The 20 Best TV Shows of 2012

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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.


10. The Walking Dead
Creator: Frank Darabont
Stars: Andrew Lincoln, Jon Bernthal, Sarah Wayne Callies, Laurie Holden
Network: AMC
The enthusiasm for the The Walking Dead comes from more than just the gore (though there’s plenty) and the zombie head-shots (though some have been epic), but also the exploration of humanity under extreme duress. Last season, the peacefulness of the farm gave the characters a chance to pause, relax and wrestle with big (but not necessarily life-threatening) issues. It didn’t always provide for the most thrilling episodes, but it gave audiences a chance to invest more deeply in this group of survivors. Season 3 has been reaping those dividends. Picking up with the same energy where it left off in the Season 2 finale, The Walking Dead has hit its stride. The survivors are working together in synch, but they’ve got all new post-apocalyptic problems—alive and undead—to overcome. And we’ve got two new characters to respectively love and loathe—Michonne (Danai Gurira), the katana-wielding bad-ass with a pair of zombie pets on chains, and The Governor (David Morrissey), the charismatic, psychopathic leader of Woodbury, a quaint little Main Street USA in the middle of the zombie wasteland. Now that we’ve gotten to know all these characters, we just get to watch the stakes raised on a pair of new, amazing sets.—Josh Jackson


9. Downton Abbey
Creator: Julian Fellowes
Stars: Hugh Bonneville, Jessica Brown Findlay, Laura Carmichael, Jim Carter, Maggie Smith, Brendan Coyle, Michelle Dockery ,Kevin Doyle
Network: PBS
Downton Abbey is never short on drama and general strife, and Season Two of this popular British export saw Downton and its inhabitants torn apart (and, in a few instances, brought together) by war, ravaged by a nasty Spanish flu outbreak and struggling to maintain the stiff upper lip expected of them. The ensemble series is extraordinarily well-acted (as evidenced by Maggie Smith, Hugh Bonneville, Michelle Dockery, Joanne Froggatt, Jim Carter and Brendan Coyle all receiving Emmy nominations this year), and there’s perhaps no easier way to describe this year’s plot twists than “fucking nuts”—a term we strongly feel the saucy Dowager Countess would approve of. Amnesia? Yup. Temporary paralysis? Got it. Murder conviction? Oh, big-time. In less capable hands, season two’s story would’ve likely flown off the rails and veered into the completely ridiculous, but the talented cast of Downton Abbey handled it with aplomb, making for some of 2012’s most compelling television.—Bonnie Stiernberg


8. Louie
Creator:   Louis C.K.  
Stars:   Louis C.K., Hadley Delany, Pamela Adlon
Network: FX
Louie’s third season places the now-beloved standup in situations that are just as unbearably human as ever, whether it’s discovering a quickly fading love in new character Liz or trying his hand (and disappointingly striking out) as a late-night host. Louie’s laughs are always cringe-worthy, but more often than not, it’s because C.K. makes it easy for the audience to step into his shoes. Mix the tough moments in with incredible guest stars—Jerry Seinfeld, David Lynch, Sarah Silverman, to name a few—and you’ve got a season that mixes laughs with true life lessons. The comedian also gets bonus points for putting the show on hold until 2014 to make sure he’s fresh for a stellar fourth run.—Tyler Kane


7. New Girl
Creator: Elizabeth Meriwether
Stars: Zooey Deschanel, Jake Johnson, Max Greenfield, Lamorne Morris, Hannah Simone
Network: FOX
In 2012, New Girl went from adorkable show led by quirky Zooey Deschanel to one of the current great ensemble comedies on television. This year, it found its voice, making the guys of New Girl—Max Greenfield, Jake Johnson and Lamorne Morris—as much a focal point as Deschanel’s Jess, with great success. Finding humor in late-20s uncertainty, New Girl breathes new life into the sitcom in a way that hasn’t been seen since How I Met Your Mother, but without the romantic entanglement between friends that so many sitcoms before it have forced onto its stars. It’s also helped usher in a new brand of modern sitcoms, like The Mindy Project and Ben and Kate that have followed, taking the typical ensemble sitcom back by telling relatable stories, all with its own uniquely bizarre, yet hilarious voice.—Ross Bonaime


6. Sherlock
Creator: Steven Moffat, Mark Gatiss
Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman, Mark Gatiss, Rupert Graves
Network: PBS
One has only to look at the sterling track record of Steve Moffat to witness a showrunner god in the making. The guiding hand behind such English hits as Press Gang and Coupling, Moffat has gained the most attention for resuscitating Dr. Who into the Anglo-Saxon ambassador of science fiction. But Moffat and frequent collaborator Mark Gatiss transcended their best work with Sherlock, the BBC drama that hijacks Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic sleuth into the present with awe-inspiring intelligence and style. Calling Sherlock a television show is a tad deceptive, though; the series has produced two seasons consisting of three 90-minute episodes each. In other words, the Sherlock team has averaged a feature film every three months since the Summer of 2010. The immaculate second season dug deeper into the psychological fault lines of Holmes, played with sterile arrogance by Benedict Cumberbatch (or as Seth Meyers noted on SNL, the only man with a name more ridiculous than Sherlock Holmes). When the audience wasn’t trying to piece together the mystery of the week, we were finding fleeting clues to the guarded humanity of London’s finest “Consulting Detective,” usually to the chagrin of long-suffering accomplice John Watson (Martin Freeman) and volatile love interest Irene Adler (Lara Pulver). And though we’ll avoid spoilers, that was one helluva finale cliffhanger. With Freeman assuming the role of a certain hobbit next month and Cumberbatch facing off against the crew of the Starship Enterprise in J.J. AbramsStar Trek sequel, Season 3 of Sherlock has yet to go into production. Not a problem: this year’s “episodes” were anything but elementary, dense with twists, turns, and loose ends that demand a second viewing.—Sean Edgar


5. Community
Creator:   Dan Harmon  
Stars: Joel McHale, Donald Glover, Danny Pudi, Alison Brie, Gillian Jacobs, Yvette Nicole Brown, Ken Jeong, Chevy Chase
Network: NBC
When Community began, it revolved around the story of a shallow, cynical lawyer who made it through life on looks and the ability to talk his way out of anything. But the show quickly grew a big ol’ heart as Jeff Winger opened his life to the random cross-section of humanity in his study group. A big part of that shift was an increased focus on Abed, one of the most original characters on television. His particular slice of the autism spectrum and sincere love of great pop culture isn’t just a cure for Winger’s cynicism, it’s a cure for us all. Sadly, this past season was the last with creator Dan Harmon at the helm. Here’s hoping the wonderful characters he left us with can continue to flourish when Season Four finally arrives in the spring.—Josh Jackson


4. Homeland
Creator: Howard Gordon, Alex Gansa
Stars: Claire Danes, Damien Lewis, Morena Baccarin, David Harewood, Diego Klatenhoff, Mandy Patinkin
Network: Showtime
The second season of Homeland has taught us one very important lesson: Trust no one. Thanks to stellar performances by Claire Danes, Damian Lewis and Mandy Patinkin, Homeland’s sophomore season immediately secured the explosiveness that helped the show win Best Actor in a Drama Series, Best Actress in a Drama Series, and Best Drama Series at the Emmys for their shocking freshman season. Each episode of the new season is a whirlwind of complexity, with alliances switching at the drop of a hat. What continues to make this show so addictive is how deeply we are invested into seeing the good in these incredibly flawed characters.—Greg Eckert


3. Mad Men
Creator: Matthew Weiner
Stars: Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss, Jessica Paré, Vincent Kartheiser, January Jones, Christina Hendricks, John Slattery, Jared Harris, Bryan Batt
Network: AMC
Prostitution. Suicide. Divorce. Flashbacks, dream sequences and LSD trips. On paper, it sounds like the kind of stuff you’d encounter on a smutty soap opera, but Mad Men handled all of its sensational plotlines with grace and intelligence during its fifth—and best—season. We never thought we’d see a happily married Don Draper lose his passion for advertising (and, truth be told, if the last few episodes of the season are any indication, the old Don seems poised for a comeback), but the development of his character (as well as Lane’s tragic demise, Pete’s affair and Peggy’s departure from Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce) took the show into uncharted territory. At the end of the season, he’s asked, “Are you alone?” and while the episode cuts to credits before he can answer, one thing’s for certain: This year of Mad Men stands alone as its finest.—Bonnie Stiernberg


2. Parks and Recreation
Creator: Greg Daniels, Michael Schur
Stars: Amy Poehler, Nick Offerman, Aziz Ansari, Adam Scott, Rob Lowe, Chris Pratt, Aubrey Plaza, Rashida Jones
Network: NBC
Every season of Parks and Recreation seems to be more ambitious than the last, which makes it a rarity amongst sitcoms. Like its protagonist Leslie Knope, the show constantly yearns for progress and thrives on momentum and change rather than familiarity. But the strongest aspect of the show remains its deep characterization of Pawnee, Indiana, which goes beyond its core cast and into a Simpsons-esque repertory company of recurring characters. While their small town ideas are frequently the butt of Parks’ jokes, they’re also the heart of the show, and everyone who makes an appearance is there for more than just a cheap laugh. The show’s mixture of intelligence and affection remains unique in the normally cynical television landscape, a voice of cautious optimism that makes Parks not just the funniest show on television, it’s also the most heartfelt.—Sean Gandert


1. Breaking Bad
Creator:   Vince Gilligan  
Stars:   Bryan Cranston, Anna Gunn, Aaron Paul, RJ Mitte, Giancarlo Esposito
Network: AMC
Call this The Age of the Antihero in television, as many of the best recent dramas are carried by characters whose moral choices are suspect at best—The Sopranos, Sons of Anarchy, Mad Men. In all those cases, though, the antihero is conflicted about the criminal world in which he lives (mobs, motorcycle gangs, ad agencies). Even Dexter’s title character is aware of his own psychopathy—the serial killer who wants to be a boy. It can be uncomfortable for the viewer when, week after week, the character that you’ve come to know, come to identify with and sympathize with, makes terrible moral choices. We squirm when we realize we’re cheering on a murderer, a gangster or a chemistry teacher who makes meth. With Breaking Bad, creator Vince Gilligan takes us on his character’s journey from protagonist to antihero, but doesn’t stop there. The once mild-mannered high-school chemistry teacher has left “antihero” in the dust. We’re now in villain territory. This is a five-season arc of a man becoming spiritually bankrupt. And yet it’s the best drama on TV since The Wire, in part because Gilligan surrounds Walter with a cast of deeply flawed but ultimately redeeming individuals, ensuring that the show never gets unmoored from its moral anchor.—Josh Jackson