EW’s 25 Best TV Shows in 25 Years

‘ThirtySomething’ (1990)

‘ThirtySomething’ (1990)

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“This show has outlasted its detractors, outlasted the word “yuppie,” even outlasted the annoying media fad of attaching “-something” to every other number and adjective in the English language. Thirtysomething remains the best-written, best acted series on television. Twin Peaks takes big, mind-blowing chances (nothing wrong with that), but thirtysomething takes small, discreet ones that are just as fascinating to behold: Sex is a regular topic of conversation, not of sniggering jokes; marriages bend, twist, and snap before your eyes; literary references range from Elmore Leonard to Gerard Manley Hopkins. All the stars have one season left on their contracts, and all have made noises that they don’t want to renew; this means that, as the season proceeds, creators Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick will feel even more freedom to mess with lives in ways that lives just don’t get messed with in prime-time.” – Ken Tucker

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Roseanne (1991)

Roseanne (1991)

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” “It’s been a real sucky year,” said Roseanne Conner (Roseanne Arnold) in a recent episode. She was referring to the fact that the motorcycle shop that husband Dan (John Goodman) had bought was a no-customers victim of the recession, that her own job as a coffee-shop waitress was an exhausting drag, and that her previously chipper middle daughter, Darlene (Sara Gilbert), had turned into a depressed beatnik. But one person’s suckiness means pleasure for millions: In an increasingly rare validation of mass taste, Roseanne, the most popular show on television, is also the best. Tough-minded and devil-may- care risky, Roseanne hasn’t lost its sarcastic funniness (Laurie Metcalf’s Jackie: “How would you feel if one of your kids was gay?” Roseanne: “The only thing I want for my kids is that they’re happy and outta the house”). Write to the President and tell him that even though he didn’t like the way she sang the national anthem, he really ought to be watching Roseanne Arnold’s show to see how a great many Americans are living these days.” – Ken Tucker

Roseanne (1992)

Roseanne (1992)

“Roseanne Arnold’s ongoing mission to redefine America’s lower middle class through situation comedy made Roseanne a no-contest No. 1 choice last year; this year, the honor could also have gone to Larry Sanders or Seinfeld. But Roseanne has a slight edge: It has been more than extremely funny-it has been wise and moving, knowingly mean to the right targets, exceptionally kind and generous to others. Among the season’s highlights: the wounded pride of John Goodman’s Dan Conner when his motorcycle shop succumbed to the recession; the hilarious, desperate, and touching elopement of oldest daughter Becky (Lecy Goranson); and virtually any scene that included the other Conner daughter, the profoundly moody Darlene (Sara Gilbert)-Sara, please rethink that college education you’re planning; your fans need you! Roseanne is also something increasingly rare in pop culture: a No. 1-rated show that takes its massive outreach seriously. Say what you want about how “wild” and “unpredictable” Arnold can be, she’s a shrewd artist whose show never settles for the easy, comforting answers that television usually requires. Or, as Roseanne remarked in a recent episode, “We make fun of ya till it gets old and then we move on.” ” – Ken Tucker

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The Larry Sanders Show (1993)

The Larry Sanders Show (1993)

Credit: HBO/Courtesy Everett Collection

“The secret of every Larry Sanders episode is that Larry is a very unhappy guy. After working all his stand-up life to get his own talk show, Larry has come to realize – more so than ever this past year – what a hollow goal it was; that, showbiz power player or not, he’s still required to be polite to the likes of Howard Stern and deferential to David Letterman. Garry Shandling makes Larry’s sad-eyed smirk a mask of panic. Pacing backstage, scratching his chest in a tic of anxiety, Sanders is crying on the inside, even as he fires off better ad-libs than the gags his writers are slaving over. If Jeffrey Tambor’s Hank Kingsley slipped a bit too far into sidekick silliness this season, Rip Torn’s producer, Artie, remains the Jerry Lee Lewis of sitcoms, a brilliantly crude reprobate. All this, and Larry barely appeared in my favorite episode – the one where Artie gets sick and booker Paula (Janeane Garafalo) takes his place, only to realize that the only way she’ll get through the taping is to get stinking drunk. Here’s to you, kids.” – Ken Tucker

The X-Files (1994)

The X-Files (1994)

Credit: 20th Century Fox/Courtesy Everett Collection

“No other show on television gives off the vibe that The X-Files does. Its tone is flat and even, as David Duchovny’s Fox Mulder and Gillian Anderson’s Dana Scully recite dialogue with a lack of emotion worthy of Dragnet’s Jack Webb. At the same time, the show is always threatening to explode with suspense, as the unorthodox FBI team ponders supernatural imponderables. In any other medium, Duchovny and Anderson would come off as stylized and stiff. In the shadowy precincts of The X-Files, however, they are our anchors to reality; every eyebrow raised, every quaver of their voices, registers tremendous emotions. This season, the show managed to work around Anderson’s real-life pregnancy with witty adroitness, without losing the momentum it had during its debut year. The highest compliment I can pay The X- Files is that it gives you the feeling that, at any given moment, anything can happen-that there’s no subject that cannot be raised (the show has done a couple of remarkably frightening, non-exploitive episodes in which AIDS-like viruses invade healthy bodies), no spectre of dread that cannot be visualized (ooh, remember that really ooky slime-covered slug-man?).”  – Ken Tucker

Friends (1995)

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“So popular, so unceasingly amusing, NBC’s Friends is a little miracle: a show that’s already survived its hype, its imitators, and its hit-single theme song. That TV’s most appealing cast turns out also to be the funniest is one of those coincidences that makes television our most surprising friend. Whether the subject is an unarticulated crush, parenthood, lesbianism, the parameters of good-neighborism, or how Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow) can turn absolutely anything into a Dylanesque folk song, Friends is always supremely assured, clever, and often startlingly touching. It’s the only sitcom I watch in reruns and laugh at just as hard the second time around.” – Ken Tucker

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NYPD Blue (1996)

NYPD Blue (1996)

Credit: ABC

“TV’s most varied, humane, and exciting drama took more chances this year than a hit show needs to, and became a deeper, richer series for the effort. Earlier this year, cocreator Steven Bochco told EW: “This is now [cocreator-producer] David Milch’s show; if I disappeared tomorrow, the quality of that show would not suffer for a second.” And a key to Milch’s production work this season is his knowledge that once you’ve set up a character people care about, that creation can do questionable, even bad things, and the viewers won’t merely accept the behavior but feel that badness in their bones. I’m thinking not only of the racism embedded in the soul of Andy Sipowicz (the earthshakingly good Dennis Franz) but of the increasing complexity of Bobby Simone (Jimmy Smits). Whether Bobby was cruelly slapping around that squirrelly little creep Henry (Willie Garson), or finding himself unable to resist the little-boy selfishness that’s been mucking up his relationship with Diane (Kim Delaney), Smits somehow managed to make every flicker in Bobby’s mind register on his stoic face. And, as if in response to the criticism that NYPD seems unable to create a female character who’s not primarily a foil for the men, there seems to be a breakthrough: new addition Jill Kirkendall (Andrea Thompson), a cop who is already looking like the most resonant crime-solving woman since Helen Mirren’s Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect.” – Ken Tucker

King of the Hill (1997)

King of the Hill (1997)

Credit: 20th Century Fox Licensing/Everett Collection

“It was a good year for new cartoons, but I’ll take King of the Hill‘s bracing openheartedness over South Park‘s clever but monotonous heartlessness any time. TV’s most original, complicated new character was Hank Hill – middle-class Texan, political conservative, social libertarian, Willie Nelson fan – who exploded every white-guy small-screen stereotype in place since Archie Bunker. Best supporting players: son Bobby, TV’s most lovable new child star, and Hank’s sweetly shrewd wife, Peggy (voiced by Kathy Najimy, doing a great job with better lines than she gets on Veronica’s Closet). Series creators Mike Judge and Greg Daniels use the cartoon format to commit creative murder: No live-action show would have gotten away with the constipation episode (in which Hank’s colon serves as a window to his soul) or a plot about the use of crack as fish bait. Well, ER might have tried the colon-soul one, but it would have been really grrr-ooosss.” – Ken Tucker

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1998)

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1998)

Credit: Courtesy Everett Collection

“Like people who say they hate hip-hop without listening to it, those who disdain Buffy without watching it are to be pitied for their lack of open-mindedness. What fun they’re missing with the only teen show that manages to work on multilevels, nourishing adult viewers as well. Most episodes this year seized on a typical adolescent crisis – learning to drive, cramming for the SATs, having such an awful fight with your mom that you run away from home – and turned it with artful ease into the premise for supernatural deviousness and martial-arts horror splatterings. For me, the season was all the better for the low profile kept by the series’ most humorless character, Angel (David Boreanaz), during his near-death (near-life?) experience. The dizzying romantic quadrangle involving Xander (Nicholas Brendon), Willow (Alyson Hannigan), Oz (Seth Green), and Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter) is intricate and witty to the point of Shakespearean comedy. Indeed the show has proved remarkably deft at deepening nearly every character’s personality, while maintaining a slapsticky, cartoonish exaggeration that yields much bloody laughter. Not only the year’s best, but the most underrated.” – Ken Tucker

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The Sopranos (1999)

The Sopranos (1999)

Credit: HBO/Courtesy Everett Collection

“It’s all but certain that no other show in the history of TV critics’ 10-best lists will appear at the top of more of ’em than this one. The Sopranos is the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band of television, the first epic-scale work in the television medium about whose impact and originality everyone can agree. Ignoring notions of conventional TV heroes, and yoking together two of the late 20th century’s most influential phenomena–psychiatric therapy and The Godfather (Puzo sourcebook and Coppola movies)  – creator David Chase not only pulled off the year’s most emotionally complex and gut-level-entertaining series but brought forth a drama that provoked fervent discussion among a wide, avid audience. No matter what the quality of the next batch of episodes premiering in January, the richness of these first 13 will endure in a way most programming never even attempts.” – Ken Tucker

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The West Wing (2000)

The West Wing (2000)

“Although the new season suggests that creator Aaron Sorkin has grown too fond of his own “voice” (the staccato repetitions; the clever office chatter that reveals itself as emotional context), there is no denying that this is prime time’s snuggliest blanket in which to curl up. Sorkin seems, perversely, to be pushing his most charming character, Bradley Whitford’s swaggering rogue Josh, into the background, but he’s also yanked to the forefront Richard Schiff’s Toby and Allison Janney’s C.J. (the latter, by uncontested vote, the year’s new sex symbol among TV critics so pleased with themselves that for once they aren’t drooling over a conventional “babe”). I also love the way it’s impossible to get a fix on the state of the presidential marriage (Stockard Channing, like Hillary Rodham Clinton, seems to have made some agreement that she be allowed to pursue her own interests while retaining the First Lady title), but The West Wing is not, as so many of my colleagues insist, the White House we wish we had: Martin Sheen’s President Bartlet, with his autodidact’s whims and temper, is actually a genial fascist with a liberal’s vocabulary. What this show really is is the White House as a screwball comedy, filled with energetic, collegial competitors saying clever things that make us feel clever, too.” – Ken Tucker

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The Sopranos (2001)

The Sopranos (2001)

Credit: HBO

Sopranos creator David Chase spent the first season of his dysfunctional Mob-family series designing a finely detailed world; he spent the second season raising it to operatic grandness and exaggeration (remember the talking-fish season ender?); and he spent the past season bringing it back down to earth. The first two seasons brought him raves and TV-industry power; in the third he used those rewards to do his best to subvert what he had created. Chase knew that James Gandolfini’s Jersey crime boss Tony Soprano had become, to too many viewers, a huggy bear. (How cute – he’s henpecked! How conflicted – he kills people, but he so loves his wife and kids!)

And this year, Chase exploded The Sopranos. He allowed the therapist, Lorraine Bracco’s Dr. Melfi, to be raped, and then defied our TV-ingrained expectation that she would be revenged. And he had the faithless Tony finally snag a girlfriend (Annabella Sciorra) who was even more neurotic and tortured than he is. Chase, who knows commercial TV from years on The Rockford Files and Northern Exposure, denied us the comforts of television’s conventions. In doing so, he advanced his medium’s art once again.” – Ken Tucker

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The Sopranos (2002)

The Sopranos (2002)

Credit: HBO/Courtesy Everett Collection

“I’ve gotta disagree with the complaint that the long-awaited return of The Sopranos resulted in a scattered, frustrating season 4: Creator David Chase used the series’ lengthy hiatus to rearrange priorities both artistic and practical. It makes sense that after all this time, Carmela (Edie Falco) would be fed up with Tony’s sexual and financial deviousness and be open to new ventures in both areas–and while I had no trouble accepting her worries about hidden Mob money during an economic downturn, I did have to consult a few women to fathom her attraction to ponytailed gunsel Furio. (Something to do with a primal soulfulness her husband lacks; that, and apparently actor Federico Castelluccio has a hot bod. But pining for a date at a Color Tile store?) Tony’s obsessions – the racehorse Pie-O-My (whose killing prompted the shocking new location of Joe Pantoliano’s bald skull: a bowling bag); talon-fingernailed new psycho-mistress Valentina La Paz (Leslie Bega); and, crucially, a desire to take a break from therapy with Lorraine Bracco’s Dr. Melfi – all were granted agonizing power by our hood emperor, James Gandolfini. With subplots colliding like atomic particles, from Christopher’s smack attack to Tony and Carm’s wrenching separation, The Sopranos remains television’s most combustible drama. That dour expression ain’t heartburn: Tony still has the old fire in his ample belly. And as Paulie said, “Nobody knows what the future holds, my friend.” – Ken Tucker

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The Office (2003)

The Office (2003)

Credit: BBC/Courtesy Everett Collection

“Who’d have thought a British sitcom about a drab little office on the outskirts of London – Slough, a nod to the site of despair in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress and only appropriate for a series its cocreator Ricky Gervais mockingly refers to as “better than Dickens” – could become poignant and moving even as its jokes cut deeply? Gervais’ David Brent is the nincompoop middle manager who wants to be loved by his employees yet does every stupid thing he can, inadvertently creeping them out. In this second season (a mere yet abundant six episodes!), The Office became a classic TV creation. We watched, delight commingling with horror, as Brent’s paper company was downsized; he had to try to win over a new group of sullen, suspicious transfer employees (choice obsequious opening gambit to a black worker: “My favorite actor of all time is Mr. Sidney Poitier”) and was ultimately “made redundant” himself.

Like Jackie Gleason’s The Honeymooners or John Cleese’s Fawlty Towers, The Office, written and directed by Gervais and Stephen Merchant, can be watched over and over, yielding unnoticed jokes, stares, winces, and double takes. It was perfectly cast. We knew, for instance, that Martin Freeman’s Tim and Mackenzie Crook’s Gareth were ideally adversarial deskmates. Lucy Davis’ Dawn was heartbreakingly good, never more so than when she confided to Brent her ambitions, and the boss who put the “goat” in goatee advised her with soul-crushing condescension, “Pipe dreams are good, in a way.” – Ken Tucker

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The Wire (2004)

The Wire (2004)

Credit: HBO/Courtesy Everett Collection

“In this grotesque vision of Baltimore, hucksters hawk drug-free day-care urine; politicians discuss body counts as if murder were a market fluctuation; and dealers negotiate narcotics trade in an Executive Inn conference room. The smartest, deepest, and most resonant drama on TV, The Wire spent its third season dredging the murky perversities of the drug underworld, and its foul reflection of capitalism as a whole. The Wire‘s complexity has doubtlessly contributed to its low ratings — this is a series that punishes casual viewers. But its sticky, interwoven plots, with their economic, political, and racial echoes, make blessed use of serial storytelling. Unsurprisingly, The Wire has attracted flinty, hard-thinking guest scribes like Dennis Lehane (Mystic River), and as a new producer, crime writer George Pelecanos. The cast — from Sonja Sohn as undomesticated Det. Kima Greggs to Andre Royo as her sweet, broken snitch, Bubs — is so perfect that you want to pack all 40 regulars into a sturdy box to ensure they remain en masse. Of the myriad interlocked characters, Idris Elba’s drug mastermind, Stringer Bell, and Dominic West’s dogged Det. Jimmy McNulty have offered the wickedest ironies: the tragic, disciplined kingpin with a taste for the legit; the boozing cop who pisses on authority and order. Messy, maddening, pragmatic, and darkly joyous—that’s city living, according to The Wire.” – Gillian Flynn

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Arrested Development (2005)

Arrested Development (2005)

Credit: 20th Century Fox Licensing/Everett Collection

“Stepping into the orbit of Arrested‘s conniving, hapless Bluth family is like entering an ingenious Rube Goldberg contraption. One-liners whiz by, only to boomerang around five episodes later (2005 featured whip-fast callbacks to Tom Jane, Charlie Brown, and “Operation Hot Mother”); visual gags arrow into view, gone so quickly a TiVo is practically requisite; the Bluths themselves bounce in and out of ludicrous situations — this year saw George (Jeffrey Tambor) chattering to dolls in the attic and Buster (Tony Hale) losing a hand to a seal. Creator Mitch Hurwitz, bless him, has created a just-past-reality world that thrives on falsity — a place where magicians rule (kinda), a family lives in a fake model home, and the zenith of familial relations is Motherboy, an event in which sons and moms don matching costumes and pretend to love each other. As oddball as Arrested is, it’s also humane. A flawless cast — from Will Arnett’s breathy, bombastic Gob to Jessica Walter’s boozy Lucille — grounds it, aided by Ron Howard’s affable narration. Of course, the center of sensibility is good son Michael (Jason Bateman) and his even better son, George Michael (Michael Cera). Bateman and Cera give the best reacts around — the former all weary exasperation, the latter adorably bunny-stunned. Together, they’re the sweetest, awkwardest straight men on the smartest, most shockingly funny series on TV… which is likely canceled, despite six Emmy wins. It’s a perversion not even the Bluths deserve.” – Gillian Flynn

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The Wire (2006)

The Wire (2006)

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“The drug invading Baltimore is called Pandemic, and the implication is apt: On HBO’s The Wire, every limb of the American big city — police, politics, schools, business, drugs — is sick, and each infected part is horrifically linked. Cash-strapped mayoral hopeful Tommy Carcetti (Aidan Gillen) is told to “hit your numbers or die in this room,” while on the street, middle-management drug dealer Bodie (JD Williams) is also feeling the economic pinch: An encroaching gang seems “like Wal-Mart coming to town.” As dealers and politicos drum up business, the nominal good guys — cops and teachers — are defanged, forced to listen to consultants with catchy acronyms and no solutions.

Raucous, dying Tilghman Middle School is the heart of The Wire’s fourth season, which follows four inner-city eighth graders as they stumble toward futures as gangsters, row-house losers, or, perhaps, survivors. The Wire is a wrenching, brilliant indictment of pragmatism and complacency, but it’s never miserable to watch. The diverse, buoyant characters put up a good fight: drunken howls at the moon, quiet sketches in a junked-out textbook, tiny gestures of humanity, like trying to salvage at least one kid from the heartbreaking wreckage. The actors are flawless; the writing is lined with empathy, insight, and quick, shocking slaps. Never has a good gutting been more appreciated.” – Gillian Flynn

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30 Rock (2007)

30 Rock (2007)

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“This year was full of competent, B-grade TV — which just makes the fizzy bit of brilliance that is NBC’s 30 Rock gleam all the more. Tina Fey’s Emmy-winning sitcom isn’t just clever or shocking or chock-full of pop culture witticisms, it also happens to be plain hilarious. How refreshing to giggle aloud at a comedy and not feel like a cheap-laugh sucker. 30 Rock earns every guffaw with its left-brain/right-brain zigzags. It’s incisive but squirrelly, satiric but joyfully goofy. In a single episode, the comedy — ostensibly about the actors, writers, and execs behind an NBC sketch show — can skewer racism, sexism, ageism, liberalism, and conservatism, and still find room for a visiting Carrie Fisher to make loopy H.R. Haldeman jokes and slug down a thermos of wine. The whirligig writing is ambitious but never ostentatious, and the cast, from Jack McBrayer’s starstruck Kenneth the Page to Jane Krakowski’s fat-thin diva, is superb. But it really comes down to the show’s triumvirate, doesn’t it? In this second season, Fey has surpassed her flustered straight-woman role: She feels genuine, bright, and occasionally nutty, but with enough sense to remark on her own madness. Tracy Morgan continues to perfect his blank-eyed craziness as an overindulged, posse-pampered comedian with a love of inscrutable license plates. And as purry, synergy-obsessed executive Jack Donaghy (“I run a Sheinhardt Wig subsidiary called NBC”), Alec Baldwin is flawless, combining bone-deep insecurity with sky-high megalomania. Smart, playful, weird, and occasionally quite sweet, 30 Rock isn’t just the best comedy on TV this year, it’s simply the best TV.” – Gillian Flynn

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The Colbert Report (2008)

The Colbert Report (2008)

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“It was a great year for political television. Rachel Maddow, making braininess seem like the coolest trait possible, got her own show. Jon Stewart came up with endless variations on his look of horror when faced with stupidity in both parties’ primaries. Campbell Brown pushed newsmakers for straight answers and was rewarded with her own program, a shocking move for the timid CNN. Even Katie Couric lucked into credibility just by asking Sarah Palin what she read. But no one jumped into the fray more enthusiastically and emerged more triumphantly than Stephen Colbert. His April road shows from Philadelphia were little masterpieces of satire and slapstick. And throughout 2008, his angry-demagogue persona took on an all-encompassing, nonpartisan air that allowed for intricate layers of irony. His previous weak spot — sometimes-awkward interviews with celebs and authors who don’t know which “Colbert” they’re talking to — became rock-solid, as guests ranging from Jackson Browne to Prof. Cornel West got down and boogied verbally with the master of the out- rageous put-on. And his year-capping A Colbert Christmas, which was warmly affectionate around its crisp satirical edges, only increased our admiration for this purposefully clueless jerk played by a very shrewd guy indeed.” – Ken Tucker

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True Blood (2009)

True Blood (2009)

Credit: HBO/Courtesy Everett Collection

“What a deep pleasure it is when a show that I admire greatly dovetails into a fan-favorite phenomenon: True Blood this season was popular culture working masterfully on all levels. Creator Alan Ball took a great commercial risk in using Charlaine Harris’ source materials — themselves big-audience best-sellers — and bending them to his own creative purposes. By doing things such as making Stephen Moyer’s Bill and Alexander Skarsgård’s Eric equal attractions for the affection of Anna Paquin’s Sookie, and keeping viewer fave Lafayette (Nelsan Ellis) around for further torture and campy repartee, Ball could have alienated the Stackhouse-books diehards. Instead, the second season was a voluptuous, satirical, Southern-gothic delight. Sookie’s shape-shifting boss, Sam (Sam Trammell), went into action-hero mode, and the disclosure that vampires Bill and Eric are part of a vast, complex society of bloodsuckers gave the show more depth. Having Jason (chesty Ryan Kwanten) help expose the corruption and power lust of the Fellowship of the Sun fine-tuned both his character and the show’s satire. The stint by Michelle Forbes as a maniacal maenad demonstrated how the series can introduce and explode characters with a surging narrative force. Erotic, funny, scary, and political, Blood looks as though it’s only beginning to flex its muscle as an entertainment that uses the tiny town of Bon Temps as a microcosm of the frighteningly complicated mess we all live in.”  – Ken Tucker

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Breaking Bad (2010)

Breaking Bad (2010)

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“This was the season when the secrets were revealed. Walt (Bryan Cranston) admitted to his wife he cooked meth, a confession that almost led to divorce, but in the twisted yet logical morality of Breaking Bad, such reluctant honesty ended up bringing the couple back together. Sure, this season featured two silent-but-deadly cousins sent from Mexico to try to kill our increasingly not-mild-mannered chemistry teacher. But the thriller aspects of Bad were set alongside relationship drama, as Jesse (Aaron Paul) took responsibility for his life, entering rehab and insisting on an equal say in his business arrangement with Walt. Which led, of course, to greater danger for both of them, much of it emanating from Gus (Giancarlo Esposito), the quietly ruthless double- and triple-crossing drug dealer. The performances of Anna Gunn as Walt’s wife, Skyler, and Dean Norris as Walt’s brother-in-law, Hank, were as superb as Cranston’s and Paul’s. Show creator Vince Gilligan and his writers have done a remarkable job of maintaining our loyalty to Walt and Jesse at a time when they no longer feel loyal to each other. Shot with an open-sky Southwestern beauty that only makes its grungy behavior more striking, Breaking Bad had a season that amounted to a Coen brothers movie the Coen brothers will never make.”  – Ken Tucker

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Breaking Bad (2011)

Breaking Bad (2011)

Credit: AMC/Courtesy Everett Collection

“Just when you thought Breaking Bad could not become more tense, more witty, more elegantly shot, or more exuberantly acted, along came season 4, with Bryan Cranston as a Walter White newly attuned to his own capacity for revenge and evildoing. If the most memorable lines of the year came from Walter’s “I am the one who knocks” speech, in which he owned the bad behavior he’d previously justified as helping his family, the year’s most indelible image was the horror face of Giancarlo Esposito’s Gus, half blown off by an explosion in the season finale. In between the speech and the image, Walter and Aaron Paul’s Jesse slithered past the relentless investigation into their meth lab by Walter’s brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris) and neatly avoided being messed up by Jonathan Banks’ hitman extraordinaire Mike. Series creator Vince Gilligan avoided all the traps of hard-boiled, “gritty” TV — there’s no cheap cynicism, no pretentiously existential dread weighing down this work. Instead, there was a sunny energy to the way Walter’s wife, Skyler (the glowing Anna Gunn), took to the life of a criminal accountant running a gleaming car wash to launder the drug profits. Even Gus, the series’ thus-far-ultimate foe for Walter, had an air of prim jauntiness to him, adjusting his tie shortly after going ka-boom. That’s Bad: So good, it could make a skull smile.”  – Ken Tucker

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Homeland (2012)

Homeland (2012)

Credit: Showtime Networks Inc./Courtesy Everett Collection

“The season 2 premiere abruptly dispatched a thread that had been so carefully woven into the first season — that’d be the attempt by Damian Lewis’ former POW Brody to keep his devotion to Islam a secret, known in the West only by his daughter and us. It also took Claire Danes’ disgraced CIA agent Carrie from, in her sister’s words, “a good place” to the CIA-spy equivalent, which is being plunged into “a bad place.” Then the series brought the pair together — as workers, as lovers — and things got really complicated. Homeland isn’t really operating on the same playing field as other shows: Plot twists and cliff-hangers have become almost meaningless terms — or, rather, beside the point. The entire series is a twist on what an hour-long drama usually aims to accomplish over the course of a full season. Homeland maximizes its entertainment value with its excellent acting, dialogue, and — running beneath the drama like an electric current — jolting, disruptive storytelling, which tricks you in the best way. This is not a TV show with a deep “mythology” for parsing Internet diehards—instead, it’s mass entertainment at the highest level.”  – Ken Tucker

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American Horror Story: Coven (2013)

American Horror Story: Coven (2013)

Credit: Michele K. Short/FX

“The year wasn’t even a week old when American Horror Story gave us one of 2013’s best scenes: a delirious dance sequence in a madhouse gone awry, performed by marginalized misfits, set to an infectious novelty song that turns names into nonsense rhymes. It was an exuberant expression of the show’s knack for visceral, metaphorical drama about the toxic forces that can threaten personal identity — pop culture included. With a pair of radically different yet thematically complementary sagas, AHS itself transcends novelty and proves its ambitious anthology format can make outrageously fun art-pop. Asylum is a creation myth for Helter Skelter USA, while Coven is a Southern gothic about feminism, race, and subculture tribalism. The through-line: scary-good performances. Sarah Paulson. Zachary Quinto. Kathy Bates. Angela Bassett. And Jessica Lange, whose character gallery represents a dialogue about our demeaning fixation on youth and legacy. Grand Guignol with grand dames and grand themes, American Horror Story is the most dynamic enterprise on television.” – Jeff Jensen

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Transparent (2014)

Transparent (2014)

Credit: Amazon/Courtesy Everett Collection

“Yes, it’s a drama about three adult siblings (Amy Landecker, Gaby Hoffmann, and Jay Duplass) who have a trans parent (Jeffrey Tambor as Maura, formerly Mort). But that’s not the only reason this show from Jill Soloway feels so groundbreaking. Maybe it’s that Maura’s identity is the most solid one in the family, considering that her kids are still figuring out who they are. Or maybe it’s that Transparent challenges the idea that great drama needs heroes or antiheroes: Every character is both at once, making you love them one moment and hate them the next. The show also offers sharp observations about the strange intimacy of siblings, the reinvent-yourself culture of Los Angeles, and the hard-to-admit fact that our parents’ sexuality plays a formative role in our own. But its most powerful message is that Maura’s experience is so ordinary, because no one’s self-image matches the way others see them, whether they’re trans or not.” – Jeff Jensen and Melissa Maerz

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