By Chuck Barney
Contra Costa Times
The year brought us more superlative television than usual, from a lot more sources than usual.
There were standout offerings from traditional broadcast networks, from cable and online channels (Welcome to the party, Netflix), and from foreign countries. In fact, it was more difficult than ever to keep up with the barrage and pare it all down to 10 standouts.
But someone had to do it, so here we go:
1. “Breaking Bad” (AMC): It was tempting not to place “Breaking Bad” in the top spot because, well, that’s just too bloody obvious. But its hall-of-fame greatness cannot be denied. The sad, twisted and insanely mesmerizing tale of Walter White (Bryan Cranston), prime time’s biggest baddie, kept us on the edge of our armchairs right up through the brutal end. And during a rock ’em-sock-’em farewell run, creator Vince Gilligan and company delivered one genuinely heart-pounding twist after another. As usual, the series was a marvel of clever plotting, sharp writing and extraordinary acting. Just thinking about it all over again makes for an A-1 day.
2. “Masters of Sex” (Showtime): The pay-cable nudity, kinky carnal gymnastics and glass vibrators naturally aroused our curiosity. But this period drama about William Masters (Michael Sheen) and Virginia Johnson (Lizzie Caplan), the researchers who helped Americans unlock the mysteries of the bedroom, had more than sex on the brain. The first-year show provided viewers with a fascinating examination of social change in the 1950s, while also delving into matters of human intimacy and connection, and the inner emotions that make us tick. Oh, and at times, it just made us laugh.
3. “Game of Thrones” (HBO): This epic fantasy continued to meet television’s most daunting challenge: To wrap its arms around George R.R. Martin’s sprawling saga and bring a big, imaginary world full of mystery, mysticism, spectacle and visual majesty to the small screen. In Season 3, “Thrones” did it better than ever, while still managing to tell intimate, character-based stories and occasionally making our jaws hit the floor with shockers like the brutal “Red Wedding” scene: or even a wild fight between a woman warrior and a bear.
4. “Orange Is the New Black” (Netflix): A show about a women’s prison? Wow, tough sell. Fortunately, this sharp dramedy defied the genre’s stereotypes (and our expectations) with a highly original voice and vividly drawn characters. Its entry point is Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), a naive blonde yuppie who landed in the slammer for a dumb drug-trafficking mistake made a decade earlier. But then the show expanded its focus to a diverse gallery of complex female inmates who had plenty of provocative things to say about race, friendship and social status. The result was a jailhouse that rocked with dark humor _ and lots of emotional oomph.
5. “The Good Wife” (CBS): Generally regarded by critics to be the best drama on broadcast television, this legal series boldly reinvented itself in Season 5 with a plot line that had Alicia (Julianna Margulies) asserting her independence and starting her own firm with Cary (Matt Czuchry). The alterations amped up the intensity and exposed sides of characters we hadn’t seen before _ their jealousies, vulnerabilities, paranoia and bitter ruthlessness. And along the way, “The Good Wife” became more exhilarating than ever.
6. “House of Cards” (Netflix): It’s the show that announced to the world that Netflix wasn’t just a little wannabe, but a major player. Slick, sumptuous and oh so seductive, it sucked us into the tale of a Machiavellian Washington, D.C., power broker (Kevin Spacey) and the ruthless political game of thrones he plays. Even if he had a bad habit of talking to the camera, Spacey was exceptional, but so was Robin Wright, as his icy wife, and the entire cast, for that matter. Simply, a binge-tastic experience.
7. “Mad Men” (AMC): You would think a vacation to Hawaii would help loosen up Don Draper (Jon Hamm). But as Season 6 unfolded, the aging ad exec found himself in a melancholy mood, pondering his own mortality. It certainly didn’t help that he eventually had to deal with some tragic historic jolts, or that his daughter sadly witnessed his infidelity. This late in the game, “Mad Men” can sometimes feel repetitive, but it still manages to find interesting ways to explore Don’s psyche and his tumultuous era. And it’s still a show that often feels more like literature than TV.
8. “The Americans” (FX): This new Reagan-era Cold War drama had the audacity to ask us to sympathize with the enemy and somehow made it work. That’s because Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys were relentlessly compelling as Russian sleeper agents posing as a married couple in suburban Virginia and making us wonder: Can you find true love in a fake marriage? Toss in plenty of suspenseful nail-biting moments, along with several crazy wigs, and you’ve got a wildly entertaining show we can’t say “neyt” to.
9. “Broadchurch” (BBC America): Several shows in recent years have attempted to dissect a single murder case over multiple episodes (“The Killing”; “The Bridge”). But none has done it as superbly as this dark British whodunit that explored how a quiet coastal town is put through an emotional wringer by the death of a young boy. David Tennant and Olivia Colman were terrific as the lead detectives, and the smartly crafted, well-paced story was as gripping as it was gut-wrenching. There are already plans for an American remake. Good luck with that. It has a lot to live up to.
10. “The Returned” (Sundance): Zombies are all the rage these days, but this creepy French import brought a whole new look and vibe to a surreal tale in which the walking dead come back to a mountain village to visit the people who grieve for them. They don’t return as ugly, flesh-eating ghouls, but as the people they used to be _ minus their memories. “The Returned” substituted mood and atmosphere for blood and gore, and the result was a taut, hauntingly beautiful series so marvelously crafted that not even the subtitles could scare us off.