t have to flame out after season 4.
7. Top of the Lake (Sundance)
Sometimes the best television functions as both a critique of a genre and a brilliant example of what it’s critiquing. That’s the case with Jane Campion’s mystery about a 12-year-old (Jacqueline Joe) who goes missing in small-town New Zealand, the detective (Elisabeth Moss) who sets out to find her, and a colony of ”emancipated” women camped out along the lake. Poking fun at her reputation as an art-house feminist, Campion gets some good jokes out of GJ (Holly Hunter), the wacky guru who leads this all-female outpost. But this is still a serious feminist drama, one that explores the harsh workplace dynamics for female cops and the long-term consequences of sexual assault. Plus, the ending is truly harrowing. Women’s studies majors, start your graduate theses. Everyone else, prepare to be totally freaked out.
6. Mad Men (AMC)
This season, Don Draper (Jon Hamm) started out reading Dante’s Inferno and ended up living in it, finally leaving the escapist fantasy machine of Sterling Cooper Draper Whomever long enough to notice that the outside world was going to hell. It was a moving portrait of innocence lost: Megan (Jessica Paré) watched the violent Vietnam protests on TV; Dawn (Teyonah Parris) dealt with Martin Luther King Jr.’s death; Sally (Kiernan Shipka) took a swig of hooch and witnessed her dad’s infidelity. We saw the fall of the American dream and the rise of the hemline on Bob’s (James Wolk) beach shorts. Meanwhile, Don learned from Dante that you can’t save yourself without going through purgatory first, and his Hershey’s speech was his salvation. I’d complain about the obvious brothel flashbacks, but I’ve got too much chocolate in my mouth.
5. Please Like Me (Pivot)
If HBO’s Girls were recast with Australian twentysomethings?well, it still wouldn’t have as much heart as this ridiculously funny, sad show. (If you don’t have Pivot, catch up on iTunes.) Creator-star Josh Thomas plays Josh, an adorably preppy 21-year-old whose mother (Debra Lawrance) tried to commit suicide. Also, his girlfriend (Caitlin Stasey) just realized he’s gay. The premise might sound dour, but PLM made me laugh out loud with its spot-on portrayal of quarter-life confusion. Clumsy hookups are followed by first dates instead of the reverse. Young people befriend their mothers and mother their friends. Life-changing news gets revealed during silly party games, like ”What’s the most embarrassing thing that’s happened to your genitals?” For anyone under 25, it’s a perfect example of BUFU realism — by us, for us. For anyone older, it’s comedy gold.
4. Orange Is the New Black (Netflix)
What began as a show about a white, upper-middle-class, Whole Foods-eating, Toms-shoes-buying yuppie ultimately pulled a marvelous bait and switch, getting us to care less about bourgie convict Piper (Taylor Schilling) than about the drug addicts, murderers, and thieves around her. That’s partly a credit to the absurdly talented acting (Uzo Aduba as Crazy Eyes!) and infinitely quotable dialogue (”Lesbian request DENIED!”), but it’s mostly due to the show’s bottomless empathy. When Piper’s mother scoffs at the other inmates, Piper looks her straight in the eye. ”I am no different from anybody else in here,” she says. That’s the most revolutionary thing about OITNB: It makes you realize that in another time and circumstance, you’d be no different either.
3. Game of Thrones (HBO)
Two words alone could earn George R.R. Martin’s epic adventure a spot on this list: Red Wedding. Or maybe one word: dracarys (Valyrian for ”Warning: This dragon is about to BBQ your face”). But GoT amounted to so much more than swordplay and fire breath this season. From Cersei and Margaery’s struggle for control over Joffrey to Tywin’s clandestine letter-writing campaign, the suspense played out like the best chess match ever, with the most powerless people (women, old men, children) secretly manipulating the mighty from behind the velvet drapes. And if strategy alone doesn’t thrill you, consider the mind-blowing scene where a female knight fights a bear in a gladiator ring.
2. Enlightened (HBO)
Should you devote your life to doing the right thing, even if it’s for the wrong reason? Mike White and Laura Dern’s canceled-too-soon comedy forced viewers to grapple with that question as whistle-blower Amy Jellicoe (Dern) tried to drag down the big bad corporation where she worked — and earn more Twitter followers in return. While every other show pushed us to identify with antiheroes, Enlightened posed a harder challenge, urging us to root for an annoying but relatable human who couldn’t desensitize herself to the horrors of the world. Despite its dark humor, Enlightened was a sincere show. It wasn’t asking: Why does this crazy woman feel everything too deeply? It was asking: Why don’t you?
1. Breaking Bad (AMC)
Sure, watching meth kingpin Walter White (Bryan Cranston) slowly devolve from Mr. Chips into Scarface over four and a half seasons was awesome. But you know what was even more riveting? Watching a bunch of doofus Nazis and some Howdy Doody kid turn him right back into Mr. Chips, faster than you can say, ”Have an A1 day.” Not since Walt first flashed his tighty-whities on screen has Cranston shown such vulnerability, or Aaron Paul such wrenching defeat, or the writers such mastery for wrapping up loose ends as they did in the final eight episodes — from Jesse (Paul) finding out about Jane’s (Krysten Ritter) death to those khakis Walt left in the desert. Some people feel the ending was a cop-out, a hero’s farewell for a guy who didn’t deserve one. But even that debate was proof of Breaking Bad‘s genius. Walt’s angry-white-man entitlement made him think that life owed him everything and more, more, more. And the ending turned us all into Walter Whites, believing that we deserve the biggest, craziest blowout ever — and knowing that whatever we get, it will never be enough.