There’s so much good TV on right now that it’s impossible to confine to one list of 30 shows. As always, we’ve come up with a supplemental list of our favorite episodes of many other series that contended for our main list, but just fell short. After catching up on the top 30, follow up with these to figure out the whole story of TV in 2012. Part one covers the first half of 2012.
Chuck, “Chuck Versus The Goodbye” (January 27, NBC): This series finale proved extremely divisive the night it aired, with many fans upset with the way that the show ended things between its titular hero and the love of his life, Sarah Walker. What unfolded may not be what fans of the show expected, but it’s an achingly romantic close to the show all the same, putting both a period on the end of the sentence that was Chuck and simultaneously offering up the promise of more adventures between the pair (and the rest of the supporting cast) after the closing credits. Chuck was an uneven show throughout its run, but it ended things as close to perfectly as possible.
The Good Wife, “Another Ham Sandwich” (January 29, CBS): The Good Wife remained one of the best things network TV had to offer this year, but some seriously shaky storylines (particularly the arrival of Kalinda’s husband Nick) made for a slight dip in quality. However, it still had the capability to turn out episodes like “Another Ham Sandwich,” a barnstormer that wrapped the long arc of Will being prosecuted for corruption, with protagonist Alicia getting a serious hero moment testifying on the stand. The episode finished with Alicia’s bosses, Will and Diane, toasting another close shave after a daring double-cross engineered by Kalinda. It was hard not to cheer.
Doomsday Preppers, “I Hope I Am Crazy” (February 7, National Geographic): Doomsday Preppers is all at once absolutely horrifying in its alarmism, unsettling in its willingness to subtly mock its subjects, and riveting television. Take “I Hope I Am Crazy,” which guides viewers through the usual assortment of end-of-the-world would-be survivalists, stocking up on water and food and turning their homes into pre-emptive bunkers. The series then “scores” these people, suggesting just how capable they would be to survive the apocalypse they’re most fearing. The star of “Crazy,” though, is Utah housewife Kellene Bishop, whose stockpile of gourmet food, designed to allow her to “eat well at the end of the world,” and can-do attitude are downright inspiring. The kicker: The apocalypse Bishop fears—a financial collapse—isn’t even all that likely. She’s preparing just to prepare, and that’s… something.
American Dad, “Wheels & The Legman And The Case Of Grandpa’s Keys” (February 12, Fox): Year after year, American Dad, the redheaded stepchild of the Seth MacFarlane comedy factory, continues to be one of the sharpest, funniest shows on TV, and 2012 was no exception. The highlight of the year came early on, in an episode that isolates the show’s three best characters—imaginative alien Roger, nerdy son Steve, and hyper-macho dad Stan—in a storyline that posits the former two opening a pretend detective agency, then finding themselves forced to solve real cases. It’s a spinoff of a B-plot from several seasons ago, but American Dad finds the playful tone necessary to make it something more than a gimmick.
Raising Hope, “Jimmy’s Fake Girlfriend” (February 14, Fox): As with any will-they/won’t-they relationship, resolving the romantic tension between Jimmy and Sabrina was a tricky proposition. The show’s solution? Improvise. Or, more accurately, “improviser”: Guest star Ashley Tisdale channeled her hammy Disney Channel past in the role of an improv comic hired to play Jimmy’s heretofore unseen sweetheart—and, by extension, make Sabrina realize that her friend and co-worker is actually The One. It would all be painfully contrived were it not for Tisdale’s game performance, Raising Hope’s gushy heart, and the episode’s big finale, where the guest and her fellow Room For Improv-ment Players remind viewers why they care about Jimmy and Sabrina through a reenactment of the couple’s off-kilter courtship. It’s a sweet capper made all the sweeter by its refusal to play by rom-com conventions.
Revenge, “Chaos” (February 15, ABC): It may have bitten off more than it could chew in the first part of its second season, but ABC’s delectable, deeply serialized soap paid off an impressively constructed 15-episode arc in this episode, which closed off the story that had begun the whole series: the mystery of whose corpse washed up on the Hamptons shore outside the engagement party for rich heir Daniel Grayson and the coolly scheming Emily Thorne, the series’ twisted, compromised “heroine.” In retrospect, the answer to the mystery was completely predictable, but every episode of Revenge is most worth it for the moments when Emily smiles, but her eyes scream, “Fucking other people getting in my way!” “Chaos” is positively packed with those.
Downton Abbey, “Christmas Special” (February 19, PBS): In a divisive second season, this British drama struggled not because it was soapier—although it was—but rather because Julian Fellowes never successfully recalibrated the series in order for its soap-opera core to function in concert with the gravity of the first World War. Strangely paced and oddly plotted, the season never truly clicked until the war was over, at which point the convergence of the holiday season and Mary and Matthew’s star-crossed romance finally let the show settle into its decadent, schmaltzy comfort zone.
Switched At Birth, “The Art Of Painting” (February 21, ABC Family): Although it’s suffered quality fluctuations over the course of a “first season” that lasted 17 months, Switched At Birth remains the kind of family soap opera that can surprise at almost any moment. “The Art Of Painting” illustrates how the show’s choice to feature deaf characters leads to moments we’ve never seen on television before. Emmett, who started as Daphne’s “more deaf” best friend, has developed into a character whose complexities can be heart-wrenching. When he reluctantly tries speech therapy to get closer to Bay after abandoning his mom to live with Dad and his younger girlfriend, the slide into self-loathing feels all the more terrifying because we’ve seen the richness of the culture from which he’s running. After 30 episodes, many high-concept dramas find themselves out of ideas or fleeing their premise; because it’s embraced its deaf elements so thoroughly, Switched At Birth could have much more to give.
The Chris Gethard Show, “Checking In With Alyssa” (February 22, MNN): The anarchic, truly underground public-access Chris Gethard Show has slowly but surely built a devoted following since debuting last year, and comedian/host Chris Gethard showed just how close he was to his community of fans by throwing a celeb-filled party for 16-year-old Alyssa, one of the show’s earliest and most frequent callers. Tina Fey, Seth Meyers, Jon Glaser, Jack McBrayer, and others all encourage their awkward teen fan, who mostly sits next to Gethard looking simultaneously thrilled and terrified, a testament to the show’s utter authenticity. Gethard closes things out by telling his young fan to embrace the positive side of people in one of his brilliant, spontaneous, motivational speeches that have helped make the show such a cult sensation. There’s no more surprising or addictive show on TV (and the Internet, where it’s available to stream or download).
Spartacus: Vengeance, “Libertus” (February 24, Starz): The halfway point in what turned out to be the series’ penultimate season drew a line in the blood-stained sand, effectively ending one era of the show (centered around the arena) and starting another one (Spartacus’ epic war with Rome). Along the way, alliances were formed, bonds were broken, heroes rose, villains discovered their true potential, and oh yeah, the entire fucking arena burned to the ground, killing nearly every bloodthirsty Roman eager to watch The Brotherhood kill each other for sport. Many still write Spartacus off as an overly serious T&A romp. Those that do are missing one of the most underrated television shows currently on the air.
Awake, “Pilot” (March 1, NBC): In hindsight, it just wasn’t built to last: Kyle Killen’s return to series television boasted a thrilling premise—following a devastating auto accident, a police detective (Jason Isaacs) finds himself going to sleep in a reality where his son was the only other survivor of the crash, then waking up to find his wife survived but his son didn’t, and vice versa—that ultimately refused to play nicely with episodic storytelling. Like Killen’s previous TV effort, the short-lived Lone Star, the show boasted a unique take on a man leading double lives; unfortunately, neither series ever improved upon its initial entry in terms of quality or viewership. Given Isaacs’ intense performance, the distinctions between the show’s “green” and “red” worlds, and the promise of a singular meditation on grief and loss, it was hard not to root for Awake. Maybe those elements would’ve hung together better in a film version.
Survivor, “Bum-Puzzled” (March 7, CBS): The granddaddy of reality competitions aired its 24th and 25th seasons in 2012; who could have predicted they would be among its best? The latest Philippines incarnation had wrenching drama from heart-on-her-sleeve Lisa Whelchel and weird intensity from Jeff “Thanks Obama” Kent. But the preceding “One World” season contained the single damnedest thing ever to happen on Survivor. On Day 11, Colton, the show’s most confounding villain, got seven of his tribemates to give up immunity and voluntarily go to tribal council. Colton, a young gay Southern aristocrat, decided he didn’t like Bill, a struggling black stand-up comedian, and through senseless bullying at a level unprecedented on the show, herded his tribe to council to vote out their numerical advantage over the women’s tribe. Host Jeff Probst asked whether it was the dumbest move ever; we can’t believe the show could still make our jaws drop after two dozen iterations.
Shameless, “Hurricane Monica” (March 11, Showtime): In between the first and second seasons of Shameless, the series’ writers figured out that the show never worked as well when it centered on Gallagher patriarch Frank. It’s Fiona who is Shameless’ true heart, trying desperately to contain the chaos of the household. “Hurricane Monica” reintroduces Fiona’s foil, her mother Monica. It’s a perfect episode title: Monica is a natural disaster, revealing for the first time she’s bipolar and off her meds. As the episode progresses, Monica demonstrates how she’s able to woo each member of the Gallagher family—partying with Debbie, taking Ian to a gay club, apologizing to Fiona. But even as the audience knows this euphoric character can’t exist for long in the Gallaghers’ life, it, too, falls in love with Monica, setting up the season’s intense final third.
Southland, “Risk” (March 13, TNT): Southland has always been a bit of a critical and creative underdog, but season four finally announced the series’ arrival as a formidable drama. Anchored by Lucy Liu’s great arc as a longtime beat cop trying to figure out how she fit into the job at this stage in her life, the show’s renewed attention to the day-in-the-life saga of patrol officers provided a welcome narrative focus. Southland’s strength is perfectly balancing the horror, hilarity, and random fragility of being a police officer, nicely illustrated here when a pregnant detective is brutally attacked while pursuing a suspect, and must decide whether the job she loves is worth risking the new life she carries.
Clubhouse Confidential, “Origin Of Analytics” (March 16, MLB Network): Since debuting in late 2011, Clubhouse Confidential has been the best studio show in sports broadcasting, applying advanced analytics to baseball’s past and present to provide insights into players’ real value—and making it all fun instead of merely wonky. (For anyone who doesn’t believe this kind of number-crunching is relevant to the real world: Ask Nate Silver, who got his start studying baseball and now applies those skills toward correctly predicting elections, with hard data instead of “gut feelings.”) In March, during the SABR Analytics Conference, Clubhouse Confidential and its enthusiastic, opinionated host, Brian Kenny, went big-picture, presenting a concise history of the Sabermetrics revolution and its key texts and proponents, peppered with digs at those who choose to dismiss influential statisticians like Bill James. “Don’t buy it,” Kenny warns. “James was an explosion of logic.”
Once Upon A Time, “Hat Trick” (March 25, ABC): This series, about a town full of fairy-tale characters transported to our reality, sans memories of who they were, could be turgid and too impressed with its own mythology in its first season. (The currently running second season has been much better in both regards, particularly as the series embraces its own silliness.) Yet its structure, centered on revealing the backstory of one fairy-tale character or another, allowed for surprisingly emotional hours like this one, which tells the tale of the Mad Hatter. The final moments proceed along the typical “tragic backstory revelations” arc, until the viewer is forced to consider the totality of the curse the Hatter lives under. Sebastian Stan is excellent in this one-shot lead performance; hopefully his story receives closure before too long.
Bent, “Tile Date” (April 4, NBC): NBC paid a pretty penny for this show at the script stage, then picked it up for a six-episode run, then wasted it over three consecutive weeks, in which it aired two episodes per night. It was curious treatment for a series that received surprisingly good reviews, and it doomed the show, which was watched by essentially no one. The central premise—contractor and the woman whose kitchen he’ll be working on until the series ends draw closer and closer together—was the same old story, but it was executed with panache, and series leads David Walton and Amanda Peet had excellent chemistry. The rest of the cast settled in with a nicely laid-back vibe as well. It culminated in this affecting finale, in which the would-be lovebirds get as close to kissing as they ever will.
Delocated, “Reunion Show” (April 5, Adult Swim): The third season of Delocated was full of unbelievably silly moments, like when “Jon,” the masked reality-show star/protected witness, found a potato skins bar on the side of the road and obsessed over it for half an hour. The season finale, perhaps the series finale, was the silliest conceit yet: a “behind the scenes” look at the third season, with John Hodgman hosting the cast of the show in a studio to discuss how things went. It showcased the eccentric and eclectic characters Jon Glaser and company spent the entire season building, and like most things on Delocated, it completely derailed about seven-eighths of the way through. “Reunion Show” was just as gregarious and hilarious as the rest of the season, and it included this possible story-ending capper.
Nurse Jackie, “Disneyland Sucks” (April 15, Showtime): This three-year-old series bounced back in 2012 and had its best season yet, energizing the actors and storyline by putting its heroine—Edie Falco as a New York City nurse addicted to drugs and lying—in a place where she finally had to account for her actions and take responsibility for their consequences. The second episode set the tone, with the most darkly funny rehab episode in TV history, in which the excellent regular cast is assisted by stellar guest appearances by Margaret Colin, Laura Silverman, Mary Louise Wilson, and Bobby Cannavale.
Battleground, “Flashback” (April 17, Hulu): Like Tak Davis and the underdog campaign staff at the heart of the series, Battleground makes a virtue of integrity. Instead of cutting corners like its network brethren, the show realistically commits to its documentary format, providing solid ground for a series that occasionally stretches for stakes or laughs. “Flashback” takes that idea and runs with it. Written and directed by series creator J.D. Walsh, “Flashback” breaks from the regular mockumentary format just as the present-day campaign heats up to deliver an episode of a 2004 True Life parody called Reel Life. The Reel Life episode goes behind the scenes at a debate where Tak and his father (Ray Wise at his oiliest) are working on a different campaign, one with character and narrative implications on the present story. It’s funny, it’s dramatic, and it succeeds because Walsh grounds it in the familiar title-card, jump-cut, instant-replay tactics of MTV.
Fringe, “Worlds Apart” (April 27, Fox): The series’ fourth season bitterly divided its cult fandom, with some enjoying the show’s exploration of how certain things about people remain the same across many different permutations and alternate universes, while others bemoaned the loss of the original characters in a cosmic fluke, especially after the first three seasons spent such a long time carefully building and delineating them (and their alternate versions). Yet the season concluded in some impressive episodes and moments, particularly in this episode, which doesn’t just say goodbye to one character or two but a whole universe of them, concluding with some of the series’ most deftly crafted sequences and most emotional scenes.
The Big Bang Theory, “The Launch Acceleration” (May 3, CBS): This much-derided, heavily watched traditional sitcom quietly put together its best season yet in its fifth, which bridged the fall of 2011 and the spring of 2012. The addition of Bernadette (Melissa Rauch) and Amy (Mayim Bialik) in season four had allowed the series to begin escaping the trap of solely telling condescending stories about its central nerd characters, and in season five, that saw full flower. The highlight came in this gloriously loopy penultimate episode, in which the launch for Howard’s space journey is moved up, the show actually makes viewers care about the usually boring Leonard and Penny relationship, and Bialik gets to do what she does best: play off of Jim Parsons in a hugely entertaining B-plot.
The Legend Of Korra, “The Spirit Of Competition” (May 5, Nickelodeon): The Legend Of Korra, sequel to the beloved Avatar: The Last Airbender, isn’t just funny, smart, and a pleasure to watch. It also does an amazing job of quietly upending the gender clichés and stereotypes that might be expected in a show like this one. Protagonist Korra is essentially a superhero/professional athlete, so it’s incredibly refreshing that, given that, she’s built like a brick house. Plus, teenage dudes want to make out with her because she’s a fun person and a badass superhero. “The Spirit Of Competition” contains the best moment of the series so far: One of Korra’s teammates asks her out with the statement that she’s “the smartest, funniest, buffest, toughest, talentedest, incrediblest girl in the world!” How many other pop-culture romantic compliments from a guy to a girl almost pointedly skip over all the traditional female virtues in favor of traditionally male ones?
Sherlock, “A Scandal In Belgravia” (May 6, PBS): Having modernized and invigorated Sherlock Holmes with the first set of Sherlock TV movies in 2010, creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss cranked up both the challenges for their hero and the style of his adventures (with the help of director Paul McGuigan, who’s defined the series’ dynamic, hypertext-like visual style). The second series ends stunningly with the intense, complex “The Reichenbach Fall,” but its best episode is actually the first, “A Scandal In Belgravia,” in which Holmes and Dr. Watson become Internet celebrities while tangling with the cunning dominatrix Irene Adler. Funny, exciting, and surprisingly emotional, as well as a clever reinterpretation of Arthur Conan Doyle, “A Scandal In Belgravia” isn’t just great TV. It’d be one of the best movies of the year had it been released theatrically.
The Vampire Diaries, “The Departed” (May 10, The CW): The Vampire Diaries had a lumpy 2012, with the back half of its third season occasionally bogging down in a steady accumulation of backstory and mythology and the fourth season making some curious decisions when it came to the character development and personal agency of lead Elena (the always great Nina Dobrev). But it’s impossible to deny the sheer power of the third-season finale, which piled on gutsy moment after gutsy moment, all culminating in one of the best cliffhangers genre TV has ever come up with, a moment that seemed inevitable just from the title of the show but one that plays as horrific tragedy, not as wish-fulfillment. If a season finale is meant to make viewers want to see the next season’s première now, now, now, “The Departed” is an unqualified success.
The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson, “Scotland” (May 14-18, CBS): Echoing the opening of last year’s jaunt to gay Paree, Craig Ferguson kicked off The Late Late Show’s expedition to Scotland by warbling Ninian Hawick’s “Scottish Rite Temple Stomp” before hopping into a handy TARDIS that delivered him back to his native land. Eschewing a tour of nothing but places where he once got his ass kicked, Ferguson mixed it up a bit, heading to old haunts, historical landmarks, and even the site of Harry Potter’s last battle with Lord Voldemort (Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh), often accompanied by some of his favorite guests. Sadly, these episodes also marked the final appearance of a longtime friend of the show Michael Clarke Duncan, but the fun Ferguson had with Duncan, not to mention everyone else he encountered, provided a delightful late-night viewing experience all week long.
Don’t Trust The B---- In Apt. 23, “It’s Just Sex…” (May 16, ABC): Masturbation isn’t something often seen on primetime TV—much less in an incredibly funny sequence that involves a woman, Chloe, walking in on her prudish roommate, June, masturbating in the bathtub, then instead of running away in embarrassment, expressing hilarious relief and delight that her now-panicked roommate isn’t such a sexless weirdo after all: “This is how moms must feel on the first day of Kindergarten!” Jacking off is a frequent subject of jokes in pop culture, but the idea that women masturbate seems to be a new enough concept that it’s rare to see pop culture tackle it. Then the rest of the episode is about June learning that casual sex is… pretty easy to have if you’re a lady, and that it’s not traumatic to bang someone outside a relationship. It’s an exemplary episode that treats female sexuality and promiscuity with little judgment.
The L.A. Complex, “Burn It Down” (May 29, The CW): The best show no one watched this year was this plucky Canadian import revolving around a group of young adults trying to make it big in Los Angeles. Smart, funny, and twisted, with a wry gaze on the way the Hollywood machine indiscriminately churns up everything in its path, The L.A. Complex was best when it was illustrating how everything gets turned on its head once a hint of fame gets involved. No story was more destructive and tragic throughout the course of the series than the doomed romance between Tariq and closeted rapper Kaldrick, which comes to a head here in a moment of abuse almost visceral in its self-hatred.
Magic City, “Time And Tide” (June 1, Starz): From the beginning, critics conceded that Mitch Glazer’s ode to the 1950s Miami mob scene was easy on the eyes, but opinions were more mixed about the content of the series. Magic City quickly found its feet, however, taking viewers through the halls of the Miramar Playa Hotel and deep into the sordid lives of owner Ike Evans (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and his unscrupulous business partner, Ben Diamond (Danny Huston). Ben’s status as an evil son of a bitch remained unquestioned throughout, but the show’s other storylines evolved continually, with Ike’s confidence faltering along with the fortunes of his hotel. By the time Magic City reached its season finale, those who’d stuck with the series from the beginning were rewarded by seeing multiple long-running storylines—some sexy, some violent, but all enjoyably soapy—play out in satisfying fashion while setting things up nicely for season two.
The Borgias, “World Of Wonders” (June 10, Showtime): While the first season of The Borgias wasn’t well balanced as either soap opera or historical drama, the second season made a remarkable step up in quality. There was still plenty of scheming and affairs, but the backbone of the narrative was in the Borgia siblings’ violent feuding, with the rise of Cesare (François Arnaud) and the fall of Juan (David Oakes) coming to a bloody end in “World Of Wonders.” This penultimate episode was deeply satisfying on a character level, and also visually stunning in the show’s elaborate way, with set pieces ranging from a baptism to an excommunication and a haunting trial by fire. The show took some faith to stick with, but this episode rewarded every bit of it.
True Life, “I’m Working My Way Out Of Poverty” (June 16, MTV): By covering everything from pornography addiction to someone hating their own hair, MTV’s documentary series True Life can, at times, stretch beyond its means. When it hits, though, it hits big, producing crushing, real-life drama that emanates the sort of cinematic despair usually reserved for Todd Solondz movies. In “I’m Working My Way Out Of Poverty,” cameras follow two sets of teens trying to make ends meet. Sixteen-year-old Courtney has to act as head of her family, lest her mentally unstable mom extreme-coupon her way into their eviction again. The other subjects, couple Quincy and Courtney, are supporting themselves and a baby on minimum-wage jobs and are ultimately forced to euthanize their dog because they can’t afford its food. It’s dark—to say the least—but it’s real, and to watch it all spiral out of control is heartbreaking.