We’ve already tackled the year in music… now it’s time for television.
The Dilemma: My top ten list looks a lot like it did last year. The order has shifter around a bit and a couple new shows slipped in, but this was a stagnant year for television. No new great shows ascended. (Many would argue Girls is such a show. I’m not one of those people.) No shows took a leap from good to great. We’re witnessing the end of the Must See TV era as NBC abandons critical darlings for mediocre, CBS-style fare. And we’re continuing to see the decline of network television in general both in terms of quality and viewership. And for once, cable failed to pick up the slack with promising new series. The good stuff stayed good, for the most part (with a couple very notable exceptions, see below).
Top Ten Series
10. 30 Rock
There’s a few other shows I could slot in here (Wilfred, Always Sunny) but 30 Rock deserves the nod in what will be its final appearance on the countdown. Tina Fey has used the series’ impending end to put together one of its strongest seasons. Characters are generally behaving in human, recognizable ways again, and just a hint of emotion has crept back into the cartoonish world of TGS with Tracy Jordan. And the numerous callbacks to past highlights, while awfully fan service-y, have nevertheless been entertaining as hell.
Maybe Veep wasn’t quite as sharp and acerbic as we wanted it to be, but it’s still got great writing and the best post-Seinfeld work from any of that cast (Curb Your Enthusiasm cameos excluded). Julia Louis-Dreyfus is fantastic and game for anything, which overrides the show’s sloppier, broad moments.
Hey, it’s a British takeover. You could argue that this is a bit of a cheat, since Sherlock seasons are three 90-minute episodes, but it’s billed as a series and not three movies, so that’s how we’re rolling with it. Sherlock kicked it up a notch this year with an increased focus on Holmes’s nemesis Moriarty and his “woman” Irene Adler. It also benefitted from just letting itself tell stories instead of feeling the need to wave its pipe around and shout, “Hey! It’s Sherlock Holmes but with a modern twist!” all the time.
Archer just keeps getting better as it grows more depraved and more divorced from reality — kind of like an anti- 30 Rock. Then again, it helps that this literally is a cartoon. I can still hear Brian Cranston say “Danger Zone” on repeat in my head lo these many months later.
An inevitable but minor letdown after the glories of Mags in season two, but Graham Yost’s plan to go for sheer quantity of villains worked well. Justified cemented its place in the upper echelon of TV drama and proved that season two wasn’t a fluke.
Ditto about the inevitable but minor letdown in its third season. Still, Dan Harmon went out in a blaze of glory with a series of bizarre closing episodes — the video game homage being best of all. Now, Harmon is gone with the blight that is Chevy Chase soon to follow, and the show itself shortly thereafter.
4. Breaking Bad
It’s tough to judge Breaking Bad’s fifth season since we’ve only seen half of it, but what we’ve seen was still suspenseful and fantastic even while making some errors in judgment when it comes to pacing.
Another wonderful, entertaining, funny, sad, touching season from Louie, who has garnered so much good will through the first three years of his show that the season four premiere could be a recreation of a lemon party and the AV Club would give it a B+.
2. Mad Men
Mad Men went balls out in season five, took all kinds of chances and grew more straightforward and less subtle. The risks and tonal changes paid off in bold flavors and mad swag. It feels like the series might be nearing the end of its greatness, but it’s proven me wrong before.
1. Parks & Recreation
Will Leitch recently said that P&R is gracing us with a Cheers-like peak, and he’s exactly right. Everything’s working for Ken Tremendous and the best cast on television. The show’s feeling its oats, trying new tricks and going back to beloved tropes — and everything’s working exactly right. I, for one, have already started a “Jerry Dinner” fund for 2013.
The Show I Like A Lot But Can’t Watch Quickly Enough to Catch Up Once I’ve Fallen Behind and Hence Don’t Watch in Time for Last Making: Treme
…and Three Great Episodes from Shows that Really Infuriated Me
1. “Two Impostors” / Boardwalk Empire. My problems with Boardwalk Empire of late are well chronicled here. Its third season was equal parts ridiculously laughable and banal (“O what will become of Margaret’s women’s health clinic??”), but it closed it out the season with two strong episodes, both “Impostors” and the finale, “Margate Sands.” As fun as Capone’s arrival in Chicago was, and as rewarding as Richard’s killing spree was, they can’t erase the memory of Gyp Rosetti’s existence. Like the next two series on this list, it’s frustrating to see how great Boardwalk Empire can be at its very best, because it was so rarely that in this regrettable season.
2. “New Car Smell” / Homeland. Ah, that wonderful moment before it all fell apart. This was back when Homeland was still surprising us, still impressing us by not dragging its feet on key story points, and still making us care about Carrie and Brody. Now, that’s all gone. The finale redeemed some of the season’s mistakes for some critics, but not for me. Both Carrie and Brody are too far gone as believable, intelligent, likable characters. And the show is too far down Jack Bauer Boulevard in its desperate need to shock us with twists and reveals. All that’s left is Saul.
1. “Blackwater” / Game of Thrones. “Blackwater” was probably my favorite episode of television this year, but the GoT team apparently blew its entire wad both creatively and financially on this one hour, leaving little of interest in the other nine of season two. I don’t think GoT’s fall from seasons one to two was nearly as dramatic as Homeland’s, and it still came pretty close to making my top ten. But the season accomplished very little in terms of advancing character of plot and it’s become apparent that Game of Thrones is one long game of setup with no payoff. Tyrion Lannister’s finest hour has been the one shining exception.
David Simon Cowell: Before I get to my list, yours brought up some Conventional Wisdom about television in 2012 that has confounded me.
1.) Boardwalk Empire has taken a leap and is much better than it’s ever been.
As we’ve noted before, Boardwalk Empire is one of those shows that has a vaneer of greatness without much substance. It’s still watchable, with memorable episodes here and there, but isn’t near the top tier. Whether it was misplaced disappointment about Homeland (we’ll get to that next) or whatever, this year people have taken to claiming that it has finally fulfilled its potential. I just don’t see it. While the finale from last season was great, the loss of Michael Pitt was a big one. And the biggest addition of the season, Bobby Carnivale’s crazy gangster, was one of the worst characters on television in a long time, a completely unbelievable psycho who made Joe Pesci in Goodfellas look like a model of restraint and good judgement.
2.) Homeland had a big dropoff.
By not having it on your Top Ten list, I see this is one you agree with. While there were obviously huge missteps in logic (Brody’s cellphone for example) and side storys (the hit-and-run especially), I still thought it was a great season of television, featuring the best leads in a long time. Was it as good as Season One? No. Was it still the best drama in television? Probably. The extreme reaction to Season Two seems like the Internet reacting because it won too many awards and that’s what the Internet’s there for.
3.) Breaking Bad is as good as ever.
Your list also shows that you agree with this as well. For me, Breaking Bad has been showing cracks for a while now, but the greatness of the second half of Season Four more than papered them over. Season Five had no such relief. While a great performance, Bryan Cranston’s Walter White has become more and more unbelievable. Yes, it’s cool that the show has the courage to turn their main character into an irredeemable bad guy, but that’s become all the show feels the need to do. As the body count rises, interesting supporting characters have become few and far between. And for anybody that holds up Breaking Bad while killing Homeland for illogical plot developments, I have four words for you… Walt Whitman’s Bathroom Reader.
4.) The New Normal isn’t the best comedy ever.
What can I say… some people are retarded.
Top Ten Series
OK, not sure this is here completely on its merits, but any worthwhile drama on a network gets serious extra points these days. It’s bones are fairly typical melodrama stuff, but the combination of the music (much more alt-country than is to be expected from a network) and the acting (especially Connie Britton, obviously) moves this up in the rankings.
This one may also be here with a few extra bonus points, for what might have been. While not the best show on television, its first season showed enough promise to suggest that it may have grown in the second season (not unusual for HBO shows). Dustin Hoffman, Dennis Farina and Nick Nolte were all great, as were many of the lesser-known supporting actors. Plus, it was drummed off the air by PETA, even though the death rate for horses on the show were much lower than in real horse racing. As always, fuck them.
Not a show I would ever tell anyone to watch, because I’m sure it would drive most people crazy. But once you get used to its rhythm, and realize that nothing is ever, ever, ever going to happen, it starts to expose many little pleasures. It’s as close to a short story as television will ever get, it has at least two great musical performances per episode, and even Steve Zahn has become bearable (or, at least, far more bearable than in Season One).
7.) Parks and Recreation
A rare thing… a positive comedy that is wickedly funny. A great American democracy-affirming antidote to the 2012 election.
Too much hype, and Lena Dunham is beyond irritating, but this show grew into one of the funniest on television.
Not its best season, but the last with Dan Harmon made it one to savor. And while episodes like Digital Estate Planning insured its low ratings and demise, they will also far outlast almost any other comedy on television.
4.) Mad Men
Another show that people claim that dropped off significantly that I don’t agree with. More compelling than Walter White’s turn into a monster is Don Draper’s movement from the coolest guy in the room to the least cool. Plus, Zou Bisou Bisou.
Nothing can be said here that hasn’t already been said. Incredible, incredible, incredible… one of the rare shows that you can feel changing the form every week.
2.) Game Of Thrones
I hate, hate, hate fantasy, especially once it goes into the woods. I love, love, love this show. Don’t know if that’s to its credit or its detriment, but I look forward to it every week. Really, this should be 1a).
Claire Danes. Ginger English Dude. Mandy Patinkin’s beard. The Internet can just fuck off.