There's been something of a pattern to the reception of "Mad Men" over the last few seasons. First, there's a few place-setting episodes that people express mild disappointment with. Then, about midway through the season, people complain that nothing's happened, and that the show might have started going downhill, and that old ground is being covered. And then it all comes together in the final few episodes, and people start saying it might have been the best season ever. Season six followed that pattern like clockwork, and it's a mark of what a great year it's been for TV that, despite the show still being in its creative peak, it's only in our number five slot (though as we said, all of these top five are pretty much interchangeable depending on mood). Even lower-key plot-wise than season four, season five saw fans swapping conspiracy theories for weeks. Megan was going to be killed by Charlie Manson! Megan was already killed by Charlie Manson! Bob Benson was Don Draper's illegitimate son! But as ever, creator Matthew Weiner refused to play to expectations, and while the finale (and indeed, the few episodes leading up to it) had some major, show-changing events, the show always veered away from meeting expectations, and continues to surprise with where it takes its characters without ever dipping into soapiness (well, perhaps the fate of Pete Campbell's mother). There was admirable course-correction too; this season saw both Pete and Betty, who'd occasionally got short shrift in previous seasons, become more sympathetic and well-drawn, while newer additions to the cast like James Wolk, Linda Cardenelli and Harry Hamlin swiftly felt like part of the furniture. And of course, the show's stalwarts, in Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss and, increasingly, Kiernan Shipka, continued to smash it out of the park week on week. "Mad Men" is unique among the great TV dramas in that it riffs less on movies and other TV than on classic American literature (Philip Roth, Richard Yates, even Raymond Carver), and as it approaches its end game, it feels more and more like the TV version of the Great American Novel.
Best Episode: This finale "In Care Of," which tied up every strand of the season into an immensely rewarding, moving and earth-shaking conclusion.
We'd like to shout at you for not watching "Enlightened," Mike White's astonishingly good comedy-drama, which was cancelled soon after finishing its second, little-watched season. But we have to confess that we weren't watching it either -- it passed us by on initial airing, and we only caught up with it while preparing for this piece. We needn't feel all that badly about it -- HBO never quite worked out the angle on how to sell it, and most critics took a little time to warm up to the show, which was never the most immediately lovable of series. But boy, we wish we'd got on the train earlier, because "Enlightened" was one of the most impressive, complex and fascinating extended character studies that we've ever seen on television. The show, from "Freaks & Geeks" and "The Good Girl" writer White, focuses on Amy Jellicoe, an executive who returns to work after a nervous breakdown and subsequent rehab determined to create a better world for herself and for others. In the second season, it became a sort of whistleblower thriller, with Jellicoe teaming up with co-workers and L.A. Times journalist Jeff (Dermot Mulroney) to expose corruption within her workplace. But any plot took a backseat to its portrait of its central character, one not quite like any other on television. To put it simply, Amy is a terrible person, self-centered and manipulative. And yet White's compassionate writing and Dern's hall-of-fame performance meant that while you might occasionally find her actions excruciating, she was entirely plausible, sympathetic and even lovable (which extended to every other character, from White's lonely, lovelorn co-worker to a career-reviving performance from Luke Wilson as Amy's substance-abusing ex-husband). Often deeply, deeply funny while secretly proving to be incredibly moving, and featuring the best roster of directors on TV (Todd Haynes, James Bobin and David Michod joined White and Nicole Holofcener for season two, while Miguel Arteta, Jonathan Demme and Phil Morrison had worked on the first run), it was an absolute gem throughout, and the only reason not to mourn its premature cancellation was that it found pretty much a perfect ending.
Best Episode: "Higher Power," which broke with the format to follow Luke Wilson's Levi to the Hawaiian treatment center that caused his ex-wife's rebirth.
On paper, it was hard to think of something less enticing than the idea of a Hannibal Lecter TV series. The character had long since become a punchline after three sub-standard follow-ups to "Silence Of The Lambs," and it seemed like the kind of dim, derivative cash-in and another serial killer show on TV schedules that are already overstuffed with them. The casting was strong, and creator Bryan Fuller gave some confidence (though we've never really loved any of his previous shows), but the signs were that it could end up being eminently skippable. How wrong we were: "Hannibal" started impressively, and only became more and more fascinating and powerful as it went on, ending its first season as the best network TV drama in years. Fuller found a home for his heightened aesthetic (brought to life by David Slade in the pilot, and kept up by directors including John Dahl and, in his directorial debut, Tarantino/Del Toro DoP Guillermo Navvaro) with the disgustingly beautiful murder tableaus and styilized reconstructions making it among TV's most distinctive-looking shows. But it's not murder porn either; it's the sheer psychological depth that sets "Hannibal" not so much leagues as an entire ocean above the CSIs and NCISs of the world. The killings are horrifying in the truest sense of the world (hammered home by the uneasy, Ben Wheatley-ish sound design that makes the show as absorbing as it is difficult to watch), and the toll of investigating and committing murder hangs heavy over the series, which has painted as effective a picture of mental illness as we've ever seen on television, let alone on a network, thanks to the fine work of Hugh Dancy. It's an incredibly effective antidote to the countless dead bodies we see callously quipped over on other shows. And we haven't even mentioned Hannibal himself yet: Mads Mikkelsen is perfectly cast, wiping away memories of Brian Cox and Anthony Hopkins within a few episodes, expertly playing with the audience's sympathies while still making Lecter as terrifying as he's ever been. It's not for those with weak stomachs -- Fuller & co have found inventive new ways to make us feel nauseous -- but if you can take it, it's a near-miraculous piece of television, and one that we hope sticks around for a long time.
Best Episode: "Coquilles," which wraps Graham's increasing instability, and the troubles of the wife (Gina Torres) of Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne), into the investigation of a man who's gruesomely turning his victims into angels.
With almost a year gone since its third season began, and the show's semi-titular creator taking a break to the extent that the fourth won't begin airing until next summer, it feels like there's a major "Louie" void in our lives. And that's in part because, while the most recent run of the show could be occasionally uneven, and not always committed to actually being funny (quite deliberately), it remains some of the most fascinating, exhilarating and oddly moving television around. Season three was the year that Louis C.K. both moved towards a slightly more serialized approach to the show, with two recurring plotlines that took up about half the season between them (and a wider theme that ran throughout), and continued to push his formally experimental side. If you've never seen the show, know that "Louie" sees C.K. as a filmmaker first, and comic second, and every episode of the show is at least one compelling and, increasingly, beautifully made, short film. The great thrill of the show is that you never know what you're going to get week on week: we went from a hilariously profane blind date with Melissa "Fuckin' Obama" Leo to an elegiac Miami-set episode where Louie falls in love with a guy, to a kind of deconstruction of the manic pixie dream girl rom-com with Parker Posey, to the show's trilogy about Louie being courted to take over David Letterman's show (complete with a perfect guest spot from David Lynch, of all people). No one is moving the half-hour comedy form (it feels odd to call it a sitcom, somehow) further forward than Louie, and as a result, the wait for the next season feels almost endless.
Best Episode: So many to choose from, but Louie's extraordinary flight by speedboat at the end of "Dad" might just edge it over the "Late Show" trilogy (which, more than anything, made us die to see C.K. return to big-screen filmmaking).
With the walls between film and TV crumbling down every day, it seems fitting that our favorite TV series of the year premiered at the Sundance and Berlin Film Festivals, before marking the Sundance Channel's first entry into original series. "Top Of The Lake," created by the great New Zealand filmmaker Jane Campion ("The Piano," "Bright Star') with co-writer Gerard Lee, and directed by Campion and Garth Davis, looked on the surface to be another entry into the "The Killing"-type murder-in-a-small-town sub-genre. But while there was a murder of a sort, it took backseat into an investigation of a far deeper kind of corruption. Campion's series begins with Sydney police detective Robin Griffin ("Mad Men" star Elisabeth Moss, phenomenal, and with a decent Kiwi accent, no less) returning home to see her dying mother, only to become involved with a young pregnant girl Tui (Jacqueline Joe), the daughter of local criminal Matt Mitcham (Peter Mullan). While there's a mystery -- who's the father of Tui's baby? -- the show rarely delves into procedural elements, instead fleshing out the world of Laketop with low-life locals, shifty cops and a woman's commune led by the charismatic, offbeat American GJ (Holly Hunter, channeling Campion herself). At its heart, "Top Of The Lake" is about the treatment of women at the hands of men, and that the scars that can leave. Which perhaps makes the series heavier than we intend; it can be bleak, certainly, but it was grippingly watchable throughout its seven-episode run, with flecks of dark humor, romance and, above all, incredibly smart writing and direction. Every performer, from the familiar names to newcomers, was fantastic too (Mullan perhaps taking the honors as a deeply well-rounded and complex monster). The show was a limited-run one-off, as far as we know, so we're unlikely to see another series or a sequel. But given that it might have been the masterpiece of one of our finest filmmakers, we'll happily settle for what we got.
Best Episode: To be honest, the series feels like it was intended to be seen as one long seven-hour viewing experience, and that's what we'd recommend. Take a couple of breaks, or watch it over a few nights, but it's best to absorb the show in a short space of time.
Honorable Mentions: With all the will in the world, there's simply too much great TV to catch up with everything, so all of the above should be taken with the caveat that we have a few gaps in our viewing. The most prominent is "Rectify," a slow-burning Sundance Channel show from Ray McKinnon that, by all accounts, had an excellent first season. Rest assured, we'll be catching up with it soon, but if you did see it, let us know your thoughts in the comments section.
Otherwise, we never quite picked up with the second season of "Scandal," which we're told is ludicrous amounts of silly, soapy fun, anchored by a great performance from Kerry Washington. We're also behind on "It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia" and never got around to "Bunheads," though have heard great things about both. We believe that "Vikings" is meant to be a lot of fun, and a cut above other similar historical dramas, and the same was apparently true of the just-completed "Spartacus" too.
As for the shows that we have seen, but didn't quite make the cut, "Boardwalk Empire" continued to improve season-on-season thanks to a great guest villain turn by Bobby Cannavale, and with an impressive roster of actors joining the fourth series, we wouldn't be surprised if it cracked the list by next year. "Veep" also came on great guns with its second season and, if it isn't quite up there with "The Thick Of It" still, is getting awfully close. Speaking of, Armando Iannucci's other series closed up its run last fall with a strong series of episodes, while on a sort-of-related note, HBO's other Sunday night comedy, "Family Tree," might only be halfway through its run, but it's the best thing Christopher Guest has done since at least "Best In Show," anchored by a great turn by Chris O'Dowd.
Beyond that, "Homeland" took a bit of a dip in its second season, but remains watchable and well-acted, while "The Good Wife" is still one of the most consistently strong dramas around. "Fringe" ended its run with a curious, but ever-imaginative series, and newcomer "Orphan Black" proved to be a compelling new slice of sci-fi. "Arrested Development" returned, and while not up there with its previous seasons, was often as funny as anything else on TV, while cable comedies like "Children's Hospital," "Key & Peele," "Comedy Bang Bang," "Inside Amy Schumer" and "Nathan For You" were all terrific. As we mentioned above, "Ben & Kate" grew more and more promising with every episode, but was cut down in its prime.
Finally, internationally speaking, there were a few strong British imports in "Utopia," "Broadchurch," "The Hour" and "Ripper Street," while French series "The Returned" and Danish shows "Borgen" and "The Bridge" all won new fans. Anything else we've missed that you think deserves mention? Let us know in the comments section.