As a matter of note, know that beyond my top 3 shows in that order everything else is grouped together with the idea of a thematic flow. If there was one theme for this list, it would be how the TV I like is based around the exploration of a place and the effects it has on the inhabitants. With another connecting threading being really good acting from the series leads and ensembles. Excellent acting can make up for good writing but can turn great writing into something sublime.
Breaking Bad - AMC
First, this show was phenomenally executed. No show had its hooks in me more this year. That alone would warrant the top spot, butBreaking Bad became this cultural phenomenon, putting it in a league of its own. “Ozymandias” stacks amongst the best episodes of television. Many has and will be said about this show, so let’s not belabor it here.
Orange is the New Black - Netflix
House of Cards showed that Netflix could do prestige television like any other cable network. Orange Is the New Black proves that Netflix could be home to something totally unique. Orange is the New Black is an economically, racially, and sexually diverse bit of television that would not fly on other networks. A show that is simultaneously about Piper Chapman and the inmates and the institution hey find themselves in.
The Americans - FX
No new show this year was so deftly executed and assured of itself as The Americans. Those first 5-6 episodes just nailed it all, not that the second half of the season was bad. Kerri Russel and Matthew Rhys have excellent chemistry and really make you believe in the realness of the fakery that is the Jennings Marriage. Which is to say nothing of Noah Emmerich and All American Stan Beeman, in one of the best supporting roles of the year and this shows use of period music in ways that make you wonder how other shows don’t do it half as well. The Americans could really become something special.
The Bridge - FX
As imports go, The Bridge took a cold and ridged serial killer plot and used it as a framework to compare and contrast the socio-economic of El Paso and Juarez. As weird as The Bridge got, it still had to deal with that framework which was some of the more boring moments of the season. When, The Bridge turned into “the Weird Bridge” (hat tip Andy Greenwald), however you could tell there was something there that should be explored and that you wanted to see. Leads Diane Kruger and Damien Bichir also give great performances
Justified - FX
This show comes on at the start of the year so it is easy to forget when its come time to make these silly things. The mystery of Drew “God Damn” Thompson may not have been the most compelling plot but as an engine to go deeper into the socio-economic stratification and history of Harlan County, it was great. Walton Goggins continually gives one of the best performances on TV as the unrepentant criminal Boyd Crowder. RIP Jere Burns sweet sweet mustache.
The Sundance Channel (Rectify, Top of the Lake, The Returned)
Yes, this is a cheat but it’s my list. Sundance had a phenomenal year in terms of original and licensed programming (Top of the Lake international co-production,The Returned straight license). Original series Rectify is warm and dreary eyed mystery but is more concerned with those affected by the mystery than the mystery itself. Top of the Lake was a beautifully shot female driven series about a place and her people. The Returned gives me hope for the zombie genre while The Walking Dead continues to draw eyeballs but says nothing.
Hannibal - NBC
BrBa might have had its hooks in me, but Hannibal was by far the most affecting shows of the year. Bryan Fuller’s dark, twisted, fairy tale of psychologically damaged serial killers is remarkable. Pushing the boundaries of gore on television network or cable. Gore Porn is hollow and meaningless; Hannibal gives this eccentricity real weight with the “friendship” between Dr. Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham. In a continuing theme of this list it turns out actors Madds Mikkelsen and Hugh Dancy have great chemistry. I couldn’t watch this show when it aired at night; I had to wait till morning. And it didn’t get hard to watch because of the gore it was because Lecter was lying to Will.
Game of Thrones - HBO
Season 3 largely corrected the problems I had with season 2, mainly the fact that there seemed to be some kind of narrative propulsion throughout. Season 3 provided one of the most shocking and brutal (if you hadn’t read the books) moments in television, becoming a moment in culture second only to Breaking Bad. But really it is the excellent scenes between Tyrion Lannister and his Father, Tywin. Put Peter Dinklage and Charles Dance in a room together and you are sucked into a tractor beam like the Millennium Falcon to the Death Star. Or at the front of the season the great relationship between Jamie “One Hand” Lannister and Brienne of Tarth, as the later rediscovers what it means to be honorable and the other FIGHTS A BEAR. Season 3 also features Daenerys making good on her threats to take what is hers with FIRE and BLOOD, even if it does end on some uncomfortable imagery.
Legend of Korra: Spirits - Nickelodeon
Book 2 had some great highs (“Beginnings”, the final four episodes) and some middling lows (everything before “Beginnings”. The sheer scale Korras second season was going for made it feel more like a miniseries, with many 2 episode, 1 hour, airings. The season just doesn’t really function that well as single episodes you really needed 2 episodes to feel like anything happened. As a whole howeverKorra added up to a good second season overall. The state of American animation such as it is, Korra has become the beacon of what is possible for the medium in America.
Arrow - CW
Somewhere around the halfway point of season 1, Arrow found its footing and became something more than just a guilty pulp pleasure; it began to look like a real show. Now halfway through season 2, Arrow is effortlessly expanding its universe in way that if you’d told me at the start I’d laughed in your face. The novelty of a DC show would be just that if it weren’t for the show putting a much needed emphasis on the characters and solid actors portraying them.
Honorable Mentions: Orphan Black and Spartacus: War of the Damned