So this is now a thing I do around Emmy nomination announcement time. As usual, plenty of caveats apply, mostly around the acclaimed television series that I don’t happen to follow or haven’t yet caught up on. Still, I’m a fairly well-viewed fellow. I know the Emmys will do what they must, including continue to lavish praise on the increasingly intolerable Modern Family, but I have my own views on what constitutes the top achievements in television.
Roughly using the same span of eligibility that the Emmys adopts, here are my picks for the ten best shows of the past season:
#1 — The Americans, season 2 (FX). After a very fine but slightly uneven debut season, the series about Russian spies living in the United States circa the early nineteen-eighties stepped forward majorly in its sophomore campaign. Series creator (and former CIA officer) Joe Weisberg and his collaborators delivered the sort of thoughtful, intricate season-length spy novel that’s worthy of champions of the form like John le Carré. Where other programs could sometimes get numbing in the need to deliver big shocks at every turn, The Americans settled for sharp storytelling. And was all the better for it.
#2 — Breaking Bad, season 5 (second half) (AMC). If Breaking Bad sometimes felt a little much like the grimmest carnival ride ever, it’s hard to deny the addictive showmanship of Vince Gilligan’s victory lap, topped by the Rian Johnson-directed “Oxymandias,” as compelling an hour of television as anyone is likely to find. Adding to the accomplishment was the inkling that Gilligan and company were taking advantage of the escalating ratings to push back against viewers who were championing the anti-hero a bit too much, or, to borrow from an inspired response by Emily Nussbaum, to directly counter the fact that “some fans are watching wrong.”
#3 — Louie, season 4 (FX). Remember when there was grumbling that Louie didn’t inspire the same hand-wringing think pieces as the similarly challenging and auteur-driven Girls? Guess we don’t need to worry about that perceived double standard any more. After an extended hiatus, Louis C.K.’s television masterpiece returned with the same vintage indie flick emotional experimentalism and structural tomfoolery that characterized the first three seasons. For some reason, the same brand of confrontational, self-lacerating material caught some observers off guard this time. He’s working out his voice and his ideas more transparently than before, and it still makes for great, wildly unique television.
#4 — Rick and Morty, season 1 (Cartoon Network/Adult Swim). Dan Harmon brought Community back from the brink of disaster in his unlikely return to the series he birthed. Despite the occasional episode that ranked with the very best of a series that has amassed a lot of staggeringly good half-hours, it was a noble but only fitfully satisfying effort. His energies were far better used in his animated co-creation with Justin Roiland, a gleeful deconstruction of science fiction and horror tropes that manages, like the best of Community, to overtly comment on the genre narrative structure while simultaneously mastering it.
#5 — True Detective, season 1 (HBO). For most of its run, the collaboration between writer Nic Pizzolatto and director Cary Joji Fukunaga was a brilliantly sick game of existential three-card monte, defined by the bitterly amusing, nihilistic worldview of Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle (good as McConaughey is, Woody Harrelson gives an even better performance as his exasperated, morally floundering partner). The final episode is conventional in a dispiriting way, but the rest of the season is stellar.
#6 — Veep, season 3 (HBO). The laughs-per-episode ratio dropped a bit in the third season (series creator Armando Iannucci had the typical bounty of story credits, but no teleplay credits this year, which may be a pertinent detail). The sharpness of the satire remained in place, complete with a willingness to take the larger arc in unexpected yet totally logical directions. And Julia Louis-Dreyfus continues to give a acidic comic performance for the ages.
#7 — Orphan Black, season 2 (BBC America). Probably the most compromised series on my list, but arguably the one that I love best. A lot of that is attributable to the ongoing tour de force performance of Tatiana Maslany as, well, approximately half the series regular characters and a few more stray roles for added spice. The show balances shifting tones (it can go from black screwball comedy to harrowing drama in the space of a single edit) with remarkable aplomb. And moments like the season-ending loft dance party show that fan service can actually be artistically rewarding.
#8 — Game of Thrones, season 4 (HBO). Prior seasons may have occasionally dawdled between big moments, but season four of the fantasy saga was a deluge of shocks. The sprawling storyline, perhaps inevitably, is beginning to show some wear, particularly anytime more magical elements invade Westeros. Still, it’s grand and striking, and this year the dialogue evolved to a wickedly clever beast.
#9 — Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, season 1 (so far) (HBO). It’s still so clearly a work in progress, with John Oliver and his cohorts tweaking the format ever so slightly from episode to episode (and they still haven’t quite figured out how to make field pieces work). But at its core, Last Week Tonight takes the Daily Show format and becomes The New Yorker to Jon Stewart’s necessarily more hit-and-run nightly effort. The longform comedy pieces have been astoundingly strong, filled with actual hard evidence and diligent research. And it’s damn funny.
#10 — Parks and Recreation, season 6 (NBC). I very nearly gave this spot to producer Michael Schur’s other series, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which is moving from uneven promise to near-greatness at roughly the same speed that Parks and Recreation once did. But only Parks had The Cones of Dunshire. Much as I truly hope for the best from the unexpected seventh season, “Moving Up” would have been a wonderful series finale.