Graduation can be the kiss of death for any high school-set series. (Just ask the students of Beverly Hills, 90210's California University!) So when it became clear that nine series regulars were scheduled to graduate from William McKinley High School last season, it sent a ripple of panic through the show's fans. But fear not: Rachel and Kurt's move to New York was seamless, other graduates have made periodic appearances, and a just-as-talented bunch of high schoolers (including the charming Melissa Benoist as "new Rachel" Marley) has filled the graduates' big shoes, making us much rosier about the show's continued success. The shift in focus was a risky proposition, and thus no small feat that they pulled it off.
2 of 16 Dean Hendler/NBC
Parks and Recreation
The specificity with which Parks and Recreation has drawn a small Indiana community would please even the show's perfectionist protagonist Leslie Knope. This year was particularly important for the show, as most of its characters underwent huge life changes. Some worked (Ben and Leslie's engagement, Tom starting Rent-a-Swag, Leslie running for — and winning — a seat on the city council); others didn't (please, Ben, no more talk of the Low-Cal Calzone Zone). The show has always brought us joy; this year it brought forth tears of joy.
3 of 16 Randy Tepper/Showtime
After a dreadful Season 6, the fact that Dexter is on this list is a sign of just what a miraculous turnaround the show had this year. By finally revealing that Dex is a serial killer to his sister Deb (Jennifer Carpenter), the show raised the dramatic stakes, forcing Dexter to deal with consequences rather than endless close calls. The result is more focused storytelling about the sibling relationship at the show's core.
4 of 16 Richard Foreman/ABC
The most un-Shonda Rhimes-like show in her arsenal, Scandal is also Rhimes' most interesting and addictive. Unraveling twists and dialogue at breakneck speed, the drama has redefined political intrigue, spinning as many new mysteries as it solves weekly cases — all against a backdrop of a sexy and messy forbidden romance between Olivia and the president. It's the show that Political Animals never quite became.
5 of 16 Chris Hollo/ABC
Despite winning early points just for allowing Connie Britton to say "y'all" on television again, ABC's country-fried drama has remained one of the most enjoyable hours of this fall's freshman class. While it has both the cattiness (Britton's Rayna James is feverishly trying to hold onto the spotlight that's increasingly aimed at Hayden Panettiere's pop-crossover coquette Juliette Barnes) and sex appeal (is there anyone Juliette won't sleep with?) of a soap, the show is at its best when it deals with the heart, sorting through the various romantic pairings that are often complicated by what it is to be a working musician. And, of course, what keeps that heart beating is the fantastic music that even non-country fans will most likely put on their iPod.
6 of 16 Brownie Harris/NBC
In a post-apocalyptic future in which all forms of power have ceased to exist, the U.S. government collapses and militia-controlled nation-states flourish. It's with this backdrop that Charlie (Tracy Spiridakos) and her uncle Miles (Twilight's Billy Burke) travel to Philadelphia to uncover the mystery of the global blackout. The show asks cerebral questions (What is power? When is murder justified?), but it's also a swiftly paced action saga that uses sword-fighting and hand-to-hand combat to spread its unique message of peace.
7 of 16 Danny Feld/ABC
If you want to see a show firing on all cylinders, look no further than the absurd (and absurdly little-seen) Happy Endings. The cast, now fully settled into its kooky characters, is incomparable when it comes to chemistry, slapstick and timing. It's a show so dense with jokes that you have to re-watch every scene to catch all the zingers. This season, they made hay out of a crazy backstory (Brad and Max first met on an aborted season of The Real World ). It's also responsible for our new favorite exclamation of shock: "CCH Pounder!"
8 of 16 HBO
Game of Thrones
This year, Game of Thrones turned Westeros on its head. With Ned Stark dead, the battle for the Iron Throne became fiercer than ever. Alliances were made (and betrayed), while the promise for power exposed people's true motives. While we lost many beloved characters, we made many new friends and enemies as well. Though the series sometimes verges on the convoluted, Game of Thrones proved once again that viewers don't have to sacrifice thought-provoking character study to enjoy some visceral blood and gore. Plus: The battle of Blackwater? 'Nuff said.
9 of 16 HBO
Remember all those bad decisions you made in your 20s? It's a credit to this show that, while you will definitely cringe when you recognize a bit of your younger, more entitled self in this brainy, spunky post-collegiate quartet, you'll also laugh. Show creator Lena Dunham's very specific New York reality has no time for sympathetic characters. Instead, these young women drink, smoke, have casual sex and are – gasp! – irresponsible with their finances. The result is frank, funny, frustrating and [insert your own F-word here].
10 of 16 FX
A difficult truth about Louis C.K.'s single-minded art piece is that, despite the protagonist's pervasive nihilism, this is a show about the best of humanity. This season, Louie got a girlfriend, Liz (Parker Posey), and her quirky world view and possibly fraudulent backstory had us suspicious of her motives but in awe of her ability to find a warm, caring partner in the husk of a man we call Louie. The season finale wasn't what you'd call ha-ha funny, but that our hero had to travel halfway around the globe to find companionship is both heartbreaking and oddly, weirdly human.
11 of 16 Byron Cohen/NBC
Parenthood truly hit its stride in Season 4, thanks to Monica Potter's pitch-perfect performance in Kristina’s struggle with breast cancer, Julia and Joel’s fumbled introduction of their adopted son Victor and Amber’s crushing first love with a former soldier. Added to the show's embarrassment of acting riches, Ray Romano, the unlikeliest of romantic heroes, has made himself at home as Sarah's boss/love interest. If the Bravermans are looking to adopt any more, sign us up.
12 of 16 Gene Page/AMC
The Walking Dead
The third season of The Walking Dead kept the adrenaline pumping not just by killing zombies (though they've done plenty of that), but by highlighting the bleak truth that their living adversaries are even scarier. The sword-wielding Michonne (Danai Guera) and the smooth-talking Governor (David Morrisey) are formidable human foes. The continuing threat of zombie attacks (RIP, T-Dog and Lori!) have driven Rick (a never-better Andrew Lincoln) toward the darkest edges of his humanity. On The Walking Dead, though, it's hard to really know just where that edge is, if it exists at all.
13 of 16 Jordin Althaus/AMC
After an interminable 19-month absence, AMC's signature drama returned with its most experimental season ever. The show defied expectations with episodes that depicted Roger's hilarious LSD trip, Don's murderous nightmare, the grisly death of a major character and Betty's suspicious weight gain. Two ladies anachronistically advanced their careers: Joan prostituted herself for a partnership and Peggy spread her wings and flew from the Sterling Cooper coop. We may never know what to expect from Mad Men, but we do know it will always make us feel something.
14 of 16 Ali Goldstein/NBC
In the circle of TV life, most shows lose some luster as they age, but that hasn't been the case with 30 Rock. The TGS crew remains wonderfully weird and bitingly sharp. In its final season, Tina Fey & Co. have gone all out. Between Jack's plan to tank NBC (we'd still totally watch God Cop), Jenna's fans being a vital swing state voting bloc, Tracy as the next Tyler Perry and Liz's wedding, Harriet Tubman Harry Truman was right; Anything's possible! Except a Season 8. Blerg!
15 of 16 Ursula Coyote
Heart-poundingly tense, Breaking Bad ramped up the anxiety and suspense in the first half of its fifth and final season, as the increasingly poor (and proud) decisions of Walter White led to more corpses (RIP, Mike!) and a severed, perhaps irreparable, tie from Jesse (they are never, ever gonna cook together). It all culminated with the long-awaited and inevitable reveal in the midseason finale of Hank finally learning that Walt is Heisenberg. The end is nigh, yet it's only just begun.
16 of 16 Kent Smith/Showtime
How would Showtime's multiple Emmy-winning drama live up to the hype of its freshman season? By subverting and exploding the viewers' expectations at every turn. Relying on the great lead performances of Claire Danes and Damian Lewis, the producers decided against drawing out Carrie and Brody's mind games and instead used Brody's secrets to force him into working alongside the CIA to take down his former terrorist ties. By underscoring the tense and deadly twists and turns with Carrie's lingering feelings for Brody, the show was still able to tap into the "whose side is Brody on" paranoia from Season 1. We may never truly know, but we're certainly happy to keep watching to find out.