Nearly a dozen years ago, NBC boss Robert Wright sent all his programming executives tapes (remember those?) of The Sopranos with a tart, searching memo attached: How come our network doesn’t have anything like this? What can we do about it?
Whatever answers he got back, none of them worked. This year, even the plodding dimwits who bestow the Emmys realized what Wright knew back then: Cable is where TV excellence is created and nurtured. Of the six nominees for best drama, not one aired on commercial broadcast television. That vast wasteland television’s enemies used to talk about clearly doesn’t extend into digital territory.
Here are my picks for the year’s top shows:
• Homeland (Showtime): Nothing has captured the tensions, traumas and terrors of the post 9/11 age better than this suspenseful drama about an al Qaeda mole and the mentally unbalanced CIA officer who pursues him.
• Dexter (Showtime): There’s nothing more heartwarming — or terrifying — than two serial killers in love. Adding Yvonne Stahovski as Michael C. Hall’s won’t-you-take-a-sip-of-my-tea? girlfriend was like plunging a syringe full of adrenaline directly into the heart of what was already TV’s most manic show.
• The Good Wife (CBS): Part legal drama, part meditation on the boundaries between public and private life and part a sanctimony-free discourse on the difficulties of women in the workplace, The Good Wife is also good TV.
• Breaking Bad (AMC): Forget the werewolves on True Blood: No television series has ever done an on-screen transformation as dramatic or chilling as the one we’ve seen in Bryan Cranston over the past six seasons — from a bedraggled high school chem teacher selling a few drugs to pay for his cancer treatment to a cunning and lethal narco-trafficking king.
• Modern Family (ABC): A warm, loving and hilarious embrace of a blended America in which ethnicity, sexual orientation and even age look nothing like they did back when June and Ward Cleaver ran the household.
• Hell on Wheels (AMC): This tale of the construction of America’s intercontinental railroad takes a scathing look at the intersection of political power and corporate greed, while probing relentlessly into issues of race, class and gender.
• Boss (Starz): Kelsey Grammer is — well, was; the show was canceled a few weeks ago after two seasons — stunning as a Chicago mayor whose ruthless corruption cannot easily be distinguished from his clinical insanity.
• The Big Bang Theory (CBS): “So four nerds and a hot cocktail waitress go into a bar …” Six years later, this show’s seemingly one-joke premise is more gut-bustingly funny than ever.
• Mad Men (AMC): A fascinating panorama of the entropic decline of a tiny societal bubble — the brief hipster interlude between the Americas of Eisenhower and Woodstock.
• Boardwalk Empire (HBO): It’s a wonder that the story pitch didn’t make HBO programmers scratch their own eyes out: how Prohibition and women’s suffrage midwived the birth of America’s organized crime. But Steve Buscemi’s unlikely star turn as a seedy politician turned sociopathic gangster has been compulsive viewing for three seasons and counting.