Arrow (The CW): The comic-book superhero series that got it right in its first year has been on fire in Season 2, jacking up the action to thrillingly visceral levels, as well as giving both our hero’s allies (love that Felicity) and enemies (hate that Malcolm) generous chunks of screen time. Oh, and the Flash!
Justified (FX): Despite the guns, guns, guns promos, Justified is all about the consequences and the dialogue, and Season 4—which had to follow a landmark “just try and top that” season—had plenty for Marshal Raylan, Boyd and anyone unlucky enough to be attached to them. FX’s best drama, period.
Banshee (Cinemax): This gritty-weird series about an ex-con assuming the identity of a small-town sheriff to reunite with his former lover/partner—and their loot—should have been a pulp-crime mess, but the deepening story (and the hyper-violent action) can’t be denied.
Shameless (Showtime): The Gallaghers continued their grimy reign as America’s Family, and Season 3 injected all-too-real drama and fallout for their many, many questionable actions. No other series can match Shameless for sheer volume of yeah-it’s-cable-but-they-can-get-away-with-that?! situations.
Bates Motel (A&E): Sure, it seemed a like terrible idea at first, but the subtle, creeping terror of Psycho: The Wonder Years worked, thanks to Vera Farmiga’s sympathetic but wildly unpredictable Norma Bates. We know where it’s all going, but the ride so far is addictive.
Archer (FX): Season 4 kicked off with a hysterically blatant nod to star voice H. Jon Benjamin’s other series, Bob’s Burgers, and ended with a tribute to obscure Adult Swim series Sealab 2021. The characters are idiots, but Archer’s scripting is stoopid-smart.
Veep (HBO): Speaking of hapless dumbasses guided by comedic genius, Veep’s second season stayed the course of Vice President Selina Meyer’s slog through deflating beltway politics and worse PR. It’s funny, profane and probably closer to the truth than C-SPAN.
Breaking Bad (AMC): Obviously. Breaking Bad’s final season may have tied up more neatly than logically, but a drama this perfectly executed over five years earned more than a few last Wile E. Coyote outs. Go back and re-watch the whole series without the weekly critical media over-over-analysis; you’ll enjoy it even more.
The League (FXX): Even a gonzo throwaway episode dedicated entirely to peripheral characters Rafi and Dirty Randy couldn’t distract from the scarily consistent and ruthless comedy of The League’s fifth season. It’s finally a viable heir to the Sunny in Philadelphia crown—or Shiva.
Ray Donovan (Showtime): Gigantically-noggin-ed Liev Schreiber is an unlikely leading man, but his portrayal of Ray Donovan, a Hollywood “fixer” with a family from hell (Bah-ston, actually), kills. Even better is Jon Voight’s giddy, nothing-to-lose performance.
The Blacklist (NBC) After two years of empty talk, NBC finally made good on the idea to produce “cable-quality” programming, first with Hannibal, then the superior crime serial The Blacklist. The series doesn’t shy from intensity and violence, and James Spader is, well, James Spader.
Parks and Recreation (NBC): On the flipside, now that NBC has discovered the ratings gold of ineptly staged musicals, smart underperformers like Parks and Recreation are likely doomed. Too bad; Seasons 5 and 6 have been the comedy’s strongest yet, even with the impending losses of Rashida Jones and Rob Lowe.
Masters of Sex (Showtime): A semi-factual ’50s period piece with the warm look (and contentiously slow pace) of Mad Men, Masters of Sex delivered on the years-building Lizzy Caplan hype and, even though it’s as much soap opera as historical document, radiated raw humanity. The (purely clinical) nudity and sex didn’t hurt, either.
13 Runners-Up: The Americans, American Horror Story: Coven, Bob’s Burgers, Eastbound and Down, Grimm, House of Cards, Maron, New Girl, Orange Is the New Black, Raising Hope, Rectify, Sons of Anarchy, Trophy Wife.
DVD ROUNDUP FOR DEC. 31!
The story of Hilly Kristal (played by Alan Rickman) and the legendary ’70s punk club that launched thousands of bands. Also starring Taylor Hawkins as the worst Iggy Pop ever, and Opie from Sons of Anarchy as, natch, a biker. (Xlrator)
Porn aficionado Don Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and rom-com lover Barbara (Scarlett Johansson) try to make a relationship work despite unrealistic expectations on both sides and the fact that she’s Scarlett Goddamn Johansson. (Relativity)
When an expectant couple (Rob Corddry and Leslie Bibb) moves into a cursed house, it’s up to a pair of Vatican exorcists (Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon) to vanquish the evil. It’s Reno 911! meets The Exorcist meets House Hunters. (Millennium)
A tablet full of offensive apps becomes the excuse for a random series of comedy sketches starring Adrien Brody, Rob Schneider, Michelle Rodriguez, Lindsay Lohan and others. Directed by the ShamWow guy, so you know it’s funny. (Freestyle)
An ex-prostitute (January Jones) makes a new life for herself and her husband in 1800s New Mexico, only to have it ripped away; bloody, horrific vengeance and Jones’ bloody horrific acting ensue. Yet it’s still better than The Lone Ranger. (Arc)
More New DVD Releases (Dec. 31)
Angel of the Skies, Black Angel, Cassadaga, Last Love, Love Marilyn, Ninja II: Shadow of a Tear, Percentage, Sanitarium, Shaolin Warrior, Sister, When Calls the Heart, Zombie Hamlet.