This year has been flush with quality TV, and a few new freshman shows aren’t the only reason. In fact, a number of returning series have actually improved, offering more enticing and exciting plotlines and characters than ever before. Fare like Mad Men or Parks & Recreation doesn’t qualify for this last because it’s just as good as it ever was. Here are 12 shows that had their best seasons yet this year.

12. The Killing (Season 2)
AMC’s slow-burn drama kept its season one mystery going but finally got into some of the more compelling elements of its dark vision of Seattle. The relationship between its prickly lead detectives was the best reason to watch, and its ambiguous ending makes the case for a third season on a network other than AMC, which opted out of continuing the show.

11. Burn Notice (Season 6)
USA’s spy show has been somewhat cyclical in how its plotlines have played out, always marooning Michael after the death of his latest confidante. In its sixth season, however, the intensity was upped and a more serious tone has made the show darker and more creative than ever. A recurring guest spot by John C. McGinley of Scrubs as the man who trained Michael didn’t hurt either.

10. Game of Thrones (Season 2)
HBO’s fantasy drama found its characters all over the realm fighting over who could wear the biggest crown. Pairing some of its most fascinating characters – like young Arya Stark and patriarch Tywin Lannister – ensured that the dialogue was just as awesome as the action. A mind-boggling, game-changing finale set the stage for an even wilder season three.

9. Hell on Wheels (Season 2)
AMC’s Reconstruction-era railroad drama found its footing in its second year, restructuring its camp and creating more internal trouble than external conflict. Multiple love triangles and rampant lawlessness made for magnificent character studies, and even main characters weren’t safe from the bloodshed.

8. Alphas (Season 2)
Syfy’s superhero series set the stage for an intense season-long conflict between the good Alphas and Stanton Parrish’s army of angry outcasts. Involving Dr. Rosen’s daughter, enlisting a spunky new Alpha, and bringing back Summar Glau helped to intensify the war in the run-up to the shocking season finale.

7. Person of Interest (Season 2)
CBS’ technologically-charged procedural continued to feature excellent guest stars on a weekly basis, framing its antisocial central character as a guardian angel. Allowing its two star detectives to take a greater role in the secretive operations conducted by Finch and Reese has helped to make this show more exciting, and its sense of humor makes it enjoyable to watch.

6. Dexter (Season 7)
After a strong sixth season fueled by religious fanaticism, Showtime’s serial killer drama has achieved its most fantastic season yet by putting its forensic expert protagonist on the trail of two fascinating new characters with homicidal motives rather than just one serial killer. Ray Stevenson and Yvonne Strahovski are stellar additions to the show.

5. Episodes (Season 2)
This joint BBC-Showtime production has become so much more than just a show starring a former “Friend.” Matt LeBlanc has turned into a deeply flawed protagonist, and the rocky relationship between Beverly and Sean was great comedic fodder. An increased focus on the television industry and its zany players turned out to be hilarious on a regular basis as well.

4. Boss (Season 2)
Starz’s Chicago-set political show got darker in its second year, revealing the immense corruption and promiscuity rampant within its fictional government. New cast members Sanaa Lathan and Jonathan Groff were terrific, and the show didn’t lose focus even as its protagonist lost control of his senses. It’s a true shame that Starz didn’t feel a third season was worthwhile.

3. The Walking Dead (Season 3)
AMC’s zombie thriller relocated its characters to two new venues, both with unsettling, frightening qualities. Violence has increased exponentially, and new characters The Governor and Michonne have become immensely watchable. The show’s outlook on human nature is by far the most chilling part.

2. Sons of Anarchy (Season 5)
FX’s motorcycle club drama is becoming fearless, unafraid to kill off main characters in extremely disturbing and brutal manners on an episodic basis. The story is tremendously compelling, and it’s hard to imagine any character on this show getting anything close to a happy ending.

1. Boardwalk Empire (Season 3)
HBO’s Prohibition-era gangster show added Bobby Cannavale as the easily offended, out-of-control mobster Gyp Rosetti, and the show has been entirely captivating since. The plot points that Gyp’s behavior has created are truly spectacular, and each episode reveals a deep knowledge of all the show’s multi-faceted characters.

By Abe Fried-Tanzer

Dexter and Yvonne Season 7

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