"Mad Men" was MIA in 2011 (it returns in March on AMC), and my TV Top 10 feels empty without it.
Still, there was plenty of good television — far too much to include on a single list — in the year that just ended. Cable continued to break new ground in drama, the broadcast networks were strong in comedy, and PBS found itself with a hit on its hands.
Here are my Top 10 shows of the year, listed alphabetically to avoid apples-and-oranges comparisons. Honorable mentions follow. Some of your choices are probably different, and that's OK. There's enough TV out there to satisfy every taste.
"Breaking Bad," AMC • Oh, Walter White — what will become of you? In Season 4, the teacher-turned-meth cooker played so brilliantly by Bryan Cranston went head-to-head with his most terrifying adversary, drug kingpin Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito). Every episode brought a new punch in the gut, leading up to a season finale (the tie!) that immediately entered TV legend.
"Downton Abbey," PBS • A costume drama about British aristocrats and their servants, set before World War I and centering on an obscure inheritance law called an entail — how stuffy is that? Not stuffy at all, "Masterpiece" proved with this juicy soap opera, which begins its second season Jan. 8.
"Game of Thrones," HBO • George R.R. Martin's best-selling fantasy novels about the battles for power in the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros have such a fanatical cult following that it's almost impossible to believe HBO didn't screw them up. Instead, executive producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss turned the impossible-to-film first volume in the series into the 10 most riveting hours on TV in 2011.
"The Good Wife," CBS • A procedural that's also satisfyingly sudsy, Julianna Margulies' drama is solid times two, meshing ongoing character stories with intriguing legal cases that wrap up by the week. Great performances and smart writing keep us tuning in.
"Homeland," Showtime • Was Marine Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) "turned" by the enemy while imprisoned in Iraq? This brilliant thriller with ties to "24" spent its first season following disgraced CIA operative Carrie Mathison as she tried to prove her suspicions and prevent disaster. The season finale was a real nailbiter, too.
"Justified," FX • Great in its first season, FX's modern-day Western about a Southern lawman (Timothy Olyphant) was nothing short of amazing in its second, thanks in large part to Margo Martindale as crime-family matriarch Mags Bennett. Gritty and witty, "Justified" is almost perfect television.
"Modern Family," ABC • How much more praise is it possible to heap on this comedy? Warm-hearted but rarely sappy, with a crowd of lovably flawed characters who now feel like part of the family, "Modern Family" is a rare TV gem.
"Parks and Recreation," NBC • Leslie Knope rhymes with "hope" and, as played by Amy Poehler, Leslie makes oddball little Pawnee, Ind., a very hopeful place. Also, a very funny one, with every character — from chronically cranky Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) to sweetly naive Andy Dwyer (Chris Pratt) — having hilarious moments.
"Parenthood," NBC • Consistently satisfying even when its grown-up characters act like children and its children behave like brats, "Parenthood" is one of TV's most realistic portraits of a family, for better or worse. Whether the Bravermans are making us laugh or breaking our hearts, they're always worth visiting.
"The Walking Dead," AMC • What would you do if you thought the end was inevitable? In "The Walking Dead," the survivors of a zombie plague struggle to keep going. In Season 2, that has meant difficult moral choices. As the group hunkered down on a farm, even a choice that had been simple — stopping "walkers" in their tracks — turned out to be up for debate. Luckily, Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and his ragtag band will be moving on when the season resumes Feb. 12.
Honorable mention: Comedies
"30 Rock," "The Middle," "New Girl," "Raising Hope," "Suburgatory."
Honorable mention: Dramas
"American Horror Story," "Boardwalk Empire," "Men of a Certain Age," "Once Upon a Time," "Treme."
My bottom 5:
"I Hate My Teenage Daughter," Fox
"H8R," the CW
"Charlie's Angels," ABC
"How To Be a Gentleman," CBS