With this post comes the ENORMOUS caveat that I am not qualified to rank all of the television shows from this year for a number of reasons, not the least of them being I have only seen a fraction of the vast number of the shows on television. Bearing that in mind, I have ranked those shows I watch in terms of quality and enjoyment and this is what I have to share.
15. Modern Family (8/10)
The perennially charming and often gut-bustingly hilarious Modern Family is in the middle of its fourth season, and since its inception has become a ratings and acclaim juggernaut for its network, the home-y if occasionally unimaginative ABC. It is no mystery why this show appeals to such a wide audience. Modern Family is family ensemble sitcom in top form, somehow balancing stories involving each of its three family units with finesse and competence, which is a feat in and of itself, but add to that its always-crisp humor and standout performances (particularly by Oregon-native Ty Burrell as Phil Dunphy) and you have the recipe for a well-deserved hit.
14. The Good Wife (8/10)
The Good Wife has been one of network TV's best options since it began in 2009 and I have dutifully followed its gripping tales of legal intrigue since. The show follows Alicia Florrick, wife of a disgraced (and subsequently rehabilitated) politician, who, after her husband's scandals come to light, goes back to working at a law firm and soon earns her keep as a very capable lawyer. What keeps this show so engaging is its array of character actors (Christine Baranski and Alan Cumming for example) and festive guest stars (Matthew Perry, Nathan Lane) doing consistently fine work, spitting legal jargon and negotiating political spin like nobody's business. Julianna Margulies is also captivating as the "good wife" in question. I'm a sucker for a good procedural (see Law and Order: SVU) and The Good Wife is as good as any on TV right now.
13. Portlandia (8/10)
As a native Oregonian as well as an SNL fanboy, I could not have been more excited about Fred Armisen's brainchild Portlandia. A SNL-style sketch comedy show in my own backyard? It seemed too good to be true, but the show's second season has proven to deliver in spades on its lofty promise. Armisen teamed up with Sleater-Kinney's oddly adorable Carrie Brownstein to produce sketch after sketch of weird observational humor related to Portland and its... unique populace. This show is wholesale indulgence of Armisen's bizarre sense of humor, which we occasionally (too seldom) see peek through on SNL, and which is tailored perfectly to Portland's eccentric atmosphere. Still, while Portlandia's weirdness is impressive, it is not what attracts me most to the show. For one thing, it is remarkably clean for being on IFC, a channel in no way accountable to usual network television standards, and for another it is often courageous in its approach. For instance, season two contains an episode which breaks the sketch format entirely in order to zoom in on two of its recurring characters, simply waiting in line to get into a brunch place. It was not even a particularly funny episode, but it was an impressive one, and for that I commend Mr. Armisen and Ms. Brownstein.
It was no secret the venerable comedy institution Saturday Night Live would struggle following the loss of its seven-year-starlet Kristen Wiig, who has gone on to bigger and (arguably) better things over in Hollywoodland at the end of its 37th season. When Andy Samberg, who essentially brought the show into the 21st century with his "digital shorts" also announced his departure, it was clear season 38 would be a rebuilding year. Fans waited with bated breath for the premiere, hosted by larger-than-life personality Seth MacFarlane, and we collectively breathed a sigh of relief as we saw it all, miraculously, work. Jay Pharaoh taking over as Barack Obama, newcomers Cecily Strong and Aidy Bryant stepping up admirably, a writing staff clearly firing on all cylinders and some of the best hosts in years (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Anne Hathaway, Louis CK) have made for a standout half-season, once again reminding the nation Saturday Night Live will always adapt as necessary to remain a relevant mainstay on the scene of American comedy.
11. The Middle (8.5/10)
I once read an article called "Why is No One Watching The Middle?" which lamented how The Middle has been overshadowed by the popularity of its lead-in Modern Family. While I love Modern Family and respect its approach to ensemble family comedy, for my money the best show of its kind on TV right now is The Middle. The effortless chemistry between its central couple Frankie (Patricia Heaton) and Mike Heck (Neil Flynn) is so believable, so natural, and add to that their three very offbeat children, the teenage meathead Axl, the painfully earnest Sue and the socially... unique Brick, it's hard not to find yourself feeling for them and their lower-middle-class pains. Now The Middle has actually garnered a decent following, perhaps for being one of the only realistic representations of financial instability on TV right now, but it still deserves more attention, critically and ratings-wise. My question is, why isn't everyone watching The Middle?
10. Legend of Korra (8.5/10)
It was a tall order indeed to follow up on Avatar: the Last Airbender, one of the greatest pieces of animated storytelling of our age. Whatever Nick came up with for its sequel The Legend of Korra would inevitably face comparison to the original, a death sentence to all but the best of shows. And what its creators turned out was just about the best of shows. While TLA was a show of sweeping mythology and epic adventure, LOK is more mature, a bit more personal. It is the story of a girl coming-of-age, seeing need in the world and stepping up to respond to that need. Korra, the new Avatar, is so matter-of-factly strong, so unapologetically heroic, and it is this character-driven approach that makes all the fights and explosions worthwhile. The show also filled the conflict-void left by the end of TLA's war brilliantly by adding an element of civil unrest between benders and non-benders which has grown into a full-fledged revolution. Tragically short season one (of two!) wrapped up this summer and I'm ready to see how it all turns out next summer. It's just good TV folks.
New Girl might never have become a great television show. It had good bones to begin with, particularly the charming and ever-watchable Zooey Deschanel as its lead, and most shows would have settled with exploiting Deschanel's quirky pleasantness to inevitably diminishing returns. Instead, though, New Girl has cultivated chemistry with its four leads, each one hilarious and likeable in his or her own way, and this has made for a solid ensemble comedy rather than the Zooey Deschanel Show we were all expecting. Max Greenfield's metro-jerk Schmidt was an early standout but the second season has found a comedic voice for Nick (Jake Johnson) and Winston (Lamorne Morris) as well. Show-runner Elizabeth Meriweather is herself an adorkable young woman which gives the show a believably young voice and fresh perspective. So watch it already!
Many believed 30 Rock had outstayed its welcome as it entered its seventh season this September. While I have often been one of the show's most ardent defenders, even I had to admit it seemed to have lost some of its luster, its all-important zip, but all fears were put to rest as it came out guns-blazing for its final thirteen episodes. A show ever-driven by its joke-a-second format, 30 Rock lives and dies with the quality of its humor, and it seems the writers have been saving up all the best for last. From election politics to secret weddings, 30 Rock is leaving no comedic stone unturned, and for that I say, "thank you Tina Fey. Oh, and, um, marry me."
7. Fringe (9/10)
Sometimes a TV show is just a TV show, but sometimes a show transcends the boundaries of the medium and speaks a profound word about the nature of being human, touching on deep philosophical and existential quandaries in the weaving of its narrative. Fringe is undoubtedly a thinker, a show with a complex mythology which always serves to force its audience to take a closer look at life's big questions. What is the purpose of scientific inquiry? How much progress is too much? What is at stake when we heedlessly seek new technological horizons? Is there more to reality than ones and zeros? These are the sorts of questions show-runner J. J. Abrams and crew explore in this show and we are all better people for it. Mind you, Fringe is not merely a conceptual experience. No, it is a story of people, sincere and relatable and beautifully flawed, and it is all executed deftly by some of the most competent actors in the business. Seriously, if you want to see writers and actors pull off deep philosophical notions clothed in zany sci-fi scenarios, look no further than Fringe (also in its final season).
6. Happy Endings (9/10)
Happy Endings, like 30 Rock or Arrested Development before it belongs to the heavily joke-driven school of comedy, more devoted to absurdity than to real people or situations. This doesn't bother me a bit if handled competently, and ABC's Happy Endings is more than competent. It is an absolute riot. It is goof-fest with brilliant comedic actors playing distinctly funny roles all set to the crackling cadences of its joke-dialogue. It takes fully-actualized characters (my favorite is gay "bro" Max) to believably handle such repartee as you hear in this show (it's just so dang funny!); it is no surprise, then, that it has struggled to find an audience. Even on ABC, never wanting for ratings as much as NBC, a brilliant show like Happy Endings goes tragically unnoticed because everyone is watching The Big Bang Theory. I'm not bitter though.
5. Parenthood (9/10)
I didn't used to figure television could handle family drama without devolving into melodrama. It seemed in lieu of writing relatable stories with likable characters TV writers would opt to have everyone sleeping with everyone while embezzling the family's money (whatever that means) with offshore accounts and secret families and bomb threats and giant man-devouring squid. It all strains credulity for a homespun boy like me. Thank heaven for Ron Howard's Parenthood, which absolutely nails its emotionally realistic portrayal of the Braverman clan. Like show-runner Jason Katims' previous hit Friday Night Lights (which I really must get around to watching), Parenthood strikes a chord in its audience by portraying lovably real families in honest-to-goodness, true-to-life struggles. It's not escapist television, it's cathartic identification. This season has tackled some of the show's grittiest material to date, including an adoption and a cancer arc, all of which is at times uncomfortably real but always gripping. From TV vets (Peter Krause, Lauren Graham) to breakout stars (Mae Whitman), these actors sell the material heroically and I highly suggest that everyone with feelings check this show out.
4. Adventure Time (10/10)
A few years ago I was so over cartoons. I'd grown up, right? No time for such childish things. Turns out, though, cartoons are where it's at nowadays. When a show's only budget is its ink costs, you can craft a pretty stellar epic. And that's what's going on in Adventure Time, a show one part cartoon, one part post-apocalyptic adventure, one part rip-roaring romp. I can't think of a funnier show. I can't think of a more adventurous show. I can't think of a more morally-minded show. Oh, and did I mention funny? Honestly I think most of its humor would be lost on small children, not because its thematically mature but because its... sophisticated. It's smart. And then somebody farts. In any case, this show is one rich with intricate mythology; what happens one episode will likely play some pivotal role in another. No detail is lost, no adventure inconsequential. And the show is growing with its protagonist, Finn the Human. Adventure Time, which started as a fun cartoon, has become the type of show which can handle themes like memory loss and sexual awakening elegantly.
3. Community (10/10)
Since television seasons line up with fiscal years rather than calendar years, 2012 encompasses two televisions seasons (the last half of one and the first half of the other). This makes it difficult to judge TV shows based on performance during any particular calendar year as quality often waxes and wanes from season to season. Some shows have gotten considerably better during the last few months, the first half of their current season (The Office, 30 Rock) while others have been bogged down substantially (The Good Wife), but Community has avoided this confusion entirely by postponing its 2012-2013 season until February 2013. This means we may only judge the show's 2012 on the merits of the back half of its third season, which was one genius chunk of episodes if I do say so myself. What amazes me most about Community is that, in spite of flagging viewership and an increasingly-precarious relationship with the network, the show has become more and more bizarre (and inspired) with each passing episode, rather than attempting to normalize for the sake of attracting a wider audience. Most show-runners, after being accused of creating a peculiar and inaccessible show would veer more in the pacifying direction of Modern Family or The Big Bang Theory, but Dan Harmon has boldly decided instead to craft episodes centered on evil alternate personalities, Law and Order parodies, documentaries about school-wide pillowfights, and even an entire episode in 8-bit video game animation. Yet all this genius never becomes pretentious or inhuman because it is always anchored by the relationships between its lovable characters. Oh, also, Community gave us Abed, and for that we must be eternally grateful.
How do we judge comedy, or television sitcoms in particular? Of course humor plays a role, but is it also necessary that we develop some emotional attachments to a show's characters? If this is the criteria, quality humor and emotional connection, then we have an unqualified winner in NBC's Parks and Recreation which just grows funnier and more heartfelt with age. Amy Poehler helms the greatest comedic ensemble on TV (Adam Scott, Nick Offerman, Rob Lowe, Rashida Jones, Aziz Ansari, Chris Pratt, Aubry Plaza) for a show about city government, a topic which should have run dry a long time ago, and it no doubt would have had the writers not displayed an affinity for creating odd but accessible characters who grow with the passage of time. Four seasons ago it would have made no sense to pair up slacker Andy with edgy April, but it makes all the sense in the world that they are happily married now, and not because the characters were ever compromised for the sake of plot along the way. No, this show is one where characters grow and change because that is what real people do. Every bit of progress is earned, as is every laugh. Fundamental to Parks' success is the relationship at its core, eager bureaucrat Leslie Knope (the most earnest, sincere, lovable character on television) and mustachioed libertarian government-naysayer Ron F***ing Swanson who foil each other delightfully yet also clearly love one another platonically and deeply. This year found Leslie victorious after a hard-won campaign for city councilor against sweetly dumb Bobby Newport (Paul Rudd) and Ron in the throes of new love (with Xena Warrior Princess Lucy Lawless no less, who has grown more beautiful and sophisticated with age if I do say so myself), developments we cherish because these characters are dear friends. If you don't watch Parks and Recreation do yourself a favor. Treat yo self.
1. Breaking Bad (10/10)
I don't know when or why it happened, but the execs at AMC must have woken up one morning and thought, "Hey! We're going to make great television now!" First it was Mad Men, then Breaking Bad, and now I hear the Walking Dead is the show to see. While all these shows are still forces to be reckoned with on the TV scene, I am only devotedly watching Breaking Bad at the moment (I'll get around to the others I swear, Marlie and Morgan), and after watching the first eight episodes of its fifth season, I do not regret my selection. It took me months to trudge through watching season four, which was quite possibly the most depressing season of television I have ever watched, but it all paid off as season five brought with it new revelations, meth-making montages in traveling circus tents, and yes, a TRAIN HEIST! This story of a man losing himself in sin and deceit has remained captivating, heartbreaking and profound in its assessment of the human condition for its brutal five season run and will no doubt stand out as one of the great television shows for generations to come, thanks in no small part to the mesmerizing and sickening performance of master-class thespian Bryan Cranston. I cannot wait to see how it all wraps up next summer. For more thoughts on this show, check out my Breaking Bad Blog.
The Office - I have stuck with The Office in spite of its uncomfortable last few seasons, and my reward has been its stellar (so far) ninth season. The Office brought back old producers and writers in order to recreate the spirit of its heyday, and this has ushered in a graceful, warm and humorous collection of episodes in which we see characters growing and moving forward in their lives. This is how we want to see a show as once-mighty as The Office end. What a pity Andy's character seems to be the scapegoat for all this progress though. I used to like him a lot. (8/10)
Awkward. - I didn't think MTV could make good television anymore. Yes, I assumed like many they made a deal with the Jersey Devil, but I have been pleasantly surprised for the last two summers by the clever teen comedy Awkward.. While not exactly original in its girl-narrating-through-a-blog premise, its execution is fresh and its characters surprisingly watchable, particularly the charming lead Ashley Rickards portraying snarky heroine Jenna Hamilton. I suggest Awkward. to all those open-minded enough to embrace an MTV comedy. I know I'm not quite old enough to get nostalgic about high school yet but this show really brings me back. (8/10)
Regular Show - Another example (alongside Adventure Time and Avatar) that cartoons have become vehicles for great television for all ages, Regular Show is quirky yet oddly cool in its depiction of a world populated by animals and inanimate objects living seemingly normal human lives until some adventure or another finds them jettisoned into an alternate dimension. I essentially just described the plot of every episode but somehow, inexplicably, it manages to stay fresh and often hilarious. Add to this the touching and weirdly relatable friendship at the show's center (bluejay Mordecai and raccoon Rigby) and you have yourself some very satisfying television, even for adults! (8/10)
Up All Night - Up All Night, NBC's recent addition to its Thursday night lineup came with high expectations. Will Arnett of Arrested Development pedigree, Christina Applegate from Married... With Children and Anchorman, and Maya Rudolph from SNL and Bridesmaids, how could this show NOT be a hit? Well, turns out people have a hard time recognizing a good thing when they see it. Up All Night quickly found its voice and utilizes its stellar cast well but it doesn't seem audiences are noticing and the network has decided to re-tool the show for a more Big Bang Theory-style muti-camera format. We'll see if that ruins it entirely. (8/10)
How I Met Your Mother - Many critics and viewers alike think How I Met Your Mother has jumped the shark, that the show's best days are in its past. While I agree HIMYM doesn't have quite sparkle it used to, I respect how it has attempted to mature with age, as personified excellently by its once-cartoonish character Barney. Even while the show does not deliver as many laughs as it used to, it plays the big emotional moments superbly, and I do not regret for a moment sticking around to see how it all plays out. My one major criticism is: how in heaven's name is this mother going to live up to the mounting expectations of nine seasons of exposition? (7.5/10)
Raising Hope - Martha Plimpton responded to a tweet of mine once! That's pretty cool right? (7.5/10)
It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia - If you can tolerate watching a show where everyone is a terrible person, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia can really bring the laughs. It all has a more wholesome feel when you realize real-life Mac and Dee are married (as are Charlie and the waitress), but it takes patience to sit through some of the characters' antics. (7.5/10)
Glee - I know many who have jumped Glee's sinking ship and I don't blame them for a moment, but I will watch this TV musical until Ryan Murphy runs it into the ground, or um, bottom of the ocean, or, uh, mixed metaphor. I don't care how absolutely off-the-wall it gets, if there are "talented" "kids" doing Broadway-style arrangements of Top 40 hits I'm there. And while many disagree, I don't think this has been such a bad year for the show. Certainly some elements have become grating (Coach Sue), but show's transformation as many of its leads went off to college was aptly-handled and its characters' emotional landmarks (graduation) were largely successful this year. (7/10)
American Horror Story - The first season of American Horror Story was not so much a coherent narrative as a collection of horror movie tropes thrust against a wall to see what might stick. The second season, which has a similar cast but a completely different story, brought with it the same standout performances, odd, uncomfortable eroticism and sheer, utter insanity, yet also managed to weave a somewhat-comprehensible tale of an insane asylum run by nuns, and um, mutants and uh, Nazis, and, well, aliens. Still makes more sense than the season one. (6 for the first season, 8 for the second, so 7/10)
Ben and Kate - One of TV's most suprising success stories this season is Ben and Kate, which airs alongside New Girl in Fox's Tuesday night lineup. A wacky brother moves in to help his sister raise her young child, which sounds more like the recipe for a touching family drama than a comedy but it has honed a goofy energy quickly and is the best new show of the year as far as I'm concerned. (8/10)
Go On - I would characterize NBC's Go On as a show with great bones which simply has not found its voice yet. The closest it came to full realization of its potential was when guest Lauren Graham brought the show to life with her sparkling presence, but all-in-all it seems like Go On doesn't know what type of show it wants to be yet. I look forward to seeing what it might become, though, because I love Matthew Perry and at its best Go On could be a Community-style ensemble comedy. Either way, I am grateful this show has brought more viewers to its network, because NBC deserves it. (7.5/10)
(Never got into Revolution)
In Memoriam (Shows I Stopped Watching):
Grimm (Could have been great, should have been better, heard it did get better so we'll see if I ever get around to catching up.)
Once Upon a Time (I'm watching my sodium intake, this is just a little too much ham for me.)
The Big Bang Theory (Sheldon's a pain, I get it.)
Shows I Haven't Seen (Or Am Not Caught Up On) But I Hear Are Amazing:
Game of Thrones
Eastbound & Down
Sons of Anarchy