4. Mad Men (AMC)
Stars: Jon Hamm, John Slattery, Jessica Pare, Vincent Kartheiser, Jared Harris, Elisabeth Moss, Christina Hendricks, January Jones, Aaron Staton, Rich Sommer, Kiernan Shipka
As expected, AMC's critically adored drama returned from its 17-month hiatus in tip-top shape. Starting off in 1966, Mad Men's superb fifth season brought with it a host of challenges for Don Draper (Jon Hamm, as great as ever). At home, his marriage to his loving, anti-Betty Draper spouse, Megan (the breakout Jessica Paré), inspired the known lothario to settle down and remain faithful; at work, the ever-changing times signaled his elder statesmanship, seen by his out-of-touch chat with a teenage Rolling Stones fan.
None of this hurt Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce as a whole, though, with the show's central ad agency scoring a few big deals. Beneath the company's surface, however, brewed discontent and self-hatred. Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) finally reached her Don-doesn't-respect-me-enough breaking point, while Lane (Jared Harris) let past mistakes and a lack of support from Don motivate him to commit suicide.
With Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) also going through his own self-evaluation, thanks to a tryst with an unstable married gal (Alexis Bledel), Mad Men's latest run tackled the series' usual brand of subtle psychosis and inter-office positioning (see: Christina Hendricks' excellent work handling Joan's promotion via sexual favor) with an increased level of elegance.
The flack that show creator Matthew Weiner catches for his closed-door dealing with AMC isn't quietly addressed; some say his demands for higher budgets ultimately led to original The Walking Dead showrunner Frank Darabont's animosity toward the network. But as Mad Men reaffirmed this year, Weiner and his staff tell mature and provocative stories with a singular grace.