Best and Top of Everything : Top 10 TV Series of 2012

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Top 10 TV Series of 2012

10. The 2012 Election

MANDEL NGAN / AFP / Getty Images 

Say what you want about the candidates or the outcome, the multibillion-dollar presidential election produced compelling TV. We started the year with the Republican primary in full swing, including a series of TV debates that genuinely, and repeatedly, changed the course of the race. (It’s Gingrich! No, Romney! No, Santorum! No, Romney!) The Internet mattered more than ever — it gave us the “47%” video, for instance — but Clint Eastwood and his chair showed that TV conventions could still get people talking, Bill Clinton showed that they could still move the polls and the debates showed that TV could still shake up a race (if not enough to save Mitt Romney). And amid all the sideshows (Chik-fil-A sandwich, anyone?), we managed to have an actual, serious dialogue on the role of government, women’s rights, tax fairness and (thanks, Stephen Colbert!) campaign finance. Like many a successful show, it may have dragged on too long, but cynics take note: this election really mattered, and people weren’t too turned off to tune in. (Various channels)


9. American Horror Story

Frank Ockenfels / FX 

Last year, before the first season of American Horror Story was over, I put Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s bananas bloodbath on my annual Cincies list of series that were flawed but impressively ambitious. The season ended strong as the Glee producers — well, gleefully — killed off nearly the entire cast of characters. They started again with American Horror Story: Asylum, an even darker, loopier and yet more coherent screamer set in a Catholic home for the criminally insane in the 1960s. Religion, Nazis, vivisection, serial killing, alien abductions — Asylum piles on horror tropes and themes like toppings on a novelty ice-cream dish (a sundae bloody sundae). But its gothic lunacy is anchored by a top-shelf cast — James Cromwell and Jessica Lange especially — and it even manages to work in some serious themes of feminism, science and faith. Asylum, consider me committed. (FX)


8. Parenthood

Byron Cohen / NBC / NBCU Photo Bank 

This extended-family drama, from creator Jason Katims of Friday Night Lights, has always been good. But its third and fourth seasons have elevated it to one of TV’s best because of how it has hit a memorable theme from FNL: the idea of how community can be, inseparably, both a burden and and indispensable support. Here the community is not a football team but the Braverman clan of Berkeley, Calif., which has been challenged by adoption, autism and, this fall, cancer, without seeming like it’s ratcheting up the stakes unrealistically for emotion. In the Bravermans’ world, to paraphrase The Simpsons, family is the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems. And by raising its game to show the genuine drama in real-life challenges, it has become a show well worth adopting. (NBC)


7. Game of Thrones


The fantasy saga based on George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels is wide in scope and long in the telling. But where the first season took awhile setting the scene and drawing the map for this saga — far-flung families battle for a throne, while icy undead doom threatens beyond a great Wall — the second season hurtled forward on the momentum it had set up. At times it struggled to juggle and connect its many story lines, asking us to take on faith that a zombie battle in the far North would someday connect with a Mother of Dragons exiled in the exotic East. But when Season 2 focused on the political intrigues behind the Iron Throne — especially the machinations of black-sheep-made-good Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) — it was a breathtaking study of how power is seized among the shadows. (HBO)


6. Girls 


Before Lena Dunham’s HBO comedy even debuted, it was hard to separate Girls the show from Girls the media phenomenon: the swirl of attention around the 26-year-old creator/director/star; the show’s depiction of a lily-white Brooklyn; the show’s frank, awkwardly funny depictions of sex (and the sometimes sexist criticism of same); the argument over whether the show was a depiction of hipster privilege or a product of it; the backlashes and counterbacklashes. Clear that all away, though, and you had the year’s freshest new comic voice, raunchy, raw and tender at once. Dunham’s antiheroine Hannah Horvath wasn’t always easy to love, but this Williamsburg bildungsroman found a heart beneath its overeducated characters’ defenses. (HBO)


5. Mad Men

Frank Ockenfels / AMC 

If the truest definition of art is to generate a strong reaction, the fifth season of Mad Men was the most successful show on TV in 2012. Stylistically, the series was working at its highest level, laying out one visually stunning set piece after another (“Zou Bisou Bisou,” Roger Sterling’s acid trip, Lane Pryce’s, er, hanging out at the office). Overall — to this critic anyway — Season 5 was greater in its parts than its whole, producing some impressive, structurally daring episodes that didn’t add up to the same gut punch as did, say, the show’s dissection of Don Draper in Season 4. But a little perspective: lesser Mad Men is still pretty great TV, and Season 5 was enough to make one glad that the ’60s (at least on AMC) are not over yet. (AMC)


4. Breaking Bad

Frank Ockenfels / AMC 

In Season 4, teacher turned cancer patient turned meth dealer Walter White (Bryan Cranston) became “the one who knocks.” In the first half of Season 5, White vanquished his enemies and cemented his business success — and yet, if you listened closely, you could hear the knuckles of fate knocking on his own door. Would he be done in by his DEA agent brother-in-law (Dean Norris)? By the many enemies he collected in the meth business? By his ill use of his partner Jess (Aaron Paul) or his unforgivable treatment of his wife Skyler (Anna Gunn)? Or simply by the cancer that was gone but never quite forgotten? The first half of an extended farewell season raised rather than answered these questions, but it also proved that a series could make a character wholly despicable yet utterly fascinating.


3. Homeland

Kent Smith / SHOWTIME 

At the end of last year (after TIME’s 2011 best-of list closed), America narrowly escaped a terrorist attack from ex-POW Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), but at great personal cost to his CIA pursuer/lover Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes). In Season 2, the show upended its story, having Carrie expose Brody and turn him as a double agent, but if anything their relationship became more dangerous, on many levels. A grownup thriller for the second decade after 9/11, Homeland combined an intense cloak-and-dagger story with a multilayered portrayal of the psychic toll this work takes on the people who do it. (Showtime)


2. Louie


Louis CK’s half-hour weekly movie is one of the few wholly surprising things on television. Week to week, it can be just about anything: rawly funny or poignantly dramatic; scatological or psychological; a collection of vignettes or a single, three-episode-long story. The third season took the title character, a comedian and divorced dad, on journeys of self-discovery — be it a lost weekend in Miami, a bizarre and emotionally draining date, a quest to take over David Letterman’s job or, in the finale, a surreal but moving solo journey to China. At once darkly funny and unembarrassedly sentimental, this truly one-of-a-kind show was a 13-episode argument for engaging with the world, as tough as the world sometimes makes it. (FX)


1. Parks and Recreation

Danny Feld / NBC / NBCU Photo Bank 

In an election year, there is ample reason to feel depressed about politics and the people involved in it. So it was doubly welcome to have this full-hearted, brilliant civil-servant sitcom expand its purview from the Pawnee, Ind., parks department to the city council and Washington itself. In the first half of 2012, it took Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) through a bumpy but successful campaign against a local candy-company scion (Paul Rudd); in the last half, it sent her boyfriend/campaign manager Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott) to the capital but found time to get the pair engaged. On two levels — political and personal — it was the year’s best love story. (NBC)