The Top 20 Shows Of 2012 (#10-1)

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This is it, the final countdown through the ten best shows of 2012. But before you get to the cream of the crop, don’t forget to check out the rest of our Top 20, to see which shows wound up just shy of placement among the very best.

Did old favorites live up to past glory? Was the return of Mad Men worth the long wait? And why is Nick Nolte talking to a horse? All these questions, and more, will be answered in the following pages, as well as in the video version of the Top 10 that you can check out at the end of this article. Enjoy, and be sure to drop us a comment about how you think your favorite shows stacked up.

Begin the countdown of the Top 10 shows of 2012 on the next page…

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10. Archer (FX)

Archer The Top 20 Shows Of 2012 (#10 1)

Having lost most of its edge years ago, it’s good to know that South Park’s title as the smartest, funniest, and filthiest cartoon on TV was just waiting for a show like Archer to take up the mantle, and remake the case for an animated smut-fest that’s as clever as it is crass. Creator Adam Reed keeps the spy missions, and lewd sexcapades of professional spy/inebriate, Sterling Archer, couched in obsessive wordplay, while maintaining a keen eye for era, and genre detail.

Part spoof, part genuine love letter to old school Bond spycraft, Archer’s plotting can get as twisty as some cable dramas, but the unpredictability just ends up fuelling Sterling, and the rest of his disgruntled co-workers. A fancy dinner party covering up the assassination of the Italian Prime Minister, and a mad Bryan Cranston taking hostages to start a colony on Mars, rank among the more unique, yet expertly constructed scenarios played out on TV this year. With so many great running gags already established, and plenty of material left to lampoon in the world of espionage, Archer’s prospects going forward look as good in 2012, as they did in 2011.

  • Best Episodes: “The Limited,” “Lo Scandalo”

9. Game of Thrones (HBO)

GoT The Top 20 Shows Of 2012 (#10 1)

Game of Thrones pulled off a nigh impossible trick in its first season: it made TV-budget medieval fantasy cool. More accurately, it showed that with HBO’s funding, committed actors, and strong direction, a twenty year-old, 800+ page epic could be turned into cross-media commercial gold. With season two, Game of Thrones faced the new challenge of adapting a book in George R. R. Martin’s gargantuan series that was less self-contained than the first, one tasked with setting up a multitude of conflicts in and around the battle-scarred continent of Westeros, many of which won’t be paying off until well down the franchise line.

While that left season two’s narrative feeling more disjointed than that of the first, Game of Thrones was still a technical marvel. The much-buzzed about ninth episode, “Blackwater,” proved that a full-scale battle on the small screen could be just as jaw-dropping, and astounding as anything you’d see in theatres. Buoyed by the uniformly fine cast (Peter Dinklage’s work as one of the few likeable men in a land of liars and thieves being particularly exceptional), the show was still ferociously engrossing for both neophytes and experts alike.

  • Best Episodes: “What is Dead May Never Die,” “Blackwater”

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8. Justified (FX)

Justified The Top 20 Shows Of 2012 (#10 1)

If the entire “crime of the week” genre were put in a winner-take-all fight to death, it would surprise exactly no one to find U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens as the last man standing. Deftly fleshing out the tiny nooks, and smalltime crooks of the Kentucky criminal underworld, Justified’s method of setting the season’s table with tragicomic short stories in its first half, then building toward a finale that clears the table with a hail of gunfire, is old hat by now. That its third season could stand up admirably to the sublime one that came before it was no minor feat though.

Opting to tackle the expectations for season three’s big bad with quantity, an off-his-game Raylan was put at the center of a free-for-all scramble that attracted many of Harlan County’s lowlifes. All were trying to get their hands on a hidden stash worth millions, and the volume of stories being told would sometimes make the show feel like it was inspired by It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, instead of Elmore Leonard. This year’s overarching plot didn’t cohere quite as smoothly as 2011’s, but it was still a great ride, and the tales Justified tell each week are always a rich source of pulpy dialogue, and honed gallows humor.

  • Best Episodes: “Thick as Mud,” “Loose Ends”

7. Community (NBC)

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For a show that’s built its reputation on being divisive, it seems only fitting that half of Community’s excellent third season doesn’t technically qualify for the list. Episodes like “Remedial Chaos Theory,” and “Regional Holiday Music,” will go down as classic examples of the show’s devil-may-care attitude toward accessible structure, humor, or inspiration. But they all aired in 2011. Thankfully, the half season we got in 2012 was almost as good. The show charted new territory in its exploration of the TV and movie clichés it both mocks, and reveres (often at the same time), while also delivering one of the highest laughs/minute ratios of any sitcom.

Were it not for the specific knowledge needed to truly appreciate the extent of its Law & Order parody, “Basic Lupine Urology” would be the uncontested funniest half-hour of television this year. Then again, Community’s M.O. has always been to combine elaborate references with a liberal dose of self-awareness, just to see what kind of hilarious nonsense comes out the other end. As dismal ratings, and the rabblerousing of showrunner Dan Harmon became increasingly entwined with the show’s comedic perspective, Community could feel more and more like one big inside joke. That just meant that, when you got it, you laughed your ass off.

  • Best Episodes: “Pillows and Blankets,” “Basic Lupine Urology”

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6. Homeland (Showtime)

Homeland The Top 20 Shows Of 2012 (#10 1)

Of any show to make this list, none slingshot up and down the rankings with as much week to week velocity as Homeland, Showtime’s Emmy award-winning espionage drama. Approaching its second season with an attitude of, “you ain’t seen nothing yet,” the writers upped the tempo on Carrie and Brody’s paranoid tango of changing allegiances, and for about half of it, the propulsive plotting made the show seem unstoppable. In the last few weeks though, the shock-a-minute engine felt like it was being increasingly driven by stupid character choices, and loose logic, causing the show’s quality to jump from great, to okay, to terrible, and back again, sometimes within the same episode.

Fans were worried Homeland’s tight and grounded narrative chops had suddenly disappeared, when in reality, the show had always been ridiculous; it was just less obvious last year. Even with a finale that retroactively excused some confusing plot decisions, the difference between what some viewers thought the show was about, and what the creators were making, was hard to reconcile. All the same, Homeland has but one equal in wringing out gut-churning tension, and still has three of the best performances on television.

  • Best Episodes: “New Car Smell,” “Q&A”

5. Louie (FX)

Louie The Top 20 Shows Of 2012 (#10 1)

FX’s Louie made Louis C.K. something of a hero among both comedians and creatives, because his complete control over its production let him make a show unlike any other, one where the recognition that comes with joke-telling can take precedence over just trying to get a laugh. Freed from continuity, or a hard-set format, trying to predict where the (often autobiographical) adventures in Louie were heading next quickly became an exercise in futility. With the third season, Louie experimented with an idea even more challenging than the difficulty of single life, or the ouroboric frustration of habitual self-loathing: what if being out in the world really isn’t that scary?

Sure, C.K. remained a magnet for embarrassment, but more than any other year, the silver linings of each little disaster were apparent to both the audience, and Louie. If the beautiful last shot of the epic, three-part Late Show saga showed us anything about C. K.’s evolving outlook, it’s that failure may sometimes be inevitable, but the nobility in trying anyways can never be taken away from you. Besides, there’s nothing stopping you from having a few laughs along the way.

  • Best Episodes: “Miami,” “Late Show: Part 3”

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4. Mad Men (AMC)

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After contract negotiations kept the show off the air for an agonizing seventeen months, Mad Men returned for a terrific fifth season, reminding viewers why a talky period drama has become appointment television. Spending so long away from the offices of Sterling Cooper Draper Price only enhanced the euphoria of once again indulging in the show’s masterful craftsmanship, brilliant performances, and savory dialogue. AMC’s original flagship series has built a distinct brand of stylish quality all its own, one several cuts above the imitators that sprung up (and died) during Mad Men’s absence.

That feeling of missing something came to guide the entire season, as Peggy began to question her role at the agency, Roger found fading clarity in an LSD tab, and Don struggled to keep his quickie marriage to Megan from going down a familiar road of distrust, and distance. The show lost some of its mysterious allure as the humor broadened, and creator Matthew Weiner’s symbolism drew more attention to itself than usual, but Mad Men’s signature formula of cynical cool, and creeping existential dread, remained as intoxicating as ever.

  • Best Episodes: “Far Away Places,” “At the Codfish Ball”

3. Luck (HBO)

luck1 The Top 20 Shows Of 2012 (#10 1)

Were you to judge it solely on the spectacular race sequences at the center of each episode, Luck -HBO’s doomed drama of horses and aging gangsters, lost glory and second chances- was arguably the best thing filmed in 2012, TV or otherwise. But to do so would mean ignoring the richness of the world David Milch creates with the Santa Anita racetrack, one home to a disconnected family of degenerates, dreamers, and opportunists, all united by a shared belief in the power of dying traditions.

Milch’s jargon-heavy dialogue, and measured plotting would often make understanding the fine details feel secondary to luxuriating in the gorgeous cinematography, fantastic performances, and the magic that came with seeing all the enigmatic mysteries crystallized into something as pure, and stirring as the race scenes. It’s hard to pick the greater shame: that the show’s lasting reputation may never shake the animal deaths that ultimately got it cancelled, or that another season seemed like all it would take for Luck to hit full stride.

  • Best Episodes: “Episode 4,” “Episode 9”

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2. Parks and Recreation (NBC)

parks and rec The Top 20 Shows Of 2012 (#10 1)

Considering it was the best show of 2011, it’ll probably save some time if I just list off the qualities that still make Parks and Recreation the most enjoyable comedy of recent memory, because none of those things have changed. It’s still got the best ensemble of any network or genre (led by the adorable Amy Poehler, and incomparable Nick Offerman), it’s still the flat-out funniest show currently airing, and it’s still one of the most emotionally well-realized, and affecting comedies ever made.

The sheer glee and happiness that radiates out of Pawnee every week is inescapably infectious, whether it comes from something as silly as Leslie and friends slip-sliding across an ice rink to the tune of Gloria Estefan’s, “Get on Your Feet,” or the way that each week’s little nuggets of character development always feed into the big moments, like the first legitimately surprising, and moving wedding proposal any sitcom has had in years. Optimistic without ever becoming cloying, and drenched in a goofy enthusiasm that rarely goes too far, there’s no other show that makes you feel quite as good about television, comedy, or pretty much life in general, as Parks and Recreation.

  • Best Episodes: “Win, Lose or Draw,” “Halloween Surprise”

1. Breaking Bad (AMC)

say my name  span The Top 20 Shows Of 2012 (#10 1)

In the wake of its game-changing fourth season finale, which saw Walter White become the heir apparent to Albuquerque’s meth trade, Breaking Bad could have let things slow down, and settled for making the eight episodes in 2012 mere appetizers for the final eight in 2013. Instead, creator Vince Gilligan, and his superb writing team, reached for the throttle, and rarely let up, throwing a barrage of dire situations, and risky opportunities at Walter each week, such that it was understandable his ego would grow just as quickly as his empire.

Along the way, Bryan Cranston had a fifth straight year of being television’s best actor, but the entirety of the cast was simply fantastic, with smaller, yet vital performances coming from Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn, and Jonathan Banks, to name a few. Even without any period piece decor to lean on, it was still the best looking program on television, and the first half of the final season had some fiendishly taut setpieces that will rank among the very best the show has ever done.

Some would argue that eight episodes wasn’t enough time to fully capture every step of Walter’s ascent to (and relinquishment of) the title of kingpin, but decay has always been more important to Breaking Bad than buildup. With Walt’s moment in the sun over, all that remains to be seen is how his kingdom of glass finally falls apart. If history is any indicator, it’ll make for unforgettable television, and give Breaking Bad a strong chance at being the best show of the year, two years running.

  • Best Episodes: “Dead Freight,” “Say My Name”

For more, check out the video version of our top 10 below:

We hope you enjoyed our Top 20 list, and all our TV writing here at We Got This Covered in 2012, but now’s your chance to let us know what you thought was the best show of the year. Be sure to leave a comment, and let your voice be heard. See you all in 2013.

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  • MonkeyFascist

    Once again, a list full of nothing but crap shows.

    • Dale

      Really? What do you consider a good show?

  • Rob

    No Walking Dead?

    • Dan

      The Walking Dead is the best show on TV. Whoops this writer whiffed on that one!

  • JacksonHart

    This dude clearly doesn’t watch Dexter…

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=616635402 Jamie Hobbs

      If you’d have posted this after season 4 I may have agreed, as it stands the show is now just not very good.

  • BLZ Bubb

    Agreed nearly 100% with the major exception of Homeland. One cliche after another… the entire series is just a single cliche. If this had been a one hour made for TV movie then maybe it would have worked but basically it’s the same story week after week.

  • http://www.facebook.com/bailey.bednar Bailey Bednar

    a top 20 list usually includes 20 top shows, not just the top 10. You suck my donkey balls for your bad title. You can burn in hell you muthafucka!

  • merwanor

    Will never understand the love for Breaking Bad, I have only watched the first season, and I had to stop. I tried to find what people love about the show, but to me it was just boring to no end.

  • Tulipsnwindows

    No Lost Girl, Warehouse 13 or Rizzoli & Isles or even Spartacus?
    Not a bad list though.

  • Soul

    No Boardwalk Empire? Blasphemy.

  • Umm. Todd? Guess that works…

    …How I Met Your Mother. In my opinion, the best show on television. I have never had that much fun watching a show before. Not to mention, the 2012 season was amazing.

    • Umm. Todd? Guess that works…

      Actually, it was more like, Legen… WAIT FOR IT!! DARY…

  • A

    where is Pretty Little Liars? O.o