Last year in this space, I lamented the lack of new shows worthy of inclusion on my list; this year more than half of my picks are new shows. Not only did streaming services Netflix, Amazon and Hulu make major splashes with original programming, but smaller cable networks like Sundance Channel and BBC America also stepped up with noteworthy originals of their own. I’m a little disappointed to bump some longtime favorites (including Homeland and Justified) from the list, but I’m even more excited to have discovered so many new shows to love.
1. The Americans (FX) As rich a portrait of a long-term marriage as it is an espionage drama, the show about Soviet spies in the U.S. in the 1980s is continually surprising, suspenseful and heart-wrenching.
2. Orange Is the New Black (Netflix) Women in prison! Are multifaceted, intelligent, funny, diverse, relatable and profound, in Jenji Kohan’s heartfelt exploration of life inside minimum-security lockup.
3. Top of the Lake (Sundance Channel) This miniseries about the search for a missing girl in a small New Zealand town doesn’t hinge on twists or reveals, instead delving deeply into rural life and troubling sexual politics.
4. Mad Men (AMC) Don Draper’s increasingly bleak existential crises are still compelling, but it’s the complex and varied supporting cast that keeps this ad-agency drama fresh and fascinating.
5. Masters of Sex (Showtime) Throwing out typical biopic conventions, creator Michelle Ashford takes her time in telling the story of pioneering sex researchers Masters and Johnson, with careful attention to details both historical and personal.
6. Bunheads (ABC Family) Canceled just as it was hitting its stride, Amy Sherman-Palladino’s dramedy about ballet students captured teenage friendship and adult rootlessness as well as any show ever has. RIP.
7. Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Fox) It’s the best new show of the fall and the funniest show on TV, with one of TV’s strongest casts playing characters who are impressively full and complex after just half a season.
8. Orphan Black (BBC America) Tatiana Maslany is both the best actress and best supporting actress on TV as a group of clones searching for the truth about their origins, on TV’s new reigning sci-fi champion.
9. Game of Thrones (HBO) The Red Wedding left fans reeling, but the most shocking thing about this sprawling fantasy epic is how it keeps getting better and better.
10. Archer (FX) The best animated show on TV continues to cleverly parody spy dramas while also maintaining its own dense continuity of side characters, running jokes and obtuse references.
Ken Miller's five shows you need to be watching
I am a ravenous TV watcher, for one main reason: There's lots of great stuff on. So forgive me if I feel like a top 10 list doesn't really do the current television landscape justice. While I agree with most of Josh's choices, here's a few you really need to be watching:
Arrested Development (Netflix)—Never was response more mixed than over the long-awaited fourth season of what is widely considered one of the best comedy series ever made (did someone say best ever?). But the vitriol over this show’s flaws—it wasn’t funny enough, some scenes went on too long, the special effects were shoddy—really missed the vital point: These 15 new episodes are some of the most densely packed television in history, so layered you’ll be finding new treasures every time you watch it. For example, how many Dr. Seuss references have you spotted so far? I’m up to five.
Breaking Bad (AMC, Netflix)—The greatest five-season saga in TV history, this perfectly realized American horror story had the perfect center in Bryan Cranston, a conflicted hero/villain who fully reaped the grim harvest of the meth he so expertly sowed. Writing, direction, acting, production, music—master classes all. It might be a bit simplistic to sum this magnum opus up as “Crime is bad,” but given how widespread criminal drug activity is in our country apparently it’s a message that bears repeating.
Homeland (Showtime)—I’ll admit, the beginning of season 3 almost lost me as a viewer, with four painfully non-eventful episodes that focused way too much on the dour Dana, now one of the most hated characters TV has ever seen. Luckily I kept watching, because it evolved into the most riveting season yet. The show took its time to build to a devastating—but ultimately realistic and inevitable—climax. Ultimately, Homeland has proven itself to be one of TV’s most roller-coaster shows. Where it goes from here is anyone’s guess, but after that finale, I want to be in the front car.
Sons of Anarchy (FX, Netflix)—Show runner Kurt Sutter is one twisted, sick puppy. Season 6 made it clear, in the grisliest fashion possible, that the Sons of Anarchy motorcycle club will not be coming to a good end. Okay, so no one expected otherwise, but this group of law-bending bikers is so damn likable, how can we not be rooting for them to succeed? Cable’s most violent show—and biggest quilty pleasure—is essentially an update of Hamlet (complete with a murdered father who speaks to his son through a manifesto), and we all know how that turned out. Expect a ridiculous number of “oh, sh*t!” moments as the show ticks off its final, progressively darker days.
Treme (HBO)—Part of the genius of a David Simon show is the tableau he creates over several seasons, rewarding the patient viewer in ways your traditional serial drama just can’t achieve. He achieved near-perfection with his previous HBO series The Wire, and he does it again with the criminally underwatched Treme, a look at post-Katrina New Orleans. It eschews the traditional “plot” for perfectly realized snippets of life throughout the city, from uber-talented musicians torn between going commercial and staying true to their musical heritage to lawyers seeking to expose the city’s rampant corruption. What’s most impressive about this show, however, is how it constantly makes you feel like an outsider looking in. In other words, it never cozies up to you—you have to do the work. Why isn't more TV this brave and uncompromising?