In Depth

Going to Extremes

AMC’s ‘Mad Men’ Leads Way Amid Killers, Vampires, Out-There Comedies

TV critics and Emmy voters don’t always see eye to eye, but when it comes to the delights of Don Draper, the two camps are completely copacetic.

Avoiding any signs of a sophomore slump, AMC’s “Mad Men”—which in September snagged the drama series Emmy—soared to the top of TelevisionWeek’s semiannual Critics Poll, the first basic-cable series to manage that feat.

Matthew Weiner’s carefully crafted period piece finished second behind “The Sopranos” during its inaugural season. Now that HBO’s legendary hour sleeps with the fishes, it’s somehow appropriate that a series from a “Sopranos” alum has inherited the top spot, as well as the mantle of “series most likely to inspire critics to go all wobbly searching for superlatives to sum up their admiration for it.”

“As we slog through one of the most mediocre TV seasons in recent memory, having ‘Mad Men’ around was a wonderful solace,” cooed Melanie McFarland, TV editor for “It served as a reminder that poetic writing, dramatic subtlety and lush visuals can still flourish on television.”

Terry Morrow of the Knoxville (Tenn.) News Sentinel waxed poetic himself, calling “Mad Men” a “smooth seduction. … Art is rare on TV these days, but ‘Mad Men’ manages to achieve it stunningly every week.”

Other critics raved that Mr. Weiner’s work is “pitch-perfect” (Joanne Ostrow), “spot on” (Luaine Lee), “exceptional” (Hal Boedeker), “a master class in great acting and writing” (Matt Roush), “flawless” (Dan Fienberg) and filled with “details almost too subtle for TV” (Roger Catlin).

How much do critics love “Mad Men”? Even when they try to take a swipe at it, they somehow manage to come back around to praising it.

“The second season was mighty pleased with itself, which accounts for its sometimes glacial pace,” kvetched Ken Tucker of Entertainment Weekly. “You could almost hear creator Matthew Weiner muttering behind the camera, ‘Wait, wait, are you sure that ashtray weighs 2.5 pounds? Because if it doesn’t, I’m going to plunge it into the set designer’s skull.’ But in the end, and for all the ostentation of quoting from New York School poetry, this saga of empty suits filled our living rooms with vibrant life.”

The boys of “Mad Men” aren’t the only alpha males capturing the imagination of the TV press these days. The winter Critics Poll is dominated by shows with strong males at their center, including Michael Chiklis as Vic Mackey on “The Shield.” The FX series’ swan song stunned scribes, sending “The Shield” out in second place.

Rick Porter of Tribune’s Zap2 called the last episode of “The Shield” “one of the best finales I’ve ever seen,” while Alan Sepinwall of New Jersey’s Star Ledger flatly declared, “The last two episodes were the most intense, and satisfying, ending to any TV drama ever.”

“We won’t soon forget the sight of Michael Chiklis chained to an office cubicle in suit and tie, like a trapped bear robbed of his growl,” added TV Guide’s Matt Roush. “It was a terrifically, bitterly ironic finish to a show that broke ground for all of basic cable.”

The testosterone trend takes a breather for the critics’ No. 3 series, Tina Fey’s “30 Rock.”

When they weren’t praising Ms. Fey’s instantly iconic impersonation of Sarah Palin, the critics recognized her comedy—one of three NBC shows in the top 10—as the medium’s best half-hour, by a wide margin.

It’s “so unrelentingly funny you wonder what comedy god Tina Fey courted to be blessed with two history-making comedic home runs in the same season,” mused Eric Deggans of the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times.

Showtime’s “Dexter” ranks as the critics’ most-beloved premium cable series, finishing in fourth thanks in part to the arrival of new series regular Jimmy Smits.

Mekeisha Madden Toby of the Detroit News is one of many critics who singled out Mr. Smits’ casting for praise, calling the move “brilliant. He plays crazy really well.”

Debut Drama Has Bite

HBO’s own bloodthirsty drama, the vampire-centric newcomer “True Blood,” ranked a close fifth on the Critics Poll. It was the only new series to crack the top 10 and one of just five freshmen to finish in the top 25.

“Not perfect, perhaps, but great TV popcorn with a strong cast,” said John Crook of Tribune Media Services, while Mr. Catlin from Connecticut’s Hartford Courant seemed relieved that “the fun is back (along with the sex and violence) in an HBO series.”

Not surprisingly in an election year, Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” had a strong performance in the Critics Poll, finishing in sixth place.

“They just nailed the election and all of its silliness this year (with) trenchant commentary, funny commentary (and) great guests,” said Joel Keller of AOL’s, who ranked Mr. Stewart’s nightly half-hour the No. 1 show on TV.

The only other half-hour to make the top 10 was “The Office,” which finished at No. 7.

Critics’ “Mad Men” obsession managed to spill over into at least one writer’s observations about NBC’s Thursday night hit: Mr. Tucker of Entertainment Weekly compared “The Office” to “‘Mad Men’ as a contemporary absurdist play, with Steve Carell as Don Draper having a nervous breakdown.”

Speaking of absurdism, the soon-to-be dearly departed “Pushing Daisies,” which topped the Critics Poll a year ago, still has plenty of support among reviewers. It ranked eighth overall, thanks to love from the likes of Mr. Roush, who called ABC’s now-canceled series a “treasure trove of fantastical whimsy, which was unable to survive the vicissitudes of a strike and bad scheduling—as well as audience indifference this fall to any show that didn’t stick to a tried-and-true formula.”

Meanwhile, the move of first-run “Friday Night Lights” episodes from NBC to DirecTV cost the ensemble drama some votes, but it retained enough athletic supporters to finish in ninth place.

A show still on NBC—the Monday night action comedy “Chuck”—ranks as the heatseeker entry on the Critics Poll, vaulting from No. 18 during its strike-shortened first season to 10th place this winter.

Maureen Ryan of the Chicago Tribune called the hour “the most fun you can have on NBC, or on any broadcast network, for that matter. The cast is truly multitalented, especially Zachary Levi, who gives this reluctant, quippy spy a great deal of heart, and Adam Baldwin, who can make grunting noises funny.”