Friday, December 28, 2012

Top Fifty TV Shows of 2012: #30 - 11

Ok, we've gotten through #50-31, which only contained about seven or eight shows I can really say I like, and, to be perfectly honest, I only did as a way to organize my thoughts and to passive-aggressively antagonize people whose favorite show didn't make the cut. But now the wheat has been separated from the chaff, and my #30-11 contains a full twenty shows I like, and even a few I consider personal favorites. Let's go:
30. The Daily Show (Comedy Central)

By percentage, I've seen far less of what The Daily Show aired in 2012 than anything else in my top forty. But the closer we got to November 6th and the more inescapable electoral politics became, the more I found myself tuning in to Jon Stewart for a little nightly mental and emotional salving. I admit I tend to forget The Daily Show when there's no major news story and the guest isn't a sitting or ex-president, but during election season, it's the best. (You can also consider this an honorary slot for The Colbert Report and The Rachel Maddow Show, the only other non-DNC, non-election night political programs I watched more than ten minutes of in 2012.)

29. Gravity Falls (Disney)

Basically a mix of The X-Files, The Simpsons, and whatever kids-go-on-adventures cartoon you care to name, Disney's new Gravity Falls is a colorful, creative blend of sci-fi/fantasy/horror anthology and animated sitcom. The show's writing staff includes veterans of Community, Adventure Time, and Veronica Mars, the jokes hit fast, and the worldbuilding has been superb for just twelve episodes. The season also got better as it went along, with my four favorite episodes – involving cloning mishaps, time travel shenanigans, video game characters coming to life, and a freaky, Miyazaki-esque Halloween monster – all falling in the second half of the show's run. If this quality incline continues, I could see Gravity Falls shooting way up on my 2013 list.

28. Sherlock (PBS)

Sherlock's three-episode 2012 run presents a bit of a puzzle: How do I rank a show when I found a third of it exceptional, a third of it good, and a third of it bordering on horrible? Because make no mistake, the second episode of Sherlock's second season, "The Hounds of Baskerville," sucked. From atrocious CGI to its nonsense final reveals, it sucked. On the other hand, the third, Holmes vs. Moriarty-centric episode, "The Reichenbach Fall," was quite enjoyable, and the season premiere, "A Scandal in Belgravia," was a dizzying spectacle of twists and turns, reveals I found fiendishly clever, a final moment that ranks among the best TV scenes of the year, and a wonderful use of Irene Adler. In the end, I have to dock Sherlock for "Hounds" – it is a third of the season – but if it had another episode on par with "Scandal" instead, it'd be in my top ten.

27. Hart of Dixie (The CW)

Sometimes you just gotta chill the fuck out, you know? It's in that spirit that I confess to really enjoying the CW's low-key medical dramedy Hart of Dixie, the tale of a New York doctor played by Rachel Bilson who winds up practicing medicine in the sleepy town of Bluebell, Alabama. Look, I enjoy my intense, violent, morally ambiguous TV dramas as much as the next cat. But sometimes I just wanna kick back and watch mostly nice people mostly be nice to each other in charming small town settings. It's the CW's last vestige of the classic Gilmore Girls/Everwood era of the WB. I'm not gonna try to push it on people who don't think it'd be their thing, but I really like it.

26. Awkward (MTV)

I recently did some grumbling about season 2 of MTV's high school sitcom Awkward getting way too fixated on the love triangle involving protagonist Jenna at the expense of everything else, and I stand by that (thus it being at #26 instead of just shy of my top ten, where it stood last year). But I still find this show's energetic, vibrant, and achingly, authentically youthful voice to be vital in how utterly different it is than anything else on the air. So many sitcoms – even ones ranked higher on this list than Awkward – are ultimately speaking the same language and working from the same narrative/aesthetic toolkit. Serious problems exist on the story level, but Awkward continues to sound and feel truly unique, and that's rare, and makes it a special show.

25. Awake (NBC)

I'm not even gonna try to explain the weird and complicated premise of Kyle Killen's short-lived sci-fi-ish procedural Awake – that's what linking to Wikipedia is for – but I will say that, while the case-of-the-week stories were generally unremarkable, the overall arc of the show was trippy and consistently interesting, and Jason Isaacs was just phenomenal as Detective Michael Britten. I don't want to say he was better than Awake deserved, because, I mean, I did like the show, but it sometimes felt like something wasteful was afoot watching Isaacs bring such depth, such soul, and such underplayed yet somehow simultaneously raw emotion to, like, fuckin' catching the murderer of the week. But I really liked the show, think it had room to grow narratively and thematically in a second season, and it's a shame its ratings sucked so much.

24. Arrow (The CW)

Though I thought Last Resort had the best pilot, it's the CW's vigilante/superhero drama Arrow that somewhat surprisingly surged ahead to become my favorite new show of the fall.  Yes, the show's producers should probably cut a check to Chris Nolan for how liberally they've culled from his Batman trilogy – especially Batman Begins – for aesthetic, narrative, tonal, thematic, and character inspiration, but I fucking love Chris Nolan and Batman Begins, so why should I complain? They've done solid character work, kept the greater story moving at a brisk clip, and even introduced what seems to be a supervillain archnemesis in the winter finale. Fingers crossed they have a suitably exciting blueprint for the second half of the season. Stephen Amell's abs make me feel bad about myself.

23. New Girl (Fox)

Currently the best "roommates in an apartment in the city" Friends-styled sitcom on the air, New Girl grew by leaps and bounds from its adorkable beginnings in 2011 through two key steps: One, it extended its focus beyond Zooey Deschanel's Jess and became a true ensemble piece, with Jake Johnson's self-loathing bartender/aspiring zombie novelist Nick in particular emerging as the show's key thematic figure. And that's because, two, the show actually developed a central theme as it began exploring the psychological weight of turning thirty and realizing you've accomplished none of your goals, which applies more to Nick than anyone else. New Girl is slower-paced and perhaps a touch less purely funny than ABC's Friends knockoff Happy Endings, but ultimately the superior show on account of its surprising thoughtfulness.

22. Revenge (ABC)

More so than any other show this high up on my list, Revenge cannot be defended on any genuine artistic level whatsoever, and anyone, critic, blogger or casual fan who tries to argue otherwise is just kidding themselves. But what it can be defended as is as the purest example of the primetime soap currently on the air, a show with the very same blood flowing through its veins as General Hospital and Days of Our Lives, only in a sexier, higher-budget, better-acted, 22-episodes-a-season body. Goddamn backstabbing and secrets and scheming and lies and sex and murder and blackmail and power grabs and cutting remarks, holy shit! Every time I've convinced myself it's not that good, a new episode pops up on Hulu and I'm all like "Shoot that shit into my eyeballs right now!", so what, am I supposed to lie and say I don't love Revenge? I love Revenge. It's so stupid.

21. Supernatural (The CW)

Supernatural, now deep into the eighth year of its initial five-season blueprint, will never be as good as it was at its peak again. Everything built towards that showdown with Lucifer in the season 5 finale, and now the show's greater arcs tend to just be "There's a demon/angel/other supernatural being making mischief, stop him Winchesters!" But if the macro level is weak, the episode-by-episode grind remains more creative and experimental than most of the rest of TV, and when Supernatural is a procedural, it's pretty much my favorite procedural on the air, give or take occasional standalone episodes of Fringe or Justified. I just flat-out like these characters, like their ghost/werewolf/vampire/angel/demon-plagued adventures, and continue to look forward to the show every week.

20. Bunheads (ABC Family)

Though I had many, many problems with it as it approached its endgame, in its first three seasons Amy Sherman-Palladino's Gilmore Girls was one of the most special shows on television. At its best, the mix of its hyper-verbal dialogue and gentle, quirky, small-town vibe was televised bliss. So it's no surprise that Sherman-Palladino's followup series Bunheads, about a Las Vegas showgirl who, through a series of quirks in fate, winds up a small-town youth dancing instructor, won me over within minutes. No, the show's setting of Paradise, California doesn't have the character of Gilmore Girls' Stars Hollow, and lead Sutton Foster ain't Lauren Graham. But as I said about Hart of Dixie above, sometimes you just gotta chill out, and Bunheads is massively pleasant and it's so nice to have Sherman-Palladino's dialogue back on television. I'm excited for its return in January.

19. The Walking Dead (AMC)

The Walking Dead pulled off one of the most impressive TV tricks of 2012: It pulled me back from hating the fucking shit out of it in 2011. I'm not kidding. If I'd made a "worst TV of 2011" list a year ago, The Walking Dead's glacially paced, deathly dull farm arc would have landed it on that list. But the second half of season 2 was an improvement, and with season 3 in particular the show has once again become an exciting, sometimes unpredictable, almost always gory, and generally pretty goddamn entertaining zombie thriller. Last month's episode "Killer Within" left me dumbstruck, and was hands down the show's best effort since its pilot. All hail the prison and Woodbury for saving us from that fucking farm! Now if only someone could save us from the Talking Dead promos!

18. Parks and Recreation (NBC)

While I confess to not loving Parks and Recreation as much as I did a year ago, with its increased focus on "Leslie Knope is literally a living saint who can do no wrong, hey audience, are you crying yet?", it remains easily one of the best comedies on television, with Pawnee, Indiana arguably being the richest, fullest, most complete-feeling sitcom town since the heyday of Springfield over on The Simpsons. The show shook off some narrative stagnancy to cap off its city council election arc and season 4 with a trilogy of excellent episodes – "The Debate," "Bus Tour," and "Win, Lose, or Draw" – and between Joe Biden cameos and the continuing adorability of April and Andy, the most likable couple in any currently running sitcom, season 5 has been a consistent pleasure.

17. Mad Men (AMC)

Yes, internet, I know – I don't like Mad Men as much as I'm supposed to, and that makes me a bad, possibly even evil, person. Trust me, I've been informed! But just because it's not my favorite show doesn't mean it's not a damn good show, with season 5's one-two punch of the Pete-centric "Signal 30" and the nonlinear anthology-esque "Far Away Places" in particular seeing Matt Weiner's '60s advertising drama firing on all dramatic and thematic cylinders. This season was also the best of the series for Lane Pryce, from the cackle-inducing satisfaction of him punching out Pete Campbell to the heartbreaking events of season's end. So yes, I think Mad Men's great. It just doesn't speak to my sensibilities in the same way as the shows that are most important to me. I've failed you, TV blogosphere! *commits seppuku*

16. Louie (FX)

I'm just gonna rip the bandaid off first thing: Give or take F. Murray Abraham advising Louie to use a condom when he fucks a prostitute so he doesn't "catch her wretchedness," Louie season 3 was not a funny show. At all. Through design, of course; jokes, punchlines and all that just weren't on Louis C.K.'s agenda for this season. He wanted to make a melancholy, experimental half-hour drama, and he has all the power on Louie, so he did just that and he did it damn well. "Miami" and "Dad" were both vibrant, emotional depictions of Louie's journeys throughout the country – the surreal ending of the latter being particularly brilliant – the "Late Show" three-parter was a big-hearted underdog story worthy of Rocky Balboa, and the dizzying, ethereal beauty of the ending of "Daddy's Girlfriend Part 2" is a TV image that will stick with me for years.

15. The Vampire Diaries (The CW)

Julie Plec's sprawling saga of vampires, werewolves, and witches in Mystic Falls, Virginia wasn't quite as entertaining this year as it was in 2011 or 2010, partly due to the way it's grown stagnant with the same main villain for a season and a half now and partly due to a poorly-conceived subplot involving something called "siring." But it's still the best supernatural soap on television by some margin, with an unapologetic love for plot twists, shocking reveals, and "Holy shit!" cliffhangers. It also knows how to deliver a thunderous climax, with its two best episodes this year being the season 3 finale (which featured the single greatest non-Breaking Bad season-ending cliffhanger of 2012) and the season 4 winter finale from a couple weeks back (which featured many, many murders). Julie Plec seems to be a bit of a born prodigy when it comes to doing this soap opera thing right.

14. 30 Rock (NBC)

Barring future comedy snobs who are currently little kids, it's unlikely there's anyone out there at this point who's gonna get into 30 Rock and has yet to do so. The series is ending in four episodes on January 31st. The ship has sailed. But for those of us lucky enough to be on said ship, 30 Rock had a "rock" solid (someone please murder me) 2012 run, airing all of its sixth season in the spring, including its hilarious-if-four-years-late The Dark Knight parody and a live episode that was much, much better than their first attempt, and most of its abbreviated seventh and final season this fall, including a trilogy of very enjoyable Obama vs. Romney-centric episodes leading up to election day. It's just a classic sitcom that's maintained its quality level across seven years far better than The Office did, and I'll miss Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy and the gang when it's gone in a month.

13. Homeland (Showtime)

Yes, after all my histrionic drama queening about the final act of Homeland's second season being a betrayal of the spirit of the first season and now it's just 24 and yadda yadda yadda, the show plummets an astonishing four spots down from where it stood on my 2011 list. Scandalous! But in all seriousness, while I did have problems with several stories this season – many of them involving pacemakers and/or hit-and-runs – this remains a wildly entertaining meat-and-potatoes terrorism thriller, with the midseason episode "Q&A" delivering dialogue-centric emotional catharsis, and the explosive season finale delivering something a bit dumber and pulpier but also heart-poundingly exciting. And of course, the show still has Mandy Patinkin playing the warmest, most lovable damn counterterrorism agent in television history.

12. American Dad! (Fox)

First off, I have to admit that American Dad!'s ranking on my list is probably unfairly inflated by the fact that I watched its entire 140-episode run in 2012, from the pilot to the episode that aired last Sunday. I had previously dismissed Seth MacFarlane's cartoon about CIA agent Stan Smith and his wife and kids and pet alien Roger, because, like most comedy snobs, I don't like Family Guy. But it turns out American Dad! is better than Family Guy. And not just better, but so much better that it's like comparing Friends to Two and a Half Men. Whether episodes revolve around CIA missions gone wrong or the more simple dynamics of a conflicting family, American Dad! is consistently great, and there's almost nothing Roger or Stan's nerdy son Steve do that I don't find funny. This show, not Family Guy, should be the legacy MacFarlane's TV career is judged by.

11. The L.A. Complex (The CW)

I wouldn't be surprised if not a single person reading this has ever seen one second of the CW's now-canceled The L.A. Complex, a series which aired the entirety of its two low-rated seasons in 2012 to absolutely no fanfare, promotion, or internet noise whatsoever. But this occasionally comedic drama, which examined the lives and careers of struggling actors, writers, filmmakers, comedians, musicians, and dancers in Los Angeles (and a couple more successful ones) walked a near-perfect fine line between Hollywood satire and a rich, sometimes painfully authentic character study of its cast. The arc of closeted gay rapper Kaldrick King deserves particular commendation for the way it avoided the clich├ęs and found a genuinely fresh approach to the coming-out-of-the-closet narrative. And as a vastly superior behind-the-scenes-of-showbiz series, The L.A. Complex also had the welcome effect of retroactively making the smugfuckery of Entourage look even shittier. God I hate you Entourage.

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