Sunday, December 30, 2012

Top Ten TV Shows of 2012

We come to it at last. The great top ten of our time. You could probably switch my #10 pick with The L.A. Complex or American Dad! and I'd be ok with it, but I feel very comfortable with the placement and ranking of my top nine, the nine shows you could whittle all of television down to and it'd still be my favorite medium. Best of all, though three are ending (one in January) and one lost its original showrunner, all ten of these shows are continuing in 2013. Enough foreplay, let's get down:

10. Justified (FX)

There's been grousing on these here internets about Justified's third season not quite measuring up to its phenomenal second, and I can agree with that. (I didn't see Justified season 2 until it hit DVD, but when it did I wound up shotgunning the entire season in two sittings; five episodes the first night, eight the next.) Though actor Neal McDonough did the best he could, season 3 antagonist Robert Quarles just wasn't up to snuff with season 2's legendary Mags Bennett.

But when it comes to the day-to-day of pulpy crime fiction, no show does it better. Seriously – it can tell a fine serialized story, but when it goes straight cop procedural, Justified leaves the entire rest of that genre choking on the exhaust of its superiority (with the only two other examples on this list being Awake at #25 and Longmire at #46, and TV's million other cop procedurals being way down below my top fifty).

Part of this is due to Timothy Olyphant's charisma, even more due to the show's redneck noir Harlan County settings, but the biggest contributor has to be its lineup of lovable white-trash villainy: Ever-scheming Dickie Bennett, poor dumb Dewey Crowe, and especially Walton Goggins' sometimes-villain/sometimes-ultra-dark-antihero Boyd Crowder, one of the most unstoppably watchable characters on all television. I wouldn't say he overshadows Olyphant to the same extent Ian McShane did on Deadwood, but three seasons in there remains a giddy, tingling thrill to every scene he's a part of.

9. Boardwalk Empire (HBO)

HBO's prohibition gangster drama has undergone a strange arc wherein it debuted to a firestorm of hype back in September 2010, and now, three seasons later, it's somehow become underrated. I'll even cop to being part of that backlash – I didn't think season 1 really measured up to the hype that preceded it, and it sure didn't help that it withered into a deeply anticlimactic finale. The first third or so of season 2 didn't exactly floor me either. I believe I posted on a forum at some point that watching the show felt like eating your brussels sprouts.

But then a pretty damn cool thing happened: Season 2 ended with a status quo-shattering, blood-splattered arc of phenomenal, operatic power that recontextualized everything that came before and rocketed the entire series literally dozens of spots up on my own personal TV rankings. There were better TV drama episodes in 2011 than the second season finale, "To the Lost," but not many. And this fall's third season didn't break stride.

Sure, there were some fans of the show's subtler side who didn't care for new villain Gyp Rosetti, but I personally enjoyed him (I mean, a volatile, perpetually enraged power-hungry sexual deviant madman prone to near-constant displays of violence at the drop of a hat? That's entertainment!), and even if Gyp himself was more villainous cipher than three-dimensional character, the way he pushed Nucky and Chalky and Gillian and the rest into their own personal corners led to development for those characters while yielding another thunderously exciting season-ending arc.

Now, as for the MVP of Boardwalk season 3? Can there be any question? Richard Harrow, our lovable half-faced nanny/assassin, who warmed the blackened corners of my dead heart caring for little Tommy and falling for new love interest Julia, then blew my mind capping off the season with one of the most amazing onscreen killing sprees I've ever seen. Great goddamn character.

8. The Legend of Korra (Nickelodeon)

I love the Avatar: The Last Airbender universe so much. It's so fantastical and fun. It's a damn good thing I wasn't born ten years later, because let me tell you, if I'd had that show instead of Pokémon and Dragon Ball Z when I was in middle school and had an obsessive, constantly-rewatching-stuff personality, I would have just gorged myself on its DVD sets on endless repeat until I flunked out.

Now, the argument has been made that Airbender's sequel series The Legend of Korra is less sweeping and epic in scope than its predecessor, and that's totally correct: Airbender involved our hero saving the entire world, full stop. Korra involves our heroine basically investigating and defeating a local urban crime boss. It's much less sweeping and epic.

But I personally enjoyed that change of scope. I also enjoyed the way that Korra shed all filler and monster/mission-of-the-week episodes and became a pure serial. I enjoyed that they went with a female protagonist instead of a boy, I enjoyed that the heroes were quite a bit older than those in Airbender, and I enjoyed the villain in Korra ultimately being revealed to have far less overlord-y, much rawer and more personal motivations. I enjoyed that, in contrast to Airbender's more chivalrous bending battles, bending combat in Korra, outside of the arena, often took the form of down-and-dirty street fights. Basically, I enjoyed how different it was.

And if there's one thing I enjoyed even above all that, it's Korra's often almost feature film-quality animation. In fact, scratch that "almost" – I saw Brave, ParaNorman, and Wreck-It Ralph this year, and I can honestly say that Korra pleased my eyeballs more than any of them. From its use of colors – the stark whites and blues of Korra's homelands, the eerie blacks and golds of Republic City at night – to the awesome sense of scale in its urban/battle scenes to the fluid, kinetic depiction of the characters using their elemental magic, this cartoon looked good. Like, really, really fucking good.

7. Fringe (Fox)

If I had to sum up Fringe's mix of wildly ambitious genre storytelling – far, far, far and fucking away the most creative, experimental and ballsy to be found on the drama side of network television – and a big, squishy, gooey heart that above all else wants you to love its characters, I would do so as "It's what Lost wanted to be in its last couple seasons, but actually good." True, you could make the argument that Lost was attempting to juggle many times the characters and mysteries and story threads that Fringe is, but I know I'd much rather watch a juggler skillfully and artfully juggle three or four balls than toss up seventeen and catch one in a desperate scramble as they all clatter to the ground.

Part of what makes discussion of Fringe's 2012 interesting is that it really constituted two linked but pretty darn different shows. (Minor spoilers ahead, but obviously no ending or who-lives-who-dies-type stuff.) The first show, the second half of season 4 that aired in the spring, revolved around Fringe Division's fight to stop ultra-high-tech terrorist David Robert Jones' plan to collapse two universes into one; basically a Fringe case-of-the-week writ large. And this story yielded some pretty damn exciting hours, especially the apocalyptic miniature disaster movie "Welcome to Westfield," one of my favorite TV episodes of 2012, period.

Then, in one episode at the end of season 4 and for all of fall's season 5, Fringe leapt forward without warning to the dystopian America of 2036, ruled by dictatorial psychic time-travelers called Observers and with a whole new aesthetic, a whole new world, new rules, and lots of new characters (including a new ultimate villain named Windmark), turning our heroes from law enforcement into a rebel alliance, the show's structure from at least partially episodic to full serial, and the show's narrative arc into Star Wars.

Some people don't like that. Me? I'm in love with it. What a big, bold, fun way for one of the best science fiction series ever to go out. I can't wait to see what the final three episodes in January hold. Don't pull a Lost on us, Fringe!

6. Bob's Burgers (Fox)

It's easy to compare Bob's Burgers to the rest of Fox's Sunday animation block and other animated sitcoms, and I will in a second, but the show I'd say it's really displaced on my top ten is Parks and Recreation. As Parks has become increasingly fixated on Leslie Knope literally fighting evil and saving the goddamn world through the power of government, it's kind of lost sight of the "lovable quirky underdogs scraping by in life" charm of seasons past. Thankfully, Bob's Burgers is here to pick up that slack, while being hugely funny and about a million times lighter on the treacle in the process.

Bob's Burgers is also surprisingly clean, goodhearted, and mild-mannered compared to Seth MacFarlane's shows or South Park or what have you. I mean, I'm not saying it belongs on the Disney channel on Saturday morning or anything – there was a story last month about Bob's kids getting jobs on a marijuana farm – but it's not big on having people be graphically killed for punchlines or rape jokes or anything, which, by today's animated sitcom standards, makes it positively quaint. Most Bob's Burgers episodes could have comfortably aired alongside The Simpsons in 1995.

Speaking of Bob's kids, despite H. Jon Benjamin's characteristically great vocal performance as restaurateur Bob Belcher, it is unquestionably the three Belcher children who are the stars of the show and steal every episode whether it's explicitly based around them or not. There's Tina, she of the "Uhhhhghhh..." and the perpetual lovesickness, enthusiastically dumb Gene, and the just-a-smidge-evil troublemaker Louise, who has a lot of Bart Simpson and maybe even a dash of Eric Cartman in her. Kristen Schaal's maniacal voice acting as Louise is neck and neck with Scott Grimes as Steve over on American Dad! as my favorite current animated sitcom performance.

Also, like with the opening act of Pulp Fiction, I end up hungry for a burger every time I watch the show.

5. Game of Thrones (HBO)

Seriously, you guys, doesn't it kick ass to have a fantasy series operating at this level? I mean, it was just a few short years ago that the very, very best TV fantasy had to offer was Legend of the Seeker, which I didn't dislike, but, I mean, c'mon. That'd be like if the very best action cinema had to offer was Premium Rush. It'd be like if the best restaurant in town was Applebee's. It'd be like... well, you get it.

But Game of Thrones' examination of the pursuit and wielding of power is just a tremendously rewarding experience. This season gave us Arya and Tywin, shadow babies, Theon Greyjoy's gripping, tragic arc, Brienne of Tarth, Jaqen H'ghar, Joffrey getting slapped again, the most beautiful damn Iceland glacier as a filming location, "I always hated crossbows," "I know where to put it," the biggest green explosion ever, and of course more Hodor than you could shake a stick at, and did so in what continues to be maybe the most impressive production on television on the basis of pure scale and ambition and artistry.

In all fairness, I will say that, minus the arguable series high of "Blackwater," the second season wasn't as good as the first. Pretty much every single character started and ended the first season of Game of Thrones in just wildly, insanely disparate places; geographically, politically, being-alive-or-deadally. It covered astonishing narrative ground for ten episodes. In contrast, the second season saw a fair portion of the cast start and end the season in similar places, and of course "MY DRAGONS!!!" became the new "WAAAAALLT!!!"

But the second book, A Clash of Kings, wasn't as good as A Game of Thrones, so I honestly wasn't particularly taken aback by this. But, without even hinting at any spoilers, let me just say that book three, A Storm of Swords, is one of the most purely exciting, blood-pumping novels I've ever read. I sat down a little past the book's midpoint one day, intending to read a chapter or two, and – no hyperbole whatsoever – ended up reading the last 500 pages in one sitting. That's how much I couldn't put it down. So needless to say I'm excited for season 3.

4. Parenthood (NBC)

As of the end of Jason Katims' Friday Night Lights, the richest, most rewarding pure human drama on television is now Jason Katims' Parenthood, and it isn't close. Mad Men fans will argue their case and tell you you're dumb for disagreeing, but, frankly, no. In terms of visceral emotional impact, if Parenthood is like hungry, heart-pounding, tearing-off-each-other's-clothes lovemaking with your partner (or an attractive stranger, if you prefer), Mad Men is like looking at a very beautiful piece of sculpture through glass in a chilly museum. There are certainly those who prefer the latter, but I know where my tastes lie.

Now I feel the need to point out that what I'm ranking here is mostly this fall's season 4, the show's strongest stretch of sustained high quality to date (give or take a slightly wonky winter finale). I also really liked the spring season 3 episodes, of course. If I was ranking just on the basis of those Parenthood would still be in my top ten. The penultimate episode of season 3 ended with a seven-minute final act containing two huge plot points (I don't want to call them "twists," because it's not that kind of show, though I guess they are in a low-key way) and set to almost the entire length of Death Cab for Cutie's "Transatlanticism" that the building, crescendoing emotional power of just left me in awe of the magic of television.

But those episodes had nothing on this fall's run, especially the arcs concerning the characters of Kristina Braverman and Amber Holt. Kristina's battle with breast cancer doesn't exactly make for "fun" television, but it's so genuine and so well-observed (being based on Katims' wife's actual breast cancer experience, no shocker there), while Amber's relationship with a returning Afghanistan veteran played by Friday Night Lights' Matt Lauria has revealed fascinating new wrinkles in her character, who was already one of my favorite on television. Parenthood is just a joy to behold. No other show matches its humane, bighearted warmth. I can't wait to watch it every week.

3. Spartacus: Vengeance (Starz)

Spartacus: Vengeance, the show's second proper season following Spartacus: Blood and Sand and prequel miniseries Gods of the Arena, isn't just phenomenally entertaining, but an actual cutting-edge masterclass in delivering perfectly-paced, mind-blowingly satisfying action-adventure television. This is awesome stuff, huge in scale and ambition, intricately plotted, and most importantly blisteringly paced as it blows through stories lesser shows might dedicate seasons to in mere episodes, unafraid to shake up and burn down its foundations in permanent ways. One show in a thousand moves this boldly and confidently on the narrative level. You could count on one hand the number of series in TV history with less of a baseline status quo – other than the continuing presence of its famously over-the-top blood and gore and sex and nudity, of course.

It's true, Spartacus offers more... splattery pleasures than anything else on television (but which bodily fluid am I talking about? Ha ha, gross), but its real trick is managing to keep all of its human drama gripping even during the scenes when no one's being killed and/or penetrated. The time between battles is filled with an elegantly dizzying mess of conflicting agendas, secrets, schemes, and unstoppable forces meeting immovable objects within both the Roman and the rebel camps, and the show couples that with full, rich character arcs.

But that it's able to marry a story rooted deeply in the personal with huge, budget-defying spectacle – Vengeance contained not just one but two attempts at set pieces nearly on the scale of Game of Thrones' "Blackwater" in the episodes "Libertus" and "Wrath of the Gods," on a smaller combined budget than that single Thrones episode alone, and it pulled them off astoundingly – and a true feel that the characters are shaking the political and social foundations of Rome is an awesome trick. The narrative oscillates confidently between the intimate and the epic, and if showrunner Steven DeKnight wants to paint such a strikingly sweeping vision with blood and gore and boobs and cocks, well, who the fuck am I to tell him otherwise?

"Awesome" is such an overused word in discussion of media, but to hell with it: Spartacus is awesome. It inspires awe in me. I'm so, so, so excited for Spartacus: War of the Damned in January. In fact, at this exact moment in time, there's no impending piece of pop culture in any medium I'm more amped for, except perhaps the final season and ending of the next show on my list.

2. Breaking Bad (AMC)

What else is there to say? I'm pretty sure that at least of a third of all words written about television on the internet are about Vince Gilligan's saga of the rise and fall of chemistry teacher-turned-meth kingpin Walter White, about its boldness and power and searing performances and "Yeah, bitch! Magnets!", and it's no mystery why: Because it's the best drama on television and one of the best in the history of the medium. Trust me. I freaking love being contrarian and not liking popular and/or critically-acclaimed things. If there was a seam of imperfection anywhere in Breaking Bad, I'd love to sneak my backlash crowbar in there and pry it open. But there just isn't. This is a masterpiece.

Rather than reiterating what every TV fan already knows about Breaking Bad, I'd like to focus my praise on two aspects of the show, the first specific to season 5 and the second about the series in general. First off, the arc this season played out for Mike Erhmantraut, aka Mike the Cleaner, was just about the best to be found on television this year. It was filled with exhaustion and sadness, but also a lot of pure entertainment and lines like "Keys, scumbag. It's the universal symbol for keys." The only reason this character exists is because they needed a guy to help Jesse fix a crime scene and the only reason he's played by Jonathan Banks is because Vince Gilligan, being a fan of Banks from the '80s crime procedural Wiseguy, said "Get me a Jonathan Banks type," but then they just kept growing and expanding his role, and TV is the richer for it.

And secondly, I'd just like to take a moment to acknowledge and praise the hell out of this show's pure jack-of-all-trades greatness. Yes, it has multiple character arcs of supreme depth and power on par with the great literary characters, and it's rich with themes about the shedding of humanity in pursuit of one's goals. It can be moody and subtle, and very often plays out long, gripping dialogue scenes. But it also has an infectious love for a good caper or heist or shootout, isn't above the occasional sprinkling in of more straightforward bad guys to liven things up for a quick arc (i.e. The Cousins), and is packed to the brim with hilarious, quotable lines. And to compare it to that other famous show about the drug trade, it totally rejects The Wire's verite approach, being pleased as punch to fill its runtime with gorgeous New Mexico cinematography and bold musical choices. 

Breaking Bad is ending after eight final episodes next summer, and god almighty do I have my fingers crossed they stick the landing. If this show ends in a way worthy of all that's come before, it will collectively be just about one of the best works of fiction in existence.

1. Community (NBC)

For a brief window between the ending of Friday Night Lights and the ousting of Dan Harmon, Community was the best show on TV, the funniest, most lively, creatively invigorating thing out there, both a gift and a tribute to the medium of television. Its 2012 run included almost all of my favorite live-action sitcom episodes of the year, with the two all-time classics of joyous ambition "Pillows and Blankets" and "Digital Estate Planning" being the best of the best (though "Basic Lupine Urology" and "Curriculum Unavailable" were also phenomenally great, and the season finale was tremendously moving and satisfying) and with only one clunker ("Course Listing Unavailable") in the bunch – not bad for twelve episodes produced entirely in a vacuum before a single one aired.

It's no great mystery why Community isn't for everybody – it caters to nimble intellects and adventurous tastes willing to rise to the level of a show that dares to excel on an episode-by-episode basis. When it comes to sitcoms, many ultimately prefer something a bit safer and blander, where what you get going into a new episode is less a mystery and more just watching a short film you like over and over again. And that's fine, because that's what most sitcom showrunners prefer to make.

But me? I prefer a show that's not afraid to get a little weird and dark and experimental, that's willing to tear into and deconstruct its characters and throw you neck-deep into its soup of pop culture and Dreamatoriums and 8-bit video games and pillow forts and mockumentaries and fake clip shows and Air Conditioning Repair Annexes and Evil Abeds and Annie's Boobs and say "Enjoy!" These first three seasons of Community are as good as TV comedy gets this side of Arrested Development and classic Simpsons at its very best, I'm so thankful we got them and I'll treasure them forever.

The show is heading into 2013 in terrifyingly uncertain fashion, having lost creator/showrunner Dan Harmon, Harmon's right-hand writer Chris McKenna, head directors Joe and Anthony Russo, and executive producers Neil Goldman and Garrett Donovan (thankfully Harmon's writers room lieutenants Megan Ganz and Andy Bobrow, responsible for several of the show's finest half hours, remain). Until October 19th February 7th, there's no way of knowing whether or not the Community we come back to will even be the show I fell so madly in love with, much less the best show or even the best comedy on TV (Bob's Burgers, you're on standby).

But whatever happens, we'll always have these first 71 episodes, a living documentation of the towering greatness sitcoms can achieve when writers and producers are willing to challenge themselves, take risks, push the boundaries of the medium, and rise above.

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