Year-in-Review: Best TV shows of 2012

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From the December 27, 2012 edition

This was a pretty strong year for television. “Mad Men” was back and truly captivating. “Breaking Bad” had its usual viscerally-tense season despite only being eight episodes. A couple of new shows also represented some of the year’s best with HBO’s “Girls” being the standout. Even series like “The Walking Dead” and “Nurse Jackie” greatly improved. It was tough to leave a few off the top 10, with “Justified” and “Game of Thrones” being the best examples, but these are the most impressive TV shows of 2012.

20. “Californication”

This is a personal pick that many will surely disagree with. “Californication” has serious flaws and will probably never get back to earning the pathos it did early in its run, but I still find it to be as funny as ever. RZA’s guest-starring role as Samurai Apocalypse was an absolute pleasure.

19. “The Walking Dead”

AMC’s highest-rated program of all-time had a great comeback season in 2012 after a pretty awful outing with Season 2. Showrunner Glen Mazzara pumped a constant sense of urgency into every plot and the momentum carried through the first eight episodes. “The Walking Dead” still has flaws — the biggest being character development — but any time you have zombies getting slaughtered in a variety of awesome ways, I’m hooked.

18. “Treme”

“Treme” is a vastly different series from David Simon’s seminal “The Wire,” but still one of the best dramas on television. It’s not as intense or compelling as “The Wire,” but I find myself more invested in “Treme’s” entire ensemble of characters.

17. “Bob’s Burgers”

This is Fox’s best animated series in its Sunday lineup. With “The Simpsons” being inconsistent and “Family Guy” completely falling off the map, “Bob’s Burgers” is the show that carries the night. At least “American Dad” is still pretty funny too.

16. “Fringe”

I had some issues with the way “Fringe” told its story in 2012, but nothing was particularly egregious. Peter (Joshua Jackson), Olivia (Anna Torv) and Walter (John Noble) are all well-acted, fantastic characters and the return of David Robert Jones (Jared Harris) greatly improved Season 4 down the stretch. The final season has been very strong with some powerful emotional moments and I hope the momentum carries through to the finale in January.

15. “Awake”

“Awake” creator Kyle Killen can’t catch a break. After seeing his potentially great show “Lone Star” cancelled after only two episodes, his latest effort only fared slightly better, getting 13 episodes before being cancelled by NBC. “Awake” was a twisty, dark psychological drama about a cop (a masterful Jason Isaacs) living in two realities — one where his son died and the other where his wife died—that was probably better suited for cable than network TV.

14. “Nurse Jackie”

After three seasons, “Nurse Jackie” had devolved to a point where I thought the titular character (Edie Falco) would never have to deal with the consequences of her pill-popping, philandering ways. Then Season 4 forced the character to confront her demons and it was the best the show had ever done. Also, Merritt Weaver gave my favorite comedic performance of the year as Jackie’s naïve, do-gooder counterpart.

13. “Parks & Recreation”

It was another hilarious and heartfelt year. Amy Poehler, Nick Offerman and the rest of the all-star cast on “Parks & Recreation” are fantastic and make the pitch perfect writing that much better.

12. “Game of Thrones”

This is still one of my favorite shows on television, but the fantasy epic was a little inconsistent this year, knocking it out of the top 10. Regardless, the “Blackwater” episode was one of the single best episodes of year.

11. “Justified”

This was the hardest one to leave out of the top 10. “Justified” may never be able to duplicate the sheer power of its second season, but this year was just so much fun. Timothy Olyphant’s Raylan Givens and Walton Goggins’ Boyd Crowder were as excellent as ever. The villains — Robert Quarles (Neal McDonough), Wynn Duffy (Jere Burns) and Dewey Crowe (Damon Herriman) — added a lot of color to the world of Harlan County.

10. “Archer”

Every year just seems to get better for “Archer.” The most talented voice cast on television makes the funniest writing on television absolutely sing.

9. “Community”

Sadly, the spirit of “Community” — creator and ousted showrunner Dan Harmon — won’t be around when it returns in February. But he couldn’t have produced any better episodes to go out on than those in 2012. The Season 3 finale was wonderfully done, but my personal favorite was the “Law & Order” episode. Hopefully, the excellent cast will make up for his absence.

8. “Boardwalk Empire”

Steve Buscemi and Bobby Cannavale gave all-time performances as rival gangsters, but the meticulously written plot signals this will be one of TV’s best crime dramas for years to come. The way every coalesced in the final episodes was very impressive. The highlight was the finale’s extreme gangland violence, especially [spoiler alert] Richard Harrow (Jack Huston) doing his best Rambo impression.

7. “Shameless”

A great premiere season was followed by an even better Season 2 that perfectly balanced raucously dark humor and empathic drama. Emmy Rossum gives a tour de force performance as a young woman trying to hold her large, blue collar family together. And Jeremy Allan White and Cameron Monaghan are among the best young actors on television.

6. “Louie”

Louis C.K.’s wonderful series had another absolutely amazing year, like the previous two seasons. It really was a great year of television if “Louie” is outside the top 5. The two-part Parker Posey episode and the three-part “Late Show” arcs were “Louie” at its best.

5. “Sherlock”

With only three episodes, “Sherlock” still managed to be one of TV’s best dramas thanks to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock and Martin Freeman’s Watson — the best onscreen duo outside of Walter White and Jesse Pinkman on “Breaking Bad.” The finale’s showdown with Sherlock nemesis Moriarty was especially thrilling.

4. “Luck”

Most of the news coverage about “Luck” was about the death of three horses on the set. This is a tragedy for sure, but it’s only compounded by one of the finest shows to come along in years — thanks to the unequivocal writing of David Milch and the visual splendor of Michael Mann — calling it quits as a result. I will forever miss the odd bond among the four degenerate gamblers and Nick Nolte’s grizzled performance.

3. “Girls”

This was the definitive love-it-or-hate-it show. Even if the titular girls were pretty annoying, creator and star Lena Dunham presented a hilarious and heartfelt look at being tragically hip in your twenties. Hope Dunham can keep up the great work when “Girls” returns Jan. 13.

2. “Mad Men”

After a long hiatus, showrunner Matt Weiner produced one of the best “Mad Men” seasons to date. The growing disillusionment of Don Draper (Jon Hamm) may have been the tragic theme, but Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) getting his ass kicked — twice! — and Roger (John Slattery) tripping were the highlights. Putting “Mad Men” at two and “Breaking Bad” one was really just splitting hairs.

1. “Breaking Bad”

Yet another stellar outing from showrunner Vince Gilligan and his talented group of writers and directors. Walter White (Bryan Cranston) transforming into full-blown kingpin was as frightening as it was compelling. The supporting cast of Aaron Paul, Jonathan Banks and Anna Gunn was second to none, as usual. The incredible fight between Walt and Skylar (Gunn) in “51” and the painful — yet magnificently constructed — cold open of “Buyout” were the year’s most haunting moments on television.