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Sorting out the best of TV dramas

Veteran series work to keep viewers riveted

Veteran series were constantly seeking new ways to keep longtime viewers riveted.

“Big Love”
HBO
Strengths: After a meandering and overstuffed fourth season, series managed to end its five-year run with the bracing blend of humor and heartbreak that put it on the map. Shows rarely come out of late-run tailspins with strength.
Weaknesses: Really … can we just pretend season four never happened and remember the “Big Love” for the agile way it tackled big themes — God, love and family — in an original way?
Best days ahead or behind? Love it or hate it — fans and critics were equally divided — the last episode accomplished something rare in today’s TV landscape: It shocked its audience.

“Dexter”
Showtime
Strengths: After vanquishing John Lithgow’s creepy baddie, our favorite serial killer found an even more imposing enemy: guilt. The death of his wife gave Dexter new reasons to brood and gave us more reasons to stay riveted.
Weaknesses: Last season’s multi-story arc wasn’t as effective as giving Michael C. Hall a villain worthy of 12 episodes. Series suffered from Lithgow withdrawal.
Best days ahead or behind? It’s hard to imagine that there’s much blood left in a series that’s already raised more than its fair share of goosebumps.

“Friday Night Lights”
DirecTV
Strengths: Everything. Over a five-year run, there was stellar acting by a handful of mostly unknowns, a dead-on authentic give-and-take marriage and a realistic — i.e., not condescending — life in a small town where manners and honor still matter. “Lights” proved you don’t need superstars or a megabudget to make a difference.
Weaknesses: Julie’s fling with a teacher’s assistant at a university often didn’t have the weight of the other storylines, and the set-up felt a bit more suited for the CW.
Best days ahead or behind? Sadly, it’s all our rearview mirror now. But, to paraphrase Bogie, we’ll always have Dillon.

“The Good Wife”
CBS
Strengths: Alicia proved her mettle as a courtroom lawyer, and it was nice to see the firm give her more responsibility. Also, Alan Cumming’s Eli Gold deftly knew when to give the campaign for Peter (Chris Noth) a sense of urgency, and when to play it cool.
Weaknesses: Will’s relationship with Tammy (Elizabeth Reaser) sometimes felt half-baked, almost as if it was only in the story to set up the inevitable relationship between him and Alicia.
Best days ahead or behind? Beware of a woman scorned. Alicia will offer plenty of venom next season as retribution for Peter’s fling with Kalinda.

“House”
Fox
Strengths: The patient-of-the-week formula is expertly varied with serialized character development that allows both Hugh Laurie and his able co-stars to shine.
Weaknesses: While “more of the same” seems to be working for viewers, snark-fatigue may be ailing the show’s cast. Robert Sean Leonard appears to miss Broadway and Olivia Wilde has already been taking time off to juggle a busy film career.
Best days ahead or behind? The latest cast change — the departure of Lisa Edelstein — could trigger a resurgence, but “House” might not have any part of the envelope left to push.

“In Treatment”
HBO
Strengths: Complex, interwoven writing and astute psychological character drama, plus inspired casting again for Gabriel Byrne’s patients, from Irrfan Khan to Debra Winger and, this year, newcomer Dane DeHaan as a gay teen.
Weaknesses: It’s not the most mobile of shows, and it occasionally suffers from sameness of rhythm in how it doles out previously undisclosed information.
Best days ahead or behind? HBO canceled the show in its current incarnation after its third season, but hinted at revisiting Dr. Paul Weston in a different format, which could invigorate things.

“Justified”
FX
Strengths: If viewers didn’t know or appreciate Margo Martindale before this season, they do now. Her turn as the matriarch of a weed-growing Kentucky clan was a lesson in deception — one second turning on the charm, the other second chopping off her son’s fingers to make sure her scheme worked out.
Weaknesses: Hard to imagine why Winona (Natalie Zea) would’ve ever married Gary (William Ragsdale), who continually came off as weak and willing to harm the woman he supposedly loved.
Best days ahead or behind? As long as Walton Goggins and Timothy Olyphant remain on opposite sides of the law, this gem will be worth watching.

“Mad Men”
AMC
Strengths: In their fourth season, Matthew Weiner & Co. continued to show an authoritative fearlessness with their characters, in particular taking Don Draper to a new set of extremes.
Weaknesses: Some fans reacted to Draper’s sudden engagement to secretary Megan with the same bafflement as Draper’s co-workers, but time will tell.
Best days ahead or behind? The hiatus of nearly a year-and-a-half should leave Weiner plenty of time to maintain the three-time Emmy winner’s standards of excellence. – — Jon Weisman

“Men of a Certain Age”
TNT
Strengths: A willingness to not be a slave to the Big Story and tell more nuanced tales — less mid-life crisis than mid-life life.
Weaknesses: How the heck do these guys find the time to have meals together so often? TV literalists demand to know!
Best days ahead or behind? The show started strongly, but patient pacing leaves open the possibility for more untapped potential. – — Jon Weisman

“Parenthood”
NBC
Strengths: Where do we start? Jason Katims of “Friday Night Lights” once again shows his chops with this impeccable (and huge) cast, wonderful writing and relatable stories. Every episode is an emotional roller-coaster, with a few laughs in between, and we love every minute.
Weaknesses: Lots of family arguing, interrupting and overall loudness. Also, how does Dax Shepherd get all these hot women?
Best days ahead or behind? Given a third season despite mixed ratings success, “Parenthood” remains a series on the rise.

“Sons of Anarchy”
FX
Strengths: Grafting the psychodrama of “Hamlet” onto a threat-beleaguered, criminal biker gang was novel, and Katey Sagal’s killer turn as the matriarch is a week-to-week marvel.
Weaknesses: Last season’s IRA shenanigans led to the kind of convoluted plotting that drifted too far from central character conflicts.
Best days ahead or behind? Ahead. The Ireland adventure may have indicated decline, but the seeds have been sown for a rousing fourth season of homegrown drama, family secrets and score-settling.

“Southland”
TNT
Strengths: An ensemble that always rises to the challenge. The simmering hostility between exuberant rookie Ben Sherman (Ben McKenzie) and embittered vet John Cooper (Michael Cudlitz) was intoxicating, as was the emotional devastation that Det. Sammy Bryant (Shawn Hatosy) had to deal with after losing a partner.
Weaknesses: Looking back, it might have been better had Tom Everett Scott’s character been murdered at the end of season one, rather than pester Regina King’s Lydia Adams for a handful more episodes.
Best days ahead or behind? Los Angeles has no shortage of cases to solve or people to arrest. Should be more terrific material to mine here.

“Treme”
HBO
Strengths: The immersive world of food, music and politics is TV’s best bachannalia. No show offers more sensory pleasures or is more truly multicultural.
Weaknesses: Detractors will always insist the plot doesn’t move fast enough, with Clarke Peters’ storyline as Albert Lambreaux perhaps the most conspicuous slow burn, at least at the outset of season two.
Best days ahead or behind? There’s a risk of decline the further it gets from its inciting incident of Hurricane Katrina, but if given the chance, there’s no shortage of items on the menu Chez Treme.

“True Blood”
HBO
Strengths: Mixes romantic melodrama and postmodern wit with gutsy blood-and-gore supernaturalism and a keen cliffhanger sense.
Weaknesses: Its leads, save Ryan Kwanten’s entertainingly naive Jason Stackhouse, are often not as interesting as the character parts and guest star roles.
Best days ahead or behind? Upcoming fourth season will be decisive, but with Sookie/Bill romance showing fatigue and Alexander Saarsgard storyline heating up, there’s room still to thrill and chill.

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