The first of four FX shows that appear on this list, Justified is part modern-day western, part noir and a total triumph. While we have our fair share of indistinguishable cop and detective shows these days, this one has flavor that comes across in all of the colorful characters that populate its backwoods setting and the snappy, sort of literary dialogue delivered by lawman Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant), who is a badass, for sure, with a mythic charm about him.
New villains come and go (during season three, probably the darkest and most graphic in the show’s history, we were introduced to Neal McDonough’s Quarles) but the antagonistic relationship between Raylan and criminal Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) is always present and always fun to watch.
7. Sons of Anarchy
Writer, director, actor–Sons of Anarchy showrunner Kurt Sutter outdid himself on every front. Among the many gruesome and bleak turns that the series took in season five, Sutter’s character Otto–an imprisoned member of the Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club–(SPOILER) bit off his own tongue. The show, which Sutter has said is modeled after Hamlet, really became a beautiful tragedy this year. Jax (Charlie Hunnam), who not too long ago appeared to be the savior of the outlaw motorcycle club, has taken on all of the worst attributes of his villainous stepfather Clay (Ron Perlman) and by the final episode seemed beyond redemption.
This season, a beloved character died, Justified’s Walton Goggins guest starred in one of the best cameo’s in history (“didn’t your daddy ever tell you never judge a book by its penis?”), and one final betrayal in the last moments of the finale suggests that these characters are incapable of escaping the mess that they’ve created. In 2012, SOA was pure grit and shocking. Though it was sometimes excruciatingly hard to watch (so much tongue blood!), the ride was always thrilling.
From the creator of anarchic Adult Swim toons Sealab 2021 and Frisky Dingo, comes this smart, bawdy spy spoof. Set to begin its fourth season in 2013, FX’s criminally underrated Archer is the best animated show going right now. Each member of the voice cast, which includes Aisha Tyler, Chris Parnell, Judy Greer, Jessica Walter, and cartoon sitcom stalwart H. Jon Benjamin as bad boy spy Sterling Archer, have devastating comedic sensibilities, delivering their lines in the most surprising ways (the word “nope” has never been as funny as it is here). The humor is wicked; the animation is visually stunning, evoking ‘60s elegance; and every episode is littered with satisfying pop culture references that will have you wanting to hug everyone who had a hand in creating this stellar show.
5. Game of Thrones
This HBO drama, based on George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” epic book series about the struggle for control of a land called Westeros, added even more threads to its expansive story and characters to its already huge ensemble yet didn’t crumble under the weight of its ambition. In fact, the second season was as exhilarating as the first. There was humor (Ironborn brat Theon Greyjoy getting whacked over the head by one of his own men after a rousing speech) and beauty tinged with horror (the green Wildfire explosion in “Blackwater” was the most breathtaking moment on TV this year, possibly on TV any year). And yes, there were also dragons and smoke babies but this is fantasy that you don’t necessarily have to be a fantasy fan to enjoy–the writing is that good.