What makes for a great TV show? For me, it’s a combination of smarts, standout characters, heart and the entertainment factor. Here are 10 TV shows that managed to excel in all those categories this year.
1. “Breaking Bad” (AMC) — Creator Vince Gilligan said his plan for “Breaking Bad” all along was to show Mr. Chips turning into Scarface. And while the show’s timeline might defy believability, it was an incredible five seasons of semi-cowed, pitiable, though not entirely sympathetic, chemistry teacher Walter White (incomparably played by Bryan Cranston) becoming his meth-making alter ego Heisenberg. And yet, the finale also restored some of Walt’s decency, making the ending a little pat, but also necessary — would any of us have survived the truth depths of despair that could have resulted? Overall, “Breaking Bad” was a incredible mix of black comedy, nail-biting tight jams and family dynamics. And in addition to Walt, the show served up so many brilliant characters — Walt’s sidekick, the heart-breaking and hilarious Jesse Pinkman (brilliantly played by Aaron Paul); sleazy, but rational lawyer Saul, who provided much needed comic relief; scowl-faced professional Mike; and smart, gentlemanly but deadly drug kingpin, Gus Fring.
2. “Orange is the New Black” (Netflix) — “Orange,” the most addictive new series of 2013,” follows Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), a white collar, Ivy League-educated woman who is sentenced to prison almost 10 years after she helped an old girlfriend smuggle drugs. The show is a funny, unexpected and meaningful look at the intricate politics of a woman’s prison. The biggest surprise is how small a role violence plays in the prison’s day-to-day. Yes, there is violence, but “Oz” this isn’t. You’re more likely to starve by insulting the head cook than get shanked in the hall. The show’s ensemble cast is genius and each episode gives insights into how the women got there, what they were like on the outisde and how some of them might actually be better off on the inside.
3. “Boardwalk Empire” (HBO) — Some shows start off with a bang and then fizzle after a season or two. “Boardwalk Empire,” meanwhile, has gotten better with age. The “Boardwalk” world keeps expanding, showing the domino effect of Prohibition-era bootlegging ebbing out from Nucky Thompson’s Atlantic City empire to touch Chicago, New York and Florida. Most importantly, the show has found the right balance between its storylines, giving longtime characters their day in the sun — in particular Gillian, Chalky White and Eli this season — and knowing when it’s time to say goodbye to a character, no matter how loved.
4. “Orphan Black” (BBC America) — Now this is how action sci-fi should be done. Canadian show “Orphan Black” is made on a small budget, and could easily have ended up like the uber-entertaining but really cheapo-feeling syndicated shows like “BeastMaster” or “Relic Hunter,” but “Black” is something special. A big part of that is the performance by Tatiana Maslany who plays multiple characters (the plot follows a series of identical-looking women who discover they are clones of one another) all with distinct looks, accents and personalities. You can watch a scene of her playing against herself and actually forget it’s the same actress. “Orphan Black” also knows what to do with its format — it’s not stingy or coy with answers about the sci-fi elements and recognizes that its biggest strength lies in its “Alias”-like action sequences and the human-level consequences.
5. “Justified” (FX) — While this season’s seasons-long mystery wasn’t really all that mysterious, “Justified” continued its streak of terrific characters, especially its criminals, its amazing sense of place (and not just any place, but the hills of Harlan County, Kentucky) and its witty dialogue. Two especially great things that happened? Guest star Patton Oswalt’s bumbling Constable Bob got to be the hero for a day and stand up to a brutal beatdown and Deputy Marshall Tim finally got something interesting to do as he went toe-to-toe with fellow Iraq War vet, Colt (Ron Eldard). And then of course there’s the star of the show, Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant), the coolest thing in a cowboy hat.
6. “Game of Thrones” (HBO) — Ah, the red wedding. “The Rains of Castamere” might have been the most shocking episode of TV to air this year for anyone who hadn’t read George R.R. Martin’s books. But the best part of this season’s “Game of Thrones” was spending more time with special characters — Daenerys Targaryen sacking cities and torching people with her dragons and even better, the development of a grudging respect between Brienne of Tarth (who went hand-to-paw with a bear!) and Jaime Lannister. The brilliance of this medieval pot-boiler lies in its twisty political maneuvers and changing alliances and this season brought them all out with a vengeance.
7. “American Horror Story” (FX) — It’s impressive to see just how much insanity the creators of “American Horror Story” are willing to throw at the wall. Not everything sticks and it wouldn’t be a Ryan Murphy show if weren’t kind of preachy, but it’s admirable the lengths they’ll go to horrify, entertain and gross-out. (I’ve long since learned not to eat while watching the show.) This season’s chapter, titled “Coven,” — about witches in present-day New Orleans — isn’t the scariest of the three (that was Season 1) or the most character-driven (the second, “Asylum”) but it’s cohesive, darkly funny and as usual for “AHS,” captivating. “AHS” glue Jessica Lange is joined by two other veteran powerhouses this season — Kathy Bates as a blast-from-the-past racist who once inflicted horrors (and I do mean, horrors) on her house staff and Angela Bassett as a voodoo queen with a taste for vengeance. Mix in young witches exploring their powers (Emma Roberts is especially good as snotty Madison Montgomery) and you have a recipe for fun. Even when “American Horror Story” stumbles, it out-entertains almost anything going on TV today.
8. “Scandal” (ABC) — “Scandal” easily could have stayed with its more procedural elements and left it at that, but instead the Shonda Rhimes show has evolved into a fantastic combination of political backstabbing and soapy goodness. All elevated by Kerry Washington as fast-talking D.C. fixer, Olivia Pope. Now in its third season, “Scandal” has found the right balance between the client-of-the-week, the complicated web surrounding President Fitzgerald Grant’s position in office and Fitz and Olivia’s star-crossed love affair. And it’s kind of a miracle that the preposterous monologues the characters spout each week come out sounding so slick and commanding.
9. “The Walking Dead” (AMC) — It still irritates me that the first real zombie TV show isn’t as good as it could be, especially in the character department. But the first half of Season 4 corrected a huge number of wrongs — in particular the problem known as the Governor. The season also introduced a new twist on a threat for the survivors — not the walking dead, and not the living, but the flu. This included a fantastic episode surrounding Hershel as he bravely battled his own illness to help the others in the prison and then had to battle the once-living when they became the newly undead. The season so far also returned Rick to some normalcy, made Carl less annoying, gave Michonne some personality besides a scowl, let Daryl continue to be awesome, and upped the gore and run-in-with-zombies-in-tight-spaces factor. Things happened, they mattered, and they were gloriously tense.
10. “The Fall” (BBC2) — The biggest compliment to “The Fall” is that Gillian Anderson’s character is not even close to being the best thing about it. Anderson (Scully on the “The X-Files”) plays cool and collected detective Stella Gibson brought in to lead an over-its-head Belfast police department with a potential serial killer/rapist on its hands. What follows is the best episode of “Law & Order” ever made. The real hook of the show is the killer as played by Jamie Dornan (cast as the lead in the “Fifty Shades of Grey” movie). A killer with a day job, a wife and two kids. A killer whose life seems fairly normal, but who oddly, finds nothing abnormal about combining fatherhood by day with stalking strangulation at night. Dornan’s quietly disturbing performance and the way the investigatory noose slowly tightens around him, is why to watch “The Fall.”