The amount of good television we have at our fingertips in 2012 is completely overwhelming. With creative types coming around to the type of storytelling freedom they’ll get to explore their visions and networks attempting to feed the beast that is the demand for scripted content, the depth of greatness we’re experiencing is unparalleled. Granted, it can be hard to watch everything (especially in a timely fashion to keep up with watercooler chatter) and there has been many a Sunday night where I look at the schedule and thank the TV Gods for repeats, Hulu, and On-Demand, but for a pretty die-hard TV fan like myself, 2012 has been a very strong year for the medium.
Which makes compiling a Top 10 list that much harder. With so many shows being thrown against the wall to see what sticks, you’re bound to not be able (either physically or emotionally) unable to watch every Hot New Thing that comes onto the scene, so creating a Best Of can feel a little incomplete. However, I decided to approach it less as a definitive declaration and more of a sampling/appreciation of what the year in TV has been like; the 10 shows that I selected cover a fair amount of bases of 2012 TV, from the best network show you’re not watching to the freshman political comedy that debuted in an election year to several premium cable dramas that either made the leap to greatness or stayed steady after doing so last season. There are impressive creative rebounds, controversial seasons that will have people talking for quite a while, and, most of all, plenty of great episodes just begging to be rewatched.
10. Bob’s Burgers (FOX)
One of the main complaints I hear about the state of television today is that there aren’t any good family shows out anymore, that so much programming anymore is dedicated to people being mean to one another. Anyone who subscribes to that point-of-view should be watching Bob’s Burgers, my pick for best family comedy on TV and a delightfully weird take on a typical sitcom set-up. Proprietors of a struggling burger restaurant, the Belchers are a tight family unit who, while unconventional in everything they do, are obviously crazy about one another and support the other’s ambitions wholeheartedly. While the show derives some of its humor from the family trying to earn the money to pay the rent and keep their restaurant, Bob’s Burgers really shines when it puts the focus on one of the children’s latest issues (i.e. Gene’s first girlfriend, Tina falling in with a bad crowd) and/or when it allows itself to be more than a little absurd (i.e. a homeless window decorator claiming to be a mannequin, a fruit/vegetable skin diet). Never is there comedy in putting one another down – rather, this is a family full of nice, goofy, weird people who feed into one another’s weirdness, even pulling the “long suffering” parent into the madness fairly frequently.
Three Essential Episodes: So2E02 “Bob Day Afternoon”; So2E04 “Burgerboss”; So3E06 “The Deepening”
9. Justified (FX)
The third season of Justified expanded the world of Harlan County upon the death of former mastermind Mags Bennett. With no central figure controlling things anymore, there was a lot up for the taking, including a mysterious fortune, land, crops, and most importantly, power. It might not have had the focus of the previous season, but season three made up for that by stuffing itself with important figures in the battle for Harlan and pushing Marshall Raylan Givens to his personal breaking point. While Boyd was busy trying to buy an election and curry favor with the new sheriff, Raylan’s dealing with problems at home with Winona (and Arlo) and Dickie Bennett has escaped prison only to fall into a snake pit, with every major player in Harlan after the money his mother left behind. The show managed to corral all the smaller stories and minor characters into a bloody, high stakes entanglement that found no big bad coming forth from the mess; was all the pain, all the death, all the destruction worth it in the end? Or did it end up leaving each character so much weaker than they were in the beginning that no one had the resources or the back-up to become the new don of Harlan? But lest you think Justified is a pulpy body farm merely meant to appeal to only our basest urges, the finale ended on a heartbreaking moment for Raylan who realized that to the one man he wanted to mean everything to, he means nothing at all.
Three Essential Episodes: So3E05 “Thick as Mud”; So3E10 “Guy Walks into a Bar”; So1E13 “Slaughterhouse”
8. Veep (HBO)
HBO’s latest political comedy debuted in an election year and perfectly encapsulated what lies behind the political curtain. Vice President Selina Meyer was once excited about being in politics and ready to make the change she wanted to see in the country happen, but following years of embarrassing public gaffes, a President who doesn’t want to associate himself with her, and a political climate that’s grown more sour, she’s been beaten down by the machine. However, she still has three years to go in her first term, three years in which to pull something out of her hat to garner good press and keep herself in the President’s good graces and as much as she hates her job, it’s better to be the Veep than to not be the Veep. Taking a cue from The Thick of It, Armando Iannucci’s recently completed British political comedy, Veep is a deeply cynical look at a world very few get to see, as verbally dexterous as it is tightly plotted and penetratingly real, with the benefit of a raw lead performance and a litany of important supporting characters. Though much of her time is spent trying to clot the latest PR crisis, Selina Meyer is trying to alter the course of a career that has been on rockier ground, but in the world of politics (and Veep itself), nothing really ever changes. And that’s the point.
Three Essential Episodes: So1E03 “Catherine”; So1E04 “Chung”; So1E08 “Tears”
7. Archer (FX)
Structurally, the third season of Archer was the most interesting yet, with two major arcs that bookended multiple standalone episodes and guest appearances from the likes of George Takei and Burt Reynolds. The show managed to keep its plotting very intricate (dead prime ministers! Canadian drug lords! ocelots!) while giving each member of its cast a moment or episode in the sun and continuing to craft distinct, intelligent dialogue with no word wasted. (You could argue that Archer, for all the adventure it depicts, has the deepest knowledge of pop culture/media, including an ability to wrap the most obscure of references in an Archer yell or Malory snark for safe keeping.) It mixed pop culture parodies/homages with spy capers, living dead girls, and drifting race cars, along with trips to Canada, space, and West Virginia. Archer was everything that it can be in the third season, to the point where you have to wonder if the upcoming fourth season can match the creative highs and consistency; of course, the show has been so good since the beginning that it can that it can afford a minor step back and would still be a tremendously fun half hour. But mostly, it remained, in my eyes, the most consistently funny show on television, combining globe-hopping stories with well-worn character beats to produce a great season.
Three Essential Episodes: So3E06 “The Limited”; S03E08 “Lo Scandalo”; S03E10 “Crossing Over”
6. Boardwalk Empire (HBO)
Upon pulling the trigger on Jimmy, Nucky Thompson became a gangster. He had been involved in criminal activity for quite a while, but he always made an effort not to get his hands dirty, so in fully embracing the lifestyle, the third season of Boardwalk Empire saw a change in its hero. He needed every ounce of his newfound lack of guilt and ability to operate a weapon since arguably his toughest rival, ill-tempered Gyp Rosetti, decided to set his sights on taking Atlantic City from its kingpin once and for all. While early parts of the season were slower and more methodical, depicting everything from Van Alden’s attempts to become another person in Chicago to Margaret’s pet project women’s health clinic, the tension, action, and political intrigue only increased during the back half, with the death of Owen providing the catalyst for Nucky to take the Rosetti threat seriously. The show’s pacing can be unusual, in that its deep supporting cast is sprinkled across the episodes rather than appear for chunks at a time, but when it all comes together in the end, it makes the case that a novelistic approach to storytelling is not dead. In fact, it can make for quite the pay-off to the patient viewer and strengthen everything that came before it, as season three of Boardwalk Empire did.
Three Essential Episodes: S03E07 “Sunday Best”‘ S03E10 “A Man, A Plan…”; S03E11 “Two Impostors”
5. The Borgias (Showtime)
One of the shows to take the leap from good/pretty good to great this year was The Borgias, Showtime’s costume drama about the Borgia family, an Italian dynasty led by Pope Alexander VI, and their desire to stay in power. During the first season, the show seemed to have a good idea of what it wanted to be and how it wanted to tell the story of this rich, controversial family, seen as the bane of the Catholic Church in the eyes of many, but it didn’t quite execute it in the best way. While the acting was top-notch and the cinematography/costuming gorgeous, the pacing was a tad off and it had moments of being content to just sit there rather than move forward. However, the second season improved quite a bit – the story propelled itself more (there was no dead space to speak of and things became delightfully entangled), the action inserted made sense and was never overbearing, and the stakes for the family got much higher. While Rodrigo has been dealing with people trying to take him out of the papacy from the day he assumed the title of Pope, season two of The Borgias ratcheted up the threat level with crazed Friar Savonarola, revenge-seeking Cardinal Della Rovere, and the proud Sforza family all posing threats to his position. In addition, the Borgia children were all dealing with issues of identity that manifested themselves quite differently and profoundly in the family dynamic; while Cesare yearned to be the favored son, Juan self-destructed due to worsening health and Lucrezia struggled with the idea of getting married without losing herself in the process.
Three Essential Episodes: S02E05 “The Choice”; S02E07 “The Siege at Forli”; S02E09 “World of Wonders”
4. Treme (HBO)
Treme is a show whose rhythms you either get or you don’t. It took at least one full season for me to get accustomed to the sprawling cast and (seemingly) small plot stakes, but since then, I’ve been in tune with everything that David Simon and company were putting out. The third season of the New Orleans-set drama focused heavily on the intersection between art and commerce, with several of the characters having to decide how, when, or if they could commodify their talent, to rather mixed results. While Annie’s career skyrocketed, culminating in the release of her album at the end of the season, Davis was burned one too many times from being in the music industry and got to give a profane send-off to his greatest love on a special hidden track; while Janette found that working in a larger restaurant wasn’t her thing, Antoine soul-searched regarding the type of music he chose to play, ultimately becoming okay with the path he took in becoming a musician. It was a moving season of heartbreak and pain (Albert’s lymphoma, LaDonna’s trial), of love and connection (Toni and Terry, Sonny getting married), of the highs and lows that the city of New Orleans has faced since Hurricane Katrina, a season which built to a finale that could have served as a pretty tremendous series ender. Though several character arcs have been more or less wrapped up, Treme has a five-episode coda to play out the final coda in the post-disaster journey of a former cultural haven, which will undoubtedly be the sweetest music of 2013.
Three Essential Episodes: S03E04 “The Greatest Love”; S03E08 “Don’t You Leave Me Here”; S03E10 “Tipitina”
3. Nurse Jackie (Showtime)
The greatest creative rebound of the year had to be Nurse Jackie‘s rebirth in its fourth season. While the show has always been watchable due to a strong supporting cast, interesting central premise, and the lead performance from Edie Falco, it had slipped into a rut where there were no consequences, no danger to anything Jackie was doing. You knew that she’d never get caught nor would she ever have to atone for the things she had done – until this season. During the fourth season, Jackie became the underdog in a sense, battling both her opiate addiction (including a brief stint in rehab where she made one pivotal connection) and a new boss at the hospital who seemed to have her number. Much of the repetitious second and third seasons didn’t give her a feasible challenge to have to overcome, but the fourth season really stacked the deck against Jackie and had her try to wriggle out of trouble as best she could, becoming all the more powerful in the process. After fighting change for so long, she finally wanted to become a better mother, a better nurse, a better friend, and you had to respect the fight that she put into it and the emotional depths it took her (and the show) to. The fourth season of Nurse Jackie, in addition to making better use out of Akalitus and giving Jackie a formidable foe in Mike, showed that while change can be difficult, scary, and intimidating, it can bring a lot of good with it.
Three Essential Episodes: S04E02 “Disneyland Sucks”; S04E05 “One-Armed Jacks”; S04E09 “Are Those Feathers?”
2. Spartacus: Vengeance (Starz)
There was a lot of pressure going into Vengeance, the third season of Spartacus and first without series star Andy Whitfield. The show had managed to craft a very good prequel without the actor, who later succumbed to cancer, but Vengeance would see the debut of Liam McIntyre in the role of the slave-turned-warrior. What worries there were going into things were quickly squelched by McIntyre’s more contemplative performance (juxtaposed against the absolutely delicious return of Lucy Lawless’ Lucretia), a universe that continued to expand away from the confines of the arenas of Capua, and action scenes that ran the gamut from highly emotional to deeply troubling. Spartacus found the rebel army on the run from the Romans, having to dig deep to fight off the increasingly confident Glaber, and stay alive long enough for the other slaves in the area to hear of their quest for freedom and join in; the incredibly bloody finale may have knocked out a good chunk of the supporting cast (in the operatic way that only Spartacus can do), but in doing so, it severed ties between the show and Capua once and for all, leaving the army on their own and waiting on their next opponent.
Three Essential Episodes: S03E05 “Libertus”; S03E09 “Monsters”; S03E10 “Wrath of the Gods”
1. Homeland (Showtime)
Very few shows inspired as much chatter in 2012 as Homeland, whether it be for the breakneck pacing that saw game changing plot points pop up as early as the third episode or for the increasingly bigger plausibility issues that became pervasive later in the season. For me, the second season of the critically acclaimed CIA drama was much more hit than miss, thanks to its superb character work and palpably tense atmosphere. The fact that you truly never knew what you’d see every Sunday on Showtime was simultaneously disorienting and thrilling, a way to make sure you paid attention to everything that happened because you never know what could be important at a later date. (Exhibit A: Brody’s suicide tape.) With the finale hinting that the third season will be smaller in scope and focus on the relationship between Carrie and Saul, the second season of Homeland looks like it will be the manic chapter in the show’s saga, an interesting contrast to Carrie’s improved control over her disorder after spiraling in season one. Whether we were watching Carrie screaming into the wind about her latest hunch, Saul exercising fatherly concern for his protege’s increasingly erratic choices, Quinn stretching his moral ambiguity for much of the season, or Brody struggling to figure out who the hell he was and what he stood for, Homeland had a compelling, ambitious season that proved it knows its character better than any show on television.
Three Essential Episodes: S02E03 “State of Independence”; So2E04 “Q&A”; S02E12 “The Choice”
The Next 10:
11. Cougar Town (ABC)
12. Shameless (Showtime)
13. Web Therapy (Showtime)
14. Wilfred (FX)
15. Damages (The Audience Network)
16. Parks and Recreation (NBC)
17. Awake (NBC)
18. NTSF: SD: SUV:: (Adult Swim)
19. Childrens Hospital (Adult Swim)
20. Battleground (Hulu)