Thursday, December 27, 2012

THE BEST OF 2012 - The Best TV Of The Year

 THE BEST OF 2012 - The Best TV Shows of The Year

- It's that time of year again ... time to make some lists, talk about the year that was, and dive into a lot of the stuff that I don't usually get to cover here on the blog. In the past, I've written regular reviews of a couple of my favorite TV shows, but this year I was limited to the occasional special blog or two to talk about a major TV milestone. But man, it's been quite a year for TV shows. There is still a glut of garbage out there, no question. But more than ever, there's an almost overwhelming amount of good stuff to choose from. Until this year, I never really regretted not subscribing to Showtime. Sure, I missed out on Dexter, but I felt like between HBO and other cable networks, I had my bases mostly covered. Now, HOMELAND has become must-see TV, and I'm sad to say that I'm just starting to catch up. I've got Season 1 on blu-ray, and I'm eager to dive in and see what all the hype is about. I do think a lot of people are trying to figure out how best to catch up with all these shows. The cost of cable keeps going up, even as more and more channels - from IFC to Showtime - are becoming must-haves. HBO is practically a must for any discerning TV fan nowadays, but how many people are using their uncle's friend's HBO GO password to catch the latest Game of Thrones episodes? The cost of keeping up is going up, as is the time commitment required. So more and more, people are turning to alternate means to watch their favorite shows - new and old. The sheer volume of content on Netflix, for example, is almost overwhelming. Suddenly, there's a simple and easy way to go back and watch great TV that you might have missed. For me, for example, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA has been a regular part of my TV diet over the last few months. I'd never seen it previously, but now, I've slowly but surely made my way through the first two seasons. Once I get through that, my to-watch list of classic shows is almost as long as my watch-list of new shows. And I suspect many people are now watching TV the same way.

It is sort of exciting. TV was, for a long time, a disposable medium. Shows were built to be watched once, or else to be watched in repeats or in syndication whenever someone happened to catch them. But now, we are entering an age where TV is now built to last. Because really, it's not "TV" anymore. It's longform storytelling. Much the same as movies, just a different format. To that end, we're seeing shorter seasons, more tightly-told stories with less filler, and more and more high-quality prestige series that aspire to greatness. Of course, a lot of this is happening on cable, where it is easier to adapt programming schedules to this new paradigm. But, even on the broadcast nets, we're starting to see a transition. Experiments like the shortened fifth and final season of FRINGE are paying off creatively, whereas shows still adhering to the old 22-episode format are starting to, more and more, feel stretched out.

It's funny, because you hear a lot about people "hate-watching" shows lately. Sometimes, there is a fine line between a show that you actually enjoy, and one that you can't take your eyes off of for all the wrong reasons. In the past, I've stuck with certain shows (cough*Smallville*cough) way past the point where I found them consistently enjoyable. But lately, there's so much good TV, that my tolerance for unevenness is low. And yes, there's been a lot of unevenness this year - particularly from the perspective of the Fall TV season. Pilot after pilot seemed to stumble this year, with very few really making an impact. Even some that I liked - like LAST RESORT - quickly lost my interest after the second or third episode. Of course, the one new show that I've developed a lot of affection for - BEN AND KATE - a charming and uber-likable comedy on FOX, is tanking in the ratings.

To that end, there seems to be a continuing cultural gap when it comes to comedy. Most friends of mine love COMMUNITY, PARKS AND RECREATION, and 30 ROCK ... but these shows continue to draw flies in the Nielsen ratings. 30 Rock is ending in only a few weeks' time, and for many it will be the end of an era - one of the greatest modern comedy series coming to an end. But in the fragmented TV market that we now live in, 30 Rock's conclusion may register as a mere blip in the large cultural consciousness.

And yet ... think about *this*. THE WALKING DEAD was the #1 scripted show on TV this year ... period. That, to me, is incredible. 1.) It's a cable show on a network, AMC, that only a few years ago had essentially no presence or audience or brand loyalty. 2.) It's a gory, violent show, based on a comic book, about the zombie apocalypse. Unbelievable to me that the show is as popular as it is, but it's also pretty damn cool. As I've said before, it is, perhaps, a sign that the geeks are winning (see also: GAME OF THRONES). Even better, the quality of the show has finally caught up to its potential, and to the greatness of the source material. This year, The Walking Dead finally got awesome.

Speaking of AMC ... I continue to be floored by BREAKING BAD. The show is an all-time classic, and it will be talked about, analyzed, and debated for years to come. In many ways, I see it as the pinnacle of what the television medium is capable of, and it's been an absolute pleasure to watch it over the last few years. The conclusion of the show this coming summer will be both momentous and bittersweet.

It's a new age of television. Once it was all about CBS, ABC, NBC, and FOX. Now it's HBO, FX, AMC, and Showtime. Once it was about watching shows week to week. Now it's about marathoning, Netflixing, catching up on Hulu. Once, the thought of a zombie horror show ruling TV land was unthinkable. Now, everyone else is scrambling (or is it shambling?) to catch up. All of us Gen Y'ers, and those younger, have made the leap to this new era. The question now becomes: where do we go from here?

Below are my picks for the Best TV of the Year. As I mentioned, I didn't and can't watch everything. And yes, Homeland is missing from my list, because I simply haven't seen enough episodes yet to include it. But there is a wide variety of content - and it was tougher than ever to rank my favorites and narrow down the list.



- How will the journey end for Walter White? That is what fans of great TV will be asking themselves for the next several months, until finally, one of the greatest shows of all time reaches its sure-to-be-epic conclusion. In 2012, Breaking Bad continued to stun on multiple levels. The acting is just heads and shoulders above almost everything else. Bryan Cranston is so good on this show, it's scary. Aaron Paul as well. And how about the underrated Dean Norris as pesky brother-in-law Hank? The midseason finale was literally the "oh, $#%&!" moment of the year. But even without that game-changer of a cliffhanger, Breaking Bad quite simply mixes ultra-intensity, complete unpredictability, and pitch-black humor ("Better Call Saul!") to create a one-of-a-kind narrative alchemy. Heisenberg's blue meth may have perfected the formula for the perfect high, but I'd reckon a great episode of Breaking Bad is nearly as good.


- It's time to give Justified its due. In three seasons, it's become one of the absolute best dramas on TV - in my view second only to Breaking Bad in terms of character, plotting, and "what happens next?" intensity. Season 3 of Justified was, quite simply, badass. Timothy Olyphant was as good as ever as the now-iconic lawman Raylan Givens. Walton Goggins was, again, superb as morally ambiguous nemesis Boyd Crowder. Add Neal McDonough to the mix as sadistic villain Robert Quarles, and you've got all the ingredients you need for some hard-boiled, bullet-ridden noir-Western goodness. I'll also throw in shout-outs to Raymond J. Barry as wily old coot Arlo, Joelle Carter as femme fatale Ava, Jeremy Davies as ne'er do well Dickie, and Jere Burns as professional sleazebag Wynn Duffy. Season 4 starts up shortly, and I can't wait. I'm now such a fan of Justified, that I get positively giddy when I hear that great theme song kick up. 


- Ricky Gervais has made a career out of finding profundity in the absurd, and he does so to great effect with the brilliant real-life comedy he mines from An Idiot Abroad. Karl Pilkington is so uproariously, unintentionally funny that it's no wonder many question whether his schtick is all an act. But the fact is, Karl is a one-of-a-kind man - eminently quotable, oddly sympathetic, and yet flat-out hilarious with his zero-filter observations and philosophical musings. All the same, I was constantly surprised by what I got out of An Idiot Abroad. It's funny as hell, sure, but it's also, in its own way, an incredible travelogue and an insightful look at different parts of the world. And hidden in Karl's at-times ignorant or naive thoughts are often some real common-man's wisdom. For cheesy as it may sound, all of us, I think, have an inner Karl - the part of us that gapes in awe and confusion at the weird world around us. This is spectacular TV.


- Six seasons and a movie! That is my hope for what we'll get from this brilliant comedy, when all is said and done. But realistically, this past season of Community might have been its last gasp of greatness. We shall see. But what we do know is that Dan Harmon is no longer running the show. And what we also know is that Harmon went out with a bang - a big bang of weirdness that took the show to its structural extremes. We saw the gang as 8-bit videogame characters, we saw a pillow-fort war, we saw Abed become Inspector Spacetime. And what we also saw was a show simply firing on all cylinders - delivering great episode after great episode. Community is an undisputed internet darling, but seriously ... let's start talking about it as an all-time classic comedy. Cool? Cool.


- For some reason, some seem to have bailed on Boardwalk, but to me it just keeps getting better and more engrossing. Sure, the show juggles a metric ton of characters and plotlines, but it's second to none in terms of delivering jaw-dropping, game-changing moments. I loved this season of Boardwalk - not only did we see Nucky Thompson go "full gangster," but we also saw him pitted against the insane Italian bootlegger Gyp Rosetti - one of the scariest and most vile villains on TV this year. In addition to Steve Buscemi's fantastic performance, the show is just stacked with incredible actors portraying memorable characters. Michael Stuhlbarg as conniving Arnold Rothstein, Jack Huston as the tragically-disfigured sharpshooter Richard Harrow, Michael Shannon as the increasingly unstable Van Alden, and Gretchen Mol as the equally unhinged Gillian. Can't forget Steven Graham as Al Capone, or Michael Kenneth Williams as Chalky White. Every week, Boardwalk is an acting clinic, a history lesson, and a wonderfully-woven drama. One of the best.

6. 30 ROCK

- Yep, that's right, nerdz. After a bit of a slump, 30 Rock roared back this year with numerous instant-classic episodes. Season 7 has been a fantastic and hilarious return to form, and the show is most definitely going out on top. Few shows not named The Simpsons have ever been this rapid-fire quotable week in and week out. And few comedies can boast an ensemble cast as great as this one. Alec Baldwin has always been the show's MVP, but he's been absolutely on fire in Season 7. The recent election-centric two-parter was 30 Rock at its best, as was Tina Fey's takedown of the "women can't be funny" train of thought several weeks back. It's going to be a sad day when 30 Rock is no longer on the air - to me, this was the smart and witty counterpoint to all the lame laugh-track sitcoms of the world. The world will be a dumber and less funny place sans 30 Rock.


- Argh. How is it that Parks and Recreation - one of TV's funniest shows that's filled with heart, with, and hilarity - is not also one of its highest-rated? The failure of Parks and Rec to become a mainstream hit is a recurring source of heartbreak for comedy fans. But the good news is that Parks continues to do right by its rep as one of the best in the biz. This year saw all kinds of Pawnee goodness, from the moving engagement of Leslie and Ben to the hilarious attempts of Tammy II to foil Ron Swanson's new relationship in a recent episode. Joe Biden even made a pretty great little cameo. Parks continues to have one of the deepest benches in comedy, with episodes able to seamlessly shift focus from Aziz Ansari to Nick Offerman to Aubrey Plaza to Chris Pratt to Rob Lowe. I'm not kidding when I say if you're not watching Parks, you're *literally* missing out on a show that is quickly becoming one of the all-time greats.


-  Time is running out for Fringe, but man, what a wonderfully strange, trip it's been. Fringe ended last season with an epic run of sci-fi insanity, and then took the bold step to set its fifth and final season decades in the future, in a dystopian world ruled by the cold-hearted and mentally-advanced Observers. The gamble seems to have paid off, with some of Fringe's most tightly-plotted and well-crafted longform storytelling to date. Really though, what has and does make Fringe so special is its combination of whiz-bang pseudo-science with its fantastic, ever-evolving characters. John Noble as mad-scientist Walter Bishop continues to be incredibly underappreciated by the mainstream. Noble absolutely kills it as Walter week in and week out, setting up a fascinating character arc, telling the story of a man of science trying to make up for the sins of his past, but ever-fearful that he might regress back to "the Walter that was." Noble is the heart and soul of Fringe, and the reason that Fringe has cemented itself as truly transcendent sci-fi.


- Last year at this time, I never would have predicted that New Girl would be in my Top 10 list for 2012. But somehow, some way, New Girl has improved leaps and bounds and become one of the most sharply-written and best-performed comedies on TV. But it happened, and though some still think of this show as "that adorkable show with Zooey Daschanel", the fact is, the show has course-corrected and actually become sort of amazing. A big reason is two of the best breakout characters on TV this year - Nick and Schmidt. Nick's bitterness issues combined with Schmidt's hilariously douchey antics have resulted in one of TV comedy's most potent one-two punches. Occasionally, the show will show signs of its old meh-factor, but when it's on its game, it can't be beat. Few shows have made me laugh out loud as much as New Girl has this year.


- I still am somewhat in awe of the fact that this show exists, and, what's more, that it's a huge hit. And sometimes, the sheer nerd-out factor of seeing this kind of epic-fantasy story on TV is enough to make watching GoT a thrill. But Season 2 of the show really kicked some ass, upping the action, bringing in new characters, and continuing to be a showcase for Peter Dinklage's iconic portrayal of Tyrion Lannister. The show still suffers a bit from jumpy storytelling, but it does so many things so well that it's hard to get too hung up. Has any show, ever, looked better or more lavishly-designed than this one? Have we ever seen a story of this scale and scope on a serialized TV series? And do the glimpses of of those dragons ever get old? I mean come on - dragons! - amiright?

The Next Best:


- Childrens Hospital is a weekly injection of awesomely absurdist comedy. I'm just thankful that this sort of thing is one the air, where it's lovingly nurtured by the good people at Adult Swim. They're even giving it a spin-off. Are they crazy? Good-crazy, I think. But how great is it that folks like Rob Cordry, Ken Marino, and David Wain have a forum like this to just indulge their wackiest comedic instincts? And by the way, how amazing are the women of this show? Lake Bell, Malin Ackerman, Erin Hayes, and Megan Mullally are all living proof that women most certainly can be funny - and look good while doing it.


- Up until Season 3, The Walking Dead had showed sporadic signs of the show it could be, but never kept up the momentum for a sustained period. Not so this season, which has just been a nonstop frenzy of carnage and zombie-apocalypse mayhem. It's also been great seeing the show's adaptation of the comic's most infamous storyline - the stay at the prison and the conflict with uber-villain The Governor. The show's version has been an interesting change - a more subtle and more quietly menacing sort of antagonist. But mostly, the show has improved by cutting down on the talky angst and upping the action and unpredictability. Suddenly, the show has become filled with the sort of big-time "holy $%&#!" moments that made the comic so great.


-  Louie is one of those shows that probably shouldn't exist. But somehow, it does, and it's singlehandedly changing the paradigm for what a TV show can be. Has there ever been a total auteur-driven show like this one? An episode of Louie is essentially whatever Louie CK wants it to be, and that's led to some wonderfully weird half-hours of TV. This year saw, for example, an off-the-wall encounter with an off-her-rocker woman played by Parker Posey, as well as a surreal multi-parter in which Louis CK was tapped to replace Letterman, and mentored by David Lynch. Occasionally, Louie's experiments in minimalist, avant garde comedy don't pay off. But the show is always a must-watch - a testament to what can happen when TV frees itself from its created-by-committee tendencies.


- Kenny Powers = inherent hilarity. Eastbound & Down undoubtedly suffered a bit from Season 1 to Season 2, and then again from Season 2 to 3. The lightning-in-a-bottle awesomeness of S1 was never quite recaptured in later seasons. Nevertheless, S3 had its fair share of shock-comedy showstoppers - as expected, Kenny playing the part of dad to an infant son led to some incredibly funny moments. Danny McBride also doesn't get enough credit for what he does on this show. His comic timing as Kenny is impeccable, and the way he somehow makes us root for and sympathize with Kenny - despite all the horrible things he says and does - is an award-worthy accomplishment.


- What's Chuck doing on here? I know, it already feels like an eternity since Chuck last logged into the Intersect, but I'd be remiss if I didn't include this cult-favorite on my list. Because, despite airing only a handful of its final episodes in early 2012, that final run saw the show reclaim its former awesomeness, and deliver some truly spectacular installments. In particular, the Chuck series finale stands as perhaps my single favorite episode of TV of the year - an action-packed conclusion that was also surprisingly moving. I mean, come on, what red-blooded fan among us didn't have a tear or two in their eyes as Chuck and Sarah sat on that beach as the show forever faded to black? As Chuck and his nerd-herd said their final farewells, we got one last, great hurrah for a show that sometimes stumbled, but ultimately found its font and forged a geek-out worthy legacy.


- My favorite new show of 2012 was Ben & Kate - a charming sitcom that keeps catching me off guard by being both disarmingly sweet and also surprisingly, bitingly funny and clever. The brother-sister chemistry of Dakota Johnson and Nate Faxon is fantastic, and young Maggie Elizabeth Jones, as Maddie, has got to be one of the best and funniest kid-characters we've seen on a sitcom in a long while. Few shows do funny and warm-and-fuzzy as well as this one - I can only hope that it survives to show its stuff to a broader audience.


- This hard-to-find show has been given the timeslot shaft by Disney, but it's well-worth tracking down on iTunes or elsewhere. Tron: Uprising has brilliantly been bridging the gap between the original cult-classic Tron movie and the more recent sequel, introducing a plethora of great new characters and expanding the Tron universe in exciting and unexpected ways. The voice-cast is off-the-chain, too - with Elijah Wood as lead character Beck, and Lance Henrikson as the fearsome General Tassler. Plus, original Tron actor Bruce Boxleitner reprising his iconic title role. What seals the deal is the super-slick, oftentimes gorgeous animation - which brings the world of The Grid alive in ways that in some ways surpasses even the movies. If you haven't seen the show, track it down and get in the game.


- Portlandia's jokes can be hit or miss, but it's a ton of fun to see Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein let loose and experiment with sketch comedy. The show feels different from anything else on the air, and there's a casual elegance to the show and its Portland setting. Though its exaggerated, there's also a lived-in authenticity to the show that makes it not just funny, but keenly observant. And when the show does nail a sketch, it really can be great (my favorite from this year - a hilarious visit to the "Around the World in 80 Plates" burger joint).


- Speaking of new and different in the world of sketch comedy, Key & Peele has been another breath of fresh air. The comedic duo does everything from totally random and off-the-wall humor to spot-on caricatures of Obama. You never know what you'll get, but as with Louie and Portlandia, there's an exciting sense of auteurism at work here. Some of the best and most original comedy on the air today.


- Comedy doesn't get much crazier than Chris Elliott's Eagleheart - a whacked-out, oftentimes hilarious show from former Conan O'Brien writers. The show has three great and up-for-anything leads in the great Chris Elliott, Maria Thayer, and standout Brett Gelman (also seen on Go On). Like Children's Hospital, this show is just an anything-goes forum for Elliott and co. to get as weird as they want. And if you're an Elliott fan (and who isn't?), then you know that that is pretty awesome.


The Best TV Heroes of 2011:

1.) Raylan Givens - Justified
2.) Walter Bishop -Fringe
3.) Chuck Bartowski - Chuck
4.) Glenn - The Walking Dead
5.) Arya Stark - Game of Thrones

The Best TV Villains of 2011:

1.) Walter White - Breaking Bad
2.) Robert Quarles - Justified
3.) Widmark - Fringe
4.) The Governor -The Walking Dead
5.) Gyp Rosetti - Boardwalk Empire

The Best TV Anti-Heroes of 2011:

1.) Richard Harrow - Boardwalk Empire
2.) Tyrion Lannister - Game of Thrones
3.) Boyd Crowder - Justified
4.) Mike "The Cleaner" - Breaking Bad
5.) Jesse Pinkman - Breaking Bad

Best Actress in a Comedy:

1.) Amy Poehler - Parks and Recreation

Runners Up: Alison Brie - Community, Zooey Daschanel - New Girl

Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy:

1.) Jane Krakowski - 30 Rock

Runners Up: Aubrey Plaza - Parks and Recreation, Erin Hayes, Malin Ackermann, and Lake Bell - Children's Hospital, Gillian Jacobs - Community

Best Actor in a Comedy:

1.) Jake Johnson - New Girl

Runners Up: Max Greenfield - New Girl, Joel McHale - Community, Louie CK - Louie, Alec Baldwin - 30 Rock

Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy:

1.) Nick Offerman - Parks and Recreation

Runners Up: Donald Glover - Community, Rob Lowe - Parks and Recreation, Rob Cordry - Childrens Hospital, Rob Huebel - Childrens Hospital
Best Actress in a Drama:

1.) Maisie Williams - Game of Thrones
Runners Up: Anna Torv - Fringe, Kelly McDonald - Boardwalk Empire

Best Supporting Actress in a Drama:

1.)  Anna Gunn - Breaking Bad

Runners Up: Laura Frasier - Breaking Bad, Gretchen Mol - Boardwalk Empire, Emilia Clarke - Game of Thrones

Best Actor in a Drama:

1.) Bryan Cranston - Breaking Bad

Runners Up: Steve Buscemi - Boardwalk Empire, Timothy Olyphant - Justified, Joshua Jackson - Fringe

Best Supporting Actor in a Drama:

1.) John Noble - Fringe

Runners Up: Jonathan Banks - Breaking Bad, Dean Norris - Breaking Bad,  Aaron Paul - Breaking Bad, Peter Dinklage - Game of Thrones, Jack Huston - Boardwalk Empire, Lance Reddick - Fringe

There you have it - my picks for the best TV of 2012. Be sure to leave thoughts and comments - and angry tirades about me having left out Homeland (still haven't seen it), Girls (only sort of liked it), Newsroom (couldn't stand it), etc.

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