9. Mad Men
There’s a point at which a long-running show doesn’t have anything new to say, but the characters are so beautifully realized that the pleasure of spending time with old friends is good enough. Mad Men reached that point in its sixth season, which had a fun mystery in Bob Benson (James Wolk), but mostly just followed its female characters’ continued attempts to hold on to their dignity and their male counterparts’ ongoing territorial disputes with their colleagues. It’s a testament to how richly formed these characters are that the season’s relative lack of narrative progress didn’t really matter.
Since the second season or so, Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) has been slowly encroaching on Don’s (Jon Hamm) position as the center of the show. In the sixth season, she may have stolen it outright. While Don spins his wheels in yet another affair and predictably sabotages his marriage to Megan (Jessica Pare), Peggy becomes involved in one of the show’s great love affairs (RIP, Teggy) and struggles to become a respected female creative — an archetype that she needs to invent, because the world has never seen her kind before. She’s burdened with a huge setback when she’s expected to become Don’s subordinate again after the merger between SCDP and CGC, but she’s also the show’s one beacon of hope — even if all her striving is ultimately wasted on a hollow industry that devotes its creative energies to selling more candy bars. (Miss ya, Abe.)
8. The Bridge
America often vaunts itself as a nation of immigrants, but its media has never been much interested in exploring what immigrant life is truly like. Enter The Bridge, FX’s new police drama, a portrait of life along the Mexican-American border. Specifically, it’s a tale of two cities — El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua — and how vastly different, yet intimately connected, they are. Several of the characters, like Emily Rios’ journalist Adriana and Demian Bichir’s detective Marcos, reside in Juarez and work in Texas. And because it’s a cop show, many of the series’ elements are devoted to illustrating how Mexican criminals eventually find victims on this side of the border.
But The Bridge is also a powerful and incisive study of American privilege — and it just might be the only TV show in the history of the medium to be that. As the beneficiaries of a more-or-less functional legal system, Americans can enjoy an “out of sight, out of mind” attitude when it comes to violence across the Rio Grande. And if anything, they help fuel the drug and prostitution rings by treating Mexico like a downscale Las Vegas, like junkie newspaperman Daniel (Matthew Lillard in the best performance of his career). All this makes The Bridge sounds like an international relations dissertation, but it’s anything but. Rather, the first season unfolds a tense, smartly paced and surprising serial-killer mystery that ends with a devastating death, and features the journeys of two very disparate women (Diane Kruger and Annabeth Gish) who need to take control of their lives and are slowly figuring out how.
7. Eastbound and Down
Every season of Eastbound and Down has taken place in a new town, following baseball has-been Kenny Powers on his peripatetic road to redemption. But Danny McBride’s comedy circled back to suburbia in the series’ eight final episodes, this time with wife April (Katy Mixon) and their two kids in tow. At the beginning of the fourth season, Kenny tries to tamp down his natural braggadocio in a dead-end, service-sector job. When the opportunity to be a yeller for hire comes in the form of athlete-turned-sports commentator Guy Young (Ken Marino), Kenny chases after the shiny new thing once more. But this time, it turns out he has a knack for it. Kenny’s always been charismatic when he’s wanted to be, and he parlays that talent for another shot in the spotlight.
Thus begins Eastbound and Down‘s darkest and most existential season, though possibly its funniest too. Since Kenny can only exercise self-control for so long, he must choose between hedonism and self-respect. (If you think the choice is obvious, you don’t know Kenny.) He quickly enters a hell of his own making, which leads into probably one of direst Christmas episodes ever made. McBride and his writing team lay down the cards: there can be no completely happy ending for Kenny because the American dream of excess is a fucking nightmare.
6. Masters of Sex
Masters of Sex arrived this fall, looking like another Mad Men copycat. Repressed feelings? Check. Horrifyingly antiquated gender roles? Check. Marvelously adorable mid-century costumes? Check. But the Showtime drama quickly established that it was a completely different beast, a fictional history of the Wild West days of sexology research and an exploration of the many ways that the lack of scientific knowledge about desire, reproduction, and the contents of one’s medical files can utterly destroy a life.
The irrepressibly charming Lizzy Caplan plays the real-life Virginia Johnson, depicted here as a daily heroine who balances single motherhood with anatomy classes and a more-than-full-time job facilitating pioneering research. Though Caplan provides the warmth, I’d argue that it’s Dr. William Masters (Michael Sheen) who is the show’s heart. While Virginia learns to negotiate her way into positions of greater autonomy and esteem, Bill, a fertility and obstetrics expert, seems to experience love for the first time, though not for his pregnant wife Libby (Caitlin Fitzgerald). Watching his heart grow — and knowing the hurt it’ll cause — has been one of the year’s most emotionally rewarding experiences.