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The 20 Best TV Shows of 2012

December 3, 2012  |  9:47am
The 20 Best TV Shows of 2012

TV has never had more competition trying to keep you entertained. With streaming movies available on demand, videogames becoming more lifelike (and more mobile) and a library’s worth of books available for download, TV needed to step up its game to grab your attention. And while part of the reaction was to highlight the lowbrow and outrageous (Honey Boo Boo?), the other end of the spectrum is also getting attention. From smart comedies to gripping dramas, covering the minutia of life in America along with epic fantasy worlds, we bring you the 20 Best TV Shows of 2012. Let us know your favorites in the comments section below.

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20. Parenthood
Creator: Ron Howard
Stars: Craig T. Nelson, Peter Krause, Lauren Graham, Dax Shepard, Monica Potter, Erika Christensen, Sam Jaeger, Mae Whitman, Bonnie Bedelia
Network: NBC
Parenthood has always been a good drama, but this season it became a great one. The NBC series is palpably real. The Bravermans are us. Each week, the show provides insight into what it’s like to be part of an extended, loving and meddling family while giving viewers the opportunity for a nice cathartic cry. Family dramas are the hardest type of one-hour programming—they must keep viewers engaged without a weekly patient to cure, crime to solve or case to litigate. That’s why a family drama frequently will turn to the television trope of giving a lead character a disease. But what Parenthood has done with the Kristina (Monica Potter) story arc this season has been profound. The series thrives when it demonstrates the minutia of life. While Kristina has been battling breast cancer, she’s also been dealing with life’s smaller moments. Life, the show subtly points out each week, doesn’t stop for cancer. So often on TV, a disease will befall a character only to be wrapped up in one or two episodes after a few requisite maudlin moments. But Kristina is living with cancer and Potter is giving the performance of her career. She evokes empathy from the viewer while never allowing the viewer to pity Kristina. And while the Kristina’s cancer story arc has dominated the season, the show also has taken on some equally heavy topics. Amber’s burgeoning romance with a man who recently returned from Afghanistan. Julia’s struggle with secondary infertility and the decision to adopt an older child. Sarah’s attempt to blend her family with her young fiancée while dealing with her evolving feelings for her older boss. Parenthood has quietly become one of the best shows on TV.—Amy Amatangelo

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19. 30 Rock
Creator: Tina Fey
Stars: Tina Fey, Tracy Morgan, Jane Krakowski, Jack McBrayer, Scott Adsit, Judah Friedlander, Alec Baldwin
Network: NBC
Of all the strong Thursday night sitcoms that NBC may or may not be laying to rest at the end of this season, 30 Rock is the only one whose exit seems just right. The Office hung on too long, while if the suits decide to axe Community after its fourth season, it’ll be an unjust cancellation of Arrested Development proportions. 30 Rock, however, is leaving us at the perfect moment: Liz Lemon and friends have been around the block long enough to show us all they’re capable of, but they’re bowing out while still on top of their game. The show has always been at its finest when it’s self-aware and biting the hand that feeds it, and there’s been plenty of that this year with the usual in-jokes and NBC spoofs (like Jack producing and starring in God Cop). However, 2012 has seen the show head into unfamiliar territory as Liz Lemon finally gets her happy ending, marrying Chriss so they can adopt a child. Last week’s episode expertly handled the wedding—with Liz doing it her way, at a courthouse in a Princess Leia outfit, and emphasizing that while it’s a special day for her, it’s not the be-all end-all. It’ll be sad to see this show go, but it’s refreshing to see a sitcom end on a high note for a change.—Bonnie Stiernberg

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18. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
Creator: Madeleine Smithberg, Lizz Winstead
Stars: Jon Stewart, Jon Oliver, Samantha Bee, Aasif Mandvi, Wyatt Cenac, Jason Jones, Al Madrigal, Jessica Williams
Network: Comedy Central
Jon Stewart would be the first to tell you that relying solely on The Daily Show for news is a horrible idea. He’s a comedian first, but throughout the 2012 presidential election, that’s exactly what the world needed. Every week, Stewart uncovers the hypocrisies and fundamental problems with political figures and news organizations. He’s able to consistently bring humor into the darkness of the world’s news while showing an incredible intelligence and refreshing viewpoint that many times makes Stewart look like the most levelheaded individual sharing the news. Stewart and The Best F#@king News Team—boasting comedians like John Oliver and Wyatt Cenac—brilliantly covered the election in a way that showed the ridiculousness of the political system and somehow, made election coverage bearable. Poking fun at both Republicans and Democrats, along with the already comic nature of our world, makes Stewart not only one of our finest comedians but also one of the greatest modern political satirists.—Ross Bonaime

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17. Justified
Creator: Graham Yost
Stars: Timothy Olyphant, Nick Searcy, Joelle Carter, Jacob Pitts, Erica Tazel, Natalie Zea, Walton Goggins
Network: FX
There are two things you can count on every January: broken resolutions and the return of one of the best shows on television, FX’s Justified. It was easy to wonder if Margo Martindale’s Emmy-winning turn in Season Two was an unrepeatable stroke of luck, but with newcomers Mykelti Williamson and Neal McDonough delivering dazzling performances in Season Three, award-worthy guest stars appear to be the rule not the exception on this show. Combine that with the best ensemble on television (anchored by Timothy Olyphant, Walter Goggins and Joelle Carter), firecracker writing from show-runner Graham Yost with a dependable stable of wordsmiths, and the feature-film quality direction and cinematography from Francis Kenny, Michael Dinner and others, and what do you get? An instant classic that improbably translates Elmore Leonard’s twisted humor, Western deconstruction and damaged psyches into hour-long gems week after week after week. When people complain that there isn’t anything good on TV anymore, Justified is all you have to say to shut them up.—Jack McKinney

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16. Children’s Hospital
Creator: Rob Corddry
Stars: Rob Corddry, Malin Åkerman, Lake Bell, Erinn Hayes, Rob Huebel, Ken Marino, Megan Mullally, Henry Winkler
Network: Adult Swim
Funnier than NTSF: SD SUV, less grotesque than Eagleheart and more consistent than The Eric Andre Show, Children’s Hospital remains the most absurd and (probably) the best of Adult Swim’s 12-minute live-action genre parodies. Of course it broadened its scope past the medical soap long ago, and this season the show riffed on Goodfellas, British dramas and a coked-up Law & Order. Children’s Hospital continues to weave surreal magic with one of the best casts on TV and talent that’s just as impressive behind the camera.—Garrett Martin

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15. Sons of Anarchy
Creator: Kurt Sutter
Stars: Charlie Hunnam, Katey Sagal, Mark Boone Junior, Dayton Callie, Kim Coates, Tommy Flanagan
Network: FX
Outside of a much-deserved Golden Globe for Katey Segal in 2010, Sons of Anarchy has been criminally underrated for awards. This longtime fan favorite has kept viewers on edge for five seasons now (the highly anticipated fifth season finale airs on Tuesday, Dec. 4) and has built a reputation for its no-holds-barred approach to its story. The current season saw a battle between Clay (Ron Perlman) after he was ousted as SAMCRO president as his stepson Jax (Charlie Hunnam) stepped into the role. The main cast continued their explosive dominance, but two season-long guest stars—Jimmy Smits and Harold Perrineau—really added something special to the mix. In a world where premium cable dramas rule the Emmys, this is one underdog that can take on any of them.—Adam Vitcavage

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14. Game of Thrones
Creator: David Benioff, D.B. Weiss
Stars: Sean Bean, Mark Addy, Michelle Fairley, Peter Dinklage, Emelia Clarke, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Lena Headey
Network: HBO
If there’s been a more ambitious show on TV—bringing a fantasy world to life, populating it with Machiavellian factions of scheming and double-crossing characters, adding an elaborate layer of myth and propelling the epic story forward each week—I can’t think of it right now. And while the first season of Game of Thrones often felt more like historical fiction than fantasy—if we could just imagine a history quite different than our own—it ended with dragons, and slowly more and more magic has been revealed. Winter is coming and more and more of Westeros’ fairy tales are coming true. But no monster or mythical creature can hold as much terror as the mortals who rule—especially an adolescent king with unlimited power. The real monsters of Game of Thrones need no magic to bring ruin upon others. The night is dark and full of terrors indeed. Maybe it’s not so unlike our own history after all.—Josh Jackson

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13. Boardwalk Empire
Creator: Terence Winter
Stars: Steve Buscemi, Michael Pitt, Kelly Macdonald, Michael Shannon
Network: HBO
While it’s common for the quality of cable dramas to differ dramatically season-to-season, few have improved as much as Boardwalk Empire following the deaths of Jimmy and Angela Darmody. The show grew in scope during its third season, less concerned with the minutiae of New Jersey politics in favor of featuring a much more compelling national landscape. As a result, both its characters and its stories have become grander, more operatic and expressionistic. With its third season, Boardwalk Empire has found its voice, finally living up to the promise of its Scorsese-directed premiere.—Sean Gandert

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12. Doctor Who
Creator: Sydney Newman, C. E. Webber, Donald Wilson
Stars: Matt Smith, Karen Gillan, Arthur Darvill
Network: BBC America
When Doctor Who lost Russell T. Davies, the showrunner who revived the series in 2005, and David Tennant, the 10th (and finest) Doctor, there was a little worry among fans. But new showrunner Stephen Moffat who had a number of British TV hits in Joking Apart, Coupling and Jekyll—and who more recently created Sherlock—has proved to be a fantastic choice for the 49-year-old series. He’d already written many of Doctor Who’s best episodes, and together with 11th Doctor Matt Smith, the series continues to be the most fun sci-fi show on television. The doctor’s unbridled enthusiasm for discovery and deep affection for his companions adds light even to the creepiest, darkest episodes. It occupies a world—campy but sincere, occasionally nightmarish but full of wonder—unlike anything else we’ve seen.—Josh Jackson

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11. Girls
Creator: Lena Dunham
Stars: Lena Dunham, Allison Williams, Jemima Kirke, Zosia Mamet, Adam Driver, Alex Karpovsky
Network: HBO
From the series’ very first scene where Hannah Horvath pleads with her parents for money at dinner before being told she’s going to have to make it on her own, Girls served to define a certain generation of un- or under-employed post-collegiates. Filled with awkward sex scenes and petty blow-out fights, Girls was purposefully under-polished and was simultaneously praised and criticized—people loved it, hated it or just had no idea what to think about it. What no one could argue, though, was the show’s importance, both in portraying a particularly kind of twentysomething and for launching the career of creator, writer and star Lena Dunham, a name we’re sure to hear for years to come.—Ryan Bort

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