Conventional wisdom says we’re in the midst of a Second Golden Age of Television…so it stands to reason that the current era will eventually jump the shark and return us all to the Dark Ages of Supertrain, Donny & Marie and The Hills. But until then, here are the shows at the top of my TiVo queue for 2012.
Wild Cards (potentially list-worthy shows I just somehow never got around to watching this year): Homeland, Sons of Anarchy, Justified, the last season of Damages)
1. GAME OF THRONES (HBO)
I skipped Game of Thrones’ first season because the ads made it seem like the world’s most depressing Renaissance Faire. But the more I heard about the show, the more I realized I’d made a terrible mistake, before eventually catching up On Demand (where spoilered foreknowledge of a certain major plot twist only heightened the show’s overall tone of impending doom). And that doom crept ever closer in a second season packed with ever-shifting alliances, fascinating character work from the likes of Peter Dinklage (and, yes, perhaps just a little too much sexposition). Pure escapism without the guilty True Blood aftertaste (though, to be fair, the vamps were a little less embarrassing this past season), HBO’s adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s zillion page Song of Ice And Fire heptalogy seems to know exactly where it’s going (unlike so many other long-form series), and I’m more than happy to ride along.
2. 2012 LONDON OLYMPICS (NBC)
Every four years, the sight of the world’s best athletes coming together to skeet shoot, high dive, hurdle and whatnot makes me feel a little worse about my own physique but a lot more optimistic about the human race in general. And the distinctly British eccentricity of the Opening Ceremonies, the U.S. Women’s Gymnastics Team and Eric Idle singing “Always Look On The Bright Side of Life” with a chorus of roller-skating nuns are just three of the reasons London 2012 was easily one of my favorite Olympics of all time.
3. LOUIE (FX)
Less a sitcom and more of a weekly short film festival, Louis C.K.’s third season would have made this list just on the strength of the Christmas Eve doll surgery gag and three amazing and/or disturbing guest spots by Melissa Leo, F. Murray Abraham and (especially) Parker Posey. But then the show topped itself again with a fantastically entertaining three-episode arc (featuring the inimitable David Lynch as a Black Lodge network exec) that arguably deserves a slot as one of my favorite indie films of 2012.
4. GIRLS (HBO)
Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture was my favorite movie of 2010, so it’s no surprise I loved the first season of her HBO series, which features the same types of endearingly annoying urban haute bourgeoisie characters, a lot of the same cast and plenty of unexpected nudity. Plus, bonus points to Dunham for unexpectedly transforming her character’s Sex & The City-ish “creep of the week” fling with Adam Driver into one of the most complex and realistic relationships on television.
5. MAD MEN (AMC)
On the one hand, this season felt especially unfocused, I’m losing interest in Don Draper’s endless rich guy ennui, they spent way too much time on his new wife and her in-laws, and I didn’t really buy the whole professional prostitution storyline. But on the other hand, the ‘60s advertising drama is so consistently good that even the weaker bits are highly watchable and the best moments (Roger’s LSD trip, Joan finally kicking her awful husband to the curb, etc.) make for instant classic television. Plus, the decision by Don’s protégé Peggy to fly the coop was both intensely satisfying and also sets up the possibility of an amazing inter-agency war in season six. Zou Bisou!
6. PARKS & RECREATION (NBC)
Forget Modern Family, 30 Rock, Community and all the rest – Parks & Recreation is by far the best traditional sitcom on network TV. Set in the corridors of powerlessness of a small Midwestern town, the show’s political satire is spot-on, while Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope is the rare contemporary character who actually believes in public service (without being all schmaltzy about it), and her supporting cast of co-workers (including Aubrey Plaza, Aziz Ansari and M.V.P. Nick Offerman’s acerbic Ron Swanson) ranks alongside Taxi, Cheers, etc. in the comic ensemble Hall of Fame.
7. THE WALKING DEAD (AMC)
While I didn’t hate (or even dislike) the season based around Ol’ Doc Hershel’s farm as much as the rest of the Dead-iverse seemed to, the new season of AMC’s zombie drama was an obvious lurch forward in terms of action and suspense as the ever-shifting band of survivors led by Andrew Lincoln’s Rick Grimes found themselves on a collision course with the secretly fascist “safe haven” of Woodbury.
7. SURVIVOR: PHILIPPINES & ONE WORLD (CBS)
And speaking of survivors…I’ve been watching the granddaddy of reality competitions since the groundbreaking first season, through all the series’ ups (Heroes vs. Villains) and downs (Thailand). The basic formula is always the same (16-20 castaways, 39 days, outwit, outlast, outplay, etc.) and the show occasionally gets bogged down in repetitive scenarios and an over-reliance on “colorful” returning players. But whenever I find myself drifting away, the producers always manage to reel me back in with strong seasons like One World and (especially) Philippines, featuring all the unpredictable strategery, twists (boys vs. girls on the same beach!), heroes (Kim, Lisa, Denise), villains (Colton, Abi) and eye candy (RC!) that got me hooked in the first place.
9. BOARDWALK EMPIRE (HBO)
As always, Terence Winter’s Prohibition crime drama could barely keep track of all its characters and plotlines, and this season’s main villain Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale) was often cartoonishly unpleasant. And yet, by the end, all (or at least most) of the mob war plotlines somehow came together in one of the most satisfying season finales of the year.
10. BREAKING BAD (AMC)
It was inevitable this series would lose steam after the climax of season four’s epic chess match between wannabe kingpin Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and bona fide supervillain Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito). And I’ll admit I was displeased by the uncharacteristically sloppy plotting of one major death and the key reveal in Agent Hank’s ongoing investigation of the mysterious Heisenberg. Yet moment to moment, episode to episode, Breaking Bad remained one of the most gripping, suspenseful hours of television on any network.
Honorable Mention: The Amazing Race, America’s Got Talent, The Colbert Report, The Daily Show, Downton Abbey, Key & Peele, Luck, Modern Family, Nurse Jackie, The Office, Portlandia, Project Runway, Real Time With Bill Maher, Saturday Night Live, The Soup, Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell, True Blood, Veep
WORST: THE NEWSROOM (HBO)
Oh, Aaron Sorkin…I’m exhausted of defending you! Aside from David Milch, it’s hard to think of another A-list creator who swings so wildly between really good (The West Wing, The Social Network) and completely terrible (Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and this astonishingly bad show about broadcast journalism). The subject of this HBO series seemed right in your wheelhouse, and I didn’t even mind the Monday morning quarterbacking (i.e., your noble protagonists find the heart of important recent news events while other reporters fumble) or the blatant partisanship. But the endless romantic/relationship banter was even less sophisticated than some terrible anime series about blushing teenage robots, and I stopped watching entirely after the episode where a group of allegedly high-level professionals were lured back to work on their day off to listen to the resident blogger’s asinine Bigfoot theories (just so the show could have them all conveniently on hand for the Gabby Giffords shooting). That’s just terrible on every level, dude.