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The best TV series of 2012: The ballots

Thirty A.V. Club contributors voted for more than 120 separate television series in our survey of the best TV had to offer in 2012. (That means there are approximately 90 other series we felt deserved your time this year—so you better get cracking if you hope to lay claim to anything approaching comprehensiveness in your own personal viewing.) Each writer was tasked with assigning 200 points to no more than 20 shows; the most one show could receive was 15 points, while the least was one point. Read on to find out who voted for what, along with additional thoughts on the year in television and individual commentary on shows that didn’t make the big list.

1. Mad Men (15)
2. Comedy Bang! Bang! (15)
3. Gravity Falls (15)
4. Parks And Recreation (15)
5. Archer (15)
6. Breaking Bad (12)
7. Louie (12)
8. Community (12)
9. New Girl (12)
10. Homeland (12)
11. Bob’s Burgers (10)
12. Happy Endings (10)
13. Bunheads (10)
14. Girls (8)
15. Justified (8)
16. 30 Rock (5)
17. Don’t Trust The B---- In Apartment 23 (5)
18. Raising Hope (5)
19. American Horror Story (2)
20. Key & Peele (2)

1. Breaking Bad (15)
2. Homeland (15)
3. Girls (15)
4. Parks And Recreation (15)
5. Happy Endings (15)
6. The Walking Dead (15)
7. Shark Tank (15)
8. Mad Men (10)
9. 30 Rock (10)
10. Key & Peele (10)
11. The Mindy Project (15)
12. Scandal (15)
13. The Office (15)
14. Revenge (10)
15. Project Runway (10)

1. Breaking Bad (15)
2. Survivor (15)
3. Cougar Town (14)
4. Suburgatory (13)
5. Bunheads (13)
6. Happy Endings (13)
7. Homeland (13)
8. Ben And Kate (12)
9. The Good Wife (10) 
Although season four was bogged down early with the interminable gangster-smut goings-on of Kalinda and Nick, 2012 brought the high drama of Will’s suspension and Alicia’s service on the investigative panel. And what other show could make bankruptcy so thoroughly delightful by bringing in Nathan Lane as an accountant with intermittent delusions of grandeur? Even hobbled by waste-management shenanigans from the Sopranos reject pile, the scripts, guest stars, and sparkling regular cast hold the viewer’s attention like nothing else on network television.
10. Clubhouse Confidential (10)
Sports talk is the absolute nadir of the media landscape. (To update Albert Brooks, it goes incurable lepers, sports pundits, curable lepers.) So a sports show that cuts through the bullshit with actual math, and spends its precious half-hour of daily airtime giving viewers information we didn’t already have—making us smarter as a reward for tuning in—is a treasure beyond compare. God bless Brian Kenny.
11. New Girl (10)
12. 30 Rock (10)
13. Suits (8)
USA has built a brand of breezy eye-candy dramas, the TV equivalent of beach reads. Sure, shows like Suits are deliberately ephemeral, but that’s no reason to deny their heady pleasures. Populated with intense, quirky stars like Patrick J. Adams, Gabriel Macht, Gina Torres, David Costabile, and especially Rick Hoffman as the slimy but loveably insecure Louis Litt, Suits is a jolt of pure sugary fizz, the Pop Rocks of TV’s candy section.
14. The Amazing Race (7)
Reality competitions rise or fall with the investment viewers make in their contestants. And the two seasons of The Amazing Race that aired in 2012 had that rarest of commodities: teams we love to love. In season 20, Bopper and Mark, country boys from Kentucky who never let their different races get in the way of a truly beautiful friendship, persevered through a Bollywood dancing challenge that reduced everyone (including the audience) to tears. And in season 21, Chippendales dancers Jaymes and James raced with such relentless good spirits and excitement as to nearly make up for the negativity of the whining, bickering teams that so often dominate this show.
15. Louie (7)
16. The Middle (7)
17. Girls (7)
18. Parks And Recreation (6)
19. Game Of Thrones (5)
20. Fringe (5)

1. Mad Men (15) 
2. Archer (15)
3. Bob’s Burgers (13)
4. Breaking Bad (12)
5. Parks And Recreation (12)
6. Boardwalk Empire (12)
7. Justified (11)
8. Game Of Thrones (11)
9. Ben And Kate (11)
10. The Borgias (10)
What started out as an apparent effort for Showtime to capitalize on the current trend of period dramas and scoop up some award nominations for Jeremy Irons grew into a surprisingly strong series over its second season, as the threats to Pope Alexander VI’s dynasty multiplied. The bonds between the Borgia siblings grew ever more frayed—leading to vastly improved performances from François Arnaud, Holliday Grainger, and David Oakes—and the show improved its balance between the political strife of Renaissance Italy and soapier relationship drama, particularly in the stellar penultimate episode “World Of Wonders.” It’s a shame the show was eclipsed by the parallel airings of Game Of Thrones and Mad Men, because it’s turned into a hidden gem of the Sunday-night cable dramas. 
11. The Walking Dead (10)
12. Cougar Town (10)
13. The Colbert Report (10)
Election years are always the strongest years for The Colbert Report, and 2012 delivered Stephen Colbert’s blissfully unaware pundit a plethora of material. Between running for president in South Carolina via the dead campaign of Herman Cain, desperately trying to work up enthusiasm for the inevitable candidacy of Mitt Romney (“a robotic plutocrat who couldn’t hold the attention of cats with a can of tuna”), and not coordinating management of a Super PAC with The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart, Colbert has always found the humor in the noise of the political process, and was able to project the impression of being simultaneously the sanest and craziest person in the room. 
14. Community (9)
15. Homeland (8)
16. Strike Back (7)
Cinemax’s globetrotting action-adventure series delivered another strong set of episodes in its second round. With a more centralized storyline focusing on the hunt for nuclear weapons in various African countries, increased personal stakes for both Stonebridge and Scott, and a terrific seasonal villain in Charles Dance, the show stepped up its game while not getting away from the adrenaline rush of explosions, gunfights, and sex that made it worth seeking out in the first place. 
17. Louie (7)
18. New Girl (7)
19. Grimm (5)
20. Rev. (5)

1. Mad Men (15)
2. Justified (15)
3. Witness (15)
4. Nurse Jackie (15)
5. Girls (15)
6. Boardwalk Empire (15)
7. Happy Endings (15)
8. Rev. (10)
9. Birders: The Central Park Effect (10)
10. Misfits (8)
11. Don’t Trust The B---- In Apartment 23 (8)
12. About Face: Supermodels Then And Now (8)
13. Nashville (8)
14. Elementary (7)
15. Hemingway & Gellhorn (7)
16. Key & Peele (6)
17. Metalocalypse (6)
18. The Daily Show With Jon Stewart (6)
19. The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson (6)
20. The Greatest Event In Television History (5)

1. Awkward. (15)
2. Girls (15)
3. Boardwalk Empire (15)
4. Game Of Thrones (15)
5. Parks And Recreation (15)
6. Breaking Bad (15)
7. Mad Men (10)
8. Community (10)
9. Sons Of Anarchy (10)
10. The Vampire Diaries (10)
11. 30 Rock (10)
12. The Office (10)
13. Bunheads (10)
14. The Mindy Project (10)
15. Nashville (10)
16. The Newsroom (10)
17. True Life (10)

1. Girls (15)
2. Louie (15)
3. Eastbound & Down (15)
4. Homeland (15)
5. RuPaul’s Drag Race (14)
6. Downton Abbey (14)
7. Parks And Recreation (13)
8. The Walking Dead (12)
9. Breaking Bad (12)
10. Happy Endings (12)
11. The League (12)
12. Mad Men (12)
13. Veep (11)
14. Nashville (8)
15. Awkward. (6)
16. Chopped (5)
17. Misfits (5)
18. New Girl (4)

1. Breaking Bad (15)
2. Parks And Recreation (15)
3. Homeland (15)
4. Louie (15)
5. Game Of Thrones (13)
6. Shameless (13)
7. Archer (12)
8. Mad Men (11)
9. Justified (11)
10. Girls (10)
11. Parenthood (9)
12. The Hour (9)
13. RuPaul’s Drag Race (8)
14. Cougar Town (8)
15. Veep (7)
16. Bob’s Burgers (7)
17. Happy Endings (6)
18. Sherlock (6)
19. Suburgatory (6)
20. Ben And Kate (4)

1. Breaking Bad (15) 
2. Archer (15)
3. Homeland (14)
4. Fringe (14)
5. Sons Of Anarchy (14)
6. Adventure Time (13)
7. 30 Rock (13) 
8. Bob’s Burgers (12)
9. Louie (12)
10. The Walking Dead (10)
11. Community (10)
12. Parks And Recreation (10)
13. Girls (10)
14. Justified (9)
15. The Daily Show With Jon Stewart (9)
16. Luck (8)
17. Mad Men (6) 
18. Sherlock (6)

1. Breaking Bad (15)
2. The Middle (14)
3. Magic City (13)
It started slow, standing on wobbly legs for its first few episodes, but by the halfway point of the season, Magic City was off and running and in serious contention to be named one of the most enjoyable premium-cable dramas out there.
4. Mad Men (12)
5. The Big Bang Theory (11)           
6. How I Met Your Mother (11)
7. Modern Family (11)
8. New Girl (11)
9. Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated (11)
This reinvigorated reinvention of the classic Hanna-Barbera crime solvers continues to be just as much fun in its second season as it was in its freshman year, but the way the show’s writers managed to tie characters from Jonny Quest into the secret origin of Blue Falcon and Dynomutt may be the greatest single plot development of 2012.
10. Suburgatory (11)
11. Arrow (10)
It ain’t Longbow Hunters, that’s for sure, but it’s still enjoyable comic-book fun in its own way.
12. Elementary (10)
13. The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson (10)
14. Nashville (10)
15. Revolution (10)
16. The Soup (10)
17. Ben And Kate (5)
18. Go On (5)
19. Mockingbird Lane (5)
One of my greatest disappointments this year was the news that NBC decided to abandon plans to move beyond the pilot of the Munsters reboot it hired Bryan Fuller (Pushing Daisies, Dead Like Me) to create. It’s nice that the network opted to at least screen the pilot for viewers, even if it was almost certainly aired in hopes of making back some of the dough the network plunked down to make the thing. Seeing what Fuller had done with these classic characters and knowing that we wouldn’t get to see anything beyond this lone installment somehow made me even more depressed. 
20. 30 Rock (5) 


Clearly, we are all in agreement that menacing dramas are menacing, and there’s no denying the magnetism of Breaking Homeland Men, etc. Nor can we ignore the anti-sitcom sitcoms—the Parks & Girl Louies, if you will. (And look, I love all those shows, they’re all over my ballot.)

But I wanted to give some shoutouts to shows that churn out consistent, distinct comedy every single week, and do so without breaking a sweat. The Colbert Report might always have been birthed from the rib of The Daily Show, but this year, Stephen Colbert, et al., found their own skeleton feet. It’s goofy, poignant, celebratory, and Super PAC-exposing, and it comes on four times a week. Delocated was an insane concept for a show carried out to its logical extreme, then pushed even further for this latest, possibly last season. Kudos go to Jon Glaser and the rest of the folks for never settling on the show’s initial gimmick. And though Burning Love isn’t on the actual TV, so to speak, it’s just as cutting and compelling as siblings Childrens Hospital and NTSF:SD:SUV::, and you can watch it all in a marathon session.

But this stream-of-consciousness blurb wouldn’t be complete without mention of The Chris Gethard Show. It’s on public access or accessible via streaming on Gethard’s site, and if you haven’t seen it, please dear Lord, use this as an excuse. Gethard and his team put together some of the weirdest episodes of television every week, and therefore attract fans who feel a kinship with Gethard’s odd obsessions. As a result, the show is a celebration of the deepest crevices of humanity, and it’s damn funny, even when it fails horribly. After all, that’s the Gethard promise: That the show will either be fantastic, or so much of a spectacle that it’ll still be entertaining. This is the year it became so much more than that.

1. The Colbert Report (15)
2. Homeland (14)
3. Breaking Bad (14)
4. Parks And Recreation (14)
5. Game Of Thrones (12)
6. Louie (12)
7. Mad Men (12)
8. Delocated (11)
9. Key & Peele (11)
10. Awake (10)
11. Childrens Hospital (10)
12. The Daily Show With Jon Stewart (10)
13. Community (9)
14. Girls (9)
15. Happy Endings (8)
16. Wilfred (7)
17. 30 Rock (7)
18. Burning Love (5)
19. The Chris Gethard Show (5)
20. Comedy Bang! Bang! (5)

1. Breaking Bad (15)
2. Homeland (15)
3. Game Of Thrones (15)
4. Girls (15)
5. Louie (15)
6. Mad Men (15)
7. Parenthood (15)
8. Parks And Recreation (15)
9. RuPaul’s Drag Race (15)
10. Bob’s Burgers (10)
11. Bunheads (10)
12. Treme (10)
13. American Dad (5)
14. Archer (5)
15. Community (5)
16. Don’t Trust The B---- In Apt. 23 (5)
17. Happy Endings (5)
18. The Vampire Diaries (5)
19. Veep (5)

1. Community (15)
2. Breaking Bad (15)
3. Parks And Recreation (15)
4. Homeland (15)
5. The Daily Show With Jon Stewart (14)
6. Louie (14)
7. Girls (14)
8. Downton Abbey (12)
9. Game Of Thrones (12)
10. Southland (10)
11. New Girl (10)
12. Childrens Hospital (8)
13. Sherlock (8)
14. Political Animals (8)
15. Awake (5)
16. Tron: Uprising (5)
17. Awkward. (5)
18. Bunheads (5)
19. Wilfred (5)
20. Eagleheart (5) 

1. Louie (15) 
2. Spartacus (15)
I’m pretty sure that not only will this series be higher on this list than any other list, but that this might be the only time this show appears on any A.V. Club ballot. No matter. Steven DeKnight’s bloody great saga of gladiators, slaves, and Roman elites overcame the tragic loss of Andy Whitfield to unleash a take-no-prisoners season that yielded as many bruised hearts as broken bones. This is serialized storytelling in the finest tradition, and a show that will continue to be discovered long after it ends in spring 2013.
3. Parks And Recreation (14)
4. Homeland (14)
5. Breaking Bad (14)
6. Cougar Town (13) 
7. Girls (12)
8. Sherlock (10) 
Cumberbatch + Freeman + Moffat = More, please.
9. Archer (10)
10. Mad Men (10)
11. 30 Rock (10) 
12. Justified (10) 
13. Game Of Thrones (8)
14. Ben And Kate (8)
15. Key & Peele (8) 
16. Bob’s Burgers (6)
17. Suburgatory (6)
18. The Walking Dead (6)
19. Fringe (6)
20. Storage Wars (5)
I’ve probably watched more episodes of Storage Wars than any other show on this ballot. I’m not remotely ashamed to admit it. This show marries treasure hunting, Americana, and obsessive collectors in an obscenely compelling way. Just try to watch one episode during one of A&E’s oft-repeated marathons—I dare you.

1. Breaking Bad (15)
2. Gravity Falls (15)
If you enjoy strong thematic storytelling, a growing mythology, time travel, narrative experimentation, and pet pigs in Halloween costumes, there was no better show this year than Gravity Falls. That it was made for kids is not something that should be used to devalue the series, but rather a marker of its success: Rather than transcend its Disney Channel identity, it brings complexity to its younger and older audiences alike, something that should be acknowledged as an achievement of the highest order.
3. Homeland (15)
4. Parks And Recreation (15)
5. Bob’s Burgers (12)
6. Game Of Thrones (12)
7. Mad Men (12)
8. Justified (10)
9. Girls (9)
10. Louie (9)
11. Parenthood (9)
12. 30 Rock (8)
13. Awkward. (8)
While more singular in focus than in its first year, MTV’s sophomore success story nonetheless delivered a strong season, allowing the emotional highs and lows of its central love triangle to play out in visceral ways that still felt rooted in how high-schoolers deal with their feelings.
14. Community (8)
15. Happy Endings (8)
16. Nurse Jackie (8)
I burned the bridge when I walked away from Nurse Jackie at the end of the third season (which I only watched out of morbid curiosity). So it says something that I was willing to rebuild that bridge for a fourth season that transcended anything else the show had accomplished to that point. Showtime’s best “comedy” season in years.
17. Shameless (8)
I don’t know if Shameless’ problems were fixed in its second season, but its shagginess became naturalized, resulting in a season that seemed both more palpable and more unflinching.
18. Dexter (7)
Like with Nurse Jackie, I sincerely thought I’d never watch another episode of Dexter, but peer pressure can be a marvelous thing. When I returned, I discovered a show willing to embrace self-criticism, eager to push its characters into corners that they can’t escape from, and dying—finally—to return to the themes that had set the character and show apart to begin with. 
19. The L.A. Complex (6)
People who dismissed this sharp—not to mention low-rated and recently canceled—soap opera out of hand need to suck it up and admit it’s incredibly entertaining, occasionally heartbreaking, and never one to back away from a consequence. It was also uneven over the course of its two rapid-fire seasons, but that just made me love its earnest Canadian-ness even more.
19. Survivor (6)
All it took to reinvigorate a tired formula was the most balanced cast in years, a return to a diverse range of challenges, and the right chemistry of circumstance and editing skill. There might be some luck involved, but CBS’ reality show had one of its most purely enjoyable seasons at a time when other reality shows—*cough* Amazing Race *cough*—are wilting before our eyes.

1. Breaking Bad (15)
2. Boardwalk Empire (15)
3. Homeland (15)
4. Game Of Thrones (13)
5. Louie (13)
6. Justified (13)
7. Mad Men (13)
8. The Walking Dead (11)
9. Sons Of Anarchy (10)
10. Southland (10)
Poor Southland. It’s not just a good cop show; it’s a great cop show. But it’s been kicked around networks and generally ignored by viewers. Still, it perseveres. The show’s fourth season was its most focused and powerful yet, with great arcs not only from series regular Michael Cudlitz—playing a closeted cop with a bad back—but also from guests Lucy Liu and Lou Diamond Phillips, who faced real-life moral dilemmas (and got shot at). Watch it now, so you can say that you watched it later. 
11. 30 Rock (10) 
12. Community (10)
13. The Eric Andre Show (7)
Eric Andre is sort of the heir apparent to Tim And Eric—his show is even produced by their company, Abso Lutely. But The Eric Andre Show is a bit more structured than Tim And Eric Awesome Show was, relying on the conceit that Andre is the host of a talk show that somehow gathers real-life stars (like Dave Koz and Dolph Lundgren) and puts them in proximity to “impersonators” who look and sound nothing like the people they’re supposed to be. TEAS feels a little dangerous, which is great. Add to that co-host Hannibal Buress just standing in the back and commenting, and it’s a pretty genius 11 minutes.
14. Girls (7)
15. Wilfred (7)
16. Eastbound & Down (7)
17. Childrens Hospital (6)
18. Parks And Recreation (6)
19. Fringe (6)
20. Check It Out! With Dr. Steve Brule (6)

1. Breaking Bad (15)
2. Louie (15)
3. Mad Men (15)
4. Boardwalk Empire (10)
5. Girls (10)
6. Fringe (10)
7. Bunheads (10)
8. The Good Wife (10)
9. Game Of Thrones (10)
10. Clubhouse Confidential (10)
11. Cougar Town (10)
12. Suburgatory (10)
13. The Ricky Gervais Show (10)
14. Luck (10)
15. Community (10)
16, Homeland (10)
17. 30 Rock (10)
18. The Middle (5)
19. Ben And Kate (5)
20. Suits (5)

1. Mad Men (15)
2. The Thick Of It (15)
3. Luck (14)
4. Childrens Hospital (14)
5. Game Of Thrones (14)
6. 30 Rock (14)
7. The Middle (14)
8. Key & Peele (12)
9. Louie (12)
10. Adventure Time (12)
11. Web Therapy (12)
12. Check It Out! With Dr. Steve Brule (12)
13. Bob’s Burgers (9)
14. Happy Endings (9)
15. Archer (9)
16. Treme (9)
17. Homeland (1)
18. Breaking Bad (1)
19. Comedy Bang! Bang! (1)
20. The Greatest Event In Television History (1)

1. Mad Men (15)
2. Breaking Bad (15)
3. Louie (15)
4. Girls (15)
5. Treme (15)
6. Parks And Recreation (15)
7. The Daily Show With Jon Stewart (12)
8. Archer (12)
9. Ben And Kate (10)
10. Game Of Thrones (10)
11. Bob’s Burgers (9)
12. The Good Wife (7)
13. Doctor Who (7)
14. Bunheads (7)
15. Community (6)
16. The Colbert Report (6)
17. Childrens Hospital (6)
18. New Girl (6)
19. Don’t Trust The B---- In Apt. 23 (6)
20. 30 Rock (6)


1. Louie (15)
2. Parks And Recreation (15)
3. Eastbound & Down (10)
4. Community (15)
5. Key & Peele (15)
6. Breaking Bad (10)
7. Delocated (10)
8. The Colbert Report (10) 
9. The Daily Show With Jon Stewart (10)
10. Conan (15)
11. 30 Rock (10)
12. Late Night With David Letterman (10)
13. Teen Mom 2 (10)
14. It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia (15)
15. The Soup (15)
16. Comedy Bang! Bang! (15)

1. Breaking Bad (15)
2. Girls (15)
3. Parenthood (15)
4. Justified (13)
5. Archer (12)
6. Bob’s Burgers (12)
7. Shameless (12)
Shameless is a big, shaggy mess of a show about a big, shaggy mess of a family, but these faults are exactly what make it great. The tone veers wildly (and recklessly) between overly wacky family comedy and devastating family drama but always manages to nail the drama side with a surprising emotional ferocity, with Emmy Rossum’s amazing performance grounding the whole thing.
8. Homeland (11)
9. The Vampire Diaries (11)
10. Dexter (10)
11. Hart Of Dixie (10)
There’s something to be said for television that just makes you happy. No one would claim Hart Of Dixie is the most innovative show, the best written show, or the show with the most exciting narrative, but what it does do is make me smile from ear to ear for 42 minutes every week. That—combined with the impressive evolution of the show’s relationship dynamics in season two—is enough to make me wish for 10 more seasons of romantic shenanigans in Bluebell.
12. Louie (10)
13. Parks And Recreation (10)
14. Suits (9)
If ever a USA show took “the leap” from fun trifle to legitimate drama, it was Suits in season two; and it did it on the back of what was once verboten at the network: serialized storytelling. Placing an antagonist at the firm and pitting the core characters against each other in a season-long battle of wits was a genius way to deepen relationships and make the show into the true ensemble it was meant to be.
15. Luck (8)
16. Southland (8)
17. Game Of Thrones (7)
18. The L.A. Complex (6)
The best typical CW drama wasn’t a CW show at all, but this Canadian import. The L.A. Complex is filled with soapy drama, but the difference here is that the drama has true emotional stakes for its characters, as well as having a wry insight on the typical Hollywood-wannabe tropes. Why can’t The CW make young-adult dramas this savvy? And, more importantly, why didn’t anyone watch this one? Come on, America!
19. Ben And Kate (5)
20. Glee (1)
Look, I hated Glee last season, too, and I’m not sure how they did it, but the show is in the process of pulling off one of the most difficult feats for a high-school show: surviving graduation. The new characters are a total spin on the old, but with just enough of their own personality to work; the musical numbers have returned from download-baiting insanity (the “Let’s Have A Kiki”/“Turkey Lurkey Time” mashup was downright inspired); and the writing has been surprisingly non-crazy-making. Blaine’s tearful rendition of “Teenage Dream” alone was real and heartbreaking enough to get the show a spot on my list.

1. Breaking Bad (15)
2. Mad Men (15)
3. Game Of Thrones (15)
4. Boardwalk Empire (15)
5. Louie (15)
6. Parks And Recreation (15)
7. Community (14)
8. Bob’s Burgers (14)
9. Girls (14)
10. The Walking Dead (13)
11. Veep (13)
12. 30 Rock (12)
13. Eastbound & Down (10)
14. Comedy Bang! Bang! (10)
15. It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia (10)

1. Homeland (15)
2. Game Of Thrones (15)
3. Sherlock (15)
Sherlock is the most inventive television miniseries I’ve seen, and its second season was, if anything, even better than its stellar debut. The season is bookended by two 90-minute episodes that, together, could make up a movie called The True Nature Of Sherlock Holmes. For all of showrunner Steven Moffat’s pretensions, he deftly guides the viewer through an exploration of Holmes the person, and even if we end up about as confused as we were at the start, there’s no doubt that it was a joyous ride. Don’t let the criticism fool you: “The Hounds Of Baskerville,” the middle episode, gets largely ignored, but it’s better than you might think, and certainly the most faithful adaptation to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s story.
4. The Good Wife (13)
Deceptively low-profile in tone and style, The Good Wife is one of TV’s must-watch procedurals, delivering consistently incredible character work and writing. Everything in Chicago’s legal world, which melds so quickly into the political and corporate landscape, is mostly as it seems, and yet nothing is quite what you’d expect. The third season was punctuated by standout performances from Julianna Margulies, Archie Panjabi, Alan Cumming, Christine Baranski, and Josh Charles; and was concerned with the slow dissolution of Will and Alicia’s relationship; the slow regeneration of Alicia’s friendship with Kalinda; and the countless, subtle interpretations of what it means to be a good wife.
5. The Middle (12)
6. RuPaul’s Drag Race (12)
7. Archer (10)
8. Mad Men (10)
9. Suits (10)
10. Veep (10)
11. Community (10)
12. Breaking Bad (9)
13. Southland (8)
14. Justified (8)
15. Ben And Kate (8)
16. Girls (8)
17. Downton Abbey (7)
Downton Abbey’s second season is, lamentably, far inferior to its first, but it has a few good moments—in a dishy, soapy, over-the-top way. The season traverses four years, from the middle of World War I to the dawn of the roaring ’20s. It gets points mostly for incredible cinematography and production values, as well as for falling apart in a catastrophically brilliant way. Episode four, which concludes with Matthew Crawley in a wheelchair and his faithful footman William dying in a bed at Downton, is one of the more devastating episodes of television you might take it upon yourself to watch. The Christmas special, meanwhile, returns the show to its former, though slightly tarnished, glory.
18. New Girl (7)
19. 30 Rock (7)
20. The L.A. Complex (6)

1. Parks And Recreation (15)
2. The Legend Of Korra (15)
Korra has some of the most kick-ass fight sequences ever captured on a TV screen, and it’s probably the most gorgeous cartoon I’ve seen. Though it’s good enough to be in cinemas, I’m glad I can get my Korra fix every Saturday morning. 
3. RuPaul’s Drag Race (15)
4. Louie (15)
5. Adventure Time (15)
6. Bunheads (15)
7. Girls (13)
8. Breaking Bad (11)
9. Mad Men (10)
10. Game Of Thrones (10)
11. Homeland (8)
12. Treme (7)
13. Community (7)
14. Nashville (7)
15. Don’t Trust The B---- In Apartment 23 (7)
16. Happy Endings (7)
17. So You Think You Can Dance (6)
Changing the format for this season made SYTYCD an incredible spotlight of dance talent every week, even though it had that horrible Mia Michaels episode and some scheduling mishaps.
18. Young Justice (5)
Right when Young Justice was getting really good, Cartoon Network unceremoniously yanked it from the schedule, robbing viewers of not only teenage superheroes, but incredibly entertaining DC Nation shorts like “Super Best Friends Forever” and chibi “Teen Titans.”
19. The Big Bang Theory (5)
20. The Vampire Diaries (4)

1. Game Of Thrones (15)
2. Bob’s Burgers (15)
3. The Chris Gethard Show (15) 
4. Louie (10)
5. Mad Men (5)
6. New Girl (15)
7. Girls (10)
8. Archer (15)
9. Breaking Bad (5)
10. Bunheads (15)
11. The Thick Of It (15)
12. Homeland (5)
13. Happy Endings (15)
14. Childrens Hospital (15)
15. Comedy Bang! Bang! (15)
16. Parks And Recreation (1)
17. Parenthood (5)
18. Community (1)
19. The Good Wife (5)
20. Justified (3)


My list-making process this year consisted of putting Mad Men at No. 1, then screaming, because I had basically a 50-way tie for second. Really, 19 different shows could be on the list after Mad Men, and I’d be okay with that. Or the 19 I have could be completely reversed, and that would be just fine. It was a fantastic year for television, particularly if you were willing to wander off the cable-drama beaten path. I considered nearly 100 shows at one point or another for this list, and I dearly wish I could have extended it even further than I did. But the rules are the rules, so here are my top 20 shows for 2012.

1. Mad Men (15)
2. Homeland (15)
3. Girls (15)
4. Louie (15)
5. Rev. (15)
This British series was a bolt out of the blue, a wildly original, highly entertaining series about an Anglican minister, his parishioners, and the church hierarchy. That premise alone seems to turn off just about everyone I try to turn onto the show, but I swear to God it’s an incredibly funny, deeply moving series that grapples with deep questions of faith and purpose and makes them both entertaining and weird. As a bonus, it produced one of the best episodes of television I’ve ever seen. The whole thing’s on Hulu, if I’ve made you at all curious.
6. Breaking Bad (5)
7. Parenthood (10)
8. Archer (10)
9. New Girl (10)
10. Adventure Time (15)
11. Luck (10)
12. Cougar Town (10)
13. Game Of Thrones (10)
14. Suburgatory (10)
15. Community (10)
16. Bob’s Burgers (10)
17. Treme (5)
18. Justified (5)
19. American Horror Story (4)
I can’t believe this show is on my list either, but the second season of American Horror Story has been legitimately entertaining and, if it were a book, I’d call it un-put-down-able. Not everything makes sense, but the show has mostly worked out its weird tonal issues, and the performances of Jessica Lange, Sarah Paulson, and James Cromwell are worth it, even when the scripts are floating off into Ryan Murphyland.
20. The Walking Dead (1)

A somewhat brief paragraph about my 15 runners-up (in alphabetical order): 
30 Rock had a tremendous year, and if there’s one show I’m sorry I couldn’t squeeze into the top 20, it’s that one. Alphas continues to be TV’s best science-fiction series, even if Syfy has yet to pick it up for another year. (Boo!) Boardwalk Empire continues to nearly lose my interest before roping me right back in, but even I can’t deny the power of those last few episodes. Bunheads is almost certainly going to make my list in 2013, and it possessed one of my favorite scenes of the year, in Sasha’s dance to “Istanbul (Not Constantinople).” I scoff at the people who write off the fourth season of Fringe, which was as moving as anything the show’s produced. The Good Wife kind of fell off a cliff in the first half of its fourth season, but the last half of the third was as good as anything the show’s done. Happy Endings makes me laugh lots and lots. The Hour has Ben Whishaw and Romola Garai and so, so many fun things going on. The Middle also had a tremendous year and should probably be in my top 20. Nurse Jackie actually forced its protagonist to face up to her sins and had its best season. I seem to be alone in preferring the fifth season of Parks And Recreation to its fourth (the election arc just didn’t work for me), but I’m really loving the character notes it’s hitting in season five and expect it to return to my list next year. Raising Hope is hit-or-miss but so funny when it hits that I don’t care about the misses. Shameless quietly had a terrific season in the shadow of Homeland’s monster debut season. Shark Tank is the reality show I make time for every week. And The Vampire Diaries has done some questionable things, but even I can’t argue with the raw power of its Elena arc.

My 10 favorite episodes of 2012, one per show, as I think of them, at 6:53 a.m. Pacific time on Dec. 14:
1. Rev., “Series Two, Episode Five” 
2. Breaking Bad, “Gliding Over All” 
3. Mad Men, “Signal 30” 
4. Homeland, “Q&A”
5. Louie, “Daddy’s Girlfriend (Part 2)”
6. Suburgatory, “The Wishbone”
7. Girls, “The Return”
8. Archer, “Lo Scandalo”
9. Game Of Thrones, “Blackwater”
10. Alphas, “When Push Comes To Shove” 

1. Bob’s Burgers (15)
2. Archer (15)
3. Breaking Bad (15)
4. Louie (15)
5. Community (14)
6. Happy Endings (13)
7. Awkward. (13)
8. Justified (12)
9. Parks And Recreation (12)
10. 30 Rock (12)
11. Mad Men (11)
12. Comedy Bang! Bang! (11)
13. Suits (8)
14. New Girl (8)
15. Parenthood (7)
16. Childrens Hospital (7)
17. Bunheads (5)
18. Degrassi (3)
19. Trapped In The Closet (3)
20. The L.A. Complex (1)

1. Louie (15) 
2. Treme (15)
3. Mad Men (15)
4. Breaking Bad (15)
5. Game Of Thrones (14)
6. Homeland (14)
7. Veep (14)
8. Girls (14)
9. Luck (13)
10. Boardwalk Empire (13)
11. American Horror Story (13)
12. Justified (12)
13. Last Resort (11)
14. Survivor (11)
15. Nashville (11)

1. Breaking Bad (15)
2. Justified (15)
3. The Middle (15)
4. Community (15)
5. Gravity Falls (15)
Forgive me for offering a baseball analogy, but Gravity Falls is the Mike Trout of the 2012 TV season—they both came seemingly out of nowhere; they both put together a body of work that would be sensational for seasoned veterans, let alone rookies; and they were both robbed of MVP honors when Miguel Cabrera hit the Triple Crown. Fine, the metaphor falls apart towards the end there, but Gravity Falls remains by far the pleasantest surprise of the year, a show that confidently melds Twin Peaks’ flair for the paranormal, an old-school Simpsons comedic sensibility, and heartfelt insight into the triumphs and challenges of growing up, not to mention some of TV’s most gorgeous animation and one of its strongest voice casts.
6. Bob’s Burgers (15)
7. The Thick Of It (13)
8. Parks And Recreation (12)
9. Happy Endings (12)
10. American Dad (12)
I’m a late convert to the anarchic charms of this show, but the appeal of American Dad is simple enough: It’s the edgiest show on network TV where that edge actually has a point beyond straightforward nastiness. American Dad is a raunchy, fearlessly transgressive show, but that’s almost always in the service of well-constructed comedy and characters with just enough depth to remain interesting and support the occasional emotional arc. I’m not a Seth MacFarlane fan, but he does his best vocal work in the dual roles of gun-wielding, vaguely well-meaning patriarch Stan Smith and sociopathic, pansexual alien Roger. He’s surrounded by a strong supporting cast, with terrific recurring players like Kevin Michael Richardson as Principal Lewis and the Patrick Stewart as Deputy Director Bullock. Seriously, even eight seasons in, I still can’t quite believe that last one. Truly, American Dad is beyond belief—but often wonderfully so.
11. Game Of Thrones (10)
12. Homeland (9)
13. Adventure Time (8)
14. Cougar Town (8)
15. Veep (7)
16. Archer (5)
17. Luck (5)
18. Mad Men (5)
19. Doctor Who (3)
From the perspective of the show’s larger narrative, longtime companions Amy and Rory overstayed their welcome; in retrospect, last year’s underrated “The Wedding Of River Song” would have been just as good a stopping point as “The Angels Take Manhattan.” But while their continued presence slightly stalled the show’s larger narrative momentum, there’s a lot to like in the individual episodes that aired in 2012: “Asylum Of The Daleks” is a twisty mini-masterpiece, “A Town Called Mercy” is a clever little morality play that harks back to an earlier era in the show’s history, and I have the sneaking suspicion “The Power Of Three” might eventually end up the best-respected of the bunch. With so few episodes under its belt, Doctor Who can really only be given an “Incomplete” for this year, but it’s a promising sign for what’s ahead in 2013.
20. Eureka (1)
To end with another baseball analogy, this is my version of that one random sportswriter who puts Brett Boone on his Hall of Fame ballot just because he deserves that modicum of recognition, dammit. The Syfy stalwart (and one of the last links to a time when the network spelled its own name correctly) never attracted the same critical attention as the more ambitious Alphas or even the often painfully silly Warehouse 13, but it put together some wonderfully entertaining television in its five-year run in its own good-natured, low-key, science-fiction procedural sort of way. The final season was particularly strong, deftly integrating the show’s signature mad science with the characters’ evolving, increasingly complicated relationship drama. So here’s one final tip of the hat to a show that just kept on doing its own particular thing extremely well year in and year out, even if nobody else ever quite seemed to notice.

1. Community (15)
2. Homeland (15)
3. Frontline (15)
Boy, this program can depress the hell out of you—but in a way that’s good for you.
4. 30 For 30 (14)
5. Happy Endings (13) 
6. 30 Rock (13)
7. Suburgatory (13)
8. Sherlock (13)
9. Key & Peele (12)
10. Portlandia (10)
11. Veep (10)
12. Conan (9)
13. Parks And Recreation (7)
14. RuPaul’s Drag Race (7)
15. New Girl (7)
16. Dexter (7)
17. Saturday Night Live (7)
I’m digging the new additions and, with the departure of some old cast members, the jettisoning of many recurring older sketches. If only they would 86 “The Californians.”
18. Billy On The Street  (5)
Billy On The Street is one of those shows that make you laugh in spite of yourself. The premise of a low-rent game show wherein a man interviews folks in New York doesn’t sound like much, but Billy Eichner’s flustered, incredulous persona and the people he meets make for delightfully silly viewing. 
19. Project Runway (4)
20. Modern Family (4)