It’s time for another best-of post! Television continued its rapid ascent to artistic equality with film this year. As a busy student, I certainly didn’t have time to watch everything I should have this year (read: I haven’t caught up on Mad Men, but I have kept up with all of the shows I have been following as well as discovered some new favorites, freshman series and old cult favorite alike. Here are my choices for the best television of 2012.
The “It went too soon” award: Luck
Luck was just unlucky. It was supposed to be HBO’s new flagship show and David Milch’s proper follow-up to Deadwood. Faced with surprising competition from AMC and FX, HBO intended for Luck to be the artistic masterpiece that reminded viewers just who invented this “television as a credible artistic medium” in the first place, and from its dazzling first episode, it seemed Luck was destined to join The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, and Six Feet Under in the pantheon of masterpiece HBO shows. Unfortunately, a tragic string of horse deaths brought the show to a swift cancellation, and it sits here with a consolation prize rather than the acclaim it deserved.
The “Better than it has any right to be” award: Girls
Yes, it sounds like Sex in the City, but Lena Dunham’s dramedy is much more than its generic sounding premise. Emotionally raw yet comedically sharp, Girls is one of the best new shows of 2012. (I have only gotten to see a few episodes, so I couldn’t really include it on the main list or give it a better blurb, but it would be criminal not to throw it something.)
The “effort” award: Community
With Dan Harmon and Chevy Chase both gone from the show, it looks like Community‘s upcoming fourth season will be its last, and I think it’s really for the best. The beginning of the show’s third season, while still good, was easily the worst run of episodes the series had aired since its inception. This was partly because the series became too enamored with its own cleverness, partly because it tried too much to match the highs of its excellent second season. The Halloween horror anthology episode suffered in comparison to the excellent “Epidemiology,” and there was no way the show’s Christmas episode could beat “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas”, even if it wasn’t an already-dated Glee parody. However, the show seemed to realize that it was becoming stale, and came back forcefully after its extended winter hiatus, producing weird, unique episodes like “Curriculum Unavailable” and “Digital Estate Planning.” It may not have reached the consistent quality of season two, but it refused to become obsolete, and so it wins an effort award.
It may not have been as consistently sharp in its third season, but Louie grew in its third season, adding continuity (including a great performance by Susan Watson as Louie’s black ex-wife, which actually makes perfect sense in the context of the show), and a consistent theme: nature’s attempt to force Louie out of his hazy complacency. It was this last point that really made the show shine, as Louie found a fascinating love interest played by Parker Posey, auditioned for the Late Show, and finally found a sort of enlightenment on the banks of the (not) Yangtze River. It was an unexpectedly poignant and genuinely moving season.
Best episodes: “Something is Wrong” “Late Show, Part Three” “New Years Eve”
5. Adventure Time! with Finn and Jake
Adventure Time has always been a cult favorite among adults for its sharp jokes and colorful world, but it really moved past being just a great cartoon into something special in 2012. The show’s bizarre world gives its writers more freedom than almost any other show on television. However, the show’s characters are the core of its appeal, and this year focused on moving them forward. Finn moved past his infatuation with Princess Bubblegum, a welcome end to a subplot that really had run out of appeal, finding a great new love interest in the passionate and evil Flame Princess. Jake suddenly had to grow up fast after the reveal that Lady Rainicorn was pregnant. This season’s most fascinating character development, however, was the development of the Ice King’s tragic past. “I Remember You,” essentially a one act play about his relationship with Marceline and her frustration with her inability to reconcile her memories of him with his current crazed persona and my personal pick for best episode of the year, is as great an examination of the effects of mental illness as any ever put on television. Most episodes, however, succeeded by deftly mixing the sentimental and the bizarre, like the celebrated “Sons of Mars,” which started with Finn traveling to Mars to confront the four-headed deity brother of Magic Man and their king, an immortal Abraham Lincoln, and ended with Honest Abe giving up his life to reclaim Jake’s life. It’s much sweeter than it sounds.
Best episodes: “Sons of Mars,” “I Remember You,” “Jake the Dog”
Archer has always been a reliable laugh generator, packing each episode with an awe-inspiring barrage of jokes and callbacks and sharp dialogue, but it injected a little drama and examination of its characters into the formula this year to fantastic result. Season 3 really explored what made Archer and his coworkers tick, but its main appeal, as usual, was the humor, which was as consistent and smart as always. An insane amount of guest stars also got in on the fun, from Patrick Warburton as another long-shot for Archer’s paternity sent to retrieve him from his post fiancee-death exodus to Bryan Cranston as a suitably sinister space station captain.
Best episodes: “The Limited” “Lo Scandalo” “Bloody Ferlin”
This show really hasn’t gotten as much attention as I think it should. An exploration of American politics and its most useless office by Armando Iannucci, best known for creating the British political satire In the Thick of It, Veep was especially rewarding and captivating in an election year. Julia Louis-Dreyfus gives a fantastic performance as Vice President Selena Meyer, herself successful essentially for her incredible acting skills; the most fascinating part of the show is watching Dreyfus transition between her public persona and her cynical true self. The show wisely avoids definitively naming Selena’s party (though she’s obviously a Democrat), choosing to focus on the political system rather than the specific issues with which it deals, giving it a more universal and less temporal appeal. Somewhat surprisingly for a political satire, though, Veep focuses most on its cast of characters. Anna Chlumsky, Reid Scott, Tony Hale, Matt Walsh, Sufe Bradshaw, and Timothy Simons give stellar performances as the engine behind Selena’s cheery public mask.
Best episodes: “Catherine” “Chung” “Baseball”
2. Parks and Recreation
Parks and Recreation has more heart than almost any show on television. It’s easier to empathize with Leslie Knope and her friends than any other characters on television, which is what makes Parks better than any of its other equally funny peers. The show featured some of its brightest moments in 2012, most notably in the season four closer “Win, Lose, or Draw.” There’s no amount of praise I can give for Amy Poehler’s performance as Leslie that hasn’t been expressed thousands of times already, but she gives her best performance yet in this episode, especially in the short scene in which she votes for herself. It’s a short, quiet moment, but it’s sold by the incredible sense of emotion Poehler gives her character as she fulfills her lifelong dream is breathtaking. Outside of these big moments, though, Parks works so well because it radiates a pervasive positivity and optimism. Tom tries again to become an entrepreneur, jettisoning Jean Ralphio and his previous immaturity, Andy discovers a new goal of becoming a police officer, and Ron begins courting a new love interest. At this point, I think it’s indisputable that Parks is one of the greatest televised comedies of all time.
Best episodes: “Win, Lose, or Draw” “Leslie vs. April” “Halloween Surprise”
1. Breaking Bad
Walter White spent most of the first four seasons of Breaking Bad reacting. He tried to build a empire, sure, but most of the time he had to deal with bigger fish, from Tuco to Gus Fring. In season five, Walt was finally the kingpin, and it was glorious. Unchained from his remaining obligations, Walt fully embraced his desire to be a movie-style criminal mastermind. This made for the craziest plots the show has featured yet: frying an evidence room with a magnet, turning a pesticide business into a wandering meth lab, and robbing a goddamned train. As always, the supporting cast was stellar, especially fan favorite Jonathan Banks in the greatly expanded role of weary hitman Mike. At the beginning of the season: Walter had a choice: live free or die. He responded by pulling an assault rifle from his trunk. The first half of season five was incredible, but the best part is knowing that Walt’s story still has one last chapter.
Best episodes: “Live Free or Die” “Dead Freight” “Say My Name”
Well, it looks like I did the impossible, folks. In addition to watching 222 movies and reading a little over 50 books, I managed to watch a lot of television as well. If you remember our Best of 2011 list, which can be found either here or here, I felt unqualified to offer my opinion on that season’s television, as I barely watched any. However, in addition to the enormous amount of other entertainment I took in, I increased the amount of television I watched, which resulted in my catching up on current shows I had missed out on (Parks and Recreation, Community, Breaking Bad, Louie), as well as finally getting around to some older shows (Freaks and Geeks, Undeclared, Spaced, The Ben Stiller Show, Cheers, The Larry Sanders Show). So you’ll be glad to know that this year I will be offering my favorite TV shows from 2012. Unless, of course, you don’t like my opinions. As in most cases, this list will remain unranked.
Is this the best drama in television history? If not, it’s definitely near the top. I got really into Breaking Bad this year and it’s amazing to see how much better the show keeps getting. Actually, it’s absolutely extraordinary for a show to continue at such an exponential growth rate. This season saw, among other things, the most inventive robbery of a police station I’ve ever seen, a train hold-up, and the expansion of Walt’s operation to the Czech Republic. While the show may be broadening its scope, it’s still as focused on character relations as it always has been, combining riveting crime drama with humanistic character study. Vince Gilligan has some pretty high expectations to fulfill next season.
Comedy Bang! Bang!
As a fan of the podcast, it goes without saying that I love the IFC version of Comedy Bang! Bang! Although Scott Aukerman and Reggie Watts have excellent chemistry, the show took some time to find its place, playing around with different comedic scenarios and situations. However, the format of Comedy Bang! Bang! gives it almost unlimited possibilities, allowing it to become one of the funniest shows currently on television.
A lot of people seem to think Community might have jumped the shark last season and I’ll admit that to some extent it might have. In his final season, Dan Harmon become even more absorbed in deconstructing and experimenting with the tropes of television and fictional narratives in general. Despite the myriad of pop culture references, the show’s heart still shows, and it will be interesting to see where it goes next season without Harmon’s lead. Even if it can be a tad ridiculous at times, it is in one of the most inventive universe to ever grace the small screen, and it at least deserves one final shot on the air. I also still find the show intensely personal and relatable, although it has become a tad gimmick-focused at this point.
This season of Louie wasn’t as good as the first two, but in my opinion, Louis C.K. is still probably one of the best working filmmakers today. Each episode essentially consists of short films, although the format has changed slightly during the show’s progression. Louis C.K.’s honesty is incredibly raw, and even though his show wasn’t quite at the top of its game, that honesty makes the show better than nearly anything else on television. See you in 2014, Louis.
The Mind of a Chef
Maybe it’s weird to have a public television cooking show on this list, but I think it fits perfectly. David Chang, the legendary chef behind the New York restaurant Momofoku and founder of the McSweeney’s magazine Lucky Peach, has revived this overlooked genre and given it his own special flair. Chang is an extraordinary chef, as he straddles the line between gourmet and bizarre, bringing together both high-tier and low-grade supermarket elements to create amazing new cuisine. The show itself is fascinating, as Chang’s mad scientist/stoner/chef personality is enjoyable to watch at work. It’s a bit like if Cosmos were hosted by Doug Benson and Julia Child. While it does have traditional cooking show elements to it, it’s much broader than anything else available these days food-wise on television, and probably one of the most visually inventive public television programs in recent memory.
Parks and Recreation
Anyone who knows me knows that I really love Community, but in its fourth and fifth seasons, I think that Parks and Recreation may have personally overtaken Community in my mind. Although the show has some of the sharpest writers in television, what it has that 30 Rock and other comedies (even Community at times) don’t is that the characters aren’t just pure coin-operated joke machines; they are real human beings. Just like Louie and Community, it places characters and emotions at the forefront. I’ve heard rumors about Parks and Recreations’ impending end, and if the rumors are true, that’s a real shame. There’s nothing else quite like it out there.
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
Okay, I really don’t need to say much about this, but I feel like Jon Stewart and his team should get somewhat of a shout-out just for delivering such consistent news reporting on an almost-daily basis. Stewart is a witty purveyor of truth in a time when such a commodity is difficult to come by, and he’s probably one of the last great television journalists we have. Let’s hope he keeps inspiring more people to cut the crap and deliver the real news.