It’s becoming a cliché to say, “This was a great year for television,” but 2012 was yet another great year for television, with some of the most acclaimed dramas of all time still going strong, even as the comedy resurgence continued, both on broadcast and cable. Our top 30 list represents shows from 12 different networks, including 13 series that have never before placed on one of our year-end lists, stretching from one of the year’s most argued-about programs to an 11-minute cult sensation about a boy and his dog. What’s more, in the process of making the list, nearly 100 additional series were named on at least one ballot. To vote, 30 of our writers allocated 200 points among 15 to 20 shows, with no writer allowed to give more than 15 points to any one show. (You can see those ballots here.) What resulted was a mix of familiar faces, brand-new shows, and long-running favorites that finally cracked our list of TV’s best. If it was a great year, then these were the shows that made it so.
30. Treme (HBO; 62 points, six votes)
Nashville may share a title with Robert Altman’s signature work, but it’s Treme that comes closest to channeling the spirit of the great American director. While its first two seasons sometimes suffered from a streak of self-righteous preachiness—and, let’s face it, from audience expectations that this show was going to be The Wire with beignets and Dixieland—the recently wrapped third season seamlessly integrates the social and institutional issues David Simon and company wish to explore with the character-based drama Treme does best. Set 25 months after Katrina, the season found money flowing back into New Orleans, but not always in ways beneficial to the community. It’s hard to single out performers from such a knockout ensemble cast (most of whom come together at the particularly Altman-esque benefit concert that closes the season), but Wendell Pierce, Clarke Peters, and Khandi Alexander all had strong seasons, while Michiel Huisman and Steve Zahn deserve praise (along with the stellar writing staff) for humanizing the oft-unlikeable characters of Sonny and DJ Davis.
Notable episodes: “Knock With Me—Rock With Me,” “I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say,” “Tipitina”
29. Adventure Time (Cartoon Network; 63 points, five votes)
In 2012, Adventure Time crossed whatever demarcating line there is between “cult sensation” and “mainstream nerd-crush” without losing any of what made it so beloved by its cult in the first place. The adventures of Finn the human and Jake the dog in the surprisingly detailed land of Ooo continue to be imaginative, hilarious, and surprisingly emotional, particularly when the story turns to the Ice King, the series’ supposed antagonist who increasingly reveals himself as a figure worthy of sympathy the longer the continues. It should be hard to pack as much wonder and beauty into 11 minutes every week, but Adventure Time not only does just that, but laces all of it with some good fart jokes.
Notable episodes: “Card Wars,” “I Remember You,” “The Lich”
28. Childrens Hospital (Adult Swim; 66 points, seven votes)
Four seasons in, Childrens Hospital remains television’s most reliable live-action cartoon. In 2012, the show delivered a Keystone-worthy parody of the medium’s most self-serious nonsense, including the venerable ghost-hunter canon and the senescent Law & Order. With one fell monologue, the show even popped Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu-style network melodrama just in time for Cloud Atlas. Its most radical departure was an episode of the ostensible British remake of Childrens Hospital, featuring Frances Fisher and Dominic Monaghan as translated versions of the regulars, playing like a transatlantic diorama of British culture covered in tomahto splatter. And that’s just a piece of the ever-expanding behind-the-scenes mythology, supplemented this season by two stylish real-world forays: A day in the life realized in bold black and white, and another episode of future spin-off Newsreaders, complete with retro-filtered footage. With shark-like restlessness and rare visual agility, Childrens Hospital is like a cable Community: funny, cinematic, and essential television.
Notable episodes: “Chief’s Origin,” “British Hospital,” “A Kid Walks In To A Hospital”
27. The Middle (ABC; 67 points, six votes)
2012 heralded what The Middle called “The Year Of The Hecks,” and TV’s favorite Indiana-based sitcom family followed through by closing out its best season yet. The beauty of The Middle is in the utterly mundane; showrunners Eileen Heisler and DeAnn Heline manage to make average problems into sublime comedy. It’s a type of humor well played by Patricia Heaton, who leads viewers into her family’s dysfunction with amusement and annoyance. The chronically underrated show launched into uncharted territory this season after Heaton’s Frankie lost her job, throwing its main characters into economic turmoil. The Hecks are stubborn, ungraceful, weird—and utterly delightful, just like a lot of people on the other side of the television screen.
Notable episodes: “The Map,” “The Guidance Counselor,” “The Second Act”
26. Luck (HBO; 68 points, seven votes)
The death of several animals and the subsequent cancellation of HBO’s ace horse-racing drama Luck was a bad break both for the horses and for TV fans. For the short time it was on, Luck was on pace to be a classic, telling the colorful story of the gamblers, gangsters, and horse-lovers who gather around a Los Angeles racetrack, each subjecting years of careful planning to the whims of fate. From the star-packed cast to creator David Milch’s punchy dialogue to the cinematic look established by director Michael Mann in the first episode, Luck was as polished and sophisticated as a great movie, but with the length to explore its milieu and characters novelistically. And more the anything, as with Milch’s masterpiece Deadwood, Luck had a sense of place like no other, and a feel for the way every makeshift society will inevitably develop a fringe.
Notable episodes: “Episode Four,” “Episode Six,” “Episode Nine”
25. Ben And Kate (Fox; 68 points, nine votes)
New TV shows often take time to find themselves; comedies in particular have a difficult time finding out what works in early outings. Credit Ben And Kate with figuring that out faster than most shows in recent memory. Based on the real-life relationship between creator Dana Fox and her brother, a promising but uneven pilot soon gave way to a small-scale show with large-scale charms. On a weekly basis, the core cast (Dakota Johnson, Nat Faxon, Lucy Punch, and Echo Kellum) effortlessly bounced off each other in ways that suggest decades of history together. In an age when overly complicated, incredibly dark dramas dominate the critically lauded landscape, here’s a show that examines life’s smaller trials and tribulations. Ben And Kate demonstrates that low concepts can still yield high rewards.
Notable episodes: “21st Birthday,” “Scaredy Kate,” “Reunion”
24. Suburgatory (ABC; 69 points, seven votes)
Like most new series, Suburgatory spent the first half of its freshman season establishing the rules and characters of its universe, painting former New York City girl Tessa Altman and her father, George, as oases of normalcy in the Stepford-esque town of Chatswin. As the show stepped into 2012, however, series creator Emily Kapnek and her writers began a remarkably successful creative tightrope walk, tugging at viewers’ heartstrings with various romantic storylines while still maintaining the cartoonish nature of many of the series’ characters. The intensity of Ana Gasteyer’s Sheila Shay remains as far off the charts as the cluelessness about the middle-class lifestyle displayed by Carly Chaikin’s Dalia Royce, but Suburgatory’s emotional punch is growing more powerful with every episode—thanks to hilarious yet moving developments like the introduction of Tessa’s mother, Alex (Malin Akerman), or the storylines that have emerged from Lisa (Allie Grant) learning that her brother Ryan (Parker Young) is adopted.
Notable episodes: “The Motherload,” “Homecoming,” “The Wishbone”
23. Parenthood (NBC; 70 points, seven votes)
In a television landscape full of antiheroes, the Braverman family proudly flies the banner for the opposite side. Parenthood is the rare family drama that gets better as it goes along, with the first half of season four sealing its place as one of the most touching hours on television. The show’s magic trick is consistently spinning storylines that could easily veer into after-school special territory into gripping, emotional, well-observed treatises on what it means to be part of a family—for better or for worse. Leading the emotional charge was the cancer diagnosis of Kristina (Monica Potter, doing career-best work) and the tentative romance between Amber (Mae Whitman) and Ryan (Matt Lauria), an Afghanistan war veteran having difficulty readjusting to normal life. In less capable hands, these stories could be saccharine and maudlin, but under the expert watch of showrunner Jason Katims (Friday Night Lights) and a stable of versatile, likeable actors, Parenthood quietly had its best year yet.
Notable episodes: “Road Trip,” “There’s Something I Need To Tell You,” “One More Weekend With You”
22. RuPaul’s Drag Race (Logo; 71 points, six votes)
The only reality show to make The A.V. Club’s big list is RuPaul’s Drag Race, which treats reality television the way drag treats femininity, blowing it out to its most outsized, entertaining proportions, with an attitude that’s equal parts reverent and arch. (See: mini-challenges where contestants compete over who can create the biggest padded ass, or who can insult the others most creatively.) Combining nearly every imaginable trope established over the past decade-plus of reality-competition shows, Drag Race is the most purely entertaining reality show on TV because both the series and its contestants—not to mention its inimitable host and namesake—are so adept at walking the fine line between self-mockery and self-seriousness. The fourth season of Drag Race took that tension to new heights via the brilliant casting of one of the most hilariously merciless fame-whores in reality-TV history, who was pitted against a clutch of audience favorites and an easy villain in an excellent season of a massively entertaining show.
Notable episodes: “The Snatch Game,” “Frenemies,” “The Fabulous Bitch Ball”
21. Comedy Bang! Bang! (IFC; 72 points, seven votes)
The televised version of Scott Aukerman’s cult podcast had its share of seriously shaky bits and an archer-then-arch tone that wasn’t for everyone, but there wasn’t another show like it on television this year. Aukerman adopted a relentlessly sunny, pathologically interested morning-show-host persona to interview his famous friends and an assortment of weird characters, and “bandleader” Reggie Watts proved a surprisingly perfect foil. Watts’ zen repartee and beautifully nonsensical musicianship meant that he and Aukerman could have conversations loaded with non sequiturs without weighing down the proceedings. To Aukerman’s credit, he also held off on directly translating his podcast to TV, giving diehard fans a show with the same basic comedic intent, but a different energy and delivery, something that nicely complements the weekly anarchy of the audio-only Comedy Bang! Bang! Plus, viewers will never be able to stop calling Jon Hamm “Juan Jamón.”
Notable episodes: “Amy Poehler Wears A Black Jacket & Grey Pants,” “Jon Hamm Wears A Light Blue Shirt & Silver Watch,” “Ed Helms Wears A Grey Shirt & Brown Boots”
20. Cougar Town (ABC; 73 points, seven votes)
Fans of Kevin Biegel and Bill Lawrence’s low-rated yet critically beloved sitcom had to wait until midseason for its return, but were rewarded with the show’s strongest season to date, an increasingly serialized effort that masterfully balanced its wine-soaked, penny-tossing wackiness with legitimate emotional stakes. The engagement of Courteney Cox’s Jules to Josh Hopkins’ Grayson drove a more mature series of stories for The Cul-de-Sac Crew, as its members dealt with romantic obstacles, stunted professional growth, and unexpected fatherhood. At the same time, the show never steered away from the comedic gifts that built its cult following, populating episodes with wine fountains, unflattering helmets, increasingly sarcastic title cards, and an unofficial Scrubs reunion that was one of the year’s comedic highlights. The show got a second life through a pickup by TBS, and if it maintains the same level of quality on its new network home, that’s reason enough to raise a giant glass.
19. Key & Peele (Comedy Central; 76 points, eight votes)
The most vital antidote to the continued Tosh-ification of Comedy Central, Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele’s sketch-comedy series didn’t just beat the odds by receiving a season-two renewal from its notoriously cancellation-happy network; Key and Peele took that sign of faith and forged an even better second term from it. At the center of Key & Peele’s success is a comedic duo that arrived on the scene with intact chemistry and a confident voice, splashed loud and clear across social media thanks to the viral phenomenon of the show’s recurring “Obama’s Anger Translator” segments. The president and Luther embedded the show in the cultural conversation, but the way its stars and writing staff wrung the year’s most uproarious three and a half minutes out of a list of silly names, a few wigs, and a handful of props truly demonstrates that Comedy Central made the right decision in underwriting more Key & Peele.
Notable episodes: “Episode One,” “Season Two, Episode Two,” “Season Two, Episode Seven”
18. Veep (HBO; 77 points, eight votes)
Like The Office before it, Veep carried some baggage from across the pond: No one expected the American version of The Office to match to the British originator’s greatness, and Veep faced high expectations due to the BBC’s The Thick Of It, which ended its four-plus-season run in the fall of 2012. Both series were created by Armando Iannucci (who also co-wrote and directed In The Loop, which mines similar territory), but as Veep proved, there’s room for all of them when the results are this good. As vice president, a never-better Julia Louis-Dreyfus anchors an ensemble based in the cynical world of high-level politics, where everything is calculated and nothing genuine can survive. Anna Chlumsky, Matt Walsh, Reid Scott, Timothy Simons, Tony Hale, and Sufe Bradshaw round out the excellent cast, all of them giving the show’s rapid-fire dialogue a lived-in genuineness.
Notable episodes: “Catherine,” “Chung,” “Tears”
17. The Walking Dead (AMC; 78 points, eight votes)
Somebody over at Walking Dead HQ was clearly listening to the complaints about the zombie show’s second season—chiefly that there was too much sitting around and thinking, and not enough undead-skull crackin’. But calendar year 2012 encompassed the more exciting back half of season two—including the death of Shane and the big reveal about little Sophia—and the first half of season three, which featured a veritable zombie apocalypse. Watching the main crew clear out the prison, block by block, provided that visceral, murderous thrill, and the stakes couldn’t have been higher for the delivery of a newborn baby. Meanwhile, the show introduced the mysterious, sadistic Governor and set the thoroughly badass Michonne up against him. It rarely hurts a show like this one when major characters meet their maker: It’s bound to happen in a world filled with flesh-eating monsters, and the men who must become monster-like to survive.
Notable episodes: “Beside The Dying Fire,” “Seed,” “When The Dead Come Knocking”
16. Boardwalk Empire (HBO; 95 points, seven votes)
Boardwalk Empire’s biggest problem is that it has an embarrassment of riches. At any given time during its third season, the Prohibition-era drama had multiple lush, interesting storylines going in Atlantic City, New York, and Chicago, each of which could have been fleshed out into its own show. All those stories and characters made the show a little messy at times, but as the writers and showrunners insisted, there was a method to their madness and an arc to the season. All the insanity played out in Shakespearean form during the season’s last three episodes, where this season’s most excellent villain—Bobby Cannavale’s Gyp Rosetti—went completely ballistic before ending up bloodied on the beach, beloved main characters showed up dead in boxes, and Steve Buscemi’s Nucky Thompson turned into the hardened gangster he was always destined to become.
Notable episodes: “A Man, A Plan…,” “Two Imposters,” “Margate Sands”
15. Bunheads (ABC Family; 100 points, 10 votes)
Gilmore Girls fans have been waiting five years for a worthy successor to the beloved series and its adorably motor-mouthed players. And in Broadway’s lithe, wisecracking (and Tony-winning) Sutton Foster, they finally have a new Lorelei to love. Combining the small-town quirkiness that’s the signature of creator Amy Sherman-Palladino with an array of talented teenage actor/dancers, the series piles off-kilter on top of off-kilter as if its writers had to get all their crazy ideas onto paper before the Mayan apocalypse. At its best, Bunheads scavenges real heart out of its flea-market approach to plot and character. When Foster breathes “The re-useable tote!” and Kelly Bishop replies with satisfaction, “The re-useable tote,” it’s time to be thankful Sherman-Palladino is back in business.
Notable episodes: “For Fanny,” “Money For Nothing,” “What’s Your Damage, Heather”
14. New Girl (Fox; 107 points, 12 votes)
What began as a Zooey Deschanel star vehicle evolved in 2012 into TV’s tightest comedic ensemble piece, its five players perfectly chosen for their roles and its storylines getting at real issues of regret and loss among thirtysomethings. Deschanel’s impressive comedic chops anchor the show, but it’s the interplay of Lamorne Morris, Max Greenfield, and especially the world-weary, perpetually lovelorn Jake Johnson that gives this series its wit, bite, and soul. Creator and showrunner Liz Meriwether’s trajectory for the year, which encompassed the back half of season one and the first half of season two, kept putting the characters in situations that would test their worldviews and push them to the limits of what they were able to bear. That she and her writing staff somehow made this great comedy, instead of mournful drama, was the show’s best trick, a laughfest perched on the edge of despair.
Notable episodes: “Jess & Julia,” “Fancyman (Pt. 2),” “Fluffer”
13. Justified (FX; 155 points, 15 votes)
The Justified clan had a steep hill to climb after the second season, whose Bennett clan was so fantastically, endearingly dastardly that it wasn’t easy to choose sides, even with lawman Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) continuing to be fantastic. Season three chief baddie Neal McDonough, playing super-sadistic mob enforcer Robert Quarles, was a bit more cartoonish than Margo Martindale’s season-two villain, but his various machinations were no less fun to watch—particularly his play to take over the sheriff’s office. Meanwhile, there was plenty of Boyd Crowder—played by the excellent Walton Goggins—to go around, and his run-ins with another new character, played by Mykelti Williamson, meant that the season kept the twists and shootouts plentiful.
Notable episodes: “Thick As Mud,” “Guy Walks Into A Bar,” “Slaughterhouse”
12. Archer (FX; 160 points, 14 votes)
The Adam Reed-created superspy parody Archer has always been funny, but in 2012, it discovered it could pair ambitious storytelling with its dry humor, accumulation of running gags, and pop-culture references. Not that those were in short supply: Burt Reynolds and a collection of Reynolds-related jokes showed up in “The Man From Jupiter,” but so did an exploration of the H. Jon Benjamin-voiced protagonist’s Oedipus complex, complicated by the sight of his mother dating his childhood hero. If nothing here developed on the surprise emotional depth of the season-two arc in which Archer battled cancer, few comedies matched its consistency or traveled the lengths it did for a gag, including an episode packed with product placement later revealed to be inserted as an unpaid joke about product placement.
Notable episodes: “El Contador,” “Lo Scandalo,” “Space Race, Part 1”
11. Happy Endings (ABC; 161 points, 15 votes)
From its inauspicious beginning as a post-midseason replacement with a meaningless title, Happy Endings has developed into the NewsRadio of sitcoms about early-thirtysomethings trying to get their acts together in trendy urban environments. Like that earlier classic, it’s a bouncy, inventively surreal live-action cartoon, anchored by a cast good enough to make the mismatched shticks they’ve been handed cohere as strikingly original characters. Special mention goes to Eliza Coupe as a sexually voracious control freak; Damon Wayans Jr. as Coupe’s husband, who is simultaneously crazy about and terrified of his wife; and Adam Pally as a gay guy whose only stereotypically gay trait is his eagerness to have sex with men (which is the one stereotypically gay trait that gay guys on TV are usually lacking). Rather than indulging in Emmy-friendly emo moments, they win your love the honorable way: by being funny.
Notable episodes: “The Butterfly Effect Effect,” “Cazsh Dummy Spillionaires,” “Boys II Menorah”
10. Bob’s Burgers (Fox; 169 points, 15 votes)
Fox’s Sunday night animation lineup has been dominated for so long by The Simpsons and the Seth MacFarlane empire that it would be tempting to praise a different voice just for being different. But the truth is, Bob’s Burgers would be a treat on any night and any network, and in its second and third seasons, the show has honed its distinctive viewpoint into consistent laughs and satisfying emotional heft. Featuring an ensemble of comedy heavyweights for its voice cast, including Eugene Mirman, Dan Mintz, John Roberts, Kristen Schaal, and H. Jon Benjamin as family patriarch Bob Belcher, the series follows Bob’s struggles to run a profitable diner in the face of wealthy rivals, crazy regulars, and the frequently loopy schemes of his wife and three children. Those kids—Tina, the romantic; Gene, the goof; and Louise, ruler of the world in training—are the starting point for many of the best plots, and the ability of the writers and cast to capture child logic with just the slightest skew sideways is a regular delight. Really, “delight” is the best word to apply to the series’ affable tone, unexpected sight gags, and earned sentiment.
Notable episodes: “Burgerboss,” “Moody Foodie,” “Ear-sy Rider”
9. 30 Rock (NBC; 172 points, 18 votes)
With Alec Baldwin threatening to leave and Tina Fey off doing movies that undoubtedly require much less work than running a weekly TV show, the writing has been on the wall for 30 Rock for some time now. Still, the May announcement that the 13-episode seventh season would be the show’s last hurrah was a bit of a bummer. Fortunately, Fey and crew have decided to go out with a “blerg” rather than a whimper and have consistently produced some of Thursday night’s funniest TV. While Fey and Baldwin have shone, the show’s depth is its real strength, with the already excellent Jack McBrayer (Kenneth Parcell), Tracy Morgan (Tracy Jordan), and Jane Krakowski (Jenna Maroney) turning it on in the home stretch. New recurring players, like Kristen Schaal as Hazel and James Marsden as Criss Chros, and frequent, well-placed guest stars—Jon Hamm, Sherri Shepherd, Brian Williams, and Kelsey Grammer, to name a few—round out the ensemble. Fey and company have built a whole world inside 30 Rock, one that both reflects reality and exists entirely outside of it. What might be ridiculous on other shows makes total sense here, like Jenna Maroney’s marriage to a male Jenna Maroney impersonator, or Avery Jessup’s (Elizabeth Banks) captivity in North Korea under Kim Jong Il, as played by Margaret Cho.
Notable episodes: “Live From Studio 6H,” “The Beginning Of The End,” “Mazel Tov, Dummies!”
8. Community (NBC; 205 points, 20 votes)
The behind-the-scenes drama of Community threatened to upstage the onscreen happenings in 2012, as the long-simmering psychodramas of Dan Harmon vs. NBC, Dan Harmon vs. Chevy Chase, and Dan Harmon vs. himself—as well as the similarly high-profile and related skirmishes of Chevy Chase vs. Dan Harmon and Chevy Chase vs. himself—climaxed first with news of the removal of Harmon as showrunner and then with Chase himself finally leaving. Not surprisingly, some of the cult phenomenon’s famously tortured backstory bled into the half of the third season that aired in 2012, the darkest, most daring, and brazenly conceptual to date, with episodes devoted to meticulously and affectionately spoofing such pop-culture fixtures as Law & Order and the documentaries of Ken Burns. The series also took its band of lovable misfits into bracingly bleak directions that tested their bonds with each other and their senses of self: Chase’s Pierce, in particular, devolved further into madness and bitterness as the season progressed, and he completed an arc from lovably cranky outsider to deluded villain. Beneath Community’s endlessly clever meta-textual skin lies a big, beating, squirmy heart that hopefully will survive in the show’s terrifyingly uncertain fourth season.
Notable episodes: “Pillows And Blankets,” “Curriculum Unavailable,” “Digital Estate Planning”
7. Game Of Thrones (HBO; 247 points, 21 votes)
If Game Of Thrones’ first season were a test of translation from George R.R. Martin’s books to the screen, its second season became a test of transition, as the series considered the question of how it would maintain momentum after the shocking death that closed out season one, a death that shifted the burden of the show’s storytelling to its supporting players. However, to the production’s credit, given the ever-expanding narrative, the second season was successful more often than not. It wasn’t surprising that Peter Dinklage only got better in Tyrion’s new role as the King’s Hand in episodes like “Blackwater,” or that Maisie Williams was again brilliant as Arya, especially paired with Charles Dance’s Tywin (the most effective departure from the novels to date). But the expanded role for Alfie Allen’s Theon was a riskier proposition that paid off, and the show’s casting continued to shine with a set of new cast additions. In the tricky balance of pleasing hardcore fans and exciting casual viewers, Game Of Thrones delivered by committing to its chaotic complexity, embracing its brash beauty and the dark and foreboding world of Westeros, which only grows darker as the show’s future glows brighter.
Notable episodes: “What Is Dead May Never Die,” “The Old Gods And The New,” “Blackwater”
6. Girls (HBO; 275 points, 23 votes)
Our choice for the best new show of 2012, the HBO dramedy Girls provoked intense controversies of varying degrees of legitimacy—the supposed nepotism afforded to creator Lena Dunham, the cast’s lack of non-white actors, the dogged obnoxiousness of most of the show’s characters—that initially overshadowed the fact that the first season turned out to be one of the most assured, well-drawn debut seasons of television ever. Like the aforementioned controversies, that can be placed squarely on the shoulders of writer-director-star Dunham, whose relative youth belies an almost frightening confidence and sense of self (and sparked an intense, often troubling reaction among those not used to seeing such audacity from a young, female creator). It’s tough to avoid the Sex And The City comparisons when outlining Girls’ premise of four friends living, loving, and learning in New York City, and while there is certainly some connective tissue bridging the decade between the two series, Girls distinguishes itself by acknowledging the minefield of frustration and disillusionment that comes with being privileged, white, and sheltered in a society that has increasing disuse for such things. It also doesn’t shy away from casting its characters, particularly its star, in an unflattering light that is nonetheless capable of provoking intense empathy. Like its main character, Dunham’s Hannah Horvath, Girls is not always lovable or even particularly appealing, but it is honest—often uncomfortably, messily so—and capable of delivering gut-punches of both the comedic and emotional variety.
Notable episodes: “All Adventurous Women Do,” “The Return,” “She Did”
5. Parks And Recreation (NBC; 282 points, 23 votes)
Community attracts the fanatical devotion. 30 Rock and The Office are on their way out. But Parks And Recreation has quietly continued as one of the finest comedies on television, thanks to an excellent ensemble, superb writing, and a surprising amount of heart. The show’s fourth season found all of those elements working at their peak, as Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope endured a surprisingly hard-fought campaign for city councilman against the empty-headed scion of Pawnee’s biggest company (Paul Rudd, hilarious as always). The campaign allowed Parks And Recreation to dig deeper into the town’s quirkiness while exploring Leslie’s relationship with her co-workers/friends and giving love interest Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott) room to develop. Season five has found the show continuing to grow as Leslie settles into a new job and supporting characters explore new opportunities. Parks And Recreation could spin its wheels in its own quirkiness, but it treats its characters like real people whose lives change. They’re funny to watch, but also easy to care about; not since the glory days of The Office has a comedy handled that balance so well.
Notable episodes: “The Debate,” “Win, Lose, Or Draw,” “Ms. Knope Goes To Washington”
4. Homeland (Showtime; 283 points, 23 votes)
Is Homeland a character drama that’s surprisingly action-packed, or a pulp thriller that’s unusually sensitive to its characters? That question lingered lightly throughout the Showtime hit’s first season, but has loomed much larger in season two, due to an accelerated plot and the crazy twists required to sustain Homeland’s “war hero congressman who’s really a terrorist but may be a double agent” premise. Homeland has the intensity of Breaking Bad without the slow-building logic, which can make it seem a little tawdry at times. But then, the nuttiness is part of the point of Homeland. The show really is a character drama with action elements, and is specifically about the sublime madness of its CIA agent heroine, who’s the only one bent enough to see the world as it really is: a labyrinthine set of conspiracies and double-crosses, where people are ultimately swayed by their emotional connections to each other. Claire Danes’ performance as Carrie Mathison is nervy in its willingness to be shrill and off-putting, but it’s Damian Lewis’ persistently unknowable Nicholas Brody that’s at the heart of what makes Homeland much better than its occasional implausibility. Viewers have been put in Carrie’s shoes, asked to evaluate what Brody is up to, while hoping that his love of his family will keep him in check, but never entirely trusting that it will.
Notable episodes: “New Car Smell,” “Q&A,” “I’ll Fly Away”
3. Louie (FX; 298 points, 23 votes)
At this point, it’s not really a surprise that Louis C.K. takes plenty of chances with Louie. Three seasons in, risk-taking has come to define the FX comedy, in which C.K. stars and plays nearly every role behind the camera. But if Louie were purely a weekly experiment in form, it would grow tiresome after a while, or it would become the sort of show enjoyed only by those who like programs that live on television’s outer limits. It’s C.K. himself who keeps the show grounded, using the character with whom he shares a name, a profession, and other biographical details to search for meaning and happiness in a world that offers neither up freely. This year that search included a memorable turn from Parker Posey as an eccentric love interest, a three-part episode that found Louie vying to succeed a retiring David Letterman, and other stories that challenged Louie personally and professionally. Despite his glum exterior and pessimistic tendencies, he remains a seeker and a fighter. That’s not to undersell the importance of the experimentation, however. Louie continued to redefine itself from week to week, sending Louie on a disastrous, sexually uncomfortable date one week, packing him off on a Florida sojourn the next and, in the finale… well, maybe some out there haven’t seen it yet, so it’s best to say no more beyond noting the unexpected, and unexpectedly moving final image summed up the season and the show.
Notable episodes: “Daddy’s Girlfriend, Part 2,” “Late Show, Part 3,” “New Year’s Eve”
2. Mad Men (AMC; 300 points, 25 votes)
When the super-sized fifth-season première of Mad Men debuted in March, Matthew Weiner’s meditation on the shifting cultural tides in mid-20th-century America had been off the air for more than a year and a half. It was difficult to tamp down fears that the show lost its potency during that hiatus—fears that, as little as a month later, seemed as ill-advised as taking a prospective client to a New York cathouse. Season five didn’t just turn out to hold a strong claim to being Mad Men’s best yet—it also featured one of the series’ most flawless runs, stretching from Joan telling a man “That’s it” at the end of “Mystery Date” to Don ripping the needle off of The Beatles’ Revolver in “Lady Lazarus.” And all the while, there was the sensation of something just outside the frame, expanding in preparation to swallow the characters whole. An open throat, an empty elevator shaft down which they can chuck relationships, principles, and colleagues in the interest of feeding the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce beast. The last of the season’s many stunning tableaux placed the five surviving partners in the empty office space that’s due to be the firm’s second-story addition, a visual echo of the series’ opening sequence. Whether or not they follow that with a Saul Bass-inspired tumble, it’ll be an absolute thrill—and viewers won’t have to wait more than a few months to see the outcome.
Notable episodes: “Signal 30,” “Far Away Places,” “The Other Woman”
1. Breaking Bad (AMC; 360 points, 28 votes)
It seems crazy to say so now, but the first half of Breaking Bad’s final season could have gone very wrong very easily. For starters, there was the fact that showrunner Vince Gilligan and his writing staff had to cope with an unusual, divided structure, wherein eight episodes would air in the summer of 2012 and eight in 2013. Even with well-established characters, eight episodes isn’t much time to build a believable story arc. Add to that the fact that season four had eliminated the main impediment to the success of teacher-turned-drug-kingpin Walter White (the still seething, still excellent Bryan Cranston). It was wonderful, then, to watch as the show turned from questions of narrative propulsion—though there was plenty of that, too—and more toward questions of consequence, of what happens once Walter finally becomes king of the world but realizes that he can never outrun the death that was always coming for him, be it via bullet or tumor. It was a season that began with super-magnets and concluded with quiet revelation, as well as a season that delved ever deeper into the rotten White marriage, offering Anna Gunn’s Skyler her greatest showcase to date. And the show’s terrific supporting roster remained as reliably stunning as ever: poor, tortured Jesse (Aaron Paul); reserved, cornered Mike (Jonathan Banks); dogged, defeated Hank (Dean Norris). The first half of the fifth season of Breaking Bad expanded until Walter had a whole planet at his fingertips. Would it ever be enough? The series gave Walter just enough rope to let viewers know that even if it were, he still had plenty of room to hang himself.
Notable episodes: “Live Free Or Die,” “Fifty-One,” “Gliding Over All”