The Second 10 Best TV Shows of 2012 from The Fien Print

Last week, after already podcasting on it, I posted my Top 10 TV Shows of 2012 in friendly video format.
In case you’ve forgotten:
1) “Mad Men”
2) “Louie”
3) “On Freddie Roach”
4) “Treme”
5) “Parks and Recreation”
6) “Breaking Bad”
7) “Game of Thrones”
8) “Girls”
9) “ESPN’s 30 for 30”
10) “The Hour”
At the time, I mentioned that I had a Second 10 coming at some point, because I always endeavor to be as much like Sepinwall as possible, structurally speaking. 
And at the time, I also mentioned that while my Top 8 was set in stone, the last two positions had a lot of competition. When you look at my Second 10, No. 11-15 all were part of an amorphous blob for those last two Top 10 positions and while I like the Top 10 I chose, I wouldn’t have been much less happy with it if it had included two of those other shows. 
In fact, this Second 10? I like it a ton. These are some of my very, very favorites. As I look down the list, six of them have made previous Top 10s, including four that were in my Top 10 for 2011. But as much as I love this group of 10, it wasn’t especially easy to cut *this* group down. I don’t think there was as much ambiguity in my mind, but there were still at least five shows that I thought were every bit as deserving. Or maybe not “every bit as deserving,” but a lot deserving.
So I made a list of 10 “Honorable Mentions.” But that list became 20 Honorable Mentions. Then there were another five or six shows that I wanted to salute for improvement this past year. That means this story, while only containing blurbs for 10 shows, mentions at least 36. And the funny thing is that I can still think of more shows that I enjoy in a variety of different ways, shows that even with the parameters expanded this wide, I still couldn’t include.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Anybody who says there’s nothing good on TV is an idiot. Because I probably left out two or three of your favorite shows.
Click through for the list… I’m using HitFix’s new pagination system because this is looooong and unlike when I write a 2000-word review of something like “Beauty and the Beast,” this lends itself easily to splitting.
11) “Boardwalk Empire” – For the second straight season, Terence Winter and company cast Nucky Thompson and the full ensemble cast into disparate corners and then, just when it looked like the narrative threads couldn’t possibly tie together… YANK! The season resolved, joining nearly all of the threads cleanly and powerfully. First time could be coincidence; second time is proof that “Boardwalk Empire” may just be better at full-season arcing than most shows on TV. It was another strong season for Steven Buscemi and Kelly MacDonald and for the entire, often excessively diffused — We want Chalky, Van Alden, Capone and Rothstein EVERY week — supporting cast. And while Bobby Cannavale may not get any points for subtlety, he made Gyp Rosetti into a marvelously operatic adversary.
12) “Shameless” – The thing that people have always said about Showtime was that the network was afraid to let its shows change and evolve, resulting in inevitable ruts. Well, “Dexter” and “Nurse Jackie” [I still need to finish its most recent season] and “Homeland” all made big changes this season. And, in only its second season, “Shameless” also made a shift, one that benefited the entire cast. Already adroit at finding moments of human drama within a sea of impoverished c comedic misery, “Shameless” turned itself inside out in its second season and, with a big assist from guest star Louise Fletcher — absolutely robbed of an Emmy nomination — displayed a welcome willingness to go to some very dark and emotional places. That shift particularly helped William H. Macy de-caricaturize Frank Gallagher, even if the character continued to become a worse and worse person, while Emmy Rossum continued to give one of TV’s great unsung performances. And even as “Shameless” was mining pathos, it still never lost its sense of humor. In fact, why am I writing this blurb when I could be watching my S.3 screeners?
13) “Parenthood” – Welcome proof that shows can still find new gears deep into their fourth season, “Parenthood” appears to have become, at least according to my rankings, network TV’s best drama. It has done that by embracing sentimentality to a degree not seen on TV since Jason Katims’ last show, “Friday Night Lights.” It’s like the “Parenthood” writers have decided that if they’re not making you weepy two or three times per episode — often out of sadness, but just as often out of pure family warmth — then they aren’t doing their job. And with the current arc involving Kristina’s battle with cancer, they’ve only raised the ante. Peter Krause continues to be Emmy-worthy and while it might have sounded odd to say this in the early going, Monica Potter has been shatteringly good as well. Then again, so have Erika Christensen and Sam Jaeger and Max Burkholder and Dax Shepard and Mae Whitman and Miles Heizer. And even if Lauren Graham’s Sarah seems to do EVERYTHING wrong, that’s Sarah’s fault, not Graham’s fault. Sometimes “Parenthood” pushes a bit too hard for my liking, but mostly it earns its heft.
14) “30 Rock” – After looking like it might have overstayed its welcome just a couple years ago, “30 Rock” is suddenly going out on an absolute peak. The spring, which jammed an impressive 22 episodes in between January and May, included highlights like “The Tuxedo Begins” and a second live show. And the fall saw the show very much acknowledging its fate, starting with “The Beginning of the End” and leading up to first Liz Lemon’s nuptials in the tremendously satisfying “Mazel Tov, Dummies!” and then the 2012 finale “My Whole Life Is Thunder,” which may have one of the highest successful punchline rates of any TV episode of the year. We must have forgotten how good “30 Rock” once was to ever doubt that Tina Fey — probably giving her best performances as an actress this season, in addition to some of her best work as writer-producer — and company would be able to stick this landing.
15) “Justified” – Thanks to Margo Martindale’s Mags Bennett, the second season of “Justified” played out like backwoods Shakespeare, full of generational richness and surprising power. “Justified” just didn’t aim as high in its third season and while it slipped out of my Top 10, that doesn’t mean that the pleasure in watching Timothy Olyphant’s expertly badass lead performance was lessened at all. In fact, this may have been Olyphant’s best work to date, particularly in his scenes with Raymond J. Barry’s Arlo. Neal McDonough’s Robert Quarles may not have been a Mags-level villain, but he was sure fun to watch and many, many other pieces of the show’s rogue’s gallery — Jeremy Davies, Jere Burns, Damon Herriman and, as always, Walton Goggins — got episodes or arcs in which to shine as well. Graham Yost and his team continue to supply some of TV’s best muscular dialogue on a weekly basis.
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16) “Homeland” – The “24” comparisons which seemed to almost all be positive in its Emmy-winning first season became increasingly negative as “Homeland” became a knotty pretzel of narrative contortions in its second installment. Willing suspension of disbelief is a two-way street and, as the second season progressed, it became harder and harder to ignore the myriad convolutions — Situation room texting, hit-and-run evading, surveillance-humping, tailor-dispatching, milk-spilling etc etc etc — and it became harder and harder to ignore that the devotion to Carrie-and-Brody as a doomed-yet-destined romance was engulfing the rest of the show. And some viewers felt betrayed by this shift from Good “24” to Bad “24.” It’d be a mistake, though, to let frustrations entirely supersede the frequently breathless suspense, nor the performances by Claire Danes, Damian Lewis and, even more-so than in the first season, Mandy Patinkin. This is still a proficient and efficient show, but maybe it fooled us with that first season into expecting too much.
17) “Luck” – Even when he goes down an esoteric wormhole, TV is always better when David Milch’s words are being recited by actors on a weekly basis. While easier to philosophically process than “John From Cincinnati,” the jargon-heavy world of horse-racing and handicapping took a while to feel natural, but even when I barely understood a word of it, I still relished Milch’s peculiar cadences and his colorful profanity and respected the work of a tremendous cast led by Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte. It took five or six episodes for “Luck” to feel fully locked in, which proved to be just in time for a top-notch finale and the drama’s sad and untimely cancellation.  
18) “Downton Abbey” – I’m watching “Downton Abbey” on its PBS schedule, so this placement is for the show’s second season, which many viewers saw as a rather large come-down from its first. I agree! That’s why “Downton Abbey” was in my Top 5 last year and barely snuck into my Top 20 for this year. But don’t be so distracted by the slightly accelerated soapiness or the one or two conspicuously dead-end narratives that you ignore what a beautiful hour of TV the Christmas Special was, or that you ignore what is still one of TV’s finest ensemble casts, working with some of the finest production values imaginable. Oh and guess what? “Downton Abbey” was all soapy and stuff in the first season. One character literally screwed another character to death! It’s not what they do so much as how they do it and the upstairs and downstairs crews both still do it with wisdom and wit.
19) “The Vampire Diaries” – Still one of the most purely entertaining and exciting and unpredictable shows on television, “The Vampire Diaries” wrapped up a strong spring with a finale that was literally heart-stopping for one character. Following up on Elena’s transformation into vampire-dom hasn’t been quite as successful, even after a very good start to the fall that at least temporarily dodged the possibility of an Elena cop-out. I already didn’t love the sire-based narrative shortcuts as related to Klaus’ hybrids, but taking romantic agency out of Elena’s hands could be one of the show’s bigger mistakes. I assume that Julie Plec and the “TVD” writing team is smarter than that, since they’ve always been smarter than that in the past. Still, I can only judge the show’s 2012 output on the basis of where I’m standing as 2012 ends, which is “slightly concerned.” That concern takes nothing away from the jaw-dropping twists that drop at a rate of three or four per episode, nor from the performances by Nina Dobrev, Paul Wesley, Ian Somerhalder, Joseph Morgan and the rest of the underrated ensemble. And y’all know I give bonus points for casting Phoebe Tonkin.
20) “The Walking Dead” – The second season of “The Walking Dead” closed strong, as the deceptive calm and quiet at The Farm eventually led to a series of shocking deaths and a hasty exit. The tension has only been amped up in Season 3, with The Prison and Woodbury. While Danai Gurira’s Michonne has been undone by some poor writing decisions, I’ve liked the show’s more pragmatic treatment of David  Morrissey’s Governor, who has proved to be a more interesting and nuanced villain than he ever was in Robert Kirkman’s comics. And I definitely show tip my hat to Andrew Lincoln, who wasn’t my favorite part of the show in the early going, but has stepped up his game with a couple powerhouse episodes. It took a while, but the potential of the pilot and the Season 2 premiere is finally being realized on a weekly basis.
A Solid 20 Honorable Mentions: “Bob’s Burgers,” “Sherlock,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal,” “Community,” “Veep,” “Witness,” “Cougar Town,” “New Girl,” “Ben and Kate,” “Awake,” “Raising Hope,” “The Good Wife,” “The L.A. Complex,” “Suburgatory,” “Bunheads,” “Fringe,” “Survivor,” “Happy Endings” [These were in no particular order, but if you’re curious… “Sherlock” was No.21 and HBO’s “Witness” was No. 22. You’ll get more details like that next year when I rank EVERY SHOW ON TV. (I’m not going to rank every show on TV next year.)]
Most-Improved Bonus: “Dexter”
Most-Improved Honorable Mentions: “Sons of Anarchy,” “Hart of Dixie,” “The Office,” “Person of Interest,” “Teen Wolf”
[A couple shows I’m behind on, so don’t ask: “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” “Archer” and “The League.” FX has stopped sending out post-premiere screeners and the network makes OnDemand a pain.]
Thoughts? Comments? Concerns?