I don’t normally do this, but if your favorite show isn’t in here — not even in the honorable mentions listed at the bottom — then I sincerely apologize.
There is simply such a glut of good television these days that picking what’s “best” is largely a matter of taste. These are 10 seasons that are not only worth remembering, they demand to be remembered. Spies and clones, sailors and knights … oh heck, let’s just get to it.
1. Breaking Bad, Season 4 (2011)
Nothing — not even the zeitgeist-fumbling Game of Thrones, found below — has felt like such absolutely essential TV viewing in the years since Breaking Bad went off the air. You were either watching it or you were wrong, simple as that. And the show’s bone-crunching intensity, it’s volcanic storytelling power, was never stronger than in its gripping fourth season, centered on the deadly battle of wills between the villain Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito, brilliant) and our villain, Walter White (Bryan Cranston in the performance of a lifetime). Their weapons, and the season, run from a box-cutter to an improvised explosive wheelchair. The bad guy stands up to a sniper and takes out a drug cartel; the good guy poisons a young child and bombs a nursing home.
And all the while, the spice must flow. If the blue meth symbolizes, in one way, all the things Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad offered that no one else on television did, then it’s never been produced in such quantities. It churns out while Jesse (Aaron Paul earning another Emmy) turns his home into a squalid, nihilistic drug den, and it pours forth during his devastating “Problem Dog” 12-step monologue, too. Further outstanding work from the supporting cast only increase the output of one of the best TV shows of all time operating at maximum capacity. “I am the one who knocks,” Walter famously growled. But this unabashedly badass season just didn’t just knock — it pounded.
2. Parks & Recreation, Season 4 (2011-2012)
It seemed at the time that Parks & Rec’s third year (the one with the Harvest Festival, April and Andy’s surprise wedding, Li’l Sebastian, and Leslie and Ben falling in love) was about as perfect a season of comedy as could exist. But then along came the Knope campaign, improving on what was already flawless. The transition from a workplace sitcom to a political one offers beaucoup opportunities for electoral silliness (every single attack ad now makes me think of “Bobby Newport’s never had a real job … in his life”), but Pawnee was always about building on what came before, and that includes within the top-notch performances from Nick Offerman, Aubrey Plaza, Adam Scott, Retta, Aziz Ansari, Chris Pratt, and, of course, the woman holding it all together, Amy Poehler. If The West Wing’s polyglot, Nobel Prize-winning economist Josiah Bartlett was a liberal antidote to George W. Bush, Leslie Knope is definitely the opposite of President Trump — a lifelong public servant full of sunny feminism and a belief that government can actually improve people’s lives. But even in the thick of her city council bid, Parks & Rec is about so much more, about waffles and Zorpies and three-legged dogs and office water-balloon fights and snuggling up … like little bunnnnnies. You can sense, in every scene, how it was made with love.
3. Insecure, Season 2 (2017)
The last time an HBO comedy came across as this instantly classic it was Sex and the City, but even at their best Carrie and the girls never found themselves in such organically told stories. A glowing Issa Rae faces down life as a newly single, not-entirely-successful woman in a modern day Los Angeles full of surprising (but always deserved) moments of professional victory, invaluable friendship, and some truly steamy romantic heat. If the deficit of fully realized women of color on TV has you down, the criminally underappreciated Insecure is the first place you should turn. Natasha Rothwell’s wiseass Kelli is officially invited wherever I am at any given moment. Yvonne Orji should be a star for her portrayal of Molly, a whip-smart lawyer who makes ambition deeply charismatic. And Rae is a revelation — entire Greek dramas could be enacted within the tiny muscles between her eyebrows. Whether she’s locking down a killer hotation, navigating dicey racial politics, or throwing a trash-the-apartment tantrum while wearing a designer dress, Insecure is all the better for sounding like it’s told in her voice. But is also has an amazing one of its own. Don’t let the name fool you — this show is rock-solid.
4. Rick and Morty, Season 3 (2017)
A Galaxy Brain high-concept satire that revels in jokes about poop and masturbation. A sci-fi exploration of a genius-and-his-sidekick relationship so warped and twisted, it leaves entire planets decimated in its wake. Pickle fucking Rick. The first Adult Swim show to become what used to be called water-cooler programming, Rick and Morty might one day finally out-clever itself into oblivion, but Season 3 fired on all cylinders. Week to week, the possibilities of what could happen were so multiverse-level vast, it felt like the most dangerous show on TV. “Vindicators 3: The Return of Worldender” is a Marvel parody so vicious, you’ll never look at the self-involved spandex set the same way again. (“They’re the first line of defense against evil! They’re the guardians of the unguarded!” Morty exclaims, to which Rick replies, “They’re the writers of their own press releases, Morty.”) “The Ricklantis Mixup” explores an entire society of Ricks and Mortys, going through archetypal stories in a society brought low by dishonesty and corruption but raised high with evil intent. And “Rest and Ricklaxation” tried to take the toxicity out of one of pop culture’s most toxic dynamics, only to wind up showing how integral it actually is.
5. The Terror, Season 1 (2018)
Imagine the most sumptuous “Masterpiece Theatre” costume drama devolving into rot, monsters, and cannibalism, with a nihilistic Arctic closing in at every turn. That’s AMC’s adaption of Dan Simmons’s novel The Terror, which is itself based on a real-life disaster: In 1845, the H.M.S. Erebus and H.M.S Terror set out to find the Northwest Passage; none of the 129 men aboard came back alive. They all starved, froze, drowned, killed each other, fell to disease, or, in Simmons’s imagination, were hunted down by a massive, malevolent beast stalking the ice. In an era where “prestige TV” is practically synonymous with “bleak,” this was among the bleakest, but always too compelling and well-made to be a downer. Every member of the huge cast should be proud of this one for the rest of their lives. Jared Harris, between his turns in Mad Men and Chernobyl, is captivating as a commander who must first conquer his own demons, Nive Nielsen burns slow and long as an Inuit woman whose warnings go unheard, and Ciarán Hinds is cast as the pious fool but plays it like the role of a lifetime. The music from Marcus Fjellström, meanwhile, is a force of nature. Hauntingly good.
6. Hannibal, Season 2 (2014)
Speaking of cannibalism… The climax of the second season of Hannibal from Bryan Fuller (American Gods, Pushing Daisies) is an incident that actually takes place before Thomas Harris’s 1981 novel Red Dragon even begins: FBI Special Agent Will Graham, a genius at getting inside murderers’ heads, has confirmed that his friend and colleague Dr. Hannibal Lecter, a renowned Baltimore psychiatrist, is, in fact, also a highly prolific serial killer. The truth will come out — but not before Lecter gets a knife in Graham’s gut. That, however, is just how it ends. Before that, this wintry Grand Guignol performs an intoxicating series of reversals, complications, minglings, deceptions, and betrayals, all part of the deadly, binary star pas de deux between Hugh Dancy and Mads Mikkelsen. The production design is exquisite, the dialogue even better. Baroque, decadent and incorrigibly delicious, Hannibal was like a chocolate cake — nay, a Belgian dark chocolate ganache! — filled with gore. Yes, it’s gross. And I’m still enjoying the leftovers.
7. The Americans, Season 3 (2015)
If the heart of Breaking Bad beat with blinding, openly toxic male rage (and it did), then the decade’s other nerve-racking, piano-wire-taut drama was a Russian nesting doll with a center of pure, overwhelming sadness. The Americans, a cat-and-mouse-and-lots-of-rats thriller about deep-cover KGB spies living as U.S.-born travel agents outside early ’80s D.C., was equal parts hopscotch ingenuity and soul-destroying murder and misery, like a John Le Carré movie with a soundtrack full of Adam Ant and Roxy Music. Season 3 finds Elizabeth and Philip (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, both iconic) pressing metaphorical bruises and pulling literal teeth, with several of the series’s most interesting plotlines coming to a head. Also Yaz — lots of Yaz. Trying to talk people into watching The Americans is like trying to convince them to try a recreational drug. You know it will be “unhealthy” for them, but they’re going to have a great damn time.
8. Orphan Black, Season 2 (2014)
Sigh. No other show on this list wasted more potential. Much like Alias or Lost, Orphan Black would prove incapable of sustaining its creative highs with any regularity, but everything goes right in Season 2, a whiz-bang joyride that showcases the master class performance (or six) from Tatiana Maslany. Every wonderful thing this show could have been, it was in its sophomore season.
9. Game of Thrones, Season 3 (2013)
Forget, if you can, the soggy splat that was this year’s ending of HBO’s fantasy epic, and think back to the days when it first truly captured the world’s imagination. Yes, the horrific twist of the Red Wedding is what people remember most, but those early years were rich, sturdy things made of wood and stone — not just fire and blood. Season 3 found GoT in its sweet spot in terms of characters who’ve been introduced/not yet killed off, not to mention reveling in the truism that the journey is more important than the destination. This was the year we learned people can come back from the dead, that dragonglass kills White Walkers, and that Charles Dance’s Tywin Lannister is the best villain the show will ever have. The Kingslayer lost a hand, Daenerys began her scorching campaign against slavery, and Westeros graduated from “genre phenom” to shared cultural vocabulary.
10. Community, Season 3 (2011-2012)
In the musical number that opens Community’s touching, exuberant third season, the Study Group (ever self-aware) sings, “We’re gonna have more fun and be less weird than the first two years combined.” It’s a lie, naturally; the weirdness at Greendale reaches new heights. But for a show that always sided with embracing your inner freak, that’s about right. The Hugo Award-nominated “Remedial Chaos Theory” plays out alternate timelines as a prismatic chamber piece, while “Horror Fiction in Seven Spooky Steps” finds a circle of friends telling each other scary stories … so they can figure out which of them might be a homicidal maniac. At its best, Community is, to borrow from another of its songs, like the “feeling you get when your brain finally lets your heart get in its pants.”
Season 1 of Killing Eve, Big Little Lies, and True Detective
Season 2 of Atlanta, Broad City, GLOW, The Good Place, and Fleabag
Season 3 of Schitt’s Creek, Veep, and Eagleheart
Season 4 of Archer
Season 5 of Adventure Time, Mad Men, 30 Rock, Friday Night Lights, and BoJack Horseman