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Picks and Pans Main: Top Ten Shows

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Homeland

Showtime

1 This taut spy thriller injected an ingenious element of doubt into a genre built on paranoia. CIA analyst Carrie Mathison, tracking an ex-POW she thinks has turned terrorist, is mentally unstable; are her methods (which include sleeping with her enemy) delusional or smart? Or both? Claire Danes played Carrie with a nervous bluster that was irritating-but right. Damian Lewis was her opposite: a tightly wrapped explosive package.

Downton Abbey

PBS

2 Masterpiece’s juicy soap about goings-on at a country estate was even better than the classic Upstairs, Downstairs. The plot-involving a will-could have come from Anthony Trollope, and the cast was the best English ensemble outside of a Harry Potter movie. Good show!

Game of Thrones

HBO

3 Season 1 of this medieval-tinged epic fantasy based on George R.R. Martin’s books was the year’s most commanding narrative. It swept from castle to castle and battle to battle as rival royal houses (and one or two of their lunatic relations) conspired to gain power. The next season promises dragons, but the humans already come close to breathing fire.

American Horror Story

FX

4 Like a campfire tale told by a sadist, this haunted-house extravaganza piled on the gruesome. (Moms, be extra careful when feeding a baby Frankenstein.) Over the top, yes, but also so lurid, frenzied and hallucinatory that it slithered under the skin.

Breaking Bad

AMC

5 The junkyard dog of series TV just gets meaner, angrier, dirtier-and better. Season 4 saw meth dealer and science geek Walter White (Bryan Cranston) rise, or sink, to new levels of ruthlessness as he outwitted drug lord Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito).

Louie

FX

6 Louis C.K.-who has the round, unsmiling face of a cold pancake that’s never known a syrup’s love-perfected his bleak, neurotic brand of comedy in season 2. How bleak? He got a huge laugh out of a pedestrian fatality.

New Girl

FOX

7 The fall’s best new sitcom was a star vehicle for Zooey Deschanel, whose performance as newly single Jess was often described as “adorkable.” That doesn’t really convey the mystery of how she gets laughs by reducing dialogue to mashed bananas or singing to herself in the voice of a preschooler. She’s remorkable.

Revenge

ABC

8 Think of it as Desperate One-Percenters-a new guilty pleasure to replace the retiring ladies of Wisteria Lane. Emily VanCamp stars as a young woman out to avenge her father, who was destroyed by his horrible beachfront neighbors in the Hamptons. But 99 percent of the show belongs to Madeleine Stowe. As chief villainess, she glides in and out of the enormous rooms, purloining entire scenes. She upends the whole premise; you root for her to crush VanCamp.

American Idol

FOX

9 To quote Steven Tyler, “Well, hellfire, save matches, [bleep] a duck and see what hatches!” Translation: Season 10 of the reality titan was rejuvenated with the departure of Simon Cowell and the arrival of two new judges, glamour goddess Jennifer Lopez and the charming if syntax-challenged Tyler. Even the winner hit a new note: Scotty McCreery, a kid with a country voice older than Hank Williams.

Happy Endings

ABC

10 In season 2, a fairly generic comedy about friends in Chicago found an original groove-punch lines were accelerated to the pinging speed of protons. If everyone communicated this fast and this funny, the social networks would all dry up and die.