Best TV: 'Mad Men"

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Writing a Top 10 TV list is a no-win situation because there's just too much good TV to consider.

Even though the broadcast networks tend to drop the ball -- it's telling that only three of my Top 10 air on broadcast channels -- cable more than compensates with quality content. But cable is not immune to missteps.

AMC's "The Killing" is nowhere to be found on the list and Showtime's "Homeland," which started the season strong but then fell apart in an apparent attempt to emulate "24," got downgraded to an honorable mention.

New series are in short supply in this year's Top 10 with only HBO's "Girls" and ABC's "The Neighbors" (a protest vote against the unfair critical drubbing the show received) representing newcomers.

On with the list:

1. "Mad Men" (AMC): There's no better drama that embraces and explores the psychology of its characters than this 1960s period piece. That was truer than ever in the show's fifth season, which saw a major character's suicide, Pete inherit the suburban ennui that once nagged Don, and Don settle into married life with Megan even as he found her youthfulness confounding. Even in its fifth season "Mad Men" continued to evince smart, sophisticated, entertaining storytelling. What could be better than that?

2."Breaking Bad" (AMC): Walter White (Bryan Cranston) continues his dissent into evil as demonstrated during the show's penultimate season. The former chemistry teacher condoned the murder of an innocent child before killing his one-time business partner. Walt got his hands dirtier than ever. Surprising in its plot twists and convincing in its character arcs, "Breaking Bad" hasn't broken despite ample opportunity.

3."Boss" (Starz): Although it has been canceled, this remained one of the best plotted, most unpredictable dramas of the year. Yes, it was unrelentingly cynical about the political process, and none of its characters was particularly likable or good, but star Kelsey Grammer was a dramatic powerhouse surrounded by a capable cast that managed to keep up with his forceful performance.

4."Episodes" (Showtime): Funny enough in its first season, "Episodes" grew more sure-footed in its storytelling and character development in its second outing. This satire of the TV business -- it stars Matt LeBlanc as a fictional version of himself -- humorously gets to the heart of the absurdities that abound in media companies' corporate ranks.

5."Game of Thrones" (HBO): Breathtaking in the scope of its story and setting, this fantasy series takes viewers into a world that is at once familiar to anyone who has seen "The Lord of the Rings" and altogether new. It's a fantasy but one grounded in more realistic, relatable characters. Star Peter Dinklage continues to make the strongest impression among a sprawling cast, providing both humor and pathos.

6. "Downton Abbey" (PBS): Although the second season was a bit wobbly story-wise -- not enough quality plots to fill all those hours, as epitomized by the terrible Patrick story that went nowhere -- it had a fantastic conclusion as Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Matthew (Dan Stevens) finally got together. Plus, the World War I backdrop gave the show a new flavor that somehow managed to improve Mary's mood.

7."Girls" (HBO): A raw, unflinching look at a quartet of young women living in New York attempting to make it in their careers and relationships. Sometimes bratty and entitled, these characters may annoy viewers. But watch enough episodes and they become a convincing successor generation to the women of "Sex and the City."

8."Raising Hope" (Fox): Not enough viewers tune into this sitcom gem, the rare prime-time series -- along with "The Middle" -- that dares to depict characters who don't live a blithe, upper middle class existence. Life is messy for the downtrodden Chance family, but they get by with love and humor, especially wacky humor. Some of the gags are low-rent, but much of the comedy is also sly, dry and deadpan. Martha Plimpton and Garret Dillahunt are both terrific in leading roles that give them a chance to have fun in a sometimes silly playground.

9."The Walking Dead" (AMC): It may be too gory for some viewers -- this critic included -- but this horror-drama creates a unique, believable universe and manages to tell stories that are grounded and feel authentic. After a slow start in its second season, "Walking Dead" morphed into a fast-moving adventure in the first half of its third season this fall. Even splitting the stories didn't hurt the show, particularly because there was a natural return point where the two plots came back together.

10."The Neighbors" (ABC): Sure, some critics hate this show with every fiber of their being, but it's actually a charming little sitcom that encourages co-viewing among children (come for the aliens!) and their parents (stay for the satire and commentary on modern American life!). Add to that terrific comic timing from a TV comedy veteran (Jami Gertz) and newcomers (Simon Templeman, Toks Olagundoye and the child actors) and it's clear that this show deserves a neighborly visit from viewers who embrace family sitcoms.

Honorable mention: "The Big Bang Theory" (CBS), "Bunheads" (ABC Family), "Call the Midwife" (PBS), "The Colbert Report" (Comedy Central), "Community" (NBC), "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" (Comedy Central), "Damages" (DirecTV), "The Good Wife" (CBS), "Happy Endings" (ABC), "Homeland" (Showtime), "Justified" (FX), "Louie" (FX), "The Middle" (ABC), "Modern Family" (ABC), "Nashville" (ABC), "New Girl" (Fox), "The New Normal" (NBC), "Nurse Jackie" (Showtime), "Parenthood" (NBC), "Parks and Recreation" (NBC), "Portlandia" (IFC), "Sherlock" (PBS), "Sons of Anarchy" (FX), "Southland" (TNT), "Suburgatory" (ABC), "Teen Wolf" (MTV).

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TV writer Rob Owen: or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.


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