TV Top 20 of 2012: ‘New Girl’ & ‘Boardwalk Empire’ lead the best of the rest

Last week, I published my 2012 Top 10 list – which became one vote of many in HitFix’s First Annual Television Critics’ Poll – and noted in the introduction that there was a very clear top six for me, and that, after that, there was a cluster of a dozen-odd shows that I could have put in any order on any given day and felt that those four in particular deserved to be there.
And yet in the days that followed, I”ve been nagged by thoughts of having omitted “New Girl,” or “Boardwalk Empire,” or “Justified” or some others that narrowly missed the cut. In years past, I”ve tried to spread the wealth by doing multiple Top 10 lists – usually one for new shows, and one for returning – but this was a much stronger year for veterans than rookies (even with two first-year shows making the Top 10). So instead, I decided to take a page from Fienberg, who annually does a Second 10 list, and write for a while about the shows that didn”t quite make it into the Top 10, but were awesome nonetheless.
And because I know some of you don”t like to watch video lists, I”m going to present the Top 10 in written form, using a slightly modified version of the script I read for my video narration (though what I have to say about the #10 show is all new). Because the original list is out there, I”m going to start at 1 and count up to 20. Keep in mind that I”m just one man, and don”t have time to watch everything. I”m way behind, for instance, on the latest seasons of “It”s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” and “The League.” And some other shows I simply don’t watch at all, or liked but perhaps not enough to consider for such a list. (When you ask “Why wasn’t (Show X) on your list?” the answer is “Because I liked these other ones more.”)
1. AMC”s “Mad Men” was off the air for 17 months before its most recent season, and the show wasted little time in reminding us of its genius. It was a dark year for Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce that included betrayal, infighting, humiliation, boxing, drug use, prostitution and even suicide taking place in and around the office. But even as Don Draper wasn”t acting anything like himself, week after week, “Mad Men” reminded us of its artistry, its intelligence and its depth. I questioned a character choice here and there, but overall, “Mad Men” was the best TV show I watched in 2012.
2. AMC split the final season of “Breaking Bad” into two eight-episode chunks, and the drama suffered through a few pacing issues this summer as a result. Yet this half-season still astounded as it chronicled Walter White”s ascent to the throne of a drug empire, even as he systematically pushed away everyone who cared about him. We got the usual great work from Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn, Jonathan Banks and all the rest, the usual gorgeous cinematography and smart storytelling, and one image after another that”s going to haunt my dreams until the next new episode airs sometime next summer.

3. NBC”s “Parks and Recreation” was my favorite show on television a year ago. It was pretty darned terrific in 2012, as well, wrapping up a lengthy arc about Leslie”s campaign for city council in warm and funny fashion, then transitioning into a new season that saw every character struggling to adapt to new roles. Leslie shifted into politics, Tom attempted to become a legitimate businessman, and Ron Effing Swanson even dated a sane single mom. With Amy Poehler, Adam Scott, Nick Offerman, Chris Pratt and company on hand, “Parks and Recreation” rarely does anything fancy – other than perhaps this season”s cameo by Vice-President Biden – but simply executes better than any other comedy in the business.

4. NBC”s “30 Rock” is going out with a bang, and a whole lot of laughs. Thus far, this has been one of the best final sitcom seasons ever, and the previous season, which aired entirely in the winter and spring of this year, was jam-packed with highlights, including Liz turning into the Joker, Jon Hamm in blackface in the live episode, and Jack producing the world”s most uncomfortable couches. This latest season has been so good, including the silly and sweet wedding of Liz and Criss, that I don”t want the series to end, even though I respect Tina Fey”s desire to follow the rules of comedy and leave on a high note.

5. Most TV shows take several seasons to go through the usual wave of hype and then backlash. HBO”s “Girls” practically finished the cycle before it premiered, and was divisive throughout its 10 episode run. But I loved the distinctive voice of creator, director and star Lena Dunham, and the way that she and her collaborators were unafraid to make their four young heroines come across as selfish, naïve, foolish, and/or simply unlikable. For all the talk about what the show had to say about all women in their 20s, it was ultimately about these four specific women, and it was sharp, and hilarious, and moving, and incredibly watchable. A superb debut season.
6. The third season of FX”s “Louie” was less consistently great than its all-time classic second season. Yet it was a season that gave us Parker Posey on the most unsettling, memorable date of Louie”s life. It gave us terrific guest turns from Oscar winners Melissa Leo, F. Murray Abraham and Robin Williams. And it gave us the surprisingly moving three-episode arc where Louie auditioned to succeed David Letterman. Louis C.K. has decided to take an entire year off from the show to avoid feeling burned out, and it”ll be a long wait for more installments of this deeply personal, funny, touching series.
7. In seventh place, another HBO series, the horseracing drama “Luck,” makes its first and only appearance on a top 10 list of mine. The series began in turmoil, as creator David Milch”s working style clashed with director Michael Mann”s. And it ended in tragedy, as three horses died during production. What was on screen, though, was magic, particularly any time we were hanging around the quartet of degenerate gamblers riding the longest winning streak of their lives, or when all the show”s human characters just stopped to watch one of those majestic horses do something amazing on the track. “Luck” was really developing confidence right as the season ended; unfortunately, we won”t get to see what it was capable of becoming.
8. In its third season, HBO”s “Treme” didn”t transform into a different, more plot-driven show than in its first two. But it felt more cohesive than before, bringing more of the characters together, and finding ways to link stories together even when people weren”t meeting up. A season of stories about the struggle between artistic integrity and commercial success isn”t for everyone, but with these characters, this music, and the writing of David Simon, Eric Overmyer and company, it was a treat to spend another year in New Orleans.
9. NBC”s “Parenthood” is a drama I”ve always enjoyed, but this season”s cancer storyline has brought a lot of what the show does well into even sharper focus, raising the stakes of almost every storyline in the process, and delivering fantastic, honestly tear-jerking performances from Monica Potter, Peter Krause, Mae Whitman and the rest of this great cast in the bargain.
10. Okay, this one I”m rewriting from scratch. I said in the video narration that “Homeland” was at number 10 with an asterisk, figuring that if the finale really stuck the landing, I might later move it up a few slots (which I did a year ago), and that if it wasn”t, the good parts of the show – specifically, Patinkin, Danes and Lewis – were enough to consider it one of the best 10 shows on television this year. When the finale aired, I felt that it retroactively improved some of the more implausible moments of previous weeks, but it also let nearly all of the story be geared towards supporting an emotional relationship I”d lost interest in by then. If I had made the top 10 list this week rather than last, I”d probably swap “Homeland” with the next show (if not bump it down one or two past that), but I committed to 10th place, come what may, and the acting and some individual moments and episodes (the bulk of “Q And A,” for instance) were still fantastic.

11. Like I said, If I had recorded that video this week instead of last week, “New Girl” would have been in my top 10. It”s a comedy that really found its stride with the 2012 episodes, particularly starting around season 1″s “Fancyman.” What could have been a one-joke show – basically, the scripted version of the “SNL” “Bein” Quirky” sketch with Abby Elliott as Zooey Deschanel – instead became a fully-realized ensemble comedy about the transition from your carefree 20s into the responsibilities of adult life. Max Greenfield as douche with a heart of gold Schmidt and Jake Johnson as old before his time Nick seemed to take turns stealing the show from each other (and from Deschanel, though she”s terrific so long as the writers remember that Jess is a human and not a fairy creature), and the chemistry across the entire cast is splendid. It”s a much smarter, funnier show than it was in its brief phase as an adorkable hit last fall. Hell, the fact that it briefly made me like Dermot Mulroney is almost worthy of this ranking on its own.
12. When “Boardwalk Empire” season 2 ended with the death of what, to me, was the show”s most compelling character, I worried that the third season might not be able to recover from his loss. And as we moved through the early parts of season 3 – with Nucky distracted by his relationship with Billie Kent, Margaret focused on a pre-natal health class, and the supporting characters taking turns appearing in episodes – it seemed my post-Jimmy fears were coming true. But the season”s final weeks not only picked up the intensity, but retroactively imbued some of the shaky earlier parts with more weight and meaning, in a fine example of the kind of novelistic storytelling possible in cable drama.
13. The best installment of “Community” season 3, “Remedial Chaos Theory,” aired in 2011, but the 2012 episodes were frequently splendid in their own right, whether they featured Troy and Abed being normal, Jeff turning into the Incredible Hulk, Abed and Annie digging deep in the Dreamatorium, or the entire cast turning into 8-bit video game avatars of themselves. There were some missteps along the way (Chang turning into the dictator of Greendale), and the show wasn”t quite as consistent at blending dark psychological material with laugh-out-loud comedy as it was in previous seasons, but the Dan Harmon era of “Community” still concluded in a way that reminded me of how special this show has been.
14. Season 2 of “Justified” was epic. Season 3 was just fun, as the show decided the only way to follow the quality of Mags Bennett was with a quantity of villains, including Neal McDonough”s sharp-dressed carpetbagger and Mykelti Williamson as wily Mr. Limehouse, plus previous members of the Ryalan Givens rogues gallery like Jeremy Davies as Dickie Bennett, Jere Burns as Wynn Duffy and Damon Herriman as Dewey Crowe. Add them to the usual charms of Tim Olyphant as Raylan and Walton Goggins as Boyd, and you have a season that was never dull, even if it ultimately wasn”t as deep as last year.
15. “Cougar Town” ended its run on ABC (new episodes begin on TBS on January 8) with perhaps its most consistent season, and definitely its most romantic, as Jules and Grayson marched towards a goofy and beautiful wedding, the Cul De Sac Crew helped Bobby land what seemed to be his dream girl, and Travis continued to wrestle with his feelings for Laurie. This is an incredibly sweet, ridiculous, warm show whose continued existence, even in a new home, makes me very much look forward to the start of the next year.
16. Something wasn”t entirely clicking for me with “Game of Thrones” season 2, but it actually wasn”t until I saw the show”s finest 2012 episode, “Blackwater,” before I entirely realized it. By spending an entire hour in a single location, dealing with a much smaller subset of characters than usual, “Blackwater” inadvertently shone a light on the frustrating structure the show usually uses, in which we bounce from location to location, story to story, in a way that very rarely lets any of them build up any kind of steam. The performances and many individual moments remain superb, but there were many times where the second season felt like producers D.B. Weiss and David Benioff were simply checking off a list of incidents they had to feature from George R.R. Martin”s second book, without necessarily thinking how to best present it as a season of television.
17. There are deeper comedies on television than “Happy Endings.” There are more ambitious and warm and human and consistent ones. But no comedy out there (with the possible exception of the resurgent “30 Rock”) packs as many jokes – clever, filthy, hilarious jokes – into a half hour as “Happy Endings.”
18. The only disappointing thing about Steven Moffatt and Mark Gatiss” 21st Century “Sherlock” is that there isn”t more of it. Then again, part of the reason the stories – and the performances by Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes and Martin Freeman as Watson – are so great and lively is that we only get three 90-minute episodes per season, so everyone pours all their heart and creativity into each installment. This year gave us a lively version of Holmes” romantic rivalry with Irene Adler, a showdown with the reimagined Moriarty, and a Conan Doyle-inspired cliffhanger that fans will be arguing about until all involved can reassemble from their other projects to produce the next season.
19. “Nurse Jackie,” like fellow Showtime hit “Dexter” (which narrowly missed the cut for this list; see below), became very complacent in middle age, telling variations on the same stories over and over and always allowing Jackie to escape the consequences. In its latest season, though, “Jackie” (like “Dexter”) finally stopped to face the music, and the series became so much more entertaining as a result. Forcing Jackie to open up to her co-workers, her husband, and everyone else in her life opened up interesting new territory both dramatically and comically (Jackie”s less one-sided relationship with Zoey was a particular treat), and Bobby Cannavale was a great addition as the hospital”s new corporate boss, a character who turned out to be much more complicated than you would expect at first.
20. “The Walking Dead” started 2012 still stuck on Hershel’s farm, though there were some good moments along the way in the back half of season 2, like Rick’s showdown with two thugs in a quiet bar, or Shane finally showing his true colors. But it wasn’t until the AMC drama returned from hiatus for the start of season 3 that it really came into its own. Its characters had finally started to master how to stay alive in the zombie apocalypse, and the show in turn had learned how to play to its biggest strengths of action, suspense and using humans as the main villains rather than mindless walkers. The new season hasn’t been perfect – katana-wielding Michonne has turned out to have a scowl and little more in terms of characterization – but it’s by far the most consistent, exciting stretch the show has put together to date.
Others considered (in alphabetical order): “30 for 30,” “Archer,” “Awake,” “Bent,” “Bob”s Burgers,” “Chuck,” “Dexter,” “Doctor Who,” “The Good Wife,” “The Hour,” “Key & Peele,” “Phineas & Ferb,” “Scandal,” “Shameless,” “The Simpsons,” “Sons of Anarchy,” “Southland,” “Strike Back,” “Suburgatory,” “Wilfred.”
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at