2012 was a great year for television. The number of shows worth watching was staggering, something I wasn’t quite fully aware of until my planned top 10 list spiraled out into a top 20 without much effort. When five wildly different programs were in serious contention for #1, you know the last twelve months were memorable. This year had something to satisfy just about everyone, from horror movie buffs, to mystery lovers, to those just looking for an oddball laugh. With so many interests, genres, and tastes being catered to, the phrase, “there’s nothing on,” never seemed so out of fashion.
2012 was another great year for television, but it also might be one of the last ones for a while. When reviewing this list, the obvious pattern that emerges is one of familiarity. With the exception of one program that’s already been cancelled, everything in my top 10 is a returning show, and was no stranger to the lists made in 2010 and 2011. Few of those shows actually improved in 2012, and many of them will likely end within a season or two, so maybe it’s hard not to feel a little apocalyptic about what’s coming after 2012. That’s a concern for next year’s list though; now’s the time for taking a fond look back at the returning champs, surprise hits, and soon-to-be-missed classics, that defined this year.
It was a tight race overall, to the point that fine-tuning the placement became a far bigger ordeal than just picking the shows to include. So, enjoy, and remember: the numbers are subjective. If your #1 was my #15, rest assured, I wouldn’t argue with you. Picking one show over another often came down to minor details, and matters of personal preference. In reality, rankings work better as a formality than an absolute comment on quality. But who doesn’t like numbers?
A quick note on omissions: While it came as something of a surprise to me that (in between finishing a degree, moving cities, and changing jobs) I’d somehow managed to watch more than twenty shows in their entirety this year, that doesn’t change the fact that there simply wasn’t enough time to see everything worthy of awards consideration. While personal favorites like 30 Rock just barely missed the cutoff, a whole host of quality programs never even had a shot at making the list, because I couldn’t in good conscience make a judgment call on something I haven’t watched. Of those omissions, Boardwalk Empire and Treme, (which I’m told were excellent in 2012), would likely have been shoe-ins for some placement. You’ll also hear from fans that Sons of Anarchy had a solid fifth season. And the complete batsh*t daring of American Horror Story makes it worthy of discussion at some level.
As for comedies, it’s hard (but possible) to ignore Emmy-magnet Modern Family, or numerous other lesser seen, but passionately followed programs, like Cougar Town, New Girl, and Happy Endings. And an election year would normally spell automatic placement for the one-two punch of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, but to evaluate the 300+ installments that aired, based on a small percentage of those (very funny) episodes actually seen, seemed inadequate. So, if your favorite show doesn’t appear as one of the twenty selected, just swap out the ones I picked, but you hate, or haven’t seen (I’m looking at you, #11-13) with ones you do like, and we’ll call it even. Sound good?
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20. Ben and Kate (Fox)
On the surface, Fox’s barely watched, but thoroughly enjoyable Ben and Kate doesn’t offer much that you haven’t seen before. It features a mismatched pair trying to raise a kid, a couple of inseparable and wacky best friends, and a tone light enough to knock over with a feather. What Ben and Kate has going for it, is that its take on all those familiar tropes happens to be funnier, and more sincere, than anyone else trying to do the same.
Along with former Community execs Neil Goldman and Garrett Donovan, showrunner Dana Fox finds a sweet middle ground between goofy, and endearing, with the warm relationship between the titular brother and sister (the delightful Nat Faxon, and Dakota Johnson) giving the show enough emotional credit to let it indulge in rompy suburban capers, get-rich-quick schemes, and good-natured monkeying around. Veteran comedienne Lucy Punch, and breakout talent Echo Kellum round out a fantastic cast, in the year’s hardest to hate, but easiest to miss (and likely already doomed) new sitcom.
- Best Episodes: “Pilot,” “Scaredy Kate”
19. Comedy Bang! Bang! (IFC)
The self-aware charms of IFC’s Comedy Bang! Bang! would be too cool for school if host Scott Aukerman’s part-scripted, part-improvised talk show didn’t capture the same aggressively weird, uniquely funny, and always unpredictable spirit of the podcast on which it is based. With the help of freestyling keyboard comic Reggie Watts, Aukerman mixed bizarre celebrity interviews with offbeat sketches, like a faux movie trailer that takes a man wishing he were never born to a horrifying extreme.
The real star appearances came from the lesser-known actors and standups currently changing the comedy landscape, the best being Paul F. Tompkins, who got to put a face to his beloved podcast impression of the psychotic, and self-promoting Cake Boss (Cake Boss!). Let’s just hope that the season finale, in which Reggie disintegrates Scott by pouring a Big Gulp on him (it’s complicated), doesn’t mark the end of Comedy Bang! Bang!’s defiantly absurd foray into television.
- Best Episodes: “Amy Poehler Wears a Black Jacket & Grey Pants,” “Michael Cera Wears a Blue Denim Shirt & Red Pants”
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18. Bob’s Burger (Fox)
If you tweaked it only slightly, the unbridled energy of Bob’s Burgers would make it just as obnoxious as some of its brethren on Fox’s Sunday night block. Under the guidance of veteran animation expert Loren Bouchard though, the show has managed to breathe new life into a waning brand of cartoon sitcoms. Finding its footing after a rocky start, the second, and currently airing third seasons tuned each member of the Belcher family to the right manic frequency, with put-upon restaurant owner Bob (the wonderfully droll H. Jon Benjamin) often becoming a sponge for blowback caused by the hijinks of his three wild kids.
Able to wring big laughs out of small jokes -ones stuffed into stories of mechanical sharks run amuck, and drug-fuelled arcade rampages-, Bob’s Burgers features the most endearingly dysfunctional, and consistently funny cartoon family since The Simpsons. If nothing else, we can thank it for single-handedly bringing back the comic standard of properly (and improperly) timed dramatic stings.
- Best Episodes: “Bob Day Afternoon,” “An Indecent Thanksgiving Proposal”
17. The Legend of Korra (Nickelodeon)
It’s hard to use the phrase, “good for a kid’s show,” when you only have one as a point of reference, and that one turns out to be better constructed, and assured of itself than a lot of entertainment made for adults. Boldly ditching the familiar setting of the prequel series that made The Last Airbender a favorite among kids, and their parents (if not filmgoers), Korra built on the imaginative world of its predecessor to create a more complex, thematically darker story, one with a feisty but burdened heroine, some stunningly gorgeous animation, and a top-rate voice cast (including J. K. Simmons, and Mad Men’s Kiernan Shipka).
Masked beneath some incredibly creative action sequences and a cool steampunk aesthetic, most younger viewers probably won’t realize that they’re getting a smart lesson on long-form narrative storytelling, and how to give the finger to network censors without actually showing it. Korra’s success doesn’t lie in capitalizing on low expectations for a genre, but in pushing the boundaries of that genre forward, and opening it up for appreciation beyond a set demographic. Put another way: of all the character deaths that happened in 2012, the one in the Nickelodeon cartoon might have been the most memorable. And that’s pretty awesome.
- Best Episodes: “The Spirit of Competition,” “Endgame”
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16. The Walking Dead (AMC)
Were this a contest of “Most Improved,” AMC’s monstrous hit would be the winner by a country mile. After closing out the second season in a labored, squirm-inducing fashion that came to describe the show itself as much as the zombies in it, the first half of season three finally started to make good on The Walking Dead’s unrealized potential. With a pair of exciting new locations (an abandoned prison, and a town of suspiciously friendly survivors), the show got back to its frantic, bloody roots, where no one was safe, and the living were just as dangerous as the dead.
Now that the tenure of Glen Mazzara has finally cleared the mess leftover from the sudden firing of former showrunner Frank Darabont, The Walking Dead has become better plotted, better written, even better acted, than ever. If the rest of season three is up to snuff, then it’ll be able to backup the massive ratings with something more substantial than just heaps of gore.
- Best Episodes: “Seed,” “Killer Within”
15. Sherlock (BBC)
If any show could have used a mulligan on one episode, it was Sherlock. Following up a splendid first series with one that, when on its game, was just as good, the BBC’s modernizing mini-series, starring literature’s greatest detective, suffered from an acute case of the sophomore slump. Since only three episodes aired in 2012, it’s hard to ignore that the middle chapter, “The Hounds of Baskerville,” wasn’t up to the high standards the show had set for itself over the course of its four previous installments.
The dynamic interplay between Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes, and Martin Freeman’s Watson, was put on the backburner, in favor of a convoluted military conspiracy plot that played like it might have fallen out of a script showrunner Steven Moffatt had intended to use for Doctor Who. “Baskerville” only sticks out so badly because the pair of cases bookending it were so stellar, but even when a series of Sherlock comes up one win shy of the trifecta, it still makes for a highly-watchable, and clever spin on a classic icon.
- Best Episodes: “A Scandal in Belgravia,” “The Reichenbach Fall”
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14. Key and Peele (Comedy Central)
Now that thousands of original comedy skits are just a Youtube click away, it seemed like the world would never have need of another sketch show. Keegen-Michael Key and Jordan Peele spent much of 2012 disproving that assumption, not by shaking up the sketch show format, but by making one that was the best source for inspired comedy shorts, regardless of medium. Covering a wide variety of premises -some as specific as Obama having an anger translator, or riff-heavy as a running gag about the increasingly ludicrous names of football players-, Key and Peele managed not one, but two seasons of sketch comedy more consistently hilarious than most sitcoms.
Whether leveraging their biracial background into wildly hysterical bits that doubled as observant commentary on race, or just goofing on their favorite movie clichés, Key and Peele were peerless in their ability to bait you into thinking you know where a sketch is going, before taking things to weird, and wonderfully silly new territory. Factor in the top-notch production values, and you’ve got one of the year’s best surprises.
- Best Episodes: “Pilot,” “Episode #2.2”
13. The Thick of it (BBC)
The first season of HBO’s Veep offered a skewed vision of the compromise and embarrassment hiding beneath the dignified sheen of high-level politics (and provided a showcase for Julia Lewis-Dreyfus’s four-letter vernacular), but the return of The Thick of it, the British series which inspired Veep, made it apparent how big the gulf is between a comedy that’s pretty good, and satire that’s truly transcendent. Stuck between the local heart of Parks of Rec, and the imagined magic that comes with the big office on The West Wing, Armando Iannucci’s uncompromisingly bleak look at inert party bickering, and bureaucracy was every bit the scathingly funny hate letter to government it had always been.
With Malcolm, Nicola, and Peter all caught in the media’s sights following a single suicide in London, the final series raised the stakes, but didn’t forsake the overwhelming sense of futility driving the biting humor, and lyrical cursing. Only a show as perceptive, and brilliantly written as The Thick of it could make you sad that a product of such unflinching cynicism is no longer with us.
- Best Episodes: “Episode #4.3,” “Episode #4.7”
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12. Spartacus: Vengeance (Starz)
Mock it all you like, that won’t change the fact that Starz’s brutally violent, shamelessly libidinous sword ‘n sandal epic delivered the goods every week of its ten-episode third season. It’s easy to get distracted by the spectacular action scenes, and abundance of flesh on screen, but the secret weapon Spartacus has always had is the strength of its storytelling muscles. Lead writer Steven S. DeKnight kept this year’s narrative tightly focused, creating identifiable wants, drives, and desires for all the characters either trying to quash, or ignite, a revolution in ancient Rome.
Following the untimely death of star Andy Whitfield, newcomer Liam McIntyre had some big shoes to fill, but he rose to the challenge, and brought new dimensions to the slave turned rebel leader, Spartacus. The show has always been an exercise in gratification, but Spartacus proves said gratification can be visceral, and dramatic, and emotional, all at the same time. If its final season fine-tunes things even further, the loin-clothed former laughing-stock will be a serious contender for next year’s top 10 list.
- Best Episodes: “Libertus,” “Monsters”
11. Girls (HBO)
It’s become pretty much impossible to talk about HBO’s Girls without mentioning the massive hate-tornado that followed in its wake. Viewers were dumbfounded that a show so low-key in its humor would warrant praise so high from critics, despite Louis C. K. having spent the last couple years successfully carving out a place for TV that treads a line between comedy and drama. Other detractors decided to paint the show as racist for featuring a predominantly white cast, despite the fact that more popular, more beloved programs have gotten away with monochromatic casting for years, without attracting nearly as much ire. And others still just thought writer-director-star Lena Dunham’s voice only spoke for spoiled, whiny 20-somethings, despite that being the point.
Terrible People shows have been a staple of comedy for years now, but Dunham was fearless in taking a warts and all approach to her characters, letting the frequently funny, occasionally poignant, and almost always self-centered adventures of Brooklynite, Hannah Horvath, originate from real, and relatable places. Few can readily identify with the life of an ex-Bank of Mom and Dad urbanite, but feelings of youthful inexperience, self-doubt, and thinking the world is being unfair (when really only you are) are near universal. It’s not for everyone, but Girls’ unwillingness to sacrifice honesty for likeability is exactly what makes it so interesting.
- Best Episodes: “Pilot,” “The Return”
That’s all for today, but be sure to check out our top 10 picks and let us know what you think.Previous