Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Top 10 TV Shows of 2012

Due to a new job and increased responsibilities reviewing movies, I did not get to write about television this year as much as I normally do. This is a shame. I often feel that TV has surpassed cinema as the greatest repository for smart, enriching entertainment – both drama and comedy – and 2012 seemed to bear that theory out even more than in years past. As I said in my Top 10 Films of 2012 article, this was a fantastic year for film – and yet when I sit back and look at my list of the Top 10 TV Shows of 2012, I find myself even more passionate about these titles, and regretful about all the shows I did not get the chance to watch.

That being said, I kept up with more than enough this year to make the list competitive, and was shocked to see some former favorites fall out of serious contention. Doctor Who, number 5 on lastyear’s countdown, disappointed in many ways during its brief 5-hour run this fall, and Homeland – 2011’s #4 – delivered a pretty wretched second season I would like to forget sooner than later. Chuck certainly did not disappoint in its final episodes, but neither did it deliver enough great content to be a contender for this list.

I also saw some horrible TV this year – even as I agree with every political point made, Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom was an inhumanely torturous experience I hate myself for watching an entire season of – but even as there were minor disappointments along the way, I really enjoyed watching TV in 2012, and had a lot of fun putting this list together. If nothing else, returning to TV writing for this article reignites my desire to write more about television in 2013, and I hope it offers some good recommendations and insight to the reader.

Begin reading after the jump...

10. Community

Community only aired 12 episodes this year, but the back half of the show’s third season was one of its strongest runs to date, a thrillingly experimental set of half-hours that dived deeper and deeper into the psyche of its funny and fascinating characters. This year gave us the Ken Burns-style blanket fort mockumentary, the sharp and hilarious Law & Order parody, the 8-bit video game episode, and a handful of less ambitious, more grounded installments – like Shirley’s wedding, or the note perfect season finale – that I found equally impressive. “Virtual Systems Analysis,” an installment spent entirely in Abed’s ‘dreamatorium,’ is one of the very best episodes the show has ever done, a dramatically potent examination of fear, desire, and friendship that absolutely floored me. Creator Dan Harmon’s unceremonious dismissal from the series is a travesty, and given that the third season wrapped up so well, I would have been perfectly fine with Community ending here. But there will be a fourth season, and I hope it does the series proud, because at its best, Community is one of TV’s greatest pleasures.  

9. Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones placed very high on my list last year, but do not take this downgrade as a sign of ill-will towards one of TV’s most ambitious and enthralling serials. The second season improved upon the first in many ways, with an expanded role for Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion, increasingly great work from supporting players like Lena Headey, Maisie Williams, Jack Gleeson, and Alfie Allen, and even better production values on all fronts.

But the show did falter here and there, displaying clear growing pains as showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss struggled to service so many characters and plot-threads. The storytelling became a tad too diffuse at times, while certain characters I loved last year – particularly Daenerys Targaryen and John Snow – were stuck in narrative circles and dead-end subplots. Those are holdover issues from George R. R. Martin’s source material, but a problem is a problem, and as a TV Series, Game of Thrones sometimes failed to fix what needed fixing. But this was still a very good, sometimes great season of television, a show that, at its best, is as smart, compelling, and entrancing as anything I watched this year.

8. The Daily Show and The Colbert Report

These shows probably belong on the list every year, given what incredible work both Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert do dissecting the news of the day in funny, poignant, and blisteringly insightful fashion, but as 2012 was a (particularly ridiculous) election year, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report really stood out as addictive, must-watch TV. Stewart and his team continue to be better journalists than nearly anyone in the conventional news media, and as the Presidential race got uglier and uglier, Stewart was among the only people on TV to call bullshit on both sides of the aisle – and on certain propagandistic news networks as well. But Stewart always does so with a wonderfully deft hand, making serious and thoughtful points without coming across as hostile, allowing us to laugh as America seems to crumble further and further every day.

What Colbert does is just as impressive; he is one of our nation’s smartest and funniest satirists, and because he always operates ‘in character,’ he is often able to make harsher and more damning points than Stewart can. I refuse to miss an episode of either series, and even though Stewart and Colbert produce many more episodes per year than any other title on this list, they almost never put on a disappointing show. It is hard, frankly, to imagine keeping one’s sanity in this political landscape without comedians like these to put it all in perspective.

7. Sherlock

Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ stirring reimagining of Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic detective continued, in its 3-episode second season, to provide an exhilarating rush of intelligence, wit, excitement, and spectacular characterization. Sherlock is a little unlike anything else on television, and at its best, little else can match it. This year’s premiere, “A Scandal in Belgravia,” was particularly brilliant, not just one of the best TV episodes of 2012, but as good as most theatrical movies I saw this year. The way the show recontextualizes classic elements of Doyle’s stories to arrive at deeper truths about Holmes, Watson, and the world they live in is simply awe-inspiring, and though I feel “The Hounds of Baskerville” and “The Reichenbach Fall” are a step down from the premiere, they still possess that crucial quality in spades.

I do have quibbles with how Moffat and Gatiss arced this season – these three episodes felt more disconnected from one another than the three installments in season one did – and feel the finale relied on a few too many narrative contrivances, but this is still a fantastic, utterly riveting series, and the performances by Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman just keep getting better and better. The final fifteen minutes of the finale, in particular, feature the best acting either performer has ever done, and cemented the show’s position on this list. It has already been a long wait for season three to begin, and we have a quite a ways to go yet, but I anticipate the next batch of episodes with bated breath. Sherlock is one of modern TV’s best.

6. Girls

When Girls premiered this spring, I did not get around to watching it until three or four episodes piled up, but once I started watching, marathoning everything available in one go, all I wanted to do was see more. Girls is a little – at times a lot – unlike anything I have ever seen before, on TV or in film, because creator Lena Dunham’s sharp, funny, and perceptive voice is entirely fresh. The perspective Girls provides is different than anything else on American television, not just because it focuses on four complex, extremely flawed young women, but because Dunham’s voice comes from a generation underrepresented on TV, and discusses modern personal and social issues from an outlook most shows simply do not have. Girls is also tremendously funny, and highly entertaining, and features great performances from top to bottom. On every level, Girls was one of 2012’s greatest treats, and I am extremely excited for the start of the second season this January.

5. Breaking Bad

Like Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad is a show that placed very high on last year’s list – #2, in fact – that did not live up to its own standards in 2012. This is still a fantastic, all-time great TV show, and the performances by Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, and especially Jonathan Banks, who stepped into the spotlight this year as weary ‘fixer’ Mike Ehrmantraut, were as good as ever during this year’s episodes. So was the beautiful and evocative cinematography, and the sharp, endlessly tense direction, and the great musical choices and original compositions, and so on and so forth.

The only area Breaking Bad suffered this year was the writing, which, while largely terrific, was noticeably impacted by AMC’s silly decision to split the final season into two eight episode chunks. Season 5 Part 1, or whatever we want to call it, felt to me like a great 13-episode season unnecessarily compressed into a strong but flawed 8-episode run, and as the season progressed, the strain to fit this much story into so little time became increasingly obvious. Vince Gilligan and company crafted just as big, complex, and compelling an arc as seasons past, but with five fewer hours to get from Point A to Point B, more narrative and character-based shortcuts had to be taken, and that frustrated me at times. The finale, in particular, felt like a patchwork episode that, in prior seasons, would have been produced as two or three separate hours.

But Breaking Bad is still Breaking Bad, and I love it very much. So what if it did not produce an all-time great season in 2012? It still offered top-notch, riveting television, and that is more than enough for me.

4. The Hour

Though it has only aired four episodes this calendar year, BBC America’s presentation of The Hour easily stands among the most satisfying dramatic endeavors of 2012. I came to the show late, discovering the excellent first season just a few months ago – it would have placed near the top of this list in 2011 had I seen it in time – and the only complaint I have about the second series, which is a great leap forward for the show in every conceivable way, is that waiting a week between episodes is sometimes torturous.

The show chronicles a trio of television journalists in late-50s Britain struggling to craft the best hour in news despite government interference and personal issues. It does, in many ways, what Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom unsuccessfully attempted: To comment on journalistic ethics and methods, discuss social and political subjects, and offer effective, compelling drama amongst an endearing and complex cast of characters. But where The Newsroom failed miserably, The Hour soars. Creator Abi Morgan has crafted a wickedly smart, endlessly fascinating look at the ways history, culture, journalism, and, this season, crime intersect; the series asks a lot of its audience and gives countless intellectual riches back in turn. Even ignoring the larger thematic points at work, The Hour serves as great pulp fiction, a slick and suspenseful detective story with meaningful stakes and an enthralling depiction of process.

This second season has been absolutely mesmerizing so far, as Morgan’s storytelling gets tighter and darker and the characters become more finely drawn. Leads Romola Garai, Ben Whishaw, and Dominic West each give one of the very best performances on TV, and the supporting cast – which now includes the wonderful Peter Capaldi, whose presence has immeasurably enriched the series – gets better every week. The Hour may also be TV’s most lavishly produced and photographed work this side of Mad Men, and is, in my opinion, the best currently airing drama behind AMC’s flagship. If you have not yet seen The Hour, start at the beginning – it is easy to find on home video and digital download – but start soon. You do not want to miss this stirring masterwork.

3. Parks and Recreation

My pick for the best show of 2011, Parks and Recreation did not take a notable step down in quality in 2012; I just feel that the next two shows on this list, one of which did not air last year, simply leapfrogged it during this run of episodes. Make no mistake: Parks and Recreation is one of the very best comedies to ever air on American television, a sweet and warm and utterly, completely transfixing half-hour that is as poignant as it is sidesplittingly hilarious. If the back half of Season 4 and first half of Season 5 are not quite as untouchably perfect as the legendary Season 3, I still feel the show is growing and evolving all the time. The more the series and the audience gets to know these wonderful characters, the deeper and more emotionally effective Parks and Recreation becomes. Just look at this year’s Christmas episode, the last to air in 2012, to see how far Mike Schur and company have taken a figure like Ron Swanson, maintaining the character’s humorous potential while steadily developing him along an honest, organic path.

Amy Poehler continues to give one of TV’s absolute best lead performances, comedy or drama, as the irrepressible Leslie Knope, while the endlessly talented ensemble around her just gets better and better with each passing episode. No show on television is more consistently great than Parks and Recreation, and no single series gives me more joy and happiness on a weekly basis than this one.

2. Louie

Television’s most unpredictable and idiosyncratic show took a big step forward between seasons one and two, and though I may be in the minority on this opinion, I feel Louie took an even greater leap for season three. Over this year’s nigh-flawless 13 episodes, the show became more funny, poignant, thought-provoking, and dramatically effective than at any other point in its run, and more consistently too. Where seasons 1 and 2 each had their share of forgettable installments, I adored every episode this year, and was especially impressed by Louis C.K.’s newfound commitment to continuity. Though Louie is not – and probably never should be – ‘serialized,’ things that happened this season really mattered, and only grew in significance as the cumulative impact of fictional Louie’s relationships and failings came into greater and greater focus.

But where season 3 really blew me away was in its thematic continuity; this was a season about identity, isolation, communication, and human connections, and each story, no matter how small, large, dramatic, or silly, dealt with those ideas in one form or another. The more Louis C.K. focused on having his fictional doppelganger interact with other people from various perspectives and walks of life, the better the show got; this season featured so many terrific guest performances, from Parker Poesy to Robin Williams to a surreal, hilarious David Lynch, but each encounter did a beautiful job deepening our understanding of Louie, and Louie’s understanding of himself. By the time one reaches the final stretch of episodes – wherein Louie auditions to host the Late Show and gives it everything he’s got before travelling to China to seek some measure of solace – it really felt like Louie took a journey this season, one I found to be almost intoxicatingly uplifting.

I simply could not stop watching the third season of Louie once I started; I did not get to it until the season ended, but once I saw the premiere, I could do little else until I saw the rest, and zoomed through all 13 installments as fast as I have ever watched a single season of television. This run of episodes just hooked me in a way previous seasons did not, and by the end, I felt emotionally battered, worn-down, and, in a certain sense, reborn and rejuvenated. Louie has always been great art, but this year, it made the leap to transcendent art, a hilarious and insightful series that works wonders for the soul. That it is not my #1 pick for the year speaks only to the strength of the final series on this countdown. Louie belongs in the pantheon of great short-form fiction, and I simply cannot wait to see what C.K. has in store when he returns to make more in 2014.

1. Mad Men

With the possible exception of Louie, nothing I watched in 2012 – TV or movies – came close to matching the fifth season of Mad Men. This is show is more entertaining, intelligent, thought-provoking, and satisfying than anything on the small or big screens, and I can say without a shadow of a doubt that my favorite writing experiences of 2012 came in reviewing and analyzing the show on a weekly basis. Mad Men is one of the all-time great works of fiction, an expertly constructed and executed masterpiece that only improves the more one thinks about it; even in the moment, while watching, the series is almost impossibly enthralling. At this point, the characters are so finely detailed, their world so well established, and the performances all so note perfect that simply watching events unfold is endlessly rewarding, akin to listening to a great symphony and getting swept away by the fury of emotions and ideas at play.  

This season in particular may be the show’s best, as it delivered an unstoppable run of masterpiece episodes that combined to create a whole so much greater than the sum of its parts. This was a year of sharp, sometimes uncomfortably contemplative character study, one with broad social implications and small personal moments, all of which spoke to real-world issues we struggle with on a daily basis. Mad Men is as applicable as it is masterful, and that only becomes increasingly obvious with each passing season.

This is one of the great modern works of art, and the best piece of filmed entertainment to release in 2012.

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