1. “Glee,” first season
Can a story about high school misfits singing and dancing their way through conflict — sprinkled with themes of togetherness and friendship — ever be taken seriously? “Glee” proves it can. The smash hit’s first season created a perfect blend of happy-go-lucky song-and-dance numbers and dark subject matter from teen pregnancy to failed marriages, making sure it does not become your little sister’s “High School Musical.” The result is a cult phenomenon, a formidable army of fans (“gleeks”) and consistently high iTunes downloads. But even without the hype, “Glee” shines as a brilliant show with a bright future.
2. “Mad Men,” third season
The third season of this period drama is defined by change. Set in 1963, the season built up to JFK’s assassination with blood-tinged plot twists, unexpected character developments and plenty of hard drinking along the way. With philandering ad man Don Draper’s (unsuccessful) attempts to be a better family man, his icy wife Betty’s own forays into extramarital affairs-of-the-heart and up-and-coming copywriter Peggy Olson’s struggle to reconcile her femininity with her career ambitions, the insane third season offered viewers an engaging glimpse into the decade’s less glamorous realities.
3. “Lost,” fifth season
After four seasons as one of TV’s most popular, exciting dramas, the “Lost” creators took their desert-island saga in a risky narrative direction: time travel. In the process, “Lost” may have alienated most casual viewers, but its millions of obsessed fans were rewarded with a season that presented an in-depth look at the history of the mysterious island’s warring inhabitants. By embracing its science fiction side, “Lost” delivered the most surprising and compelling season since its early days and laid the ground for what should be an epic end to the series when it returns in February.
4. “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” fifth season
Finally, after years of flying under the radar, the deranged lunacy of “Sunny” has reached mainstream popularity — notice all the Green Man costumes these days? In their fifth season, the compatriots of Paddy’s Pub continued their repugnant lifestyles of unadulterated egocentricity and rampant substance abuse with shenanigans ranging from the practical (drinking wine from a can) to the topical (flipping foreclosed homes for profit) to the horrific (poisoning their opponents to win a flip-cup tournament). The Gang may shock you with depravity, but you’re guaranteed to consistently laugh your ass off.
—Kavi Shekhar Pandey
5. “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” seventh season
In its seventh go-around, “Curb” almost went over the edge with increasingly absurd scenarios in which Larry David got entangled and a gimmicky story arch — a show-within-a-show “Seinfeld” reunion — to boot. But the iconic “Seinfeld” four carried themselves with the perfect flare of subtle self-parody, while the regular characters, especially the vicious Susie and conscientious Marty Funkhouser, brought their shtick in spades. Half sympathetic, half stubborn, only Larry David could murder a black swan, juggle two wheelchair-confined dates and sport women’s underwear, only to emerge relatively unscathed. He did it, and he kept “Curb” as surprising and indispensable as ever.