Sometimes it can be tempting to create a narrative where there really isn’t one. 2012 wasn’t the best year for TV of all time, nor was it the worst. Some shows had their best seasons ever (Archer, The Walking Dead), some shows had their worst (Dexter...and presumably some others though I don’t really make a habit of watching) but most shows just kind of kept on chugging on the path they’re on.
If we are to derive any kind of lasting message or impression from TV’s 2012, it’s that cable is finally the undisputed king of the medium. Pay cable has always clearly been the cream of the television crop in terms of quality since The Sopranos Nielsen ratings debuted in 1999, but basic cable has not only made leaps and bounds in terms of quality, but also in viewers—pay cable not far behind. 2012 is the first year in which a basic cable show has routinely trounced its network competition in the . It cannot be overstated just how much of a ratings juggernaut The Walking Dead has become and it’s had a trickle down effect across the cable landscape. Even shows like Sons of Anarchy and Duck Dynasty (what???) have beaten up on network TV on one point or another.
Pontificating aside, here are my choices for the best TV of 2012 (note there are only two network shows that are probably bound for cancellation soon enough):
10. Justified (FX)
Season two of Justified will probably always be its crown jewel, but while season three can’t reach the same heights (really: very few shows could) it did a wonderful job of bringing Raylan Givens’ daddy issues back to the forefront, creating a satisfying season-long tragedy that sort of lurks in the shadows behind much flashier storylines and characters before revealing itself in the end. Season three of the Appalachian cops and robbers show was surprisingly and refreshingly restrained.
9. The Walking Dead (AMC)
It’s hard for me to be objective about season three of The Walking Dead. Seasons one and two showed flashes of brilliance but were so frustratingly inconsistent that I was bound to fall in love with any version of the show that could merely string together a “point A-to-point B” plot. Well, in 2012, new showrunner Glen Mazarra gave me everything I wanted (and more). Mazarra’s version of the show is far less contemplative and stuffy than previous showrunner Frank Darabont’s and is the kind of pulpy entertainment worthy of the most-watched show on cable. Mazarra’s wisely understood that even if it were too late to make his characters likable or complex, it still wasn’t too late to make them competent. So when new antagonist, the Governor (that’s also a first for the show: a villain with a literal and figurative pulse), reveals surprise at Rick and Co.’s ability to clear out a zombie-filled prison, you almost want to yell at the screen “Yeah, our boy Rick did it! What now, Governor? Take your stupid fake Southern accent, weird-ass zombie daughter and go home, bitch!”
8. Parks and Recreation (NBC)
Parks and Rec’s place in the rankings is a little handcuffed by the fact that it’s coming off of its best season, and maybe one of the best seasons for any comedy ever. But while season four is not as brilliant as season three, it is still a welcome flash of optimism in an increasingly pessimistic TV landscape. The show’s Pawnee, Indiana has become modern time’s version of Mayberry in The Andy Griffith Show. Our version of Mayberry is a touch more cynical, dysfunctional and *gasp* diverse, but it’s still the idealized cypher of an American city where the town meetings may go nine hours long and be populated by crazies. But damn it if we won’t be able to find funding for a local park by the end of it. In 2012, an election year no less, Parks and Recreation was able to pull off a small miracle and make us feel a bit more positive about government.
7. Archer (FX)
Who would have guessed when Archer premiered in 2009 that it would quickly supplant The Office as the best workplace comedy on TV? Make no mistake: for all of its various gadgetry and espionage, Archer is a show about all of our dysfunctional 9-to-5s. H. Jon Benjamin continues to lobby for a special Emmy category to be created just for him. And while we’re talking Emmys…should there ever be an Emmy for best line-reading, Bryan Cranston should win every year for the next decade for merely saying “danger zone.”
6. Veep (HBO)
Veep is a blitzkrieg of comedy. Creator Armando Ianucci and his capable cast of “I know that guy/gals” create a hyper-stylized political world that could either be described as a satire of American politics or a satire of satires of American politics. But what it really is is a finely-tuned punchline machine that spits out increasingly creative and vulgar insult comedy. Veep was perhaps the most reliable source for a laugh in 2012, and Julia Louise-Dreyfuss proves that her place amongst TV comedy royalty is well-earned.
5. Game of Thrones (HBO)
Game of Thrones is a special kind of triumph. It can lay claim to being both a legitimate piece of capital “A” Art, and also being an unabashedly big dumb testosterone-dripping spectacle. Watch it to better understand the mutable nature of power, what it represents, and how its achieved or watch it just to say, “Bro, did you just see that? Homeboy just chopped that dude’s leg off. Bro. His fucking leg.” But whatever you do: just watch it.
4. Louie (FX)
You get the sense that someone who has never watched Louie but has only ever heard their friends describe it would think it is a self-indulgent bore that is just weird for weirdness’ sake. But that’s kind of the point: it is self-indulgence and it is weirdness are the two qualities that make it one of the best shows on TV (NOTE: Every show from #4-#1, I’d be fine ranking #1. But this is a list, and much like Highlanders, there can only be one.) Now that season three is through and Louis C.K. has announced that he’ll be taking a lengthy hiatus before beginning production on season four, we can finally appreciate season three of Louie for what it was: the conclusion to a trilogy. Seriously: season three of Louie is the Return of the King of mid-life crises. It gets almost exponentially better as it goes along and sticks the landing better than any other series this year. It’s also able to achieve moments of genuine catharsis and emotion because of it’s willingness to go to weird places. The three-episode “Talk Show” arc may have been a satirical look at self-important underdog stories but when Louie’s daughter hands him a drawing of him behind the desk of “The Daddy Show,” you’re not won’t be able to see or analyze the whole episode’s “point” through your tears.
3. Breaking Bad (AMC)
For four or so years now Breaking Bad and Mad Men have been in a Bird and Magic-esque competition for the title of “Best Drama on TV.” I still think Breaking Bad has the overall champion belt but this year it was gracious enough to take a backseat to its AMC mate. Breaking Bad remains the obsessive compulsive’s dream. Vince Gilligan’s attention to detail and insistence upon depicting every little step in the “bad guy’s” rise to the top is Argument #1 in television’s dominance over any other medium in serialized storytelling. The beginning of season five saw Walter White ultimately triumphant but Gilligan wisely shows the audience that a victory does not an ending make. Sure, you’re on top now but first you’ve got to erase the evidence of your former crimes. That’s done? Ok, now find a way to gather all the expensive and rare materials needed to further your criminal enterprise. You robbed a train? Good, now it’s time to negotiate distribution. Got that done? Don’t forget about the nine or so guys in prison who could rat you out and ruin everything. What could come across as perfunctory or mechanical ends up being some of the most riveting stuff on television – especially as the body count rises and we watch the noose tighten around Walter White’s neck.
2. Community (NBC)
There is no show that takes more risks or goes further “out there” than Community. There was some thought that Community might play it a little more safe in its third season after a small but vocal backlash to its grandiose “concept” episodes like an extended Goodfellas parody involving chicken fingers. Naturally, Dan Harmon responded by fracturing reality into seven distinct timelines that would all ebb and flow throughout the season by episode four. Really, it’s impossible to praise season three of Community without first brining up its absolutely genius “Remedial Chaos Theory” episode. At times, it felt like not only did the whole season hinge upon that one episode, but so did the rest of the 2012 TV season (if anything, Walter White and his meticulous goatee have to be from the darkest timeline). “Remedial Chaos Theory” is the episode that most concisely and creatively communicates the thesis statement of the season (as verbalized by Jeff in the finale): “Helping each other = good. Helping only ourselves = bad.” The statement itself is maddeningly simple but when we get to see how much these characters lives go to shit when even just one of them exits the room to pick up a pizza, it hilariously and conclusively drives the point home.
1. Mad Men (AMC)
In 2012, we watch many of our favorite shows in big chunks via online streaming or DVD boxsets, but Mad Men, much like the old-fashioned world it depicts, is quite resistant to that. It’s one of the few shows that is so dense and so rich that it demands a one week at a time approach. I watched the first three seasons of Mad Men like I watched the first few seasons of 24: all at once. And that proved to be an enormous mistake. It was only through watching seasons four and five “live,” that I was able to truly appreciate it’s greatness. Now I bring all that up to say this: I can’t definitively declare season five of Mad Men the best one yet because it’s entirely possible that it’s the same it’s always been and I’ve just grown into it or learned to watch it the correct way. But still, by almost any metric: season five of Mad Men is an absolute triumph. The show has always been about two things: identity and change. Season five more so than any other season was able to combine those two concepts into a cohesive and satisfying story with a beginning, middle and end.
Season five is the first time we’ve seen Don Draper trying to operate in a world that is not tailor-made for him. And for most of the season he reacts in a way you might not expect him to: rather well. Sure, he can’t figure out this whole “Beatles” bullshit. And when a young woman asks him why his generation doesn’t want to see theirs have a good time, he just responds (earnestly? glibly?) “We’re just worried about you.” But still he has a young, attractive and ultimately capable wife. She is part of that younger generation they’re so worried about and she challenges him. The most surprising direction season five takes is to let Megan Draper be a human being and not the “Child Bride” archetype…at least not initially. Season five’s long con is to present a cast full of characters who seem ready to change along with the times before ultimately panicking and returning to their status quo. One of great television’s long-standing tropes is “nobody ever changes” and season five of Mad Men’s victory is challenging that notion just long enough to make you believe it before it reaffirms it in an entirely satisfying way.
Honorable Mentions: Homeland, The Daily Show, Sherlock, South Park, Eastbound and Down, 30 Rock, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Girls, Happy Endings
Shows I didn’t watch that are probably great and could have made this list: Luck, The Good Wife, Boardwalk Empire, Sons of Anarchy, Bob’s Burgers, American Horror Story
10. “A Scause for Applause” South Park
9. “18 Miles Out” The Walking Dead
8. “The Debate” Parks and Recreation
7. “Dead Freight” Breaking Bad
6. “CharDee MacDennis: Game of Games” It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
5. “A Scandal in Belgravia” Sherlock
4. “Blackwater” Game of Thrones
3. “Space Race pts. 1-2” Archer
2. “Talk Show pts. 1-3” Louie
1. “Remedial Chaos Theory” Community
Best Acting Performances:
10. Peter Dinklage, Game of Thrones
9. Chris Pratt, Parks and Recreation
8. Amy Poehler, Parks and Recreation
7. Bryan Cranston, Breaking Bad
6. Julia Louise Dreyfuss, Veep
5. Gillian Jacobs, Community
4. Jon Hamm, Mad Men
3. Aaron Paul, Breaking Bad
2. Jessica Pare, Mad Men
1. Claire Danes, Homeland