Top Ten Television Shows of 2012
Top Ten TV Shows
This has been a great year for television, to the point where I was more concerned about the shows I didn't have room for on my list than I was worried about finding ten shows worth discussing. Some of the shows on the list that follows debuted in 2012, and some are getting ready to wind down. Some of these shows had their best seasons ever this year, while others continued to turn in excellent seasons as they have for much of their run time. They weren't all perfect, but they were all ambitious series that push the limits of what television can accomplish and reminded us just how far the medium has come. Without further ado, these are my top ten television shows of 2012. WARNING: There may be spoilers below, so tread carefully.

10. The Good Wife

That The Good Wife is the best drama on network television has been conventional wisdom for a while now, yet its intelligence, its deft balancing of multiple interweaving plotlines, its massive cast of recurring players and its stellar central ensemble are all praiseworthy and then some. Though the show has struggled a bit so far in its fourth season (weighed down by the dumbest subplot to plague a great television show since Jimmy McNulty decided to fabricate a serial killer on The Wire), its stellar third was enough to ensure it a spot here. The latter half of that season (the portion that aired in 2012) saw Will (Josh Charles) staring down a grand jury indictment (in the stellar "Another Ham Sandwich," an episode that missed our best episodes list by the skin of its teeth), Eli (Alan Cumming) engaged in a game of wits and wills with a rival strategist (Amy Sedaris), and the firm losing its biggest client to the machinations of two of the best not-quite-villainous antagonists currently on television"”Louis Canning (Michael J. Fox) and Pattie Nyholm (Martha Plimpton). Through it all, the series retained its "damn straight" sense of feminism (if Alicia Florick (Juliana Margulies) isn't enough for you, look no further than Christine Baranski's Diane Lockhart), wry sense of humor, and spot-on character interactions. The show has built a downright shocking stable of recurring guests (boasting, in addition to Fox and Plimpton, the likes of Stephen Root, Bebe Neuwirth, Brian Denehy, Nathan Lane, Amanda Peet, Stockard Channing and F. Murray Abraham in recent weeks) and created the best portrait of the way a big city works since The Wire. On the surface, The Good Wife is a legal procedural with a ripped-from-the-headlines premise and cases. But beneath that sheen, the show is a whip-smart study of the interaction between law and politics, the clash between the personal and the professional, and the compromises required to maintain a place at the top.

9. Justified

Justified had a tough road ahead of it going into its third season. Coming off a stellar run in its second, and absent the phenomenal Mags Bennett (Margo Martindale, who won a well deserved Emmy for her performance), the show could easily have felt rudderless. Instead, it dug ever deeper into the cultural mire that is Harlan County. Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant, as excellent as ever) was faced with a bevvy of foes rushing to fill the power vacuum created after Mags' death, from his longterm nemesis Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins, continuing to give one of the best unsung performances on television), the shifty Elston Limehouse (Mykelti Williamson), and the deeply unhinged carpetbagger Robert Quarles (Neal McDonough). As Raylan tries to navigate these increasingly complicated waters, he is faced with dueling investigations dedicated to taking him down, a pregnant ex-wife (Natalie Zea) who wants him out of harm's way, his curmudgeonly supervisor (Nick Searcy) who is tired of cleaning up after him, and his increasingly senile criminal of a father (Raymond J. Barry). Whether turning in stellar case of the week episodes (like the hilarious and pitch black "Thick as Mud") or delving further into Raylan's troubled history with his home town, Justified's third season was a roller coaster ride of betrayal, heartbreak, and violence. Raylan lost a lot this season, but all it took was one sentence, in the finale's closing moments, to hammer home just how deep an emotional deficit our hero has been carrying with him all along.

8. Archer

The longer Archer runs, the more it develops its insane (and insanely talented) ensemble, shading every character in with enough details to give their inspired lunacy some weight. The show's stellar third season took the ISIS team from Canada to the jungle, and from their native New York City to outer space. Few shows could handle the twists and turns of Archer's narrative; nothing on television can do so with the mixture of hyper-literacy and blatant absurdity this show manages. Whether Archer (H. Jon Benjamin) is living the dream by fighting on top of a train or dealing with the emotional fallout of discovering his alcoholism and foolish dalliance with office hedonist Pam (Amber Nash) lead to the death of a man that might have been his father, the show perfectly nails the hilarious highs and devastating lows. This show could easily get by on surface level comedy, and with a comedic ensemble including Jessica Walter, Judy Greer, Chris Parnell, and Aisha Tyler it could do so quite well. But that Archer continually mixes its comedic side with a deeply felt emotional realism is what makes this the best show currently on TV where the hero's nemesis is a half-cyborg KGB agent, his mother is a cold blooded assassin, and his gadget man finds nothing so pleasurable as the chance to hack up a corpse for his bosses.

7. Girls

For reasons that confuse me or just make me sad, Girls was probably the most controversial television show of 2012. All of the outrage and debate may have distracted some people, but those paying attention saw one of the most confident and assured debut seasons of television from a new creator in years. Lena Dunham (who created the show, wrote or co-wrote every episode, directed many, and starred as Hannah Horvath) has created a world full of characters she is more than willing to make unlikable, a decision that is as brave as it is irksome. Hannah and her friends (Jemima Kirke, Zosia mamet, and Allison Williams) are self-centered, self-destructive, and often vain"”they are also completely realistic portrayals of well-off people in their early 20s. The girls fall in and out of love, in and out of jobs, and in and out of each other's lives in ways that are infuriating mostly because of how relatable they are; Girls is one of the best shows about being young, independent, and still pretty dumb in recent memory. If you can look past the storm of (mostly illusory) controversy, you are likely to find a smart, funny, painfully real television show from one of the strongest young voices in the industry.

6. Parks and Rec

2012 was a big year for the citizens of Pawnee: Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) bested Bobby Newport (Paul Rudd) in her race for City Counsel, got engaged to her boyfriend Ben (Adam Scott), and met her hero Joe Biden. Tom (Aziz Ansari) bounced back from his catastrophic failure, his weird relationship with Ann (Rashida Jones), and his fallout with Jean Ralphio (Ben Schwartz) to start a new business. Andy (Chris Pratt) and April (Aubrey Plaza) continued to be awesome at being married. Chris (Rob Lowe) got into therapy, and Ron (Nick Offerman) started dating a woman (Lucy Lawless) not named Tammy. Throughout it all, Parks and Recreation continued to develop its central cast and their relationships while expanding it examination of the weirdest town since The Simpsons' Springfield. The show has never stopped being hilarious, but on the way, it has grown its characters, both large and tertiary, into people worth caring about and investing in, and continued to be one of the best comedies on television.

5. Homeland

In its second season, Homeland expanded its scope by narrowing its focus. In its first season, the show was largely about whether it was possible to ever really know another person. By zeroing in on its endlessly compelling leads, CIA analyst and manic-depressive Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes, consistently phenomenal), and returned Prisoner of War Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis, giving arguably the strongest performance on television this year), the show began to explore questions of power and free will, concerns over the similarities between the often obsessive CIA analysts and the terrorists they struggle to stop, and wondering how far its characters would be willing to go, and just what they would give up to achieve their ends. Though its plotting went further over the top this season (and if it goes as far off the rails as it might, I reserve the right to retroactively shift the show downward), its character work remained stellar. That was never more obvious than in the interactions between Carrie and Brody, whose attraction to each other and willingness to use the other for their own ends lends the show an exhilarating sense of insecurity: how much of what these two do is about real feelings for the other, and how much is about preserving the other as a bargaining chip in a game they are always perilously close to losing. Unlike other shows with a tight focus (I'm thinking, here, of Dexter), Homeland has a stellar supporting cast (including Mandy Patinkin as Carrie's weary mentor Saul, David Harewood as a supervisor with conflicted interests, Morena Baccarin as Brody's long-suffering wife, and Morgan Saylor as his conflicted daughter), but it is never better than when it throws its leads against each other and watches as they figure out what they mean to each other along with us.

4. Luck

In years to come, when we discuss television shows that were cancelled too early, I maintain that Luck will be mentioned with the likes of Firefly and Terriers as a show that was so excellent in its short run that it is painful to think how great it could have been if it had been given more time. A sprawling narrative centered around a horse-racing track and the people drawn to it, Luck was a show about no less than its title implied, a story of people always chasing their next big win, living and dying by the roll of the dice or the photo finish. Tracking a huge cast (including such heavy hitters as Dustin Hoffman, Nick Nolte, Michael Gambon, Dennis Farina and Richard Kind), and narratives ranging from the large scale (as Hoffman aims to take over the race track and get revenge against Gambon for past misdeeds) to the small (as the four gamblers who serve as the show's greek chorus deal with newfound success and their own failures to connect with others), the show was a marvel to behold. Visually riveting, emotionally captivating, and so well written it will knock your socks off, Luck is the great "might have been" of 2012, a show that could have made it into the conversation about the greatest television ever made, if only we all cared slightly less about mass horse death, and a little more about the beautiful, fragile little world creator David Milch and director Michael Mann introduced to us.

3. Louie

Over the course of its amazing first two seasons, Louie established itself as a show less about plot or character than about a viewpoint, a show more interested in emotion than in even storytelling. It also established itseld as a show that could be anything from week to week"”a riotous road trip or a thoughtful look at religion, a poignant story about a friend whose lost his way or a heartwarming story about Louie's love for his daughters. Season three built on that freedom to deliver fourteen episodes delving further into our hero's psyche, his hang ups, his joys, and his minor tragedies. Louis CK writes, directs, edits, and stars in every episode, and Louie is the best argument for the auteur theory on television (now, and maybe ever). Season three saw Louie get a girlfriend (Parker Posey, who perfectly played the highs and lows of her character), make a friend on a trip to Miami, consider repairing his troubled relationship with his father, take a life-affirming trip to China, and in the season's triumphant three parter, fight rivals (including Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock) and, more important,ly his own complacency for a shot to replace David Letterman as host of Late Show. Louie isn't always the funniest show on television, but it is often the most unique. It is impossible to tell from one week to the next what the show will offer, but at this point, it will almost assuredly leave you feeling better about your life and about humanity in general. Not bad for a show about a schlubby stand-up comedian just trying to make it through another day.

2. Breaking Bad

After seasons spent struggling to stay one step ahead of various enemies and barely keeping himself alive, this year we finally saw Walter White (Bryan Cranston, whose performance is so good praise is implied at this point) on top of the world. With Jesse (Aaron Paul) and Mike (Jonathan Banks) at his side, Walter worked to expand the reach of his empire, even as his soul withered even further. We saw Walt sink to lower depths than ever before this season, covering up the death of a child, ordering prison executions, intimidating and emotionally manipulating his wife Skyler (Anna Gunn, never better) and alienating his closest partners in crime. Then, we saw it all stop. We saw Walter adjust to his dominance, we saw the excitement of conquest fade from his eyes; we watched as the king grew bored with his empire. The fifth season of Breaking Bad may not have sustained the heights of some previous seasons (it would have been difficult, with an abbreviated eight episode run), but its peaks were just as high, and the show left us pondering whether there was anything Walt wouldn't stoop to, and whether his brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris) might finally be behind the fall of Heisenberg. Bleak, brutal, and endlessly fascinating, Breaking Bad continued to be one of the best dramas on television and reminded me just how much I'll miss it when it ends next year.

1. Mad Men

Mad Men is one of the best television series ever made, and this year's fifth season was the best the show has ever been, which makes it nigh unbeatable. For a stretch of episodes in the middle of the season, the show turned out all-time classic after all-time classic, from the tightly focused "Signal 30," to the structurally fascinating "Far Away Places," and the cuttingly beautiful "At the Codfish Ball." This season found Don Draper (Jon Hamm) navigating a new marriage he actively wants to make work, to his former secretary Megan (Jessica Pare), Peter Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) growing increasingly dissatisfied with the way his life has turned out, Lane Price (Jared Harris) on a tragic downward spiral, Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks) forced into a corner and into a choice that would change the way she views her colleagues forever, and Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) leaving Sterling Cooper Draper Price (but thankfully not the series) for greener pastures. Season five found the changing times finally catching up with characters who have resisted them for so long, and let us watch as characters we've come to love tried, and often failed, to gain control of their lives. Mad Men was the best show on television in 2012, stunning in its cinematography, brilliantly acted from all corners, and written to the tee; the show even managed to use its tendency to go broader in its later years as a meta commentary that worked quite nicely. Mad Men is, at its core, a show about reinvention, its consequences, and whether it is really possible to begin with. In its best season, the show displayed just how far it has come, and how much further it plans to go.
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