From Bad to worst, USA TODAY takes you through the highs and lows of the TV year. (Want to keep talking TV? Ask Robert Bianco about his picks in Monday's Critic's Corner chat at 2 p.m. ET.)
Program of the year: Breaking Bad (AMC)
With a short outing that felt more like a self-contained miniseries coda than a final batch of episodes, this gold-standard drama brought to a close its remarkable run. It was one made all the more remarkable for neither ending too soon, before the story could be fully explored, nor running too long, after our interest had been exhausted. Never have the moral and personal dimensions of one man's descent into crime been more fully explored, from the serio-comic start to the tragic conclusion. Searingly, satisfyingly brilliant.
Drama of the year: The Good Wife (CBS)
How do you choose between Bad, with its eight-episode run, and Good Wife, which produced 22 over the calendar year, when the shows work on such vastly different playing fields? We may be forced to come Emmy time, but for now, let's just be glad we had them both - and carve out a special spot for Wife, which is as smart and enjoyable as any series, anywhere. It goes to show that when the broadcast networks have the will in the drama field, they still have the way. If only they had the will more often.
Comedy of the year: The Big Bang Theory (CBS)
In comedy, broadcast still holds the top two cards: ABC's modern classic Modern Family and this extravagantly funny crowd-pleaser, which in tone and popular appeal has morphed into a nerd version of Friends. If you have to pick, give the edge this year to Big Bang for the way it has grown its ensemble and deepened its characters. That doesn't mean Modern Family has slipped. It means Big Bang has caught up.
The rest of the top 10:
Modern Family (ABC)
The Americans (FX)
Masters of Sex (Showtime)
Broadchurch (BBC America)
The Middle (ABC)
Downton Abbey (PBS)
And 10 more that made the TV year brighter:
Orange Is the New Black (Netflix)
Game of Thrones (HBO)
Orphan Black (BBC America)
The Walking Dead (AMC)
Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Fox)
Sleepy Hollow (Fox)
The Crazy Ones (CBS)
Most disappointing show: Homeland (Showtime)
Many things went wrong, but the essential problem was typical of the genre: crisis inflation. In the first season, Carrie's goal was to stop Brody from killing the people he held responsible for the death of his terrorist mentor's child. This season, her goal was to help Saul take control of the Iranian government - with the assistance of a mentally damaged, half-starved, heroin-addicted Brody, who has developed an unexpected talent for assassinating near-heads of state. Of course that sounds ridiculous. The only question is why the writers didn't know it.
Worst new show: Dads (Fox)
Out of all the many terrible things about this crude, mean-spirited flop, here's the worst: the firm suspicion that Fox executives knew precisely how bad it was and aired it anyway, out of a desire to stay in business with its creator, Family Guy's Seth MacFarlane, and a belief that viewers were stupid and tasteless enough to go along. The good news is, we weren't.
The rest of the worst (new shows only:
Low Winter Sun (AMC)
Lucky 7 (ABC)
Ja'mie: Private School Girl (HBO)
Do No Harm (NBC)
We Are Men (CBS)
The Bridge (FX)
And lest we forget: CBS' 2 Broke Girls
Still on. Still terrible.
Best remake: House of Cards (Netflix)
Worst revival: Arrested Development (Netflix)
Worst choices: American Idol (Fox)
If the combination of Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey proved to be toxic, the blame goes to the producers for choosing them. They encouraged the judges' feud when they thought it would fuel ratings and were unable to stop it when ratings sank instead. Based on next season's promos, you can safely say a lesson has been learned.
ACTORS OF THE YEAR
Comedy, female: Allison Janney for Mom
Has any actor had a better fall than Janney? She could break your heart on Sundays as the seemingly contented wife who yearns for more than a sexless marriage on Masters of Sex, and then make you laugh on Mondays as a wild alcoholic working her way back into her daughter's life on Mom. Two very different performances, but each one real, each one perfectly pitched, each one a triumph of skill and talent. Never mind the categories - male, female, comedy, drama. She's just a great actor, period.
Comedy, male (tie): Andy Samberg for Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Robin Williams for The Crazy Ones
Talent, these men have always had in abundance. What they've added to their repertoire this year is the wisdom (and the luck) to channel their talents into ideal roles, and the ability to marshal and sometimes restrain those talents to serve the characters. The happy upshot for them and us are TV's two best new comedies.
Drama, female: Julianna Margulies for The Good Wife
Pick whatever reason you want for why The Good Wife worked so well this season, but none of them much matters without Margulies. The show is built on her ability to keep you on Alicia's side while still revealing the less attractive aspects of her character, led by her very human habit of assuming the purity of her actions and motives. It's a performance done largely without shouting, a subtle turn that often relies solely on the arch of an eyebrow or the slump of a shoulder, and TV is all the better for it.
Drama, male: Bryan Cranston for Breaking Bad
Really, what's left to say? For decades to come, every great performance, every great actor will be compared to Bryan Cranston.
Special mention: Lizzy Caplan for Masters of Sex
Caplan has always been an entertaining actor, but nothing we've seen so far could have prepared us for the brave mix of humor, determination, indignation and drive she brings to Masters. It's the year's most revelatory performance in the year's most surprising series - and it's a career changer if ever there were one.
Best reality program: So You Think You Can Dance (Fox)
Best unreal reality program: House Hunters (HGTV)
Best movie or miniseries: Top of the Lake (Sundance)
Most welcome movie or miniseries: The Bible (History)
Not because it was good - it wasn't - but because it reminded the TV world that there's a large audience out there whose desire for religious programming is not being served.
Best musical moment: Audra McDonald singing Climb Ev'ry Mountain in NBC's The Sound of Music Live!
Most memorable musical moment: Miley Cyrus, and singing had nothing to do with it.
And finally, for the new year, a bit of Paula Deen/Phil Robertson-inspired advice for all TV stars: Should you feel the urge to suddenly reveal the real you, instead of the persona TV has created around you - suppress it.