Since then, AMC has added the equally highly praised "Breaking Bad," along with the solid "Walking Dead" and "The Killing." Its slogan is now "Story matters here." The competition is no longer Turner Classic Movies; it's now, well, everybody else.
That has brought its own set of problems. Unlike movies, which are driven by stars and directors, television is a writer-dominated medium -- and with so many outlets in what's become a 500-channel/Internet streaming business, the best talents have their pick of channels.
AMC has taken hits from fans and critics, particularly for the turnover on the highly rated "Walking Dead." FX's John Landgraf even went so far to take a dig at his competitor: "We've never fired a showrunner," he said at the Television Critics Association press tour in January.
As you'd expect, Collier defends his network, noting strong relationships with "Mad Men's" Matthew Weiner and "Breaking Bad's" Vince Gilligan. But with both shows nearing their finales -- "Breaking Bad" will conclude this summer, and "Mad Men" has one more season to go -- he's well-aware that he has to go on the offensive.
This summer will see the premiere of "Low Winter Sun," a 10-episode Detroit-set crime series starring "Zero Dark Thirty's" Mark Strong; in development are "King," a 1960s period drama about race and politics from "Sopranos" writers and producers Diane Frolov and Andrew Schneider, and "Halt and Catch Fire," about the early days of the personal computing industry.
"Our job is always to be working a few years ahead," he says. "There's not a day I take 'Mad Men' or 'Breaking Bad' or 'Walking Dead' for granted ... and we'll keep looking for future hall of famers."
Along with the dramas on AMC are a slate of reality shows -- and, in a world that allows for the rise of more great scripted TV, there's also plenty of room for that cheaply made, easy-to-program genre all over television.
It makes financial sense.
Reality shows still do well in the ratings, particularly on cable, where regular winners include A&E's "Duck Dynasty" and USA's "WWE Entertainment." (Of course, maybe the latter should qualify as "scripted.") As Bill Gorman, co-founder of the TV ratings site TV by the Numbers, points out, the medium is "hit-driven," and so success breeds imitation.
But scripted shows also have financial benefits: They're a bonanza on home video and hugely popular in reruns: The second season DVD of HBO's "Game of Thrones" broke the network's sales records, "NCIS" is a huge success on USA, and Gorman observes that TBS' reruns of "The Big Bang Theory" occasionally beat first-run fare on the broadcast networks.
The latter two programs might come in for sneers from certain TV connoisseurs, but Thompson says that even the least celebrated of today's scripted programming -- the police procedurals, soapy serials and sitcoms that remain the mainstays of broadcast TV -- are considerably better crafted than their counterparts a generation ago.
Others have noticed, too: Science writer Steven Johnson devoted a section of his book "Everything Bad Is Good for You" to showing how the construction of the average show of today far outstrips the "Kojaks" of yore. (Comedy is no exception: though the laughs are still the thing, the intricacies of "The Simpsons" and "30 Rock" make many predecessors look like they're joking in slow motion.)
"Back then, a critically acclaimed drama was 'Lou Grant,' " Thompson observes. "And if you go back and look at 'Lou Grant,' as earnest and as interesting as that show was, it was very, very primitive."
If there's a danger of this new golden age, it's that the shows are targeted at smaller and smaller slices of audience. As Grantland's Andy Greenwald pointed out in a pair of insightful articles, that can prompt networks to chase their own tails.
"I can't help but wonder if TV, by chasing narrowcasting down the new-media rabbit hole, is stratifying itself into creative limbo," he wrote.
Where that might lead is anyone's guess.
Already, Peter Chernin, the former president of Fox's parent, News Corporation, has announced that his production company is introducing a reality series that will run solely on Twitter and other social media sites. That follows in the wake of some scripted-improvisational shows, such as "Childrens Hospital" and "Web Therapy," that began as online shorts and then moved to television networks.
Indeed, not only are there are more outlets than ever -- there are more devoted fans to support their darlings.
The long-canceled "Veronica Mars" maintained enough of a following for fans to pitch in $5.7 million on Kickstarter to launch a movie; "Arrested Development" comes to Netflix at the end of May, partly because the show never really went away. (Thanks to DVDs and streaming services, you never have to stop watching your favorite show.)
At least, all these programs will provide critics such as Sepinwall plenty to chew over.
"TV is aspiring to more complexity now than it ever has before, and that in turn makes it easier to write about it the way that I do," he says.
Besides, he says, now he knows he's not alone when his DVR runneth over.
"Both from TV critics and non-TV critics alike, it's been, 'Thank you!' " he says with a laugh. "'If you of all people are saying it, then I'm not going crazy here.'"
HBO, TBS, Turner Classic Movies and The CW (formerly The WB) are units of Time Warner, as is CNN.