5. "Game of Thrones"
The youngest show on this list, only six episodes into a ten-episode first season (a second was commissioned almost immediately), we weren't initially sure about placing the show on this list -- it's not always fair to judge a show, particularly one as plot-driven as "Game of Thrones," until it's finished with its run. But HBO's latest epic, an adaptation of a mammoth series of fantasy novels by George R.R. Martin, has overcome a slightly slow start to become one of the most compelling dramas on television. Set in the semi-medieval kingdom of Westeros, where the appointment of the honorable Ned Stark (Sean Bean) as the right hand man of the king sets into motion a terrible series of events, there's nothing with the scope or ambition of this show on television now, or possibly ever. Fantasy-phobics should rest assured that there's little in the way of goblins and trolls -- the back-stabbing and political machinations have more in common with "The Wire," "The Sopranos" or "Deadwood" than with "Lord of the Rings." Considering the sheer number of characters involved (there's at least 20 major characters involved), the storytelling, courtesy of showrunners David Benioff (Spike Lee's "25th Hour") and D.B. Weiss, has been clear and well-executed. And the cast, including veterans like Bean, Mark Addy ("Red Riding"), Peter Dinklage ("The Station Agent"), Lena Headey ("300") and Aidan Gillen ("The Wire"), and newcomers like Emilia Clarke, Isaac Hempstead-Wright, Maisie Wililams, Kit Harington and Gethin Anthony, have been exemplary so far. The plotting is terrific and genuinely unpredictable, and, it being on HBO, there's the usual lashings of swearing, nudity and extreme violence (last week's episode featured an unexpected and horrific death for a character who looked to be in it for the long-haul). Whether it can sustain the quality is another question, but we're dying to see where it goes from here, and we suspect the ever-growing audience is with us.
Must-See Episode: A tie between the last two to air -- "The Wolf and the Lion," which features horse decapitation and the introduction of the barking mad Lisa Arryn (played by Kate Dickie, the star of Andrea Arnold's "Red Road") and her even crazier son, and "The Golden Crown," one of the most thunderingly-paced episodes of television we've seen, topped off by the aforementioned gruesome death.
While “Justified” doesn’t really need your help with numbers -- it’s one of the most-viewed shows on FX -- you should be watching simply because it’s a great show, not quite like anything else on air. Based on an Elmore Leonard short story “Fire in the Hole” and lining up with “Out of Sight” and “Jackie Brown” as the best adaptations of the crime great’s work, the show focuses on Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant). He’s returned to his hometown of Harlan, Kentucky, where old blood ties and family feuds await...not to mention a ton of trouble involving women, including his ex-wife, drugs, murder and a couple of well-placed explosions. Olyphant does terrific work (truly his best) with an amazing supporting cast, especially the work done by Walton Goggins as Boyd Crowder, the eternally ambiguous ally/antagonist to Raylan’s lawman ways. While “Justified” really gears itself towards male adult viewers, there’s plenty for anyone who enjoys a bit of intrigue and action -- it’s one of the most consistently entertaining shows around. Most importantly though, the show combines Leonard’s heightened, character-ful prose with an honest, truthful portrayal of life in Appalachia. For example, when Boyd gets shot in the chest early in the first season and survives, we’re appalled that these things happen; but, as the show continues, we begin to see that this “shoot first, ask later” philosophy is just the way things are done (especially for the trigger-happy Raylan). The show just wrapped its second season, which was more than reminiscent of Oscar-nominee “Winter’s Bone,” featuring an astonishing performance by veteran actress Margo Martindale, with a quick renewal for a third, and has really hit its stride in terms of character development and high-octane action without missing a beat the entire time.
Must-See Episode: While we have a soft spot for the season one episode featuring Alan Ruck as a violent dentist, this season’s “Brother’s Keeper” is the apex of the show so far: Martindale’s character Mags Bennett’s cunning scheme is finally unveiled, just as her son Coover (a tremendous Brad William Henke) heads towards tragedy.