The Elmore Leonard-inspired "Justified" graduated from a promising escaped-con-of-the-week show to one of TV's finest dramas in its second season (it placed fourth on this list last year), thanks both to a larger role for Walton Goggins and an unforgettable villain in the Emmy-winning Margo Martindale's chilling criminal matriarch. Indeed, the latter was so extraordinary that the void that she left after being killed off at the end of the season seemed like it could never be filled. But while creator Graham Yost and co. couldn't quite conjure a character to match her turn, the addition of a duo of villains and a fiendishly plotted overall arc found them coming remarkably close. This time around, Marshall Raylan Givens is brought to a new personal low after his pregnant ex-wife leaves him again, and he winds up living above a bar, working as a bouncer on the side, giving Timothy Olyphant some fine new notes to play while remaining as charming as ever. And he and his long-term ally/adversary Boyd Crowder (Goggins), who's trying to consolidate his power in Harlan, had their hands full, thanks both to carpetbagger Robert Quarles (Neal McDonough), a sexually deviant, Taxi-Driver-gun-armed Detroit mobster in exile who's looking to take over the Oxycontin racket in Kentucky. And that's without mentioning Limehouse (Mykelti Williamson), the manipulative, omnipresent slaughterhouse owner who rules over the predominately African-American area of Noble's Holler and acts as something of a banker for the various criminal types at play, all the while pursuing his own agenda. And then there's the various memorable one-off criminals that crop up across the series, from Pruitt Taylor Vince as a pawn shop owner to William Mapother as an unpleasant pimp. Or a returning Jeremy Davies as the son of Martindale's character. Or Stephen Tobolowsky as a slimy FBI guy. Or Carla Gugino, essentially playing Karen Sisco from "Out of Sight" (which she played on a short-lived, but excellent, show a decade or so ago). The micro plots were frequently hugely enjoyable and the macro plot even more so -- complex and surprising in a way that's reminiscent of the best of Leonard's work. And the writers more than have a feel for his snappy dialogue at this point -- it's one of the more quotable shows on the air these days. There are still some issues that could be worked out -- there were a couple of duff episodes, and Yost honestly seems much more interested in the criminals than the lawmen (he's still not worked out to do with Raylan's colleagues). But as far as pulpy, hugely engaging crime tales go, this is a helluva entertaining hour of TV.
Must-See Episode: A few contenders here, but it must go to the fifth episode, "Thick As Mud," a long-awaited showcase for Damon Herriman's dim-witted redneck criminal Dewey Crowe, who's been broken out of prison by a sadistic nurse and told that his kidneys have been removed and that he needs to go out on the rob for money to buy them back. The conflict between Boyd and Quarles brews niely in the background, but this is also proof that the show can still handle strong short solo stories, and it's a good entry point to the series for newcomers.
Prime-time animation hasn't quite delivered a classic series since the long-gone heyday of "The Simpsons" (although if you haven't seen that show in a while, the most recent season was stronger than it's been in a while). It remains hugely popular, thanks to Seth MacFarlane's trio of shows, and programs like "Futurama" and "Bob's Burgers" have fervent fanbases, but nothing's quite hit that sweet spot in the same way. But damned if "Archer" didn't come as close as anything in its third season this year. The FX show follows the titular secret agent (H. Jon Benjamin), his hard-drinking, sexed-up mother/boss (Jessica Walter), and their co-workers of varying degree of competence and sanity (including Aisha Tyler, Judy Greer and Chris Parnell), as they fight for ISIS against a wide range of foes. Spy spoofs are just about as old as the spy genre, but "Archer" works by getting the genre down (the show often includes terrific action sequences), and then by pretty much shunting it to the side in favor of workplace bickering and absurdist comedy. It's not just the presence of Greer and Bluth family matriarch Walter (as well as guest spots from the likes of David Cross and Jeffrey Tambor) that make the show feel like a successor to "Arrested Development" -- it's the tight-as-a-drum plotting, the obscure references and callbacks, and sheer density of comedy on the series. And creator Adam Reed (who has sole writing credit on almost every episode) hit new heights with the third season. It was partly familiarity with the characters, both from the writing room and for the audience. It was partly a move into longer-form plotting: a three-part blockbuster prologue to the season where Archer becomes a south sea Pirate King, a two-part season finale featuring a superb Bryan Cranston as the voice of an astronaut. It was partly that the new, more serialized approach meant the show moved beyond being a simple gag machine and became involving, and even a little moving in places. But mainly it was the sheer consistency -- only a single episode, "Drift Problem," where Archer is given a high-tech spy car by his mother, fell a little flat. Otherwise, a relentless kind of brilliance was kept across the series, and we can only hope there's much more to come. We'd be remiss without mentioning the look of the show -- a gorgeous, semi-retro world that feels significantly more impressive than some of its Adult Swim progenitors, it's a genuine pleasure to watch every week.
Must-See Episode: "The Limited," episode six, in which ISIS are charged with escorting a Nova Scotian seperatist terrorist back to Canada on a train, eventually letting Archer fulfil his long-time ambition to have a fist-fight on top of a speeding train. It's stuffed full of highlights, but Archer's excitable reaction to Cheryl's pet ocelot Babou will never, ever stop being funny.
Louis C.K. has an unusual and much-envied arrangement with his network FX: he brings in his series "Louie" for significantly less than the usual budget for a half-hour comedy, and in exchange, gets complete creative freedom, writing, directing and even editing (on his laptop) the show himself. And as a result, despite at a distance resembling the old "stand-up plays thinly-veiled version of themself" trope, "Louie" isn't quite like anything else on TV; a freewheeling collection of short stories (drawn together with thematically relevant stand-up footage) about some of the big questions in life including family, sex, sexuality, death and loneliness. The major thing to note about "Louie" is that it's not really gut-bustingly funny. It has its moments, for sure, and it's wryly, quietly humorous throughout, but C.K. has no interest in hitting some kind of sitcom laugh-meter, simply setting out to tell the stories he wants to tell, and more often than not he knocks it out of the park. The show's major advantage is its truthfulness: from the opening scene of the second season premiere when Louie's young daughter tells him that she loves her mom more than him, to the desperately awkward and heartbreaking closer when he waves off unrequited love Pamela Adlon to a plane, it's marked by the same beautifully observed relatibility that's made C.K. one of the most acclaimed stand-ups working. And he took the show to new places this time around, making astonishing use of guest stars: Joan Rivers as a reflective, yet typically acerbic version of herself; an astonishing scene between C.K. and Dane Cook, who have a famous feud (and kudos to Cook for stepping up, and for doing a damn good job in the episode); and most memorably of all, Doug Stanhope as a suicidal stand-up not a million miles away from his real-life persona. It somestimes feels that C.K. needs to focus on telling single stories in each episode -- most of the stronger episodes of the season were the ones that focused on a single strand, and sometimes the shorter scenes feel a little filler-y, or could use more space to develop properly. But few shows on the air would dare to have moments of quiet profundity, and a moment when a homeless man gets decapitated by a garbage truck within the same breath. And its playfulness and formal excellence (C.K's become a very strong director since "Pootie Tang") means that you never quite know what you're getting week-to-week, and little is as thrilling as that. When Woody Allen dies, can we make sure that his regular financing shifts over to Mr. C.K.?
Must-See Episode: The double-length "Duckling," which lets C.K. share his own experiences on the U.S.O. tour, heading out to Afghanistan, only to discover that his daughter has packed a live duckling in his suitcase to keep him company, with an almost movie-like scope to it.