Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul
1. Breaking Bad
What a way to go out — with a bang, on a tragic yet triumphant high, at the peak of popularity and notoriety. What could be more satisfying than that? There wasn't a wasted moment or unexplored opportunity for suspenseful conflict in the intense last chapters of AMC's masterful thriller, charting Walter White's ultimate descent into criminal infamy. Bryan Cranston brilliantly captured the character's mood swings, from wounded pride to murderous rage to sorrow over the family he lost due to his dark machinations. No maddening ambiguities in this grand finale.
2. The Good Wife
Forget "good." In its fifth season, CBS's (and network TV's) classiest and most entertaining drama has returned to greatness with an audacious act of reinvention, turning former partners — and lovers — into mortal enemies following Alicia's (Julianna Margulies) split to start her own law firm. Everything is now beyond personal in this dangerously exciting, unpredictable new scenario. Even better, the show has lost none of its smart sex appeal and continues to tell some of the most gripping legal stories anywhere. Bravo.
America's shattering mystery, set in a British seaside village teeming with secrets, introduces an instant-classic detective partnership: Olivia Colman and David Tennant as Ellie Miller, a lifelong resident of provincial Broadchurch, and Alec Hardy, a brusque Scottish interloper. As a witch-hunt mentality envelops the town after a young boy's murder, suspicion and, especially, emotions run high. Broadchurch elevates the whodunit with profound sensitivity and has spawned a U.S. remake on Fox.
4. Masters of Sex
From Showtime, the year's most provocative and stimulating new series uncannily blends the kinky and the clinical as it dramatizes the pioneering research of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, portrayed by Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan, both of whom are superb at mining the passion that comes with ambition. Amid the repressive 1950s, when few dared speak of such things, their meticulous and graphic study of the biology of sexual behavior breaks down cultural taboos while invariably drawing them into uncharted territory: the unknowable mysteries of love and attraction, and the paradoxes of the human heart.
5. Orange Is the New Black
How ironic that this addictive dark comedy set in a women's prison feels so creatively liberating. Netflix's best series in a breakthrough year rewards the binge-watching experience as it builds from naive inmate Piper Kerman's memoir into a character-driven study of the wonderfully diverse people, each with a surprising backstory, she encounters during her disorienting incarceration.
6. Sundance Channel
Cable's quiet showcase for independent drama made quite a noise with three outstanding and distinctly original projects. From New Zealand, Jane Campion's Emmy-nominated Top of the Lakeminiseries used exotic landscapes to frame a mystical mystery starring Elisabeth Moss, who convincingly portrayed a troubled detective. The hushed, poignant Rectify, set in small-town Georgia, follows a brooding man (Aden Young) from death row to a homecoming that is fraught with tension yet offers hope for redemption. And the creepy French import The Returnedredefines the zombie thriller by portraying the risen undead as deeply, unmistakably human.
7. The Americans
Set in the Reagan-era '80s, this taut and twisty spy thriller delivers genre-busting, edge-of-the-seat enjoyment. It also fascinates as a compelling dissection of a marriage and family built around a big Red lie. Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys are terrific, commanding our uneasy sympathies as the deeply embedded Soviet agents conducting espionage while raising two kids. Do we root for or against them?
8. Game of Thrones
Winter is still coming, but how could it possibly be colder than what happened during the HBO epic's return-to-form third season? The tragic grandeur of this brutal fantasy world reached its apex in the unsparing Red Wedding slaughterhouse sequence, which — even for those who had read the novel first — was almost too awful to bear. The story's sprawl is as daunting as ever, but there's a dramatic urgency to each of the many quests, where deadly betrayals and fantastic perils lurk at every lavishly produced turn.
9. Sitcom Oldies and Goodies
In a year that saw few great new comedies and a disappointing reboot of Arrested Development, kudos to a triumvirate of long-running favorites — ABC's Modern Family and The Middle and NBC's underdog Parks and Recreation— still knocking 'em dead with heartfelt ensemble humor as each hit its 100-episode milestone this season. Familiarity breeds contentment when the shows are this much fun. But seriously, will the Emmys ever notice The Middle's fantastically funny middle child, Sue (Eden Sher)?
10. Ray Donovan
Showtime's bold modern-Los Angeles noir is a dynamic showcase for battling alphas. Liev Schreiber swaggers and suffers mightily in the title role of a pugnacious fixer whose broken family is beyond his control, especially once his incorrigible jailbird dad (Jon Voight, oozing charismatic menace in a career-redefining performance) arrives to stir up long-festering resentments. The plotting can be as outrageous as Scandal's, but the palpable pain and despair of these damaged characters always ring electrifyingly true.