Year’s Over: The Best TV of 2012

mad men

Every year, we at HEAVEmedia like to look back on what we’ve learned, what we’ve accomplished and marvel like the elderly at the rapid passage of time. Over the next few weeks, our Year’s Over series will bring you our staff’s essential lists of what you should’ve seen, heard, read and done in 2012. Today, Chris ranks the ten best TV shows of 2012.

1) Mad Men

I know, I know, I know. I’m sorry for being so predictable, but I can’t help it. It’s a testament to just how good Mad Men is that, once more, it reigns supreme over my list. That said, many felt that season five was too on-the-nose, when the show had previously been the king of subtlety. But everything they did was fitting of the story they were telling. The other incredibly jarring element of this season was Don Draper’s gooey relationship with Megan, a character who most fans either loved or hated. Even in season four, when Don Draper was falling apart, he was still Don Draper: hopelessly sad, unrelentingly hard-working, effortlessly cool.

In season five, Don was actually kind of happy. And in contrast to his hot, young wife, he started to feel desperately out of touch and un-hip. He couldn’t even make it more than a minute into Revolver, for Pete’s sake. But if the season belongs to anyone other than Hamm, whose acting chops seem to double by the year, it’s Christina Hendricks. Her Joan started off as a bit player, and a stereotype, and evolved into one of the most powerful female characters on television.

Matthew Weiner has said that Mad Men isn’t a period piece, and I think that’s because it’s not about a specific type of people, at a specific point in time. Mad Men’s greatest accomplishment is that even though it’s set in the 60s, it’s about us. After Mitt Romney lost the presidential election, Bill O’Reilly said, “It’s not your father’s America anymore.” But as Mad Men proves, your father’s America, the America of the 1950s, has been dead for years. And even if we didn’t realize it until now, that America died in the 60s. This is why Mad Men continues to speak volumes about who we are, where we came from, and where we’re going.

2) Breaking Bad

What can I say about Breaking Bad that hasn’t already been said? If nothing else, Breaking Bad will certainly stand as the most indicative show about the times we presently live in. Living in “the great recession,” it’s hard to judge a sad old chemistry teacher selling a little meth to make some money. And therein lies the rub. We all do crazy things when we are pushed to our limits, but when does justification become a sickness? When do we have to admit that we go down a dark path not because we have to, but because we want to? Breaking Bad is the tale of the disintegration of one man’s soul. And season five was the definitive transformation of Walter White from victim to villain. Finally, he wasn’t just a pawn in an evil game. He was the king.

3) Game of Thrones

Season one may have been more shocking, but season two was more focused, and overall richer in character, plot, and style. Like Downton Abbey, Game of Thrones does something truly special in that it brings humanity back to a genre (the period piece in Abbey’s case, fantasy in Thrones’) that is all too often removed from reality. The world of Game of Thrones is almost eerily similar to ours: corrupt politics, widespread violence, sexual immorality and people who in general have just reached their wit’s end. Hell, Game of Thrones felt a lot more appropriate for the universe we inhabited in 2012 than anything on CBS. Yes, we watch Game of Thrones because we want to see dragons and sword fights and magic. But we stay because, as is the case with any great TV show, the characters remind us of who we are.

4) Girls

Like a hurricane with a twitter account, Lena Dunham raged into the American consciousness this year, and right away her zeitgeist-capturing Girls felt like a mini-revolution. While you might have heard different, Girls is actually the most feminist show on TV. Yes, it has a lot of cringe-worthy moments (seriously, Lena, you can be less naked in the future), but kudos to Dunham for showing that guys aren’t the only ones who get to wallow in self-doubt while making mistakes for our amusement. In this sense, Judd Apatow, a producer on the show, is a fitting collaborator for Dunham.

The biggest critique of his work is that it’s too male-centric, and that he coddles the guys in his movies, even at their most despicable moments. But Girls proves that women are not only as funny as men (which, come on, can we please put that debate behind us already?), but just as lost most of the time too. The tagline for the second season was just released, and it reads, “Almost getting it kind of together.” I think that awkward phrase summarizes why I love this show. These girls aren’t role models, and shouldn’t be looked at that way. But role models don’t usually make for very interesting characters.

5) Louie

Calling Louie a comedy is sort of like calling Annie Hall a drama. Sure, the format might present itself as more comedic, but in the cases of both aforementioned works of art, they are impossible to define entirely, because they are transcendent of any common formula. Both Louis C.K. and Woody Allen are schlubs who got their start in standup, only to later transform their comedic personas into uniquely funny and philosophical meditations on what it means to be human. Moreover, It’s hard to believe, but there was once a time when everything Allen did as an artist was unexpected. Who would’ve thought that the guy who did Annie Hall would go on to do Interiors, and right after nonetheless? I never have any idea where Louie is going, and I am frequently puzzled by where it ends up. And that is the highest compliment I can pay it.

6) Parks and Recreation

The reason I put this show ahead of Community comes down to one word: consistency. No other show on network television is as reliably smart, funny, moving, and all-around wonderful as Parks and Rec. Their batting average is insane, and should be enviable to all the mediocre, cookie-cutter sitcoms that constantly beat it in the ratings department. Not to mention, in an election year, it’s nice to be reminded that not everybody who gets into politics is a greedy bastard. Occasionally, a rare Leslie Knope pops up. It’s too bad we don’t have more public servants like her.

7) Community

Community continues to be the biggest hit-or-miss sitcom on television. But yikes, when they hit, they REALLY hit. After waffling between sparing moments of excellence and disappointing attempts at experimentation, the final episodes in Community’s third season proved it to be the reigning champion of weirdness on network television. No one even comes close to them when they’re at their best. While the show’s future remains more uncertain than ever, those of us who loved it will at least be able to look back someday and say, “Wow. How did they even come up with this?”

8 ) Homeland

After watching season one of Homeland, I spent a lot of time telling people that it was actually one of the more overrated shows on TV. Oops. While I don’t think the first season was the masterpiece that everyone else praised it as, I do think season two has been a singularly suspenseful and even astonishing piece of television. Claire Danes and Damian Lewis have a chemistry more electrifying than anyone else on television, as evidenced by the show’s defining, interrogation-centric episode “Q&A.”

9) Downton Abbey

While there is certainly a soapy quality to some of the unexpected twists and turns Downton Abbey takes (at times it feels a bit like Gossip Girl as a costume drama), it remains a brilliant show for one reason: Downton Abbey makes you feel compassion for royalty and commoners alike. Although the show is about classicism in a way, its biggest accomplishment is that all of its characters are really just people, making the best (or worst) out of what they’re given.  It remains surprising in its depictions of unexpected sorrow and unashamed joy. And that’s a formula that almost always makes for great television.

10) Eastbound and Down

Although the show lost me a little when they relocated to Mexico in the second season, this time around Eastbound got back to the core of what made the show so great to begin with. Once again, Kenny Powers was forced to deal with being the world’s biggest piece of shit, despite years of telling himself just the opposite. For a show this absurdly funny, it’s always been amazing that Eastbound is able to get away with being so dark, and even tragic, so often. My only complaint is that they decided to let the show go on past this season, because the way they ended it would have been just about the perfect conclusion to the ridiculous and completely compelling saga of Kenny Powers.

  • Bill Jones

    I don’t know. I think Mad Men’s been a bit disappointing, in terms of storytelling, since the first season. It’s always good, but never great. Season 5 was renewing my passion for it, but it just sort of fizzled out at the end.