Mike White’s pitch-perfect dramedy is the only show on this list to be axed this year — a cancellation that infuriated me as a critic. There’s nothing quite like Enlightened on the air, a fiercely thoughtful satire of New Age and self-help narcissism that nonetheless understands that those subcultures’ languages and concepts stem from a heartfelt desire to contribute to the world in a meaningful way. But creating change is extraordinarily difficult, and being seen as angry about injustice, especially as a middle-aged woman, tends to attract unfair dismissals of being “crazy” and “delusional” rather than “passionate.”
Enlightened‘s second season was something of an espionage caper, as Amy (Laura Dern), a former office drone, recruits several of her disillusioned colleagues into collecting evidence of corporate malfeasance to blow the whistle on her corrupt workplace. There’s a splendid ambiguity as to what motivates Amy most: she’s rightly outraged by the political bribes and environmental degradation her CEO knowingly participates in, but she’s also trying to impress handsome journalist Jeff (Dermot Mulroney) and join his progressive, educated crowd. Her plans hit a snag when her shy loner friend Tyler (White) falls in love with the CEO’s secretary (Molly Shannon), a delicate love that White and Shannon make one of this year’s most touching romances.
Oh my goodness. Just seeing the name of Shonda Rhimes’ masterwork marks my heart beat faster, because the political drama is so calculated to wrest an emotional reaction from its viewers (in a good way) that I’ve developed a kind of Pavlovian attachment to this show — I can’t help getting excited when I think about it. Scandal‘s second season was a tour de force, expertly combining elements of tragedy, romance, melodrama, suspense, and political commentary into an incredibly satisfying whole. At its core was a stolen presidential election — a perfect encapsulation of Rhimes’ deeply cynical view of the highest echelons of power. Yet the surprise was who pulled it off and why — a team consisting of three very accomplished women, a gay man, and one token hetero white dude — who channeled their own political ambitions to get an empty suit with the proper Republican credentials (white, male, married) into office because they felt the public would never accept one of them in a seat of power.
This was the year I stopped calling Scandal a guilty pleasure and acknowledged it simply as one of the best-written, best-acted shows on TV today. Sure, it’s a political soap opera, but to diminish it for its theatrics is to denigrate a show for belonging to a genre associated with women. The show focuses on relationships, but it’s just as keen to explore the dynamics of gender, race, class, and power that affect those relationships. And it shouldn’t go unmentioned that Scandal is the first show to give a black actress enough material to earn an Emmy nod for a leading role in nearly two decades. Brava, Kerry Washington, and brava, Shonda Rhimes.
3. Game of Thrones
The Red Wedding. THE RED WEDDING. THE. RED. WEDDING.
If there were ever a doubt that a single episode could retroactively redeem a full season, Game of Thrones‘ third year should dissipate it. The last season ran sluggishly for most of its run until the most jaw-dropping, hope-annihilating event of the series occurred. Then everything else made sense as build-up to the massacre of the Northmen, and it was easy to see that that scene had been planned for two whole years.
Much of the third season seems like laying the foundation for next season — Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) and Sansa’s (Sophie Turner) marriage, Arya’s (Maisie Williams) ever-lengthening kill list, the Khaleesi’s (Emlia Clarke) burgeoning army of former slaves, Joffrey’s (Jack Gleeson) increasing depravity. But the season was also full of compelling moments, small and large, from Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) being forced to wrestle a bear to the doomed flirtations between Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) and Ygritte (Rose Leslie) to the verbal chess game between Olenna Tyrell (Diana Rigg) and Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance). Game of Thrones‘ occasional over-reliance on the shock factor (amputated nipple, anyone?) may grow thin, but there’s no question that the show is based on a surfeit of memorable characters, nearly any of which I’d be happy to watch simply walk across the forest, telling stories of their childhood.
2. Orange is the New Black
I was probably predisposed to liking Orange is the New Black. I’m a sucker for stories about women, showcases for sexually and racially diverse actresses, nuanced depictions of poverty, prisons, crime, and really funny shows. Oh, and I went to Smith, just like Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), though I never enjoyed a post-college fling with an international drug dealer.
But Orange is the New Black would have won me over even without any of my biases, because it is a hilarious and heartbreaking show that looks nothing like anything else on TV. Perhaps that’s because it isn’t on TV. Creator Jenji Kohan was able to convince Netflix to fund a show about an upper-middle-class white woman of privilege who goes to jail and used the opportunity to make a show about all kinds of women, be they black, Latina, or white; straight, gay, or something in between; cis- or transgendered; poor, rich, or just needing a little more. It’s impossible to name a standout character or two because the woman-of-the-episode structure has essentially created at least thirteen incredibly rich characters. By devoting so much time to deepening each one, the show ultimately illustrates the wasted potential of energy, intelligence, and creativity that prison represents.
1. Breaking Bad
TV’s best show ended in a hail of bullets this fall, taking down the monster who started the madness. The second half of Breaking Bad‘s fifth season began with the noose tightening around Walt (Bryan Cranston) after Hank (Dean Norris) discovered the “W.W.” inscription on the secret meth kingpin’s bathroom copy of The Leaves of Grass. While Walt is busy keeping Hank at bay, he also has to deal with the kamikaze behavior of his former surrogate son, Jesse (Aaron Paul), whose hatred of Walt is so great he just might fall on his sword if he can ensure Walt gets a taste of the pointy end, too.
The lead-up to Walt’s final showdown with the Aryan gang — a decidedly non-epic group of violent yokels, since a man like Walt whose depravity is so common doesn’t deserve a great foe — is a perfect summary of the show. Walt tries to control everything while chaos flies around him. Watching Walt work one last time to exact vengeance against his enemies was like understanding a mathematical proof; it’s the logic that’s so satisfying.
But Breaking Bad‘s departure from TV Land means that the medium’s best-plotted, best-acted, and most beautifully shot show is now lost to the ages. Vince Gilligan’s epic mic drop of a series finale might well be from “Ozymandias”: “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”