We’re living in the golden age of television. That’s a fact. Past years have had their bright spots—The Wire, Arrested Development and Seinfeld, for example—but never has television offered so much in the way of quality viewing at one time.
Admittedly, you could make the case that it’s never had so much in the way of miserable dreck either, but you’ve got to take some good with the bad. Gone are the days when television was just a box that rotted your brain. These days, there’s plenty of television that provides thinking viewers with enriching, mentally and emotionally stimulating entertainment, and we’ve gathered our picks for this year’s best. We didn’t include shows with gratuitous sexual content (sorry, Game of Thrones) or violence (you too, American Horror Story) or shows that started promising but then got bewilderingly bad (looking at you, Homeland). But here’s what we did include …
10. New Girl
It was a rocky start, but Her Royal Adorkableness finally achieved lift-off as the anchor of one of television’s best ensembles. While New Girl was advertised as Zooey Deschanel and her madcap roommates’ crazy hijinks in the big city, the show is at its best when it’s showcasing something more humble and normal: Millennials grappling with the realization that they are no longer young.
The troubles NBC’s sitcom faced this year were myriad. Critical praise that never manifested viewership. Highly publicized feuds between Chevy Chase and the show’s creators. The universally condemned firing of creator and showrunner Dan Harmon. The will-it-happen-or-will-it-won’t return date of the next season (which has been confirmed for February 7—for now). And yet, in the midst of all that, Community managed to be one of the year’s sharpest comedies, lobbing barbs at television tropes and pop culture trends at a dizzying pace, with long-running, hyper-meta jokes that had fans combing through episodes in slow-mo, looking for dozens of set-ups and punchlines that were impossible to catch on first viewing.
Louis C.K. likes to pitch himself as an everyman: a divorced father of two who just happens to have an audience to whom he can say whatever’s he thinking—and often does, by way of unsettlingly honest, often profane but undeniably smart comedy routines. But with the third season of Louie, it’s becoming evident that he’s a long way from an everyman. Underneath the crass joshing and bleak plot resolutions lies a gifted writer/director/storyteller whose observations of human nature—in all its kindnesses and cruelties—makes him something of a modern Mark Twain: someone who, in leaving no stone of his own psyche unturned, is actually showing us the best and worst of ourselves.
7. The Walking Dead
The worst thing that ever happened to this series was its getting written off as a “that zombie show.” The Walking Dead is about zombies in much the same way that Friday Night Lights was about football. That is, zombies provide a backdrop for marvelous narratives on the nature of family and community and just how precious humanity becomes when its demise is imminent. If the idea of the undead makes you a little skittish, you might give The Walking Dead a shot anyway. (Hint: The title isn’t referring to the zombies.)
6. The Daily Show With Jon Stewart
The Daily Show has been going since 1996 (Stewart took over hosting duties from Craig Kilborn in 1999), which is a good run for any show. But it’s a spectacular achievement for The Daily Show, whose singular blend of satire, news, politics, comedy and pop culture remains unparalleled and has only gotten better since its conception. This year’s election coverage provided the show with dozens of easy targets, but that’s the thing about Jon Stewart: He never goes for the low-hanging fruit when there are other, higher, more interesting laughs to be mined. This year, Stewart’s target demographic frequently found itself on the receiving end of his skewers, as Stewart continued to show he’s not just one of the funniest people in news reporting; he’s also one of the smartest.
5. Breaking Bad
There was a lot of talk about how this year’s (half) season of Breaking Bad wasn’t as good as past seasons. That’s true, so it’s saying something that this show is still one of television’s surest bets. In turns, the tale of Walt White’s evolution from high school teacher to drug kingpin will have you biting your nails in terror and then, in the next scene, quietly reflecting on morality. While White has become positively devious, Jesse Pinkman, the young meth addict/dealer, has become the show’s moral anchor, turning in one the best performances you’re likely to find anywhere this decade. Add to that what might be television’s strongest cast of supporting characters and you’ll see why we wish the rest of television was half as good as Breaking Bad‘s worst season.
If Kleenex isn’t advertising during Parenthood, it ought to start. There’s no better time to pitch television viewers on a product to dry the tears that are almost sure to flow at some point during Parenthood‘s gentle tale of the Braverman family. In a way, the show is a bit like Seinfeld, but where that show made us laugh ar the meaninglessness of everyday life, Parenthood makes us realize the tender beauty of it. It’ll make you cry. It’ll make you cheer. It’ll make you want to stop strangers in the street to make sure they’re watching it. That’s more than most of us figured television would ever amount to.
3. Parks and Recreation
Parks and Rec spent its lackluster first season as an Office clone, so we’ve got to give credit to the show’s crack writing staff for realizing it had the raw material to make something wholly unique. It’s a realization the writers spent the next few seasons honing, and what they have now is a show that rivals The Office at its peak. But where that show was at its best when lampooning the hopeless plight of Dunder-Mifflin’s employees, the parks and rec department of Pawnee, Ind., has a joyous zest for work. Even avowed grouches like the lovably Libertarian Ron Swanson and sweet-and-sour April Ludgate can be caught enjoying themselves when faced with the prospect of working for the common good of their workplace family. The Office said “no matter how hard you work, your job doesn’t matter.” Parks and Rec says, “Your job matters because you work hard.” Which show would you rather watch?
Three episodes. That’s exactly how long the second series of BBC’s modern-day retelling of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s brilliant detective and his loyal, slack-jawed sidekick lasts. But each episode is so smartly scripted, so expertly shot and so richly engrossing that the show easily warrants this spot on the list of this year’s television achievements. Every single scene is infused with a robust, invigorating energy. You’ll try to keep up with the famed resident of Baker Street, searching every frame of the show for clues amidst the dark and dangerous underbelly of London he finds himself in. But as in the novels, Holmes and his keen mind always prove to be one step ahead. It’s doubtful Doyle ever knew his character could be as smartly realized as Benedict Cumberbatch has made him.
1. Mad Men
Although it is not a matter of common knowledge, Mad Men quietly turned in one of its very best seasons this year. That’s not to say there weren’t some hiccups—the show’s habit of symbolism got a little heavy-handed, and some characters’ arcs played against fan wishes. But where else on television could you see moments of such devastating power? Sally Draper’s dreadful coming of age. Lane Pryce’s bottomless despair. The less said about Joan Holloway’s promotion, the better. Over it all, the series’ true north: its character study of Don Draper. A few people—Emmys voters included—seemed to think Mad Men had a bad season, and they are the same people who think the show is about fancy clothes and whiskey. The people who know the show is actually about something deeper, more human, and more abstract know that Mad Men has never been this good.