We watched way too much television in 2012. In addition to the ten shows below, there’s at least a dozen additional programs that were heavily considered. A few of those will appear soon as honorable mentions, but for now we’ve limited it to the best of the best. Without further ado, our list:
10. Parks and Recreation
In Parks‘ 4th and 5th seasons, it basically stole the title of “show you can’t wait to watch because you love the characters so much.” Between Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope, Adam Scott’s Ben Wyatt, Nic Offerman’s Ron Swanson, Chris Pratt’s Andy Dwyer (the TV character my girlfriend associates me with the most, which I take as an extreme compliment), and all the rest, too many to individually single out, this fantastic ensemble has sustained an unmatched level of consistency throughout five seasons, both character and joke-wise. The fourth seasons gave us this demonstration of unprecedented depression. Season 5 gave us more Jean Ralphio. What was originally conceived as a spin-off of The Office has turned into an original creation that surpasses that show in every way. It’s the rare comedy where, if it ends after five seasons, I won’t be content with what I’ve already got. I never want these people to leave. -Drew
Low on incident and high on (or off?) atmosphere, David Simon’s New Orleans odyssey remained one of the most inviting and soulful hours on television this year. In probably its most coherent and connected season yet, Treme tracked the paths of several characters in their struggles with the promise of success. Beginning in the wake of Katrina, the show has undergone a subtle transformation in reflection of the town’s inhabitants – what began as subdued and tenuous has turned bolder and more assured. Chock-full of specific and well-researched local detail, the series’s depiction of New Orleans doesn’t just feel accurate but alive.
Simon’s frustration with our many systemic failures remains a crucial aspect of the piece, but unlike on The Wire, it’s merely a small part of the entire puzzle. More than ever, it’s actually about the characters – whether they be struggling musicians, crusading lawyers, bar-owners, Indian chiefs, or even people that don’t know exactly where they fit in – how they negotiate their shared love for their city. As the memory of Katrina recedes further into the past, their myriad problems endure or rise anew. The communal spirit in the face of those hardships is what makes the show such a joy to watch. -Bryan
The term “brilliance” gets thrown a lot with Louie, because we’re quick to associate artistic freedom, and using that license to create something original, with brilliance. But the brilliance in Louis C.K.’s half-hour show stems from showing us things we already know at an alternative angle. We’ve all been on nightmare dates, but Louie showed us the literal edge of danger in following up on them. We know the entertainment industry is run by corporations, but Louie demonstrated its artifice to a wonderfully cartoonish extent (David Lynch helps, always.) Yes, Louie is brilliant because it can choose whether to be funny or serious, but that’s not the point. It’s brilliant because the man behind it cares deeply about life, and every increment of it is dedicated to helping us understand it just a little bit better. -Drew
7. Game of Thrones
This is coming from a fan of the books- I feel the need to stipulate that first. Game of Thrones‘ second season was messy, the pacing was always a bit off, and the whole Qarth thing translated about as well as it did in the second book, as in “meeehhhhhh.” But I preferred the second season to the first, because it gave us Tyrion with newfound power, Arya trading wits with Tywin, Theon in an expanded role (and Alfie Allen completely owning it out of nowhere- let’s give this guy some credit), the entire “Blackwater” episode (which was the most thrilling hour of TV I’ve watched all year), Robb Stark owning bitches, the promise of Jaime and Brienne’s third season travels, Joffrey continuing to be the best villain out there, drunk Cersei advice, Ygritte, Davos, Stannis refusing to believe he’s lost the fight, Renly getting fucked by both Loras AND shadow monsters (which in hindsight really should have been at the end of episode four, but whatever), and Littlefinger making moves behind everyone’s back. If that’s not enough for you, let me just say- as a fan of the books- that seasons 3 and 4 are going to be BONKERS. -Drew
6. Boardwalk Empire
“Unreasonable expectations.” That’s the phrase that’s been constantly flouted over the course of Boardwalk Empire‘s three seasons, as many felt the show could never live up to its pedigree. Between Martin Scorsese, Steve Buscemi, and former Sopranos writer Terrance Winter, the talent involved has faced backlash for a product that’s been publicly deemed good-but-not-great. But amid all the grumbles, Boardwalk has quietly and efficiently evolved into an elite TV drama. Despite his prominence in the marketing and opening titles, Buscemi’s Nucky Thompson has never been the sole focus of the show, which allows its fascinating troupe of supporting characters to flesh out the immaculately-rendered era.
Masters of the slow build, Winter and his writing staff are content to unravel story threads over the course of the entire season, scanning across dozens of different characters and serval cities within a single episode. Viewers have complained that the show is “unfocused,” but the vignette-like storytelling allows different characters to be highlighted from week-to-week, and enlarges the series’ scope to unrivaled size. This year’s biggest addition, Bobby Cannavale’s unhinged, animalistic gangster, Gyp Rosetti, gave fuel to the dramatic fire as a direct foe to Nucky, and their long-simmering feud allowed for a string of extremely tense and satisfying episodes to conclude the season. -Bryan
Lena Dunham’s Girls was the talk of the TV world this year, but for all the wrong reasons. As people argued over the show’s lack of diversity and sometimes-intolerable characters, Dunham was crafting a hilarious, heartfelt comedy that only got better as the season progressed. Often dubbed an “update on Sex And The City,” Girls a group of, well, Girls, struggling to make it in New York after graduation. Like her first feature, Tiny Furniture, Dunham doesn’t really sugar coat things, filling the episodes with degrading sexual encounters, economic woe, and tons of hair-pulling mistakes on each character’s part. That’s where some have issues. These characters are entirely flawed, and rarely do they make good decisions. But Girls is all about watching a group of people struggling to act their age. Of course they’re intolerable; they’re human beings. -Giovanni
4. Breaking Bad
Just how bad can things get for Walter White? In the first half of Breaking Bad’s fifth season, creator Vince Gilligan takes no ‘half measures’ in continuing the White’s endless downward spiral. The brief half-season follows White and company as inevitable his meth empire finally takes off. And of course, it’s built on a throne of blood. Continuing to raise the tension to unimaginable levels, Breaking Bad once again positions itself as the alpha male in modern television with its darkest season yet. And the performances are as good as ever, with Bryan Cranston completely embodying his Heisenberg persona. He takes the former, lovable high school teacher to a chilling place. –Giovanni
I love a show with ambition. Community’s continued devotion to loopy flights of fancy and conceptual trickery made it one of the most consistently surprising and most enjoyable shows of the year. While perhaps a small step down from the consistency of its second season, Community’s latest stretch of episodes included several series highlights. The epic two-part pillow fight saga, the 8-bit video game episode, the hard-boiled Law & Order homage, and a season finale that could’ve served capably as a series capper. The groundwork for success starts with the lovable varied cast who (perhaps barring Chevy Chase) proved able to sell even the strangest of storylines. With mastermind Dan Harmon ungracefully let go, the show’s future is frightfully unclear. But if we ultimately need to pretend that season four never happened, this third season provides a hilarious, heart-warming, and fitting end to one of the best & boldest comedies of all time. -Bryan
I think of Luck as a direct sequel to Deadwood, in many ways. If Deadwood is about a group of people coming together to form a society, Luck is that society 200 or so years later, with a different group of people coming together to try to find their individual form of “luck,” in a society that’s rife with opportunity. Between its thrilling horse races, the highlight of this TV season, there was a throbbing heart at the center of it all in four degenerate gamblers, who formed one of the most seamless, inspiring friendships I’ve ever seen in just nine too-short episodes. While tragedy struck the series in the wake of three horse deaths, what David Milch and company managed to produce remains a spectacle of pure human beauty. Look it up if you haven’t, and just let it soak in. -Drew
1. Mad Men
When Mad Men spent a year-and-a-half on the proverbial sideline amid creator Matthew Weiner’s contract dispute, some wondered whether it might signal a decline in the show’s quality. Boy, how wrong they were. After those acrimonious off-screen circumstances, season 5 of the AMC drama was arguably the show’s strongest yet, finding unexpected and exciting directions for each of its fascinating characters. The biggest question coming in was what role Don Draper’s new fiancee would play in the established ensemble – a question that was emphatically answered (in French) in one of the show’s most iconic scenes ever. From that moment onward, Weiner and company confidently portrayed the universal theme of gradual change for both character and society.
Each episode of Mad Men utilizes a distinct framework, operating like individual short stories that also tie into the ongoing plot. That formal inventiveness this year included an episode-as-fever-dream, a three-part series of vignettes with the characters taking different kinds of trips, and a dread-filled slow burn toward a character’s suicide. The imagination and variety of writing styles allows for some of the greatest development on TV, as we’re still learning new sides to the characters five years in.
Don spent the better part of the year being a happy and faithful husband, but true to the show’s history, everything slowly began to unravel in the most unexpected way. In the season’s final image, Don’s face appears full of a sly mystery and suggestion – the perfect reflection of a show that can’t help itself from being so engaging, provocative, unpredictable, and just downright damn great. –Bryan