The Top Shows of 2012, Part Two: 10-1

Last week, I started my year-end list for the best of television in 2012. I planned on writing up the other half of the list earlier than tonight, but sometimes life gets in the way. Before the list gets revealed on The A.V. Club this week as part of their year-end coverage, I thought I’d finally get around to revealing my Top 10.

More so than last week’s ten, I feel pretty strongly about the demarcation of these shows. On any given day, my 20 through 11 shows might have shifted around, some even semi-significantly? Here, everything is locked into place in relationship to one another. If you have the urge to get mad at what follows, I’d suggest taking a deep breath and reading some words of wisdom from Linda Holmes about lists such as this.

We good? Good.

10) Mad Men (AMC)

mad-men-season-5-2.jpgA very good season of TV, but one that marked a step down for the show in comparison to itself. That’s one hell of a high bar for the show to meet year in and year out, to be sure. But while some episodes (including the back-to-back classics “Signal 30” and “Far Away Places) were as good as the show has ever been, as an entire piece it lacked a coherent focus to lock everything into place upon complete view. That lack of focus was built into the conception of the season, but that idea plays better when talking about it than viewing it.

9) Archer (FX)

The demented mind of Adam Reed conjured up another stellar season of the show, with “The Limited” and “Lo Scandalo” as funny as anything else on television this year. But the biggest surprise? The Archer/Pam relationship, which made a bizarre amount of sense within the madness of this universe. Throw in special guest appearances by Bryan Cranston, the ongoing presence of bionic adversary Barry, Krieger out-Krieger’ing himself each week, and of course, the return of Baboo, and you had a season with one unexpected pleasure after another.

8 ) Sherlock (PBS)

Most shows wouldn’t land in the Top 10 if 33% of its season was pretty bad. And yet even though once again “Sherlock” failed pretty spectacularly in its second episode, the bookends of this short season were once again miraculously great. Had I dedicated a half a second to figuring out the trick that Holmes pulled off at the end of the season, I probably would have checked myself into an asylum. Instead, I just feel like Stephen Moffat has control over this endeavor in ways he no longer does over on “Doctor Who”. I’m happy to wait, even if it seems like getting Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman back on the “Sherlock” set is more daunting than taking the One Ring to Mount Doom.

7) Girls (HBO)

girls-hbo-season-finale-she-did-episode-10-550×366.jpgIf you told me a few weeks into this series that it would be in my Top 10, I would have scoffed at thee. SCOFFED, I SAYETH. And yet, when Hannah Horvath visited Michigan, everything problematic about the show suddenly evaporated for me. Plenty of people loved the show long before that moment. And plenty more hated it throughout. But it took me until “The Return” for me to lock into the show’s worldview, in which friends simultaneously serve as one’s greatest enemy. These four young women both lean on each other and yet can injure one another with surgical precision. It’s one thing to created flawed characters. It’s another to keep those flaws ugly while simultaneously recognizable. The show didn’t do a perfect job of this, but grew stronger with every week, and I can’t wait to see what’s in store for season 2.

6) Cougar Town (ABC)

Season 3 found the cul-de-sac crew bending towards more complex relationships with one another, even if things got somehow sillier on a week-to-week basics. “One Story Town” is a perfect example of what the show does so well: it draws you in under the guise of madcap hijinks only to pull the emotional rug out from under you when you least expect it. Actually, at this point in the show, you DO expect it. And then the show trots out a character dancing while an iPad broadcasting someone else’s face…and you somehow lump up anyways.  “Cougar Town” has as many jokes per minute as shows like “Happy Endings”, but it also has the patience and wisdom to know when to slow things down and drink in life itself. (Or, you know, some wine. OK, a lot of wine.)

5) Breaking Bad (AMC)

The main reason this is so low? I consider it half of a season that will truly finish in 2013. That’s an arbitrary distinction to some. But whether or not you consider this independent of the final eight episodes or not, the pacing of this 8-episode installment felt slightly off from previous 13-episode seasons. Sure, it’s thrilling to see Walter’s hold over Jesse finally break (we think) or Hank finally uncover the identity of Heisenberg (we know). But it also feels like things finally were starting the moment they ended. So when I stacked up my series list, I asked myself what shows gave me the strongest start to finish journeys. “Breaking Bad” is a show that was hampered by not being able to actually play out to its conclusion. I’m glad there’s more show to go, but these next four shows simply delivered more in this calendar year.

4) Homeland (Showtime)

Haters gonna hate. I’ve said a lot about this show recently in my “Talking TV” podcast with Mo Ryan, so I won’t repeat myself too much here. Did the show go a bit wonky near the end? Sure. But it went wonky in aspects of the show I honestly don’t care much about in the first place. All the practical stuff about terrorism, the chase for Abu Nazir, and the “realism” of planting a bomb outside the walls of the CIA simply served as backdrop during my time watching the program. However, when the show used those threats to dive into the more chamberpiece aspects of its DNA, it was equally as strong, if not more so, than it was in the praised first season. In its depiction of people broken by the loss of identity in a post-9/11 world, only “Battlestar: Galactica” can lay claim to doing it better. “BSG” did so through metaphor and analogy, which makes the wounds in “Homeland” that much sharper. The finale offers a way for the show to get smaller, not larger, in subsequent seasons, and it’s the smartest thing the show’s ever done. It’s always more fascinating to see the devastation inside Carrie’s heart than the devastation in the wake of a bomb exploding.

3) Parks and Recreation (NBC)

adam-scott-amy-poehler-parks-and-recreation-nbc.jpgNo show makes me happier to be a TV fan than this one. Period, full stop. When it works, it warms the cockles of my frigid heart in ways I long thought impossible. Leslie Knope’s reaction to voting for herself in the Season 4 finale might be THE moment in TV this year for me. Hell, I’m misting up a bit thinking about it right now. So even if some semi-big things were slightly off this year (the Ann/Tom romance, the ill-conceived time spent in Washington D.C.), there’s so much goodness in the way these core characters treat each other that it’s impossible to not forgive those missteps. The writing may be on the wall for this show’s long-term future, but this will be a show I’ll return to more than just about anything else once its off the air for good.

2) Spartacus: Vengeance (STARZ)

I know, RIGHT? This is not a drill. And that is not a typo. “Spartacus: Vengeance” was not only the best installment of the series, but perhaps the most purely entertaining show on television in this calendar year. The lean 10-episode order gave Stephen DeKnight and Rob Tapert the ability to distill the story down to its essence while simultaneously crafting ridiculously huge set pieces on a relatively miniscule budget. But spectacle aside (and by Jupiter’s you-know-what, there was spectacle), what makes this show tick are the characters. There are a dozen fully fleshed out (pun intended) characters in this world, each with motivations crisply delineated and constantly challenged. Fans didn’t know they were watching the penultimate season of the show while it aired. But I’ll wager people will keep finding this show long after it ends this upcoming Spring. To those that think it’s just gussied-up porn: Grow up. You’re missing one of the best shows on TV. I used to be desperate to convince people to give this a try. Now, I just feel bad for those that won’t.

1) Louie (FX)

In ten years, books will be written about how this was the show that changed what used to be called “television”. It’s as big and as simple as that. Alan Sepinwall hints about the potential pantheon nature of this show in his new book “The Revolution Was Televised”, but I also think Alan doesn’t go far enough in thinking about how this show’s DIY aesthetic points the way towards an entire new ecosystem for producing episodic content. “Louie” throws away everything we think an episode is supposed to do, what a season is supposed to do, and how an audience is supposed to approach both. Some episodes feature multiple, self-contained stories. Some spread out over two or three episodes. “Continuity” is absent, until it returns to sucker punch your soul. But mostly, season 3 was a celebration of the messy self, of a life that’s worth living even if we’re terrified to actually do just that. Louie (and “Louie”) doesn’t always succeed, but it’s the attempt that matters. And the attempt to simply try a show like this (and FX’s willingness to air it) points to a future in which high-concept, high-budget shows will be the exception, not the rule. More people will be willing to try their version of “Louie”, and more networks (cable, pay cable, online) will be willing to finance those versions. None of them will resemble “Louie”, anymore than “Louie” resembles anything on TV. And eventually, none of what we watch will resemble TV at all. This is a feature, not a bug, of the industry’s future.