The 64th Annual Primetime Emmy nominees are to be announced on July 19. As a memo to Emmy voters, here are my personal selections for the 10 best drama and comedy series of the past television season.
Outstanding Drama Series
• “Boardwalk Empire:” As impressive as the first season of “Boardwalk Empire” was, season two was an improvement in almost every way. Steve Buscemi continues to dominate as Nucky Thompson, the treasurer of Atlantic County who is equal parts politician and criminal. On the whole though, he’s simply a boss. Kelly Macdonald is just as impressive as Margaret Schroeder, a woman trying to remain worthy in God’s eyes while dating a man who commits murder on a regular basis. Also commendable is Michael Pitt as Jimmy Darmody, who easily wins the year’s award for most heartbreaking and disturbing backstory as we see the true nature of his abusive relationship with his mother. Stimulating, complex, and marvelously crafted, every episode of this superb HBO drama has the fortitude of mini movie.
• “Breaking Bad:” While all of the shows on this list are great, none even comes close to topping the television masterwork that is “Breaking Bad.” Bryan Cranston is well worthy of a fourth Emmy for his creation of Walter White, TV’s dumbest smart man who keeps digging deeper into the soulless business of making crystal meth. But the MVP of season four was Giancarlo Esposito as Gus, Walt’s boss and arch rival. Exteriorly, there’s nothing threatening about this calm man who wears glasses and a bright yellow shirt. Without even thinking though, Gus will gladly slit the throat of anybody who crosses him. The opposition between Walt and Gus all works up to one of the finest season finales ever constructed, as Gus finally reveals the two-faced monster behind the curtain. If you haven’t seen “Breaking Bad,” you’re truly missing out on something revolutionary.
• “Downton Abbey:” While “Downton Abbey” may be the ultimate snob show, it’s also one of the most absorbing dramas currently on television. After winning the Emmy for Outstanding Miniseries last year, “Downton Abbey” rightfully decided to compete in the drama series categories this year. Over the course of eight episodes and marvelous Christmas special, season two of “Downton Abbey” continued the engrossing chronicles of the wealthy Crawley family and their dedicated servants. The result is a funny, tragic, and romantic narrative that merits comparison to the works of Jane Austen.
• “Game of Thrones:” Where “Downtown Abbey” is probably TV’s ultimate snob show, “Game of Thrones” must be TV’s definitive fanboy show. But just because the “Game of Thrones” fan base is mainly comprised of 40-year-old men who still live with their mothers doesn’t mean the show isn’t deserving of serious award consideration. As a matter of fact, “Game of Thrones” was easily among the most intelligently written, elegantly acted and epically directed series of the last television season. The episode of “Blackwater” is a notable feat, depicting an extended action sequence every bit as astonishing as the Battle of Helm’s Deep from “Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.” Peter Dinklage just might win his second Emmy for this episode, if not for repeatedly slapping the young tyrant Joffrey across the face.
• “The Good Wife:” With the increasing number of quality dramas on HBO, Showtime, and various cable channels, the Emmys have been leaving most network dramas in the dust as of late. “The Good Wife” will likely be the lone network series in this year’s Outstanding Drama category. It will be a justifiable honor for this wittily-written drama, which is still prospering in season three. Julianna Margulies, Archie Panjabi, Chistine Baranski, Alan Cumming and others have solidified “The Good Wife” as one of the best ensemble pieces on television. The real surprise this season though was the strength of the various guest actors, enlisting names like Michael J. Fox, Matthew Perry, and Anika Noni Rose. The best of all is Carrie Preston as the ditsy, yet still gifted, Elsbeth Tascioni. If Preston didn’t already have a commitment to her role on “True Blood,” I would lobby to have “The Good Wife” make her a series regular.
• “Homeland:” Last year welcomed many promising new dramas like “Smash,” “Revenge,” and “Once Upon a Time,” which we’ll get to later. But the season’s standout new show by far was “Homeland.” The fiercely underrated Claire Danes gives the performance of her career as Carrie Mathison, a bipolar CIA agent who suspects Marine Sgt. Nicholas Brody, also terrifically played by Damian Lewis, is a sleeper agent working for Iraqi terrorists. In her quest for truth, Carrie finds herself perusing a sexual relationship with Brody and falls in love with him. What’s so captivating about “Homeland” is how it keeps the audience guessing Brody’s motivations. Is he a terrorist or is the workaholic Carrie simply losing her mind? If you want the answers, you’ll have to watch the exquisite first season of this winning show.
• “The Killing:” The first season of “The Killing” left some dissatisfied as the Rosie Larsen murder remained unsolved. The showrunners decided to bring the case to a close this season, however, and the results did not disappoint. Season two was an excellent ride as Mireille Enos’ Sarah Linden and Joel Kinnaman’s Stephen Holder fought politics and the authorities to seek out the killer. The finale of “What I Know” provided a shocking and emotional conclusion in one of the year’s finest overall episodes. It’s unclear where “The Killing” will go from this point on. Even if this is the last we see of Linden and Holder though, at least season two offered plenty of closure.
• “Mad Men:” Season five of “Mad Men” has received some lukewarm responses from a range of cynics. But I think these criticisms mostly have to do with the fact that the show has set its standards impossibly high. Even if this wasn’t the best season of “Mad Men,” it was still a great addition to one of the best television series of all time. This year we saw a more tamed side to Don Draper as he attempted to maintain an honest marriage with his new wife Megan, played by Jessica Paré in a star-making performance. Elisabeth Moss, John Slattery, and Vincent Kartheiser are first rate as always. But the prominent performances of the year came from Jared Harris as Lane Pryce, hitting rock bottom, and especially Christina Hendricks as Joan Harris, who takes one for the team when approached by a despicable client. Here’s hoping that Hendricks will finally break the “Mad Men” acting curse, becoming the series’ first performer to win an Emmy.
• “Once Upon A Time:” “Once Upon A Time” is a series with an imaginative setup and fortunately delivers on its premise. Jennifer Morrison does some of her best work as Emma Swan, a woman who travels to the seemingly ordinary town of Storybrooke. According to a little boy named Henry though, every person in town is unknowingly a character from the land of fairytales. In flashbacks, we see different sides to the stories of “Snow White,” “Pinocchio,” “Beauty and Beast,” and others. The end result is a charming and creative achievement of fantasy. Robert Carlyle particularly delivers one of his best performances as the scheming Rumpelstiltskin, who is every bit as entertaining as a Disney villain. “Once Upon A Time” isn’t without its corny moments, but this is appropriate seeing how fairytales are already corny to begin with. Some occasional cheesy dialog and unconvincing visual effects aside, “Once Upon A Time” is a wickedly fun drama that can appeal even more to adults than kids.
• “Shameless:” “Shameless” is the perfect word to describe the Gallagher family. These people are reprehensible, vulgar, and will do just about anything to get by. Despite all of their dysfunction though, the Gallaghers are a surprisingly loving bunch of people. Granted, William H. Macy’s Frank Gallagher is a basically a drunken jerk. The Gallagher kids, however, are a close, loyal unit that will always stand by each other. The ensemble of talented young actors provide the backbone of “Shameless” as the Gallaghers help each other through good times and tragedy. The outcome is something meaningful and relatable that epitomizes what it truly means to be a family. If you do watch “Shameless” though, make sure your 80-year-old grandmother isn’t in the same room. I learned that firsthand.
Outstanding Comedy Series
• “Community:” It’s absolutely perplexing that a comedy as smart and funny as “Community” is suffering so horrendously in the ratings. What’s even more outrageous though is the Emmy’s failure to recognize the show year after year. “Community” is nothing short of brilliant with some of the most diverse story concepts since “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” The groundbreaking third season gave us satires of “Law and Order,” “Glee,” PBS Documentaries, and 8-bit video games. “Community” also distributed the year’s single best comedic episode, “Remedial Chaos Theory,” in which we see the several possible outcomes of a chaotic dinner party. If only this gem of a show could receive a wider fan base and more Emmy love, in addition to six seasons and a movie. Now that would be cool.
• “Curb Your Enthusiasm:” Where some aging shows like “Two and a Half Men” hit an all-time low this year, “Curb Your Enthusiasm” continued to thrive in its eighth season. In one of the show’s best years yet, Larry David found himself traveling back to his New York roots. During his misadventures in the Big Apple, Larry competed with Rosie O’Donnell for the affection of a woman, redeemed Bill Buckner, and found a new enemy in Michael J. Fox. After eight seasons of consistently excellent material, it’s about high time “Curb” finally won the Outstanding Comedy Series award. It truly deserves to win big this year for a season that was more than pretty good.
• “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia:” At this point, “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” will probably never garner a single Emmy nomination. The show’s morally reprehensible characters that never learn or grow from their experiences probably turn off most Emmy voters. But come on people, the show is simply hilarious. It’s hard to think of two instances that made me laugh harder this year than Charlie vomiting blood capsules all over his date and Frank pining over the loss of his beloved rum ham. Those scenes alone are worthy of an Emmy.
• “Louie:” “Louie” has received a lot of praise from critics, some of which have gone as far to call it the single best program on television right now. I’m going to say it’s one of the best comedies of the year and a more than commendable Emmy contender. Louie C.K. brilliantly manages to derive humor from mundane situations, like going to dinner with a friend, and bizarre occurrences, like witnessing a bum lose his head in a car wreck. If you’re typically turned off by uncomfortable, uneventful humor, this show probably won’t do much for you. Those looking for something unique and unconventional though, are likely to find themselves laughing and thinking a fair deal while watching “Louie.”
• “The Middle:” “The Middle” has the misfortune of having to follow in the footsteps the juggernaut that is “Modern Family.” It’s a royal shame that this abundantly relatable family show often goes unrecognized, because it’s really evolved into something special. Patricia Heaton and Neil Flynn are the epitome of your average, working class parents that must deal with everyday occurrences like signing up to volunteer at their son’s school. The scene stealing performances come from the young actors, which includes Charlie McDermott as the slacker Axl, little Atticus Shaffer as the peculiar Brick, and Eden Sher as the hysterically awkward Sue.
• “Modern Family:” Last year’s Emmy’s might as well have been called the “Modern Family” awards with the show winning practically every major comedy award. It’d be easy to jump on the overrated bandwagon given the show’s overwhelming success. But it’s hard to complain when the love for “Modern Family” is completely warranted. I can’t imagine anybody not being won over by this endlessly charming and extraordinarily funny show about one of the most unforgettable families in television history. This is a classic in the making that people are going to be talking about for a long time.
• “New Girl:” Zooey Deschanel has easily earned the title of this year’s “it girl” primarily thanks to her wonderful show, “New Girl.” Deschanel is adorable as Jess, the quirky woman who loves to abruptly sing. She’s not the only highlight of the show though. Jake M. Johnson, Hannah Simone, and Lamorne Morris also deserve acclaim for their great supporting work.
• “Parks and Recreation:” While “The Office” has managed to remain good without the presence of Steve Carell, the best NBC, documentary-styled comedy this year was “Parks and Recreation.” Season four gave us a winning story arc as Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope ran for political office with some assistance from her friends in the Parks Department. Adam Scott particularly comes into his own as leading man Ben Wyatt. Together, Leslie and Ben have one of the most delightful television romances this side of Jim and Pam. Then there’s Nick Offerman as Ron Swanson, quite possibly the most sidesplitting character currently on television.
• “Suburgatory:” One of the most pleasant surprises of the year, “Suburgatory” proved to be a welcome addition to the ABC Wednesday lineup and the year’s finest new comedy. Jane Levy gives a breakthrough performance as Tessa, a teenage city girl who moves to the suburbs. It’s a familiar scenario, amusingly told as Tessa engages with her plastic neighbors that strive to appear perfect. Cheryl Hines is especially good as Dallas, a Texan trophy wife with a heart of gold, as is Carly Chaikin as her materialistic daughter Dalia. I just hope next season we get to see more of Dalia’s pet kangaroo, which she dresses in a jacket.
• “30 Rock:” Like “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “30 Rock” is failing to show any major decline in quality despite its age. Liz Lemon just might have found her significant other this year in James Marsden’s Criss. Jack Donaghy meanwhile grieved for his wife, who was kidnapped by a dictator based on Kim Jong-il, while Jenna solidified herself as the most hated woman in the country by judging on America’s Kidz Got Singing. As for Tracy … well, he’s still Tracy.
• Ahwatukee native and Desert Vista graduate Nick Spake is a student at Arizona State University. He has been working as a film critic for five years, reviewing movies on his website, NICKPICKSFLICKS.com. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.