Now that the 2011-2012 TV season is over, we’re looking back at the best in drama. Here are my 15 favorite dramas. And check out our other drama honors: Lead Actor | Lead Actress | Supporting Actor | Supporting Actress
#15 The Walking Dead
Season 2 was set almost entirely on the farm, and that gave the show a chance to slow down and focus on developing its characters. From the Daryl’s heroic search for Sophia to Dale’s desperate pleas to maintain a sense of humanity to Shane’s ruthless adaptation to the harsh new world to Rick’s acceptance of his role as leader to Lori’s mind games as she played two men against one another to Glenn’s romance with the farmer’s daughter, everyone got a chance to shine. And there were a whole lot of awesome zombies.
The first half of the season was kind of a drag as the show took far too long to bring Peter back. But once he did, and once Olivia started to remember him, the intense sci-fi story of the two worlds and David Robert Jones’ plans from William Bell provided some of the most exhilarating science fiction on TV. In particular, the flash-forward episode “Letters of Transit” was such a remarkable stand-alone piece of sci-fi storytelling it could’ve come from a Philip K. Dick short story.
#13 The Vampire Diaries
TV snobs will sneer at a CW show about sexy teen vampires making this list, but for those who watch it, they know that it’s the most fast-paced series on television. The number of dramatic revelations, character deaths and major, game-changing moments is startling. From the evolution of Klaus to Elena and Damon’s relationship to the outright amazing mythology regarding the Original vampires’ origins to the fact that the show ended by killing its main character and turning her into a vampire, The Vampire Diaries is fearless storytelling at its best.
#12 Teen Wolf
Yes, this is a flashy MTV show about sexy teenage werewolves based on a silly ‘80s comedy. But if you give the show a chance you’ll find something so good that you don’t even need to include the word “guilty” before “pleasure.” The first season established a core group of characters, introduced the world and gave us a central mystery and Big Bad (the Alpha) so good that it is reminiscent of the heyday of Veronica Mars and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The writing, characters and moody direction are all spot-on and create a drama that makes you laugh, cheer, scream, cry and swoon.
TV is full of procedural crime dramas, but Castle is a cut above the rest. The stand-alone cases are always entertaining (superheroes, dog trainers, fairy tales, zombies, dancing reality shows). But it’s the relationship between Castle and Beckett, and the exhilarating and tense finale where they finally hooked up, that makes it so much fun.
There’s something so pure, earnest and moving about this expansive family drama. The characters and the relationships feel real and the show is able to take viewers on the journey of family drama. The large ensemble is all stellar (even the children, particularly Max Burkholder as a child with Asperger Syndrome). From childbirths to weddings, Parenthood makes you feel warm and comfortable like family should.
Fiendishly addictive, Revenge works on multiple levels. It is simultaneously a cheesy soap opera and a genuinely good drama. That balance is almost impossible to strike, but the show does it beautifully by making us cheer on as Emily Thorne crushes her foes and letting us savor the devilishly cutting barbs from Victoria Grayson. It’s everything a primetime soap should be and more.
Season 3 found several storylines all piling up neatly into a grand conclusion. There was the sadistic Robert Quarles, carpetbagging mobster with big plans for the backwoods of Harlan County. There was Wynn Duffy, the sniveling, scheming bad guy who always finds a way out of a jam by switching allegiances every two episodes. There was Boyd and his expanding criminal enterprises and his attempt to fix local sheriff’s race. And Elstin Limehouse, the ominous butcher whose only concern is protecting his own. Somehow all of that came together in a masterful symphony of colorful characters and plots to a grisly comical final showdown.
#7 The Good Wife
The cast is first-rate, but what makes this show so outstanding is its guest cast, which is impressive every week. From Amy Sedaris, Carrie Preston and Martha Plimpton to Michael J. Fox, Dylan Baker and Matthew Perry, the amount of top-caliber guest performances on this show is astounding. It’s not just that the show attracts talented stars, it’s that it knows how best to use them in a way that features them without completely distracting from the show’s actual stars. From an acting perspective, it’s like The Good Wife is the dream team.
#6 Sons of Anarchy
The fourth season of this increasingly brilliant biker drama started with Jax getting out of prison and wanting to get out of the club. But a series of bad ideas, the murder of Piney, the brutal disfigurement of Tara’s hands, Juice’s attempted suicide and the dethroning of Clay all led to a different outcome. The ending was a bit convoluted and forced, but the entire season up to that point was tense and brilliant.
USA shows are always fun, but rarely are they great. Suits changed all of that. The exciting story of an aimless genius who accidentally stumbles into a career as a lawyer at a prestigious firm, the thing that stands out most about the show is its writing. The dialogue is so rich and the exchanges are so perfectly worded that you could sit back and listen to Harvey and Mike talk about movies for an entire hour. Like every other show on the network, Suits is entertaining and amusing, but it’s also one of the smartest shows on TV, which sets it head-and-shoulders above the rest.
#4 Mad Men
To be honest, any of the top four shows on this list could have easily been number one. The fifth season of Mad Men was all about change, and while some of the episodes seemed downright bizarre (the creepy and scary “Mystery Date” episode comes to mind), all you need to do is look at individual scenes to be in awe of how great this show is. There was Roger’s acid trip, the arrival of Michael Ginsberg, the suicide, Don’s eventual realization that he’d become complacent, Peggy’s desire to move on, Pete’s surreal affair with a mentally unstable woman, Joan prostituting herself to become partner and more.
The breakout revelation of the season, Showtime’s tense terrorism thriller was an intense ride from start to finish. I could point to any moment from the season to highlight how remarkable the show was, or simply mention Claire Danes who delivered the single best acting performance of the entire year. So I will simply refer you to the stunning cabin scene, where Brody figures out Carrie’s secret suspicion of him and willingly confesses to everything she wants to know. It was bold, brilliant written, expertly acted and everything that television should be.
#2 Breaking Bad
Season 4 was all about the war between Gus and Walter, and to understand why it was so great, simply look at where it started and where it ended. The season premiere, “Box Cutter,” was a silent masterpiece in the aftermath of Gale’s death. The scene of Walter pleading for his life as Gus silently walked across the room, put on a protective suit, returned to slice a man’s throat in front of Walter and Jesse, then quietly left, was perfect. Then the season ended with Walter getting the upper-hand, proving that he was the new master by orchestrating a series of events that turned Jesse against Gus and led to Gus getting blown up. Somehow this brilliant show gets better with every season.
#1 Game of Thrones
Ambitious doesn’t even begin to describe a show that has 25 series regulars spread across a vast land. But the second season allowed the characters to develop slowly and come to a boil as the War for the Iron Throne heated up. Theon Greyjoy tried to become a warrior, Stannis Baratheon was willing to have his own brother killed, Arya got her vengeance on, Joffrey became evil incarnate and, most importantly, Tyrion Lannister rose to power. The entire season was one long epic journey, but really, it’s the Battle of Blackwater from the ninth episode that earned it the top spot on this list. “Blackwater” was as impressive an accomplishment of filmmaking as has ever been seen on television. It made major summer blockbuster movies look cheap in comparison, and it was also full of some superb acting from Peter Dinklage and Lena Headey. That one episode was the best thing I saw on TV this year, and so Game of Thrones deserves the honor of being the best drama.