We voted. These are the best shows of 2012. It’s Science.
5. LOUIE (FX)
Everyone’s favorite schlubby Mexican-Hungarian ginger divorcee assured us this year that he’s still operating at the top of his game. This year was more serialized and to be frank, less laugh out loud funny, but I’ll be damned if there was a more honestly written and insightful show on TV. I fully believe that Louis belongs among the top stand up comics in the history of the form, and so would be happy as a clam with bits from his stand up interspersed with merely functional scenes linking them together. But he’s not, happily for everyone, content to settle for that.
From bipolar dates (Parker Posey seriously deserves some awards love) leading to moving revelations, to Louie and Maria Bamford having the all time most awkward and humiliating post-sex talk, to F. Murray Abraham’s guest performance of the year, spurring Louie’s attempt to re-connect with his father and its bonkers resolution, this is a show packed with the unexpected at every turn.
But one thing stood out. The “Late Show” arc, spurred by a real life event in Louis’ life, his now well-known “Everything’s amazing and nobody’s happy” bit. He crafts from this a three part episode, unusual for a show that normally eschews continuity, detailing his fleeting flirtation with the upper echelons of show business. Louie goes on Jay Leno’s show, and despite his nerves he kills and goes viral. He’s hot shit, briefly, which leads to a surprising offer from the head of NBC. Partly a winking Rocky homage, partly a real look at the backstage dealings in entertainment media and partly a brutally honest look at a question that everyone of a certain age asks himself: “What if this is my last chance?”
So he has to break through his own self imposed barriers. He has to figure out just who is he doing this for. Is his reluctance something as honest as “artistic integrity” or just fear of the unfamiliar? Is he selling out or transcending his limits? He has to navigate politics far beyond what he’s used to, to play mindgames with Seinfeld. Real life friends and acquaintances make appearances that are far more layered than expected, marked by jealousy, by duplicity, by harsh honesty. The fact that Louis got Seinfeld, Jay Leno and Chris Rock to do what they did says tons about both the quality of what he does and his current status. The fact that he got Gary Marshall, and most ingeniously David Lynch to play the head of NBC and his talk show coach shows how well deserved his colleagues’ opinion of him is. And I’ll be damned if the conclusion didn’t have me grinning from ear to ear. This season is worth a place on every top list this year for “Late Show” alone.
Defining Moment: Did you just read any of that?
- Stelios Xenidis
4. JUSTIFIED (FX)
Graham Yost’s Justified challenges Breaking Bad for the most badass show on television. Not that it has surpassed Bad (or probably ever will), but god damn if it isn’t commendable for how it tries, and without ever showing the strain that it’s network sibling Sons of Anarchy frequently does. Much like its laconic protagonist, nothing makes this show break stride, even when it’s ramping up the tension and plot twists as Harlan County, USA nears its traditional year-end bloodbath. No matter how convoluted things threaten to get, it all proceeds naturally from what we’ve learned about the core of well developed characters, all of whom possess their own charms and reveal themselves to be at least a little smarter than they would seem.
Season 3 had the unfortunate job of following the incredibly tense, layered, Margo Martindale-infused second season. While this season wasn’t quite not on the level of its predecessor, it’s graced with a phenomenal regular cast cemented with terrific supporting by Jeremy Davies, Mykelti Williamson, Jeremy Davies’ wild-ass hairdo, Neil McDonough (as a gun-toting child-molester slash drug-addled criminal madman, no less), Carla Gugino, Jere Burns, and Walton Goggins’ wild-ass hairdo.
The new year will be promptly bringing us a new season of scheming, shootouts, double crosses, triple crosses, Oxycotin deals gone bad, drunken hook ups, and internal affairs investigations. Those aren’t spoilers or anything, but who cares what specifically Season 4 will bring for Timothy Olyphant’s Raylan or Walton Goggins’ criminal underlord Boyd Crowder? Those guys don’t know how to be boring, and this is week in and week out one of the most dependably quality shows on television. We needn’t worry.
Defining Moment: The expression on Timothy Olyphant’s face when a disarmed opponent tries to take back his firearm.
- Tim Kelly
3. Mad Men (AMC)
Five seasons and we still don’t have the elusive Don Draper figured out. That’s all by showrunner Matthew Weiner’s design, mind you. And that’s what makes Mad Men so great. This season saw Don settling in to his new life as a twice-married man. But we soon find out the newly minted Megan Draper represents a real challenge for him, a challenge exacerbated by how much (and exactly why) he genuinely loves her. Opinionated, strong-willed, and ambitious, she is completely the opposite of Betty Draper, but the question for Don is whether he can actually live with the things he finds so attractive in a young woman. Jessica Pare had the daunting task of leaping right to the front of the deepest, most accomplished ensemble on television five years into their run, and with so much of the season riding on her relatively green shoulders, she knocked it out of the park.
Meanwhile, business at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce was as volatile as ever, with all the usual boozing and adultery and casual racism, but also brawling and prostitution and haunting suicide amongst the principals at the office. Partners were lost and new partners were made. The most unlikely character of all had an LSD-fueled awakening. Pete Campbell got knocked the f*** out (as the other partners decline to intervene, being as eager as the rest of us to watch it play out). Christina Hendricks stepped up when served her best dramatic showcase in years, as the firm put her to an unconscionable choice that Joan faced with her trademark steely pragmatism.
There are so many threads dangling going into this upcoming season, but I’m most looking forward to seeing what Peggy’s doing after leaving SCDP behind to get a fresh start with Teddy Shaw. An immediate classic of the television medium, I can’t return to that smoke-filled, booze-soaked office soon enough.
Defining Moment: Lane’s car won’t start at a pivotal moment, in the blackest, driest capper to a running joke that you could possibly imagine.
- Tim Kelly
2. GAME OF THRONES (HBO)
It’s practically a joke at this point that whenever geeks talk about their dream adaptation of a big genre property, the conclusion is always that “an HBO series is the only way to really get it right.” It’s an easy answer, theoretically removing any limitations that might force something be excised for budget, time, or content. It removes that troubling business of adapting from the adaptation process by promising the most literal, completist translation possible.
That said, the only way George RR Martin’s gritty fantasy novels could be done right is as an HBO series. You need the elaborate sets and costumes, the violence, the nudity (okay, maybe not all the nudity, but this is my best shot at espying the mythical Dink Ness Monster, damn it), the special effects budget, and the time that the Cadillac of pay cable provides. Throughout the second season, the story sprawled continuously, as the cast ballooned to dozens of major characters, with a new fictional city, culture, monster, noble family, and religion popping up every week. It always seemed on the verge of becoming completely unmoored and incomprehensible.
But it never fell off that edge, and it turns out the verge is an exhilarating place to be. Thanks to Martin’s intricate, ruthless plotting, every episode remained a terrifying, unpredictable, intense hour where absolutely no one was safe. And thanks to HBO’s opulent production values, incredible stable of behind-the-scenes talent, and powerhouse turns from the likes of Peter Dinklage, Lena Headey, Charles Dance and Maisie Williams (not to mention the most singularly despicable performance in living memory from Jack Gleeson), it remained gripping and gorgeous to look at no matter how horrifying the events taking place became. And man did they get bad; Game Of Thrones would be very difficult to watch if it wasn’t so impossible to look away.
Defining Moment: The entire “Blackwater” episode, which demonstrates that when the story calls for it, the show can collapse the sprawling scope down to a handful of characters and blend the intimate with the epic without shortchanging either.
- Al Schwartz
1. BREAKING BAD (AMC)
Breaking Bad proved in this year’s eight episode abbreviated run that it’s fully dedicated to sticking the landing in the same manner it’s done everything else: Perfectly. After the previous season delivered the coup de grace to the Walter White saga as the character fully stepped to the dark side, this half season took great pleasure in watching the house of cards begin to crumble. It was an intense, blackly funny, and oftentimes concussive 45 minute commitment every week and all of the threads continued to play out and pay off in the short and long term. To see a show operating at peak creativity this near the end, and to be able to face that end so fully on its own terms, with a cast who still absolutely and deliciously loves their jobs, this is something really special.
Walter White has gone from Mr. Chips to Scarface. This year was all about letting us taste that before all hell breaks loose and we start to spiral back toward the saddest bacon ever and problems that can only be solved with a very large trunkgun.
We’re not blowing anyone’s mind at this point by telling people that there’s this show called Breaking Bad that’s pretty good, or even by putting it at the top of this list. It’s at the top of everyone’s list, has been for years. But that’s only because sometimes quality is so objectively obvious that no one can reasonably deny it without being banished from the parts of society that matter. Bad took the top spot with a truncated season that was in certain ways a placeholder, and it’s hard to imagine that the final run won’t dominate 2013 in the same way. There’s a reason for that: it’s the best scripted show on television in the best era for scripted television we’ve ever seen. That’s a good place to be.
Defining moment: Poop. Poetry. Revelation.
- Nick Nunziata