There are too many great television series to hold them to a list of 10 just because of some outdated meme. In fact, it took a little discipline to keep my Best of 2012 television series to 15 dramas and 15 comedies. In addition, there’s so much woeful crap on the small screen that it took herculean restraint to keep my “worst” list to 15. Hell, even doing that I had to cut out unscripted shows. Otherwise I’d still be writing. And yet, I guess all of this is still good news for the state of television, which continues to thrive impressively. Here then, my lists (with no galleries to click through).
Top 15 Dramas:
1. Breaking Bad (AMC): What stands out about this series and its legacy is that it almost never has stumbled. Breaking Bad is by far the most consistently great drama, episode-to-episode, season-to-season, of any show on television. Nothing in the final eight episodes could ever change that.
2. Mad Men (AMC): Season 5 was more creatively erratic than other stellar Mad Men seasons, but at the same time it was inherently more ambitious, elliptical and challenging than the others. It’s hard to depict 1965 without falling into rote imagery and concerns, and this series avoided those pitfalls deftly.
3. Game of Thrones (HBO): It’s very rare that you can call a series “epic” anymore, but it fits here. So would “dense,” “smart,” “addictive” and “wholly original.” And the best of Game of Thrones could be ahead of it, which is inspiring and impressive.
4. The Walking Dead (AMC): Season 3 firmly elevated this series to the upper tier of television. It’s massively popular, acclaimed and is hitting its creative stride. A series you do not miss.
5. Justified (FX): Talk about a series lacking respect. Timothy Olyphant is fantastic as Raylan Givens, and the fact he hasn’t been got attention in the acting categories is all kinds of wrong. Although the series does have some difficulty spreading the wealth among its other characters, it completely nails the season-long guest appearances. It’s smart, different and entertaining.
6. Boardwalk Empire (HBO): While I wish Boardwalk Empire would be as addictive and compelling as, say, The Walking Dead, you can’t ignore the studied brilliance. There’s a classicism to the look and feel of it, and the dense storytelling that seems to move slow at the beginning of the season often pays off remarkably well at the end.
7. Sons of Anarchy (FX): Moving forward to bring out the Hamlet elements inherent in the premise was essential. A heightened drama like this can go sideways pretty quick, but SOA course-corrected any worries right from the start and stayed hyper-focused to the split of the infrastructure — and that was bloody good.
8. Sherlock (PBS): Great acting, taut writing, suspense, humor, intrigue — this modern adaptation of Sherlock Holmes is pitch perfect. They just need to make more.
9. Dexter (Showtime): Holy comeback, Batman. I had seriously left this show for dead. Season 6 was an embarrassment — too far past its sell-by date. But tightening the noose on Dex was absolutely what was needed, and this season proved they should have started earlier. It also proved that really good series sometimes get a second chance.
10. Treme (HBO): Here’s what we’ve all learned about Treme through the seasons: It’s not so big on plot, nor movement. It goes at its own, odd pace. But if you want to get to know people and music and place, this is your show. Watching Treme makes you feel like you’re soaking in New Orleans, and that brings a better understanding of the story structure.
11. The Hour (BBC America): This British series really soared in Season 1 and, because of that, reaps hard-earned dramatic benefits in Season 2. It’s a costume drama about journalism, class structure, the changing times in England and the cost of celebrity. In fact, you can add three or four more strands to that. The writing is impeccable, and the acting always fantastic.
12. Magic City (Starz): Sure, it seemed like Starz was mixing Mad Men with The Sopranos as it told the tale of a hotel on the beach in 1959 Miami — with mob ties, sex and swanky outfits — but this series slowly earned its own achievements of character, place and story. Too bad so many people are unaware of it.
13. Boss (Starz): Hey look, it’s another ignored series on Starz. Yes, the formula from the network seems to be focused on sex and nudity to attract eyeballs to high-quality fare. Not exactly how you’d normally draw it up, but these are competitive times. Boss was not renewed by Starz after two strong, completely ignored seasons, but it was well-crafted, and Kelsey Grammer delivered a virtuoso performance that was unmatched.
14. Homeland (Showtime): The first season’s impeccable, start-to-finish unpredictability gave way, all-too-quickly, to style over substance in Season 2. Implausibility replaced surprise. Taut writing unraveled. Homeland can be maddeningly erratic, and the signs this season indicate that something is amiss — though the show still is riveting — and it’s unlikely to get fixed, thus a tumble down from previously lofty heights.
15. Shameless (Showtime): This down-and-out, low-rent series on Showtime often is difficult viewing. It’s raw and base and has one of the most unlikable characters at its core, but it does so much else so wonderfully well and with great originality that you can’t ignore it. The series pushes you down on the sidewalk and makes you pay attention.
Top 15 Comedies:
1. Girls (HBO): Only one other comedy — see No. 2 — was as real and honest and fearless as Girls. Lena Dunham expertly mined laughs from the often difficult and confusing postgrad lifestyle. In doing so, she nailed a subculture; but more important, she just managed to connect her characters to the craziness of making your way in the world.
2. Louie (FX): The DIY nature of Louie is well documented, but the beauty of this show is Louie C.K.’s ability to make the mundane elements of a life so funny or sad or revealing. Louie follows no map on how to make 30 minutes of television; it doesn’t shy away from seemingly unconventional, unconnected paths. It’s what makes the show so unique — and brilliant.
3. Parks and Recreation (NBC): The perfect election-year comedy. But beyond that, Parks and Rec has been one of the elite comedies since its second season and has only fleshed out its hilarious dissection of small-town American and small-city politics via well-drawn characters.
4. 30 Rock (NBC): What’s left to say about this series other than it’s going into the comedy hall of fame, first ballot? Few shows ever matched its spot-on ability to do verbal, physical and visual comedy, sometimes all at the same time.
5.Raising Hope (Fox): Arguably the best show you’re not watching on the comedy scene. Criminally ignored not only by viewers but awards shows. Hilariously off-kilter and quirky but also warm. A wonderful show.
6. Archer (FX): Best animated series on television? Sure, why not? And as I count it, Top 10 in all comedies. The writing is a treasure, and the voice talent makes it all come together.
7. Veep (HBO): Julia Louis-Dreyfus as the female vice president stuck in a job she really didn’t want spoofs politics, the workplace and is a hurricane of hilarious cynicism. From Armando Iannucci, creator of Brit series The Thick of It, there’s still so much gold and potential to mine here.
8. New Girl (Fox): Dismissed as too precious by people who weren’t really following it, New Girl quickly hit its stride and manages quick-witted laughs from countless scenarios. If you skipped it, rethink the choice.
9. Community (NBC): Nobody knows what the Dan Harmon-less show will look or feel like, but with him at the helm it’s always been a ridiculous, ingenious and smart series that’s as meta about pop culture as any comedy ever.
10. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (FX): Want more big pronouncements? OK, here’s the most overlooked, underappreciated (by the Emmys, the Golden Globes, etc.) series of the past 20 years. It doesn’t need any outside love anymore — the reputation for greatness is already in stone.
11. Modern Family (ABC): Reliably funny and always clever, Modern Family somehow has been derided for too many awards and accolades. Strange, considering they’re going to a show that utterly deserves them. Avoid the jealousy, enjoy the jokes.
12. Don’t Trust the B—- in Apt 23 (ABC): Another series meta about pop culture but also wonderfully committed to being devious, it’s an underappreciated gem with strong writing. Krysten Ritter is fantastic.
13. Wilfred (FX): It didn’t get as much coverage in Season 2 as it did coming out of the gate as your not-so-typical man-and-dog story, but Wilfred was just as funny, twisted and wrong as ever. Both Elijah Wood and Jason Gann are doing God’s work here.
14. House of Lies (Showtime): Funny, cynical, sexy, vulgar — and a dramatic sensibility that reveals a surprising amount of heart? Sure, why not. Besides, Don Cheadle is a force of nature in the lead role.
15. Ben and Kate (Fox): Hey look, our only freshman series on this list. It went off the air after 10 episodes, suffering — like most new shows — from a lack of viewers. But it will return in January, and you should jump on it if you haven’t already. Nat Faxon and Lucy Punch provide most of the laughs while Dakota Johnson has the right chemistry to make this sister-brother comedy about family and friends really work.
The Top 15 Worst Shows:
1. Neighbors (ABC): The mere fact that Neighbors got on the air is bad enough. That it wasn’t abhorred by the masses is even worse. It managed numbers good enough for ABC to keep it on the air and keep the Gods of Culture weeping.
2. Guys With Kids (NBC): Jimmy Fallon pitched NBC execs a skit. They bought it — then realized it essentially was a one-joke skit. Wah-wah-wah.
3. Emily Owens, M.D. (The CW): So bad even The CW canceled it. An embarrassment for all women.
4. Malibu County (ABC): Country folk move to Malibu. Hilarity was supposed to ensue. It did not. The good news is it looks, from the production, like ABC is only spending about $63 an episode on it.
5. Made in Jersey (CBS): Take cookie cutter, press into poorly conceived series, over-bake in oven. Cancel.
6. 2 Broke Girls (CBS): Vagina, vagina, racist joke, vagina, vagina, hipster, penis.
7. Partners (CBS): The people who created Will & Grace convince CBS that their own life is funny, too. It’s not.
8. Whitney (NBC): NBC decided it had too many smart cult shows, so it made this.
9. Scandal (ABC): There’s one word for this: ridonkulous.
10. Glee (Fox): Come on, you’re not still watching this, are you?
11. The Mob Doctor (Fox): See, she’s a doctor. For the mob. Except that assignment was canceled.
12. American Horror Story (Fox): Watch me drop this kitchen sink into your convolutedly insane nightmares. Boo!
13. 666 Park Avenue (ABC): Hell, at least AHS is scary. This was the least scary devil series in history.
14. Animal Practice (NBC): Never work with animals. You know that. And now you’ll have a chance to put the advice back into action, since the show was canceled.
15. Beauty and the Beast (The CW): Sure, it’s spectacularly stupid, but think of the angst the beast must have because he’s a tiny scratch on his hunky face. Where’s the love? Or the pity?
OK, 2013, top that. Let’s do this!